Monday, December 25, 2006

The Risk of Chrismas

Christmas Day – Year C
Isaiah 9:2-4,6-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14(15-20)
Monday, December 25, 2006 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

The angel of the Lord proclaimed, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.”

Bringing a child into the world is an awesome responsibility and an awesome privilege. First time parents haven’t a clue as to what to do with a newborn baby – how to care for it, how to raise it. It’s a scary experience, at best. Mary and Joseph would have been no exception. Yet, God places a great deal of confidence in Mary and Joseph by entrusting them with God’s Son. What was God thinking, giving his son into the care of these two novices? And I wonder how Mary and Joseph felt, knowing that they were bringing not just any baby into the world, that they were not going to be raising just any child. Not only did they have the great responsibility of raising a child – no small feat in itself – they were responsible for the welfare of the Messiah, the Son of God They had been given the responsibility of raising he who was to be the hope and salvation for all humanity.


Even though they had both been filled in on what would happen – Mary by the Archangel Gabriel and Joseph in a dream – there was no way they could have really known what they were getting themselves into. There is no way they could have really known what it all meant. It had to be an overwhelming experience for them. They had taken a big risk in accepting God’s call to be the earthly parents of the Son of God.

It wasn’t only Mary and Joseph who risked. The baby Jesus is God Incarnate, God made flesh, God in human form. And God didn’t just become human. He came in the form of a baby – a few pounds of helpless flesh, totally reliant upon Mary and Joseph. The Almighty God, Creator of the Universe, came as a baby, unable to care for even the most basic of human needs. God took a big risk in becoming human. God took a big risk in allowing himself to be put in the hands of inexperienced human parents, in the hands of an inexperienced mother who was nearly a child herself. In so doing, God made himself vulnerable. But under God’s plan for the salvation of humankind, this was necessary. God needed to become a child, God needed to grow into adulthood, complete with all the experiences that process entails – all the joy, all the trials, all the pain that that process brings. God needed to experience firsthand what it meant to be human, so that he could ultimately save humanity. In doing so, God took a big risk. In so doing, God made himself vulnerable for our sake.

And God took another risk in the process. God put a lot of confidence in the human race – that it would be able to accept God’s son as the Messiah, as the redeemer of the world. God, being who God is, undoubtedly knew that not all people would accept Jesus. Some would be shaken by the words and deeds of Jesus – to the point that they would seek to have him executed. But at the same time, these people were necessary to help bring about the fulfillment of what Jesus was called to do – what he was brought into the world to do. God trusted that some would play their part to condemn and execute Jesus – so that he could ultimately be resurrected; and that others would carry on the vision of what Jesus stood for. God risked by trusting that humanity would do its part – that we would embrace his Son, that we would see for ourselves that we are loved by our God.

But all this risk was necessary. It was necessary for our sake. God loves us so much that He was willing to do whatever it took to get our attention, to risk whatever he had to, to demonstrate his love for us. By becoming human, God sought relationship with us. We had not done a good job of relating to an omnipotent, omniscient God. We needed something more tangible to relate to. So God become one of us so that we could better relate to God. In becoming human, God reached out to us.

And now it is our turn to risk. God has reached out to us. The Christ Child born this day in Bethlehem is not just Mary and Joseph’s baby. He is not just God’s Son. He is the child given for all of us. He is our hope and our salvation. He is a tangible sign of God’s love for us, of God’s desire to be in relationship with us, and for us to be in relationship with him. Mary may have given birth to Jesus, but we are to risk by sharing in the raising of Christ, to make his love known to all humanity – by proclaiming along with the angel of the Lord, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you – to every one of you – is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.”

Merry Christmas!

Read more!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Elizabeth and Mary - Icons for Advent

Advent 4 – Year C
Micah 5:2-4; Psalm 80; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-49(50-56)
Sunday, December 24, 2006 –
St. Alban’s, Westwood

Where do you see God in your life? Where do you meet the holy? In what ways does the Divine touch your life?


Last week, the LA Times reported how the holy and the mundane intersected in a rather interesting, if not unusual way, right here in Southern California. In August, the workers at a chocolate factory in Fountain Valley, just down the 405, experienced what they described as a miracle. The Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of our Lord, appeared to them. This was not an ordinary appearance. She did not come to them in a vision. Rather, she appeared to them in a material form. She appeared in the form of a two and a half inch glob of chocolate. The miraculous confection, extruded from a mixing vat spout, was in the likeness of the Virgin Mary standing in prayer.


