John and Mary, Jesus and Josie
Luke 1.47-55 (responsive)
It’s Advent, and two of the most wonderful people in the Bible appear in our Lectionary readings every year at this time. Those two are Mary, the mother of Jesus and John the Baptist.
(Not that they ever come together in our Lectionary readings. I’ve cheated! I’ve taken one of the choices for the ‘Psalm’ from this coming Sunday—it’s actually the Song of Mary in Luke 1—and I’ve teamed it with the Gospel Reading from last Sunday, from Mark 1. So tonight we have John and his Auntie Mary together.)
I say I like these two, but I’m not sure I’d like to have either living next door to me. They’re both prophets, burdened with a need to tell out the word that God gives them. I really don’t think I’d like to live next door to a prophet, especially John with his weird diet and his funny clothes. And what’s more, they’re both saints. If there could be one thing worse than living next door to a prophet, that would be living next to a certified saint.
But here we have John and Mary, prophets and saints. Though I doubt that either would get through the Uniting Church’s selection process to become ordained ministers. John would have too many ‘personality issues’ and Mary would be too young (apart from having a young baby to take care of)—so Josie, you’ve done even better than them. You really do have a lot to live up to.
John was a cantankerous old coot. (Though he was actually a cantankerous young coot if the truth’s to be known.) He stood at the end of the old order and he proclaimed a brand new thing: a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
…people from the whole Judean country-side and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him…
Sounds like he was as successful as a modern-day tele-evangelist. His approach wouldn’t work too well in these materialistic days though.
Among the throngs who came to him was Jesus, perhaps seeking to know the direction that his Father God was calling him to go.
There’s a lot we could say about John and Jesus, but I just want to highlight one thing. John says:
The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.
It was said that disciples owed their teacher every duty except to untie the laces of his sandals. This was too demeaning.
John says not only should he untie the laces of the one who is coming, but that he is unworthy to do this very demeaning thing.
There are some often-quoted words in the Fourth Gospel. John the Evangelist has John saying about Jesus:
He must increase, but I must decrease.
Josie, you are a minister of the Word. There is a real sense in which you are a symbol of the Word, the Word-made-flesh.
As a symbol, you are to point beyond yourself to the Jesus, who is the One you symbolise in a particular way. You must decrease, that he may increase. You may not be worthy to untie his laces, but listen: he has made you worthy. You have the dignity of a daughter of God.
Yet any symbol that points to the One who was broken on the cross needs to be a ‘broken symbol’. To decrease in the presence of the One broken for our sakes is to turn away from pride, manipulation and self-serving. It is to serve in his Spirit. It is to rejoice when others shine, because they shine with the reflected glory of Jesus Christ, the One more powerful than we are.
In the end, a broken symbol leads people to faith, not to control or power or possession of something. Your ministry will elicit faith within the people of God.
Take John as your example; not in the way you dress or what you eat or how often you shower, but in who you are. And in Who you belong to, and Who you yield to.
And what about Mary? Josie, you’re a young woman, but Mary was about half your age. We Protestants tend to ignore Mary; she makes us nervous. One Advent, a friend of mine said she was preaching on Mary. I said, ‘So you’re preaching on the Blessed Virgin Mary?’ She said, ‘Oh, I couldn’t call her that.’ I said, ‘Why not? The Bible does.’ She replied, ‘Oh yes, so it does!’ (All right, I confess: I was deliberately being a smart arse.)
The point is this: there are passages in the Scriptures that value Mary more highly than we do. So we should look at her more than we do.
For tonight, let me again just say one thing: Mary is the example of a believer. She shows us what it is to believe. When confronted with an arduous task of gargantuan proportions, she just says,
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
But that’s after she questions God:
“How can this be…?”
Mary says “Let it be” after she questions what this is all about. And then Mary praises God.
Josie, I suspect you’ve taken a similar route in coming to Centenary. You’ve no doubt questioned whether this is a task of gargantuan proportions—but I think it’s not!—and you’ve sought whether God is calling you here.
And once you decided that was indeed the case, you said, “Let it be with me according to your word.” And I know you have given thanks to God for bringing you to this point.
Mary was a courageous young woman, who knew the consequences for her could be severe—even death by stoning—but she said “Yes”.
Josie, you are another Mary, as are we all. Jesus is being formed within you, and changing the way you look at life. You know that Mary sang the truth:
You have shown strength with your arm
and scattered the proud in their conceit,
casting down the mighty
from their thrones
and lifting up the lowly.
You have filled the hungry
with good things
and sent the rich away empty.
Tell us that story, Josie, tell us again and again! Lead us to live that story, as Mary did. And always keep in mind that Mary was only half your age, so take St Paul’s advice to Timothy also (1 Timothy 4.12):
Let no one despise your youth.
So Josie, whatever else you are, you are a symbol—a broken symbol—pointing us to the risen and crucified Lord. He is being formed within your very being, so you can be bold and daring with Mary. Be a broken symbol among us and with us and for us.
I don’t know if you’re a prophet, or a saint, Josie; maybe you are, but if so I’m sure I’ll get used to working with one. For now, on behalf of the people of God in this place, let me just say, “Welcome!”.