Gladness in My Voice
Christmas Communion Service for the fourth Sunday in Advent, conducted by our Minister and including the receiving of Shana Lee, Carol Fenwick, Linda Saisi and Benedict Leonard into church membership.
This sermon is taken from Luke 1, verses 46-55
Gladness in my Voice
In the film “Little Voice” Jane Horrocks plays the part of a painfully shy young woman who hardly ever speaks, and when she does, only in a whisper. Her father, to whom she was
close, is dead and her mother is a greedy, selfish, promiscuous woman who despises her. But this girl has an amazing gift for singing and when her mother hears her, she and her latest man promptly try to exploit the girl by pushing her onto a stage to sing. They think she will do whatever they tell her to do and make them millionaires but suddenly, the girl turns on them. All of a sudden, she finds her own voice and tells her mother exactly what she thinks of her. Her mother stares open-mouthed as her silent daughter pours out a torrent of words and feelings that she had never known existed. “Where did all this come from?”
I picture Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, staring at her with that same open-mouthed awe as Mary pours out the words we now call “The Magnificat.” Mary would have been very young- in her early teens. As a woman living in a male-dominated society and religion; as a Jew living under Roman occupation; Mary would have been taught from the start to keep her mouth shut. No-one would want to hear anything a young Jewish female had to say. She would have had virtually no education; she would never have been allowed to join in religious or political debates; she would never have been asked what she thought about God or Rome or Government. Now, all of a sudden, she is pouring out this torrent of words about God, about how she sees herself in God’s plan, about politics and social justice; about her own people; about the world….. and you can just imagine Elizabeth sitting there amazed, thinking, “Where did all this come from?”
It is a big mistake to think that just because someone is quiet, they have nothing to say.
Human beings are creatures with consciousness. We can think about who we are and what we are doing here. We can begin to understand the world and how it works. We can imagine different ways of doing things. We can come up with creative solutions to problems. We are not, as animals are, totally at the mercy of our basic instincts. And it is this consciousness that becomes our voice as we express what is going on in our minds. Some people do this literally through speaking; others through writing; some through artwork; some through the communities they create; some through families; some through social and political activity; most of us through a mixture of several mediums. Even if we say very little, the things we do and the kind of person we are speak volumes about what is going on in our head and what we really believe. So yes, it is a mistake to think that any human being is without a voice; it is a grievous sin to believe that any human being should not be allowed a voice; it is sign of deep inner sickness for any one of us to get to the point where we feel that we have nothing to say.
Mary grew up in Nazareth, under the Roman Occupation of her country. Despite being told from the start to keep quiet, she would have seen her family, friends and neighbours being terrorised by Rome; she would have seen young men from her village taken to be crucified for daring to speak out against Rome; she would have noticed that most of her people grew poorer and poorer because the only ones who grew richer were those who collaborated with Rome and were prepared to cheat and betray their own fellow Jews. She would have gone to pray in the local synagogue and heard the men praying fervently for God to deliver them; maybe she would wondered when and how this was ever going to happen; she would have felt fear and frustration, along with a faith she was not permitted to articulate in public. Like most teenagers she probably struggled with the transition from being a child to becoming an adult and at times did not quite know what to make of what was going on in her head as well as in her body. All of this was fermenting in her head and now, as she talks to Elizabeth, she finds that she does have a voice and that she has plenty to say.
It is worth pointing out here that a lot of what Mary says in The Magnificat is borrowed from a famous Old Testament Hymn- the song of Hannah. Hannah was the mother of the prophet Samuel and, like Mary, she had a conviction that her son would do great things for God, which of course Samuel did. Mary would have heard this hymn recited many times and, as most of us do, she found that somebody else’s words were actually, “saying it for her” at this particular point in her life. Do not we sing a favourite hymn, read and re-read a favourite book, stand and stare at a meaningful picture, place an inspiring quotation on the wall? We find that other people have found ways of saying what we want to say.
It is such a relief, is it not, to learn that we are not alone; we are not weird; we are not crazy, we are not mad, bad or dangerous to know. Someone else has thought exactly what we are thinking, and they are now enabling us to find our own voice. For we do not just repeat their words; we take them, and we make them our own. It is as though they give us permission to express our own beliefs and to develop them.
So it is, that even if the thoughts and feelings we are trying to express are sad or angry or confused, there is still that element of deep gladness which comes from the confidence of knowing, “I am not alone. I have a voice and I have permission to speak. Mary recalled Hannah’s words, identified with them, took them, and made them her own and the whole hymn became a song of deep joy.
