Make the Blessings Known: Unabashed Joy, Luke 1:47-55
First United Methodist Church, December 15, 2019
Pastor Toni Carmer
An angel appears to Mary, telling her that she will give birth to a son. Initially frightened by the angel’s appearance, he soothes her, telling her not to be afraid, because she has found favor with God. The promise of the angel is that:
He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.
He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.
The things that had to be going through Mary’s mind! “How can this be?” Mary was poor and unmarried. The angel has told her that she is blessed among women. What does it mean to be blessed? How can something be a blessing when it raises more questions than it answers? How could she explain such a thing? How could she make her fiancé, Joseph, understand that she had not betrayed him, that the child growing inside her was of the Holy Spirit? How could this be?
Mary—a peasant girl—unmarried and untutored—was to be the mother of Christ. To be pregnant is one thing. To be pregnant with the Christ is something altogether different! How could this happen? This was NOT what Mary would have ever expected to happen!!
How do you defend a blessing you can’t explain? How do you live with a blessing that creates more problems than it solves? Besides, who would believe her? Joseph? Absolutely not. The townswomen? Yeah, right. Elizabeth, her relative? Perhaps.
Mary hurries to home of her kinswoman, Elizabeth. The angel told Mary that Elizabeth, too, had been blessed, conceiving a child in her old age. A promise has been delivered by an angel concerning this child, as well. The son of Elizabeth and Zechariah would “turn many of the Sons of Israel to the Lord their God,” and would prepare the way of the Lord. Yes, Elizabeth might be able to share and help Mary better understand this blessing.
Have you ever received mixed blessings from God? Something that sounded good, or could be good in the long run, but also held many questions and concerns? How did you deal with it?
There are a number of those kinds of situations that make their way into our lives over the years…
To name just a few…
There’s the decision to be married—there are certainly challenges and blessings involved in doing that! Your love may not like to be awakened by the sound of country music blaring over the sound of the shower, and someone might have to learn that closing the lid of the toilet is an important part of couple etiquette. But there are so many good things in having a partner to share life with—that a lot of us are willing to make a few sacrifices of personal freedom in order to make the relationship work.
Having children—what a blessing! But your routine has to become more predictable, and you have to be ready to start funneling your energy, your priorities and your finances toward that tiny little thing…whose appreciation of your opinions and ideas seems to decrease in a manner directly proportionate to their gain in height. It was once my understanding that all begins to level off once a child reaches a height approximately 3 inches taller than his or her mother, but since our children hit that point somewhere in middle school, I discovered there was no truth to that adage.
Choosing your life work is another mixed blessing. Do you choose what you love to do even if the financial compensation isn’t as much as you might have hoped for, or there’s not a lot of room for advancement? Or do you do something else that will provide a better living but less personal fulfillment? Can you combine the two? How do you define success? And what if there’s an opportunity to change careers once you’ve been headed in one direction for a while? What are you willing to give up? What do you need to hang onto? What are the rewards?
And then, there’s retirement. A mixed blessing? More time, less money, maybe. You can’t help but think about what you had hoped to accomplish over the years and the time you have left to do that… Will you be able to do it? Where will you live? Do you need to move into a smaller place, closer to the kids, maybe? Lots of decisions to be made.
There are more…but those are some of the basics…
Probably changing careers all those years ago was one of my big mixed blessings. I loved what I was doing, but I felt like God was calling me somewhere else. I’m thankful I responded, but as I dealt with all the questions, I went to the people who I thought would understand me, and who would be able to help me make sense of it all.
That’s what Mary did.
Scripture says she “set out with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.”
To be chosen by God is a humbling experience. To be used by God is an awesome experience. To be blessed by God is a joyous experience, and we are told that the child Elizabeth carried leaped in her womb, she was so filled with joy and excitement to be in the presence of the one through whom prophesy would be realized.
There is no way Mary could have anticipated Elizabeth’s response. It was one thing to have heard the strange greeting, “You are blessed among women,” from an angel—surely it was haunting. But it had to be another thing altogether to hear those words coming from the lips of her older kinswoman: The same greeting made all the difference to Mary. Coming from an older woman of Elizabeth’s status—from a woman who had spent much of her life in service to God—the greeting confirmed for Mary the magnitude of the miracle God was performing in her life.
In fact, Elizabeth greeted Mary—not only with enthusiasm, but with gratitude! “Why has this happened to me that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”
Mary was surprised. As the younger of the two, it was she, Mary, who was supposed to show honor to Elizabeth. But the look on Elizabeth’s face told Mary that the other woman knew: Elizabeth knew Mary’s blessing, and she knew her burden, as well.
Filled with humility and gratitude, Mary knelt and embraced her older kinswoman. Had it not been for the weight she was carrying because of her own pregnancy, Elizabeth might have knelt to kiss the younger woman’s feet. That she, Elizabeth, should be granted the blessing of meeting the mother of Christ was more than she could have expected.
