Rachel Twigg’a sermon on Luke 1:39-56 for the 4th Sunday in Advent
This sermon is strongly influenced by the book The God Bearing Life by Kenda Creasey Dean, which I highly recommend.
This is a poem entitled “Virgin” from the excellent collection God Birth by Sam Gutierrez:
It seems that everyone
wants at least three to five years of experience.
Except God, that is.
[God] looks for the one willing to try something new.
Today’s gospel reading begins with these words, “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country…” Although Mary’s story is a relatively familiar one, I think her decision to take a trip deserves some context so I’m going to back up about 10 verses to the point in the story where the angel Gabriel first appears.
- To listen to the audio of the sermon, press play:
Gabriel begins as he always begins, as God always begins -since this is really God’s message, not Gabriel’s – with the affirmation that all that God has created is good. “Greetings, favoured one!” Gabriel proclaims to Mary. “The Lord is with you!” Before she hears anything else, God wants Mary to hear this: She is favoured and God is with her.
As a young girl, Mary hasn’t had any time to “find herself.” She hasn’t taken a backpacking trip across Europe or enrolled in a course that changed her life or whatever the correct historical equivalent of those events might be. Her identity is a gift, bestowed upon her by God alone.
Mary may wonder, “Who am I?” but God’s answer is clear, “You are my favoured one, beloved and beautiful to me.”
It is unlikely that Mary would have ever had an opportunity to develop a distinctive identity apart from the one given to her by God. She is too young to have had time to achieve much on which to base her identity. She is too poor to purchase her place in society. Add to this the fact that she is female, which means that even if she did have accomplishments or social stature to her credit, they likely would have gone unrecognized because of her gender.
All of this makes Mary a most unlikely candidate for helping God save the world, which may just be why God chooses her. Nothing about Mary suggests that she can be who she is apart from God’s favour.
So Gabriel begins by affirming God’s love for Mary and continues, as angels speaking to human beings tend to do, by telling her there is no need to fear.
“Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. 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…”
God’s message to Mary and to us has two parts – affirmation and expectation. Because Mary is beloved by God, because she has found favour in God’s eyes, God has a plan for her. It is an astonishing plan: the angel in the living room, the impossible conception, the fact that her child will grow up to be a king.
The child’s name must have caught Mary’s attention. Jesus, a derivation of the Hebrew name Joshua, means “God save us.” Something revolutionary is happening here: God has just asked a teenage girl to help save the world.
The text doesn’t say how long it took Mary to respond to Gabriel’s message – seconds, minutes, hours, days. It just tells us that when she did respond she said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Young people are capable of an extraordinary commitment to someone who believes in them and of an almost ridiculous loyalty to a cause worthy of their total commitment. Young people are amazing and we often take them for granted, but God never does. God did not choose a teenager by accident. Who else would agree to such a crazy plan? I know I wouldn’t have.
God’s plan puts Mary in significant danger. Gabriel has come to share this news with Mary and Mary alone at this point. He didn’t call a town meeting to make sure that everyone around Mary would understand how she came to be pregnant before getting married. That would have been a classy touch, but instead, Gabriel leaves Mary to break the news to the people in her life. Will people believe her? Will she be judged? Ridiculed? Rejected? How on earth is she supposed to explain this to her parents, to her fiancé?
So it in not surprising that Mary decides that now is a good time to take a trip. At the beginning of today’s gospel reading (Luke1:39) we are told that shortly after Gabriel’s visit Mary hastily departs her hometown and travels to the home of her relatives Zechariah and Elizabeth. When she arrives, she greets Elizabeth who says 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? 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.” (41-45)
There are a lot of important things going on in this passage. This is an exchange between two Godly women with some insider knowledge about God’s plan to save the world and they theologize and speak with authority about what God is up to.
I imagine that Elizabeth’s words were a tremendous comfort to Mary. I suspect that as she travelled Mary prayed that her relatives would be understanding and not turn her away. I imagine she rehearsed some sort of speech or story to explain to Elizabeth why she was there and what had happened, but Elizabeth’s words made any such explanation unnecessary. Elizabeth already understands and affirms both Mary and her secret- what a relief, what a blessing that must have been!
Elizabeth’s words to Mary heap affirmation upon affirmation. Blessed are you among women Mary. Blessed is the fruit of your womb. Blessed are you because you believed what the angel told you.
So it’s not surprising that a few verses later Mary breaks into the joy-filled song we call the Magnificat that begins: My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for [God] has looked with favour on the lowliness of [God’s] servant. Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me and holy is [God’s] name.” (46-49)
I believe that this praise stems from more than just God’s choice to have Mary bear the son of God. I believe it is also the overflowing of gratitude she feels for the affirmations she has received along the way. Having given a very young girl such incredible news and such an important role to play in God’s plan to save the world, our loving God directs Mary to a supportive community of faith. In the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary will be surrounded by people with mutual experiences, mutual faith, and mutual hope.
