Sermon preached for Advent 4 Year C, Luke 1:39-45, at Preston High Street UCA 15 December 2021
I watched Dune over the weekend. And it made me think of the story of Mary’s visit to Elizbeth. You may think this is unlikely: one a sixties sci-fi epic, now a major motion picture, the other a brief report two-thousand-year-old social call. But I think what Dune says about what it means to be the Messiah, and what it means about how to live the fullest possible human life, is incredibly revealing of what our culture thinks – and how different it is from how God in fact acted.
I was a huge fan of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic book when I was a geeky teenager and must have read it half a dozen times. I thoroughly recommend both the book and film. The cinematography of the current film is epic, the score is beautiful, and the way they express the spirit of half of a very detailed six-hundred page novel in two and a half hours is impressive.
I came out and immediately wanted to go back and see it again. The haunting music and the beautiful, harsh desert completely gripped me.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the story, but it has strong religious overtones. More specifically, it is a story about the interplay of politics and religion, where he unashamedly steals ideas from many religions to create his own synthesis.
However, it can be a bit of an uncomfortable read for religious folk because he seems to downplay any real spirituality in favour of the political use of religion.
The story revolves around a young man, named Paul of House Atreides, who is fifteen at the book’s opening. He is the son of a Duke and has been trained both in mysterious powers by his mother, and in the intellectual skills and discipline of a “mentat” – the humans who do the work of computers. Due to political intrigue, his noble House has to relocate to the Desert planet of Dune. So far, so Game of Thrones.
However, on the planet, things start to get weird. The locals seem to see him as the fulfilment of some prophecy, and when disaster overtakes his House, he is forced into the desert to become a desert warrior, who will rise to challenge those who murdered his father.
Frank Herbert was writing in the early sixties, a high point of modernity, when the forces of rationalism seemed poised to finally remove the last vestiges of superstition from the world. In the book, all that spirituality stuff is largely political at base. The prophecies turn out to have been deliberately planted in a credulous population by a far seeing, but ultimately very rational, organisation. Paul makes use of them to achieve a pretty standard sort of outcome – evil vanquished, good triumphant, father avenged.
He is, in short, the Messiah of his fictional universe.
Which says a lot about what our culture hopes for. In spite of two thousand years of exposure to the story of the real messiah, the world still expects the messiah to be a well-trained military leader who, through clarity of vision and strength of charisma, leads an army of warriors against the oppressors.
Our story today has similarities. A messiah, born of a noble line, the subject of prophecies, is coming into the world. But it is a very different story.
Let’s start with Mary. She has literally just found out that she is pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Luke doesn’t include the details about her husband Joseph’s reaction that Matthew includes in his telling of the story, and neither of them really go into detail about how this shocking news was received more generally.
However, even in the modern world, which is rich beyond Mary’s comprehension, and far, far more supportive of single mothers, it is not easy to bring up a child on your own. To have the landed on you as very young woman like Mary must have been, would be terrifying.
It would have been a lot to take in to say the very least.
If I try to put myself in her shoes, I think I would be wondering whether this was some sort of psychotic episode. I don’t suppose she would have used the language, but the question of whether this was really from God or not must have loomed large for her. What evidence was there that this was really true – that she really was part of God’s plan? After all, the idea that an unmarried woman would conceive and bear a son who would be the hope of all the nations, must have seemed pretty unlikely. Surely God’s rescue would be something more… dramatic? A noble-born, a someone whose connection with royal blood was significantly closer than her own. Someone with access to connections, with money, with special training.
Someone, in short, more like Paul Atreides in Dune.
But, though Jesus is the descendent of David, it has been a very long time since descendants of King David were on the throne. Instead of wealth, poverty. Instead of powerful connections, the best Mary can muster is her elderly relative. There is no prospect of special training, and Mary has no special abilities which she can pass on to her son.
She is a young woman, pregnant outside of wedlock. The opposite of who we might choose to bring forth the messiah.
What about Elizabeth? She, too, is unexpectedly pregnant. In many ways, she is the opposite of Mary. Far from being pregnant out of wedlock, she and her husband Zechariah have been married so long that they had come to assume that it was too late for them. That they would have no child at all.
Her pregnancy was still a great surprise to people, which is the point of connection with Mary. But everything else was different. Instead of a scandal, Scripture says that “Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.”
Elizabeth was a much more plausible candidate to be the mother of the Messiah than Mary. She stood in a long tradition of women with miraculous births. Take Sarah for instance, who cried with laughter when the messenger from God said she was to have a child. Elizabeth was the wife of a priest, who would be likely to have connections into the elite. And she was an extremely respectable woman, compared to the scandal of Mary’s unwed pregnancy.
But it was Mary who was chosen.
So let us compare our three candidate messiahs – the fictional, the herald, and the actual.
The fictional Messiah, Paul Atreides, does some very human, very understandable things. He visits a mighty vengeance on those who have wronged him and establishes a new regime. He triumphs over his foe, as oppressed people long to do. But he cannot escape himself, and his new order is established in blood and violence.
The herald, John the Baptizer is the last and greatest of the prophets. Like Paul, he does human and understandable things. He is no military leader, but he makes human demands of his followers – to lift their ethical game, and to be cleansed of their sin. But no matter how often we cleanse ourselves, no matter how often we turn again and make a fresh start, we are still stained with sin – we are still enmeshed in the world, carrying burdens that none of us can hope to shed of our own account.
John didn’t exercise vengeance like Paul Atreides, but he is still operating at the same level, singing a recognisable song.
The real Messiah, Jesus, comes and does something completely different. He comes in response to divine will, not from human plans. He does not spring from the respectable middle classes like John the Baptizer. He is not the child of wealth and privilege like Paul Atreides. He springs from the least likely place imaginable. All he has is that Mary answers an unreserved “yes” to God. All he has is that he is God’s own Word – what God has to say, the lens through which we must see God. God’s own response to the sin and brokenness of the world.
Only God, ultimately, can break the trap which we have set for ourselves. Not through military prowess, not through prophetic words, but in taking the weight of the world’s sin upon himself.
Jesus comes as simultaneously long expected and foretold in prophecy – but also completely unexpectedly. The strange, powerful, redemptive work of God through Jesus Christ stands in complete contrast to the solutions to the world’s problems which we come up with for ourselves.
God invites us once again into collaboration with Godself, to be ambassadors of reconciliation in the world. God takes what is despised and rejected, and makes it the cornerstone. God takes the humiliation of Mary, and makes that, through love, the doorway through which Emmanuel, God-with-us, comes into the world.
Three messiahs. One the warlord, the mighty warrior, come to dispense justice at the blade of a sword. One a prophet, come to recall us to God’s ways, preaching a message of repentance. And one, God’s own self, come to take the weight of the world’s sin on his shoulders, God’s final word, come to live in our hearts and to convert us; to transform us into the sort of people who Paul Atreides and John the Baptizer want us to be, but where they can only point us part of the way.
 Due to the “Butlerian Jihad” whatever that is. There’s an interesting sermon to be had about whether our enthusiastic pursuit of AI is entirely wise, but this isn’t that sermon unfortunately.
 Sidebar alert: I was struck by the difference of emphasis in the film version. In the book, the emphasis is strongly on the rational, political, manipulative uses of religion and prophecy. In the filmed version – coming, as it does, from a culture much less sure of its ability to shape the world and much more spiritual, though less religious – the religious element seems much more present.