First United Methodist Church
Plymouth, Indiana

Seeking Sanctuary

Seeking Sanctuary; Luke 1:39-45; 46b-55
Plymouth First United Methodist Church; December 19, 2021
Pastor Toni Carmer

There’s something about those minor keyed hymns during Advent.  I love them, I want to sing ALL of the Advent minor keyed hymns, but there aren’t enough Sundays and—not one congregation I’ve served has had the patience to make it all the way to Christmas Eve before singing a Christmas Carol or two…or more. 

I get it.  We’re hearing Christmas songs everywhere, filled with ringing and jingling and merry and bright, except for the Christmas shoes song, that I’m not even going to mention.  Our Advent music is one of the ways in which the church is counter-cultural.  Our celebrating involves something even bigger than Santa Claus and presents under the tree.  (Though peace on earth and good will to all are important messages.)

The minor-keyed and Advent hymns are a part of our tradition—and a reminder for us—that there was a time before Christ came into the world.  There was a time before his birth, when people lived and laughed and breathed and loved and died. And so the texts we’ve been reading and the songs we’ve been singing (though not enough minor keyed hymns, I’d say) are meant to place us squarely, and perhaps a bit uncomfortably into a time of preparation.  Into a place of “dis-ease”: before Jesus was born. Before the people of God had a Savior to celebrate and prepare.  That’s a little hard to imagine, isn’t it?  Because even with all the distractions as we prepare for Christmas, we can’t imagine not experiencing the high point of Christ’s coming—of Jesus being born in a manager.

Today’s scripture brings us closer to that event.  We’ve spent time talking about Zechariah and Elizabeth the last few weeks, and how the angel spoke to Zechariah letting him know that he and Elizabeth were to be the parents of John, who would prepare the way for the Messiah.  But this year we haven’t read the story about the angel’s visit to Mary, so I offer that story as a prelude to today’s reading. 

When Elizabeth is about 6 months pregnant, that same angel who visited Zechariah, now comes to Mary.  Mary is young, perhaps a teenager.  She is Elizabeth’s cousin, and she is engaged to Joseph.  Scripture tells us that Mary is “perplexed” at the angel’s appearance.  To settle her, the angel says, “Don’t be afraid, Mary, because 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 Highest. God will give him the throne of his ancestor David; he will rule over Jacob’s house forever—and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

When Mary questions the angel, he simply answers her—there is no punishment—this will be challenging enough, a single girl pregnant with the son of God. Instead, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that her relative Elizabeth, even though advanced in years, is also carrying a child.

Mary takes a deep breath.  Nods her head and says, “I will do this. Let it be with me just as you have said.”

But this is no easy assignment.

And this is where this morning’s text picks up.

This is when Mary gets ready and hurries to a town in the hill country of Judea where she enters the home of Zechariah and greets his wife Elizabeth.

In today’s world, it’s not an easy task for a young woman to tell her parents that she’s pregnant.  It isn’t exactly a secret that you can hold onto for a long time, or that you can keep others from coming to know about, too.

Jewish scripture says a woman who commits adultery is to be stoned to death. How many people do you think will believe Mary’s story about an angel?  Her parents?  Her fiancé?  Once she starts “showing” Mary knows her “condition” will be front page news. A scandal. An embarrassment.  And a threat to her life! 

She has all kinds of questions…ideas…running through her head.

I imagine she tells her parents she wants to get out of town for a while. I imagine her parents asking “why?”  I imagine Mary saying, “I need to—today or tomorrow.” Her parents ask, “What’s the hurry?”  Mary responds, “I just need to go. Please.”

So they let her go. It seems she goes on her own. Her family, as far as we know, isn’t wealthy. There probably isn’t a servant or a guard to go with her. She is on her own. Even if she is able to travel south as the part of caravan, on the back of someone’s wagon headed that way for some reason. 

As we read this story, we learn some things about Mary:  She’s faithful.  She trusts God.  And she is a person of extraordinary courage. On her own, she heads south, from Galilee to Judea.  A distance of about 80 miles. 

When Mary arrives at the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the baby in Elizabeth’s belly “leaps in her womb.”  John is already filled with the Holy Spirit. He begins to prophesy in his 6th month of prenatal life. It’s at this moment when Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, as well, and blessings begin to flow from her mouth.  She knows without being told that Mary is pregnant, and that the child Mary carries is blessed.  Elizabeth is pleased that Mary has come to see her, but even greater than that is her joy and thanksgiving for the way God has brought these blessings to each of them.

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 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.”

Out of Mary’s mouth comes this vision of a new humanity. Out of her womb comes the child whose birth is good news of great joy for the whole nation...for the whole world…for all time!

Whatever fear, whatever wonder, whatever apprehension that Mary surely experienced—even though she responded positively to the angel’s news—seems to be settled/calmed/affirmed in Elizabeth’s presence.  To have someone to go to, to talk to, to know and understand what she is experiencing, is an important and blessed thing for Mary.  In Elizabeth’s acceptance—who was surely experiencing a wide range of emotions herself, wonder at becoming pregnant in her “old age,” embarrassment at what others might be saying about this unexpected event at this point in life, and joy and blessing at what God is doing—Mary is able to step into her future joyfully, obediently, and with confidence.  And surely, Elizabeth is blessed as well, as the two women talk to one another, as they sing their songs of praise, as they prepare for what’s ahead. 

Elizabeth becomes a sanctuary for Mary. Our first thought of sanctuary is most likely a place—a place where we can seek refuge, a place where we can be cared for, where we can take a deep breath.  Sanctuary is a place where we can listen for the word of God, where we can gain strength for whatever lies ahead.  But we can see that sanctuary can also be a person…a person who listens, who cares, about how we are and what we’re doing.  Sanctuary can be a person who is perhaps able to hear beyond the words that come out of our mouths, and understands as well, our heart, our hopes, our desires…including our desire to be who God is calling us to be.

Mary finds sanctuary in Elizabeth.

I wonder where you’ve found sanctuary. 

I wonder who has found sanctuary in you?

Mary remains with Elizabeth for 3 months.  They hold onto each other, they encourage one another, pray for one another, and prepare themselves for being the mother of the Messenger, and the mother of our Savior. There will be joy in those roles, but there will be heartache as well.

You and I have experienced disappointment in not being able to worship in our physical sanctuary.  Though many of you have many more years of memories than I have in that building, I, too, feel a sense of deep loss.  I’m thankful to be here in this place, without question, but I long for “home” just as you do.  And yet, I know that the church is more than a building.  I know that the true place that holds my heart is the place we find together in community.  The places where we connect.  Just as Mary found sanctuary in Elizabeth, so, too, do we find sanctuary in one another.  And that gives us what we need to go back out into the world to do what God is calling us to do.

So, let’s sing our carols together, the minor keys, the major keys, the expectant and the joyful ones.  And then, go out and sing about Santa Claus and Rudolph, and even the one about the Christmas shoes, if that’s what you need to do. But keep your eyes and your hearts open to those who need sanctuary.  And seek out someone to talk to when you need sanctuary, too.  It can make all the difference.  Amen.