17 December 2023
Rev’d Richard Browning
Isaiah 61.1-4, 8-11
The Song of Mary (Magnificat)
1 Thessalonians 5.12–28
John 1.6–8, 1.19–28
(These are the expanded notes behind the sermon)
May I speak in the name of God,
Source of all Being;
Eternal Word, born of a young, brown, unmarried Mary;
Spirit of Life. Amen.
If God is with us then …
(A free retelling of an apparently true story first told by Albert Szent-Györgyi, Nobel Prize winning scientist)
During the First World War a section of Hungarian soldiers were sent out by their captain on a scouting mission into the Alps. At the end of their first day a blizzard dropped, covering the entire landscape in half a metre of snow, completely whiting out any significant marker. It was an impossible situation and dread gripped them all. Days later – three days later – when all hope was lost, the section walked back into camp, tired, hungry and cold, but alive and in good spirits.
Everyone was filled with joy. The captain asked and this story was told.
It was hopeless. We waited out the storm and feared the worst. Then Nikolai found a map in his pocket. It was difficult, but here we are. We would never have made it without the map.
The captain was amazed. He asked to see the map, and taking it from Nikolai, he studied it briefly then exclaimed. “How extraordinary. This is a map of the Pyrenees. We are in the Alps!”
I would like to use the story of ‘the wrong map’ to make two key points.
- The power of story
I have said it before, repeating what others with greater authority than me describe: human beings are a storified animal. We are Homo-Narrans. Without story, we perish.
Story is the narrative framework we use to give structure and shape to our lives, granting permission to move and act within its organised systems of meaning across the days and landscapes of our lives. The story does not even have to be true to give a person or people direction.
Now let’s fast forward to the end. What are the most important stories? It is not a trick question. The most important stories are the ones we tell ourselves. We all, every human, hold layers of stories that we tell ourselves.
- In those mountains and in that moment, the Hungarian soldiers allowed the wrong map to be their way, and with it they told themselves they had a chance.
- Sometimes the stories we tell ourselves are not even consciously known to us. Have you ever come across a person whose story they tell themselves is “I am pretty important”? The giveaway is how they speak, what they say and the proximity to the centre everything that they place themselves. The opposite can also be true. A person can tell themselves that they are worthless, even loathsome, unworthy of another’s attention, affection or trust. Both of these stories can be destructive. Both of them can be unknown to the person.
- Have you ever come across a person whose self-narrative sounds a bit like “I am bulletproof, can do anything I turn my hand to and will take risks without getting hurt”. There may or may not be at least one son in my household given to this story. Their father, may or may not have told this same story early in his life!
Peoples and nations also tell themselves stories.
- Australia is pretty confused it seems. We used to think we had boundless plains to share, but that was only for white people[i]. Now that you can’t say that out loud we are not sure how welcoming we really are.
- The US has a pretty clear story to tell itself. It is about exceptionalism and power.
- Israel tells itself a story. So too Palestinians. They are similar in kind, “we have the right to exist and flourish”. Israel’s story is powerful enough to permit a ‘mowing the grass’ that has now become the straight up land clearing of Gaza, bombing schools, hospitals, universities, churches and all in the light of day. Palestinians’ story is powerful enough to stir resistance.[ii]
In this season of Advent, we ask, what are the stories we tell ourselves? And if God is with us then what?
1a. John the Baptiser story
Did you notice the story John tells himself? He was doing some pretty weird stuff. What he was doing and saying was strange. He was asked, literally, “what do you say about yourself?” The story John tells himself comes from the Prophet Isaiah. The people of God were in Exile. All that they hoped for was destroyed or possessed by a foreign power. And a voice from the wilderness announced a coming restoration. Restoration, not of nationhood, but of righteousness. Not a people’s righteousness, but God’s, living in a people. And John pointed to Jesus saying ‘it is he’. And when he saw Jesus he announced “see the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1.29 & 36). John understood himself not as the baptiser, but the voice, the announcer. He never seemed to waver, even when he was imprisoned and began to doubt if Jesus really was the one (Matthew 11.2 “are you the one or should we wait for another?”), John remained steadfast in himself.