This was not the first such miraculous appearance of the Virgin Mary to humanity. While I was living in Chicago several years ago, the image of the Blessed Virgin appeared in a rust stain on a retaining wall of an expressway underpass near downtown Chicago. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see it, as the Illinois Department of Transportation promptly painted over the image, much to the consternation of the Archdiocese of Chicago, the local media, and the faithful of Chicagoland. She has also appeared in such items as pretzels and grilled cheese sandwiches. And such unique appearances are not limited to the Virgin Mary. Being a family trait, even Jesus has gotten in on the act, appearing on such mundane items as a tortilla.

Now it may just be me, but being a chocoholic, the appearance of the Blessed Virgin in the form of chocolate is most certainly divine – or at least a sign from on high that chocolate in and of itself is divine.

I always approach such reports of miraculous appearances of the holy in such everyday items as food products and expressway underpasses with mixed feelings. There is the skeptic in me that thinks, “yeah, right. Why would the Virgin Mary appear on a grilled cheese sandwich?” Seems kinda silly to me. But then, there is the part of me that recognizes that people are hungering for a glimpse of the holy in their lives, longing to be touched by the Divine in their otherwise ordinary, even downtrodden, existences. People want to know that they are loved by God. They yearn for assurance that God is really with them, blessing them in a world where no one else seems to care, let alone bless them. They want someone to point the way to that divine assurance – even if that someone is only an image on an everyday object.

Throughout Advent we have heard and reflected on the stories of those who pointed the way to God’s assurance of his love for us – to Jesus Christ. In our lectionary, the Gospel readings for both the second and third Sundays of Advent focus on John the Baptist. The words of the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” invoke in us the image of John the Baptist, the one who points the way to Jesus, to the Messiah. This is our traditional image of Advent. John the Baptist serves as the primary icon for our understanding of Advent. But I think we’ve gotten it all wrong. John was not the first person to point the way to Jesus as the Messiah. Rather, as today’s Gospel lesson clearly shows us, it was two women who first pointed the way to Jesus – Elizabeth and Mary.

In considering what this means, it is important to remember that at the time of Jesus’ birth, women were little more than property. Their only importance was to provide their owner, their husband, with an heir, with a male child who would carry on the family lineage. Otherwise, they were insignificant. With that understanding, let’s look at each of these women, these remarkable women, and see what they can teach us about the meaning of Advent.

As we’ve already established, the Gospel lessons for two of the four Sundays of Advent tell the story of John the Baptist. What we do not get, however, is the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, John’s parents. Only the Gospel According to Luke tells us of these two remarkable people and the circumstances surrounding the birth of he who cries in the wilderness “prepare the way of the Lord.” But even so, the lectionary selections for Advent do not even give us the full story. Today’s Gospel lesson comes closest, only picking up a small piece of the story – the interaction between Elizabeth, John’s mother, and Mary, mother of he whom John would precede. But if John the Baptist is an integral part of the story of the Incarnation, then his mother is likewise integral to that all-important story – to the story of our faith – to the foundation of our faith.

If you recall the remainder of the story, Elizabeth and Zechariah, like most married couples, desperately wanted to have a child. Being persons of profound faith, both being from priestly families, they undoubtedly prayed endlessly, at least in the early years of their marriage, for a child – preferably a male child, who would carry on the family and who would care for them in their old age. But as time went by, and their prayers remained unanswered, it became obvious that they were not destined to have a child. This would have been a source of despair, particularly for Elizabeth. Not only did she not have her prayers answered and her dreams of motherhood fulfilled, she would have also had to endure pity and scorn from her neighbors. If she and Zechariah were unable to conceive, surely they must have done something to deserve their fate. For these antiquated and misguided impressions, Elizabeth would have had to endure disgrace.

But then, their fortune changes. Literally, by the grace of God, Elizabeth was able to finally conceive a child. But not just any child. She would conceive and bear a son who would become one of the greatest prophets of all time, at least for Christians. She would be mother to the prophet who would bridge the gap between the Old Testament and the New. He would point the way to the Messiah, foretold by the prophets of the Old Testament – the Messiah who would be revealed through the writings of the New Testament.

