Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Mothering Sunday.

Today’s reflection is the sermon preached at the service here by John Woolley, a local Methodist lay preacher. Thanks to him for agreeing to its circulation.

Mothering Sunday Readings: 1 Samuel 1: 20-28 Luke 2:33-35 John 19:25=27 

Today is Mothering Sunday, and our scripture readings today have focused our attention on two mothers, living many centuries apart in time and in very different circumstances but linked by a common experience. Both of them in their different ways gave up their firstborn sons to the lifetime service of the Lord. 

Hannah had been married for many years but was childless. Her most earnest wish was that she should bear a child and she made a solemn vow to the Lord that if he would grant her the blessing of a child of her own then she would see that the child would be dedicated to the service of the Lord for the whole of his life. And so it came to be – in the fullness of time she gave birth to a son, and she named him Samuel, and this son became one of the first and greatest prophets of God’s people. 

Mary’s story was rather different. Even before she became pregnant she had been visited by an angel, who told her that she had found favour with God and that she had been chosen to become the mother of the long promised Messiah. We know the stories about his birth in Bethlehem. Today we read the account of his presentation in the temple as a tiny baby, just eight days old. We read too John’s account of how Mary was there with him at the end – right up to that terrible end when most of the disciples had fled and only John and those few faithful women remained to witness and share Jesus’ suffering. 

Possibly only someone who is a mother herself could even begin to imagine the agony of those last few hours when Jesus hung on the cross – what thoughts must have gone through her mind as she witnessed the humiliation and suffering of her beloved boy. Helplessness – unable to do anything except stand at the foot of the cross; pain, for all that he was enduring; and probably some guilt too, for there is often guilt, however illogical it may seem, in any situation like this. What was happening was something she had often dreaded, something that she had tried so hard to protect him from. In the early days of his ministry, when she had come to him to try and persuade him to return home to Nazareth. In spite of all the wonderful things he was doing and teaching, she could hear too the growing voices of opposition and she had feared for him. Why should some people hate and fear him so, when all he was doing was speaking the truth and doing good? 

And yet the secret dread she held in her heart had been there long before – it went right back to when Jesus was just a tiny baby, when she and Joseph had taken Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem for his circumcision ceremony. There had been an oldman there, Symeon, who had taken Jesus in his arms and had made a strange, wonderful, yet terrifying prophesy concerning him. She could still remember the exact words he had spoken to her. ‘This child is destined to cause the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that is spoken against.. And a sword will pierce your own soul too’. Truly those were prophetic words – what is it that this old sage foresaw as he held the infant messiah in his arms. 

He foresaw that many in Israel would rise because of Jesus – surely that was only to be expected. But he saw too that many would fall because of him. How could this be? For centuries the Jews had looked forward with eager anticipation to the coming of the Messiah, and in these times this was almost the only hope many of them had for the future of the nation. For Israel was an occupied country and the proud Jews were little more than downtrodden underlings. The Jewish nationalists and the devout Jews were looking for a great Messiah who would overthrow the yoke of the Romans and restore the nation. Surely the coming of Messiah could be nothing other than a time of great rejoicing. So why did so many fall because of him? Why was his coming such a crisis? We already begin to see some of the difficult and serious questions that the coming of Jesus raised; some of the reasons that ultimately led to him being nailed to the cross. 

Before Christ came, men dreamed. The prophets of old had looked forward to the coming of a great Messiah, a saviour of the nation. They often saw him as a great priest/king of David’s calibre. These old ideas of the coming Messiah, themselves sometimes a little muddled and confused, were warped and twisted by the situation of the times. It was perhaps inevitable that at this time of occupation by a foreign power that the Jews would look forward to the coming of a great military leader. 

