(When Rev Steve asked if I would preach today, he said that “it is about the visit of Mary to Elizabeth, and it would be nice to have a woman preach on this because it would give a perspective that I may not have”. Really Steve? No experience of pregnancy, are you sure?
I was happy to take this sermon for many reasons – not least that 6 servicess in 11 days is an awful lot during the Christmas Season. As Senior Warden I want to thank Rev Steve for his hard work especially at this time of year. While the rest of us are gearing down to rest and party; pastors are gearing up to help us celebrate the holiness of the season. We need to remember to support them especially at this time with our prayer and words of encouragement.)
Mary, the mother-to-be of Jesus, makes a visit to her cousin Elizabeth. Both women are pregnant. Elizabeth is about 6 months along, while Mary is just at the beginning. Does Elizabeth know before the visit that Mary is pregnant? It doesn’t say. I rather doubt it. We are told that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby in her womb lept. Now, while I was pregnant I learned there are three main reasons why a baby jumped in the womb: The first is hiccups. Two of mine had them quite frequently. It was one of the few times in my life that I laughed until I cried. The sensation was so weird. The second is when the baby flips over to get ready for birth. My first child flipped so fast and so furiously that it threw me off-balance, and I found myself holding the wall up. The third reason is a sudden, loud noise. One day when I was high pregnant I was washing dishes, and I dropped a pan in the sink. The baby jumped so high the bump nearly hit my nose, the baby was clearly startled out of a deep sleep. I turned to my husband and said, ‘Good news! The baby can hear!’
But what happened when Elizabeth’s baby jumped? She, the mother, was filled with the Holy Spirit. She was carrying a prophet. What does she do next? She prophesies. Prophecy is actually not so much about telling the future, as it is drawing back the curtain on the present in order to see it more clearly. Sometimes in the pulling back of that curtain, it makes things so real to us that you see the logical consequence in the future of what is happening now. A prophet will speak to the situation at hand, and call it what it is. Elizabeth tells Mary what is happening to her. That is already worth noting, but there is more to the story.
Do you remember Hannah, Samuel’s mother? Hannah was barren for many years, and it really wasn’t a good thing for a woman at that time to be barren – especially a married woman. You were seen as not “good enough”. Maybe your husband didn’t like you. I can imagine what the pettiness of the attacks of the other ladies would be like, ‘Oh he’s not going to sleep with her!’. It could get pretty mean. Hannah prayed for years, and promised to give her child to the Lord if he would only open her womb. When Hannah takes her child to the priest, she sings a song of praise. Elizabeth parallels Hannah in that she too was barren for many years, and in an earlier verse in Luke it says that Elizabeth remained in seclusion for five months and then said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favourably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” But that is all she says. Hannah also gives Samuel, her son, up to be a Nazirite. The Angel, Gabriel, tells Zechariah that Elizabeth’s baby will not drink wine or strong drink, which is also part of a Nazirite vow. So there is a lot of parallel between Hannah and Elizabeth. With those parallels you would expect then that Hannah’s song of praise would come out of the mouth of Elizabeth, would you not? Instead, Elizabeth takes her blessing and throws it onto 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 (and that is the key word!) that there would be[a] a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Why did Elizabeth do this? Mary believed. Joseph believed. Zechariah did not believe the message of the angel, and his speech was taken from him mid- worship service – not the nicest thing to do to a priest. There he was officiating in the Synagogue. It was his turn to go behind the curtain to the Holy of Holies, and who is waiting for him there, but Gabriel. Gabriel tells him his wife is going to have a baby, and he says, ‘Prove it. Prove you are who you say you are.’ You know what? Don’t ever ask God to prove something. Because he did not believe Gabriel’s message about Elizabeth bearing a child, the angel said, ‘Okay, you will not speak from now until the baby is born.’ This is the middle of a worship service. Zechariah comes out to the people waiting to hear him unable to say anything to all of you. He’s going (lots of gesturing). Who knows what he was doing, but he did all the motion with his hands because he couldn’t speak.
Elizabeth did not believe either, at first, and waited 5 months in seclusion for the proof. That means she was waiting until the pregnancy showed. At 5 months, most women will look pregnant. She waited. But Mary believed. Okay, she asked the question ‘how’? – a little bit of confusion on the logistics of it all. But that is okay. She did not ask for proof. She just believed. Not only is Mary carrying the Messiah, she believed the message when she heard it and obeyed. In the words of David Tiede in his commentary on Luke, for a woman of that time “the blessedness of bearing children is surpassed by the blessedness of faithful obedience.” So Elizabeth hands the honor over to Mary, and out of Mary’s mouth comes the ‘Magnificat’, a song of praise. It parallels Hannah’s Song of Praise. So I want to read that to you from the book of 1 Samuel. You may want to read the Magnificat along with it. But before I read it, lift your mind out of thinking that the Lord does all of this within one generation, and think about the sweeping nature of time and history.
“My heart exults in the Lord;
my strength is exalted in my God.[a]
My mouth derides my enemies,
because I rejoice in my[b] victory.
“There is no Holy One like the Lord,
no one besides you;
there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly,
let not arrogance come from your mouth;
for the Lord is a God of knowledge,
and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.[c]
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world.
“He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness;
for not by might does one prevail.
The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered;
the Most High[d] will thunder in heaven.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth;
he will give strength to his king,
and exalt the power of his anointed.”
Both songs are reminders of the power and sovreignity of the Lord; how just His decisions are; how faithful He is. But even then – in the midst of all this raising up and tearing down of kingdoms and wealth He remembers the lowliness of his handmaiden. He cares even for her.
And Mary says,
“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.”
Martin Luther recommended to his Serene Highness, Prince John Frederick, to remember these words as a standard for good governance “in all of Scripture I do not know anything that serves such a purpose so well as this sacred hymn of the most blessed Mother of God, which ought indeed to be learned and kept in mind by all who would rule well and be helpful Lords.”
Perhaps we should all learn these words and keep them in mind. Why? God is not just God of the big picture. God is also the God of ‘me, myself and I’, the lowly handmaid. I see written on Facebook comments like, ‘What is my suffering when innocent people are gunned down in Paris or small children watch their families and homes destroyed in Syria?’ Your suffering is still suffering whether you suffer it collectively or individually.
I was once in a Sunday School class led by a Biblical scholar in Princeton who himself was a child in a concentration camp after WWII. He was emphasizing that you cannot compare pain. What causes one person to suffer only a little, can devastate another person. Pain is pain. Whether you suffer it alone or with others. And it matters to God. Even if your prayer is simply two words, ‘I HURT!’, Our heavenly parent, our creator hears it. It matters. He does care, and for those who fear Him enough to come and say, ‘I hurt’, there is mercy. There is healing.
Kingdoms rise. Kingdoms fall.
Dictators kill. Dictators die.
Rich become poor.
Poor become rich.
From generation to generation.
The pillar that the world was set on.
So wrap yourself in that eternal pillar of Love.
The love exemplified by God coming to earth as one human, as one poor helpless human, to experience our childhood, our teenage angst, our pain, our joys, our laughter, our illnesses, our anxieties, our betrayals, our death. He came alone to a lowly handmaiden. He will come to you.
“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.”
Come Lord Jesus.