St. John's, Centreville
December 23, 2018
4 Advent C
God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Our gospel lesson this morning is all about new beginnings, of two ordinary women being called by God to do extraordinary things - one to bear the prophet John the Baptist in her old age, and one to bear the Son of God as a young unmarried girl.
Unfortunately, we don't know a lot about Elizabeth. She only appears twice in the gospels, once as she greets Mary and once as she and her husband Zechariah when they come to the temple on the eighth day for the child to be circumcised. When it comes time to name the child, all assume he will be named after his father. But God has told them his name will be John. Elizabeth makes known that his name will be John, and is backed up by her husband who writes out that his name will be John. Zechariah has not been able to talk since he laughed at the calling of Elizabeth to be the mother of John the Baptist. With that, Zechariah is able to speak again.
So Elizabeth is an older woman, either at the end of or perhaps past her child bearing years. Being childless in this ancient culture brings scorn and humiliation. It was thought that perhaps you did something to displease God if you were not given the gift of children.
So in her old age, Elizabeth finds out that she is pregnant. She is ecstatic! She has desperately wanted a child but has not been able to conceive. And now she will not only bear a child, but this child will be the forerunner of Jesus, the one who has been called by God to prepare the way for Jesus to come.
When the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will bear the Son of God, she, too, is perplexed and wonders how this can be since she is a virgin. The angel tells her that Holy Spirit will come upon her and the power of the Most High will overshadow her. He then tells her that her relative Elizabeth, who has been barren, has conceived a son and she is in her sixth month. For with God, nothing is impossible.
Elizabeth and Mary, two very different women who are on the margins of society, have been called by God - one an older woman, and one a young girl. Both have said yes to what God has called them to do. For both women, their lives will be put in a tailspin and changed forever. But their faith and trust is in God and they will do what they have been asked to do. We can imagine that Elizabeth is thrilled, having waited most of her life to bear a child. Mary is probably more frightened, not knowing how all this will work out. What will Joseph say? Will he abandon her? Will he quietly divorce her, knowing that he is not the father of the child she is carrying?
But their faith and trust and hope in God remains strong and they continue on the path that God has chosen for them. So, too, with Zechariah and Joseph. They support Elizabeth and Mary throughout the pregnancies and birth of their sons.
When Mary hears that her relative Elizabeth is six months pregnant, she goes with haste to see her and stays with her for three months. We might see Elizabeth as a kind of wise mentor to Mary, answering her questions about the pregnancy and what will happen at the delivery. We don't know anything about Mary's parents. Had they abandoned her when she told them about the pregnancy? Were they still alive? Did she have any brothers or sisters who might be of help during this difficult time? We just don't know.
When Mary and Elizabeth meet after Mary's long journey, Elizabeth's baby leaps in her womb, as somehow the baby knows that Mary is carrying Jesus, the Son of God. Elizabeth somehow knows that Mary is pregnant with Jesus and she is ecstatic. She is amazed that the mother of my Lord would come to me, an ordinary woman advanced in years. She is humbled.
Then Mary begins to say what we know as the Magnificat. "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." She goes on to say, "God has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly. He has filed the hungry with good things and sent the rich away. He has remembered Israel and the promises he made."
In other words, a new day is coming, a day when things will be turned upside down, when the last will be first and the first last. God is coming into this world that is filled with fear and violence and oppression. Jesus will turn things upside down and set things right, He will show us all a better way to live and to be in God's world.
Mary's "yes" to God is an example of her obedience, humility and strength that becomes the means of grace for the whole world. God comes into the world and into our lives in unexpected ways, often in times when we least expect it.
Most of us don't have angels visit us in person and announce that God has called us to do something great. For most of us, we sense the Holy Spirit is with us as we make small decisions every day about how we are going to live, what choices we will make that will either proclaim Jesus as our Savior, or show that we have turned our backs on him.
What a difference we could make in our own lives as well as the lives of others if we could each be an Elizabeth to the Mary's we daily visit at our home or in our work. When we see Christ in our neighbor, the Holy Spirit within us will leap for joy as Elizabeth's baby did.
God will take what we consider insignificant and ordinary in our lives and do extraordinary and unexpected things. But we need to keep our eyes and our hearts open to see God at work in the world around us.
We can imagine both Elizabeth and Mary wrestling with and wondering why God had chosen them to be the bearers of John and Jesus. Why would God put God's faith and trust in them? We can see both women as friends and travelers with us - ordinary women - women whose willingness to say "yes" to their calls, regardless of their natural concerns - might empower us and move us to keep on going.
Not all of us are called to do something as spectacular as Elizabeth or Mary. But each of us is called by God to do something, however big or small, to enhance the kingdom of God. God acted in the past, God acts in the present and God will act in the future. But God needs to use each is us to accomplish God's purposes.
May our souls magnify the Lord and our Spirits rejoice in God our Savior. For the mighty one has done great things for us and holy is his name. Amen.