Sunday, 14 December 2014

'Meddling in politics' : a sermon for Advent 3b

Sermon - based on:                                                    
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Luke 1:46-55

Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

A friend of mine in Edinburgh texted me yesterday.
She was off Christmas shopping for her small grand-daughter.
On a mission in the Disney shop, she scoured the shelves looking for the desired item.
Not finding it, she found a member of staff instead and said:
‘I wonder if you can help me - I’m looking for Prince Charming?’
Quick as a whip came the reply:
‘Oh, aren’t we all!’ 

It’s only 11 more days until Christmas:
places are decked with boughs of holly - fa la la la la...
If you go up to the big shops, you’re met with wall to wall tinsel, glitter and Santas.
It’s only 11 more days until Christmas...
which means... we still have 10 more days of Advent -
a season which can occasionally get a little overlooked in amongst all the decorations.

I confess that Im an unashamed fan of Advent:
I love it. 
The preparation,
the waiting,
allowing the anticipation
to build up over the weeks.
I love the first Sunday of Advent and hearing -
and singing -
that old hymn
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
which ushers in the beginning of Advent-tide.
It gets me every time - spine-tingly stuff.

As the weeks pass
I love the gradual in-breaking of light in the darkness:
of hope...
at first, a wee flicker -
a reminder to lift up your heads
to look up
to look out
to see the signs promising new birth
the promise of a messiah
a deliverer...
That light becoming clearer, stronger,
as we hear the cries of prophets,
like Isaiah, and John the Baptist
urging us to prepare:
     ‘don’t dilly-dally: he’s coming,
the One we’ve yearned for:
the One who will rescue and redeem.
Get your houses, and hearts in order’...

And this week?
       the flicker has grown to a blazing, angelic light:
earthly messengers make way for the heavenly messenger,
the angel, Gabriel.
Having announced to Mary that she’ll bear the promised Messiah -
a sign of which, will be the birth of John the Baptist
to the elderly Zechariah and Elizabeth,
the angel leaves a stunned young Mary...
who quickly makes ready to go and visit her relatives -
possibly to see for herself if what the angel had said was true.
Had she been dreaming?
Or was this seemingly unlikely announcement
actually... going    to     happen?
When she arrives, she knows this was no dream:
she meets a very pregnant Elizabeth -
whose child leaps for joy in the womb:
Overwhelmed, and rejoicing,
Mary then sings out that
great song of praise we know as the Magnificat.

Mary’s song follows in a tradition of women who play key roles in the bible - and who sing songs of joy, and liberation from oppression:
  • Miriam, the sister of Moses, who sings of liberation from the Egyptians after the crossing of the Red Sea;
  • the prophet and judge, Deborah, singing of victory against the Canaanites - and the death of their general, Sisera;
  • Hannah, mother of Samuel, singing for joy as she dedicates him to God’s service - the boy who would grow up into a great priest, and anoint David as king during the wars with the Philistines - David, who would defeat Goliath - the man no other Israelite could overcome.
And Mary - young, faithful, and obedient to God’s call - sings her song in the time of the Roman occupation -
and looks ahead to God liberating his people once more.

Mary’s song of joy also picks up on the theme of the prophet Isaiah:
both describe the characteristics -
the attributes of the One coming to deliver his people.
Both making incredibly political statements while doing so.

I often hear the comment that religion and politics shouldn’t mix -
that people of faith shouldn’t meddle in politics:
leave it well alone.
....    And every time I hear it,
I immediately think of the Magnificat - Mary’s song;
and of the many statements that Isaiah,
and the various prophets of the bible make,
in fact, the bible      is   riddled with politics -
not party politics as we understand,
not the gesture politics of point-scoring,
but the real stuff:
the politics concerned with the commonweal -
caring for people and forging a society that seeks the best for all -
creating a place where every human being is treated with dignity
and encouraged to flourish and blossom:
as Isaiah’s oaks of righteousness,
they will be a planting of the Lord for all to see.

Don’t meddle in politics?
We have a God who can’t help but meddle - get involved - in politics:
a God who intervenes and liberates his people from captivity;
a God who demonstrates throughout the pages of the bible
a distinct bias towards the poor, the marginalised, the alien and the stranger.
And, to quote a current internet meme:
if anyone asks you:
‘what would Jesus do?’
remind them that flipping over tables and chasing people with a whip is within the bounds of possibilities...
That particular political challenge to the religious authorities alarmed the political movers and shakers as well...
it prompted Jesus’ arrest and execution:
Jesus’ death was a political one.

So, if we’re created in God’s image
and called to follow Jesus, his Son,
it would be more surprising if people of faith
didn’t get involved in politics.
Again, not necessarily party politics -
although challenging the system from within has a noble tradition -
but the sort of politics that questions
systemic systems of oppression;
that questions the meteoric rise in food banks in the UK
and the ever-widening gap between the richest and the poorest people in society;
that questions the scapegoating of the most vulnerable
and casts a quizzical eye at tax loopholes,
zero contract work hours;
that questions the blunt instrument of government that 
doesn’t distinguish between everyday immigrants
and asylum seekers who may be executed if sent back home.

Mary’s song, Isaiah’s prophecy, are hugely political statements:
they challenge the status quo of economic Darwinism - 
that the ones with the greatest social advantages always win. 
They sing and prophesy of God’s economy:
where the invisible are seen and raised high;
where the powerful are brought down from their thrones;
where the broken-hearted,
the bereaved,
will be comforted
restored
and in turn
will restore and renew and build up the devastated ones
the devastated places.

The song, the prophecy, is about salvation in the widest possible terms:
salvation is not merely ‘pie in the sky when you die’ -
it is also about here and now.
I’m reminded of the Christian Aid motto:
‘we believe in life before death’.

What is salvation? 
It’s good news:
it’s about healing, liberty, release, comfort.
It’s about ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’ - this is a reference 
to the Jewish practice of a having a ‘jubilee’ year -
a year in which debts were wiped away, slaves were freed,
fields were allowed to rest,
land was returned to original owners.
Salvation is about restoration -
a restored city, an abundant garden -
in the Isaiah text;
it’s about re-evaluation:
putting value on those deemed worthless,
raising the humble,
noticing the unnoticed - this from the Magnificat.
Salvation is - should be - transformative:
as we are transformed, so we, in turn,
become instruments of transformation.
In this way, salvation is missional:
our texts observe that all who see God’s people will acknowledge that they are a people whom God has blessed:
‘righteousness and praise spring up before all nations.’

Salvation is also about the hereafter -
but, in the present,
we all have the good work of helping to bring in God’s transformational justice to the world.

As Mary said ‘yes’ to God,
so that is our choice - as Christ’s body -
to say ‘yes’ to being the people of the good news.
For, ‘to be missional is to live as people of good news, liberation, justice, and comfort
in such a way that the world may take notice
and be drawn to the ways of God...
So long as Christians live as divided people, known to the world as those who judge, fight, and exclude, the church will fail to be missional, no matter how much money it gives and how many missionaries it sends.’
[Scott Bader-Saye Feasting on the Word]

As God’s people -
good news people -
we are joy-bringers.
As we rejoice and delight in the Lord,
so that joy is shared with others.
In this Advent season,
as we rush towards Christmas
we look forward -
not so much to the coming of Prince Charming
but to our Prince of peace
our Liberator Lord,
and as we do so,
we find our own songs of joy -
and in this way, that first flickering light
continues to grow and glow,
and burn even brighter.

Amen.

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