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Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, 20th December 2015

Luke 1:39-55

Not long ago there was a feature running in our parish magazine ‘Together’ about favourite hymns. Today I want to talk about another hymn, which wasn’t mentioned: perhaps the favourite hymn in all of Christianity. This is far bigger than ‘Shine, Jesus, Shine’ or ‘Love Divine’.

In the Gospel, that I have just read, we heard it. It’s the Song of Mary, which is often referred to by its old Latin name, Magnificat. ‘Magnificat’ means ‘magnifies’, ‘makes bigger’.

Every evening, about 6 o’clock, in every cathedral in this country, a really good choir (because all our cathedrals have super choirs) will sing this beautiful song, using the words from the Book of Common Prayer – words which were written half-way through the sixteenth century, as a translation from the Latin of St Jerome, which was itself a translation from the Greek that St Luke the doctor actually wrote his Gospel in.

And every Sunday at Evensong, at six o’clock at our sister church, St Mary’s in Stoke D’Abernon, there too, we sing the Magnificat. It could be the number one hymn in the Church of England – and versions of it are sung by churches all over the world. Magnificat might even be the most-loved hymn in Christianity.

Evensong in cathedrals – which is broadcast as Choral Evensong on BBC Radio 3 on Wednesdays and Sunday afternoons – it’s on this afternoon at 3, if you want to listen, this time from Chester Cathedral [ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06rwy7p%5D – is reported to be the service where the congregations have grown most in the Church of England in recent years: not, actually, a modern service, but a service which can trace its origins back to the fourth century, and which was first set out, in the form we use today, in 1549.

The music which they sing is really beautiful. Choral Evensong, in every cathedral, every night, with a wonderful choir in every one, is a secret gem. More and more people are discovering it.

These are the words of the Magnificat that they sing:

My soul doth magnify the Lord :
and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

For he hath regarded :
the lowliness of his handmaiden.

For behold, from henceforth :
all generations shall call me blessed.

For he that is mighty hath magnified me :
and holy is his Name.

And his mercy is on them that fear him :
throughout all generations.

He hath shewed strength with his arm :
he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat :
and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things :
and the rich he hath sent empty away.

He remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel :
as he promised to our forefathers, Abraham and his seed for ever.

OK, some words we ought to explain a bit. ‘He … hath holpen his servant Israel’. ‘Holpen’ means helped.

He has ‘regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden’: he has looked favourably on her, he has held her in high regard, we might say.

And presumably you all know what a handmaiden is. Mary was a ‘lowly handmaiden’. She wasn’t one of the great and good.

‘For he that is mighty hath magnified me’. There’s that ‘magnifies’ word again. This time it’s not Mary ‘magnifying’ God, but her saying how God has magnified her.

And then the ‘purple passage’.
‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat :
and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things :
and the rich he hath sent empty away.’

Can you, really, see Mary, a teenager, a simple country girl, singing this song? Are they the sort of words which would just come tripping off the tongue of a teenager?

Not for the first time our Bible doesn’t really put this – even in a modern translation, like we used for the lessons – in the sort of language we would use today. ‘Tell out, my soul, the greatness of the Lord’, in Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith’s hymn which we’ve just sung, isn’t actually a very good translation either – although Bishop Timothy got it from my favourite modern Bible, the New English Bible.

The meaning is really better expressed by what a teenager today might say: ‘Deep in my heart, I big up the Lord’. I big Him up: that’s exactly right. Mary isn’t saying that she is somehow making God bigger – because God is bigger than anything – but she is bigging Him up, she is telling out His greatness.

Giles Fraser, who often does Thought for the Day on the Today programme, who was at one time philosophy tutor at Wadham College, Oxford and Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s, who got fired for trying to make friends with the Occupy protesters camped out on the Cathedral doorstep, he, Giles Fraser, reckons that the Magnificat is one of the most powerful revolutionary texts. In September, he Tweeted, ‘BTW I don’t think [that] the Red Flag [is] anywhere near as revolutionary as the Magnificat’. [https://twitter.com/giles_fraser/status/643049147919110144]

Remember what Mary said. It could indeed be rather revolutionary.

‘He hath put down the mighty from their seat :
and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things :
and the rich he hath sent empty away.’

In these short lines, Giles Fraser thinks there is a revolutionary blueprint. There are some shades of Jesus’ encounter with the Rich Young Man. Jesus turns everything on its head. The last shall be first and the first shall be last [Matt. 20:16].

I said earlier that perhaps Mary didn’t think up her famous song all by herself. As a regular worshipper in the synagogue, she would have remembered the song that Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, sang, thanking God for his birth. You can read it in the first Book of Samuel, chapter 2. ‘My heart rejoices in the Lord,’ she sings. ‘The Lord makes a man poor, he makes him rich, he brings down and he raises up. He lifts the weak out of the dust, and raises the poor … to give them a place among the great, …’

It’s very like the Magnificat. There is the difference that Mary uses a past tense: God did these things, he put down the mighty from their seat, and so on, whereas Hannah uses the present tense, he does these things. God is capable of bringing the rich and powerful down, and he is capable of building up the poor and meek. Hannah’s emphasis is more on what God can do, rather than on what he has done. Mary on the other hand says what He has done.

Both songs are songs, hymns, of praise for God. They are hymns of gratitude: ‘Now thank we all our God.’ And given that Mary undoubtedly started on one of the bottom rungs of society, it’s not surprising that from her point of view, she emphasised how God has humbled the rich and powerful from time to time.

So – do sample Choral Evensong, either on the wireless or – better – by going along in person, on Sunday evening to St Mary’s, or indeed on any weeknight to Guildford Cathedral. And when you hear, indeed when you sing, the Magnificat, do spare a thought for the handmaidens, spare a thought for the people who have to come to the Foodbank. You could be surprised at what might happen.