1b. Mary’s story
We have a window into the story Mary tells herself. An angel greets her, says not to be afraid, and announces a challenging proposition – would you partner with God in co-creating the healing of all? It is impossible for Mary to know and understand the implications of what lay ahead. So the story she narrated to herself is critical: “I am the Lord’s servant” (Luke 1.38). Which is to say, I receive the authority of another and let it pass through me into in all I do. So Mary responds, remarkably: “let it be as you say.” This story is so strong that shortly after Mary offered a song of praise, “my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my saviour.”
1c. Jesus’ story
Jesus also tells himself a story. It is about communicating everything that belongs to God the Father. When given the opportunity to speak, he took the book of the Prophet Isaiah and turned to today’s reading, Chapter 61. It is what it looks like for God to be in the world. The story Jesus tells himself relates to righteousness, the setting free of the oppressed, the binding up the broken hearted and liberation for the captive. But notice also Jesus interprets the message. This saviour and Lamb of God omits the bit about the day of vengeance and seamlessly includes a portion of Isaiah 58.
So again, what are the stories we tell ourselves? And if God is with us, then what?
The second message from the story ‘the Wrong Map’ is a single word. It is a verb and describes how the stories we tell ourselves turn into a living practice. The word is believe.
If you have ever seen the TV series Ted Lasso, this word sticks above the door that leads to the playing field. The football team has carefully created stories they have told themselves about the game, about themselves and how good and capable they are. On the way out to play they tap the word– believe it yo! Believing is necessary to turn what we say about ourselves into action ‘on the paddock’ of life.
Contrary to popular culture, ‘believing’ is not a cognitive proposition.
Believing is what turns a map of the Pyrenees into a guiding star for lost souls to make their way out of the mountains.
Believing is the activity of a story shaping our lives. I often say to students, I won’t tell you what I believe. Just watch me closely and you tell me. (Of course the reverse is true. Don’t tell me what you believe. I’ll watch and then tell you.)
When Jesus responded to John’s question of identity his reply was simple: what do you see? Jesus was asking John to look closely at what was happening and let this be the story: the blind had sight and the trapped we set free.
A note about formation
So it is, the best stories to tell ourselves are true, lifegiving, beautiful and good. Being intentional about our stories and living into them is called formation. Formation is immerse oneself intentionally into good stories and letting them become the story of our lives.
Christmas is a good example of what formation can look like. The story shapes our music, our food, our shopping, how we dress, how we dress our trees and houses, what we give and who we gather with. We even put up the story in figures, the Nativity, surrounded by stars and animals and angels. This is the season for letting a big story fill our life. But as we know all too well, even without our knowing, what we actually ‘believe’ can slide into patterns of buying and accumulating, envy and wanting, heartache and hoarding.[iii]
A story from our story – let it be a tale[iv]
In our house we have a small Nativity set from Bethlehem. It is basic. Oddly, the largest feature of it is the six towering blocks that mark the wall of separation that surrounds Bethlehem and limits the movements of Palestinians. I share with you a second story. It comes from the lands of the Nativity. I share it in solidarity with the lowly being lifted up, the hungry being fed, the oppressed being set free and the broken hearted being held near. As I share I hope I honour its author Refaat Alakeer.
Refaat was a poet, a translator, a Palestinian from Gaza. Under relentless bombing and bombing he often went to bed not knowing if he would rise. In anticipation of the possibility that he too might go the way of the thousands of Palestinians, nineteen – or is it twenty thousand now? – Refaat wrote this devastating poem. Last week he was bombed to death. His poem starts “If I must die”.[v]
If I must die,
you must live
to tell my story
to sell my things
to buy a piece of cloth
and some strings,
(make it white with a long tail)
so that a child, somewhere in Gaza
while looking heaven in the eye
awaiting his dad who left in a blaze-
and bid no one farewell
not even to his flesh
not even to himself-
sees the kite, my kite you made, flying up
and thinks for a moment an angel is there
bringing back love
If I must die
let it bring hope
let it be a tale
If God is with us then …
Then do not let fear shape our behaviour
we can stop pretending, and cease filling ourselves with empty, deceitful or damaging stories
If God is with us then:
We can live into a bigger story
We are God’s children, everyone, and the earth is one great burning bush, alight but not consumed, ablaze with God’s wondrous presence, full of grace and truth.
