A sermon preached by the Vicar of the Close, Canon Ian Woodward
I would like to ask you a question: Do you carry Jesus within you?
We will I suspect probably be aware that this evening’s Gospel reading is also a very familiar required lection for Advent. For Mary it is that period of waiting, expectation, fear, preparation and preparedness for bringing God incarnate into the world. We also have these readings to mark Lady Day on the 25th March understandably nine months before Christmas. But here we are in the Church’s cycle, miles away from Advent and Christmas and indeed that day in March when rural rents are payable. So what is different about celebrating the visit of the Angel Gabriel to Mary today? I think it is about the wonderful way that God uses Elizabeth and Mary to spark as it were the salvation of the world. What we know and believe is that Gabriel has been angelically very busy on God’s behalf. First he visits Elizabeth with wonderful news and then Mary with truly amazing news. Our celebrations and thanksgivings this evening enable us to think about Mary’s other roles. In particular as the ‘first human being to bring good news of Jesus Christ to another and she simply does it by carrying Christ with her’ as Bp Peter Perrier of Lourdes described her role. Or to put it another way as the ‘first missionary’. Archbishop Rowan Williams describes her thus:
(she is) “that mission that begins not in delivering a message in words but in the journey towards another person with Jesus in your heart”
A reminder that however fancy and self-convincing our words may be, it is by our deeds and the way we relate to one another that we make God’s love shown and known. And this why Mary has the original role as a missionary of the Christian faith. Let’s look at this meeting of the two mothers to be. I sense that a number of intriguing even strange things are going on in Mary’s visit to Elizabeth – there is of course their common bond of being pregnant and the sense of the unknowing whilst anticipating their giving birth. They are both joyful and full of hope because they are aware that they have a major part in some almighty mystery. But at this stage they are understandably not and can’t be fully cognisant of it. Dare we imagine some ‘spiritual electricity’ as Rowan Williams describes it, passing between the yet to be born Jesus and John the Baptist? Luke says ‘John danced within Elizabeth’s womb’, as the foetal Jesus grew within Mary. We can see that God is using Mary and Elizabeth to initiate his plan of salvation for a fallen world. Subsequently Jesus and John’s lives were to be so intertwined that they both cruelly died because of their mission and obedience to God’s will. As a mere man I can’t fully understand the wildly mixed emotions particularly of a first pregnancy; the ups and downs as the birth-day draws ever closer. Will my baby be well; will I be a good mother; how will I cope; what shall I call him-though they knew that; whom will he look like?, and so on. And then on top of these natural cares and worries, both their babies were to be at the centre of God’s mission. Yet both mothers are fully human as their babies will be.
As Luke explains at some length in the early verses of his gospel Zechariah and Elizabeth were getting on a bit as we might say and they had no children. This state of affairs in the culture and place of their day was seen as a serious failing. A failure as a mother and indeed as we see in Africa and so many parts of the world still today, a curse. Luke describes it in the NRSV as a disgrace – shameful that it should be so to us today, and for Elizabeth as the wife, life changing disappointment. Zechariah and Elizabeth were devout; they both came from a long line of priestly dynasties and they were faithful to God. Mary, whose background we know nothing of except that she was a virgin was a relative of Elizabeth, possibly a cousin. Understandably Mary was even more overwhelmed. But both Mary and Elizabeth are obedient to God’s call. The example of their faith and service is just as relevant today as it was 2000 years ago. Mary and Elizabeth were both ‘surprised by joy’ as CS Lewis might describe it. I admire Elizabeth – her faith and fidelity, her patience, her infectious graciousness to serving God and his plan for her son to be Jesus’ herald in the wilderness. And then for Mary – that she should be chosen to be the God bearer. We should seek to be like Mary – carrying Christ with us. But do we? Do others see us carrying Christ within us; in the way we relate to one another and to God? Do we see Christ in others?
Our mission is to carry Christ with us – he expects nothing less and he is willing and indeed wants to be within us. Elizabeth and Mary are Christ’s first missionaries and we have this charge to continue his mission with grace and truth and love.