Good news for those who need it most

Luke 1:39-45
Micah 5:2-5a
Hebrews 10:5-10

A man was in bed on a Sunday morning, and his wife urged him to get up, so he wouldn’t be late for church. “I don’t want to go to church,” he replied, “no-one likes me, they all think I’m boring, why should I go?”
“Because you’re 36 and you’re the Minister!” she told him.

It’s good to be back, although you’ve had three months to get used to a variety of other people in the pulpit, so perhaps you’re dreading today.

After a sabbatical, a colleague talked about being “back in harness”, but that could conjure up an image of a beast of burden pulling a heavy plough across a field, which is not the most attractive way of describing either the minister’s role or the life of the local church. Another colleague said that they’d come “back to work”, but that suggests a view of the ministry as simply being a form of work, which is neither helpful nor accurate – the ministry is a vocation, a calling, rather than a paid job in the normal sense. Ministers are given a stipend, not a salary, and can use their time to support God’s work both within and beyond the local church. Another colleague talked of “re-entry to ministry”, but that makes the end of sabbatical sound like returning from the moon. However you want to describe it, I’m back! I do want to say a word of thanks to all those who’ve worked so very hard to cover things in my absence, especially Dawn, our Church Secretary, and Annette, who has fielded all manner of extra work in the office during these three months.

Three months ago we all thought Jimmy Savile was an eccentric charity worker; women Bishops were thought to be a dead cert; we thought Liverpool fans were to blame at Hillsborough; and no-one had heard of Newtown, Connecticut. What a dark and unsettling world it seems we live in this Advent. If we were in any doubt, that curious reading from the letter to the Hebrews reminded us that even as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, he was destined to die upon the cross — if you like as we think of the womb, we cannot forget the tomb.

Yet, dark and unsettling as our world is, wasn’t it just as dark and unsettling a world which God entered in the baby Jesus? The particular part of that story we focus upon today is Mary saying yes to the angel, which we heard read, and her song of God’s justice for oppressed people, which we sang.

In this song of justice for oppressed people, you might say that Luke is offering good news for those who need it most. The question to which we, and our world, seek an answer is ‘how does what we long for become reality’? It’s one thing to read that a ruler will come from Bethlehem and bring peace to the earth, but reality soon reminds us that in Bethlehem today we see a place of conflict. We know that too many people in our world are oppressed, abused, and maligned. We want to see that miraculous world where the arrogant are humbled, the tyrants toppled, the humble enter into their inheritance, and the hungry fed.

In Advent, especially, for long for Christ’s coming to bring all this about. What do we mean by Christ’s coming? Are we simply playing a kind of game, pretending in Advent that Jesus hasn’t come so that we can celebrate his coming at Christmas? Is this like a kind of “let’s pretend”, so that we can suspend what we know already (that he has come) so that we can enjoy Christmas all the more? Is it that we know Jesus has already come, but that Christmas is more fun with a bit of drama and expectation? Or, are we praying and longing and hoping for something much more real than that?

When we look at the world, although Jesus has come, it seems that in so many ways Jesus hasn’t come, and so much of the world still needs his good news. Our Advent longing for Christ to come is not just a liturgical let’s pretend. It gives voice to a deep truth, that though the Kingdom of God may be at hand it’s not yet present in every moment. As we hear the cries of the hungry and of the suffering, as we listen to our own lives, we can say from our deepest selves and with passionate longing the very earliest Christian prayer, “Come Lord Jesus”.

At times that prayer be seem to be answered in sudden and dramatic ways, such when the Berlin Wall fell, majority rule came to South Africa, and the Gadafi regime came to an end in Libya. Yet, in other way, that prayer seems to be answered so slowly, if at all. The truth is that while sudden and dramatic events do occasionally happen, most of the changes for good which in our world come slowly and hard fought, almost always achieved by the dogged persistence of people with a vision. When we celebrated the two hundredth anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in Britain we were reminded that it took many years of campaigning, with defeats and reverses, before the law was changed. We also remembered that slavery went on; that prejudice persisted and that there are still slaves in the world today. This year we celebrated the twentieth anniversary women priests in the Church of England, after many years of campaigning, but we know that women’s ministry is still not accepted in many places.

There is much to celebrate, but also much that remain to be done. Smallpox was eradicated in 1980, but work continues to eradicate polio. This will not be done at a stroke, but with meticulous planning over many years and the persistence of health workers in remote corners of the world.

Christmas is a time of concentrated hopes, from the hopes of the child for a special present, to the hope that family members who are estranged may be reconciled, to the hope that next year will somehow be better, to the hope that the whole world will give back the angels’ song of peace. It’s easy to dismiss our hopes as vain fancies, but the good news of the Magnificat calls us to renew the agenda of hope in all our hearts for good things to happen. This is Luke’s message of good news for those who need it most. Dare we sing Magnificat? Can we pray ‘come, Lord Jesus’, dreaming of good news for those who need it most? Will we hear the angel coming to speak to us?

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