Holy Spirit

Holy Spirit

Saturday, 4 December 2021

God's Promises - Advent 2

This is my sermon for Advent 2 - preached at 8.30am BCP Communion and 10am Sung Eucharist on Sunday December 5th 2021

Last week we heard God’s messenger come to Mary to speak of God’s mission for her, God’s blessing, God’s promise, the double edged sword that would pierce her own heart too – and we heard about Hagar, the slave of Abraham and Sarah.

This week we again begin with Genesis – and this time we hear God repeat the promises made to Hagar for her son Ishmael – this time speaking to Abraham of the son Sarah will bear.  These aren’t new promises.  These are the promises which God has already made being reiterated, emphasised.

Just as Abram’s name was changed to Abraham by God – now we hear Sarai’s name changed to Sarah. The change of name a sign both of God’s authority in their lives, and of the new mission indicated by the name. Sarah means woman of high rank. 

Remember we are at a place in our story when there is as yet no ‘people of Israel’ – the 12 tribes born of Jacob are not yet a twinkle in anyone’s eye, and the Commandments for God’s people have not yet been shared on Sinai.   Abraham and Sarah are wandering around with God – not ‘on a journey’ like a Strictly contestant- but literally wandering from place to place, nomadic, outside the structures of any town, culture or tribe. 

God does not give Sarah a new name, a new designation, relative to how the world sees things, relative to her place in human society – this is not a promise that other people will give Sarah honour - God’s renaming, God’s acknowledgement of Sarah is about where she stands with God.

Despite her cruelty, despite her bitterness – God is working through her.  

Is this a relief to us, I wonder, that God can still work with honour and bless such unlikely people?

Then in Abraham’s conversation with God we see something else illustrated that I think I have always thought of as being something modern, but which scripture reveals is ancient.

People think they have to choose between competing good things.

God shows that with his blessings ALL may thrive.

It is Abraham that thinks in his heart that there must be a choice to be made between his son with a slave - Ishmael - and the son God tells him his wife will have, to be named Isaac.  It is Abraham who thinks that if there is to be blessing for Isaac then there can be no blessing for Ishmael. 

We have already heard this is not true, God has already spoken to Hagar of all that will be done through Ishmael.

It is not God who preferences one child over the other – it is not God who even suggests that such a thing is necessary or desirable.  It is Abraham’s assumption.  I wonder if it is our assumption too?


Do we always think for someone to have something good someone else has to go without?  Do we think that blessings are scarce and are we tempted to hold tight to goodness in case there isn’t enough for everyone?

This might seem a little left field to you but bear with me.

Why, when we hear of refugees desperate to reach the UK – refugees wherever they come from, driven by nothing more than the desperate desire to at least have a chance of a good life, and give their children a good and safe home – why are we vulnerable to voices that suggest that for those children to have a good and safe home, for those refugees to have a chance of a better life, our lives, our children and grandchildren must somehow therefore be disadvantaged?  Like Abraham, we think that if one is to be blessed then there can’t be enough blessing for everyone.

You may say – that’s not what I think Rachel – OK – but we allow our mainstream media to speak in these terms and we’re not all rushing to correct them.

God does not say because one person has good things another must have less.  God shows us, time and again that with God all people can be blessed.  With God there is abundance of goodness, not a scarcity to be fought over, hoarded and hidden from others.  With God Ishmael AND Isaac will live and thrive.  God does not create the competition – but neither is God absent from the world where we think there is competition for resources, for goodness, for a fair and happy life.

God is alongside the people who default to thinking the good things can’t happen. God is alongside those for whom such generosity, such mutual flourishing seems so counter intuitive, so against their experience – that they laugh in the face of God at the suggestion.

Again I wonder if it is a relief to us, that God can still bring blessing, through and with and in the company of, people who think mutual good so unlikely that they laugh at it.

Then we move to our Gospel – this part of the story known as the Visitation.  - the beginning of the encounter between cousins, Mary and Elizabeth – and again that word mutuality springs to mind.  We see in this encounter that there cannot be too much blessing, too much joy, that joy for ourselves and for one another can overflow. 

God is with them both, they know the power of the holy spirit moving in them – I’m sure in some spiritual and mysterious way which the text cannot convey – but also in very physical, earthy ways.  The baby leaps inside Elizabeth. 

We begin to sense, I think, under our own skin, just how life changing it will be that the one we wait for this Advent will dwell in the same bone and sinew, blood and vein that we inhabit. 

There can be no separation of time or space, we are not made of different stuff, no us and them, no either or – there is only both/and.  The blessing is for all. It will inhabit our own skin and will not be othered or separated.   

It will not be Isaac or Ishmael, Sarah or Hagar. All will be blessed.  Not deserving or undeserving.  Deserving and undeserving – and good luck guessing which one any of us might be.

It will not be us or the desperate and vulnerable on blow up boats in the channel.  All are offered blessing through the one who is coming to walk each step, bear each hurt, know each humiliation and share every joy.  We might even be the instruments through which God’s blessing is shown – and if we are I have no doubt that the blessings that will come back to us will be more than we can imagine.

Maranatha. Amen. Come Lord Jesus.


The Visitation, by Malcolm Guite

Here is a meeting made of hidden joys

Of lightenings cloistered in a narrow place

From quiet hearts the sudden flame of praise

And in the womb the quickening kick of grace.

Two women on the very edge of things

Unnoticed and unknown to men of power

But in their flesh the hidden Spirit sings

And in their lives the buds of blessing flower.

And Mary stands with all we call ‘too young’,

Elizabeth with all called ‘past their prime’

They sing today for all the great unsung

Women who turned eternity to time

Favoured of heaven, outcast on the earth

Prophets who bring the best in us to birth.[1]

1 comment:

Ray Barnes said...

Thanks for your perspective, food for thought.
Love The Visitation, have never heard it before.