Sermon - Sunday, 24 December 2017

The following sermon was delivered by the Very Reverend Dr Russell Barr on Sunday, 24 December 2017.

Scripture:  1 Samuel 1: 12-20 / Luke 1: 46-58

Text:  And Mary said, My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour       (Luke 1: 46)


Earlier this year we marked the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

While it is debatable whether or not Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of All Saints in Wittenburg on 31st October 1517, what is beyond debate is the significance of the forces of reform Luther and his contemporaries unleashed, forces that changed not just the church but the social, cultural, economic and political landscape of western Europe.

While the autumn of 1517 may have been its starting point, unlike some of the other historical events commemorated this year, especially the centenary of some of the great battles of the 1st World War, the Reformation did not have an end point.

It continues – semper Reformanda – always reforming - because however much we honour our history and traditions, at our best we aspire to being a church not stuck in history but a church open to the present and alive to the future.

The promise of the Bible’s God is a promise to make all things new and for me one of the exciting things about the Christian faith is the way we are constantly led to new insights of God’s presence and promise and new experiences of God’s purpose in our lives, in the church and in the world.

Quite simply in the journey of Christian faith and life we are always learning, always growing.

And one of the ways we have been growing and learning in recent years has been through the experience and voice of women. [i]

From Mary Magdalene as the first person to meet the risen Christ, to Marie Dentiere, a contemporary of John Calvin and the first woman theologian of the Genevan Reformation, to the remarkable Scots woman Mary Slessor, revered for her missionary endeavours in the Calabar region of Nigeria, women have made a unique and significant contribution to God’s mission in the world.

While it appears being called ‘Mary’ is significant, sadly the story of women in the world church has all too frequently been one of difficulty and challenge.

As recent revelations from Hollywood and Westminster made clear, gender discrimination and injustice together with sexual harassment and violence against women are still endemic, engrained it would seem within human society and also within the global Christian community.

This is not a small issue for the church.

This is not a small issue for society.

This is not a something to be ignored in the hope it will soon blow over.

This injustice goes to the heart of the gospel, a gospel which in the words of St Paul declares that in Christ there is no difference between Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female.

Attending a lunchtime event at this year’s General Assembly I listened to a South African minister, the Reverend Johanna Garbonne, as she described the difficulties she faced responding to God’s calling her into ministry in the Presbyterian Church of South Africa.

The system could not find the space to allow me to be me

Sadly Johanna’s experience would have resonated with Marie Dentiere, a contemporary of John Calvin, a fiery original thinker who lived in Geneva and who was committed to the ideas of the Reformation.

As head of an Abbey in Tournai before being attracted to Geneva and its Reformation doctrines, especially its focus on the importance of scripture for the life and teaching of the church, Dentiere knew her Bible well.

Dentiere used her knowledge to open up the church to women in terms of preaching and teaching – only to be refuted by Calvin and others who tried to silence her, not because she was wrong but because she was a woman.

Thankfully Dentiere did not give up and she wrote powerful articles and letters.

Isn’t the gospel for all of us, she asked?

Do we have two gospels, one for men and one for women?

Today Marie Dentiere’s reforming spirit finds its voice in the work of the Reverend Carola Tron Urban, a minister in the Evangelical Church in Uruguay.

As a Reformed minister engaged in education and pastoral minister, Urban says;

The way in which we do theology, the way in which we ask ourselves questions and engage in our thinking about God, should be an ongoing activity that should always relate to the world in which we live.

The voices of women from history, the voices of women from the world church today, and what better day to listen to them than Christmas Eve, a day when the voice of one young woman, another Mary, echoes down the centuries to encourage and inspire:

My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour

Despite being a central figure in Christian piety, especially in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions, very little is known about Mary and beyond the birth narratives she is scarcely mentioned in the rest of the New Testament.

Young, engaged to Joseph, what we might call today an arranged marriage, the truth is that there was nothing in Mary’s status or position that marked her out for God’s attention.

As far as we can tell God’s choosing her to be the mother of God’s son was simply an act of divine grace.

And that causes me to pause and ponder for I wonder if what was true for Mary is also true for us all.

The awakening of your faith, our belonging to the Christian community, our being part of the life and worship of the church, something you chose?

My calling into ministry; something I chose?

Or would it be better to say it is something chosen for us, an invitation, God’s initiative, an act of divine grace?

Troubled and confused by the angel’s message, Mary was honest enough to admit to her confusion.

Here is another moment to pause and ponder.

As adults we have learned to be good at putting a brave face on things, covering up our fears and deeper feelings…………..and yet the Bible gives us the assurance that the One we come to worship watches over us, sees us as we come and go, and discerns our thoughts from afar.

The Christian claim is this; at Bethlehem God chose to come among us, bone of our bone, flesh of our flesh, so that we might know ourselves, warts and all, to be valued and loved now and eternally.

Notice however that although confused and struggling to make sense of what was happening to her, Mary was still willing to trust God, that is, to accept that her pregnancy was part of God’s presence, promise and purpose in her life.

Of course we like to know and understand and make sense of what happens in life but haven’t there been times when the events and circumstances of life have simply been beyond our comprehension?

What we discern is that in all her questioning Mary continued to trust in the goodness of God.

Many years later St Paul would write that for the moment we see through a glass darkly and know only in part.

However Paul also encouraged us to have faith that a day will come when we shall know fully even as we are fully known.

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the ordination of women to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Church of Scotland.

Susan Brown, the minister at Dornoch Cathedral has been nominated to be next year’s Moderator of the General Assembly.

Carol Ford, minister at St Margaret’s, has been nominated to be next year’s Moderator of Edinburgh Presbytery.

Yet even today in our church there are still a few congregations who will not have a woman preach and will not have a woman become an elder.

And in our society domestic violence, sexual harassment remains all too prevalent while the reporting of rape cases has been increasing.

Striving towards just and right relationships among all people is a Christian calling, relationships based on respect, trust and mutual accountability.

Tomorrow we look forward to celebrating the child in the manger, God’s gift of life to us and to the world.

Bethlehem’s child was born with the promise of life, a promise not made just to men, a promise not made just to women or children, but a promise made to all.

So listen to Mary and let her voice echo down the centuries.

Let it bring you comfort, let it bring you hope, and let it be your inspiration that when Christmas day comes your soul might magnify the Lord and your spirit rejoice in God our Saviour.

Heavenly Father, You chose the Virgin Mary, full of grace, to be the mother of our Lord and Saviour. Fill us with Your grace that in all things we may embrace Your will and with her rejoice in Your salvation through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

[i] Various references to women taken from Women in the World Church, the World Mission Council report to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, 2017