Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 19 December 2021.
I could not help noticing in discussions on funerals conducted by humanist officials that the emphasis was all on the life of the deceased and of memories of that person.
There would be personal tributes, recollections, anecdotes and fond memories. But the whole perspective is in the past, because there is no future.
The name of the deceased will be remembered by the survivors of that generation and any works of art of publications may continue the name but that is it. There is no future.
It is worth bearing this in mind as we look at our 3 lessons because they are all emphatic in their looking to the future. There is the promise of God to Bethlehem, the perspective of the epistle to the Hebrews and of course the prospect not only of childbirth but of the future that would face the baby once he is born.
First of all there is Bethlehem, only 4 miles or so from Jerusalem, about the same distance as Bishopbriggs is from the centre of Glasgow.
But for the outcome of the 1967 war it might have been a prosperous suburb but that is not where history has led it so far.
Apart from being the birthplace of Jesus, Bethlehem is otherwise obscure and unremarkable. And yet this is the town that Micah blesses.
Whatever its advantages of location or fertile land or water resources, Bethlehem relies on the promise of God for its sense of being and God had indeed promised that the name of the town would never die whatever the historical period or form of governance.
In its way, Bethlehem never asked for this fame and for some it may be an embarrassment but in the sight of God it was the right and fitting place for the Son of David to be born.
If Judah was the largest of the tribes of Judah, Bethlehem was not its mightiest city or fortress. Its very simplicity was what has given it its own value and significance. God does not need massive publicity machines or political propaganda to make Himself known.
In the letter to the Hebrews, the perspective is different. Now it is about the place of the law in the sight of God.
Paul described the law as a tutor in the things of God for the Jews as they waited for the coming of the Anointed One of God. It would prepare them to receive Him but it was not a substitute for His presence or teaching.
Nevertheless Jesus was scrupulous in keeping the law and yet He was radical in the sense of keeping to its original purposes as He did so.
The law was there to instruct the people and to lead them forward in expectancy but not to become an obstruction to serve its practitioners’ own agendas. The sacrifices of the law were all very well but they were no substitute for honouring God, respecting the family, not yielding to envy or covetousness or spreading gossip.
And so Jesus would give Himself under the law in order to release the people from its wrong interpretation or application. He would fulfill it so as to release the people from its burdens.
But Mary’s visit to Elizabeth was to help her during her late-in-life pregnancy. What Elizabeth was carrying, Mary’s baby would fulfill.
If John the Baptist was to live and die under the law then Jesus would do the same but with the difference of rising from the dead, having broken in Himself the condemnation that the law was bringing.
Mary was also looking to the future as was Elizabeth. Both babies were about the future of humanity, and a new vision.
The promise made to Abraham was going to be fulfilled beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.
Jesus would indeed overturn the power structures of the world and even when persecuted His people would not fail. They might be driven out of some lands but they would endure.
Wealth, power, armed might, civic structures would all be understood in the light of what Jesus had come to do. The very notion of justice would be founded on evidence and proper procedures rather than force.
Only those who had not place for an open justice would have to enforce their own at gunpoint.
Even the most powerful would have to answer before God for their lives and wealth, their connections and programmes for action.
For ourselves, the vision is also about what is to come as well as what has already been achieved by the initiative of God. We are already released from permanent guilt and condemnation and into the purpose of God, whom we are free to approach in prayer, alone and together.
We are also called to live in a new kind of freedom, to proclaim it and to celebrate it in daily life.
We now live not only in our own personal and corporate resources but in the complete providence of God, as we approach him, day by day, in the person of Jesus, the Son of Mary.