Elizabeth’s initial response to Mary also shows the beginning of the redefinition of social realities that Jesus will bring about on earth. Here is a story where the key players are women. Joseph is absent and the priestly Zechariah may be present, but he has been silenced because of his own disbelief. The social constructs of the time are beginning to shift.
Of the two women, Elizabeth is the more mature and as the wife of a priest she has a higher social status than Mary but it is Mary’s child who will become a king.
Elizabeth’s son John will have priestly credentials but the commoner Mary will bear the king, the Son of David, who rules over the priesthood.
Jerusalem, the exalted centre of worship, ought to trump humble Nazareth of Galilee; but the order of sacred geography is also being upended.
And this is just the beginning.
This redefinition of the social order is a key theme in the Magnificat. The first three verses are Mary’s expression of praise to God for the great things God has done for her and then Mary transitions to more universal themes singing these words to God:
Your mercy is for those who fear you
From generation to generation
You have shown strength with your arm
And have scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
You have brought down the powerful from their thrones
And lifted up the lowly;
You have filled the hungry with good things,
And sent the rich away empty.
You, O God, have helped your servant Israel,
In remembrance of your mercy
And to the promise you made to our ancestors,
To Abraham and to his descendants forever.
Mary’s song begins with the praise to God because of the things God has done for her personally and then moves into praise for God’s goodness to the rest of the world – it is praise for the way that God turns the expected on its head – the proud are made low, the humble exalted. The hungry will be full and the rich turned away empty.
The Magnificat is an amazing piece of scripture and so it is not surprising that it has become one of the most famous, most repeated passages in the Bible. I, however, have a real soft spot for the underdog, and so I’d like to highlight a verse that I think it also quite lovely. A verse the lectionary leaves out, but that we have reclaimed this evening. Verse 56 says, “And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.”
Mary remained with Elizabeth for about three months. The Bible doesn’t tell us what happened during those three months, but imagine with me for a moment what that might have been like. I imagine that it was a wonderful time for a young woman like Mary to spend such concentrated time with an older and wiser woman.
By now Mary’s body will have begun to change as her pregnancy progresses and her role in God’s plan will be something she can no longer hide from judgmental eyes. But when this happens, she will have Elizabeth to turn to for support.
I think this tells us a lot about the nature of God. God is asking an awful lot of Mary. Being the Mother of God will be an unusually difficult job, but God will be with her and God will provide for her in lavish and unexpected ways.
Mary met God’s affirmation with a “yes” of her own. “Let it be with me according to your word.” Her “yes” changes her life forever and because of her, the world is also transformed. Mary is actively involved in this transformation, undergoing all of the metamorphoses that occur during pregnancy plus a few that undoubtedly go along with being the mother of God’s son. By saying yes, Mary becomes the means by which Jesus comes into the world.
While the coming of Jesus Christ in a virgin’s womb is the unrepeatable mystery of God, God also invites all of us to become God bearers. Just as Mary had the choice to say yes to God’s plan, so can we. The moment we say yes to God, we also become God bearers. This is what Elizabeth did for Mary in those three months they spent together. She reminded Mary of the prophecies, she reminded Mary of God’s promises, she reminded Mary of God’s goodness, and she reminded Mary of God’s love. I image they laughed together, cried together, and marveled at the ways their bodies were changing together. As Mary was preparing to bear God for the whole world, Elizabeth also bore God to Mary.
In his book Life Together Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks a universal truth using regrettably exclusive language. Here is my paraphrase of those words:
[T]he Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s word to them. The Christian needs that other Christian again and again when they become uncertain and discouraged…They need their brothers and sisters in Christ as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation.
Mary bore God, the saviour of the world, for each and every one of us. Elizabeth bore God for Mary, and all of you, have in your own way, been a God bearer for me.
I am so grateful for the many ways that this community has been a community of God bearers for me. In the eight or so years that I have been coming here, you have been a tangible reminder to be of God’s love. When you say hello, or shake my hand, or hand me a piece of bread and a cup filled with wine, when you pray when I have lost the words, when you say God can be trusted when I’m not sure it’s true, when you say God loves me when I can’t imagine why anyone would – in all these ways and more, you have been God bearers to me.
I hope you have experienced that here as well. I hope this is something we keep doing for each other. I hope you have come to see just how loved, and valuable you are to God and to us.
And I thank you for being God bearers for me.