As we come to the last Sunday of Advent the long period of preparation and waiting comes to an end and we turn the page into the New Testament. For the next 19 Sundays we will be journeying through Luke’s presentation of the story of Jesus Christ. In with the new! – the New Testament, that is.
When we begin to read Luke it seems that there will be a smooth transition into the new. We are immediately introduced to an older couple who have no children, both descended from priestly lines and Zechariah serving as a priest. This is a recurring theme throughout the Old Testament. The God for whom nothing is impossible works by allowing barren women to conceive and bear children. Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel, Elkanah and Hannah, and more. So it makes perfect sense that the overture for the sequel to the Old Testament would begin with the melody of the barren woman theme. This is recognizable, this is God at work.
But as we make our way across this bridge into the New Testament, it suddenly comes to an abrupt end and we find ourselves stepping into thin air and plunging into completely unfamiliar territory. For the angel Gabriel’s next stop after meeting with Zechariah in the Temple in Jerusalem and singing the song about the reversal of the barren woman’s fortunes, is Nazareth. Gabriel might have had to plug the address into the GPS to get from the capital city of Jerusalem to the insignificant town of Nazareth. When he got to Nazareth he tracked down a young woman named Mary who was engaged but not yet married to Joseph, the carpenter. Gabriel announced to Mary that she had found favor with God and was going to have a child. In shock, she asked how that could be. Gabriel told her it would be the work of the Holy Spirit and God would be the father of this child.
This is quite different. It is not a variation on the barren woman theme. It is a totally different, radically new theme which has never been heard before or since. It is a theme which sounds dissonant when first heard, and only resolves into beauty over time and with understanding that allows one to hear in a new way. The text of the song that Mary sings when she visits Elizabeth is similar to the text of the song Hannah sang when she was finally blessed with the child Samuel in the Old Testament, but the context is completely different.
Hannah and her husband had been trying to have a child for years. Elizabeth and Zechariah were in the same boat, but Mary and her husband to be had not even tried once. Well, as we come to this last Sunday before Christmas; as we check our lists twice and prepare to venture out into the madness that is Clemson Boulevard one more time; as we prepare for the arrival of guests from the east or some other direction bearing gifts; or as we ourselves prepare to load up the car for a difficult journey to Bethlehem or some other ancestral homeplace; let’s pause for a few minutes to reflect on two women who are pregnant with the promise of a new covenant and the inbreaking kingdom of God.
In the adult male dominated world of the first century Middle East, a region thoroughly dominated by the Roman Empire, the focus of the Christmas story as told by Luke is on two Jewish women and their unborn babies. We cannot appreciate how radical that is. One is too old to be having babies, the other is not too young but too unmarried. Both pregnancies are miraculous.
Though they are from different generations, these relatives come together and retreat from the curious eyes and tongues of their communities. Elizabeth’s husband was a priest at the Temple in the big city of Jerusalem. It was on a once in a lifetime opportunity to enter and serve in the holy of holies in the Temple that an angel gave him the word that he and his wife would have a baby. Because he doubted this, he was struck dumb, unable to speak again until the baby was born.
I hear plenty of reasons there why Elizabeth might want to retreat for a while from her normal circle of activities and acquaintances, and maybe find a quieter setting to wait and prepare for the birth of her son. Luke tells us that she went into seclusion for five months. I assume she went to the place where Mary visited her, which is referred to only as “a Judean town in the hill country.” The place is unnamed and, as far as I know, unknown. Otherwise, I would expect to have visited a “Church of the Magnificat” somewhere near Jerusalem on one of my visits.
I can imagine that Mary had even more reason to get out of Dodge for a while. She trusted the angel’s promise to her, and Joseph had come to accept it, but I can’t imagine that tongues weren’t wagging about her in Nazareth. Many people would have regarded hers as a shameful pregnancy rather than a pregnancy of promise, due to her being unmarried. Unwed, pregnant teenagers frequently leave town even today during their pregnancies to avoid the public glare.
These two women who have endured much come together, and they affirm each other and sing songs and they are renewed. Charles Campbell writes, “The scene is absurd. The coming of the Messiah who will redeem Israel is anticipated and proclaimed, not by archangels or high priests or emperors or even ordained preachers. Rather, two marginalized, pregnant women – one young, poor, and unwed, the other far beyond the age to conceive – meet in the hill country of Judea to celebrate (and possible commiserate about) their miraculous pregnancies… Two marginalized, pregnant women carry the future and proclaim the Messiah.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, pp. 93 and 95)
A remarkable thing happens when Mary walks in the door. The baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps – the kick to end all kicks! Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaimed the blessedness of Mary and of her child. Elizabeth and her child John, who would become known as the baptizer, recognized the presence of the Messiah, and responded in joy. This in turn led Mary to respond joyfully in song, in what we call the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord…”
Throughout the Bible we are seeing that God acts in unexpected ways through surprising people in out of the way places. He calls to Moses out of a bush in the wilderness while Moses is shepherding the flock of his father in law. Jacob flees from home where he has alienated everyone but his mother and in the middle of nowhere is met by God when he dreams of a ladder to heaven and wonderful blessings. A multitude of the heavenly hosts will proclaim the Messiah’s birth not at the palace of Herod or Caesar Augustus, not at the Temple, but to shepherds on the bottom of the social rung who are working third shift out in the fields.
