Be blesséd

Luke 1:46-55 – The Magnificat

Christ Church Highbury, December 17th 2017

Unusually for a sermon, I’m going to begin with a lesson in grammar…

In this reading this, there is a word that is pronounced one of two ways, usually pretty much inter-changeably. In verse 48 Mary declares that: “From now on all generations will call me blessed…”

Sometimes the word is pronounced blessed and sometimes blesséd. As someone who is regularly teased for the way in which I pronounce certain words (particularly ‘theatre’) and who has been known to refer to the famous play as “Harry Potter and the Curséd Child”; I wasn’t sure if this was a quirk I’d acquired.

You might think it’s simply a quirk of history – that if we’re being traditional or old fashioned, we use the accent – but in fact, there is a specific meaning inferred by the accent. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the following rules apply:

When a person or object receives a blessing, they are blessed – like when I lay hands upon children coming for communion – it’s the past tense of the verb ‘bless’.

However, blesséd is an adjective describing the state of someone – like a beatified saint, or Mary, or the child she bore (as Luke describes in verse 42). Or the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount. Blesséd are the peacemakers, etc.

Before I continue, I’m going to put forward a disclaimer. Although I’ve now worked out and explained to you the rules of pronunciation, I may well forget to use the correct pronunciation throughout the rest of the sermon. As I’ve been writing this, Word has helpfully auto-corrected my use of accents to try and remind myself – so even Word doesn’t seem to recognise that there is a difference between the two words!

But why is this important?

Because being blessed is something of a temporary state, whereas being blesséd is a permanent state of affairs.

Generations will call Mary blesséd. The role given to her by God was not a temporary state – she was forever to have been blessed by the Holy Spirit having given birth to the Messiah.

In the preceding verses before Mary’s song, the word appears multiple times. Elizabeth declares: “Blesséd are you among women, and blesséd is the child you will bear!”

And, speaking about herself: “Blesséd is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her!”

Elizabeth has recognised Mary’s unique state of blessedness, which comes from the child she is carrying for God. It’s not that she’s in some way won a competition to be the most blessed of all women in the entire world, it’s that she has received a unique, divine calling. Only one woman in the entire history of creation would ever have the opportunity of giving birth to God’s son. For Elizabeth, it is an expression of joy that Mary is associated with the Messiah in this way – which in turn also makes her blesséd too.

In these verses, Luke is trying to get across an important message for the reader. This isn’t just about the holiness and blessédness of two women whose status none of his readers will ever emulate, it is about the fact that it is a joy to be associated with Christ, no matter what that association is. We will not give birth to Jesus or John the Baptist, but we can and do have a relationship with Christ, which brings us joy and leads us into the condition of being blesséd.

That’s why the grammatical distinction is important. In our relationship with Christ we are in a state of blessédness, not receiving a temporary blessing. We receive the Holy Spirit and can be joyful in our relationship with God.

***

Unfortunately, as is so often the way with language, the word “blessed” has become somewhat devalued in recent years.

Some of you may be aware of the social media phenomenon that is “#blessed”. It’s particularly evident amongst young, white, American women where even the most unassuming event is a blessing. Something along the lines of:

“The barista at Starbucks put an extra shot in my grande Pumpkin Spice Latte.  #blessed”

“Got a parking space right next to the store when it was raining. #blessed”

I suppose it comes from an attitude of counting every blessing, which is a good thing to do. But being blesséd means so much more than an extra shot! It is knowing that God has anointed us with the Holy Spirit. That we have been identified as being a crucial part of his mission on earth.

I was in New York last month, and (obviously) did some shopping. I was at Target – my all-time favourite shopping experience, the UK has nothing that compares – and spotted a sweatshirt emblazoned with “blessed”. I was very, very tempted to buy it and wear it as my Christmas jumper – and use it as an opportunity to share a mini version of this sermon every time I was asked about it. To be honest, I regret not buying it!!

I guess I was worried people would see me and judge me – for using the word to mean something ridiculous & inconsequential – when in fact, we would all be justified to wear one!

The people who felt blessed because of their latte & parking space? Well, they ARE blessed, just not for the reasons they think!

