We are nearing the end of our Advent journey that takes us to Bethlehem. This is my sermon from the last Sunday of Advent, 12/20/15. I preached this at St.Timothy Lutheran Church. The text was Luke:1:39-45.
Think about how you would respond if a relative showed up at your door unannounced? Besides that, she was going to be staying with you for a while. Not only would she be staying with you, but she is young, maybe 14 years old, unmarried and she is pregnant! Would you welcome her in with open arms or would you grit your teeth, while you welcome her, thinking to yourself, "Don't go away mad. Just go away."
Imagine how Elizabeth felt when Mary stood at her door. There Mary was--alone, young and pregnant. In addition to that, Elizabeth's husband is a priest. How would Mary's situation affect his reputation?
Today's gospel is imbued with divine revelation. Elizabeth and Mary demonstrate to us how to respond faithfully to God's guiding our way and revelation, even when it is way beyond our realm of understanding.
This passage consists primarily of Elizabeth's poetic words. It is a gospel full of joy, recognition, gratitude and blessing. The encounter of these women has elements of mystery and grace--the mystery of new life forming, but still invisible, and the grace of recognizing each other as the Spirit-filled mothers they are becoming.
Without losing sight of the big picture-- that Elizabeth's son, John will grow up to be a prophet and martyred and that Jesus will grow up and suffer and die for our salvation on the cross, today we enter into an up-close picture of Mary and Elizabeth's encounter and share in the joy and gratitude they have in common with all who recognize Christ in their neighbor. Although it may seem that the main characters in today's lesson are Mary and Elizabeth, it is God who is at the center of all the activity, orchestrating each scene--filling the women with recognition, joy, gratitude and the Spirit and blessing them and the babes they are carrying. This short narrative frames the prophetic oracles of Elizabeth who offers praise for Mary's faithfulness, speaks of the blessedness of the Lord's birth and expresses wonder at God's work of redemption.
Mary learned of her elder cousin Elizabeth's pregnancy through her encounter with the angel Gabriel. We can imagine a couple of different reasons why Mary was in such a hurry to leave home and travel around 3 days to get to Elizabeth. As an unwed pregnant teenager, Did she feel the need to get out of Nazareth before her baby started to show? In small towns of that day, like today, everyone knows everything and the tongues would surely wag. Was Mary looking for the comfort of being with her also-pregnant cousin to share the marvelous mystery of having a human life within her? We can speculate all we want, but we know she went "with haste" to see Elizabeth. We aren't told of any divine direction for Mary to go, but I suspect she wanted to share her joy in God's work in both of their lives. Mary wanted to confirm the angel's words about Elizabeth being pregnant, keeping in mind that Elizabeth was quite elderly. This was a sign of Mary's faith. She was going to see what God had done with Elizabeth. Either way, Mary hurried because of her joy.
Travel for purposes that were not religious, was considered deviant behavior. Travel to visit family was fine, but the report of Mary traveling alone into the "hill country" was considered unusual and improper.
When Mary arrives, Elizabeth welcomes her. From the moment of Mary's arrival, Elizabeth recognized God at work in Mary. Two signs take place at this time. The first, Elizabeth's child leaps for joy within her and the second is Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Earlier in this chapter Elizabeth's husband, Zechariah was told, "even before [John's] birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit" (v. 15). Now that time had arrived.
While still in the womb, John the Baptist responded to God's presence in Mary. The capacity to recognize God's work in Christ (though still unborn) and the expression of praise to God that follows are gifts from God. Not only has Elizabeth experienced her own answer to prayer for a child, but now she has received the added blessing of a visit from the one who would be the mother of her Lord and ours.
Elizabeth blesses Mary. The joy and and gratitude of both women causes Elizabeth to burst into song with a blessing. As Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, she was given eyes of faith to see and a voice of faith to sing God's praises. There is a sense that in giving a blessing, one not only declares blessing or praise, but makes it happen.
Elizabeth blesses Mary on two grounds. Mary was chosen to be the mother of her Lord and Mary believed the word of the Lord. Mary is blessed and the child she will bear is blessed. Blessing always comes from trusting that God's word will be fulfilled. Mary being blessed among women means that she has been specially blessed by God.
Elizabeth celebrates Mary. As much as Elizabeth was a recipient of a miracle of God's grace, and was pregnant with a child who would play a key role in salvation history, rather than being prideful of her miracle, she humbled herself before Mary just as John humbled himself before Jesus at Jesus' baptism.
Elizabeth's joy is overshadowed by the joy of Mary's visit, that her unborn Lord would honor her with his presence. How wonderful it would be if we had the same attitude regarding our Lord's presence in our gathering together in the Word and in the Holy Supper. "Blessed be God who has come to us this day." Worship is not our good deed of bringing ourselves to God, rather, it is a time and place where God comes to us.
Elizabeth's response to Mary's arrival was counter-cultural. Elizabeth overturns social explanations. Given Mary's condition, one would expect social judgment, shame, even ostracism from her older relative. Yet Elizabeth had experienced her own shame and exclusion as a wife with no children. Elizabeth's response to her own pregnancy shows that God's grace had reversed her social status. Elizabeth continues the pattern of social reversal by opening her heart and home to a relative her neighbors would expect her to reject. Instead of the shame Mary's pregnancy may have brought her, she receives joy and honor.
As we get closer to Christmas, does anything leap for joy within us? Can we feel the stirring of new life, of age old hopes, or the impossible longing to become possible? Are we open to the ways that God chooses to act in our world today? What is God doing through unexpected people in our society today?
Our lives too are to be as full, as were those of Mary and Elizabeth, with the expectation of the transforming experience of God's grace. Have we ever experienced in our lives times when God wants to bring to the forefront something within us? Perhaps now some of us are experiencing the wonderful and at the same time terrifying new creations in our own lives. God wants us to experience his grace, as the capacity to recognize God's work and the ability to praise God. It is this grace that must inform a life that embodies Christ's life and values.
Like Mary and Elizabeth, may we trust that God is coming to save us and set us free. May we too give thanks that God has taken away our shame and respond to God's love by welcoming the shameful. May we echo Elizabeth's blessing, "...blessed be [those] who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to [them] by the Lord" (v. 45). May our days be marked with praise, blessing and the wonder of God's work of redemption for all.