Do you think you are too old to have a purpose? Do you think you are too young to do something valuable for God? Do you think you are too ordinary a person to make a difference in the world? Well think again. God has a preference for using such folks in his schemes to save the world.
I would like to meet and shake the hand of the person who took the time to listen to the story of Mary and Elizabeth and found it important enough to record it for posterity. The vast majority of people would not have paid any attention. Women were not even allowed to testify in court – their testimony was not regarded as valid or trustworthy.
Who knows, maybe it was Luke himself. Luke is certainly the only one of the Gospel writers who chose to include these stories in the telling of the life of Jesus. Luke had a high regard for the actions and testimonies and discipleship of the women in Jesus’ life and later in the early church in the Book of Acts. Maybe he visited with Mary one day and she told him of her visit with Elizabeth and how much it encouraged her as she went through her pregnancy.
As a doctor, Luke would have been interested in every bit of it. “You say Elizabeth’s baby kicked right when you arrived?” “No, Elizabeth said he leaped! She was startled by it and her eyes glazed over and she said I was blessed because I was the mother of her Lord!”
“And what did you say to her, Mary?” “I was speechless. People had been doubting my truthfulness for so long, but Elizabeth knew the truth without my having to say a word. What a gift that was! I was so happy I sang a song!”
“A song! What song did you sing, Mary?” “It was a new song. I don’t know where it came from, I had never heard it before, it just came to me.” “What were the words, Mary?” “Oh, no one would care.” “I care, Mary. Tell me.” “Well… it went like this: 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 Mary’s song went on, ringing with gratitude and foretelling the reversals and upheavals the world would experience as a result of her son’s birth.
Michael Bennett writes, “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 individual destinies. Together they are known more fully, and begin to see more clearly, than they do as individuals. This is truly an Advent message – of hope and understanding that starts out slowly and quietly. We anticipate its growth and full manifestation, but we do not yet experience it.” (Feasting on the Word, pp. 94 and 96)
At the very beginning of his Gospel, Luke says that others have already written orderly accounts about the life of Jesus. That means he thinks some important parts of the story have not yet been told. He writes, “I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account.” One of the glaring absences from other accounts are these stories about Moms, about pregnancies, about shared burdens, about babies being born. Luke is concerned throughout with giving voice to those whose voices are not usually heard. He does not primarily visit the palace, the Temple, the marketplace, for his stories. He visits homes, he visits infirmaries, he visits leper colonies and the homes of tax collectors and sinners.
Where are we expecting to find the true stories and true meaning of Christmas, of the coming of the Messiah? I think the answer is different for different people. Many of us were helped along by the amazing children’s Christmas pageant here last Sunday night, or listening to the testimonies of new officers on Monday night. Some look forward to the Christmas Eve service as the moment when Christmas comes alive, others find it in watching the faces of children and grandchildren on Christmas morning. Some find it in purchasing gifts for children or families who would not have them otherwise. Others find it in listening to a cd of favorite Christmas music or watching a favorite movie with family or reaching out to someone who has recently experienced a loss. My advice is to keep your eyes open, expect to be surprised, perhaps in the smallest of things or the quietest of occasions.
I’d like to close with my favorite Advent devotional, written by Henri Nouwen. He writes,
“Our salvation comes from something small, tender, and vulnerable, something hardly noticeable. God, who is the Creator of the Universe, comes to us in smallness, weakness, and hidenness.
I find this a hopeful message. Somehow, I keep expecting loud and impressive events to convince me and others of God’s saving power; but over and over again, I am reminded that spectacles, power plays, and big events are the ways of the world. Our temptation is to be distracted by them and made blind to the ‘shoot that shall sprout from the stump.’
When I have no eyes for the small signs of God’s presence – the smile of a baby, the carefree play of children, the words of encouragement and gestures of love offered by friends – I will always remain tempted to despair.
The small child of Bethlehem, the unknown man of Nazareth, the rejected preacher, the naked man on the cross, he asks for my full attention. The work of salvation takes place in the midst of a world that continues to shout, scream, and overwhelm us with its claims and promises. But the promise is hidden in the shoot that sprouts from the stump, a shoot that hardly anyone notices.” (The Lord is Near, p. 5)
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
December 18, 2016
Central Presbyterian Church