A Sermon by The Rev’d Peter Jin
We come today to the end of our advent season, fourth Sunday of Advent. This morning I want to make reflections on three lessons.
The first lesson is from the first reading, the prophet Micah. “You, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel.”
We know it’s the birth place of Christ. But in Old Testament times, Bethlehem is tiny little village. From this little town, Micah predicts the mighty Messiah will come.
How common this theme is in the bible! The reversal of expectation: the little giving rise to the great. Look not to the worldly splendour, but look to the tiny and out of the way insignificant. For that’s where God is going to be found.
The stuttering Moses is the one who speaks to the mighty Pharaoh. ‘Lord, send somebody else, don’t send me.’
But that’s the one God sends to speak to Pharaoh. And later leads the slaves out of Egypt. That’s God’s way.
Little David, kills the giant Goliath. For Bethlehem of Ephrathah is the city of David, the city of the little shepherd king.
Remember the story. The prophet Samuel is told by God, he should go and anoint the next king. He will be one of the sons of Jesse. Jesse lives in Bethlehem of Ephrathah. So the prophet goes, he sees Jesse, he says ‘bring out your sons, and I will anoint him king of Israel’. After seeing all the sons of Jesse come out one by one. Samuel says ‘No, it’s not the one’, ‘No, it’s not him’. ‘No, not that one’. Finally he says ‘are those all the sons you have?’ Jesse says well, ‘there is little David.’
‘Bring him to me’, says Samuel. When David comes, the prophet knows he is the one. He anoints him. As the bible says, ‘the spirit of God rushes on David’. That’s how it works with the God of the bible. Great things tend to come from the small.
Human nature identifies greatness with a grandness of the ego, with gathering all kinds of goods around oneself but the bible keeps saying over and over again and that’s not real greatness.
And so this lesson is ‘Do you want to know where the Messiah is coming from?’ Look to the little out of the way Bethlehem of Ephrathah. Great things come from small things.
The second lesson is from Elizabeth. ‘In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb’.
Elizabeth was the cousin of Mary. The one who was thought to be sterile is now in her sixth month.
Elizabeth stands for a whole group of Old Testament women. Sarah, the mother of Isaac, was an old woman in her 80s and 90s
when she became pregnant. She was thought to be unable to bear children.
The mother of Sansom, a great prophet, was thought to be unable to have children. She gives birth.
In one of the moving stories in the Old Testament, Hannah who is thought to unable to have children, and she prays and prays in the temple. She gives birth to Samuel the prophet. These women stand for Israel, theologically speaking, incapable of achieving salvation on their own, yes. In and through God’s grace, even these people can give birth. Through God’s grace, even our sins can be transformed. Through God’s grace, even impossible situations become possibilities, hope, and life.
You know it is wonderful in Old Testament, there is not one bit of the myth of human perfectibility. What I mean here is the view in many cultures. That somehow we human being are heroic. That we can make ourselves good and right and perfect. Not one bit of that in the bible.
The prophets are well aware of our limitations, and our hopelessness, and our powerlessness. And yet, they are more aware of God’s transforming grace can bring from darkness, LIGHT, can bring from nothingness, LIFE.
So the spiritual lesson of Elizabeth: Never give up hope. All things are possible with God.
The third lesson is from Mary. Mary in the gospels is symbolically evocative of Israel.
In some ways, if Elizabeth is in her inability to bear children represents Israel in its lifelessness, Mary stands for Israel at its best. Israel when it’s faithful, when it’s true, when it trusts in God’s mercy.
Do you remember in John’s Gospel, the account of the wedding feast of Cana? There is Mary with Jesus. She says they have no more wine. It’s as though she is speaking for the whole of Israel. They have run out of life. They have run out of what makes life wonderful. Mary notices that, like a prophet she says to the Lord, they have run out of wine. Then in that wonderful line she says to the steward ‘do whatever he tells you’.
Brothers and sisters, that’s Israel at its best. Israel when it trust in the Lord, that is what Mary stands for.
As our gospel opens Mary has just heard the word of angels, telling her she is to be the mother of God. And she trusts. She believes. She accepts the word. What does that do? It leads to our gospel today. Mary sets out and goes with HASTE
to a Judean town in the hill country. When we trust in God, when we turn our life over to God, when we allow to God work in us, then we are filled with zeal, and energy, and life, and mission, and then we know what to do, and where to go.
I love the fact Mary goes, she moves. She has the courage to move, to act. She knows where she is going and what she is about.
Brothers and sisters, sometimes we discern what God wants for us, we know, we’ve heard God’s voice in the scripture, in the liturgy, in the dreams, we’ve seen it in the events around us, but we don’t act because it is too difficult, because it costs too much, our time, our energy, and our money.
We know what God intends for us but we don’t have the courage to move and act.
Brothers and sisters, in our spiritual life, we are meant to RUN. When I was in my 20s and early 30s, I often fell into spiritual laziness.For years, my spiritual life did not even get off the ground because I was so caught up in my job, my friends, my day to day anxieties. I didn’t open our eyes spiritually.
However, Mary gives us a good example. She goes in haste. She is filled with trust in God, so she knows where to go and what to do. She cooperates with God’s purposes.
Does she clearly see what is coming. No. I don’t think think so.
I can personally relate to that. I recently prayed to God: “Lord, I have no idea where I am going after two years curacy here. I know I have not given the Archbishop good impression because I was the dean killer. Frank Nelson obviously could not cope with me, and ran back to NZ with HASTE. Adrain, the acting dean, after 2.5 years’ locum in Christchurch, was ambitious to break his record to stay this Cathedral until 2024. Sadly his term was only 7 months. And now Bishop Chris, he was determined to stay here a bit longer. Chris is very attentive and was well aware of the fact I was a dean killer. Last week, he promised me he would find a parish for me even there is no suitable vacancy at the moment at all.
Brothers and sisters, we don’t see the future clearly. Neither did Mary. Yet, she chooses to trust God, and cooperates with God’s purposes.
The three spiritual lessons are:
Great things comes from small things, that is the message of Micah.
Neve give up hope, that’s the message of Elizabeth. Trust always, that’s Mary’s message. Amen!