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Advent 4 – Bethlehem and the Song of Mary

I am often grateful to the : http://www.thisischurch.com/ website for some ideas for sermons. It is based on the  church at Putnoe Heights  near Bedford in the UK and has very useful worship resources on each week.

This Sunday is Advent 4 – and their Vicar Charles Royston has included a short homily reflecting on the readings for the day. The following homily relies heavily on Charles’ ideas – but I have added some of my own thoughts having been moved to think about present day Bethlehem after receiving a Christmas Card produced by the Amos Trust. You can check the trust out on:

http://www.amostrust.org.

I wonder what your favourite carol is? I’ve certainly been singing a few fair since Advent Sunday, and one of the most popular seems to be O Little Town of Bethlehem.

You may not know that it was written by an American Priest – Phillips Brooks (1835-1893), an Episcopal priest, Rector of the Church of the Holy Trinity, Philadelphia.

He  was inspired when he was visiting the little town of Bethlehem in 1865. Three years later, he wrote the poem for his church and his organist, Lewis Redner, added the music. Redner’s tune, simply titled “St. Louis”, is the tune used most often for this carol in the United States.

Meanwhile, the English tune “Forest Green”, adapted by Ralph Vaughan Williams, is the tune most often used for this carol in the United Kingdom and sometimes in the U.S. as well, especially in the Episcopal Church.

There is one other setting to the tune called “ Christmas Carol” by Henry Walford Davies – in our hymn book – but we don’t sing it very often.

O Little Town isn’t the only carol to portray Jesus being born in a Bethlehem which is rather ethereal, still and peaceful. “ Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent starts go by” The reality was that even on the night of Jesus’ birth Bethlehem was full of travellers come to register for the census and it might well have not been all that quiet and peaceful as people jostled to find accommodation as the Bread and Breakfast facilities were stretched to the limit.

Today of course those living in Bethlehem are under military siege and for a considerable time the town has been surrounded by a three-metre-high fence of razor wire and concrete. I have a Christmas card, produced by the  “ Amos Trust”  showing what it is like.  The land of the birth of our Saviour will not echo to angelic songs this Christmas, but rather the continuing sounds of violence.

Jesus came to bring peace and reconciliation yet the Christians and Muslims and Jews who share that land seem so filled with bitterness that they are willing to live in communities torn apart by murder and  often claim God’s blessing in so doing.

What is it about religious faith that can cause so many people to hate each other? In late 2003 President Bush said, in response to a reporter’s question, that he believed Muslims and Christians “worship the same God.” The remark sparked criticism from some Christians, who thought Bush was being politically correct but theologically inaccurate

When he declared that Islam was as a religion of peace, some Christian leaders in the USA were so inflamed that they could barely contain their hatred. When religious leaders behave like this, is it any wonder that we find it so difficult to bring about peace on earth?

So, in the midst of  division, hatred and anger, we need even more this year to hear the song of Mary, the message of the Magnificat.

In the midst of a very unfortunate pregnancy for Mary, she was able to express her faith that God was working with people who would trust him. Mary was not overwhelmed by the difficulties which surrounded her, rather she felt able to face the future with confidence and excitement. This was not blind optimism, just a conviction that since God was active in the world, despair could not overcome hope. No more than darkness, no matter how intense is able to extinguish the flame of a single candle.

Hope is the one thing in which we Christians are rich and that hope shows its real integrity when the darkness seems to be at its worst. We can all have hope and optimism when things are going well, but real hope is what keeps us singing carols when we know just how troubled  the world really is. Mary sang out her song of joy, not because she thought that God was going to stop bad things from happening, indeed the coming months would see the birth of her son bring about the deaths of other innocent children. Mary sang because she knew that God was love and that God loved so much that his promises would triumph and could be believed. It was because of this love of God, in spite of human sin, that there was a future and faith and trust in God would be rewarded.

The song which Mary sang is modelled on the song of Hannah (1 Sam 2:1-10), which followed the birth of her son, Samuel. Both songs begin by exalting God and both also speak of reversing the ways of this world. The bows of the mighty are broken and the weak find strength. God raises up the poor and provides them with places of honour. Mary celebrates the blessings that she has received from “God my Saviour.”
Mary celebrated the fact that God could be trusted, even when human events seemed so dreadful. This was because God would actually reverse human roles. The proud would be scattered, the powerful would be taken down a peg or two, and the lowly would be lifted up. This is not good news to those who speak words of hate and create division. However it is good news for those who feel weak and powerless to affirm the importance and value of all humankind, Arab, Jew and Gentile. The birth of Jesus affirms this essential human dignity. All people are made in the very image of God and God is incarnate in our image. Poor people struggling with few choices, children growing up in drug filled estates, single parents struggling to get by, prisoners, refugees, the frail elderly–all are human beings with dignity. All people are blessed in the sight of God. This Christmas may his peace be with those who are torn apart by violence, anxiety and feel  vulnerable . May the words of another lovely carol, written by another American musician, Edmund Sears (  c 1849 )-  ring across the world:

“Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife
And hear the angels sing.

( From  It came upon the Midnight clear)

Picture of Bethlehem taken from http://www.bethlehem.edu

A collect for Advent 4:

Eternal God, as Mary waited for the birth of your Son, so we wait for his coming in glory; bring us through the birth pangs of this present age to see, with her, our great salvation in Jesus Christ our Lord.  Common Worship

December 19, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized

1 Comment »

  1. hey, good post and i also like your page design too. Have bookmarked your site and will stop by again

    Comment by JohnUnger | December 20, 2009 | Reply


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