For all intents and purposes, though, it is not John who first points the way to Jesus, but rather, Elizabeth. As we hear in today’s Gospel lesson, it is Elizabeth who first realizes that Mary is pregnant, and not only pregnant, but that Mary is carrying within her womb the Messiah. Luke tells us that upon hearing Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit – the only woman in all of Scripture to be so characterized. Because of this indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth speaks from an inward witness and boldly asks “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”

In that moment, Elizabeth knows unimaginable joy. Her dreams of having a child have been realized. Her disgrace at being barren has been removed. And she experiences the most wondrous joy of realizing, not just for her personally, but for all of humanity, for the whole world, that the Messiah is about to be born. In that moment, Elizabeth realizes something that we all long to experience – that God not only comes into the world, but God comes to us individually. God meets us where we are in our own particular life’s situations. God wants to be in relationship with each of us individually, and because of this, comes to us one by one.

We know from our own lives that relationships are delicate things, built one on one, built one person at a time. We have to invest our time and energy in those relationships if they are going to grow and to last. And each relationship is unique. Elizabeth learns first hand that the same is true of our relationships with God. God invests time and energy into building relationship with each of God’s beloved children. And because of this process, each relationship is individual and unique and precious. Through Christ, God comes to us to enter into a unique relationship. Through Christ, we enter into relationship with God. Advent is about the anticipation of that relationship. Advent is about preparation for that relationship – a relationship that is as unique as each of us, and that is as eternal as God.

And now, for Mary. Since Mary is the mother of our Lord, we know a little more about her. She is certainly featured more prominently than her cousin, Elizabeth, both in Scripture and in our understanding of divine history. Again, as with the story of John the Baptist and his mother Elizabeth, only the Gospel According to Luke gives us the full story of Mary. Again, our lectionary lessons for the season of Advent do not give us the whole story, but we, of course, know what happens. Just before the Gospel lesson for today, Luke tells us of the visit from the Archangel Gabriel announcing to Mary that she would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit and bear the Son of God. Or rather, was Gabriel asking her permission? After all, there is a period of discussion, of Mary asking questions of Gabriel, attempting to understand what was being proposed. It almost seems as if Mary might have a choice in the matter. This is particularly emphasized when, after being satisfied with Gabriel’s answers, Mary finally responds “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Wow! Talk about faith. Talk about discipleship. Mary, a young, na├»ve girl from a backwater town in Galilee is asked to agree to something that is completely unimaginable – to become the mother of the Son of God. Most of us would have gone running from the room. But Mary had faith in her God. She was willing to do whatever God asked of her, even if it did sound a little out there, if not downright impossible. She was willing to trust her God and to allow herself to be used as an instrument of God’s grace.

Mary could not have fully understood what she was being asked to do – to bear the Son of God. But she accepted her assignment willingly. And in the course of her personal Advent, her time of anticipation and preparation for the birth of her son, the Messiah, she came to accept her role and to embody what she was being asked to do. And that’s were we find ourselves in today’s Gospel lesson – at that moment of Mary’s realization of what all this means – at that moment where Mary lives into what it will mean to be the one who will bring the Messiah into the world. In that moment of realization, facilitated by the greeting of her cousin Elizabeth, Mary boldly states “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” She realizes not only what her willingness to bear the Messiah means for her personally, but also what it means for all of humanity. Through the Magnificat, she proclaims what this action of God’s, made possible by her willingness to serve as an instrument of God’s grace, says about God – about God’s mercy, about God’s strength, about God’s desire for justice.

In this proclamation, Mary is pointing the way not just to the person of Jesus, but to the very message that he would himself proclaim – that his Father is a God of mercy and justice, and not just for the Jews, as had been professed in the Old Testament, but for all of humanity. She points the way to the Good News that God loves and cares for all God’s children.

The Message, the contemporary translation of the Bible that uses everyday language and idioms to convey the meaning of Scripture, translates the first lines of the Magnificat as “I’m bursting with God-news; I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.” To me this translation says it all. Mary is filled with the news of God, with the Good News, with God-news. And in her joy, she doesn’t just proclaim it in words. She proclaims it in her very being, as in a dance. She dances the song of her Savior God, expressing God’s message, but at the same time making it her own through her own movements and actions, just as a dancer interprets music through the outward and visible form of her movements.

John the Baptist may be credited with pointing the way to Jesus Christ, to the Messiah. But it was his mother Elizabeth who first recognized how God operates in the world, through individual relationships with each and every one of us – through relationships only made possible through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and through God Incarnate, Jesus Christ. And Mary points the way to the embodied message that God is a loving, caring, merciful God who desires justice for all people. During this Advent season, as we anticipate the coming of Christ, may we all be blessed with the joy and wonder that Elizabeth felt in the days leading up to the birth of our Messiah. And may we embody the message of our Lord as we proclaim the God-news that bursts within us, expressing it in our lives for all to see, as we dance the song of our Savior God.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Read more!

