Days Of Choice

24/12/2017

Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." (Luke 1:38)

(Flipping coin). “Heads. Heads. Heads. Heads. Heads”. There’s a play called “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” which features two characters from Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’ and it starts with one of them flipping a coin and every time it comes up heads. It has to because in their world there is no choice and there is no chance. Everything in that world - and everybody - has to do what the play requires them to do. They are not actual, real human beings - they are simply characters in a story whose choices are the whim of the storyteller. 

There are those who will tell you that human beings don’t really make  choices. They will tell you that our brains make the decisions and then ‘fool’ our consciousness into thinking we made the choice. There are even those who will tell you that your brain made the decision for you hours before you even knew there was a decision to be made. Forgive me if I don’t go for that. I just think it means that no one really understands how our minds make choices. But make them we do. Why, if that were not so, would our brains ‘trick’ us into making hard choices - choices that may cause us pain or discomfort, or deprive us of pleasure or gain? 

Choices like the one Mary makes. When Mary says, “let it be with me according to your word”, she’s not taking the easy option. The days ahead are going to be hard. To be pregnant before marriage in those days was to invite vitriol and judgement. Folk would be looking at her and wondering if Joseph were the father, or perhaps one of the Roman soldiers - why not? And what of Joseph? Would he stay with her? Would he support her? He’d know fine well the baby wasn’t his - who could blame him for just walking away: or worse, in his anger, shame and humiliation, seeking legal punishment for his seemingly unfaithful fiancée. You could understand it if Mary had actually said, “You know what? If it’s all the same to you, I’ll pass on that.”

But she makes the choice. You might suggest that God would ignore that choice and decide for her. I don’t think so. Again and again in the Bible people are offered choices and often they make the wrong ones - right the way back to Eve choosing to take the forbidden fruit, through David choosing to invite Bathsheba into his bed to the crowd choosing the release of Barabbas over Jesus. God gave us the power to choose. Sure he guides us in those choices sometimes, but what scripture says over and over again is that he does not choose for us. We are not like Rosencrantz or Guildenstern, or like the coin they flip.

So what if Mary had said no? Does that mean God’s purpose would have been thwarted? Probably not. But the world would be different. That’s what choice does - it affects the world and alters it; maybe not by much but then, who’s to know? Choice affects the world because it determines what we, human beings do and what we do affects the world around us. There’s nothing we can do about that. We affect the world just by being in it and by interacting with each other. We can make the world a brighter, happier, more hopeful place or we can make it a darker, sadder, more cheerless place. We can choose to serve God or not.

The thing is, you can live in this world in a way that is all about getting as much as you can for yourself. You can take an “I’m alright, Jack” attitude to those less well-off than yourself. You can embrace the notion that this is a dog-eat-dog world and the devil take the hindmost: a world where those with get-up-and-go take what they can for themselves and the weak go to the wall. That charity begins at home and that those beyond our walls should fend for themselves. Of course, no one ever sits down and thinks, “Yes! That’s how I’m going to live”. But that pattern of life filled with selfishness and greed and contempt for those who are different builds up day by day, because each day brings choices: choices about how we spend our money; about how we speak to those who serve us or who work for us; about our priorities in life.

On the night I met God I was in a foul mood. I’d recently split up with my girlfriend and I was angry and perhaps a little misogynistic and I was preparing to go out for the evening and I had it in mind to - well, let’s just say ‘behave in a way I shouldn’t be proud of’ and leave it at that. Then I caught sight of myself - call it a vision or a moment of insight or self-perception if you like - but it wasn’t quite me. The hair was different and there was something about my eyes that suggested the kind of person I could be - that any of us could be - if we give way to those places of darkness we all have inside us. And in that moment I was scared. In that moment I was sure that whoever that person was, I didn’t want to be him.

Ultimately that’s the question that God asks us by conferring on us the power to choose: who do you want to be? It’s the choice the ghost of Jacob Marley offers Scrooge in Dickens’s Christmas Carol: who do you want to be? Do you want to be bound and fettered by greed and selfishness or do you want to be light to the world and salt of the earth: who do you want to be? This is what the gospel of Jesus Christ is about. Whatever choices you’ve made in the past, whatever you’ve done, whatever you’ve said, however much you’ve proclaimed that dog eats dog and the devil takes the hindmost and acted accordingly, all that can be washed away. Now, who do you want to be?

Two thousand years ago God offered a scared Jewish girl the chance to bring Christ to the world and she had the courage to say, “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”. God offers each of us the same chance each and every day - the chance to bring Christ to those who need to know him; to those who need comfort in times of sorrow; to those who need support when they’re going through hard times; to those who fetch up on our shores fleeing war and poverty. The chance to show those around us what the love of God revealed at Bethlehem is all about.

In “A Christmas Carol” the ghost of Jacob Marley reveals to Scrooge thousands of spirits condemned to walk the earth, no longer able to make a difference. No longer able to make someone happier, or to relieve someone’s suffering or to reach out to someone who feels alone and unwanted. These days of our lives - they are the only ones we have to make a difference in this world. These days, all of them are days of choice - rejoice in that. Rejoice because everyday offers us the chance to accept God’s offer to bring light, happiness and joy to the world; to respond, with Mary, “I am the servant of the Lord”. 

In the end, when our days here are gone, we’re all stories. God offers us, through the gift of choice, the chance to make them good ones. (Flip coin) Tails.

Lord, all our days are days of choice. Help us and strengthen us to make the right ones - the ones that speak of the stable of Bethlehem and of your presence in the world. Strengthen us to respond to your call, “I am the servant of the Lord”


Preached at Gretna:St. Andrews Parish church