Just the way you are

26-28 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to the Galilean village of Nazareth to a virgin engaged to be married to a man descended from David. His name was Joseph, and the virgin’s name, Mary. Upon entering, Gabriel greeted her:

Good morning!
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.

29-33 She was thoroughly shaken, wondering what was behind a greeting like that. But the angel assured her, “Mary, you have nothing to fear. God has a surprise for you: You will become pregnant and give birth to a son and call his name Jesus.

He will be great,
be called ‘Son of the Highest.’
The Lord God will give him
the throne of his father David;
He will rule Jacob’s house forever—
no end, ever, to his kingdom.”

This passage is known as the “annunciation”, and was traditionally celebrated 9 months before Christmas, (in March) and was 6 months into Elizabeth’s pregnancy with  John the Baptist. It’s the first step in the bible towards preparing us for Christmas and the birth of Jesus. We see the angel Gabriel visits Mary.

If someone asks you at work, or at school… Are you ready for Christmas, what do you say? Are you busy planning the food, presents, decorations, school plays and visits to relatives makes this a busy time of year? It’s such a busy time of year, it’s easy to forget it Jesus’ birthday amongst the preparations.

Who was Mary?

She would have spoken in Aramaic probably, and was living in Nazareth. She was a northerner. Probably quite a small community (estimates vary) from 400-2000 people, in a fairly rural location. Where each Jewish family would have been living together for generations.

She was probably a young girl aged 15 or 16, she could have been betrothed to Joseph as young as 12, so the actual marriage may have been some way off. Maybe this is why Luke’s account emphasises her virginity so much, to protect anyone in her community from scandal. Her parents Anne and Joachim are celebrated in the Catholic tradition, and it’s believed her mother was the daughter of a Jewish rabbi, from the tribe of  Levi. So effectively her grandfather was a Jewish leader. There is some discussion that Mary was born to older parents after earnest prayer, and that they would otherwise not have been able to concieve.

It is likely then that she came from a religious home. As a woman she would not have had any formal teaching about God, or even have any kind of status or access to church life. At the time of the Angel Gabriel’s arrival, Mary was probably going about her normal routines. She may have come from a relatively middle-class family as her betrothed Joseph was a carpenter which would have been a good trade to have in those days, but would probably have been expected to help with household duties, and several accounts of the Annunciation see her at a well drawing water.

I’ve always struggled to relate to Mary, as I think many people do. Mary’s significance is difficult to put out of our minds when we reflect on this passage, a whole chapter of the Quaran celebrates Mary, and her status in the catholic church is as the mother of God. She is a religious icon who has inspired many amazing pieces of art  but at this moment in history she was simply a young girl who was really quite shocked to be chosen.

God picks Mary, who is young, devout and from a respectable family, in the bloodline that can fulfill the prophecy from the Old Testament.

Most of my life, I’ve felt more of an affinity to Bridget Jones…

I particularly love this part of the movie, when it finally dawns on her that Mark Darcy isn’t the bad guy she thought he was..

With Mary, it’s similar, initially it’s not the news that the angel brings that is most shocking.. it’s the way the Angel greets her, as an equal, a chosen person to serve God. She doesn’t feel worthy. The Message version I think is really powerful:

Good morning!
You’re beautiful with God’s beauty,
Beautiful inside and out!
God be with you.

In other translations”blessed are you among women” and “you are very special to God”..

No wonder she was thoroughly shaken, wondering what was behind a greeting like that. I think we can all relate to the idea that God sees things in us that are impossible and possibly quite shocking to our own version of events.

It’s all about the baby:

As mentioned before it’s easy to forget Christmas is about the birth of a baby, and the fulfillment of a Jewish prophecy that  a messiah would be born. In 2008 at this time of year it was all about our baby for me and my husband.

Our son was 7.5 weeks early, and it was quite a shock becoming a mum. I didn’t feel ready. When we were allowed to bring him home at the beginning of December, my husband had paternity leave, we did a lot of baby gazing, wandering about in a sleep deprived daze, trying to come to terms with being parents. One thing we were sure about was that we had to keep him safe. I was poorly and inundated with visitors, house awash with cards, He’d come out of an incubator, being drip-fed, and in a tropically warm ward. We had the heating on full blast, and panicked if he so much as coughed! Like most new parents, we wondered how we would keep this child alive, let alone help him grow up!

I think being a mum is always a real privilege and honour, even when it’s really testing. My husband and I had waited a long time to become parents, and the joy of having a baby overshone everything else. It was much harder than we’d expected though, and we were frankly pretty terrified! We had alot of support though from friends and family.

