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4th Sunday in Advent. Luke 1:39-55
If you were to choose women who would give birth to babies, whose life and ministry would change the lives of individuals, of the world forever, what would you be looking for?
An older woman, well past the age of being able to have children?
A very young girl, still a child by our standards and unmarried ?
We probably wouldn’t. Yet God did.
Elizabeth, the wife of Zechariah was the mother of John the Baptist. We don’t know her age, but we know through Zechariah’s insistence that she was considered old, that she was probably well past menopause. Her body was old to be experiencing what it is to bear a child for the first time. Would that even be possible? Medical people today would say, first of all, impossible to conceive let alone have a child that was healthy and give birth easily.
Then Mary, engaged but not married to Joseph. Mary but a child herself, maybe 12 or 13 years old. How stable would that be? Would Joseph stick by her? Would she be stoned for perceived unlawfully conceiving a child? What would happen to the faith of such a vulnerable young girl as she went through a pregnancy?
What a risky decision God made. No guarantees. Lots of uncertainty. Can you think of experiences in your life that found yourself walking a risky journey? We are walking one just now as a church community as we reflect on what it will be like when this building, our Cathedral is closed temporarily and we will not be able to worship here for a long time. Life throws us all sorts of risky journeys.
But back to these two women.
Elizabeth and Mary are relatives, perhaps cousins. Elizabeth, once pregnant we are told, hid herself away for five months. Was she unsure of what this all meant? Was the talk around her too much as people noticed her body swell with the child she was carrying, and the wondering around why Zechariah found himself to be unable to speak.? Or were the demands on a body in pregnancy so much that her days contained simple tasks only and she needed to rest?
With Mary, we know little of her experience of pregnancy. Did she suffer badly from morning sickness? Was she tired? Did hormonal changes have her doubting, crying or experiencing mood swings? Would those around her, point the finger, and talk behind close doors, peering at her slender body for signs of a swelling belly?
We don’t actually have the information to tell us. We can but surmise. So why did God chose these two ordinary women. Why not women for whom everything is at its prime for child bearing, women who were well heeled financially, women who could easily provide all that was needed by these two little boys.
Could it be that this is always what God does? Choose that which is not perfect, not wise, not always even seemingly fit to use for his purpose? Could it be that God loves to take us in our very unsure state and use us as vessels fit for his purpose?
Think too of these women, as they went through their pregnancies – did they each wonder what the life of their son would be like? No wondering about whether this baby will be a boy or a girl, no choosing of a name for that was all told to them. Did they wonder what these boys would grow up to do?
Would Elizabeth have imagined that her son would disappear into the desert wearing clothes made of animal hair, and eating locusts and honey? Would she as she was soon to hold her little boy, imagine that he would be something of a wild man of the desert, proclaiming “repent, repent and be baptised every one of you”. As she gazed at his tiny fingers and toes could she have imagined that in time her son would be beheaded by Herod?
Did Mary know as she gazed on her new born little baby boy that this son was heading to be crucified, to be whipped and stripped and hung on a cross to die?
Let us turn to the story today: Elizabeth is well into her pregnancy, entering the 6th month. Mary has just been visited by the angel Gabriel. The angel tells her that she will bear a son, his name will be called Jesus. This would not be any ordinary kind of birth, for this child would be conceived by the Holy Spirit. And as encouragement to Mary, that this very thing is possible to God, Gabriel tells Mary that her relative Elizabeth who is well past child bearing age will also give birth to a child, a baby boy. At this, Mary responds, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And the angel leaves her. One moment Mary is in the presence of the angel, the next alone, and faced with all the implications of her “yes” to the invitation to carry this baby.
Were the angel’s words telling Mary of Elizabeth’s pregnancy that prompted her to walk the 160 kms to the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth to see for herself this thing that God was doing? Did she want to see for herself that the words of the angel were true? Did she think that Elizabeth would understand her story of visitation? Was she looking for the encouragement from this older woman as the reality of the angel’s words hit home?
At the end of that long journey, they meet: Mary arrives at the home of Elizabeth. And as was the custom, Mary calls out a greeting. And at that greeting, John the wee babe growing within Elizabeth leapt for joy. We have a painting here on the screen this morning of what that embrace may have looked like. The young girl Mary embraced by the arms of Elizabeth. Elizabeth speaking the prophetic words, “How is it that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”
Something within Elizabeth’s spirit knew and witnessed within her that Mary was carrying a baby that was to be Messiah. And then she adds, blessing upon blessing for this young mother to be, Blessed be you Mary, blessed be the child growing in your womb and blessed be you Mary for believing that which the Lord said would come true.
If Mary had travelled that long distance longing for words of encouragement, her very arrival prompted all that she could have needed. Elizabeth spoke words of confirmation, that indeed the tiny child whose little body was just being formed and growing within her, was to be her Lord. How did Elizabeth know that? Something deep within her happened: the child she was carrying leapt within her. One of those moments of inner knowing. And with that stirring, the words rose within her.
What confirmation for Mary. What relief. What encouragement those words were. In the painting we see Elizabeth’s arms raised, in embrace. Raised as she blesses Mary and the child, Jesus whom Mary is carrying. Blessings on her that Mary had believed that which the angel had spoken. The declaration that this child Jesus was her Lord. The proclamation of Elizabeth’s own faith.
And from Elizabeth’s words of blessing and encouragement come the words we know as the Magnificat: a song of rejoicing and praise, a song of upside down values, a song that declares that God is the God who keeps his promises. Was this the culmination of that journey to find Elizabeth? For Mary to fully know deep within herself that God was in this. That the angel’s words were true. Did that come from the encouragement of another?
Her song recognises that indeed she has been blessed; that indeed God is holy. And then it turns to expressing the heart of God:
We too are on a journey. The Advent journey. This week we are poised to come and to see the Christ child. To experience afresh the birth of Jesus, the Lord of lords. How will we draw near the stable door this week?
Will we pause and recognise as Elizabeth and Mary did, that God is both holy and full of mercy towards all people? Will we believe the promises God makes in sending Jesus to be amongst and within us? Will we seek to encourage those who are unsure, who are faltering?
Will we lay aside our sense of pride or power or wealth and come on our knees to peer into the manger?
Will we recognise the hunger within ourselves and within this cathedral, this city and our world? The hunger to be fed literally, the hunger that sees 21,000 people die daily for lack of food. As well as those who hunger for love, for mercy and for acceptance. Will we recognise and respond?
As we make the journey this week towards to the manger, what are you longing to find for yourself and for this world? As we are invited to allow the Christ child to be birthed afresh within and around us, what will be your prayer? What will be your song? How will you respond?