Looking outside the frame
Sermon preached at Bramley St Margaret, 23 December 2018
(c) Stephen Craven 2018
A few weeks ago I was sat on the bus, going into Leeds, when a young woman, possibly an art student, came and sat next to me. She was carrying an empty picture frame – a large one, perhaps a metre high – and apologised as she slid it in front of our seats. I asked what she was framing; she said, disappointedly, that large as it was, this frame was not large enough. The picture she had was even bigger and would have to be cut down to fit the frame. Bear that image in mind.
For the last three weeks of Advent we have been following Mary and the Holy Family through their amazing journey. An emotional journey that started with an angel announcing her pregnancy, and moved on to the support she received from her aunt Elizabeth and from her fiancé Joseph. We considered Mary’s bravery in accepting the challenge with all its risks, and the call to make a long journey right at the end of the pregnancy.
Now we arrive with Mary at Bethlehem. Mary, we assume, is out of her depth. Just when a young woman needs her own mother to support her through the birth of her first child, she finds herself several days’ journey from home with only faithful Joseph for company – but he’s presumably not been a parent before, either. It’s a new experience, in a new town, with no facilities. Scared or what? What might be going through her mind, before the contractions start and they “call the midwife”?
Think back to that picture frame. Let it represent Mary’s world view. At this unprecedented moment, Mary needs to look outside the frame of her immediate challenges. Of course as a good Jew she knows her Bible. She can recite Psalm 139 – “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” That applies to us all, the Jewish world view framed the idea that every child is unique and known to God. But Mary knows more. She had the personal encounter with the Archangel Gabriel and the promise that Jesus would be called the Son of God.
It’s not only paintings that are put in frames. Spectacles are, too. I got these new glasses recently. When the optician invited me to choose a frame, I went for a bigger one than before. When I’m cycling, head down, I need to be able to see through the lens like this, not over the top of the glasses where I lose focus. But they are varifocals so I can read clearly as well. Close up and long distance, to see what’s under my nose and know where I’m going.
Prophecy is like that. Mary’s knowledge of Scripture also includes the Prophets. The Jewish scriptures are full of Prophecies, and traditionally one Sunday in Advent is given over to thinking about them. One way we can think about prophecy is that of seeing through a bigger frame – the prophet is given an understanding beyond what people can deduce from their own reasoning, science and history. It might be like reading glasses – a deeper understanding of what really lies behind human words and actions – or like distance vision – a word of knowledge of the future.
Isaiah alone uttered many prophecies about someone called the Servant of God, and we have just heard part of one of them read this morning. Put together with the words of Gabriel, Mary realises, sat in the stable in these days before the birth, that the baby in her womb is not only her first-born, but the first-born of God.
Elizabeth’s baby John was only 6 months old at this time, yet before his birth it was prophesised that he himself would be a prophet. At his circumcision, John’s father had also prophesied over him, that “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Those words pointed not to John, but to Jesus.
Put together with the words of Isaiah, Mary realises again that her child will be not only the light of Israel, but the light of the World. That’s a much bigger frame for her picture of the world!
Let’s leave Mary in the stable for a few minutes, and think ahead a bit. Unlike us, Mary does not know at this point that the Magi are already on their way from the East, bringing symbols of kingship, priesthood and suffering. They saw Jesus in a different frame altogether. They under-stood that this baby was being revealed as the Son of God, but also saw that he would face dangers ahead. Which brings us to the Gospel reading.
Jesus, as an adult, understood all too well what his identity meant. He knew the intimacy of being God’s son, yet he also knew that in fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah, he was the Suffering Servant, destined to die. He knew also that his death and resurrection would bring about enormous upheaval. So among all the good news of forgiveness and healing, Jesus also prophesied. His prophecies warned of coming dangers, of the importance of looking far ahead. He uses the simple example of leaves appearing on trees at the start of spring, a sign that summer is on its way, to remind people that God does give us signs of the times if we can only understand them.
“Be alert at all times”, he told his disciples. “That day” – the day when the Kingdom of God is fulfilled – “will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth”. This, and other prophecies in the Gospels, are often seen as having a double meaning: both the destruction of Jerusalem a generation later, and the second coming of Christ himself when we believe the world will be transformed in ways we cannot yet understand. But they also had to be alert for what would happen in their own lifetimes.
For the moment, Christmas is upon us – not without warning, we knew it was coming, but so often we seem to have too little time to prepare. The conventions of Christmas mean that our ‘frame’, or world view, can be restricted rather than expanded, and we find ourselves going along with the consumerism, family rituals and cultural expectations. Jesus’ words about “Dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life” are all too relevant, as what should be time to relax can easily end up being time to worry, and what should be time to appreciate God’s gifts can easily become a time of self-centredness. “Being alert at all times” means being prepared for God, prepared for the unexpected.
We never know when crisis might hit us, even at Christmas. As a boy, one festive season was ruined for me when my favourite pet cat was run over on Christmas Eve; twelve years later, my Grandma died, also on Christmas Eve. And there are those who this year have much bigger worries than these: some will find themselves homeless, in debt or alone for the first time. Many will remember the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004; this Christmas there has been another, in the same part of the world. More locally, Boxing Day 2015 saw unprecedented floods in West Yorkshire. In the light of those worries, those unexpected crises, those things that make us wonder how we can cope, what does Jesus’ call to “be alert at all times” actually mean?
Let’s remember Mary and Joseph again, sitting in the Bethlehem stable – no shepherds or kings yet, no baby, just the two of them and a few animals. But actually it is an opportunity – assuming she didn’t go into labour the same day they arrived, they have a bit of time for reflection, to put their immediate worries into the expanded frame of thinking that the angels and prophecies have given them. They are not alone, because God is with them – Immanu’el. It’s not a disaster, because it’s all part of God’s plan. There is the wider family to support them – we can be sure that Elizabeth and Zechariah, and Mary’s own parents, would have been praying for them.
So can we, perhaps, find time this Christmas season to widen our frames, to see the whole picture? If you have a week off work, or two weeks off school, take the time between now and the New Year to look at your life and think outside the frame. Do you have only problems, or opportunities? A short term crisis, or the chance to alter your long term plans? Immediate decisions to make, or time to think over the options? What support do you have in whatever is troubling you? Are there family members and friends who can help, self-help books, special interest groups or charities to turn to for advice; support in the local Church, Bible passages to encourage you, forms of prayer that you find helpful? Which of God’s many promises can you rely on to carry you through?
Mary could cope because she could look outside the frame – she knew that Jesus was being born, not just for her but for the world. Mary understood the prophesies, and was ready for Jesus. Are you?