A sermon preached by Graham Low for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, 19 December 2021.
One of the most powerful themes of Advent is acceptance of the situation in which we find ourselves in. But it is only a starting point. From that acceptance we are called to consider the circumstances of the situation and then to decide upon possible ways in which it may be wise for helpful or essential change to occur. Thus acceptance is not static, but a prompt to change.
In our first reading from the Prophet Micah we hear about a call for change. Judah was invaded in the year 701BC by Sennacherib, the Emperor of Assyria. Hezekiah was appointed a vassal king. Meanwhile Sennacherib was creating the city of Nineveh, close to the city of Mosul in present-day Iraq. The first part of the book of Micah is a cry for freedom by the people against the invaders. The part we have just heard may well have been written later during the exile to Babylon.
Whatever the uncertainties about how and when the book was written, we find a desire not to accept the status quo but to seek ways of obeying the law of God, rather than following a range of other gods. In particular the author or authors of Micah say that God requires the people “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6.8). This is a wonderfully succinct statement of what ethical behaviour is about. That statement is a starting point, with a future dimension with God. Micah prophesies that a king will come who shall bring security, universal greatness, and be the one of peace.
The early Christian church took great comfort from these words, and believed that the prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus. And yet peace is still very clearly far from universal in our world. How do we live with this dilemma? Perhaps we have to accept that we live somewhere between the now and the not yet. Although Christ is among us now, we accept that fulfilment is still to come.
The kind of acceptance that we are called to follow in Advent is about waiting on God, as we prepare for the coming of Christ. This is about setting aside our pre-conceived ideas of how we are met by God. A most radical form of acceptance is shown by Mary, indeed it is a kind of surrender. First, she accepts to call to be God-bearer: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord: let it be with me according to your word”. Then she receives, treasures and ponders to words of the shepherds at Christ’s birth, and goes on to understand her child as the world’s lightening conductor, as one commentator has put it. Gradually she realises that he will go on to reveal truth, to disclose the heart and to shape destiny. Mary’s call, as we have just heard is utterly shaped by God. Her mysteriously accepted and surrendered life, a life filled with God, will not be easy to accept: it will end with a sword through her soul.
Mary accepts what is to come, as well as the present, and she also foresees the future: her child will be the Son of God, the Messiah, a light for all people. There is perplexity, treasuring and pondering at the life unfolding within her. But she lives with the ‘now’. We are called to do that in Advent too. That present includes all the beauty and all the mess of life. Now is where heaven and earth meet, a liminal space, or time, as Andrew said to us last week. God is with us in our deepest places. But God does not take us out of this world. If we can come to a deeper acceptance of where we are at present, then we may find God is there in all the richness, strangeness, and madness of life around us, in discomfort as well as in gift. Now we may well find all of this is quite unsettling, but that is the nature of Advent.
This Advent is particularly unsettling because of the rapid rise once again of Covid-19 with its unpredictable consequences. We have to accept that life in this neither-before-nor-after state, this liminal state, is very difficult. But do we simply leave it there?
In these last days of Advent we pray for readiness to greet our saviour when he comes. Elizabeth and Mary had both faced huge challenges in their lives, but both spoke of God’s mercy, as the Magnificat has just reminded us. Perhaps we too need to pray for God’s mercy to come to us, to our neighbourhood, nation and world. When we say ‘Lord have mercy’ we do not only ask to receive God’s undeserved kindness. We also ask to model ourselves on God’s mercy, by showing kindness and trust to each other, and in all human relationships. May God show us a way through the wilderness of our world to the joy of Christmas. As we do so let us remember the words of the prophet Micah I quoted earlier: we are asked “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God”. Amen.