Sunday, December 20, 2009

No Ordinary Visit

Fourth Sunday of Advent – Year C (RCL)
Micah 5:2-5a; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:510; Luke 1:39-45(46-55)
Sunday, December 20, 2009 –
Trinity, Redlands

In today’s Gospel lesson, we have the story of the Visitation – that beloved, yet somewhat strange, story of Mary, mother-to-be of Our Lord, making an impromptu visit to Elizabeth, mother-to-be of John the Baptizer. The content of their conversation notwithstanding, I say strange because of the overall circumstances involved. Yes, Mary and Elizabeth are relatives, but aside from the fact that they are both pregnant, and the circumstances surrounding both pregnancies are a little strange in and of themselves, they have little in common. Mary is a poor young girl from the outback. Elizabeth is an old woman who is presumably somewhat comfortable (after all, her husband is a priest in the Temple), living in the hill country near Jerusalem, the big city. Yet, upon hearing from the angel Gabriel that Elizabeth is also pregnant, Mary hastily makes the arduous 80-some mile trip, presumably by herself, to go see Elizabeth.

What we don’t really know from the Gospel lesson is why Mary went to visit Elizabeth in the first place. Did she go to offer her congratulations to her relative and fellow servant of God? Did she have questions or even doubts about what was happening and maybe needed a little reassurance from someone who was going through a similar situation? Did she have second thoughts about saying “yes” to God and was in need of some sort of confirmation or encouragement that she was doing the right thing? All these are certainly possible under the circumstances.

Maybe upon being visited by Gabriel and learning that Elizabeth was also pregnant, Mary was able to connect the dots and see the bigger picture of what God was doing through these two women. Maybe she felt a need to convey this to Elizabeth, to keep her in the loop. Maybe she felt a need to get Elizabeth’s take on all this, to maybe fill in more pieces of the mysterious and wonderful puzzle that was slowly being revealed.

Or maybe Mary just now begins to ponder what all this means. Given the fear and shock she would have undoubtedly experienced at being suddenly visited by a messenger from God, she probably did not really have a chance to think clearly in the presence of the angel who announced her pregnancy. In the moment she only acted out of pure trust in God, knowing that if God was asking such a far-fetched thing of her, it must be important. Afterward, she has time to think through the rational implications of what she has agreed to. Maybe she needs some time away to process, to sort out what all this means for her and for her unborn child.

Regardless of her reason for making such a trip, in her joy, in her confusion, in her questioning, Mary goes to Elizabeth – to someone whom she knows and loves, to someone who knows and loves her. Regardless of what she is thinking and feeling, Mary knows she cannot deal with it alone. She knows she needs connection with someone whom she knows, loves, and trusts.

So, the visit begins. And with Mary’s arrival at Elizabeth’s house, we have one of the most power-packed encounters in Scripture. As soon as Mary greets Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s child leaps in her womb due to some mystical recognition of Mary, but more importantly, of her unborn child. At the mere sound of Mary’s voice, because of the proximity of the as-yet unborn Lord, this six month old fetus recognizes that it is in the presence of the one who is yet to come, the one whom he himself would one day herald as Messiah.

And this encounter with the one who is to come not only affects Elizabeth’s unborn child, but also affects her. We are told that Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Undoubtedly, the Holy Spirit was what facilitated or provided the baby’s recognition in the first place, resulting in him leaping with joy. So the Holy Spirit had a double impact on Elizabeth. First, she had the physical response of feeling the baby leaping in her womb, and a spiritual response of recognition of who Mary is and more importantly, who the baby is. In response, she is moved to offer her blessing, both of Mary and of the baby. Even though at this point, she has not had the opportunity to hear the full story of Mary’s encounter with Gabriel, she knows through the Holy Spirit that something wondrous has happened – something wondrous is about to happen. The Holy Spirit has revealed to her what up until now was only known by Mary. She knows and acknowledges that the unborn child in her midst is her Lord. And she is able to recognize what it means for Mary to have said “yes” to God’s request that she become the mother of God’s son. She blesses Mary for the selfless gift of herself in agreeing to bear the savior of the world.

Her blessing is wonderfully poetic, not just in its language, but in what it foreshadows. The prophet Isaiah may have foretold the work of John the Baptizer, but it would be John’s mother who would provide the example. Elizabeth’s blessing is a prophetic utterance, proclaiming the impending birth of her Lord, just as her own unborn son would one day be “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: prepare the way of the Lord” – the one who would prepare the way for the world to receive its Messiah.

