This is the fourth Sunday of Advent which, this year, is also regarded as Christmas Sunday, the Sunday before Christmas Day.
The fourth Sunday in Advent traditionally recognises the role in the Incarnation of Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and this morning we will remember her, as well as considering the message of Christmas itself.
As we light the four Advent candles, representing hope, love, joy and peace we reflect on the words from the first verse of the hymn Longing for light –
CH4 543 Longing for Light
Longing for light, we wait in darkness
Longing for truth, we turn to you
Make us your own, your holy people,
Light for the world to see.
Christ, be our light,
Shine in our hearts, shine through the darkness
Christ, be our light,
Shine in your Church gathered today.
Hymn CH3 320 Come thou long-expected Jesus
Prayer of Approach, Advent Collect
Gracious and wonderful God, in this holy season we come together, as your children, to worship you, our loving heavenly Father. In the quietness of this place we seek your peace.
In times of doubt and danger it is our great privilege to turn to you, knowing that you never will forsake us. In time of sorrow or anxiety we know that you understand our fears, and that, always upholding us, are the everlasting arms.
For in the great miracle of all time you came to us, sharing our mortality, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. You, matchless Creator, unknowable mystery, freely chose to make yourself known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. In him you knew human joys and human sorrows, the trials and difficulties and griefs of our human existence. In him you endured suffering and death, rising again as eternal victor over evil and over death, our champion against the powers of darkness.
So it is that in the depths of darkest winter we can come to you with joy, rejoicing in the light which streams from that makeshift cradle, from that cruel cross, and from that borrowed, empty tomb. For the light of your Incarnation shines on in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it.
Gracious God, we bring to you our doubts and our fears, our sins and our sorrows, our thanksgivings and our joys, knowing that you will cleanse us, forgive us, strengthen us, rejoice with us, and renew us. Hear us now as we lay before you our private prayers. Pause
O Lord, hear these our prayers, and let the cries of our hearts come to you.
The Collect for Advent
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which your Son Jesus Christ came to us in great humility; so that, on the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who is alive, and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Here we are, it’s five days before Christmas, and we’re thinking of Advent and Christmas Eve and Christmas all rolled into one! Five days – have Mary and Joseph left Nazareth yet? Well, scholars estimate that, depending on the route they chose, they would have had about 80-90 miles to walk; so, considering that Mary is heavily pregnant, it seems likely that they are already on their way to fulfil Caesar’s census requirements.
And what about the Wise Men? They have been watching the skies, certainly, but has the star appeared yet in their eastern sky? Perhaps they too are already on their way.
What’s happening in Bethlehem? It’s probably already filling up with all these people travelling there for the census – many staying with relatives, but others filling up all the beds in the inn, while their animals find stable room in the courtyard.
As for the shepherds, they are out on the hills as usual. They are aware of all the extra travellers, but as yet they have no idea that anything wonderful is going to happen to them. After all, nothing wonderful ever happens to shepherds, outsiders as they are, except, of course, new-born lambs, and hungry wild beasts, and silent, starry skies.
Now we, who have spent three Advent Sundays preparing ourselves for the events of Christmas Eve, are now joining the travellers on the road to Bethlehem. But for today’s Scripture reading on this fourth Sunday of Advent we go back to the beginning of Mary’s story.
Scripture Reading St Luke 2: 26-38
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel came to her and said,
‘Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.’
Mary was greatly troubled at his words, and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her: ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favour with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants for ever; his kingdom will never end.’
‘How shall this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’ The angel answered:
‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even your relative Elizabeth is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For nothing will be impossible with God.’
‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘let it be with me according to your word.’
Then the angel departed from her.
Now, numerous artists and poets have tried to depict this wonderful meeting between an angel and a human girl. I’m going to read a hymn which describes it – it’s a hymn which the choir has sung, but not the congregation, so there will be no music.
Hymn: No wind at the window CH4 287
Scripture reading with excerpts from St Luke 1: 39-56
At that time Mary got ready, and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered the house of Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and in a loud voice Elizabeth exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear. …… And blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her.’
Then Mary said: ‘My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is his name!….
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered the proud … he has brought down rulers from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.’
This is the Word of the Lord – thanks be to God
These last verses are part of the song, called the Magnificat, from the Latin for the opening words, my soul magnifies the Lord. The second part of the song, with which the reading ended, speaks of the longing for social justice which characterises both old and new Testaments. Mary was clearly not the meek, demure damsel which art and history have sometimes portrayed her, but a woman with a passion for justice, and for the new world which her Son would inaugurate. In addition, Mary clearly knew her Hebrew Scripture, for the second part of her Song bears a distinct resemblance to the song of another staunch woman, Hannah, the mother of Samuel, one of Israel’s greatest prophets. You can read Hannah’s story in the first and second chapters of the first Book of Samuel. Hannah’s song begins with the words ‘My heart rejoices in the Lord’, and goes on to describe how the Lord ‘raises the poor from the dust, the needy from the ash-heap’.
So it is entirely in accord with Scripture that the Lord, when he comes, comes amidst the poor and oppressed – that his lodging is a lowly outhouse, and his first witnesses despised shepherds. But we need not think that because his coming was obscure, it was therefore unattended. The poet Edwin Muir wrote that: ‘At the heart of civilisation is the byre, the barn and the midden’; so Jesus’ cradling in a manger can be seen as a sign, not of exclusion, but of inclusion – born in humility amidst humble people; and his mother would surely have been attended by kindly women among the guests or servants of the inn, taking to their hearts this young girl, having her first baby miles from her home, and from her own mother.
