Scripture Readings: Luke 1:39-55
I had good news this week. My dear friend and her husband have longed for and tried to get pregnant with a second child, after having a son six years ago. They encountered many difficulties. But this week she shared that she is well into in a healthy pregnancy, and she’s just learned her second child will be a girl! “I am so incredibly happy!” she wrote me, and I responded with my own words of delight. Granted, we were speaking through email, but in every other way, what we were doing is what women have been doing from time immemorial—supporting and encouraging each other through the wild ride of pregnancy to the birth of a new life.
At first glance, the story Luke’s gospel offers us is just such an ordinary story of two pregnant women greeting one another with giddy joy. As Mary’s visit with Elizabeth begins, we might imagine them swapping stories of their preparations, marveling at the changes in their bodies, sharing their fears about child birth or tips about the care and feeding of children.
Of course this story is also extraordinary. Both women are pregnant out of the normal sequence of events—Elizabeth is pregnant at an age most women dandled grandchildren at their knees, and Mary is a virgin, engaged but not yet married to Joseph, probably somewhere between the ages of 12 to 16 years old. The angel Gabriel announced both pregnancies. Elizabeth’s husband, the priest Zechariah, was struck mute disbelieving the news of the child his wife would carry.
But our tradition has viewed Mary’s story as the most extraordinary. When Gabriel came to Mary, his opening words were, “Greetings, favored one;” over the centuries the church has “chattered” endlessly about what those words might mean. What made Mary “favored”? Why was she chosen to bear and birth the Christ? Mary must have been extraordinarily pure and holy, the church has speculated, and the doctrine which has developed has elevated Mary high above the reach of normal human beings.
But the truth is, Luke gives us no details about Mary that might lead us to believe she was anything other than an ordinary girl. In fact, there are so few details about her that it’s safe to assume she was probably young and poor, from a family of no particular worthiness, beneath the notice of anyone noteworthy. And it turns out that the truly extraordinary thing about her is the grace by which she consented to the calling God had given her. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word.”
It was a “yes” that changed everything for her. And when the angel departed from the scene of that decisive moment in Mary’s life, I imagine her wondering, what do I do now? She has no roadmap for bearing God into the world; her very human need for companionship must have been great. The angel gives Mary just this one hint, the news of Elizabeth in her sixth month of pregnancy. So Mary sets out “with haste” to be with Elizabeth, the one person who might any inkling of what she is experiencing.
And this is where this story goes beyond extraordinary. For Elizabeth greets Mary, not with new mother giddiness, but with Holy Spirit-given prophecy. Prophecy, usually spoken in Israel’s long history by men whose job it was to proclaim God’s ways to kings, is now spoken by a pregnant woman whose divine knowing has by means of an infant in utero who has given her a well-timed kick!
“Why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Elizabeth says, making what scholars note is the first confession of belief in Christ in Luke’s gospel. From the world’s perspective, it is all too absurd; as one preacher notes, “The coming of the Messiah who will redeem Israel is anticipated and proclaimed, not by archangels or high priests or emperors or even ordained preachers. Rather… Two marginalized pregnant woman carry the future and proclaim the Messiah.”
Well, here we are at the last Sunday of Advent, on the threshold of Christmas. The Mayan calendar may have ended, but we continue going about our everyday actions, living our ordinary stories: waking, eating, working, and resting. Some of us are caught up in the last minute frenzy to get all the details in line for the ideal celebration, but all of those details are ordinary ones, house-cleaning, cooking, gift-purchasing and wrapping.
And yet, the story we are living is also extraordinary. We are preparing to celebrate the historic first coming of the Christ as a human baby, when God became flesh and walked among us. In Advent we have been preparing for this celebration, remembering those who waited for centuries upon centuries, generations upon generations for the fulfillment of God’s promises to redeem Israel. We’ve heard the voices of prophets and angels, proclaiming these promises, and announcing their coming fulfillment.
But Advent is also about preparing ourselves for Christ’s second coming, the return of Jesus as Lord of all Creation. Through the prophets, God has promised us a day when every wrong is put right, when violence ends and death is no more, when lion and lamb lie down together and every tear is wiped away from our eyes. The completion of Creation will be the fulfillment of all our best hopes, a fullness of peace, joy, and love.
Now, I don’t know about you, but sometimes I experience the absurdity of believing in these promises. We might poke fun at those stockpiling for the end of the Mayan calendar, but sometimes our preparation for Christ’s second coming feels just as preposterous. There is such a huge gap between the world of our hopes and the world we experience right now. We see so much darkness, such unspeakable violence. Last week’s horrors Portland and in Newtown, CT are only the examples most recent and closest to home. The problems of our time can seem so overwhelming and utterly beyond our power to make a difference.