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Sermon for Evensong on the 25th Sunday after Trinity, the Feast of
Christ the King
2 Samuel 23:1-7, Matt. 28:16-end

The other day in the Guardian there was an extended article, in a section which they now call ‘the long read’, about Prince Charles, and what sort of a king he would be when eventually he accedes to the throne. Apparently it’s not something he likes to talk about, because to do so would necessarily mean that he would have to be thinking about the death of his beloved mother, the Queen.

I think that’s rather endearing. I read the article with extra interest, knowing that I was going to be preaching tonight, on the Sunday when we celebrate Christ the King. It’s a relatively new festival in Christianity – it began in the Roman Catholic Church in 1925. Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King as a reaction against what he perceived as a rising tide of secularism. People had forgotten the importance of God.

Actually I preached only last week about the text from the Gospel according to St Matthew which was our New Testament lesson tonight, Jesus’ Great Commission, to go and make disciples of all the world.

It isn’t the Gospel reading which one most readily associates with the idea of Jesus as King. This morning the lesson was Matthew 25, ‘Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you for the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat, …’ You remember, when they asked when they had done this, Jesus replied, ‘inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me’ – one of the most powerful social justice and charitable love messages that Jesus ever gave.

Jesus the King was King in heaven, and He was dividing the sheep and the goats in the Last Judgment. The Gospel writer expected Jesus to be an absolute monarch, splendid in majesty and power.

We are not used to absolute monarchs now, today in England. After Magna Carta our kings are ‘constitutional monarchs’ with powers constrained and restricted. The will of the people, expressed in Parliament, is sovereign.

King David, the greatest king of the Jews, in his last words, in the first lesson, from 2 Samuel, affirmed that God had told him that ‘One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of the morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.’ That’s the poetry of the man who wrote the Psalms, describing kingship in a similar vein to Magna Carta. The king is subject to higher authority, and, respecting that higher authority, he must rule justly: not capriciously or cruelly.

Reading the article about Prince Charles,[http://gu.com/p/43dtt, ] I found that the author was concerned that perhaps Charles, who has a habit of writing to people in public life and expressing very forthright views, would be much more assertive in public than the Queen has been, and is. The thrust of the article was to ask whether Charles would throw his weight around in an anti-democratic way.

I confess that I was somewhat uneasy about the Monarchy when I was a young man. What was it that made the Queen and her family better than you or me, so that we owed her respect – reverence, almost. What was her strength? Why would we go through elaborate rigmaroles when she was about?

That feeling in me changed completely, when my Father got the OBE. My mother, my brother and I went with him to the investiture in Buckingham Palace. We sat no more than a few feet away from where Her Majesty was standing. She had someone standing next to her to pass her the medals, but no notes or prompts.

She bestowed medals on about 75 people. What was amazing was that she seemed to know about every single one that she was giving a medal to. She spoke to my Father for a couple of minutes – which felt much longer, of course – and clearly she had carefully researched all that Dad had been doing.

She had done this thorough preparation for every single person that she decorated that day. It must have been a big task of preparation – and just think, she must have to do a similar job several times a year. It speaks volumes that, after so many years, the Queen still takes it upon herself to prepare and get to know exactly what her loyal subjects have been doing, the reason why they have been awarded the medals.

The Queen is reported to say that this hard work is just part of the job. She has a very strong ethic of service. The Queen is modest enough to do masses of homework, so that she can serve her people in a professional way. My Dad was really impressed. Although he was dying, the whole thing really bucked him up. He really did walk taller after getting his OBE from the Queen.

And I ceased to have republican leanings. In a minute we will pray for our Queen; I will lead the prayers; and I’ll really mean it.

I do hope that Prince Charles will be similarly imbued with an ethic of service. He has had to lead a rather odd life so far. In the article which I read, for example. It describes Prince Charles visiting Chester Cathedral.

‘Inside the cathedral, the strangeness of Prince Charles’s life came into focus. … Some modernist choir stalls, installed 15 years ago, caught his disapproving eye. “Doesn’t quite go,” the prince announced, locking eyes with the senior churchman. “It may be time for a review.” …. Finally, in the cloister, Charles was invited to hold Grace the golden eagle, a magnificent bird who, moments earlier, had evacuated her bowels explosively on to this reporter’s notebook.’ A close shave for the Prince.

Apart from the eagle, Charles seemed to act as though he was in charge. Telling the Dean of a cathedral that his seating ‘didn’t quite go’ and that it was ‘time for a review’ doesn’t sound like someone whose prime object is to serve.

But that is it. The Servant King. That is a modern hymn which we can like. Think of the passage in St Mark chapter 10: ‘You know that among the Gentiles [in the context, it must mean, among the Romans], those whom they recognise as their rulers [their kings] lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But …. whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, …’

Jesus’ kingship was not like a Roman emperor’s. Not even like Herod, the puppet king, king of the Jews, who would soon condemn Him. These men had considerable power in the secular sphere, we say, ‘on earth’. They had the power of life and death. Jesus, Jesus the man, didn’t have that kind of power.

‘Pilate said to Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?”… Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world,to testify to the truth.”‘ (John 18:33b, 36-37).

So we come back to this question, what makes a real king. King David said that he must fear God and deal justly; our Queen is giving her service, committed and faithful to her people. Prince Charles already does a great deal of charitable work – but he must not stray into autocracy. He needs to be a Servant King, just as his mother is a Servant Queen.

And the Servant King, the original Servant King, will be with us till the end of the age. As Bob Dylan sang, ‘You’re gonna have to serve somebody.’ Christ the King. Let us indeed serve Him.