December 24, 2017

4th Sunday of Advent

Luke 1:26-56


Living in an individualized Western society like Australian society today, many people may not think much of social embarrassment. Some may even consider it as something trivial or, worse, as something that is to be ignored. But for many others, especially those in other cultures and places, to be embarrassed publicly is a painful experience that can lead people to depression even violence, either acted against themselves or other people. In many cultures, social humiliation or embarrassment is one the harshest punishments that an individual can get.

A few years ago, we heard the tragic news of the death of Jacinta Saldanha, a nurse in King Edwards VII hospital in London. She became the victim of a prank call made by two Australian radio DJs. The radio DJs pretended to be Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles to get access to Catherin, the Duchess of Cambridge, who was treated in the hospital at the time. Jacinta was one of the nurses who answered the prank call and, somehow, the burden of being publicly humiliated by the call was too much for her. She killed herself not long after the incident.

Sadly, she wasn’t the only person who resorted to such dramatic reaction after being publicly embarrassed. Tampa Bays Times magazine once run a story about a rare sexual disorder that was suffered by 39-year-old woman, Gretchen Molannen. Before the publication, the editors of the magazine worked through the story with Gretchen. They asked her to read the entire story and sought a public approval from her for her story to be published. She gave the approval, but the day after her story was finally published in the magazine, she killed herself.                                                                      

Indeed, to fully understand the outburst of joy that was coming out of the mouth of Mary, in our reading today, we need to understand the kind of social pressure that a young woman like Mary had to endure in her time. As a society today, we put little to no social pressure towards women who do not have children. Not having children today is even preferable for many women, especially for those who want to have careers.

But in biblical time, to be barren was an embarrassment. In those times, a barren woman was considered as someone whom God had cursed. A barren woman was seen as someone who did not have the same creative power that God used to create the universe and fill it with living beings. Barrenness thus often led to social humiliation, even exclusion. Again and again in the Bible, we heard the social pain that women like Sarai or Hannah or Elizabeth had to endure because of their barrenness. From the two tragedies that we heard at the   beginning of this sermon, it’s clear that we shouldn’t trivialize the humiliation that people living in other cultures had to endure.

But, in our reading today from Luke’s Gospel, Mary was not barren. She was pregnant when she was still young. The problem was that she was pregnant out of wedlock and that was another social ‘no no’ in her time. So, even though her situation was different from the ones face by those barren women before her in the Bible, her experience overlapped with their experiences. Mary too risked the severe social humiliation, even exclusion, that these women had experienced. As such, her song of praise, in our reading today in Luke’s Gospel, follows the pattern of the song of praise of Hannah, a barren woman whose fortune was turned around by God who gave her a son, Samuel.[1]

Yet, it seemed that Mary had not fully grasped the significance of her pregnancy even though the angel Gabriel had visited her and told her that she had been chosen as the carrier of God’s grand plan for his people. The Angel told her that she would become pregnant and the boy in her womb would become the One whom Israel had waited as their Saviour. But it seemed that Mary failed to fully understand the true meaning of the whole event. All that she knew was that she would become pregnant before she was legally married to Joseph. Such situation would be a source of major embarrassment to her and her family.

I think that’s why she immediately went to the hill country of Judea where her relative, Elizabeth, lived. Mary was searching for an answer from Elizabeth who had also been ‘implicated’ in this divine ‘conspiracy’. But her confusion and fear were immediately turned into joy once she heard from Elizabeth. She finally understood that by bearing the baby, she was now part of a grand plan that God had promised to their people. The Messiah, the Anointed One, the Saviour who would save the world from evil, would come not through a royal family, but through her, an unknown young woman who lived in the non-descript part of Judea.

Yes, Mary was chosen not because of her persona or charisma or intellect or wealth, but despite of the fact that she was an ordinary woman living in an ordinary village.  Mary, just like Sarai, Hannah, and Elizabeth before her, was chosen not because of her extraordinary feats, but simply because of God’s grace. That was why she burst out into joy when she finally realized that God had chosen a simple woman like her to play such a significant part in God’s plan for the world. Her fear of being humiliated by the public because of the unexpected pregnancy had turned into joy. In her song of praise, she joined other women before her who had also been liberated from their humiliation.

Friends, God’s grand plan is often born out of humble beginning. God is found not only in the spectacular, but also in the ordinary, even in the broken. God chooses not only the great, but also the weak, even the rejected. That is why the Bible often reminds us not to dismiss people or things that the society do not value or reject because God often works through these people or things.                                                                                                                     

Today, we have the opportunity to baptize Lucy. Some people may wonder why do we baptize a child like Lucy who can not even utter a word or a sentence properly. Why don’t we reserve baptism for a fully developed adult who can articulate statements of faith or creeds clearly. Well, we baptize a child like Lucy because it reminds us of God who doesn’t only embrace the strong, but also the weak; of God who favours the vulnerable.

At the core of Mary’s song of praise is this: the mighty God has done great things through God’s lowly and humble servants.

So friends, where do you think God will come into your life this coming Christmas? In whose faces do you think you will see God? Under what circumstances do you think God will reveal God-self?

Search God not only amongst the great, but also the lowly. Search God not only amongst the powerful, but also the weak. Search God not only in those corners of our life that we often proudly show to other people, but also in those dark corners of our life that we often hide from others. And there we will find God, in those most unexpected and unusual people and places.

Toby Keva

[1] See 1 Samuel 1