But then Christ came. Dreams were possible no longer. Christ was there among them, living and working. The dreams and illusions were shattered. People had to accept, not the idea of Messiah as they hoped he would be, but the Messiah as he actually was. Small wonder, then, that so many were to reject him. The dreams and the reality were so far apart that it was almost impossible for many to recognise Jesus as Messiah. They could have accepted a Messiah in gleaming armour, leading a Jewish army out against the might of the Roman legions. They could not accept a messiah born and raised as he was. Born to an unmarried woman in a cave in the hillside used as a stable, born in squalor and raised in poverty – one of the ’common people’ – as common as dirt. Had they been more perceptive they might have realised that it was only because Christ was one of the common people that ordinary people were able to come to him and accept him. They could have accepted the Messiah as a great Priest/King. How could they accept this carpenters son who was neither priest nor king? How could they recognise him? And in very real sense it was those disappointed expectations that led ultimately to his condemnation and his death on the cross. 

But I think in all this there’s a warning here for us too. Sometimes I think we tend to over spiritualise Christ, to put him up on a pedestal as an object of worship, and forget who he actually is. Jesus belongs to the world; he is not the property of the churchgoer or even just of the Christian. We have to accept Jesus as he is, not as we would wish him to be. We can look at a beautiful religious painting and say that we see Christ. Do we catch a glimpse of Christ in the tortured expression of a mother whose children are dying needlessly because of hunger or disease as she stares out at us from an Oxfam poster? We should, for Christ is assuredly there suffering alongside her. Christ belongs to the world, and we must be careful to accept him as he is, to recognise him where and how he comes to us, and not just to lock him away within the church. If we are not always open to receive Christ as he is, we too can be in danger of failing to recognise him, just as those Jewish elders rejected or failed to recognise the Christ in their midst, and tried to get rid of him by condemning him. 

This brings us right back to the foot of the cross, and the very human drama being played out there. But in that terrible and agonising event we must never forget that there was a great unseen presence – God was there too, sharing in that suffering. 

I think the truth of this really first came home to me in quite a dramatic way when, a number of years ago, I was on a visit to a hospital in Ethiopia supported by the charity for which I was then working. 

On Easter Saturday a party of us went out for a picnic. In the party was Ruth, a senior nurse at the hospital and a young Dutchwoman, Karin, who was in Addis Ababa to learn the language before taking up the post of Matron at a mission hospital elsewhere in Ethiopia. Karin’s father, Baz, there on a visit to see Karin, was also with us. We drove high into the mountains, parked the landrover, and went for a walk. I had stopped to take a photograph, and was some distance from the others when I heard a terrible scream. As I dashed up the path, I could see Karin lying unconscious on the ground, her body shaking with huge convulsions. Ruth and Baz were kneeling beside her. I thought she was having a fit, but it was much worse than that – in climbing the steep hillside Karin had lost her footing and tumbled down, striking her head hard on the ground. We were 50 miles from the nearest hospital – there was nothing at all that we could do for Karin except to pray. 

The convulsions gradually grew less, but then her heart seemed to stop. Baz still knelt beside her praying desperately, ‘Please Lord, she is my only child – please, please bring her back’. Then Ruth felt a faint pulse, which gradually grew stronger. As quickly and as gently as we could, we carried Karin – still in a coma – to the landrover, and drove back down the rough mountain tracks to the hospital in the city. 

Karin’s father was much too shaken to return to his lodgings that night, so he stayed at the hospital with us. In the morning he joined us for breakfast. By that time we knew that Karin was making a miraculous recovery. She had regained consciousness after being in a coma for six or seven hours, was sitting up in bed talking to the nurses, and apart from a severe headache and a lot of bruising, she was fine. 

In his halting English, Baz said to us, ‘I didn’t sleep much last night. I was reading St John’s gospel, “God so loved the world, that He gave us his only Son”. He only had one son, yet he loved us so much that he was prepared to give him up for the sake of each one of us.’ 

There is a truth and simplicity in those words that is so profound that we often fail to grasp it. Jesus himself is God’s precious gift to the world, God’s gift to each one of us. We can’t really even begin to understand the depths of such unconditional love – how God can care for us so much. But we don’t have to understand it – we just have to accept it. God is a loving parent who loves each one of us as if there was only one of us in the world to love, and he gave us his only son, Jesus, to be an example to us, a teacher, healer and helper. And if we accept him as he is, as he comes to us, he calls us his friends and shares his life with us. Thanks be to God