This is the sermon from December 23rd, 2012. The text was Luke 1:39-55, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. As we look forward to the arrival of Christmas, let us also look for ways that we can bear God into the world.
As she trudged along the road to Elizabeth’s house, Mary felt particularly alone. And a little bit nauseous. Since her pregnancy had been announced, conversations died down as soon as she walked up. Some people would look at her and whisper to each other, others just stared. The worst she experienced was pity, people who thought they understood, telling her “everyone makes mistakes,” as if it was all her fault. “What am I even doing,” she thought to herself, “going alone to visit my cousin, so far away from me in distance and in age? And no one with me?” That probably was what stung the most. As a young girl she never went anywhere without a family member to escort her, but now that she was dishonored, they no longer had a reason to protect her. Still she trudged along the road, hoping that if she could just get away from the rumors and judgment and the sidelong glances she might feel less alone. If she could just spend some time with her cousin Elizabeth, maybe things would get better
Elizabeth knew all about being alone. While all the other women her age were having children, her womb remained bare. As they discussed sleeping schedules and feeding arrangements and teething, she held her peace. They would counsel her, suggesting mandrake roots, or other remedies, but eventually they moved on, and she found that she just wasn’t a part of their conversations anymore. Hardly even a part of their world. When finally the hot flashes began to come, she was more relieved than anything. At least this way, there was no more clinging to false hopes, no more dreaming of motherhood every time she was a day late, nor crying in the bedroom when her time finally came.
But then something had happened to Elizabeth that changed everything. Her husband had come home unable to speak, but through gestures he conveyed that a child would soon be theirs. She was afraid at first, to dare to hope, but soon other signs confirmed him, and the joy that was once denied her was hers. As she stood in the road resting her hands on her belly waiting for Mary to arrive she wondered what had brought this good fortune to her door, and meditated on what it meant that he would make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
When Mary came around the corner she could see the forlornness on her face, she knew the isolation and loneliness Mary felt, because it had been her whole life until a few months before. See, to be barren in those days was considered an indication of the unrighteousness of the parents. There was little difference in the eyes of many between a barren woman and an unwed mother. They were both sinners, they just didn’t know what Elizabeth had done to lose God’s favor. As Mary came closer she felt herself wanting to go and hold her and tell her that everything would be okay. But when she finally arrived at her gate, something else happened. Something was awakened within her. She felt the child in her womb leap for joy at the closeness of her cousin, and the Holy Spirit filled her, and she said:
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb lept for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord!
When Elizabeth cried out to Mary, something was awakened within Mary as well. The loneliness that overwhelmed her was suddenly gone, and in its place a joy so deep that she broke into song. Here was someone who knew, who understood, who believed. Elizabeth’s joy poured over into Mary, and the shame that had covered her now dripped off of her like water. It was in that moment that the blessing she had received really became a blessing, that it truly became real for her that she would be bearing God into the world. Her song proclaimed her joy, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she said. “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”
She barely knew where these words were coming from, but she kept going, proclaiming the goodness of God, “he has brought down the thrones of the powerful, he has lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
Though she seemed the lowest of the low, dishonored, an unwed mother, fit neither to marry nor to protect, in truth she had been exalted by the most high God. She was a part in God’s plan, not only a part in God’s plan, but God had chosen to enter into her, to dwell within her, and to come into the world through her.
This moment, when these two women meet on the path to Elizabeth’s house, is one of the greatest moments of pure joy in the whole New Testament. Two cousins come together and share in the joy that they have been chosen by God to be bearers of the good news. It’s also one of the few moments where we see the power of family, to hold each other through misery and into joy.
