The text for this sermon is Luke 1:39-55. Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon at Resurrection on December 23, 2012, the Fourth Sunday in Advent.
Dear Friends in Christ,
We are getting so close now to the Celebration of the Birth of Jesus. One day before Christmas Eve and our gospel text makes us back up 3 months to remember a very special visit between Mary and Elizabeth. Our question today rightfully should be: what is so important about this visit that it should temporarily delay our final sprint to Bethlehem?
We have two pregnant women beginning a three-month visit. Elizabeth is 6 months pregnant and Mary has just learned of her pregnancy. Mary traveled about 100 miles south from her home in Nazareth to Elizabeth’s house that is in the Judean Hills, not far from Jerusalem. She will stay with her distant cousin, Elizabeth, until John is born. Each of these women has a secret that they want to share with the other. Their secrets come with feelings of both elation and fear.
You who have experienced pregnancy: I invite you to remember a time when you felt your baby move in your womb, and let that memory help you understand what Elizabeth experienced. Elizabeth said it was the most amazing thing, that when Mary entered her house and greeted her, she felt her baby leap in her womb and she felt compelled to say to Mary, “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 leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord?”
This leaping in the womb by her unborn baby, fulfills the words spoken by the angel Gabriel to Elizabeth‘s husband, Zechariah, “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John…He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from birth…Many people in Israel will he bring back the Lord their God…and he will make people prepared for the Lord.”
So John, the one destined to be the forerunner and messenger of the Messiah, Jesus, recognizes and in a sense salutes Jesus while they are both in their mother’s wombs.
What Mary and Elizabeth had to tell each other! Mary said, “An angel visited me and said I am going to bear God’s son and his name will be Jesus.” Elizabeth said, “My husband was visited by Gabriel while he was attending the altar in the temple in Jerusalem. Gabriel said that I, in my old age, would bear a son.
Did you ever wonder why Mary visited Elizabeth for those 3 months and what they talked about? We have to do some speculating, of course, because scripture does not spell out what they talked about exactly. But just imagine….Elizabeth came from a well-established Hebrew family and she was married to a priest. Zechariah and Elizabeth both seem to know the Hebrew Scriptures well, especially the prophecies concerning the Messiah. We know next to nothing about Mary’s family circumstance. Her words imply that she was really a nobody in her village, and the lack of names and stories about her family don’t help us know about her family influence and support. Maybe the decision for Mary to visit Elizabeth came about because Elizabeth’s knowledge and faith were well-recognized, and would be helpful for young Mary. Maybe it was that the family wanted their unwed and pregnant daughter out of town for a while. What Mary soon learned was that Elizabeth also had her detractors, for some felt she was much too old to be pregnant. What came out of their conversation was the realization that John would be born of the union of Elizabeth and Zechariah, just as all of us were conceived. But Mary’s child, Jesus, was conceived by the Holy Spirit, like no other human being on earth.
Some Bible scholars think that the words we have today in the gospel lesson, the Magnificat or “Mary’s Song”, are really a summary of what she learned while visiting her relative Elizabeth for those 3 months. These words echo words that Hannah had sung a thousand years earlier and are recorded in Hebrew scripture. Bible scholars also marvel at what we hear in Mary’s Song that is reflected in what Jesus taught and lived during his earthly ministry. In a moment I’ll read again Mary’s Song. Perhaps you’ll be able to hear afresh the ethics of Jesus, his concern for justice and mercy, his prejudice for the poor and disenfranchised and his challenge to the rich and proud, and his acute awareness that God is giving direction to and purpose to his chosen people.
And Mary said:
“My soul magnifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me –
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
even as he said to our fathers.
Did Mary really have influence on Jesus and how he later taught and preached? Luke tells us that after Jesus was baptized and spent 40 days in the wilderness, he went to Nazareth and on the Sabbath read these words from the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Then he said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
When we say at the close of the worship, “Go in peace. Remember the poor,” we are right in line with Jesus and Mary. So Resurrection People, if we get this part of the Christmas Story, then we can resume our final sprint to Bethlehem and our Celebration of the birth of Jesus.
Thanks be to God. Amen!