Blessed!, Luke 1:39-45
First United Methodist Church, December 23, 2018
Pastor Toni Carmer
The news of Mary's pregnancy had to have set off a minor scandal. It nearly leads to the breakup of her relationship with Joseph. Even worse, In Mary's world, an unmarried woman found to be pregnant could have been executed by stoning at the entrance of her father's house (Deut. 22). Under these circumstances, we can understand Mary's decision to put some distance between her newly pregnant body and her father's threshold. Whether her parents arrange to have her sent away, or whether she plans the journey on her own, no one knows. It could very well be that everyone needs to get a little distance from each other to sort out the news—a mixture of joy and anxiety.
Fortunately for Mary, she has some place to go, a place where she can be assured of a warm welcome. Her older cousin Elizabeth is also expecting. Whatever her neighbors in Nazareth may be whispering about her, she knows she and Elizabeth will have much to talk about.
For starters, each of their pregnancies was announced/revealed to them in decidedly unique ways to the experiences of the rest of us—then and now. My pregnancies were announced by a nurse calling from the doctor's office, ready to offer the good news of an appointment that always seemed to be scheduled way too far off in the future. Today, I think probably the most frequent way a pregnancy is announced is through a color change on a test strip in the privacy of one's own home. Elizabeth and Mary's pregnancies were announced by an angel.
For Elizabeth, the angel's news is delivered to her husband Zechariah, who serves as priest in the local synagogue. He enters the sanctuary to perform the routine task of burning incense, when something very un-routine happens. Because all of the worshipers are outside praying, he expects to be by himself, but an angel of the Lord appears to him and startles him. He is, scripture tells us, I believe understandably—gripped with fear. (CEB)
The angel speaks to Zechariah, saying what angels always say: "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness and many will rejoice at his birth…he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink—and even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel toward the Lord their God…and he will get people ready for God."
Zechariah asks a question, which also seems reasonable enough to me: "How will I know? I'm old. My wife is old. We gave up having children a long time ago."
The angel responds, telling the priest that he is Gabriel, and causes Zechariah to be mute. Zechariah is not able to speak until the angel's words are fulfilled.
Zechariah goes back outside to where the people are waiting and have been wondering why it is taking him so long in the temple. He can't explain, but as he gestures they realize he's seen a vision/something amazing has happened.
Without words to explain, God's actions will have to speak for themselves.
Lo and behold (you can count on the word of angels), Elizabeth does become pregnant, even in her advanced age. For 5 months she secludes herself. No need to explain anything to anyone, to try to answer questions she really doesn't know how to answer. She takes the time she needs to think, to give thanks, and to prepare the nursery.
In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy (we see how scripture links these two pregnancies, links these two lives from the very beginning: the one who will prepare the way, and the one who IS the way); the angel of the Lord appears to Mary, the young woman engaged to Joseph, saying "Greetings, you who are highly favored. The Lord is with you!" Mary is "perplexed" at the angel's appearance: she is greatly troubled. But the angel settles her (as he had settled Zechariah, saying "Do not be afraid…for you have found favor with God. God has a surprise for you: you will become pregnant and give birth to a son and call his name Jesus. He will be great, he will be called the Son of the Most High. God will give him the throne of his ancestor David; he will rule over Jacob's descendants forever; his kingdom will never end."
When Mary asks her question of the angel he simply answers—there is no punishment—this will be challenging enough, a single girl pregnant with the Son of God. Instead, Gabriel tells Mary that her relative Elizabeth, even though advanced in years, is also carrying a child.
Mary takes a deep breath. She nods her head. I will do this. Let it be with me just as you've said.
The angel leaves her and Mary says what she needs to say, and packs her bags to go to Elizabeth's house, about 80 miles away. Perhaps a 10 day walk. They will have a lot to talk about.
And that's where this morning's scripture begins.
The angel's words are true: John is filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth and he makes his first prophesy in utero. When Mary enters the house, John leaps in his mother's womb, and Elizabeth—at that moment—is filled with the Holy Spirit, as well. A blessing flows from Elizabeth's mouth; she knows without being told that Mary is pregnant, and that the child she carries is blessed. Elizabeth is so pleased that Mary has come to see her, but even greater than that is her joy and thanksgiving for the way God has blessed them. It may not all make sense at the moment. It's has been and will be difficult and challenging… and yet God has blessed them in amazing ways.
Mary responds by prophesying as well:
My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
For he has looked with favor upon 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 his descendents for forever (v. 47-55).