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Advent and Exile

Advent 2– Year C
Baruch 5:1-9; Psalm 126; Philippians 1:1-11; Luke 3:1-6
Sunday, December 10, 2006 – St. Alban’s, Westwood

Advent is the season of anticipation and preparation – anticipation of the coming of our Savior at Christmas, and our preparation for that most joyous of events. I love the season of Advent, perhaps more than Christmas itself. I like having this time to reflect on what Christ’s coming means in my own life – how it defines and informs who I am as a person of faith. While I try to take time throughout my day and throughout the year to reflect on these things, Advent is a time when such matters are foremost on my mind, and is a constant subject of contemplation during prayer and my quiet time with God.


This year, as we once again embark on the journey of anticipation and preparation that is Advent, I find that I have a different perspective. In the past, Advent has seemed to me to be a time of private reflection about my relationship with Christ. Yes, our worship services during Advent do have a distinct feel, focusing on the themes of our communal anticipation and preparation. But the content of public worship only seemed to serve as a backdrop to or means of facilitating my own personal reflection and contemplation, of my own personal anticipation and preparation. In short, it was all about me. But now, this Advent season, I find that I am approaching Advent from a slightly different perspective. At this point in my life, I find that it is not all about me, but rather, all about us – about what Advent means to us as a community, what it means to us as the Body of Christ, as the Kingdom of God living here and now, in this time and this place, two millennia after the initial coming of our Lord into our midst.

I can’t help but think that at least part of it has to do with what this [pulling on my clerical collar], this collar and these vestments, represent. During my ordination as deacon, I took vows to not only serve all people in the name of Jesus Christ, but also to “look for Christ in all others” (BCP, 544). Now maybe I’m over-analyzing the situation, but in order for me to be able to do that, for any of us to be able to do that, means that Christ has to be already here in our midst – and if we believe that we are the Body of Christ, then of course he is in our midst. But put in the context of Advent, what does it mean? What is Advent if Christ is already in our midst? To try to answer that, I turned to Scripture – specifically, to the lessons appointed for today.

In previous Advent seasons, in my personal reflections and even in my preaching, I tended to focus on the Gospel story, especially the Gospel story for the second Sunday in Advent – the story of John the Baptist. I considered what it meant for John to be the one who points the way to Jesus, the Christ. I considered what was meant by the famous words from the Prophet Isaiah which are quoted in today’s Gospel lesson: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” I considered what these words, what this image, meant for me as a Christian. And when I happened to preach on this day, what this image meant for all of us as Christians.

The image of John the Baptist is certainly important to the story of who we are as a people. John is the bridge between the Old and the New Testaments. He points the way to the Messiah, foretold by the prophets of the Old Testament – the Messiah who would be revealed through the writings of the New Testament. Specifically, “in [Luke’s] schema of salvation history John marks the end of the age of the law and the prophets and the beginning of a new age of the good news of the kingdom of God” (Scott, 18). He is not to be dismissed – he cannot be dismissed. But this year, I find that I cannot go directly to the image of John the Baptist as a defining icon of what Advent means. I find that I need to take a slightly longer journey, through the history of the Old Testament – through events that formed the nation of Israel; the events that defined the culture and the religion that John was born into; the events that shaped who John would be as person and prophet; the events that shaped John’s understanding of messiah, and ultimately of his message to the world of the need to prepare for the long-awaited coming of the Messiah.

On such a journey, there are a number of equally viable entry points into the history of the Old Testament. But one that seems quite appropriate for me, at least during this year’s contemplation of the meaning of Advent, is today’s Old Testament lesson from Baruch. Okay, for all you Old Testament scholars, I know that Baruch is actually contained in the Apocrypha and not the Old Testament, but the subject matter deals with one of the central, defining moments in Old Testament history – the Exile.

The reading from Baruch is part of a poem to Israel, exiled in Babylon, telling them not to lose heart. It is a cry of hope in a time of crisis – a cry that God will one day come and lead the people of Israel back home. Israel has been punished for her sins, for turning away from God, by being taken into exile by the Babylonian conquerors. “Despite Israel’s punishment for its sin, God will restore the penitent people, [and] their ultimate renewal will serve as a witness to the nations of God’s faithfulness” (Johnson, 22). In his poem of consolation, Baruch provides a detailed account of preparation for salvation, placed in the context of the people’s exilic experience, which has been marked by defeat and despair. To convey his point, Baruch uses the imagery of changing clothes. “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory of God. Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting” (Baruch 5:1-2). This language implies removing one’s funeral garments, the garments of sorrow and affliction, and replacing them with wedding clothes, the robe of righteousness and the diadem of the glory of the Everlasting. This is language of hope. It is an exhortation to act out of confidence in God and God’s mercy and loving kindness rather than solely relying on what is seen and experienced in the present.

