First Sunday in Christmas (observed)
If you have already spent time reading our passage this morning, you are probably wondering what has gone wrong with my mind. Don’t I know that Christmas is over? Christmas was more than a week ago now, and in our passage this morning, Mary is just barely pregnant. Well, sort of in my defense, we did miss a Sunday back there, and I really don’t like to miss Christmas. But just the same, according to this morning’s passage, Christmas isn’t coming until almost nine months have passed, and that won’t be until September, and who wants to think about Christmas in September? Only retail establishments do that.
Well, actually, this is what I’m trying to call the first Sunday of Christmas, on account of our snow day. Technically, Christmas begins on December 25th, even though our culture begins Christmas officially on the Friday after Thanksgiving. So, maybe, if we stretch it a bit, it is not so terribly wrong to be thinking about a barely pregnant Mary. But you can still be convinced that I’ve lost my mind if you want. Some of you don’t even need as good a reason as this.
In our passage this morning, we meet two women, one very young, and one very old. The very old woman is well beyond the years of child-bearing; the very young woman, until recently, had not even seriously considered the possibility of bearing a child. Both, however, are with child, and both are with child miraculously, and by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. And both, if we are able to imagine it, are actually quite blessed by God, in spite of the very abnormal circumstances that have led to their pregnancies.
Elizabeth is old. She and her husband Zechariah have never had a child, even though they have fervently prayed for a child. The seemingly unkind biblical term for a woman in Elizabeth’s condition is “barren.” Here in Maine we have blueberry barrens. I don’t know what that means, because they’re not barren at all! They produce blueberries! In the Bible, though, “barren” means that someone is unable to produce a child. It is unkind, because the husband’s inability is, apparently, not taken into consideration.
I imagine, that as the years passed, and no child was forthcoming, that Elizabeth and Zechariah slowly began to accept their fate, and they made peace with it. This is the nature of the human spirit, to make peace with the lot that life has dealt us, and this is just as important now as it has ever been. We must begin to make peace with the coronavirus. But a deeper, more abiding peace is promised to those who live lives of faithfulness.
Interestingly, the news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy came first, not to Elizabeth, but rather to her husband, Zechariah. Zechariah is a guy. And even though he is a faithful man, and a loving man, and a righteous man, he is still a guy. And guys, sometimes, above all else, are very practical creatures. He knows that there will be no children in his household. He knows that both he and Elizabeth are well beyond any hope of that. He may, even, after all of these years, have come to believe that he is the one who is barren. He is not about to believe any angel, even a high-ranking one, like Gabriel, that he is about to become a daddy. Practicality dictates that there will be no baby. It is humanly impossible.
But here is a very powerful lesson: God doesn’t ever seem to be troubled by the limits of common sense and practicality. Too often, we force those things upon him. God actually seems to delight in twisting around our cherished perceptions of reality. He seems quite free to make our preconceived notions into utter nonsense and utter foolishness. And so Elizabeth conceived, and Zechariah became a daddy, much to his surprise and shock. I suppose we could say that he was speechless. (that was a joke; read your Bible.)
That same high-ranking angel who announced to Zechariah that he would become a daddy, would soon be scheduling a visit with Mary. And in response to her objection to God’s plan, that she become a mother, Gabriel would simply say to her, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” And that is how these two ladies have come together in our passage this morning; one with a life-time of dreams fulfilled, and the other embarking upon a journey that will be filled with sacred mystery at every moment, for the rest of her life. Mary knows in her heart that she is being obedient to God, but obedience to God can sometimes be dangerous. And so, knowing that life at home is going to be anything but pleasant, Mary has decided to get out of town for a while. Unexpected pregnancies are never easy to explain, especially to people who are practical, and who pride themselves on their common sense. I suppose it goes without saying, that like Zechariah, Joseph was also a guy, and not a happy one at that. Mary’s pregnancy was not the fulfillment of a life-time of his dreams. It was a nightmare to him.
I have no way of proving this, but I wonder if Gabriel didn’t suggest that Mary take off for Elizabeth’s house. Or was Mary so sufficiently wise that she gathered up all of Gabriel’s very strong hints, and made the connection on her own? Perhaps, in going to Elizabeth’s, Mary hoped to have some sympathy, and perhaps even some camaraderie, since they were both experiencing unexpected pregnancies.
If Mary’s ponderings in this matter are true, I still don’t imagine that Mary could have predicted the excited and joyful welcome that she received when she arrived at Elizabeth’s house. Now keep in mind that in what would eventually become known as the first century, there was no Facebook, there was no e-mail, there was no flat phones, not even land lines, or flip phones. Mary arrived at Elizabeth’s house quite unexpectedly.
Or did she? God has been busy accomplishing the impossible in spite of the restrictions of common sense and practicality. I am utterly convinced that Elizabeth knew full well that Mary was on her way. Luke makes it very clear that Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And when people are filled with the Holy Spirit, they sometimes know things: and they are able to speak the holy and sacred words of God. And in this case, the words of God are of blessing and of joyful encouragement. Elizabeth is so filled with the Holy Spirit that she is shouting! She is exclaiming with a loud cry, “…blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”
What an incredible confirmation of God’s presence and work in this young girl! How can we imagine that Mary is not scared out of her wits as she makes this journey to Elizabeth’s house? She knows in her heart that she is embarking on a very new direction in her life that will change and alter everything that she has previously cherished and held dear. Mary knows that she has begun a sacred but difficult journey of faith. She knows that the road ahead of her will be extraordinarily challenging. It certainly has the potential to be heart-breaking and filled with sorrow as well. And we know that until the day that she died, that her life was marked by sorrow.
But into the midst of Mary’s fear and terror, Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, has spoken blessing and godly confirmation directly into that fear and into that terror. Elizabeth’s words were filled with healing and hope for Mary. Elizabeth’s words were sacred confirmation that Mary’s act of obedience to the will of God will be blessed by God.
I’d like to encourage us this morning to be open to being filled with the Holy Spirit. Further, I’d like to encourage us, that having been filled with the Holy Spirit, to speak sacred words of encouragement and blessing into each others hearts. I’d also like us, having been filled with the Holy Spirit, too speak less and less of things that are characteristic of practicality and common sense. If we can set practicality and common sense aside, we just might experience the miraculous. I have a feeling that the work of the Holy Spirit is often stifled by words that are practical, and that sound like common sense.
There is much in this world that discourages and frightens. And when we are discouraged and frightened, we do not always speak words of encouragement and blessing. Sometimes we speak other things that do not honor God and the sacredness of our callings. Let us take Elizabeth as our example in this. Had Elizabeth not been so filled with the Holy Spirit, Mary might very well have been treated with a tongue lashing about the evils of her promiscuity. Common sense and practicality would have crushed Mary’s spirit. And it certainly would have broken her heart.
Mary was struggling to be obedient to what she believed was her calling. Gabriel had said to her, “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Elizabeth understood this promise that God made to Mary. Elizabeth knew that God had spoken to her, and so Elizabeth spoke inspired words of blessing and hope to her. Let us be known as a people who speak inspired words of blessing and hope to one another. Let us be filled with the Holy Spirit.