Micah 5:2-5b Canticle 15 Hebrews 10:5-10 Luke 1:39-45
A woman whose dear friend recently died, told her children that she didn’t want to live in a vegetative state, dependent on some machine and get fluids from a bottle. So they unplugged her computer and poured out all her wine.
One liability of having heard the Christmas story over and over again is that we know how it turns out. There is no way to recapture the initial shock of the news: that God is coming in the flesh to show us what real life looks like – what real love looks like. Waiting is not a skill that comes naturally, and so the impulse to ignore Advent is a strong one. By this the fourth Sunday of Advent it is almost irresistible. Many congregations open the floodgates, break out the Christmas carols, and rename it “Christmas Sunday.” We don’t because this gospel text from Luke takes a different path and directs us to Mary’s visit with Elizabeth.
The reading of the Magnificat pushes us toward the intimate story about the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth. The scale of the story hardly seems grand enough for one of the most attended Sundays of the church year. But it may be just what we need. Many people came to worship today battered by the holidays. The stress of balancing work and home and friends and family expands beyond the normal levels of modern life. Those who grieve or doubt or question find little patience or comfort for their concerns. Many families feel envious of others whose Christmas card pictures look richer, or happier, or just plain prettier. Emotions are raw, and nostalgia crowds out the gospel truth as we look backward instead of “God-ward” for inspiration.
To the lonely and fragmented souls, Luke offers a wonderful pre-Christmas gift: a small story of genuine connection between two pregnant women of different generations. In today’s reading, we see God at work in a deeply personal way that also just happens to change the world. The work of the Holy Spirit made manifest as the baby in Elizabeth’s womb (John) responds to Mary’s greeting. John’s well-timed kick opens up his mother to a new awareness and understanding of unfolding events.
Mary’s greeting of Elizabeth starts a cycle of recognition followed by response that could further echo spontaneously through our lives. The scriptural world works to absorb the present reality. Though Zechariah, the officially sanctioned priest, is silent during this encounter, it is the unassuming preacher’s wife, Elizabeth, who functions as a prophet. Prompted by the Holy Spirit, she voices for Mary the special role her younger cousin has been called to play. Elizabeth’s prophetic witness, also encourages and strengthens Mary.
Recognizing her own calling in hearing Elizabeth’s words, Mary is empowered to share the bold words of the Magnificat. Once again, response follows recognition. What began as a simple visit to the hill country brings forth a proclamation that changes the world. These two expectant women, one young and poor and unwed, the other far beyond the age to conceive meet in the hill country. A baby leaps in the womb. Blessings are shared. Astonishment is expressed. Two pregnant women. The story is not only strange and joyful, but fleshy and earthly and real, so appropriate to point us toward the incarnation. In the women’s actions, the world is indeed turned upside down. The mighty are brought down. Two marginalized, pregnant women carry the future and proclaim the Messiah.
And Mary said, "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. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; 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.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
This young, unwed, pregnant woman –a thoroughly marginal person in her culture – proclaims one of the most important messages in Scripture. The image is extraordinary, even funny as the young pregnant Mary gives voice to a song for the ages, a song that invites us beyond our realistic expectations. She herself seems amazed at what has happened. 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. And the rest of her song announces the larger implications of the upside-down world that God is creating. 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. Mary proclaims the promised topsy-turvy future of God as an already accomplished fact. The song proclaims the reality and promise that Mary embodies.
The Magnificat calls us to a faithful reading on this day to honor both Mary and Elizabeth. God gives Mary and Elizabeth two things they each lacked – community and connection. God removes their isolation and helps them to understand themselves more fully as part of something larger than their individual destinies. Together they are known more fully and begin to see more clearly than they could individually. This is truly an Advent message – a message of hope and understanding and joy that starts out slowly and quietly. We anticipate its growth and full manifestation, but we do not yet experience it. For many of us, this Sunday may be the only opportunity to hear a genuine message of Advent, Christ is coming, rather than a Christmas message, Christ is here.
To experience hope within a community takes time. How many of us are waiting to connect more deeply with those around us? How many of us long to have our small stories connected with the larger stories of God? We can learn a great deal from sitting quietly with our brothers and sisters as the world pushes us relentlessly toward a louder, larger and more expensive Christmas. In our day, the messages of Advent seem to come from a different time and remind us of God’s presence in our lives. For now, we must resist the big flashy events that focus on celebrity and consumerism. The church has been marginalized. Today’s good news welcomes the faithful into the margins of life. Margins created so that we can take the time needed – time to listen and wait. Listening and waiting are what expectant mothers experience. And we see that those who are alienated by our culture might just be visited by the Holy Spirit.
It’s hard to know what brings folks to church this Sunday, why not just wait till Christmas Eve? We are all busy and getting more tired with each day toward Christmas. This fourth Sunday of Advent brings its own expectancy. Can you feel it? The tingle in the air, the rush in our hearts as we wait – the poinsettias in the hallway, the silver waiting to grace the altar. Tomorrow, the church will be transformed for the Blue Christmas and Christmas Eve services. The poinsettias will burst out of their hiding places and color the whole church. The Christ candle will be added to the Advent Wreath.
But still, we are human and some of us have doubts and hurts that draw us away from the Christmas excitement. We need to sit for a while with the people of God and with God – who will accept us as we are, not as we feel we are expected to be. Experiencing true acceptance in worship, we find ourselves asking Elizabeth’s question: “And why has this happened to me?” This very human-sized story prepares us for the grand, history-changing story of Jesus’ birth. We that linger and pray and wait will be strengthened, prepared, and deepened for our Christmas celebration.
So the question remains for us each year, “How do we respond in faith?” The truth is that our world gets messy and difficult, full of heartache and disenchantment, not because we’ve created all this chaos for ourselves but because we responded to God’s calling on our lives. Suddenly, we are faced with difficult choices in our lives. The message this text brings – that unexpected things, things outside of convention can often be wonderful signs that God is at work. Amid all our less-than-picture-perfect Christmases, the Christmas trees that have a big hole in the back that needs to go against the wall, the presents that were wrapped by the end of the role, maybe just a bit shy of covering the end of the box, our lives that are far from perfect, but God still does something new.
What begins here – what God announces – is a human being who will somehow show us a different way to be. Show us a different way to be – to save us. Things don’t happen until it’s time for them to happen. The Bible has a poetic way of putting it: Things happen in the fullness of time. Time ripens history. The unlikely becomes eminently possible. God acts in the ripening of time. What if the fullness of time is becoming every day, little by little, as we live our lives? What if we get to decide every day, or even several times a day, to be a part of its becoming? God had a plan. Within minutes, that plan was revealed. Things can’t happen in life until their time, and they sometimes won’t happen unless we cooperate. These last days of Advent are a time to prepare our hearts, to open the doors of our lives to Mary and Elizabeth’s faith. And we will be amazed at its appearing. Amen.