“If the Assyrians come into our land and tread upon our soil, we will raise against them seven shepherds and eight installed as rulers.” (Micah 5:5)
That’s from today’s assigned text from the book of Micah, and I was really tempted to preach on that this morning. I wasn’t sure exactly where I was going to go with it, but it was just incredibly tempting NOT to focus on Mary, the mother of Jesus, on this, the Sunday before Christmas.
Chapter ten of the Letter to the Hebrews was another option – Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, “Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; 6in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure (Hebrews 10:5-6).
I was admittedly less tempted to deal with that one, though even there the rebel within me rises up and says ‘I think I’ll give Mary and Elizabeth and the shepherds and the angels a miss this year and focus on some of the less scrutinised passages of Scripture assigned to this season!’ But I can’t bring myself to do it any more than I can resist putting up lights and trees and dreaming of a white Christmas, even in the middle of the Australian summer!
I can’t escape it! All this is a part of who I am. It’s my culture. These Christmas stories are a part of my story, and indeed, I think for all of us who are a part of the church, these stories are very much a part of who we are!
And so for a space we transform our church building into a Nativity scene, and sometimes we dress our children up as shepherds and wise-men (or at least as we envisage shepherds and wise-men in first century Judea). We end up looking more like a group of Bedouins, better suited for the mosque than for the church (though rather antiquated even there, I suspect) and we do all this in order to relive a part of history to which we feel inextricably linked!
On the surface the links are not obvious. The first century was a long time ago and Judea is a long way away. Moreover, the life of a young Palestinian peasant girl from that time and place represents a form of life with which we are not even remotely familiar.
Tradition has it that Mary was between 12 and 14 years old in today’s story while Joseph would have been at least twice that age –probably about thirty. To our ears that’s not just distasteful but criminal, and that’s a solid indication of just how different the world of Mary was from the world in which we live!
Mary lived in a very different world. It was a time when unmarried mothers weren’t simply frowned upon but faced the very real prospect of being stoned! Mary lived at a time when women had few property rights and even fewer rights over their children who were considered to be solely the progeny and property of their fathers.
It seems crazy to us now but the human ovum wasn’t discovered by medical science until 1827 – less than 200 years ago! Prior to that discovery the mother was considered to be no more than an incubator for the child, with all the creative work being done by the father!
This, incidentally, has to have affected the understanding of the church fathers in their thinking about Holy Mary, mother of God. Mary would have been supposed to have contributed nothing to the genetic makeup of Jesus! She was simply the oven (so to speak) in which the man’s seed (or, in Mary’s case, God’s seed) was cooked!
At any rate, what would we know about being a woman in the first century, and what would we know about being a Jewish woman in first century Palestine, living under the Roman Occupation?
I don’t take for granted the freedoms we experience in this country. There is no occupying military power in this country and (unless you are one of our Indigenous brothers or sisters) there never has been! Certainly we all experience a wonderful level of freedom of speech in this country and this is not something I take for granted.
I’m reading a book on the history of Syria at the moment – a country that has surely experienced enough violence in its short life! Syrians first fought for independence from the Ottomans alongside Lawrence of Arabia in the First World War only to come under French rule as the war concluded, and so began Syria’s history of unremittent foreign interference and occupation!
The book mentions an old Lebanese joke about Syria wherein a Lebanese dog travels to Syria to escape hunger. He returns a month later looking well-groomed and well-fed. His friends ask him ‘Did the Syrians look after you?’ He says ‘Oh yes’. They say ‘then why did you return?’ He says ‘I wanted to bark’!
I think that joke would have a place in any country that has experienced foreign occupation. Violence and repression are always there in the background, but even when you aren’t experiencing any direct violence there is never much room to bark. You’ve got to watch what you say. The walls have ears, and the occupying forces are always there in the background, ready to pounce. So it is today for Christians living in DAESH-controlled areas of Syria and Iraq, so it is for Palestinians living in the West Bank, so it was in first century Judea for the likes of Mary.
“In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.” (Luke 1:39-40)
Mary left her home town ‘with haste’ we presume because the scandal of her pregnancy was becoming increasingly difficult to conceal. She enters the home of Zechariah (the owner of the property) but he doesn’t make any appearance in this narrative as the focus in entirely on the two women (or perhaps we should say on ‘one woman and one young girl’).
