Fourth Sunday of Advent - Choral Eucharist

  • Preacher

    Canon Missioner - Revd. Canon jay Colwill

“How can this be?”

Brexit takes four and a half years and counting. How can this be? London is in Tier 2, then  Tier 3 for a week, then free family visits for Christmas? Or are they? How can this be? Fiorst the government said there wasn’t a magic money tree, now there is a magic money tree, but only sometimes.

How can this be?

said Mary to the Angel Gabriel?

Mary has a point.

Human beings are creatures who like to know things, we like to understand. Mary is a probably a teenage girl, not much older than some of the girls in the cathedral choir. Yet, she is not ignorant to the extraordinary nature of the angel’s declaration: ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 

How can this be?

This past year has thrown up many questions to challenge our faith. These might be on a personal level, relating to disappointments, loss, bereavement or tragedy. They could be on a national & international level, where we question how decisions about COVID-19, civil liberties and how international relations have developed?  Every week, circumstances seem to be changing, certainties seem to be diminishing. How can this be?

We can learn much from Mary and her attitude.

She is great example of how revelation and faith can stand side by side. She isn’t afraid to question or abide in the liminal space between doubt and faith.

In many ways Mary takes a courageous leap of faith.

“The idea of a leap of faith (a term often associated with Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard…) has frequently been misunderstood. It does not mean choosing to believe an impossible thing for no good reason. Sometimes people talk about it as if it is the “leap” in which you ignore evidence, give up on reason, and embrace fantasy. But the leap that Kierkegaard was thinking about was a genuinely free action. The leap of faith is a leap because it involves making a total commitment. We have to commit in spite of fears and doubts. Certain fundamental decisions in life require 100% commitment – passionate engagement. They are generally the most important ones, and they do not give any guarantees.

The writer of Hebrews says, ‘Without faith it is impossible to please God’ (11:6). That troubles people sometimes. They wonder why we have to have faith. It’s true that without faith it is impossible to please God. But without faith, it is impossible to please anybody! Try making a friend without having faith. Try getting married without faith. Try negotiating a BREXIT deal without faith? John Ortberg, the psychologist and theologian put it this way: “We all think we want certainty. But we don’t. What we really want is trust, wisely placed. Trust is better than certainty because it honours freedom of persons and makes possible growth and intimacy that certainty alone could never produce.”

Mary demonstrates deep trust in God and the message that the angel brings. This is not certainty. It is trust, wisely placed. St. Paul sums it up in our epistle reading: the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages 26but is now disclosed. That one phrase has been playing on my mind all week: “The revelation of the mystery”. This is what Mary heard- when the angel visited her: the revelation of the mystery. This what the birth of Jesus means. This is the nature of our faith. We live in the revelation of the mystery.

When we are struggling with the real and challenging questions of your life, the encounter between Mary and Gabriel can give us hope. The angel Gabriel Mary’s question in three ways:

Nothing is impossible for God.

‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.

The angel doesn’t really give an explanation, he gives more of an overview. I think that the lesson is: if God is God, then he can do anything. It’s not about what we think about the detail, it’s who we think is sovereign.

God is interested in history and enters into it.

The angel says; “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David”

This is at the heart of the Christian faith. God is interested in time and space, not detached from it. Gabriel explains that God will enter into Mary’s story, and He can enter into ours as well. God is interested in messy relationships, political census, shepherds, foreign, travelling star-gazers as well as you and I.

God acts in history for the sake of all creation.

God invites us to join Him in a process of co-creation.

Of course, Mary’s role in the co-creation is unique in time and space: she is the God- bearer. Our participation with God in bringing in God’s Kingdom may pale in comparison. Yet, Mary can be an example to us of what is required. Humility, bravery, service, all mark Mary out as God’s young woman for the task. God invites us into a process of bringing in God’s Kingdom. We pray ‘thy Kingdom come, thy will be done’. Then God invites us to join Him in the task of building the `Kingdom and seeing God’s will ‘be done’.

The big questions of life are real and challenging.  Yet, Gabriel answers them in three ways: Nothing is impossible. God enters history. We join God in co-creation. Mary instinctively knew this and lived it. She placed her questions and faith into the hands of a messenger of God and said: “I am the LORD’s servant.” This Advent and Christmastide; when we face challenges and question: when we ask “how can this be?”: may we remember the angel’s words to Mary. May we demonstrate humility, bravery, service.