Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Dec. 14, 2014 • Third Sunday of Advent
During this Advent Season our children have been learning the story of the people who rose to God’s invitation, opened their minds to God’s imagination, and then risked everything in order to bring about what we celebrate on Christmas Day, the coming of God into our world in Jesus – the Christ – born in a manger because there was no room at the inn, wrapped in swaddling clothes, heralded by angels to shepherds on a distant hillside. We will be singing about all of that this evening in our Christmas music celebration with the Tuckston congregation and choir.
Last week the children learned about the central persons in the story – Mary and Joseph who accepted God’s invitation to participate in this amazing, miraculous event, even though the plan went against everything they understood about the world and about the culture they lived in, and about what they thought their lives would be like. But, they trusted that they were not being asked to do the impossible all by themselves, that they were not alone, and even in this most unlikely circumstance, God was with them.
This week, the children have focused on the relationship of Mary and her cousin Elizabeth. It is part of the Christmas story that never makes it into Christmas music programs. There will be no songs about Elizabeth tonight. But her importance should not be overlooked. Mary decides to visit to Elizabeth after having received the perplexing news that she will soon become a mother. The angel who brought her this “good” news, also had shared an additional piece of information “And now your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:36-37)
No sooner does Mary hear this announcement, than she quickly travels to see Elizabeth. No small journey either – if we’re going to be at least geographically literal about this story – the traditional home of Elizabeth is about 80 miles away from Nazareth and nestled in some pretty steep hills. Luke says Mary “went with haste.”
That’s an interesting detail, and not just a throw away phrase, some kind of filler to pad out the story. That might be our reason for adding extra detail, but not the gospel writers’. You can count on every word that you read having a purpose for being there. So going in haste has meaning within the context of the nativity story. It doesn’t sound like she is headed for a casual social call. Maybe Mary is scared; maybe the original excitement of having been visited by an angel has subsided and now she’s realizing what she’s gotten herself in to. It could be that she even faced death threats at home.
In any event, there is no time to waste. She needs to talk to somebody now – somebody human, not some angel who thinks he knows it all. Interestingly, Luke doesn’t say she goes in haste to her talk to her mother; she doesn’t rush to talk to Joseph. She hurries to see Elizabeth – her relative, who is older and wiser than she, and who is also surprisingly expecting a child. Elizabeth’s pregnancy is just as much a miracle as Mary’s is because after years of being unable to bear a child, she is to become the mother of the one we know of as John the Baptist, the one whose preaching would prepare the way, who called people to repentance, and wh baptized Jesus. So maybe Mary thought Elizabeth would understand; maybe she could offer Mary some advice, some consolation, a safe haven, if just for a little while. Maybe she would believe her and help her to make sense of what is happening; maybe she could help her to overcome her fear of what might lie ahead.
And what a wonderful greeting she receives upon her arrival! Elizabeth recognizes the significance of Mary’s visit – Luke says she’s filled with the Holy Spirit, which is probably the way any of us are enabled to see beyond the superficialities of a situation and deep into the heart of things. And with that vision, she’s able to welcome Mary with words of blessing and praise. She says Mary is blessed and so is her baby. She affirms that Mary was right to believe what is happening to her is not an accident, an illusion, or a mistake, but a gift from God. She is blessed because she has trusted that God will do what God has promised.
What if Elizabeth had said something different? She could have; after all, she and her husband Zechariah were prominent people in their community. Zechariah was a temple priest, and she was descended from the priestly tribe of Aaron. They had spotless reputations. So, what if she’d said, “What are you doing here? You can’t stay here – this is a respectable household. Don’t embarrass me by bringing your problems into my house.”
But instead, Elizabeth is filled with joy on Mary’s behalf and she offers her a safe place where she is welcomed, accepted, and understood, where she doesn’t have to be afraid but can come to believe that she is blessed. Maybe in Elizabeth’s welcome, she could hear and remember the words of the angel, “Greetings favored one; the Lord is with you.” Although Luke doesn’t say so, I wonder if there might have been some long conversations between the two women before Mary then could sing her song of courage and of praise –conversations where they shared together what it meant for each of them to become mothers in their particular situations – hearing one another, authenticating and validating their experiences, supporting and encouraging one another.
Everybody needs someone in their lives who believes in them and encourages them, who will say honestly and sincerely, “you can do this.” “I see greatness in you.” “you ARE a unique and unrepeatable miracle of God.” Hopefully, each one of us has such a person, and if we’re really lucky, more than one person, who has seen something in us that we couldn’t see for ourselves, has listened to us, given us a new perspective, and has encouraged us to think outside the box, to take a risk, to venture out in faith, not knowing what exactly lay before us.
And maybe, if we’re really lucky, we’ve had the opportunity to pass it forward, and become a mentor to someone else, offering that same encouragement and support that had been offered earlier to us at a crucial time.
Mary certainly needed the encouragement. She knew and understood what we have either forgotten or don’t wish to understand — being blessed by God is most often a difficult gift. We associate blessedness with comfort, with care, wealth, health, material things, security. But from the time that God blessed a 75 year old Abraham to be a blessing to others, and then sent him and his wife on a journey to a new country yet to be named, “blessing” has meant “chosen for God’s special work”; chosen to put everything you have—even more than you thought you had– into the task that God has given you. Just think about Mary’s blessing. Mary has been chosen to risk her life and reputation to give birth to a baby and then to watch him grow up to be an outsider, loved by some, but disapproved of, and even feared by others; to be betrayed by his so-called friends, and finally to be tortured and then executed on a cross as a common criminal. It makes you wonder about asking God to bless someone, doesn’t it? Because God’s blessings are not about ease and comfort, but about being used by God for God’s purposes, which often include, as a consequence, challenge and sometimes adversity.
So Mary’s blessings include shame, persecution, and grief. These are some of the strange blessings that Jesus would talk about later in his ministry “Blessed are you who are poor . . . blessed are you who are hungry now . . . blessed are you who weep now . . . blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you and defame you” on my account. Why are these wretched ones blessed? Because God is working even in the midst of their hardships; because theirs will be the kingdom of God; they will be filled; they will laugh; they will one day leap for joy. There is no instant gratification in scripture; only the sure knowledge that one day, one day . . . God will make it right. Only the confidence that all present information and evidence to the contrary, God is at work doing the unexpected with the unnoticed, and in God’s good time, all will be well.
Maybe Jesus was able preach that later because his mother had told him about the conclusion she had reached while staying with her relative Elizabeth. She had been given a safe place, time and space to think, and encouragement to step out in faith, so that she was able to discern God present and acting in her life, even in these most difficult circumstances. She trusted and she hoped that good would come from her situation and so she could finally say with joy, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. . . the Mighty One has done great things for me.” And she was able to say what her son would affirm later, “he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Elizabeth’s encouragement allows Mary to see that she is blessed, that God is working in her present situation, and once she is able to see that, then she is able to hope and trust that God is working in the future as well to make sure suffering and injustice will not have the last word. Thanks be to God. Amen.