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19th December 2021

A New Hope- for a Big Difference

Passage: Luke 1;46-55


Do you remember George Orwell’s novel “Animal Farm?” A group of animals, who were being neglected and overworked by a horrible farmer, staged a revolution, led by the pigs. They turned the farmer out and established themselves as a communal enterprise. Everyone would work and everyone would share in the profits. They agreed on a set of basic rules to which they all committed themselves, hand on heart. From now on, life was going to be fair on Animal Farm.
Then gradually, things changed. The pigs became more powerful. The rules kept changing subtly. As the pigs gained more power so they became more greedy, more cruel, more corrupt. By the end of the book the rest of the animals were living and working in conditions as bad if not worse than before. The pigs had made friends with the humans and when you looked from pig to person and back again, you could hardly tell the difference.

Orwell’s novel was banned in Communist Russia because it was of course an allegory. A tale of how an idealistic political regime turned horribly sour. And this did not only happen in Communist Russia. It has happened repeatedly, when the person or the political party proclaiming itself the Saviour of the world or at least of your nation, once in power becomes corrupt, cruel, and ruthless.

Which perhaps has made joining Mary’s song of praise this morning rather difficult for us. She is singing of a new world, a new regime, where the poor will be lifted up, and the ruthless rulers cast down; where the hungry will be fed, and resources shared equally. And there is something inside us saying, “yeah, right….in your dreams.” After all, the wonderful new world did not happen then, and it does not look much like happening now.

You could argue though that, to a certain extent, Jesus did become King of the world. Once the Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the third century AD, a huge part of the world became nominally Christian. And a lot of good stuff happened, socially and politically. When you think that, in the Roman society of Mary’s day, babies of slave girls or any considered sub-standard were simply placed on rubbish heaps to die; that only those considered culturally or financially suitable were granted the rights and privileges of Roman citizenship and no-one else had any rights at all; things did move forward. The Christian church was the first significant multi-cultural organisation, enabling people of different races to meet in a non-confrontational fashion. That was unheard of. The great medieval Christian monasteries set out to feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless, offer healing remedies free of charge to the sick- following the teachings of Jesus Christ. This had also been unheard of. The whole concept of democracy- where each person in a society has the right to speak and to take part in decision- making has its roots in Christian faith, teaching that all are valued in the sight of God. Even today, many members of our secular society, admit that we owe a lot which is right and fair to our Christian heritage.

But of course, things still went horribly wrong. The barbaric cruelty of the Spanish Inquisition, the brutality of the so-called “Holy Wars,” the missions which were more like colonisation, the threatening of vulnerable people with hellfire in the world to come in the hopes of keeping them submissive in this one. Like the pigs in Orwell’s novel, Christian leaders could end up just as corrupt as any others.

Even in Mary’s song, we hear hints that the hope of her people, the Jews, is to be where the Roman Emperor is now. We want to be the people with the power. And almost certainly, they would have ended up just as cruel and barbaric as any Caesar. There is a problem here and I have been trying to work out what it is.

I think it is true to say that you are never going to achieve permanent political change without the inner conviction of all concerned that this is a change they want. Coercing everyone into a regime means that a lot of people will be outwardly obedient whilst inwardly looking for a chance to rebel.

I think it is also true to say that no regime is ever going to achieve true peace and justice without a radical inner transformation of everyone involved. We are all easily led into greed, selfishness, and irresponsibility; and, from there even to cruelty, prejudice, and injustice. We cannot help it. It is the way we are born. Every new generation is born with a great deal of the natural law of the jungle in them. And we need to admit to that. This is not about religion-inducing- guilt but about religion-preaching-reality. No matter how good and strong and idealistic we think we are, we are all in danger of becoming corrupted. Until we acknowledge this, the peace and justice of which Mary sang, will never happen.

Tim Farron, the former MP, writing about the Christmas song “O Holy Night” with its command to “fall on your knees” said that on his knees was where he needed to be. But ,“surely there is nothing more uncomfortable than realising our need for forgiveness. At Christmas the best gift we are ever going to be offered is something we don’t want to accept that we need!” He suggested that rather than “fill on your knees” we might prefer a defiant chorus of “Simply the Best.” I’m OK. It is just that sadly, even our best is never going to be quite good enough to change the world.

That is hard to hear but what we are being offered at Christmas is an incredible love, an incredible forgiveness and an incredible power that does promise to transform us from the inside out. In the coming of Jesus Christ we are being offered the living reality of God himself in the place where we are. Surely this and this alone can give us hope for a better world because we can now hope to become better people.

Mary’s song maybe is not so much about a new political regime, with someone else sitting precisely where the emperor now sits. Maybe Mary is looking for the transformation of God’s people: making them humble before God; giving them a different set of ideals; freeing them up from the dangers of greed and pride and ruthlessness. And she is awed by the realisation that even she- poor, obscure, female in a male-dominated society- will have a crucial part to play. He who is mighty has done great things in me.

Mary was not a perfect person. There are instances later in the Gospel when she misunderstands her son, when she tries to get him to withdraw from his ministry because she is frightened for him. Their relationship was strained from time to time. But she never gave up on him, never turned her back on him even when it looked as though his whole mission had failed and he was dying an agonising death. She stood at the foot of the cross and did not leave him. And her example has made a huge difference to innumerable lives.

I guess we none of us had much difficulty earlier in the service, thinking of what we would like to be made different in the world. There is a lot of bad stuff going on. And the two crucial questions we now need to ask are first- do we believe that God can save us from ourselves in order to change the world? And second, if we believe He can, then what is the role he is asking us to play? We cannot be perfect, any more than Mary could. But we can be trusting, and we can be steadfast. God will come to us in the place where we are; and God will set us free from the sin which is in us day by day; and God will show us day by day the one thing we can do right here, right now, towards making the world a better place. If we believe this, then we can hold our hope for a big difference.

And one last thing- Mary was not singing that song of hope and confidence immediately after hearing that she was to be the mother of Jesus. She was probably too shell-shocked to think at all. It was when she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was also carrying a child destined to make a huge difference in the world; only when they had talked together and encouraged each other that Mary found her understanding falling into place.
Remember G.K. Chesterton? When you find an ally, 1+1 does not equal 2. It equals 2000. We in this church are still here by the grace of God. We know that. We are also still here because we have met with and encouraged one another.

Hold the faith, hold the community, hold the hope for the world this Christmas. Amen.