The full readings for today can be found here.
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 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.” Luke 1:39-55.
In the name of the Living God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I have a sneaking suspicion most of you know what I’m going to preach about this morning, but before I get there, there’s something I need to say. It’s kind of sad, but there are no words in the English language to express how grateful I am to this good parish for your warm welcome and loving care these past few weeks. I have been coming here for several years, and am always filled with a startling, wild, staggering gratitude for your hospitality.
I know it’s a little early, but I thought I’d tell you a Christmas story this morning. It was about 48 years ago, and I was back with my family on Melody Lane one Christmas morning. And I don’t remember what it was, but I was disappointed with something I didn’t get among my Christmas gifts. And one of my brothers must have joined me in the muttering, because my mother packed all four of us, four little boys with burr haircuts, into the car and we went for a drive.
We drove through Odessa, past the bad side of town, all the way to the Ranchito, where the poorest of the poor lived. And my brothers and I stared at the places those good people called home: cardboard boxes and plywood covered in black plastic to keep the rain out and dwellings made out of what we’d call garbage. And my mother didn’t say a word, but I understood perfectly. And I was ashamed of myself. It’s 48 years later, and I’m still ashamed of myself. I’ll circle back to that in just a bit.
So, on this final Sunday of Advent, the Church offers us this wonderful Gospel story of two Jewish women meeting in a town in Judea. We’re told they were cousins, although Elizabeth was much older than Mary, who was probably not much more than a girl. Each of them knew shame and disgrace. Elizabeth had been without a child for a long time, and in that culture that was a humiliating thing. Mary was an unwed mother, and in that time, that was not only a shameful thing: it was the kind of thing that could get a girl killed.
And, as they met, there was a moment of recognition: recognizing someone both familiar and yet wonderfully strange. Elizabeth recognizes Mary (her own people would have called her Miriam) and yet calls her “the mother of my Lord.” Now, in the Hebrew, that would be Adonai, the word commonly used to refer to God. So, Elizabeth recognizes Mary, and yet there’s something unusual: she calls her the Mother of God. And even the unborn child Elizabeth carries, who will grow up to be John the Baptist, knows that something wonderful is coming; something wonderful has already happened.
But whenever I hear this story, I’ve always imagined the two of them giggling as they meet each other. First, I suspect they were laughing because they loved each other and it had probably been a while since they had been together. And secondly, because they were both with child, and neither of them was supposed to be.
Scripture teaches that Mary was a virgin: and virgins just don’t get pregnant. Elizabeth was an old woman, well past child bearing years. And yet, here they were. If we go back through the Bible, that’s just the kind of thing that God does: he creates life where there isn’t any. He did it in Genesis, in our story of creation, created life out of nothing. God did for Sarah, Abraham’s wife, who was too old to have Isaac. He did for the mother of Samson, who was also childless. He did for Hannah, who was desperately barren until God intervened and she bore Samuel. And He did it again with Mary the Virgin and Elizabeth, an old woman. And in one sense, He does it again in the stories of Lazarus and the resurrection of Jesus.
If we listen to Scripture, we find God creating life all over the place where there isn’t any: in old women, in the barren places, where there is nothing but death. We find God creating life so often and in so many places that we might come to the conclusion that that’s His business: making new life.
But the Gospel lesson today teaches us something else about God’s business. In the song of Mary, which we sometimes call the Magnificat, we hear Mary erupt into a song of hope. She sings about what’s coming into the world: overturning a system of violence and oppression and corruption and replacing them with mercy and justice and love. And if we hear this song of Mary as revolutionary, as radical, I don’t think we miss the mark. She announces that Jesus is coming into the world to challenge the structures of sin and death and oppression and fear. It is a song of defiant resistance, the song of a militant refusal to accept the way things are. Mary is so filled with hope that she sings as though all these things have already happened.
If we read the story of the Exodus or the prophets and their concern with justice for the weak and the forgotten, or the story of the birth of Jesus, or almost any story about Jesus’ ministry, we begin to get the sense that that’s also part of God’s business. And if God is so desperately concerned with the lives of those the world has forgotten (the weak, the poor, the powerless), then I think we had better be concerned with their lives as well. If we really want to call ourselves Christians, I think we had better join God in the business of hope. Because I don’t think God is looking for a Church full of cheerleaders to sit on the sidelines and yell, “Yay, God.” I think God is looking for collaborators, partners in the business of hope.
And that’s just one of the reasons I love the season of Advent. It is the season of hope: longing for a better world; hope of a world without fear; hope that God will dwell with us—in our lives and in our hearts. Christmas is about joy, and I’m a big fan of joy, but Advent teaches us the virtue of hope. And it offers that hope to those the world has forgotten, those on the margins: those people like these two Jewish women who were nobodies from nowhere. And yet God chose them to announce that he was breaking into this world and would walk among us. He chose these two Jewish women who hoped…against hope.
We live in a world suffering from “compassion fatigue,” a world where hope has become a very rare commodity, where cynicism has become our currency. We live in a world where almost 13% of the globe’s population is hungry, and 3 ½ million children die of hunger every year. We live in a world where children are forced to become soldiers and are trained as killers in 20 countries around the world. We live in a world where every 30 seconds someone loses their freedom and finds themselves enslaved in the business of human trafficking. And together with the Psalmist, we wonder: “How long, oh Lord?” How long is this going to go on? And we are brokenhearted. And we are ground down. And we begin, bit by bit, to lose hope.
George Santayana once observed, the world “has music for those who listen.” Somehow, from above the struggle and the pain, we can here that music sometimes. And I think Mary has a music for those who listen: she sings a song pregnant with promise, with new life, a song of God’s presence with us. Mary sings a song for those good people who live outside Odessa in the Ranchito, for those living in refugee camps, those in Detroit and in the Sudan, and for those good people who live on the outskirts of Dripping Springs.
And so, it is my Advent prayer that we will all, like Mary, be ready to carry the Christ child into a world that is dying of hopelessness. It is my Advent prayer that we will lead lives filled with expectation, lives which announce to the world: Emmanuel, God is with us. That was Mary’s prayer, and I hope it’s ours, too. But the real measure of our prayer comes in how we act and the kind of lives we lead, after we say “Amen.”