Women aren’t given much of a place in the Bible. And we hear even fewer speak. But you have to admit, when women in the Bible are allowed to speak, they get some pretty awesome lines. And there is none more awesome than Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s blessing. After Elizabeth recognizes the ones in her midst – Mary and the unborn Son of God – Mary delivers some of the best-known words in all of Christendom: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” In the Magnificat, Mary acknowledges Elizabeth’s blessing and takes it to the next level. Elizabeth has acknowledged the wonder that is about to happen, that this young girl will give birth to the Messiah. But just as Elizabeth’s son would one day only be able to point the way to the Messiah, so too Elizabeth can only point the way to the wonder that will ultimately be revealed. As Jesus will one day pick up the story where John must out of necessity leave off, so too does Mary pick up where Elizabeth leaves of by telling of the ultimate meaning behind the miraculous event that is yet to come.

In her response, the Magnificat, Mary highlights the world-changing ramifications of what is to happen with the birth of her child, God’s Son – the fulfillment of God’s mercy, the manifestation of God’s strength and power, the provision of God’s abundance, the expression of God’s grace. While at the time of her speaking, Jesus has yet to be born, while his revelation to humanity as Emmanuel, “God with us” has yet to occur, while the ultimate results of his coming as God incarnate have yet to come to fruition, Mary speaks in the past tense, as if the these things have already happened. God has fulfilled, and is still fulfilling, salvation history through her, through her selfless gift of herself, and through her as-yet unborn son, the one who is to come. What she proclaims transcends time. Past, present, and future merge together. The coming of the Messiah, both in the birth of Jesus and in Christ’s Second Coming, become one, as only can happen in God’s time. As one scholar notes, “Mary proclaims the promised, topsy-turvy future of God as an already-accomplished fact—possible because that future can already be glimpsed in God’s choice of Mary as the bearer of the Messiah” (Campbell, 95).

Mary bears witness to the goodness of God, to His grace and mercy, to God’s covenant faithfulness to His people – to all people. Through her proclamation in the Magnificat, Mary is the first human to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. And she proclaims it not only with words, but with her whole being. With her body, in having agreed to be the God-bearer. And in her very soul. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Or, as Eugene Peterson, author of The Message, a contemporary language paraphrase of the Bible, renders the first line of the Magnificat, “I’m bursting with God-news; I’m dancing with the song of my Savior God.”

Put the two pieces together – Elizabeth’s blessing of Mary and Mary’s song of praise – they, and we, begin to see the fullness of what God is doing. We see the fullness of the meaning of Advent. In Elizabeth’s blessing on Mary and her unborn child, she is heralding the birth of the Messiah. And in her song of praise, Mary is revealing the fullness of what will be accomplished through the life of her unborn son, of God-made-flesh. While she cannot know it at the time, what she proclaims about God cannot be immediately fulfilled. Such tangible displays of God’s grace and mercy as scattering the proud in their conceit, casting down the mighty, lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, sending the rich away empty, will not happen right away. First, the one who is to come, the one who’s birth is heralded by Elizabeth and then by John, must ultimately die, be resurrected, and ascend to heaven in order for these things to begin to happen – to happen through the Body that would be left behind, the followers of this one who came and is yet to come. And these marvelous acts, these demonstrations of the awaited Kingdom of God, can only be brought to their fullness in the Second Coming.

Theirs is no ordinary visit between relatives. As a result of their visit, Elizabeth and Mary come to see themselves not in terms of their isolated, personal selves, but as a part of something larger – of God’s purposes for them, for their as yet unborn children, for humanity. Together, they see more clearly, more fully. In them, God is at work in deeply personal ways, affecting each woman uniquely and profoundly. But in these two women, God is also at work in a way that will forever change the world.

Their story carries a crucial lesson for us, for we who in this season anticipate both the birth of our Messiah and his Second Coming in glory. In bringing about these awaited events, God has used two marginalized women to proclaim and bring about the greatest news ever given to humanity. Each had their part to play. But together, they were greater than the sum of the parts. So it is with us. We each have our part to play in this, as the Body of Christ. God uses all of us, no matter how great or how small. Each of us has a message to proclaim. Each of us has work to do. But just as with Mary and Elizabeth, when we come together, our message, our work, is greater and more powerful than it would have been had we tried to go it alone.

As we come to the end of this Advent season, anticipating the one who is to come, both to a manger in Bethlehem, and to all the peoples of the world, and finally at a day and hour that we cannot know, let us rejoice in the example of two lowly women of yore, who show us what can happen when people of faith come together in community, and who together give us the hope and assurance of the glory that is to come.

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

Campbell, Charles L. “Luke 1:39-45 (46-55), Homiletical Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, Volume 1, Advent Through Transfiguration. Edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

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