St Francis, Terriers - Advent 4 (24.12.2017) Tony Dickinson

Today, thanks to a quirk of the Church's year, we're participating in a medical miracle – a fourteen-hour pregnancy. We've just heard St Luke's account of the angel's message to Mary. Around midnight tonight we shall be celebrating the birth which that message foretold. It's a reminder that there are times when eternity and history collide, so that past, present and future crash into one another, and geography runs riot. Terriers becomes Nazareth, becomes Bethlehem. As Ford Prefect warned Arthur Dent, “Reality is on the blink again”.

Well, maybe. It's certainly pushing human ideas about order and stability to the limits. Even St Paul, who knew a thing or two about stretching human language as far as it can go in the service of God – even Paul is reduced in today's second reading to something very close to incoherence. The closing words of his letter to the Christians in Rome make no sense grammatically either in the English translation we've just heard or in the original Greek – though the meaning he wants to convey is pretty clear.

The trouble is that anything we can say about the events we are celebrating during these twenty-four hours – and in the six weeks that follow – sounds absolutely off the wall; but at the same time we know that it's gloriously true. In the words of an old Christmas carol, "The great God of heaven has come down to earth." Except that he has never not been here, as we were reminded by this morning's first reading. And he doesn't need special buildings to make him present! But that's all matter for later – much later – today. In the meantime paradox and mystery abound.

Now, saying that is not quite the same thing as agreeing with a superficial understanding of the African lawyer-turned-theologian, Tertullian, who said, eighteen centuries ago, "It is certain - because it is impossible". It is, however, a reminder that cold logic and rational analysis will only take us part of the way towards understanding what we will shortly be celebrating. We need the poets, the musicians, the artists, to help us to make sense of it all. We need the people who can help us make connections, the hymn-writers and the visionaries and the storytellers.

Like St Luke in this morning's gospel reading. Gabriel's flying visit to Nazareth has echoes of other stories in the Hebrew Scriptures about special births through which God's purposes are to be taken forward. Luke invites us to remember them. He also offers his readers an instructive comparison between the response that Gabriel received from Mary and the one that he had received six months earlier from Zachariah. And he sets a challenge for us.

When the scriptures are read publicly in the setting of worship, they are read with the expectation that, if we are listening – and listening as a community – they will challenge us and ultimately transform us. As Rowan Williams has written in his recent book, "Holy Living", "[the re-reading of scripture] repeatedly recreates a movement towards conversion." And there are few passages in scripture which move us as powerfully as the gospel we have just heard. Why else should so many artists and sculptors, poets and musicians down the ages have focused their skills on depicting on this encounter?

The angel's greeting is addressed not only to Mary, but to us as well. We too are invited to become part of God's purposes, not just as individuals but as a congregation, as the body of Christ in this place. Down the centuries saints and mystics have raised the disturbing question: what good is it that Mary brought forth the Christ in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, if we do not bring him forth here, where we are, today? As history and eternity collide for us during the coming hours, the question that is raised for us, both individually and collectively, is this: do we duck the challenge, or do we take a deep breath and reply with Mary, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word"?

Let us keep silence.

Lord Jesus, you grew towards birth in the Virgin’s womb: be planted also in our hearts and lives. Amen.