It's a beautiful moment as these two women come together, celebrating their pregnancies—still, surely, a bit unsettled at how it all came to be and what is still ahead. I think of Elizabeth who hasn't even been able to have regular conversation with her husband since that moment in the temple to hear exactly what happened there, since his lips have been zipped shut since that time. Most of us would want to hear the story repeated to us over and over, to catch every detail, to breathe it all in, to understand as much as possible what it's all about. All these years Elizabeth has been unable to conceive… She has surely been holding her breath in some ways—a woman does that when she hasn't been able to conceive, or when she's had a miscarriage. She's surely hesitant to fully rejoice in this pregnancy, to fully believe that it's really happening, until the baby is born, breathing in his first air and howling to all the world that he's here and he has something to say. But Mary comes into the house and Elizabeth's baby moves. He leaps within her womb, and suddenly, all is well.
I think of Mary and all that had to be on her mind: who will believe that an angel appeared to her? Had spoken to her? Will her parents? Will Joseph? Will his family? Will her friends and neighbors? She's surely been holding her breath, as well, carefully negotiating her way into this new beginning, this thing that God is doing. And then she steps into Elizabeth's home and receives a word of affirmation, a blessing from someone who understands, whose life has been completely re-ordered as well. She breathes and she sings: words of praise, of joy, of blessing.
The challenges haven't been taken away, but these two women bless one another. They strengthen one another's faith and they are able to do what God has called them to do. They give life to both Jesus and John—two men who, between them, are going to change the world.
So often we get caught up in the dark clouds and negativity. There's plenty of that around! It's not always easy to catch a glimpse of God's promises. Even in this season, we look around and go—really? Materialism abounds. But what if we look for the blessings? What if we set out to bless other people? What if we sing for joy and with hope, even in the midst of the shadows that threaten to overcome?
Barbara Brown Taylor says this about the glimpses of God/the blessings that surround us, that we can see when we keep our eyes open:
"The same pattern of rebirth that I learned in baptism showed up in everything from bathing to watering plants. The same pattern of relationship that I learned in communion was available in every meal eaten mindfully. The laying on of hands took place as I held a crying baby or rubbed the shoulders of a tired friend. With a little oil I could even offer the sacrament of a pretty good massage. When I walked outside and looked at the smoking compost heap, I saw a sacrament of death turning into life. When I used my little bottle of Wite-Out to correct a mistake, I remembered that my errors did not have to be permanent. Everywhere I turned, the most insignificant things in the world were preaching little sermons to me. Everywhere I turned, the world was leaking light. All that was required, apparently, was my willingness to be a priest—to walk through the world aware of God's presence, ready to hold ordinary things up to heaven with my own hands so that I and anyone else who was interested could see the holiness in them—even the soiled and broken things that were just waiting for someone to come along and love them (I learned this part from Jesus)…Following the leader, I take the very ordinary stuff of my life into my very human hands. I bless it, break it so that the light comes out, and then I offer it back to God—who nine times out of ten says, "Thanks, but you can have it. I made it all for you."
Sometimes it can be challenge for us to lift ourselves up out of the ordinary and the mundane, to see where the world is leaking light. (I like the way Barbara Taylor Brown describes that!). It can be even harder when you're not feeling good, or when someone you know and love is going through a difficult time. We get caught up and don't always see those places where the world is leaking light. I would like, in this season, to—at least for a little while—grasp hold of the magic that Christmas felt like as a child. It truly was a bit magic…and yet, today, maybe I can catch hold of something that's even better: that isn't magic, but is real, and true, and life-giving, in the amazing story of Christmas. It isn't all magic and carefree and sparkly. But even in the tough realities of the story, God's light shines through—and it's a light of love and hope and redemption.
I can see in this story how Mary and Elizabeth need each other. How they bless and encourage one another to trust in God's faithfulness even during this confusing time and God's love shines through.
I can see in this story how Zechariah's silence, although surely frustrating for both he and Elizabeth, might have been a real gift. Sometimes what we need is silence, to get our heads around whatever is happening, to make us step back and see. Maybe silence can bless us as we take time to see where God's love shines through…
This past week a member of our congregation sent me this text: She said, "I want to share my defining moment from church yesterday. Music and speaking was wonderful. But, when Dave (Hogsett) said "Light of Jesus" and right as Jan began "breath of heaven, the sun shone brightly through the stain glass windows. (She wrote sun "son" and capitalized both Son and Shone.) It took my breath away."
Where might we see God's love shining through? How might our seeing that light, be an encouragement for others? Who do we know who needs to see it, to experience it? To feel its warmth? Who do we know who needs to hear an encouraging word? Who would be blessed in knowing or being reminded of God's love and grace and the amazing gift of God's Son?
God is with us.
In knowing that may we—like John—leap for joy.