***

So, Mary is also to be known by future generations as blesséd. She is blesséd because she is humble; because God chose a simple human being to play such a major part in his plan.

A major theme of Luke’s gospel is his concern to show that its message is for all – including those who are marginalised, in fact, especially for those who are marginalised. In the world of 1st century Palestine, this included the poor, the outcasts and women. In Mary’s song, the message that the hungry will be fed but the rich will be sent away empty is an element of this emphasis – but so is the fact that Luke emphasises the importance of women in the birth of Christ.

Obviously, a woman had to have a fairly crucial role in the birth, but Luke highlights the importance not just of Mary, but also Elizabeth and Anna – who prophecies over Jesus when he’s presented at the temple after his birth in chapter 2. This should emphasise to all of us that God can and does use anybody. He didn’t – and doesn’t – care how they are regarded by society. He has chosen each of them – and each of us – for a divine purpose.

Mary realises this, and she sings praises to God – not herself. That’s why we call this part of the passage the magnificat, because Mary is glorifying God, his deeds and his promises. It is he who has been set apart and is worthy of praise, not Mary. Mary is blessed because she is God’s humble servant and realises that all she can do is praise God for his blessing upon her.

If God can use an unprepossessing, young, poor, woman as the key to bringing salvation to the world, what can he do with us?

 

***

An old friend of mine is currently reading the Bible for the first time (other than having to study bits of it at school). A few months ago, she asked my advice on which Bible to buy and where to start reading – so I suggested she begin with Luke and Acts. It’s a good place to start for lots of reasons. They’re written by the same person. They provide a good chronology to the early life of the church. And, they tend to emphasise the role of minorities and the discriminated against.

We met up a couple of weeks ago, and she told me how she was really enjoying Luke. She loved how the role of women was emphasised and the historical context of events. (She & I both studied history at university.) But what had impacted her the most was Mary’s song glorifying God. She’d read it over and over again, in awe of this young woman’s reaction to God’s dramatic declaration.

For my friend, the most amazing thing was Mary’s gratitude and confidence that this would all work out, because it was God’s purpose for her. Mary was God’s humble servant, given the most arduous of tasks, yet took it on with grace and thanksgiving. In her song, Mary lists the many things that God has already done for his people. It is a song of exalting God – not herself.

What hit her was that we are all given gifts by God – admittedly, not giving birth to the Messiah sized gifts – but gifts nonetheless. We have a God who is merciful and has plans for us. Yet how quick is humanity to glorify itself? Or, when we believe the task ahead of us is too hard, complain that we cannot possibly do it? Why can’t we be more like Mary, she asked.

***

I mentioned earlier that, as a result of our relationship with Christ, we too are blesséd. And I mean blesséd – it is not temporary, it’s permanent.

Just like Mary, we have the power of the Holy Spirit to guide us through the challenges and gifts that God puts before us.

So, today, in addition to encouraging you all to know that you are indeed blesséd, I would love you to begin this final week of advent what your song of praise and glory to God might include. How might you be thankful for what God has already done in your life?

Friday Fun for the festive season

It’s the final Friday before Christmas and most people are celebrating the end of work before the festivities. So hopefully the following will get you through the last hours, or may be of some comfort on long journeys to far-flung families…

Firstly, an advent gem that will provide a lot of joy if you haven’t come across it as yet. Dave Walker (of Church Times and my trip to Uganda fame) has put his energy into a highly entertaining advent calendar of cartoons – so there’s still a few to go. The Christmas Newsletter was a particular favourite amongst family and friends. (I cannot wait to get my hands on the basket of missives the Clutterbuck family has received when I get to Belfast on Monday! Nor can I wait to read my parents’ screed, just in case they’ve written about me…)

christmas-newsletter

They aren’t all hilarity-filled, some have a great deal of pathos and should make you stop and think – like this Foodbank themed one. It certainly feels apt as I look ahead to my shift at our Foodbank tomorrow morning, and continue to seethe at the way in which the government treated the debate on Foodbanks the other day.