I’m now going to read you another carol, not often sung now, but a favourite of mine, and relevant to what we’re discussing.
Hymn: All poor men and humble CH3 185
When I was considering what Christmas might mean to us in this strange and difficult year, three words came to mind. The first two were love, and longing. In the darkness of this year many have learned for the first time, and all have learned anew, what matters most to us in this life of ours. For many of us the separation from those we love most has taught us to value human relationships as never before. The longing to meet and hold those from whom we are divided by distance, or quarantine, disease, or death, has been acute.
And in the nation’s distress many prayers have risen to heaven, from believers and unbelievers alike. Most surely the Holy Spirit, divine healer, has been at work in laboratories and hospital wards, in exhausted medical staff and faithful front-line workers of every description, as the love of God finds expression in loving concern for each other.
There was longing a-plenty around the story of Jesus’ birth – the longing of Zechariah and Elizabeth for a child, echoing the longing of those heroines of Hebrew Scripture, Hannah and Sarah. There was the longing of the poor for justice, voiced in Mary’s song, the Magnificat. There was the longing of the oppressed for the freedom and restoration of the Kingdom which the coming of the Messiah would bring, voiced by Zechariah in the song known as the Benedictus (which, like the Magnificat, is a regular part of liturgy in non-Reformed churches), and also expressed by the faithful waiting of Simeon and Anna, the aged worshippers who welcomed the infant Jesus and his parents in the Temple. All these stories can be read in full in the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel.
And who can doubt the love behind these Gospel stories? The love of Joseph for his promised bride, accepting her in difficult circumstances, and taking on himself the care of her child. The love and joy of Elizabeth in her longed-for child, a love and joy shared with the young cousin Mary, whom she sheltered and nurtured for three months at the start of the latter’s socially-excluding pregnancy, while Mary would in her turn be supporting her elderly cousin in the late stages of her time of waiting. And at the birth – who does not love a new baby? The word would go round all the inn’s guests, there would be visits, and little deeds and gifts of comfort for Mary; while the shepherds, and, in their turn, the wise men, would gaze in loving wonder at this ordinary baby, who was yet so far from ordinary.
Because this baby was, of course, the source of all love, and the focus of all longing; for Love came down at Christmas.
Hymn: Love came down at Christmas CH3 194 .
Just before that hymn I said that the infant Christ is the focus of all longing. But the divine Being whom we worship is also the source of all longing. He longs for the love of his children and for fellowship with them, with a longing so passionate that it gives rise to the whole of Salvation History – the Incarnation, the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, to be our inspiration and our friend.
As well as love and longing, there is a third word which I associate both with Christmas and with the events of the year that is passing. That word is hospitality, and it encompasses the great, supportive kindness shown to the vulnerable by so many folk in our community – ordinary folk rallying round, as I have no doubt they rallied round the young mother and anxious father that night in Bethlehem.
And God’s generous hospitality to all his creation arises from his love for us and his longing for us. This hospitality is memorably expressed by the 17th century Anglican poet / priest George Herbert, in a short poem which I am now going to read to you. In it Herbert sees himself as a reluctant guest – rather like the guests who shunned the king’s invitation in Jesus’ banquet parables – and shows how God’s love for him and longing for fellowship with him overcomes his shame and doubt, and draws him into the fullness of divine hospitality. With this poem we will conclude this meditation on the meaning of Christmas.
Love 111 by George Herbert
Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lacked anything?
A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee.
Love took my hand, and, smiling, did reply,
Who made the eyes but I?
Truth, Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat.
So I did sit and eat.
Prayer of Dedication of Offering and Prayers of Intercession
Loving heavenly Father, without you we are nothing, and we have nothing. All that we have and all that we are comes from your divine love and hospitality. Accept the gifts we offer, of love and of money and of service, and bless us in the giving, as you bless us daily in the receiving of your goodness. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Gracious Lord God, hear our prayers of Intercession, prayers for other people.
We pray for children everywhere, and for their parents.
Be with those who are in danger, and with those who are hungry.
Be with those children who are neglected or abused, and with those who are given everything but love.
Be with all families in the difficulties of this pandemic.
Lord God, be their hope and their strength.
We pray for those who are sick, and for those who are dying. We pray for all who care for them: be with them in their efforts, their exhaustion and their fear.
Lord God, be their hope and their strength.
Be near to all who are alone, or bereaved, or who find Christmas difficult and painful.
Lord God, be their hope and their strength.
Be near to all who carry the burden and the responsibility of power and decision-making.
Lord God, be their wisdom and their strength.
We pray for our Queen and for her family and counsellors.
Lord God, be their wisdom and their strength.
In moments of quiet, Lord, we pray for ourselves: our hopes, our needs, our dreams…… pause.
As we so pray, so we remember with gratitude all whom we have loved and who now rest in your peace. Keep us ever in fellowship, we pray, with your whole Church on earth and in heaven:
And now we join our voices with your whole Family across the world, saying together the words which Jesus taught us:
Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be your Name
Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors;
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil;
For thine is the Kingdom, the power and the glory, for ever. Amen.
And now, as Mary and Joseph pursue their way to the birthplace of the Christ-child, so we too, in our hearts, take the road to Bethlehem, heeding the call of that great carol,
Hymn: O come all ye faithful.
Benediction May the love of the Lord Jesus draw us to himself; may the power of the Lord Jesus strengthen us in his service; may the joy of the Lord Jesus fill our souls; and may the blessing of God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, rest and remain on each one of us, and on all for whom we pray, now and always. Amen.