Sermons from Rev Julie Wagstaff


Sunday 20th December

What a beautiful picture our gospel reading presents.  Two women meeting together, one old and past child bearing age, the other young and a virgin but both, through God’s miraculous hand, carrying in their wombs their precious sons.

 John, who is to become the voice that calls in the wilderness, ‘prepare the way of the Lord’ and Jesus, the word of God, through whom all things were created and who is now to become incarnate and creation’s saviour.

 And moving between them, connecting them all, is the Holy Spirit.

 The Holy Spirit who came upon Mary so that the word could become flesh.

 The Holy Spirit who enabled the child in Elizabeth’s womb to leap when he heard Mary’s voice and who caused Elizabeth to exclaim ‘blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’.

 Without our faith though, this scene would look different – we would see two woman, one old and one young.

 Most would doubt that the older woman could be pregnant – she was well past child bearing age.

 Very few would not scoff at the idea that a virgin could be with child.

 So why do we believe what is, to all intents and purposes impossible?   What is it that enables our faith and our belief.

 Well it is not an ‘it’ but a who.  It’s the Holy Spirit who lives in us, abides in each one of us. That same Holy Spirit who moved between the women and their babies – The Holy Spirit, who is the third person of the Trinity.

Last week Ian explained that real joy is what happens when we respond to that which God demands of us.  The paradox is that it is only through God’s grace that we are able to respond.

Through the power of his Holy Spirit ........

 Take both these women who had found favour in God’s eyes. 

 Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah were righteous before God, living blamelessly and yet they were childless, a condition that was often seen as a disgrace and a sign of God’s displeasure. 

 But upon learning of her pregnancy Elizabeth remaining in seclusion for five months, marvelled at God’s favour toward her in removing the disgrace she’d suffered as a barren women. She didn’t question God’s wisdom or his timing she simply accepted what He required of her and saw it as a blessing and privilege.

 Mary, on hearing that God had chosen her to be the mother of his son, was perplexed about how it could happen.  But she asked for no guarantees about her safety or her reputation, but simply said ‘here I am a servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word’.

 What made them able to respond to God in such a way?

 If Mary had not been filled with God’s grace through the Holy Spirit, then she would not have been able to assent to what God was asking of her.  She could not have said ‘let it be with me according to your word’.

 Now, we too, share the same grace of God.  The grace that enables us to believe, the same grace that enabled Mary to say yes. 

 Mary was not somebody different from any of us, her faith and obedience to God are something that are open to each one of us.

 Indeed, her very human vulnerability is evident when the angel left her. 

 Mary needed somebody with whom she could share these momentous happenings and the angel Gabriel told her of her relative’s miraculous pregnancy.  Perhaps Elizabeth would believe her, reassure her, not accuse her or revile her.  

 We’re not told whether Mary broke the news to Joseph or her parents before she set out in haste to visit Elizabeth.  The fact she went in haste suggests that she needed to be with somebody who would understand.

 And Elizabeth does more than simply welcome her with love and understanding but filled with the Holy Spirit, exclaims ‘blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb....... blessed is she who believed what was spoken to her by the Lord’.

 How Mary’s heart and spirit must have soared .... any doubts and fears would have fallen away and it’s now the song of joy that is so familiar to us, burst forth - My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour’ – the Magnificat.  It’s now that the joy of being chosen by God and having responded in faith fills Mary.

 Elizabeth too is part of that joy.  Indeed we are all part of it.   

 Mary’s role is unimaginable.  As one commentary puts it ‘she cradled in her arms a newly born, yet infinite babe; she taught a boy to walk and talk while sitting before him, her teacher...... she lived as mother to God-made-flesh, while bowing in her heart to the King of kings and Lord of lords.  She was to let go her grown offspring to see him embrace and die for a much larger family.

 But Mary didn’t know all of that when she said yes, nor did Elizabeth know what was in store for her son.  They just responded to the touch of the Holy Spirit.   They didn’t take a step back and weigh up how their own lives would be affected by playing their part in God’s plan.

 God’s plan and purpose remain constant.  He has made his plan out of a long chain with many links, each one of them fragile.  Who knows how many were broken as people rejected their place in the plan?  God is never thwarted, he does not change his plan or his methods; he simply waits and works until the chain can be mended.

 So how can we know what God wants of us?  Discover what part we are to play in his plan to bring his purpose about?  Ensure that we don’t break one of his links.

We respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit.  God will always give us the grace to do what he is asking of us.  We simply need to be attentive to his call and to trust – not insist that we see the whole picture, but trust that whatever it is, this God who loves us beyond anything we can imagine, will keep his promise

 I will be with you always, yes, even until the end of the age’ Mt 28.20

 God doesn’t require blind faith, he doesn’t want us to be afraid of having questions, doubts, fears, he wants us, like Mary, like Elizabeth, to have a faith based upon a life spent in relationship with him.  Growing daily ...... nourished and nurtured.

 As Oswald Chambers says ‘the goal of faithfulness is not that we will do work for God but that he will be free to do his work through us’.

As Mary did, we will often need to seek encouragement and reassurance from those who know and understand and believe.

 We will seek it in our relationships with those around us here and now, in our church family.  We will seek it in the words of the scriptures, the words of those who shared Jesus time with him here on earth, in the words of Jesus himself.  We seek it in the books written by those who have prayed and meditated and studied and want to share their experiences.

 And, of course, we find it in the meal we are about to share, where we meet with Jesus in a very real sense, hearing the words he spoke to the apostles at the last supper and accepting the bread and wine as though from his own hand, being fed with his body and blood.

 Nothing we do or say or are is without consequence in the purpose of God.  Nothing is too small to be unimportant.

 We either believe that the baby born in a stable in Bethlehem and placed in a manager was God incarnate ..... or we don’t.   If we don’t, well let’s get back to the turkey and tinsel – but If we do – which we all do - then it has to be the most important, most urgent thing in our whole lives.

  So this Advent let’s help each other to put aside our doubts and fears and to wholeheartedly accept our place, however small, in God’s great chain of salvation and join with Mary in her song of joy that we are privileged to be part of it.