foodbank-9

In preparation for the holiday season, I’m gathering together some festive films to watch en route to Ireland (hello four hour train journey & two hour ferry crossing). The Muppet Christmas Carol is a favourite and was actually shown the last time I caught a ferry for Christmas, but how many of these 14 facts about the film did you already know? Most fascinating for me was the way in which the Ghost of Christmas Past was created, via a submerged Muppet and a green screen. Oh, and it includes the video of the scene that was excluded from the theatrical release on the basis that it was too sad for children (phooey) – a move that caused consternation on the release of the DVD version as its VHS predecessor had included it. Those of us who made the technological transition mourn its loss on every viewing. Oh, and the list is correct, It Feels Like Christmas *is* one of the best Christmas songs ever. Get that soundtrack added to your Christmas playlist asap!

The other holiday classic (though rather more controversial, as it’s essentially the Marmite of Christmas films) is the 10 year old Love, Actually. This isn’t ideal public transportation viewing on account of the naked stand-ins scenes (fellow travellers may think you’re watching something dodgy), but it does make you feel warm and fuzzy. Some bright spark at Buzzfeed has definitively ranked all the turtlenecks that feature in the movie. It’s a surprisingly high number of a fashion item that I don’t recall being particularly popular in 2003, but that makes it all the more hilarious. Number 10 is a particularly good one:

Love Actually turtle-necks

Of course, it’s important to remember the reason for the season too! At our family carol service last Sunday (in which I gave my first-ever all-age sermon, because that wasn’t a high-pressure occasion on which to do it…) we shared this beauty from St Paul’s Auckland. Since 2010, the New Zealand church (planted by my former church) has gained a reputation of producing utterly fabulous Christmas videos for their carol service – which takes place in an arena, with glow-sticks. Their 2012 offering was downright glorious and gave me an excellent theme for my sermon:

I cannot get over the joy of hearing “They won’t be expecting that!” in a Kiwi accent! The morning of our service was the evening of their carol service, at which their 2013 video debuted. It’s a little different from previous ones, but worth a watch nonetheless.

Finally, a piece of ridiculous seasonal music which manages to combine Christmas and musical theatre – Wicked, specifically. I give you Defying Gravity, as sung by Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. It’s a little niche, but it is possibly the best use I’ve seen of the Wicked Backing Tracks (I only my copy for moments when I like to prance around pretending that I am actually a West End star).

Happy Advent

The season of Advent is upon us – or, at least, the uncomfortable gap between the beginning of liturgical Advent (i.e. the first Sunday of Advent) and the day Advent calendars begin (December 1st) has been bridged. This means that it is finally time to unpack and unveil my brand new Advent calendar…

…yes, I am aware that most people have new calendars every year (unless they close up the doors carefully so it can be used again), but mine is both new and eternal. In past years, my mother has sent me and my sister and Advent calendar – since Divine started producing Fair Trade chocolate, religious-themed calendars. [Until that point, chocolate ones were verboten because they were never religious.] This year, a mysterious parcel appeared in late September, and I was a little surprised to discover that it was a nativity themed reusable Advent calendar. [My mum, being sensible, ordered ones as soon as she spotted them, in fear that they’d sell out. Wise move – I can’t link to the product because it has, indeed, sold out.]

So on Monday night I spent some time preparing the calendar for me and the Norwegians. (Amusingly, I was a day ahead of myself, thinking that it was the 1st yesterday and knowing that Tuesday was busy. Ho hum.) The basic premise is that there are 24 felt Nativity characters, with 24 pockets in which to place them. Each day a new character is added to the stable scene above – with the added bonus of a Terry’s Chocolate Orange Segment in the pocket too. Simple concept, but I spent a not inconsiderable length of time pondering how it was going to work.

The inspirational catalogue image. (It’s from Lakeland, if you’re wondering.)

First issue – what character should go in #24? The obvious answer is of course Jesus, what with it being his birth that we’re celebrating, but the Biblical scholar in me was stuck on the true chronology of things – after all, the Wise Men didn’t meet Jesus until some time later. However a tweet from my previous Vicar’s wife assured me that Jesus was always the answer (as indeed it is in the under 6’s group we led), so into #24 Jesus popped. Then there were the Wise Men themselves – I appeared to have four:

I was puzzled and consulted Twitter. Not one but three friends responded with the glaringly obvious information that three had crowns and one didn’t. *Blushes* Anyway, the calendar is done, the Norwegians are excited, and it turns out Popping Candy Segments are rather fabulous.

