SERMON: December 23, 2018
In those days, Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 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? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
And Mary said,
“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. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
When I was a very little girl, I had a security blanket just like Linus in the Peanuts comic strip. My family tells me that one Christmas I walked around all day with that blanket draped over my head like a shawl. When asked, I said I was pretending to be “Mother Inch-Night.” Well, this puzzled everyone for a while, until I declared, “You know – ‘round yon virgin Mother Inch-night.’”
Images of Mary (thankfully not Mother Inch-night) are everywhere – in art, music, literature, movies – even on social media. Especially this time of year of course, Christians around the world celebrate Mary, the favored one of God who bears baby Jesus – Messiah and Savior. She is the one Elizabeth calls “blessed among women.”
Yes, during the Christmas season we make a big fuss about Mary – and rightly so. Yet, for Protestants, including Presbyterians, Mary can be something of a bit-player after Epiphany is over. Oh, we admire her courage, her trust in God, and most especially, her enduring faith. But unlike other denominations, Protestants do not regularly pray to Mary or light candles at altars devoted to her, or understand her to be an intermediary to God.
Christmas hymns sing of “blessed Mother Mary, meek and mild,” and “gentle maiden Mary.” But, what if there is another side to Mary? In our scripture this morning, Mary runs with youthful “haste” to her cousin Elizabeth’s house. She is breathless with joy, aglow with the magnificence of God’s gift to her. She sings – and we wonder if perhaps she also dances like her namesake Miriam did after crossing the Red Sea.
In Luke’s gospel, Mary runs to the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah with fantastic news. The Angel Gabriel appeared to her saying, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Then the angel gives Mary an astonishing proclamation: She will conceive a child that is no less than Messiah, God’s own son, destined to bring the kingdom of God into the world.
Luke doesn’t say Mary is frightened by this news, she is simply “much perplexed by the angel’s words.” It is the angel who says, “Do not be afraid.” I know I would be scared out of my wits, but Mary – while certainly surprised, doesn’t cower in fear, but instead is curious and asks a common sense, clarifying question, “How can this be since I am a virgin?”
The angel answers, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” He adds, “Your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren.” With a smile, Gabriel tells Mary that, “Nothing will be impossible with God.”
Then Mary takes a deep breath and says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
How do you hear Mary say that? Is she meek and mild, head bowed as she submits to God’s will? Or perhaps she straightens her spine, looks Gabriel in the eye and declares her acceptance in a voice that says, “Bring it on!”
Mary must be strong, even gutsy, to not just take on, but to embrace God’s plan for her. In his book, Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up, author John Powell tells the story of growing up in a Catholic grade school. Every year the teacher – a nun – selects a little girl to play Mary in the Christmas pageant. Usually, a pretty, blue-eyed blond is chosen, but one year the nun picks a rather plain, chubby child. The nun explains to the thrilled but disbelieving little girl that she believes Mary must have been strong and resilient, tough like the farm girl the nun had once been, because God trusted she was strong enough to bear the world a savior. No wispy blond could take on that role.
The first hurtle Mary faces is the profound disappointment her pregnancy causes her family, her betrothed Joseph, the village rabbi – really everyone in her small hometown. Yet, somehow, Mary’s deep and abiding faith in God must have convinced her parents of the truth, because they did not subject her to any of the punishments allowed by Law, which included death. Perhaps her joy at God’s favor was infectious, her trust and insight into God’s plans so very compelling. Perhaps Mary is strong and convicted, no longer a little village girl. She is God Bearer, deliverer of the Word, and as we see next, she is also a prophet.
Mary makes her way to Elizabeth – who is pregnant in her old age with a son that will become John the Baptist, who one day will herald the kingship of Jesus. At the sound of Mary’s voice the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps with joy and recognition. Elizabeth, too, had her own experience of shame and ridicule. Her duty as a wife was to produce sons for her husband, Zechariah. Unable to do this, Elizabeth suffered disgrace and disappointment. Elizabeth might be the one person who can fully empathize with Mary.
She cries out to Mary, “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? And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Elizabeth is eager to declare Mary a blessing, as well as the child within Mary’s womb. Oh, that there were more Elizabeths in our world today. She lavishes Mary with the same kind of love and acceptance that Jesus would one-day show to the outcasts and marginalized. Elizabeth looks at Mary with the eyes of Jesus, and in doing so, reveals herself as a prophet. Before Jesus is even born she marvels at how Mary is blessed by the one Elizabeth calls “my Lord.” She blesses Mary again because, despite all expectations, she will be honored for bearing this child and is full of divine joy because Mary’s rock-solid faith believes God will do what God promises to do.
In Mary’s song, she proclaims God’s intentions to turn the world on its head. God will favor the lowly, lift up the marginalized, and do great things for those society has cast aside. Notice something interesting: in Mary’s joyful song about the coming birth of her son, she sings about what God is doing now, as if these things have already happened. She makes claims about God’s activity in the present tense.
Strong and faithful Mary is singing a radical protest song. The kind of song that the enslaved Israelites might have sung in Egypt, or during the Babylonian exile. The kind of song that has been sung by countless people of faith through the ages in resistance, in defiance of government wrong-doing, facing down empires, slavers, terrorists, and the like.
This is bold talk about a God capable of upending societies and governments, a God who inverts the usual state of affairs. Mary declares that God will bring a new future into being — not in a distant time, but beginning now, all around her, even within her own body.
We are called to join Mary in this song, but the only way for us to sing with joy and hope is for us to work at lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, and restoring those who are disenfranchised. That was what Jesus came to do—to begin God’s work of making all things new, of setting right the wrongs and lifting the burdens we all carry.
Advent reminds us of a critical component of faith — that faith is as much anticipation as it is response. That faith is not just looking forward to fruition and fulfillment, but finds ways to manifest God’s promises in the present. That faith trusts in God’s future while at the same time insists on making God’s future present for all people.
Advent means that even before what we await arrives we don’t have to wait to live out its truth. Advent helps us recognize that our response to Christmas cannot wait. Advent reminds us that when Christmas is “over” our work is just getting started — and should have already started.
The angels are calling; can you hear them asking us to do as Mary did? Not bringing Jesus into the world in the same way, but instead be bearers of him to the world today. Are we as joyful, as trusting and faithful, as strong as Mary?