Material for Worship on the Fourth Sunday of Advent

Lord Jesus, light of the world,

blessed is Gabriel, who brought good news;

blessed is Mary, your mother and ours.

Bless your Church preparing for Christmas;

and bless us your children, who long for your coming.


Today Nerys reflects on our Gospel reading, Luke 1.26-56 read here by Mary and Anthony Birch.

One of the things I particularly like about the story of the First Christmas in Luke’s Gospel is that it is full of the impossible possibility of God. This is something which gives me great hope for myself, for our church and for our world today.

The account of Angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary is surrounded by the story of her cousin Elizabeth who finds herself facing the impossible possibility that she might be pregnant in her old age. Elizabeth’s wondrous words, ‘This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me’, echo the angel’s greeting to Mary, demanding that we see her story as equally impossible. For the Gospel’s first audience though, it probably wasn’t the fact that Mary was to fall pregnant without knowing a man that was most surprising, but that she would have been singled out to be favoured by God.

Down the centuries, some have tried to explain this by arguing that Mary had special qualities but the Gospel makes clear that the only extraordinary thing about Mary is her ordinariness. Mary herself cannot believe this impossible possibility. We are told that she is perplexed and troubled by the angel’s words of greeting. It’s not hard to imagine what was going through her mind. Who, me? Why am I favoured by God? How can the Lord be with me? She knows who she is, a young, poor, unmarried peasant girl, living in a remote village in an occupied country. It would be impossible for someone like her to be chosen to do God’s work, wouldn’t it?

Gabriel then tells her that she’s going to be pregnant with a son, but not just any son, the Son of the Most High who will be placed on David’s throne, with a kingdom that will go on for ever. Her response to this astonishing news is naturally one of disbelief. What? Is this for real? How can this be? A natural reaction when faced with an impossible possibility. And yet her question is a faith-filled one. It’s more information she’s after, not proof. She is curious, not as to whether it will happen, but how God’s going to achieve it. And when God’s messenger provides her with an explanation, Mary doesn’t bargain or suggest alternatives or ask if she can swap with someone else. She accepts that the impossible is possible with God and makes her choice.

She must have been afraid. But there again she was used to experiencing fear and powerlessness. She was young, female and poor and she belonged to a conquered, oppressed nation. For her, it would have been all too easy to go on living under the shadow of fear. But she chooses instead to live under the shadow of the power of God.

She wouldn’t have been able to imagine then the joy and anguish that her choice would bring her in future years, but she would have been immediately aware of the scandal and disgrace that she would face. She had plans for her future with Joseph and could easily have chosen to stick to those rather than risk the impossible possibility that was being offered to her.

I wonder what convinced Mary to participate in God’s plan? I wonder what it took for her to name herself ‘the servant of the Lord’? She couldn’t have comprehended the full meaning of Gabriel’s message, but she clearly didn’t submit unthinkingly to her vocation. She responds actively, a willing partner in the new impossible thing that God would do with her and within her.

Mary’s song suggests that she had already knew and trusted God. It expresses her deep joy and delight in God and a sense that her prayers have been answered. It is full of echoes of the Scriptures that she would have known from childhood, In particular the joyful song of Hannah celebrating the birth of Samuel and all that God was going to do through him. Her song places Mary at the end of a line of worshipful women who played key roles in the lives of ancient Israel and Judah. Through it she expresses not only her own hopes but those of all her people and everyone throughout the world who see themselves as lowly and hungry and are oppressed by those who misuse their power and authority. She expresses the impossible possibility that there is another way of organising the world. She shares the ancient dream of the people Israel, that one day all the prophets had said would come true. One day God would do what he had promised to their ancestors. All nations would be blessed through the descendants of Abraham.

Mary, living in the dark days of Herod the Great, was all too familiar with the grip that the power of violence and inequality had on her world. She knew of the poverty, hunger and misery they caused. But she also knew of God’s faithful love and God’s desire to break through the status quo. She breaks out in joyful song at the realisation that God’s revolution had started and that her ‘Yes’ was the first step.

As our Advent journey comes to an end, God is now waiting for our ‘Yes’. In the words of St Augustine, ‘God without us will not; we without God cannot’. Like Mary, we are called to participate in the new impossible thing that God would do with us and within us which will bring to an end this era of violence, injustice and oppression.
I don’t know how it came to be that our church was dedicated to Mary but I think that we need to see it as a challenge for us as a congregation. My prayer for this Christmas and the year ahead is that we would not only share in Mary’s joy in the midst of difficulty and danger but that we would also emulate her and together become bearers of the Good News which brings the impossible possibility of peace and hope to the world.

You may wish use these prayers from the Spill the Beans resource as a framework for your own.

Loving God, in your unending love you sent an angel to Mary, telling her that she is blessed and highly favoured; as you were with her, we know today that you are with us and we give thanks. Knowing your presence and rejoicing in the surety of your love we pray today for your blessing and your guidance.

On this winter’s day we remember the gift of your creation, given to us for sustenance and shelter, for us to enjoy and to protect, yet we have squandered this gift, and put the lives of future generations in jeopardy, We ask for the strength to make changes now to protect and renew our planet before it is too late.

In this time of uncertain futures, we pray for your church, both world-wide and our community of believers gathered before you today, grant us the wisdom to create and support
new growth both spiritually and numerically, as we dedicate ourselves once more to your great commission.

At this time of plenty, we give thanks for all that we have, for the joy that this season brings
and the time we set aside to celebrate, but we also remember those among us and those around us with little, who struggle and go hungry, help us to be more generous and more
loving this year.

We pray, today, for ourselves, your beloved children, as we seek to follow you.
As Christmas approaches, and expectations of plenty, of community, of happiness are set, we remember that not all people enjoy this time of year, that the joy of others can cause pain in some, we ask for the wisdom to care for and be sensitive to those who need our help at this time of year.

You are invited to finish your time of worship by reading or singing along to the missionary hymn, ‘Hills of the North rejoice’ as David Sawyer plays the tune.

Hills of the North, rejoice,
river and mountain-spring,
hark to the advent voice;
valley and lowland, sing.
Christ comes in righteousness and love,
he brings salvation from above.

Isles of the Southern seas,
sing to the listening earth,
carry on every breeze
hope of a world’s new birth:
In Christ shall all be made anew,
his word is sure, his promise true.

Lands of the East, arise,
he is your brightest morn,
greet him with joyous eyes,
praise shall his path adorn:
your seers have longed to know their Lord;
to you he comes, the final word.

Shores of the utmost West,
lands of the setting sun,
welcome the heavenly guest
in whom the dawn has come:
he brings a never-ending light
who triumphed o’er our darkest night.

Shout, as you journey home,
songs be in every mouth,
lo, from the North they come,
from East and West and South:
in Jesus all shall find their rest,
in him the universe be blest.

Based on the hymn by Charles E. Oakley