The Fourth Sunday of Advent
During the 1980s and early 90s an advertising campaign was set up to combat drug abuse first in the United States and then in the UK. The slogan of this highly publicised campaign was “Just say No”. There was a pop song with this title, and even- I’m showing my age now- a storyline about heroin-addiction in the children’s TV drama serial Grange Hill which was popular at the time.
If that campaign could be summed up in the words “Just say No”, the message of today has got to be “Just say Yes”. The story of Mary- for whom we lit the fourth candle on the Advent wreath- not the Mary we sang about at the end of our gradual hymn, but the Mary who was called to be the Mother of Jesus, and who is the focus of the fourth Sunday in Advent- is familiar, especially to those of us who, this close to Christmas, have already attended lots of carol services.
The version of the story we normally hear- and will hear again at the carol service tonight- is Luke’s- where the angel Gabriel is sent by God and comes to Mary. He greets her and tells her she will conceive and that she will bear a Son. But Matthew’s version, which we’ve just heard read to us, tells the story from Joseph’s perspective. This version is less well known, but it’s important, because it reveals not just of Mary’s “yes” but Joseph’s “yes” too. Joseph, it’s often forgotten, has a very active role in this story. Whereas Mary’s response might- at first glance- seem to be passive, “Let it be with me according to your word,” Joseph’s is unambiguously active. Three times, during this course of today’s passage and the one that follows, Matthew is instructed by an angel in a dream, and three times he’s told to do something.
Like Luke’s version, Matthew’s is a grand proclamation, the sweeping announcement that the arrival of the promised Saviour everyone has been waiting for, is imminent. Emmanuel- God- is with us.
And yet it’s also about the human characters- Joseph as well as Mary- because without them, without their agreement and full participation, this climactic event, this moment when God and humanity meet, could never have happened.
There was no guarantee that Mary would say yes. And yet we know the answer she gave: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word”.
In saying “yes,” Mary, and Joseph with her- took a risk. Matthew’s version reminds us of this very strongly. Mary, as a young, unmarried woman in an occupied country, was already a person of intrinsic insignificance. The role God summoned her to could only have marked her more intensely as a failure and an outcast- a woman with an unexplained pregnancy, and an embarrassment to her fiancé. No matter how much Joseph loved Mary, it was his religious obligation to annul the marriage contract, because she was apparently guilty of fornication, a capital crime- though out of kindness and mercy, he determines to do this secretly, so as not to cause her public disgrace and humiliation. In obeying the angel, who instructs him in the dream not to do this, he’s taking a risk too. Both characters have let go of safety and reputation because of the compelling call of God, the weight of God making himself known in the world.
It might have been expedient of God to choose someone more qualified to be the Mother of God, someone less insignificant or ordinary. And yet, fearful and confused, Mary- and then Joseph- found the courage to say yes. Here am I, the servant of the Lord. With this answer, the divine plan was set in motion that would cause a new light to shine in the darkness, new hope, new peace, new freedom. Mary’s words are words that change everything, and they are words for us too.
In Advent, we’ve been challenged to think about how we might prepare for the coming of Christ, how we might become more and more the disciple, the follower of Christ, we are called to be. Advent offers us many gifts: time for waiting on God, time for self-examination and repentance, for drawing close to the God who is always rushing to meet us, whether we acknowledge Him and His open arms of love for us and the whole world or not. Today, Advent’s final gift to us is the gift of commitment, of turning towards God and offering ourselves as no less than servants of God, to say along with Mary, our own “yes”: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord”.
Mary wasn’t the first or the last to say these words. She stands in a long line of witnesses- ordinary people- who have been brave, or ignorant, or joyous, or adventurous, or grateful, or obedient enough to say to God’s request, “Here am I”.
Mary is the bridge between two testaments, between the old and the new. Or as Rowan Williams in his book on icons of Mary, “Ponder these things,” puts it, she is “the person who stands on the frontier between promise and fulfilment, between earth and heaven” (p.xv). She speaks to us of hope for the world’s transfiguration through Jesus. On the brink of a new year and at a time of significant change in our nation, she is an important symbol of both struggle and reconciliation. God chooses one person, and through her obedience brings about something extraordinary which will bless all peoples.
Was Mary insignificant? Was she ordinary? In many ways she was, but there is more to her than passive acceptance. While Joseph responds with pragmatism, Mary responds in freedom and delight to God’s initiative. This is the faith not of the weak, but of the strong. Mary is the risk taker, the one prepared to put her reputation on the line, the one prepared in the Magnificat to rejoice and lose dignity, the one who faced her own struggle as a disciple as she watched her Son die before her and who was yet found at the very centre of the disciples at Pentecost. She and Joseph both responded to God’s call- not a passive, easy thing, but an active risky thing.
Mary has inspired everything from Cathedrals to Schools to hospitals to Colleges. She is the first disciple, the Mother of God, the Mother of believers and the Church. She is extraordinary, and we rightly revere her. And yet she is ordinary, the child wearing the blue towel in the Nativity play. Who can tell what she or Joseph were really like? But what we do know is that she led the way. She showed what to do when God visits you: “Just say yes”. She allowed God to work through her.
When we are open to hearing what it is that God asks of us, we take our place in the long line of faithful people who have acted on God’s call. When we respond to God in freedom, when we say “yes”, then we are open to the adventures God has in store for us, to the tasks God needs us to do.
In a few moments, we will take ordinary things, bread and wine, and God will do something extraordinary with them. The Nativity installation that hangs behind the altar to which they will be brought contains real faces of real people that, if you look closely, you may know. It reminds us that Mary and Joseph, though extraordinary, now revered as saints, were ordinary people, just like us.
In this service, we, ordinary people, come before God, with our faith and our doubts, with our polished halos and our hidden skeletons. We come with our strengths and our weaknesses, with our pride and our vulnerabilities, and God, if we will allow him, wishes to do something extraordinary with us, if only we say “yes”.
Whatever the year ahead may bring, whatever new hopes or new fears, God wishes us to be ambassadors for him, and to think about how we might best do that, to represent him in all that we do and wherever we go. And as we carry Christ into the world, we do this confident in the knowledge that God also carries us. As he meets us in bread and wine, as he meets us again in his Son this Christmas, he wants us to know that he really is with us, and that we are so loved that our deepest insecurities and vulnerabilities melt away.
So what will you do? Will you dare to follow the example of Joseph and of Mary, to risk being misunderstood, to risk suffering? Will you dare to follow her by having a determined faith, a confident faith, a joyful faith? Will you dare to follow her and say “yes” to God?