A Sermon Preached on the First Sunday of Advent
November 28, 2021, at 11:00 am
at The Anglican Church of St. Thomas the Apostle, Kefalas, Crete.
The sermon was interrupted by a stray dog just as I was reaching the conclusion.
This is not the Advent Retreat with the Poems of George Herbert – that starts tomorrow, Monday November 29, 2021!
The readings we used were from Wilda Gafny’s A Woman’s Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W: A Multi-Gospel Single-Year Lectionary (New York NY: Church House Publishing, 2021). They were Genesis 16.7-13, Psalm 71.4-11, Philippians 2.5-11, and Luke 1.26-38.
Over the next few Sundays we will be looking at annunciations – situations in which God speaks to human beings. The Annunciation par excellance is that of the Angel Gabriel to Mary, who is told that she is to become Theotokos, the Mother of God. But with the lectionary we are using starting this Sunday we hear of other annunciations, and this week it is the annunciation to Hagar. Hagar is the slave of Sarah, the wife of Abraham. Abraham, as was normal for his time, takes his wife’s slave as a concubine. Whether Hagar agreed or not we are not told; by today’s standards, a slave cannot give meaningful consent, given the power differential between a master and a slave. Hagar conceives the child who, when born, is Abraham’s eldest child Ishmael. Sarah has not conceived, and in the patriarchal society of the day, this is an embarrassment and was frequently seen as the disfavour of the gods, or, in this case, YHWH. Slaves, like survivors everywhere, are not above taking advantage of new situations, and to Sarah it seems that she is exalting herself over her mistress because she has given Abraham a son and Sarah has not. So Sarah abuses her, and Hagar runs away. And then God speaks to her. God asks her to go back to her abusive mistress – perhaps so that she can give birth safely and have this strong child, who becomes the ancestor of the Arabian people.
But what is a slave?
We are used to thinking of slaves in terms of racism. But that is not the ancient understanding. In Greek, Roman, and even more ancient times a slave was simply a person who was on the losing side of a war. They were not necessarily physically different from the people by whom they were conquered, and sometimes they were indeed of the same ethnic and linguistic group.
When a people or a nation or a city lost a war or a siege the winners often executed the men and male children, as they were the potential future enemies. Women, children, and some of the men were saved from death, but they entered the living death of being a slave. They were sold as labourers, and many families became rich from the proceeds of conquest this way.
Julius Caesar is probably the best example of this. In his Gallic War he claims to have killed off 900 thousand Gauls, and enslaved another million. This allowed him to buy the loyalty of his troops and laid the foundation for his victory in the Civil Wars and his subsequent dictatorship, as well as that of his heir Augustus.
Hagar was a slave in this way. Mary, who while not a citizen of the Roman Empire, was still a subject – but not a slave. But at the end of the Annuciation she says, in Greek, Ἰδοὺ ἡ δούλη κυρίου · γένοιτό μοι κατὰ τὸ ῥῆμά σου. “Here I am – the slave of the Lord. Let it happen to me according to your word.” Now, the word δούλη is usually softened to servant, or handmaid, but the simplest understanding of it is “slave”. Just as Hagar accepts her servitude at the request of God, so does Mary. And this is not unusual in early Christian circles – Paul also describes himself as a slave of the Lord, and when writing his letters frequently implies that his readers are slaves, too.
And perhaps most shocking of all is the idea that the Word of God is poured out, emptied out into human form and is also a slave – one that is humble, obedient, even unto death.
The Paradox of Hagar, Mary, and Jesus
Of course, the key factor with all of these examples is that these persons accept their slavery, Hagar voluntarily returns to Sarah. Mary accepts her call to be the Mother of God. Jesus voluntarily empties himself, not grasping onto divinity. This is the paradox of the incarnation and of the Christian life – we choose to be slaves. In the 1st century people became slaves involuntarily, as the alternative to a violent death. In Jesus’s case, as well as that of Paul’s, it is an acceptance of slavery that leads to death.
That’s what we are called to. To be slaves of God. To offer everything we have to God, to submit totally. God will not overwhelm us – God wants us to choose this life of obedience and humility.
And, again, the paradox is that this kind of enslavement is utterly unlike the slavery of the world. It is joyful, we are fulfilled in becoming the wonderful creatures God created us to be. In God’s service we find perfect freedom. God offers God’s own self to us, and we give ourselves back.
So this Advent, let us be poured out from our attachments into the form of Jesus Christ, and be made new.
A Note on the Lectionary
At my request, and with the approval of the Chaplaincy Council, we will, for this year only, use a new lectionary created by the Reverend Professor Wilda Gafny: A Woman’s Lectionary For The Whole Church. This new set of readings follows the calendar of the Church of England, but it provides a somewhat different set of bible readings – passages which have often been overlooked, perhaps because they feature women. Thus, the readings this Advent season feature annunciations – not just to Mary by the angel Gabriel, but also to Hagar, Sarah and Abraham, the mother of Samson, and Hannah.
As Prof Gaffny notes, the various committees that created the Common Worship lectionary and its precursors were all dominated by men, and unconsciously projected a masculine perspective. There is nothing hallowed or sacred about any lectionary except the fact that it is a list of readings of scripture, and while scripture is holy, the schedule of readings list not!
Wilda Gaffny is a professor of Hebrew Bible at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. She is a priest of The Episcopal Church of the USA, and has served as an Army chaplain and congregational pastor in the AME Zion Church. She has also provided brilliant new translations of the Bible selections in her lectionary, and I hope to use them often.