All Saints Margaret Street | Fourth Sunday of Advent HIGH MASS and Holy Baptism Sunday 21 December 2014

Sermon for Fourth Sunday of Advent HIGH MASS and Holy Baptism Sunday 21 December 2014

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses


Readings: 2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16; Romans 16.25-end; Luke 1.26-38

Today’s Gospel is known simply as the Annunciation, or to give it its full liturgical title, “The Annunciation of Our Lord to the Blessed Virgin Mary.”  In Luke’s Gospel there are not one but two annunciations as he interleaves the stories of the births of John the Baptist and Jesus. As if in a drama, the scene shifts from one set of characters to another and back again.

The two events have much in common; the angel Gabriel is the one who makes the announcement, who delivers the message in both cases.  But there are significant differences between them.

  • The announcement of John’s forthcoming birth is made to his father Zechariah who is a priest, a member of the religious establishment. It takes place at the heart of that establishment, in the Temple in Jerusalem, when he is on duty and offering the sacrifice of incense in the Temple. There is a congregation who know something out of the ordinary has happened.
  • The message about the birth of Jesus comes to a young woman, by our standards still a girl, but in those days of marriageable age, in a backwoods town in Galilee, a region regarded by Jerusalem dwellers in much the same way that Londoners think of Essex or the North. The setting is not only humble, it is private.

While Mary is often portrayed by artists as if she was a medieval princess or a renaissance aristocrat, and a devout one, reading a prayer book, this is improbable for the betrothed a local carpenter.  In the eyes of the powers that were at the time, she would be quite insignificant, a nobody.  But the devotion is right – where else would Jesus learn to pray but at his mother’s knee?

The messenger may be the same, but the responses are quite different.  Zechariah, although amazed at the appearance, has suffered too many disappointments, is enough of a realist to know that old people like he and his wife Elizabeth don’t start having children – however much they may have yearned for them. He just can’t believe it. So, the angel Gabriel tells him that he will be struck dumb until the child is born. If he can’t say a word of belief and faith, he won’t be able to say anything.

When his spell on duty is over he returns home and Elizabeth becomes pregnant. The neighbours come round after the child is born. When his mother tells them he is to be called John, they don’t believe it because it’s not a family name. No doubt thinking, “Daft woman doesn’t know what she is talking about,” they ask Zechariah who asks for a tablet – that’s a wax one you could write on with a stylus, not the electronic ones we’re used to – and writes “His name is John.”  This time he has followed instructions, so his speech is restored to him. (The clergy, like Zechariah, or Nathan in the Old Testament reading are sometimes rather slow on the uptake -they need more than one telling before they get it right.)

In the Annunciation to Mary things are quite different.  It is not that Mary simply says, “Yes” there and then, no questions asked.  She does question how this can be because of her circumstances; she is unmarried. While the birth of a child to Elizabeth and Zechariah would be a surprise, it would be the cause of rejoicing. The pregnancy of an unmarried girl would be a scandal to neighbours, a shame to her family, a serious threat to her safety.  But when she is assured by the angel that this will be the work of God, she then gives her consent.  Zechariah had simply been told this would happen.  In Mary’s case, the angel who is acting and speaking for God, answers her question and waits for her consent. God’s work hinges on her answer.

While the conception of John the Baptist may have had some divine assistance, there is no suggestion that Zechariah is not the biological father.  In the case of Mary and Jesus, things are quite different. As the Gospel of John will say, Jesus will be born, “not of the will of man, nor of the will of the flesh, but of God.”

We might hear these stories as part of the script of a nativity play: something for children.  But this nativity play is in fact part of a much greater drama and it is one which involves adults as well as children. It involves us not as an audience or as spectators, but as actors and participants. If we were school children, we would of course all be given a part in the nativity play; even if is it only as the angel on the far left.  There is a role for each one of us in the drama of God’s work to heal and save his creation and bring it to fulfillment.

Annunciations, calls to play our part in that drama, come in all sorts of ways. Sometimes – like that of Zechariah – they may happen when we are doing something religious – saying our prayers or taking part in the worship of the church. Even then, they are likely to take us by surprise. They do not always come as and when we ask God for guidance about our future. We might find our future being redirected into ways we neither imagined nor wanted.  But those who pray know that annunciations do happen as we persevere in the patient business of listening to God – which is one of the things prayer is about. The conscious effort to listen, to cut out the background noise, the distractions, the competing voices of our noisy world, urging us to find the meaning and purpose of life in buying and consuming, makes it possible for us to hear what God is saying to us.

Or we might simply be going about the daily business of life, of work, of family or community, when someone says or does something, a child or a parent, a friend or colleague or a total stranger. It may be simply someone whose need summons a response from us. It may be someone who asks us a question about our faith, perhaps because something is stirring within them, and we have to give an account of the faith which is in us. It may be someone doing something extraordinary, going out of their way or giving time and attention for others, something they don’t need to do; something that challenges us to do more.  These messengers do not even need to be physically present – they might be  on television or in the newspaper or in a book. 

  • They tell us that God is doing something in our lives.
  • They challenge us to do something for God.
  • They tell us that what we might think impossible for us, is possible with God.
  • They call us to take the risk of saying: “Yes” to God.
  • They show us that if we do, then great things can happen.

Nativity plays usually have lots of songs, and Luke has too. He has both Zechariah and Mary singing songs of praise.

  • Zechariah sings after the birth of his son – when he has been given his voice back. 

Mary sings when she visits Elizabeth who greets her with “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” which are combined with those of the angel to form  the Hail Mary which we recite at the end of this service and day by  day in the Angelus, the Commemoration of the Incarnation.

The Church sings or says these canticles every day in its worship to celebrate what God has done and continues to do:

The Song of Zechariah – Benedictus – at Morning Prayer

The Song of MaryMagnificat – at Evensong.

We sing the praises of God because we see that he has done great things in Jesus and that cast of characters gathered around him on the stage in Nazareth and Bethlehem and Jerusalem and in this church today.  We sing God’s praises because, though we might be tempted, like Zechariah, to think everything is hopeless – and heaven knows there is enough going on in our world at the moment- in a coffee shop in Sydney or a school in Peshawar – not much different from a cafe or a school here in London – to tempt us to despair or reduce us to cynicism – he goes on working through ordinary people like us, to make a difference in all sorts of places. 

So the Annunciation and countless other annunciations continue to challenge us.  Will we say “Yes” to God or “No,” or just pretend that we have not heard?