If God is with us then:
We can relax into our own bodies
And never make our bodies home to resentment,
but a body shaped receptacle for joy.
And through our bodies we can forgive, even the enemy;
we can recognise all that divides is a lie
and be freed to be hospitable,
befriending and sheltering the poor,
pulling down walls, lengthening tables,
subverting oppressive systems,
weeping with those who mourn,
holding lightly to things, never hoarding or clinging to wealth,
Healing, always healing.
If God is with us then
We should be announcing this beauty, pointing to it with our lives
Sharing light and pushing back darkness.
[i] This phrase is taken from the second verse of our national anthem. The original, published in 1879 includes:
When gallant Cook from Albion sail’d,
To trace wide oceans o’er,
True British courage bore him on,
Til he landed on our shore …
From England soil and Fatherland,
Scotia and Erin fair,
Let all combine with heart and hand
To advance Australia fair.
[ii] Standing for Palestine does not mean standing against Israel.
Standing against Hamas does not mean standing for collective punishment or the systematic annihilation of refugee camp, hospital, school, city, land, people.
In the competition to frame the other as monsters, there are no winners. Violence feeds violence and everyone’s humanity is diminished until it is lost.
Leaders of both Hamas and the Israeli ruling party, Likud, openly speak about the annihilation of the other. However, there is only one who has the capacity to make it happen. Only one has an army, navy, air force, nuclear arms and the instruments of state and international military support.
It would seem the reprehensible violence of Hamas serve’s Netanyahu’s purposes.
Never again means never again. Not for Jew. Not for anyone.
Not for Palestinian and Palestine.
Hamas must be brought to account for its actions.
Hamas is different to Palestinians and Gaza citizens.
Israel’s brutality against Palestinians must end. Now.
Lord have mercy.
Lord have mercy.
Lord have mercy.
[iii] I have found Mary’s Song to be a brilliant preparation for Christmas. This is my bits’a version:
My soul magnifies the Lord:
my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
Who’s lowly servant he has filled with power,
from this day all generations will call me blessed.
The Almighty has done great things for me
and holy is his name.
Those who serve the Lord know God’s name, Mercy:
true from generation to generation.
The strength of Lord’s arm is visible:
He has scattered the boastful in the imagination of their hearts;
The mighty are lowered and the lowly lifted high.
God has filled the hungry with good things:
and sent the rich away empty.
He has drawn alongside his servant
delivering the promise of mercy,
the promise made to our forebears:
to Abraham and his children for ever.
[iv] It might seem odd to ‘drop’ the story of Refaat in like this, seemingly out of nowhere. But the systematic destruction of Gaza continues. So too deaths in the West Bank and elsewhere. I invite the reader if you have got this far, to return to my sermon on 14 October. You will find there a theology of protest shaped by the cross of Christ. This week, nine weeks into constant bombing, our Prime Minister has called for ceasefire. Also, it is the 75th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights just one week ago today. This extraordinary document emerged at the same time as the state of Israel. It arose after the horror of war and holocaust. It provides the moral framework to condemn actions on 7th October by Hamas. It is also the very same framework that critiques and condemns Israel’s attacks on refugees, civilians, blockading of water, aid and supplies. As this sermon states, telling Rafaat’s poem and its compelling picture of a white kite flying over Gaza calling forth a hope that makes for peace is perfectly consistent with Isaiah 61, The Song of Mary and the Voice that cries out from the wilderness.
[v] Refaat Alareer can be found @itranslate123 on TwitterX.
Have a look at Rev’d Munther Isaac @MuntherIsaac. He is a Palestinian Christian Theologian. He is offering a Liturgy of Lament, “Christ in the Rubble” live from Bethlehem 6pm on Saturday 23 December (Sunday 24th 2am Brisbane time).
[vi] If I was asked to summarise the entire address to just a few words, it would be this.
Question. If love, then what?
Answer. If love, then love.
This exact quote appears in the terrific film: The professor and the Madman. It is a story about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary; the impossible vision of compiling the entire language; and the redeeming of a maddened murderer.