One of the prophecies about the new Messiah, the Saviour expected by Mary’s people was that “the tongue of the dumb shall sing.” People who had been bullied into silence; people who had been told that they had nothing to say that was worth saying; that they were little more than animals, would learn, through the coming of the Messiah, that they would find their voice; that they would discover a need, a hope, a faith and a love deep within them that this Saviour would enable them to express.
If you read on through Luke’s Gospel you will find that Jesus of Nazareth had an extraordinary gift for doing just that. He would make a beeline for the social outcasts and encourage them to talk; he did not so much tell people things as ask them- what would you think of the man who had a hundred sheep; one wandered away and he went miles into the mountains to find it? What would you say should happen to the servant who had been forgiven a huge debt by his master and then demanded payment with menaces of his friend who owed him a few pounds? Jesus saw no point in what he called “empty words,” meaningless repetition of “religious speak” that sounded holy, but which bore no reflection of where people really were on their walk with God. A few muttered words coming from the heart made a far more effective prayer. He also taught that sooner or later what goes on inside us will make itself evident one way or another despite our best attempts to hide it under polite speech or no speech at all. So it was that, In the presence of Jesus, the tongues of the spiritually dumb and dead did indeed start to sing. And, in the centuries since Mary sang Magnificat, “He that is Mighty has done great things in me,” countless women and men have added “and in me…. and in me…and in me.” For through Jesus Christ they have found that they “have a voice” and a song to sing.
But this is about much more than mere self-esteem. The trouble with self-esteem is that it only lasts until the next crisis of confidence knocks you down. And the trouble with self-esteem is that it easily becomes self-interest, which turns you in on yourself and becomes one of life’s dead ends.
The voice that Jesus brings to life is the consciousness that comes from God. It is about learning that it is God who calls you to life; God who names you as his children; God who gives you his Spirit that nothing, not even death can destroy. So even when you are sick in body and in mind; when you are in the very darkest places life can throw you, that Spirit of God remains in you and cannot be taken away- not by you nor by anyone else.
And it is not only about you. When Mary sings of the great deeds God has done in her and for her, she sees her place in the whole eternal, universal scheme of things. She is not a solo voice but a member of a vast choir. One generation shall pass on their faith to another; each generation shall add their own voice and their own unique verse to the song.
And this will change the world. Because when you are part of a family and a choir and a kingdom which is God’s, you will not want to seize food from the hungry or land from the poor. You will not want to be the kind of leader who forbids others to speak. You will find it impossible to write whole groups of people off as being beneath contempt.
As Mary found her voice so she moved from praising God to what He had done for her; on to praising God for the whole faith community; and from there to a radical vision for a totally different social order which God would enable his people to bring about.
The tongues of the dumb shall sing and their song will transform their homes, their lives, their religion and their world. This is the promise of God, fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
One of the greatest privileges for me about leading Church Membership classes is the opportunity it offers me to hear what people have to say. I always try to make it clear that the meetings are about enabling each other to speak about our beliefs, our faith, our journey, our questions, our doubts. There will be no “Wrong Answer. You’re fired.” And as a small group of people who generally, up to that time, have hardly known each other, start to talk together, we discover a lot we have in common; we hear things we have never heard or thought about before; under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we give each other inspiration; we help each other to find our voice and to take the next step on the journey.
I wonder if you noticed that the promises made at Church Membership follow much the same pattern as Mary’s Magnificat: the first three are about what God has done in us and for us: Yes, I believe and trust in one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, maker of heaven and earth, redeemer of the world, giver of life. Yes, I look to Christ as, by the grace of God, I turn my back on my own sin and on the evil in the world. And yes, Jesus Christ is my Saviour. He has saved me and I want him to be Lord of my life.
From this point we move to the part each person plays in the faith community and commit ourselves to worship, work and fellowship together so that each succeeding generation may hear the Good News of Jesus Christ and be helped to find the voice God gave them.
Then we move further out as we promise to follow Christ in our daily life and work, accepting that our Christian discipleship could have a radical effect on our homes, our relationships and our places of work.
And finally, still further, we promise to proclaim by word and action the good news of God in Christ. We promise that we will “go global.” As a faith community we will speak up and stand up for healing and reconciliation; for justice and peace; for the kingdom of God in our world. We will not keep our voice to ourselves; we will share it gladly and generously, as Christ gave himself gladly and generously for us.
And so, to our new Church Members and to you all, I say,
Believe in the voice God gave you.
Believe in the faith, the hope and the love you have been given.
Trust in the power of God the giver of life; Jesus Christ who gave the dumb a voice; the Holy Spirit who will keep you singing.
Treasure the words of Mary and make them your own “He that is mighty has done great things in me….and me…..and me….and me.”
And go out to celebrate Christmas gladly and generously. For the mouth of the Lord himself has spoken.