This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday of Advent. The Scripture it references is Luke 1:39-45.
It’s been a week of high drama. In kindergartens, schools and Sunday school groups all around the world, there has been passionate longing, terror, envy, open strife and many tears. Why?
Well, you see, in every nativity play, there are plenty of shepherds (and sometimes sheep), angels with sparkly wings and tinsel halos, a few wise men and Joseph and perhaps an innkeeper… but there’s only one Mary. And most every girl wants to be good enough, pretty enough, charismatic enough, to be Mary. Being part of the sparkly angel chorus isn’t really the place for a young girl who just knows she’s meant for the starring role.
(Full disclosure: I was always an angel. Take that whichever way you’re inclined to believe it)!
Of course, aspiring to be Mary, or like Mary, is not just a problem with nativity plays. We know that through Christian history, in different ways, Mary has been held up to us as the perfect woman; completely asexual, completely devoted to family, and with a meek and compliant nature that meant God’s designs unfolded within and through her without her needing to actually take initiative or do anything other than say “Here I am.”
And if real women found that an impossible ideal to live up to, well, that’s only because we weren’t as impossibly perfect as Mary was.
I say that, slightly tongue-in-cheek, but meaning the criticism of how Mary has been pliantly fitted into various – usually male – constructions of perfect womanhood, with little regard for who she probably actually was, or even acknowledgement that most of her life story is unrecoverable to us now.
So there’s something very comforting to me about this morning’s gospel reading. Because here we have two very, very different women. Oh, they’re both clearly presented to us as good women – earlier Elizabeth’s been described to us as righteous and blameless in her way of life – but in every other way they’re contrasts.
Elizabeth is old; Mary is young. Elizabeth is “barren” after many years of trying for a child; Mary is a pregnant virgin. Elizabeth can look back on a long life of unfulfilled longing; Mary can look forward to a life of uncertain potential.
And together – between them – these two very different women hold the keys to the future; to God’s future. Jesus and John the Baptist – the two boys who will be born from them – will need each other. They will grow and learn together. Their ministries will overlap, and they will encourage one another for as long as they’re both alive.
I remember being pregnant. It was terrifying. On the one hand, you feel total responsibility for the welfare of a little person who is completely dependant on you for everything; and on the other hand, you have almost no control over the things which will shape that child’s life. Once they’re born and the more they grow, the more concrete that lack of control is; and you have to let your child take their place in the world and their community and hope and pray that disaster won’t strike.
Elizabeth and Mary might have had reason to be a bit less anxious than most; after all, if God had plans for their miracle babies, then presumably God was going to make sure those plans were fulfilled. But at this moment, all of that is in an unknown future.
These two women have a moment of shared joy and hope before it all begins. What God’s asking of them at this moment is openness to what God might be about to do; to give themselves, their health, their energy, their intelligence and creativity, to shaping the lives and minds of two boys who would grow to change the world for the better.
But the thing that I find comforting about that, is that it’s the same challenge to both of them. Mary doesn’t stand alone here as the archetype of perfect womanhood; she stands alongside Elizabeth, and shows us that if God has plans and a place for these two very different women, God might have plans and a place for us too; even when we’re not the same as our heroes (or heroines); even when we don’t feel we measure up to any particular ideal.
This passage shows us very clearly that God works in and through very diverse people; that you don’t have to fit a particular image or be in a particular stage of life (important to remember in this culture which so worships youth); but that provided you come with the right attitude – of openness and willingness to collaborate with God, and the rest of God’s people – you’ve got something to contribute.
And this is so important for parish life. You see, a healthy church – and certainly a growing church – isn’t a game of superstars and spectators. God doesn’t have some people who are specially gifted and holy – or even just active – who make it all happen while everyone else is sidelined. Each of us has different gifts, different passions, different experiences, different personalities, and we need them all – not just mine, not just the key people with particular roles like wardens and parish council – but all of us, for this parish to be what it’s meant to be.
You see, some of you are much wiser than me. Some have more faith. Some are much better at recognising other people’s struggles and caring for them. Some will be better at teaching and explaining things. Some will be much more encouraging or generous. And a theological degree and an ordination ceremony don’t change that.
And this is true, not because there’s something wrong with me, but because this is how the church works; we all have different strengths, and together, when we each play our part, the whole community is strengthened and built up.
Of course, not all of these gifts are going to be the ones which get lots of attention. But even Paul said that “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” Indispensable. It’s often the quiet contributions which go unseen and unrecognised a lot of the time which have the biggest impact on the life and the health of the church.
Of course, try telling that to the kids in the angelic chorus, dreaming of being stars!
But we need to have a bit more maturity than that. Mary and Elizabeth stand side by side and support one another as they prepare for a challenging future. Let’s rather take them as our model, and seek to hold in trust between us the hope, the courage and the joy of what God is up to in our lives together.