Eric Valentine sent me the following excerpt from a book he and Meg are reading, Advent with Evelyn Underhill, a British Christian writer of the early 1900’s. Underhill begins, “When we consider the evil, injustice, and misery existing in the world, how can we claim the Ultimate Reality at the heart of the universe is a Spirit of peace, harmony, and love?”
It is a question that goes straight to the greatest challenge for belief in our time.
Underhill continues: “The world as we know it does not look like the world of a loving Father whom the Gospels call us to worship; but rather like the world of selfish and undisciplined children who have been given wonderful material and a measure of freedom, and not used that freedom well. Yet we see in this muddled world a constant struggle for Truth, Goodness, and Perfection; and all those who give themselves to that struggle—the struggle for redemption of the world from greed, injustice, selfish desire, and their results—find themselves supported and reinforced by a spiritual power which enhances life, strengthens will, and purifies character….These facts are as real as the other facts which distress and puzzle us…We have to account somehow for the existence of gentleness, purity, self sacrifice, holiness, love—and how can we account for them, unless they are attributes of Reality?”
The passage Eric sent me concludes with Underhill’s conviction: “Violence is random; goodness is specific. Our love flows farther and deeper than evil can ever comprehend.” I want you to keep those words at the forefront of your minds as we continue.
Elizabeth and Mary: two marginalized pregnant women who bear the future and proclaim the Messiah. Ordinary? Extraordinary? Absurd? Friends, it seems to me that the best characterization of the good news of the gospel is spoken by Elizabeth. “Blessed,” she says in her lavish welcome of Mary, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Now, I want us to recognize what happens here. Elizabeth’s words are not just idle praise, and not only a prophecy of the future. They do something, make something happen in that moment. It might seem small, but Elizabeth’s blessing of Mary is a specific act of goodness, a gift to her younger kinswoman, in which she recognizes the risks Mary is taking and affirms Mary’s decision to be faithful to God’s call. Elizabeth’s blessing makes room where Mary can fully inhabit her God-given calling, increasing in grace and faithfulness.
Mary receives the blessing and responds in song: “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she begins, praising the Mighty God who, in mercy and strength, has turned the tables on all our expectations, scattering the proud and lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry and sending the rich away empty. Mary, like so many prophets before her, proclaims a world that is yet to be as if it is already present, believing so fully that she already inhabits that world. She is blessed, believing and trusting, confident in what God has spoken, and in her song, she blesses God for the fulfillment of all God’s promises.
Blessed: Is that a word you use when you think of yourself, or of this congregation? Well, Friends, to hear and receive the good news of salvation, that God came and is coming again in Jesus Christ, is to be blessed as Mary was blessed. It is to believe, in a world of shootings and cancer diagnoses and all sorts of other inexplicable evil, that God’s promises are being fulfilled, even here, even now, even in us.
For we who have received the Holy Spirit are also called to be God-Bearers, those who bear and birth the light of Christ in every situation we encounter, those who bless others as God has blessed us. Those who are blessed are always called to the action of blessing: to recognize and name and celebrate and encourage the specific goodness of God’s presence with and within the people around us, calling out the ways the Holy Spirit is moving in the world and in our lives, making safe space for others where God’s promises may be fulfilled.
So I want to call you to the ministry of offering blessings. What might this look like? Words are lovely, but often a simple gesture is enough. Here is one gesture of blessing I learned in Guatemala (I step down and demonstrate). Can you think of others? Our “Love” banner in the back might also give you ideas of the ways we might convey blessing. In the wonderful flurry of emails I received last week, Bruce Andrews noted that when he showed up to be our “Starman” at the Christmas pageant, he was pretty shaken by the Newtown shooting and a disturbing conversation with some friends about it, but when he was able to bless our congregation’s children by giving them stars, he found it “cathartic” and healing. So it turns out, almost anything we do can be a means of blessing others! As you gather with friends and family in the next days, you have a tremendous opportunity to do this concrete, simple and profound work of blessing others.
Friends, there is darkness out there, beyond our comprehension. Yet more spectacular still is the absurd, extraordinary and amazingly ordinary way that God has already broken into our reality in a scandalously specific baby boy borne and birthed in Bethlehem by a woman blessed to believe in the fulfillment of God’s promises. She is blessed, and we are blessed: blessed to be a blessing as we believe and give and receive and bear forth the love of God in Jesus Christ.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.