Sermon for December 23rd, 2012
39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."
46And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the LORD, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
Prepare the Way: Looking Inside
For the past three weeks of Advent, we've been talking about time: Future-time, Past-time, and just last week, Present-time. And in a bizzare sort of reverse approach to the birth of Jesus, our scripture passages have been moving backwards in time in the Gospel of Luke. We started off the first week in Advent with a 33 year-old Jesus near the end of his ministry and life, toward the end of Luke. Then the second and third weeks of Advent we moved back a few years and a few chapters to examine John the Baptist, the one who prepared the way for the ministry of Jesus -- but this was still about 30 years after the birth of Christ, and three chapters into the Gospel of Luke. Today, the final Sunday of Advent, we come at last to our only scripture passage that actually occurs before the birth of Christ, and for that matter, before the birth of John the Baptist, too. We come at last to the first chapter of Luke, and the events leading up to that first Christmas in Bethlehem.
Today's text, where a pregnant Mary visits her pregnant cousin Elizabeth, is a famous text known (appropriately) as "The Visitation." It is followed by Mary's famous song, which is known as "The Magnificat" after its first word in Latin.
We've been talking about time. Future, Past, and Present. But time in today's passage is problematic. It's all upside down and inside out. Verse 39 tells us that "In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country." There is a linguistic paradox in this sentence that gets lost in the translation to English. The word "set out" in the original Greek of the text is ἀναστᾶσα, which means to rise up or stand up; but it also means to stand firm or resist. This is in contrast with the word σπουδῆς just a few words later, which means speed or haste. So Mary is at the same time resisting, or standing firm, and also setting out with speed and haste. It's paradox of time.
And then Mary arrives at her cousin Elizabeth's house and we are faced with another paradox. Two pregnant women, neither of whom (in this frame of time) ought to be pregnant. Mary should not be pregnant yet: she is a virgin, not yet married, not yet intimate with her partner, Joseph or any other man. By all the laws and customs of Ancient Israel AND modern biological science, it is too soon for Mary to be pregnant.
Elizabeth is on the other side of the time paradox. We are told in Luke 1:7 that Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah have no children because "Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years." In other words, while it is too soon for Mary to be pregnant, it is too late for Elizabeth to be pregnant. Her time has passed. And yet...here they both are, both clearly and miraculously pregnant in the wrong time of their lives, culturally, logically, scientifically; but at precisely the right time in the unfolding history of God's plans. It is a paradox of time.
One more paradox of time in this passage, verses 41-43: "When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?" Think about the way the events in this passage should ordinarily have unfolded in time: Mary greets Elizabeth. Elizabeth shares her amazing news (Guess what, Mary? I'm pregnant!). Mary is surprised. Mary in turn shares HER amazing news (Guess what Elizabeth? I'm pregnant too!) At this point, both of them have a LOT of explaining to do. Especially Mary, whose unexpected pregnancy is a little bit more awkward because she isn't married.
At this point, the mother who would ordinarily be worthy of high praise, worthy to be called "blessed among women," would be Elizabeth's--her child will be the son of an important man, Zechariah the Priest. Mary's child will be the son of a carpenter. Elizabeth's pregnancy will seem to the world truly miraculous. Mary's will only seem scandalous. Finally, in time, months or even years from this point, the two young cousins--John and Jesus--will come to know each other and recognize each other for who they are, and what their respective stations are in life. That's the way the story SHOULD have unfolded in time. But we're not in ordinary time, here. We're in Advent time.
So instead, Mary comes to visit Elizabeth already knowing about her cousin's miraculous pregnancy, because the angel had already told her. And Elizabeth, instead of waiting to hear Mary's news, is clued in by the Holy Spirit and thus becomes the very first human being in history to proclaim that Jesus is Lord. The child inside Elizabeth, who will someday become John the Baptist, doesn't wait 3 years or 30 for the right moment to acknowledge his cousin Jesus. Still being formed in his mother's womb, he leaps for joy in recognition of his Lord and Savior. Both mother and child give highest praise to the young, unmarried fiancee of a carpenter, and any appropriate sense of time, sequence, and proper order is forever turned upside down and inside out. It's a great prelude to the one who will call the first last and the last first.
But maybe rather than time being turned upside down and inside out, time is standing still. Our time, human time, is being interrupted by God's time. What is God's time? 2 Peter 3:8 tells us that "with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. God's time is not like our time, and so when the Almighty Creator of the Universe, the Lord of all Time takes on flesh and blood and comes into our very world in the form of a tiny baby...it stands to reason that for all those experience this incarnation, this Emmanuel, the very presence of God with us...time does strange things. Time slows down. Time stands still.
We see this reflected in the very fabric of Luke's narrative: He is telling a story, with a sequence of events (albeit a strange sequence of events) moving right along in the narrative and then all of a sudden, Mary breaks out into a song, the Magnificat. Time stands still. Have you ever noticed in a musical or an opera how an aria, or a song, has the power to interrupt the story and linger outside of time with the innermost thoughts and feelings of a character? And then when the song is over the lights pan out again, the other characters come to life, and the action resumes? So it is with Mary and her song. There is a timeless quality to the Magnificat, one that encompasses and transcends past, present and future. In verse 48 Mary sees that "all generations will call me blessed." And again in verse 50 that the mercy of the Lord is "for those who fear him from generation to generation." Finally in verse 55 she recalls the promise God made "to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever."
In Advent we look forward into the future and the anticipated coming of Christ. In Advent, we look back to the past and the promises God made to our ancestors. In Advent, we look around us in the present, to the lowly and the hungry that Mary sings of in her song, and that Jesus cared for in his earthly ministry. But also in Advent, when human time slows to a standstill, and we linger in God's eternal time, this is also the time to pause and look deep within ourselves. Within Elizabeth and Mary that day of the Visitation, were John and Jesus--the Messenger and the Message. But for all who have been baptized, for all who have heard the Message and who have been embraced by it, that Message--the Christ child, the savior of the world--also dwells deep inside of us.
As the world speeds up, accelerates its frantic pace in the last shopping days leading up to Christmas, we as Christians slow down and let time linger. Tomorrow night, on that most holy of nights, we will gather here in a darkened sanctuary, holding small candles aloft in the air, and gently singing "Silent Night." In that moment, time will stand still, and God's peace will reign in our hearts and lives.
As the world looks under the Christmas tree on Christmas morning, in a vain attempt to find lasting joy and meaning underneath the ribbon and wrapping paper, we as Christians will look deep inside our hearts, for a gift that was given over 2,000 years ago--one that can't be bought, and can't be claimed--rather it is a gift that claims us, that changes and transforms us and sends us back into the world to build faith, inspire hope, and spread God's love to everyone.
That gift is Jesus Christ, God's son, who came to us as a child, walked among us as a teacher, and gave his life for ours as a Savior. If you look deep within yourself this Christmas and find that that beautiful and perfect gift, Jesus Christ, is missing from your life; If you are desperate for God's perfect peace to be your peace in the midst of this insanely busy season; if you seek true and lasting meaning, deep and fulfilling purpose among a community of imperfect people who are also struggling and learning each day to be better parents, better sons and daughters, better husbands and wives, better co-workers and managers and citizens, better faithful followers of Jesus Christ... then there is no time--literally "no time" like Advent, like Christmas, to follow in the footsteps of Mary, Elizabeth, and John, and to acknowledge Jesus as the Lord of Heaven and Earth, the Lord of Time and all Creation, and most importantly, the Lord of your life.
All the angels and shepherds and saints of every generation rejoice at the coming of the Christ child. They also stand ready, waiting to welcome you home, as you kneel before a manger, deep inside your heart.