Biblical scholarship indicates that in all likelihood, the book of Baruch was not actually written during the Exile, but possibly as late as two centuries after the return of Israel from Babylon. That being the case, the book would not have even been written by Baruch. Biblical scholar Elizabeth Johnson provides a context for this situation. She comments that “Although written in a postexilic context, the author takes as his pseudonym the name of one of the most well known exiles, the scribe of Jeremiah, because he considers himself and his people to be living in yet another time of exile, this one more cultural and religious perhaps than territorial. The people this time are surrounded by hostile forces that may or may not be violent . . . but are nonetheless contemptuous of the people’s attempts at covenant faithfulness” (Johnson, 22-23).

Because of the tone and nature of the book of Baruch, we are not given any clues as to the nature of what Johnson refers to as this cultural and religious exile. We know that the people of Israel were not placed in a physical exile from their homeland at any point following their return from Babylon. Yet, this general concept of cultural and religious exile resonates with me as I contemplate the meaning of Advent for those of us living two thousand years after the advent of our Lord. For we, too, are in midst of a cultural and religious exile.

Despite the doctrine of separation of church and state, this nation was founded on solid Christian principles and was intended to be a Christian nation – as the Pledge of Allegiance states, “one nation under God.” The foundation of our government and of our lives as citizens was our faith in God – as our national motto states, “In God we trust.” But somewhere along the line, we diverged from our founding principles. We are no longer one nation under God. We are a confederation of individuals worshiping whatever god suits us in the moment. But I’m not talking about the gods worshiped by those of other religious faiths, of non-Christian religions. Religious plurality is not the issue, it is not the problem in this cultural and religious exile in which we find ourselves. If anything, those other faiths are our ally in this time of exile.

Our motto is no longer “in God we trust,” but rather “in the Democratic Party we trust” or “in the Republican Party we trust.” Or maybe it’s “in Bill Gates we trust” or “in Alan Greenspan we trust.” As a nation, we no longer place our faith in God and in Jesus Christ, but rather we place our trust in wealth, in power, in material possessions – particularly whatever material goods are flashed on our television screens day in and day out. You don’t need to trust in God, trust in Oil of Olay to stay young and beautiful forever. Trust in Mercedes to make you feel rich and powerful. Run up your credit cards and mortgage your future. It will all be okay, trust us. You don’t even need to turn on the TV. Just drive down the short stretch of Sunset Boulevard between Beverly Hills and Hollywood and look at all the billboards and consider the messages they are sending to our society – to us and to our children.

And while we are being bombarded with the fantasy images of how our lives could be if we just trust in the right things, and while we willingly pursue those fantasies, while we follow society’s mandate to care for ourselves, to pamper ourselves, we are distracted from the central message of the Gospel – that we are to care for one another. We are so distracted by pursuing fantasies or protecting our possessions that we don’t see that there is a whole underclass of our brothers and sisters who are being forgotten, if not trampled upon.

We are living in exile – not a disconnect between a people and their homeland, but a disconnect between cultural values and the Gospel imperatives that Jesus proclaimed. But just as foretold by Baruch, there is hope. “Baruch urges hopeful action rather than hopeful thought or wishful thinking, and he calls on his contemporaries to remember that God did in fact restore those former exiles and to trust that God may similarly be trusted with their current experience of alienation” (Johnson, 23). That hope is provided in this season of Advent. But we have a part to play in keeping that hope alive, in making what is hoped for into a reality. Just as John the Baptist was called to point the way to Jesus 2,000 years ago, we are called to point the way to Jesus. We are called to speak the truth that has been revealed to us, to proclaim to the world that there is a better way, a more fulfilling way, than what our secular culture has fed us. We are called to proclaim the truth that leads to true life, to everlasting life, to life in Christ – and not only for us, but for the entire world, for all God’s children. But that means speaking out and taking action against the so-called norms established by our secular culture – the culture based on power and materialism, the culture that ignores those who do not have power and money, and worse yet, that exploits and uses those who do not have power and money for its own advancement. As theologian Jim Griffiss notes, “An incarnational faith calls for the transformation of the ‘secular’ or ‘political’ world in Christ, a transformation for which all Christians must take responsibility” (Griffiss, 52).