Even the child in Elizabeth’s womb jumped for joy.
Perhaps, on the surface, Elizabeth would have had every reason to envy Mary, the young, unmarried woman. Elizabeth was the older of the two, the wife of a prominent priest, a God-fearing woman who had prayed all her life for a child. Surely, she would have been the better choice to the be Mother of Christ.
Elizabeth’s humanity would have told her that she had every right to be jealous. She had the opportunity to squelch the young woman’s confidence, to attempt to invalidate her blessedness. With the younger woman on her knees, distraught and looking up at Elizabeth with pleading eyes, Elizabeth had the opportunity to influence Mary’s decision about her pregnancy—the opportunity to influence Mary’s image of herself. But the older woman didn’t begrudge her younger, unmarried kinswoman the blessing that was Mary’s alone.
God’s choice was Mary, not Elizabeth.
The young woman kneeling before Elizabeth had been blessed in the most unusual way. Because of the child growing in her womb, Mary’s name would be known throughout history. And Elizabeth knew her child would never be as great as the child Mary was carrying. Elizabeth knew, she understood, and she accepted this.
Elizabeth was old enough to know not to contend against the Almighty. So, for the honor of being in Mary’s presence, the older woman was grateful. It was an honor she could live with.
Have we always been so thankful for the successes of others? All too often we have seen jealousy and envy occur as a result of one person’s success and another person’s inability to be successful. The Old Testament rings of many instances such as that…Cain slays Abel because of God’s acceptance of Abel’s offering while rejecting his own; Sarai banishes Hagar after Hagar conceives and gives birth to Abram’s son; Joseph’s brothers sell him off because of their father’s devotion to this youngest son. Even today, we read tragic stories in our newspapers that remind us of the destruction that can occur as a result of jealousy and envy.
But what happens when we rejoice in the accomplishment of another?
We’re well aware of a child’s response to praise and admiration. They love it! They want more! And they’ll work hard at being good to receive it from you! Most of us respond positively and enthusiastically to the love, encouragement and support others give us. And like every other person of that day and this, Mary, too, needed the support, enthusiasm and unrestrained love that Elizabeth has so warmly given.
Heartened by Elizabeth’s encouragement, grateful to be with someone who listens to her story, understands her fear, and celebrates the blessings with her, Mary thanks God for Elizabeth. The young woman throws back her head, and sings at the top of her voice:
My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God, my Savior, for God has looked upon the low estate of a handmaiden…for God who is mighty has done great things for me…
Her song isn’t a boast. It is a hymn of praise, sung out of a profound sense of joy and thanksgiving. This song of praise has to do with Mary, with Elizabeth, and the thankfulness that Mary feels toward God’s promise to her. But, in a deeper and larger way, it has to do with Mary’s son. Here is the song of her rejoicing. Yet the reason for her rejoicing is not in what she herself might do, but in what will be done by the one who will be borne of her. Jesus shall,
Scatter the proud in the thoughts of their hearts…bring down the powerful from their thrones, and lift up the lowly; he [shall] fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty.
Jesus is to come, revolutionizing the church, at times making us very uncomfortable, challenging us to grow, and bringing hope that God’s grace and salvation are ours.
God speaks through real people in real situations and during real times. That’s a fact that we seem to forget. Oftentimes, as we read through the scriptures, we tend to consider the situations and the personalities we encounter there in a general sense—perhaps in abstract theological terms—or looking at the bottom line of what the text is saying, we forget the humanity of the people involved. We forget the intense feelings and emotions that had to be a part of their experience. Perhaps encouraged by the church’s canonization of the individuals in later years, we tend to think of these persons as being saints in their lifetimes, perfect specimens of humanity who of course were never faced with emotional extremes, who were never really tempted with sin, who never questioned the way they should turn. We think of these stories as happening a long time ago, in a completely different time and place; therefore, we conclude that they have very little to do with real life and the stresses we encounter here and now in the “real world”.
And so, because of this, I would like to challenge you, as together we continue our journey in these days of Advent, that we read our Bibles—perhaps a bit differently than we usually do. Experience the things that are happening there in the way the participants must have—feel their emotions: the surprise, the questions, the anxieties, the fear, the relief, and finally, the great joy they shared together—all of which came together in the birth of Jesus. Hear the message of Elizabeth and Mary as real people who during very real times received encouragement and support from one another as they struggled to follow God’s call. And as you do that—consider to whom YOU might become a blessing, with YOUR words of encouragement. I think I can guarantee that you, too, will be blessed.
And so, along with all these people—in your Bible and in your world—make your preparations for a real birth, with a real message, that speaks to us, even today. Because Jesus was a real child, born to bring hope and salvation and real, unabashed joy to real people in need.
Thanks be to God. Amen.