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Sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Advent (7 December 2014) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean
The Very Reverend David Ison looks at fairness, concluding "God doesn’t do ‘fair’: but God is just, and kind."
It’s so unfair! They have been treated so much better than me!
We’re very alert to such situations, to the unfairness of when someone pushes into a queue before us, or gets a bigger portion of food than we do, or is allowed to stay up late or go to a party and we’re not.
My eldest child used to complain to us about how much less strict we were with her younger brothers than with her – it just wasn’t fair. She doesn’t know of course about the number of times that her younger siblings complained about the privileges that she had, and how unfair that was.
It’s true that life often isn’t fair, and people are biased. It’s also true that for most of us, we benefit from unfairness: the world is kinder to us than to so many of our fellow human beings.
It doesn’t mean that we deserve it, either way: it just means that we’re different. And God meets us as we are and as who we are: which means that, in God’s eyes, we’re sometimes treated differently because justice demands it. As Jesus says in more ways than one in the Gospels, ‘From those to whom much is given, much will be required’.
Its modern socialist equivalent is ‘From each according to their ability, to each according to their need’. But nonetheless God’s justice can at times seem a bit unfair.
As it does at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel (1.5-20). Luke starts his story about the birth of Jesus with an introduction to set the scene and get us ready for the big event. He starts with the account of Zechariah the elderly priest and his wife Elizabeth who are faithful followers of God over the years, but have the sorrow of not having been able to have children, an important requirement in a Jewish marriage, and a sign of God’s blessing – a blessing they might feel they deserve, but haven’t had.
So Zechariah goes into the holy place in the temple to make an offering, and the angel Gabriel appears to him and announces that Elizabeth is going to have a son who will be a great religious leader. How does Zechariah respond?
‘How will I know that this is so?’ he says, ‘For my wife and I are past it’. And because of his response, he’s struck dumb for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Was what fair? Was he said really so unbelieving that he should be made dumb?
It seems rather unfair to expect him to respond to such an amazing experience as if it were the kind of thing that happened all the time.
And especially when we compare it to what happens a few verses later, when the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and announces that she too is to have a holy child, and she responds in equally amazed fashion, to question, as Zechariah questions, how on earth this could happen given her circumstances.
Zechariah says ‘How can I know that this is true – we’re too old’, and Mary says, ‘How on earth can this be, because I’m a virgin’. Why isn’t Mary struck dumb too?
Well – it’s all down to circumstances. Zechariah and Mary are different. Zechariah has been praying for a child, for many years – ‘your prayer has been heard’, says the angel – and yet has, with his wife Elizabeth, been coping with the disappointment of not seeing anything happen. And when the time is right and God finally answers, Zechariah can’t dare to believe it – he doesn’t want to be disappointed again.
And the outcome is rather ironic, though I doubt that Zechariah found it funny. You’ve been praying aloud, Zechariah – and now you’ll be silent. You asked for a sign that this prophecy is true, and the sign is – that you’re unable to tell anyone about it. You saw a vision alone in a holy place, and now everyone will hear about it – but not from you. You will be joyful and glad that your prayers have been answered – but not in the way you expected.
Mary, on the other hand – she wasn’t praying for a baby or expecting anything, she’s young and unmarried, and facing a difficult future if this really is true – and yet she accepts what is to come. Zechariah’s child will be a joy, and Mary’s child will be – a cause of fear as well as wonder, a child to be hidden before he is unveiled. Zechariah has a hard time in the short term: but Mary has a hard time in the long term.
God doesn’t do ‘fair’: but God is just, and kind, and meets us where we are and walks with us through life, whatever comes. Other people may treat us unjustly: God will not, however unfair it may seem and however much it seems that the grass is greener in someone else’s life than in our own.
As Zechariah and Mary found: God comes to each of us, where we are, and takes us to where we need to go, not to where we want to be.