They are an interesting pair – at the opposite ends of the age spectrum but both sharing the experience of pregnancy for the first time, and in both cases this takes place against a backdrop of powerlessness and dispossession.
Mary is young – too young to have a child. Elizabeth is an adult who was apparently considered too old to have a child! In both cases the pregnancies were unexpected and miraculous but the social consequences for the two women were entirely dissimilar!
In Mary’s case she is pregnant out of wedlock and this could lead to serious consequences – even to capital punishment! Elizabeth, on the other hand, up to this point, had lived with the disgrace of being barren all of her adult life.
It’s a horrible word – barren – and suggests some terrible deformity on the part of the woman, though even in those days they surely must have realised that childlessness wasn’t always the fault of the female partner!
Perhaps Zachariah had a low sperm count? It’s possible, isn’t it? But the disgrace in which Elizabeth had lived much of her adult life is a reminder of the patriarchal nature of the society we are dealing with here – a society where women had very little control over their own bodies.
I don’t mention this simply to raise the banner of feminism. I mention this rather because it’s these realities of weakness and oppression and occupation and powerlessness that provide the backdrop of today’s story, and which make sense of the prophetic utterance of Mary:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” (Luke 1:47-55)
This is the prophecy of Mary, the mother of Jesus (the mother of God), and the really important thing to realise in this, I’d suggest, is that this is the utterance of someone who speaks from the underside of humanity. She is one of the most powerless members of a powerless people!
Mary is nobody anybody would listen to! Why would anyone care about what she had to say or what she thought? She was not a priest or a preacher or a prophet or a teacher. She was not even a man. She was not even an adult! She was a pregnant child, running for her life in the hill country of Judea! Her voice counts for nothing, and yet she is the mouthpiece of God!
Mary is nobody, and yet she is the chosen of the Lord, and if you listen carefully to her prophecy, you’ll see that she connects her story with a great long line of nobodies who have been favoured by God and elevated into positions of prominence!
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:51-53)
“From now on all generations will call me blessed!” (Luke 1:49)
Those familiar with the more ancient Jewish Bible know that Mary’s song echoes very strongly the far more ancient song of her foremother, Hannah (1 Samuel 2), the mother of Samuel – another woman who had a miraculous birth and came to play a very special role in the history of the people of God.
Hannah was another powerless barren woman. She was the second partner of Elkanah – a man who had plenty of children through his other wife, thus leaving no doubt as to who was responsible for Hannah’s childlessness!
Many years before Mary, Hannah sang (1 Samuel 2:7-8):
“The Lord sends poverty and wealth; he humbles and he exalts.
He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap;
he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honour.”
For Hannah and for Mary the pattern of God’s working in history is the same. God is at work in human society turning things upside-down!
God lifts up the lowly. He sends the rich empty away. He comes to the support of the poor. He brings down the mighty from their thrones. God, in other words, is one who constantly agitates the natural social order! God is quite literally the author of revolution – turning things upside-down (or right-side up)!
Just when we think that the rich and the powerful have embedded themselves into positions that are unassailable, God upsets the balance of power by taking someone from the bottom of the heap and placing them on the top! Both Hannah and Mary connect their personal good fortunes to this greater pattern of the way that God works in history, and I believe that this is really the point at which we connect to these stories too!
As I say, on the surface there is really nothing to connect us to someone like Mary – the pregnant Palestinian teenager who takes centre stage in our celebrations every year at this time. We come from a different age and from a very different land, we speak different languages and have vastly different experiences of life. What connects us though is God! We have the same God who continues to work in the world in the same way – subverting traditional power structures, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, bringing down the mighty from their thrones and lifting up the lowly!
This is why we connect to these stories, and that is why we have to stay connected with these stories. That is why we need to keep dressing up and singing and making fools of ourselves – because despite the distance of so many miles and so many centuries, the revolution continues! God is still at work turning things upside-down, and that story is our story, as our story becomes a part of God’s greater story!
I’m told that a young boy was overheard singing Silent Night at a Christmas carol event one year, ending a verse “sleep in heavenly beans” at which point his sister interjected with “no, it’s ‘peas’ – sleep in heavenly peas”.
It’s easy to get things wrong at this time of year with all the glitter and the dazzle and the ‘Ho, Ho, Ho’! Christmas though, at its very heart, is a story about a God who takes the nobodies of this world and uses them to turn things upside-down! That’s the Christmas story, and that is our story.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:50-53)
First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, on Sunday the 20th of December, 2015.