Sermon delivered on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the 20th December 2015 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, George Town, Cayman Islands.

Scriptures: Micah 5:2-5a     Hebrews 10:5-10     S. Luke 1:39-47

S. Luke 1:42 ‘Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb”.’

The faith of women is recognised in traditional Christian teaching and given considerable honour by the Scriptures and the Christian faith tradition in general. This is not of course saying that women always have more faith than men, but I suppose that everybody who talks to people about their faith know that not infrequently it is the wife who holds on to some measure of faith and its practice when the husband seems to have lost touch. The Scriptures display great believability when they record that even when most of Jesus’ closest male disciples had forsaken Him, there were His female disciples witnessing at a distance the horror of His crucifixion. And similarly that it was the women who did not refuse to identify with Him even in His death, as evidenced by their preparation to embalm Him, that became those who provided the first witness that there was no body to embalm and He had risen from death.

Our Gospel passage today also conveys to us a remarkable account of the faith of two women, the Blessed Mother and her cousin Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. Mary’s faith is best known in her submission to the divine vocation laid upon her, in her words “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to Your word.” The account follows this up with her visit to Elizabeth, when at her greeting on entering Zechariah and Elizabeth’s house, Elizabeth’s baby, the future John the Baptist, leaps in his mother’s womb.

In my experience just about all expectant mothers talk about their babies’ movements as kicking. But in the Spirit and in faith, St Elizabeth described her child leaping rather than kicking, and reason suggests we should give unalloyed credence to the only possible witness to that event. She exclaimed to her cousin Mary, “Behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” Then she exclaimed these great words of faith and deference: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me.... and blessed is she who believed that there would be fulfilment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

The biblical account never implies that the baby kicked in the womb, although we might ask ourselves for a minute, what objective difference can there really be between a kicking action and a leaping action when it involves an unborn baby? The difference is in the way the mother interprets it more than anything else. A kicking action could be visualised by a mother to be her baby fighting her. But the mother who thinks of the movements as signs of the baby’s joy or gladness as he experiences his earliest sensations might, it seems to me, speak more readily of the baby leaping. Leaping is clearly more appropriate to the language of faith. And experts tell us how much the attitude of the mother and even the father towards the unborn baby can affect the child. The attitude of faith is fundamentally wholesome and life-giving, while an attitude of complaint is fundamentally life-destroying to oneself and to others and especially to one’s dependants.

That contrast of faith and complaint can be seen to characterise the difference between Mary’s response of faith to the divine word conveyed to her, that response of Mary in which Elizabeth so exulted, and the response that had been made six months earlier by St. Elizabeth’s own husband Zacharias (Zechariah) to the divine word conveyed to him, that in their advanced years they too would have a child who would be great before the Lord. He at that time spoke for his wife as well as himself, though without ascertaining his wife's mind on the matter. Zacharias had complained then that his own age and his wife’s seemed to make nonsense of the word of the angelic vision to him. He had not accepted that the Lord who had given the promise could look after such matters very well Himself, as scripture had already recounted. As a result of his unbelief he had to endure several months of being speechless until after their son was born and he had obeyed God in signifying his agreement to the name provided divinely for the baby, the name John, rather than accepting the pressure from his family and friends to name him after himself.

“Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe”, said Jesus Himself to His apostle St. Thomas many years later, when Thomas, like Zacharias, had only believed on the evidence of the event that had been promised. For if the promise is divinely given, we do better to believe it in spite of counter-evidence. Part of the burden of the Old Testament prophets too was how the people might get to believe the word imparted through them, when there was abundant counter-evidence, and when the fulfilment promised was to take place at a later and indeterminate time. “Therefore He shall give them up until the time when she who is in travail has brought forth;” says the prophet Micah in our passage today. “Then the rest of His brethren shall return to the people of Israel. And He shall stand and feed His flock in the strength of the Lord.” They were called to believe in the promise before its fulfilment, and so in a sense are we as we look forward to the final Coming of the Lord, though for us, the time of fulfilment has already begun to arrive. For as it is said in the letter to the Hebrews, by the will of God we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

It can also be underlined that part of the language of faith on the part of these two women was a willing and truthful deference. For the Blessed Mother the language of faith is: “Be it unto me according to thy word.” For St Elizabeth the language of faith is: “Why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Faith must willingly and truthfully defer to what directs it or inspires it. For faith is the opposite of self-direction, whether that self-direction have the character of self-accusation, or self-confidence. In our Old Testament lesson from Micah, only by faith in the word of God could the prophet have expected insignificant Bethlehem to bring forth the sought-for ruler in Israel. In the second lesson from Hebrews Christ Himself is shown to be in a true relation of deference to the Father’s will. The truth is that there is no faith without a truthful and willing consonance with a higher authority; and with the common confusion between faith and self-confidence, that may not be something that we sufficiently hear about.

It is the task of Christians to place a truthful and willing deference such as Mary’s and Elizabeth’s back on the world’s menu, if the world is to survive its current onslaughts of Islamism and atheistic secularism. It is the task of Christians once again to teach our contemporaries a true anthropology, a true theory of man, based upon the willingness to defer to his creator and His word of teaching. Deferring to faithful obedience, we must swim upstream on the way of Christ when the downstream current is strong. In truth, to do this is exciting. Knowing that the seemingly impossible is the will of God makes our time exhilarating. Getting carried off downstream occurs when we lose heart for the battle or give in overmuch to frailties of one kind or another, and that is the way of death. With Mary and Elizabeth, enjoy the upstream struggle, the mammoth task of obedience, because this is the way directed, the way consonant with the way of Christ, the way of life.