Ready for the off.

In case you’re after some further Advent edification, I have two top recommendations:

1. The 24-7 Prayer podcasts. There’s a video released every day throughout Advent with a different focus for prayer. I used the first one (below) with the students on Tuesday and it worked really well – they especially liked the moment Pete Greig created a large ball of fire. Goes to show that we all have an inner pyromaniac…

2. The Swingle Singers Yule Songs EP. Released, appropriately, on Advent Sunday, it includes a beautiful version of O Come, O Come Emmanuel which also has an interesting video accompaniment. Plus, there’s the utterly gorgeous arrangement of O Holy Night that captivated me when I heard it live last Christmas and some new compositions. An appropriate addition to anyone’s Christmas playlist.

Happy Advent!

My Advent Mission

And another thing…

Last week I mentioned that I didn’t have an Advent Calendar…that lasted a day – mysteriously Waitrose had the one I was after (Divine – fairly traded chocolate & with a religious image, thus meeting the age-old criteria of Advent calendars) on December 2nd, but not on December 1st.

It’s become a community advent calendar as I’m keeping it at the office and bestowing chocolate and biblical verses upon my colleagues. They seem to appreciate it. C was very excited when on Thursday I emailed him from my sofa to say he could open it as I was working from home that day.

But, my real advent focus is a little more highbrow…

I was challenged by reading Jo’s advent post last week, in which she said that they were giving up tv for the season. I wasn’t intending on going that far, but it did make me reflect on the fact that I’ve hardly read any books lately. Usually I have a voracious appetite for all sorts of books, but since the summer I’ve barely read anything.

So, my advent mission is to read more. Specifically, to not pick up free papers on the tube (anyway, they’re a load of tabloid junk & the ink stains your hands) and to use the time to read an improving book instead. (Incidentally, books are much easier to read when standing on the tube than newspapers – they take up less space.)

My current read is Irresistable Revolution by Shane Claiborne, which (judging by the info sheet I was using as a bookmark) I started whilst at Conference in July. I got 4 pages into the introduction before a friend told me that the book would probably change me life – so I stopped reading it, just in case. I’ll keep you posted on what it does to me…

I work in our church bookshop once a month and the main perk is getting a discount on purchases. As a result, I usually buy at least one new Christian book a month and group them in an attractive pile on my bedside table, where they gather dust. My aim is to continue my mission past advent and into the new year so I can clear the pile before I acquire any more.

Advent, recession and a new toy

Advent:
Today’s December 1st and for the first time in my life I have no advent calendar. But I’m going to get over it and remember that actually, I don’t need little windows to help me remember the season. I probably should do something else to prepare for Christmas, but so far I’ve not thought of anything.

Recession:
Over the last week, tallskinnykiwi has been exploring some ideas relating to how church ministries can cope with the recession. Today, he’s brought together some of the themes that have been discussed on his blog. One in particular resonated with me:

Move in together. Intentional Community is a wonderful way
for a small community [of] young people to mature together. Its ridiculous that we all need big empty houses for one or two people. Fill up those empty bedrooms. Maximize what you already have, or think about downsizing. And no . . . I am not suggesting you move in with your girlfriend.’

I’ve mentioned once or twice that I’ve got a couple of issues with my flat at the moment. There’s an idea brewing that relates to this quote, which I’ll hopefully be able to share before Christmas. And I’ll say it again, London life would be so much easier (in some ways) if I had a man to live with…(!)

New Toy:
In the space of a month I’ve gone from having an out of the ark, decrepit piece of junk as a work computer to a machine that is probably is the most sophisticated in the building. My lovely (though not purple) laptop is just a tad confusing, what with Office 2007…nevermind. Now I’ve just got to decide where to take it for its first outing.

Oh and of course I didn’t manage to not blog today! I didn’t especially want to – but you know, sometimes the creative juices just can’t be stopped…ahem.