‘Reaching out to each other’ – 20th December 2020 – 4th Sunday of Advent

Welcome to our worship this morning.

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20 12 20 Advent 4 -- Morning (Order of Service)

The Readings

2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16

Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.’ Nathan said to the king, ‘Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.’

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’ Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure for ever before me; your throne shall be established for ever.

Luke 1.26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

Scripture Quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The Sermon
by Canon Dr Matthew Rhodes

This morning on the fourth Sunday of Advent we focus on your patron saint, Mary, the mother of our Lord. In the past few months I’ve been very conscious of women having to give birth alone because of Covid. Some have had to do that without having their partners present. And many have done it without having their extended families to support and celebrate with them. Mary did have Joseph with her when she gave birth to Jesus but she was far from home and among strangers. It must have been hard and possibly quite frightening for Mary, a young woman, to give birth to her firstborn son like that.

I think we also forget how potentially dangerous it would have been for Mary to be an unmarried mother in that society. We are used to that in this country now but we don’t have to look very far back in our history or very far around the world to find women for whom pregnancy brings enormous risks. Risks to their reputations and position in society. And risks to their lives. Maternal mortality is still horribly common around the world. And it is important that we celebrate Mary’s bravery and willingness to say yes to God. Although there are lots of things that we cannot do at the moment, we too need to be brave sometimes and say yes to God. We can cooperate with him in bringing new things to birth, if not now then in the months to come. With the news of the vaccine it feels as if this Advent is pregnant with possibilities. Though so much is dark and difficult at the moment, we also catch glimpses of light and hope for the future.

My wife Cathy is a retired obstetrician so pregnancy and childbirth have been a bit of a family business. The calls in the night. The rush to the labour ward. I have heard more than my fair share of hair-raising birth stories but I’ll spare you those. Instead, I want to share with you a bit of medical science which my wife passed my way recently. We’re all learning a bit about science these days but I’ll try not to blind you with it too much. I’m not a scientist myself so there won’t be time for questions afterwards. This bit of science come via the University of Michigan. And it concerns the placenta and something called fetomaternal microchimerism (microkimerism).

You may not have thought much about placentas but they are extraordinary things. The placenta is the only organ in human biology that is made by two people together, in cooperation. It is ‘built’ from tissue that is partly from mother, and partly from the growing baby. Because of this, the placenta is referred to as a ‘feto-maternal’ organ. In the creation of the placenta, cells from the embryo, ‘reach down’ towards the wall of the mother’s uterus. At the same time, the spiral arteries from the mother’s uterus are ‘reaching’ up towards the embryo. And this leads to the creation of the placenta. This reaching out might make us think of that picture from the Sistine Chapel where God and Man reach out to one another. Or more topically of the annunciation in our Gospel where God reaches out to Mary via the Angel Gabriel and she reaches out to God by agreeing to collaborate with him.

The placenta is the only organ that is designed to be disposable but unlike every other organs it has many different functions. It eliminates waste like the kidneys. It facilitates the transfer of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood, like the lungs would do, and it provides nutrients, just as our digestive system does. The placenta even has an immune function. It is a magnificently complex shared organ that supports the formation of children in the womb.

In addition to all this, the placenta enables something called ‘fetomaternal microchimerism’ (microkimerism). This refers to the presence of a small population of genetically distinct and separately derived cells within an individual. During pregnancy, small numbers of these cells travel across the placenta. Some of the child’s cells cross into the mother, and some cells from the mother cross into the child. The cells from the child integrate into tissues in the mother’s body and start functioning like the cells around them.

The presence of these cells is extraordinary for several reasons. One is that these cells have been found in various maternal organs and tissues such as the brain, the breast, the thyroid and the skin. These are all organs which in some way are important for the health of both the baby and the mother. They help to signal to the mother’s body that it needs to making milk. And they help to produce collagen which helps the mother’s body to heal. So that baby is actually helping the mother to recover from giving birth.

Usually, foreign or ‘other’ cells are detected by the host’s immune system and are destroyed. The fact that these foetal cells ‘survive’ and then are allowed to integrate into the mother’s body speaks of an amazing ‘cooperation’ between the mother and her child. It suggests that the physical connection between mother and baby is even deeper and more beautiful than was previously thought. Research in into these cells suggests that may help protect mothers from breast cancer many years after they have given birth.

This radical mutuality at the cellular level is something that we are just beginning to understand. We are not the singular autonomous individuals that we sometimes imagine. We know that at a theological level. We have a sense of our mutual interdependence. We have a deep sense of God’s presence in each one of us. And Christmas is a wonderful reminder of that. But now we have a profound biological illustration of that mutuality. We speak of Mary not just being the God bearer but of her being redeemed by her son. And now we can see that at a biological level. Mary’s body didn’t just help to bring Jesus into the world. It was also changed by that experience. Jesus brings life and healing to each one of us and he brought life and healing to Mary in a very particular way.

There was a time when science and religion seemed to be at loggerheads. Virgin births were dismissed as superstition. These days, virgin births are quite common technically speaking. And instead of being antithetical to religion, so much of science seems to demonstrate the wonder and majesty of God and his creation. The creation of Covid 19 vaccines is just one miracle that we have seen recently. Like Mary, we too need to be open to the miraculous and new. For, as the Angel Gabriel reminded her, nothing will be impossible with God. Amen.

The Prayers
prepared by Oli

Lord, as we look back on a year of grief, turmoil and restrictions, we look to your coming to bring a renewed hope to the world. may we humbly welcome and nurture this hope, as you were humbly welcomed in a stable, nurtured in a manger lined with straw.
Lord Jesus, within the darkness,
Let us celebrate the coming of your light.

Lord, where we have experienced division and uncertainty - in the world, in our country, in our close relationships, and within ourselves; may we experience your healing peace and unite these fractures, seeking reconciliation in every broken place
Lord Jesus, within the darkness,
Let us celebrate the coming of your light.

Lord, in the quiet moments of prayer, in the chaotic buzz of Christmas preparation, in the ordinary and extraordinary, may we experience your joy, mercy and simplicity
Lord Jesus, within the darkness,
Let us celebrate the coming of your light.

Lord, as we approach the coming of Christ into the world and into our hearts, may we be always aware of your ever present love, unconditional and without end nor limit.
Lord Jesus, within the darkness,
Let us celebrate the coming of your light.

Lord, as we look back on a year of loss and grief, we ask that your loving, healing presence be with all those who have lost family and friends and that your presence is also felt by all those who are sick in mind, body or spirit including those known personally to each one of us.
Lord Jesus, within the darkness,
Let us celebrate the coming of your light.