Families get a lot of flack in the New Testament, James and John leave their father Zebedee alone in their fishing boat to follow Jesus, Paul tells us not even to bother getting married unless we have too, and even Jesus himself, when Mary stands outside his door, says, “Who are my mother and my brothers? They are already here. Anyone who does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
But in this moment these two cousins share a sisterhood in their motherhood, and though they come to it from different places. God has turned each of their lives upside down. Elizabeth had given up hope, when God kindled joy within her womb. Through bringing life into her barrenness, God declared to all that the wait was over. Mary had nothing but hope, a young girl with a promising engagement, and though it seemed that her own hopes had been destroyed, she bore within her hope for all humankind.
In this moment each of them recognizes in the other what they barely know about themselves. Each of them recognizes that they have a part in God’s plan for salvation for the world. Each of them has had to make space in their lives for God to enter in, and in doing so has found joy unbound.
God spoke to Mary and to Elizabeth and said, “I know you’re busy, and I know you have plans for your future, but can you make some space for me?” And they were both hesitant, they were both uncertain, they both thought, “How can this be? What is this going to do to my plans, how will this throw a wrench in the gears of the future that I’ve been working towards?” But in the end, they both said, “Yes, God, I can make some room for you to work through me.”
And the result was joy. The result was this moment, where both of them look at each other and then look down at themselves and say, “What incredible things the Lord is doing through me! Look how I am a part of something bigger than I ever thought I could be!”
Blessed am I, for the Lord has given me a new future, for I had hoped that I might be a mother, but now I am a vessel.
All generations will call me blessed, for God has chosen to enter the world through me. My soul magnifies the Lord.
Each of us has this chance, to be a God-bearer in the world. To be a part of God’s plan. And to find joy that knows no bounds. What we celebrate in Christmas is Mary’s gift, the gift of Emmanuel, God-with-us, a God come down to earth to know us and to love us and to teach us and finally to save us, breaking on our behalf the power of death over the world.
And this Jesus Christ that Mary brought into the world said, “Abide in me as I abide in you, and you will bear much fruit.” Like Mary, we can bear God into the world. And as Mary knows, there is no greater joy than this. We’ve been given the chance to bring God into the world around us, to see God working within us and without us and say, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
We hear Jesus words, “Let the children come to me” and we hear that there are children in our schools with no one to read to them, and we say, yes, Lord, let me read to them, let me bear you into this place, and give futures to children who have little.
We hear that someone in town is passing out food to those who are hungry, and we say, yes, Lord, let us magnify that work which you are doing, let us collect food and bring baskets and be bearers of your promise that all who hunger will be filled.
We learn that someone in our town has received bad news, lost a parent or a child, or is staying by the bedside, and we say, let us bring a casserole, and be bearers of God’s promise to turn mourning into joy, be reminders that God’s love does not stop when pain begins.
We hear a voice within us that says, reach out to that person, and show with gentle friendship that he or she is a child of God, and is worthy of love.
Do we have any idea what we’re doing when we do this? Maybe? Only a glimpse, a brief moment of joy in which we receive this kingdom vision, when what God is doing through us becomes clear, and we break out into song.
It might completely wreck our plans for ourselves. It might get in the way of great futures we imagined, or even our own comfort and security, but what Mary and Elizabeth have shown us is that being a part of God’s plan, a part of God’s salvation of the world is so much greater than whatever plans that we had for ourselves that once we have had a taste of this glory we will not want to go back.
Mary and Elizabeth were like us, they had hopes and dreams, and plans and frustrations, but when God said can you make room for me they said yes, even though they weren’t sure how things would turn out. And in their yes they found blessedness and joy and grace and peace.
For who can say that we aren’t being used right now? Who can say that the smile we give to someone across the room does not bear God into their world? When we do something as little as greet our cousin from across the way, who can say that we will not awaken something within them, or have something awakened with us.
So let your souls magnify the Lord. Be bearers of God into the world, and make sure there is room for God to work in you. And then you, too, will be blessed among humankind, for you have also believed the promise that Mary believed, the promise that comes to us over and over again, in doubt and in pain, in joy and in hope, in shame and in exultation but that first came on the lips of an angel, to an unwed mother all alone: Greetings favored one. The Lord is with you.