Advent is a time of anticipation of and preparation for the coming of the Messiah. It is the time to anticipate and prepare for a better way of life – a life based on the Gospel, a life that points to Jesus as the way, the truth, and the light. As Christians, we don’t need to anticipate. The Messiah has already come. As the Body of Christ in the world, we are proof of that. We know it, but the rest of the world needs to know. Our secular society needs to know it. What we do need to do is prepare the way. And to do that, we are called to go into the world, to be an example through our words and our actions, to live the Gospel boldly and unashamedly, and to bear witness to the fact that Jesus has come into the world and that we are his Body.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


References

Griffiss, James E. The Anglican Vision. Vol. 1 of The New Church’s Teaching Series. Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1997.

Johnson, E. Elizabeth. Proclamation 6, Series C: Interpreting the Lessons of the Church Year: Advent/Christmas. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997.

Read more!

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Canterbury Evening Prayer Reflection 6 - Elizabeth (Advent)

Reflection on Luke 1:5-25, 39-45, 56-66 (Elizabeth and Zechariah)
In all three years of the lectionary, the Gospel lesson for the second Sunday of Advent tells the story of John the Baptist. What we do not get, however, is the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, John’s parents. Only the Gospel According to Luke tells us of these two remarkable people and the circumstances surrounding the birth of he who cries in the wilderness “prepare the way of the Lord.” But if John the Baptist is an integral part of the story of the Incarnation, then his parents, and particularly his mother, are likewise integral to that all-important story – to the story of our faith.

Like most married couples, Elizabeth and Zechariah desperately wanted to have a child. Being persons of profound faith, both being from priestly families, they undoubtedly prayed endlessly, at least in the early years of their marriage, for a child – preferably a male child, who would carry on the family and be able to take care of them in their old age. But as time went by, and their prayers remained unanswered, it became obvious that they were not destined to have a child. This would have been a source of despair, particularly for Elizabeth. Not only did she not have her prayers answered and her dreams of motherhood fulfilled, she would have also had to endure pity and scorn from her neighbors. If she and Zechariah were unable to conceive, surely they must have done something to deserve their fate. For these antiquated and misguided impressions, Elizabeth would have had to endure disgrace.

But then, as our lesson for today tells us, the tables were turned. Literally, by the grace of God, Elizabeth was able to finally conceive a child. But not just any child. She would conceive and bear a son who would become one of the greatest prophets of all time, at least for Christians. She would be mother to the prophet who would bridge the gap between the Old Testament and the New. He would point the way to the Messiah, foretold by the prophets of the Old Testament – the Messiah who would be revealed through the writings of the New Testament.

In many ways, though, it is not John who first points the way to Jesus, but rather, Elizabeth. It is Elizabeth who first realizes that Mary is pregnant, and not only pregnant, but that Mary is carrying within her womb the Messiah. Luke tells us that upon hearing Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit – the only woman in all of Scripture to be so characterized. Because of this indwelling of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth speaks from an inward witness and boldly asks “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”

In that moment, Elizabeth knows unimaginable joy. Her dreams of having a child have been realized. Her disgrace at being barren has been removed. And she experiences the most wondrous joy of realizing, not just for her personally, but for all of humanity, for the whole world, that the Messiah is about to be born. In that moment, Elizabeth realizes something that we all long to experience – that God not only comes into the world, but God comes to us individually. God meets us where we are in our own particular life’s situations. God wants to be in relationship with each of us individually, and because of this, comes to us one by one.

We know from our own lives that relationships are delicate things, built one on one, built one person at a time. We have to invest our time and energy in those relationships if they are going to grow and to last. And each relationship is unique. Elizabeth learns first hand that the same is true of our relationships with God. God invests time and energy into building relationship with each of God’s beloved children. And because of this process, each relationship is individual and unique and precious. Through Christ, God comes to us to enter into a unique relationship. Through Christ, we enter into relationship with God. Advent is about the anticipation of that relationship. Advent is about preparation for that relationship – a relationship that is as unique as each of us, and that is as eternal as God.

John the Baptist may be credited with pointing the way to Jesus Christ, to the Messiah. But it was his mother Elizabeth who first recognized how God operates in the world, through individual relationships with each and every one of us – through relationships only made possible through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and through God Incarnate, Jesus Christ. During this Advent season, as we anticipate the coming of Christ, may we all be blessed with the joy and wonder that Elizabeth felt in the days leading up to the birth of our Messiah.

Read more!