Mary certainly had a really challenging time ahead of her, travelling 4 days to Bethlehem on foot, whilst heavily pregnant, and then escaping to Egypt with a newborn, so I think that’s why the angel is really clear at this point, that it’s her that has been chosen for this special task, and that it’s because she is Mary, that she has been chosen. Not someone with more life or parenting experience, not someone who is married, not someone even who understands the Jewish faith, just a normal girl.

There are plans to support her, she goes to visit her cousin and they can celebrate together as she is pregnant with John. Mary goes there and spends the first three months of her pregnancy with her older cousin, coming to terms with the next stage of her life. Her betrothed Joseph is supported through his own encounter with an Angel, so he doesn’t leave her, and his ancestry fulfills the prophesy of the messiah being a descendant from King David, which was crucial for the Jews at that time.

If God wants you to succeed, the insurmountable obstacles will often melt away at the crucial point. He will also be really clear that it’s you he needs, just the way you are, and the ambiguity will fade away as well.

Saying Yes:

For a while I felt really angry that I wasn’t ready when Jonathan arrived before I’d finished work, and before he was supposed to be in the world at 33.5 weeks. I felt I’d let him down as I hadn’t carried him to full term. I didn’t want to have to rely on a special care unit to keep him safe.  I had a shock as there were complications with the delivery, and unbeknownst to me, I spent 24 hours on a life support machine. Poor Steve wasn’t sure if I was going to come through.

I was angry that had happened, and wanted to be fit and well to have fun being a mum, whilst I had time off work, not hobbling around feeling poorly.

Do we really need to be ready though? Do we have to have all the information, Does it have to be easy? That’s not always true with God. Our son has survived into a large 7 year old, who eats more than seems humanly possible and I no longer have to feed him through tiny doll-size bottles! If you’d told me I’d risk my life getting pregnant, maybe I wouldn’t have gone through with it, but I’m really glad I did now!

Further on in the passage Mary accepts the prophesy that Gabriel has foretold and say

Yes, I see it all now:
I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to serve.
Let it be with me
just as you say

That’s the only thing God needs from us really, is to say Yes to our lives, to how he is working in it, and not to run away from love.

Based on sermon on 22/11/2015 at Clifton Parish Church http://www.cliftonparish.org.uk/

Trick or Treat

It’s not that cold here at the moment, but very dark. It’s all quite depressing coming out of the office at 5pm to a pitch black world. It makes you want to go to bed early and never leave the house again. That’s why I like the atmosphere on our street at Halloween, it brings people out and about and a few of our neighbours are dedicated to the cause. One chased after us last night to point out we’d missed his house. It was a chance for some company as he lives alone, and loves seeing the little ones.

As parents at the end of a half-term week we are probably done with hanging out with small children, but for others its a real treat. Just hearing my daughter tonight singing “I’m a friend of God, he calls me friend!” (on repeat) helped me remember how important children our in our community and not just to us as parents.

I get that we shouldn’t celebrate the darkness and ghosts and evil, it’s not a great place to start. Far better to focus on the light and how we can shine in the darkness. As most Disney films will testify though, children can cope with monsters, tragedy and a dose of real life. They don’t like programmes that are just candy-coated sugar content.

When I was growing up in Yorkshire there wasn’t much trick or treating going on, (mainly as we lived on a farm) but the main focus was “Mischief Night” which I think was the UK version.. throwing random bags of eggs and flour at houses, and vandalising streets seems totally different to the cute costumes and fun atmosphere we’ve always experienced taking our kids out. There are many people who still remember that as a really scary night and I’m glad that tradition seems to have died down.

Anyway this week we’ll be focusing on getting back into the normal swing of things, and following on from the theme at church this week, thinking of how we can be a light in the darkness, inviting God in. I’m going to try and light a candle every night, just to remind me of this.

I think the kids are a great inspiration for this, as their default setting is fun, and sometimes I think Christianity fails on the fun factor, and in the process we risk forgetting why we follow Christ. It’s not to follow a set of rules and customs or to live selfish lives consumed with greed,  but to be free. Free to do God’s will, which is not just about words but actions, living out our lives.

here’s the song, thanks to my daughter! (and her sunday school teachers!) https://youtu.be/u7_T5KtxZFM

The original reference in the song comes from James 2, v14-26

Faith and Deeds

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? 15 Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. 16 If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? 17 In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith; I have deeds.”

Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.19 You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

20 You foolish person, do you want evidence that faith without deeds is useless[d]? 21 Was not our father Abraham considered righteous for what he did when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that his faith and his actions were working together, and his faith was made complete by what he did. 23 And the scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness,”[e] and he was called God’s friend. 24 You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone.

25 In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction? 26 As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.