A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (19/12/21): Elizabeth and Mary

Luke 1:39-45

In those days Mary set out and went with haste. . .
Gabriel has not long left Mary, and she sets out on a journey. Not for the last time, will someone set out in joy and haste after receiving news from an angel. Very soon Shepherds will leave their flocks where they had been watching them on the hills around Bethlehem to see the sign which an Angel had promised them, a baby lying in a manager, wrapped in bands of cloth, who the angel tells them is the Messiah. Our focus is drawn in, as rapidly Mary’s journey, to the place where she is headed. Like the closing in of a zoom lens our attention is focused on a narrower and narrow space. First to Judea, the whole of the southern half of the land we think of as Holy, closing in to the hill country, one part of that province, moving closer still, to a single house that of Zechariah, and to a single individual in that house, Elizabeth, who is the objective of Mary’s journey. Mary’s journey brings together the two principle characters of this preliminary to the story of Jesus’ life. In one room together we have the two women who shouldn’t be expecting children but are! The similarities and differences between them are important. It is clear that no one would have expected either woman to be pregnant, but for opposite reasons; Elizabeth because she was older, for many years wife to Zechariah, if she was ever going to have children it would have happened by now, everyone assumed she never would; Mary because she was younger, engaged but not yet married to a respectable man, as yet there was no reason to expect that she had done anything that would make a woman pregnant. Whatever explanations their neighbours might have given for these unexpected pregnancies, we know the truth. Both Elizabeth and Mary are pregnant because of the intervention of God. Though again what God does for each of them is quite different. For Elizabeth her pregnancy comes as a vindication, as the removal of a question about her, the restoration of her honour. For Mary, because the circumstances of her pregnancy are unprecedented, the possible misunderstanding of what has happened to her, mean that she is at very least shamed and possibly even in physical danger. The relationships between Elizabeth and Mary, their pregnancies and their children, are intended to show us something of what God is doing. With the birth of John the Baptist and later with his ministry, prophecy has returned to Israel for the first time in 400 years.
No one could have expected that anymore than they might have expected an older woman like Elizabeth to be pregnant. The honour of the people of Israel is restored. God is still speaking in and through and for his people. But what God is about to do is something completely new. In the unheard phenomenon of a virgin expecting a baby, God is doing something completely unique. God is coming in person. The longing of the old faith represented in Elizabeth, that longing to know and to be with God, is fulfilled in Mary and her child. And like Elizabeth and Mary who are “relatives,” we usually imagine they are some kind of cousins, there is a connection between what God has done and what God is now doing. For all the newness of what God does now, it grows out of what God has already said and done. In Zechariah’s house in the hill country of Judea, this scene embodies what the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews will later say:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. [Heb. 1:1]

Mary has come to Elizabeth, not because she was ordered to by the angel, nor because she was promised a special sign when she got here. The sign she was offered was simply the news of her relative’s pregnancy. Mary did not need to make the risky journey from Nazareth to have the sign confirmed. But she comes anyway, drawn by the joy and delight which the news of God’s actions create. Mary’s journey is almost a pilgrimage. She goes to be present at the place and with the person where God has acted. But when she arrives Mary is given two signs:
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit . . .
Elizabeth’s child moves in response to Mary’s presence. The unborn John knows something that other’s cannot. This is not the kind of knowledge which can be acquired through the usual forms of observation. The child in Elizabeth’s womb can only know because God informs him. Even after they are both fully grown men, who John and Jesus are and what they are doing, cannot be understood by observation alone. Their births and the ministries all take place in history, but history is not their sole explanation. To know and accept who John and Jesus are is knowledge that comes only as the gift of God’s sovereign grace. And that knowledge was given to John before he was even born.
And Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth is the first to receive that gift in the context of this story, the Gospel. The sign is offered to Mary, as guarantee that what Elizabeth is about to say comes directly from God.

In the Spirit, Elizabeth announce blessing on Mary and on Mary’s child:
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.
It is not that what Elizabeth says confers that blessing, but rather Elizabeth recognises and proclaims the blessed state of Mary and her child. Rather like the beatitudes which Jesus himself proclaims, Mary’s blessing might be thought of as somewhat mixed. Here she is, an unmarried woman expecting a baby. The situation she is in is precarious. She risks the censure of her community. We have already observed that this is a pregnancy that should not be. And because of that Mary risks the disapproval, rejection and even violence of her neighbours. We might be tempted to speculate that she travelled to Elizabeth’s to be out of sight of those who might shame and shun her. And yet she is blessed. God’s favour rests on her just as it does on those who are poor, or who are hungry or who weep. She is happy, not as the world measures it, but because God is acting with and for and through her. Her child is blessed and will be a blessing to many. And yet, Mary is later told, “a sword will pierce your own soul too” [Luke 2:35]

Elizabeth continues with a rhetorical question:
And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?
Elizabeth is delighted. Wonder upon wonder, and blessing upon blessing, she is being visited not just be a beloved relative, but by the mother of her Lord. It might be easy to overlook what Elizabeth has just said because she phrases it as part of a question: “the mother of my Lord”. What the Holy Spirit has enabled Elizabeth to recognise is that Mary’s child is the one who has been promised by God. Indeed what Elizabeth’s words imply is already the fully Christian confession: “Jesus is Lord.”
Jesus’ Lordship is not just something that happens to have happened. It is not the product of the historical circumstances of his times, the place and situation where he ministered, that led to his crucifixion, which produced his resurrection, which made him into Christ. No! Just as was his conception, so with his very being from before his birth, Jesus is who and how God acts. For all that Luke poses as an historian in the telling of his story, he knows from the outset that the story he is telling is not history. What happens here is not a product of the cause and effect in human affairs that make up history. What Luke is telling is Good News, because it describes the action of God for human beings.

Elizabeth also offers the explanation for the sudden movement of her child:
For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.
The decisive issue in the whole of the Gospel is people’s reaction to Jesus. This is where judgement lies. Do you welcome Jesus with joy? Or do you reject him, attempt to destroy him and in so doing only succeed in destroying yourself? That is what is at stake in the Gospel. The unborn John shows the appropriate response. He is placed on the right side of the judgement which Jesus brings. John as yet, of course, has no knowledge or experience of the world. He has not become part of the fallen tangled network of human relationships. He is not as yet involved in or shaped by the politics of his day. He is, as we might put it, an innocent. His access to the knowledge of God is as yet unhelped and unhindered by living a human life. So he can show us what that positive joyful reaction to God in Jesus Christ in fact always is: It is a gift. It is a gift of God’s grace. John did not earn or deserve his knowledge of God he was given it. Neither do we, God’s grace gives to us the knowledge that Jesus is Lord and enables us to respond with joy.

And Elizabeth once again declares a blessing:
And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.
It is not altogether clear who Elizabeth means at this point. What she says is true of Mary. We have already seen in Mary’s response to the angel who visited her, that she believes what she has been told, and that she trusts that God will do what God has promised. But that is not less true of Elizabeth herself. Both women demonstrate what remains at the core of this story, and at the core of our lives together. Faith. Those who put their faith in what God says, and trust that God will do what God has promise, are blessed. We know that such blessing is ambiguous. It is not happiness as the world defines it. That blessing is no guarantee against poverty or hunger or tears, or even against a soul piercing sword, but it is a blessing nonetheless. Those who place their trust in Mary’s son and in the promise of the Kingdom he brings are blessed. And as Jesus himself later says: the one who endures to the end will be saved. [Matt. 24:13]

Elizabeth and Mary by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0 

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