The Rev. Nick Parker
Isaiah 61.10-11; Galatians 4.4-7; Luke 1.46-55
It’s always interesting and usually instructive to see which readings have been put with which by those who compiled the Lectionary… I have a tendency to be quite critical but then remind myself that I certainly wouldn’t have wanted that job!
Today on this Mary Sunday the choice of Gospel (the Magnificat) is self-explanatory, but the Epistle from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians less so…. The key line would appear to be, “God sent his Son, born of a woman” – reminding us of Jesus’ humanity – derived from Mary his mother. The first part of this passage closely echoes Philippians ‘God emptying himself, becoming a slave’ in order to be one of us, becoming subject to the law even as we are…
But rather than focussing on these words, it’s the second half of this passage that draws me: “…so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir…”
It’s less explicit, but for me the most profound thing that our Gospel and Epistle have in common is the idea of chosen-ness…
Mary is chosen by God to bear God’s Son – to be the ‘God-bearer’ – theotokos – fulfilling ancient promises of a Messiah – to be named Jeshua / Jesus – who like Joshua before him will deliver his people… What higher honour could there be?
Through this same Messiah we are chosen – adopted – by God to be his children – to inherit nothing less than the relationship that Jesus had with Abba! Father! I would say an honour at least as great!
I want today to explore what we might learn from the metaphor of adoption which was used so positively by St. Paul – yet even as I do so I realise that humanly speaking I have no experience of adoption and that for some this will be very personal territory, perhaps even sacred ground…
So proceeding with care I want to think about how this metaphor might describe God’s relationship to us, what it has to say about our relationships with each other, and finally what we can learn about our relationship with God…
So first, God’s relationship to us.
And first-up a further disclaimer… I’m not suggesting that the parent-child relationship we enjoy with God is wholly defined by the metaphor of adoption – any more than the relationship a mom or dad has with their adopted child will defined by that… for of course in almost every respect their relationship with their child will be no different from the relationship any parent has with their child. There are impressively competent and committed parents and parents who struggle more – there are easy kids (or so I’ve heard rumoured!) and more challenging kids…
So what is particular to adoptive parents? Well while, as I’ve said, I’ve no personal experience of adoption, I do know (from the side-lines) that the process is most often long and fraught.
It surely takes an extra commitment to enter into what is bound to be a costly process in every sense – an emotional roller-coaster where we’re compelled to reveal the most personal parts of ourselves – details about all of our personal relationships, our qualities, not to mention our hopes and dreams, all for scrutiny and judgement by others. The adopted child can therefore know for sure that they were longed-for – that they were and are celebrated – that they were chosen – and that someone judged that their parents might be up to the job!
So how does all that translate? Well in a profound sense God is unknowable and certainly not accountable to us – yet in another I see in becoming our adoptive parent that God chooses to be known. Abba = daddy = always available – always there. To steal words from Frederick Beuchner, God first reveals his name to us in Exodus chapter 3 and has not enjoyed a moment’s peace since! And of course the process of adoption could not, for God, have been more costly – to say long and fraught is surely only scratching the surface!
The sacramental expression of our being chosen or adopted by God is our baptism – and in particular our anointing with oil… A practice – whose origins were in the setting apart of prophets and kings – is extended to all of us in order to remind all of us that we too are precious, that we matter.
Time to move on… So what does the metaphor of adoption have to say about our relationship to each other?
Perhaps above all it’s to be reminded of the costly nature of God’s love that’s given not just for us but for all of our brothers and sisters… In the words of Holy Baptism that we would: ‘Strive for justice and peace among all people, and recognize the dignity of every human being.’
The context of this letter to the Galatians, like so many of the epistles, is of great tension between Jewish and Gentile converts to the faith. Paul has to remind them of the Gospel they received from him – that all of them (whether Jew or Gentile) were formerly estranged from God – that all (whether Jew or Gentile) required adoption – and that all have been baptised in the Spirit of Christ – which is the only true freedom.
It’s very easy, and dare I say it tempting, to lose track of world news whilst on vacation – but without burying my head completely in the sand I couldn’t fail to be aware of the polarization and conflicts all over the world right now – whether in Gaza, Iraq, Ukraine or in Ferguson, Missouri. For sure the world has never been free of trouble but I can’t remember a time when conflict and division seemed worse and it should trouble us deeply…
Whilst taking a walk in Alton Baker Park, Helen and I came across a new section near the duck pond celebrating Nobel Peace Laureates – giving some of their more famous quotations. This from President Carter struck a deep chord in me: "War may sometimes be a necessary evil, but no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good. We will not learn how to live together in peace by killing each other's children."
To turn to Mary’s words in the Magnificat, she may celebrate the lifting up of the lowly, the scattering of the proud and the bringing down of the powerful from their thrones but she also alludes to the promise made to Abraham and to all of his descendants forever – that’s Abraham the Father of us all whether Jew, Christian or Moslem.
Finally what about our relationship with God?
We can’t or shouldn’t talk about chosen-ness or adoption without talking about purpose or vocation – which is why baptism candidates are sent into the world to witness to God’s love. We should also think about our spiritual response.
To start with that response, what of course is most striking about Mary is her openness to God’s invasion of her life – that she rejoices! That this is so remarkable is shown in the line bishop Neff fed me over a cup of coffee – “Here I am Lord – choose her!”
I wonder, how do you see Mary? In the Gospels she’s evidently far from being acquiescent or submissive – rather we see a powerful figure who’s so often present (albeit in the background) – and quite capable of forcing Jesus’ hand when she’s convinced that mother knows best! Yet this same woman is obedient to God’s will – this same woman rejoices to know that God can use her – that she has a part to play in God’s eternal purposes – and ultimately she’s self-effacing – pointing us to the Christ…
It’s an aside but I think it’s well worth spending some time trying to tease apart those concepts of submission and obedience – the one negative, but the other positive, so vital and so rare in our modern world…
And so what about us?
As God’s adopted can we say that the Mighty One has done great things for me!
Saint Paul tells us that we’re not just God’s adopted children – but also heirs, through God… We’re bound to ask, heirs to what? I would say heirs with Mary and all God’s chosen to being part of God’s eternal purposes…
If we respond with open hearts, if we seek to be obedient to God’s will, then God is able to use even you and even me to help demonstrate the love of God and point others to Christ.
I must end – and as I do so I acknowledge the deep irony in making no mention of Joseph – even as we’ve explored the notion of adoption… In a way it’s a shame that there’s no facility in our liturgical calendar for a joint observance of Mary and Joseph – for they were surely a team – and certainly shared important qualities.
So let me offer what might be the Collect for such a celebration…
O God, who called Mary and Joseph to be mom and dad to your incarnate Son: Give us grace to imitate their openness of heart, their uprightness of life and their obedience to your commands; that we too might be adopted as God’s children, working for the coming of God’s Kingdom; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.