An Unexpected Blessing
New Revised Standard Version
Introduction: this passage follows the familiar story of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary to tell her of God’s plan for her to be the mother of Jesus, God’s son.
39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Christmas is only six days away! According to my Santa tracker app, Santa will begin delivering presents in 4+ days. I hope you have cookies and milk for him and carrots for the reindeer ready!
The passage we read from Luke occurs approximately eight months before the birth of Jesus. It includes Mary’s Song, which I read earlier in the service, as well as Mary’s visit to Elizabeth.
Today’s sermon is based on N.T. Wright’s commentary on this passage.
What would make you celebrate wildly – jump up and down, wave your hands in the air, and shout? Perhaps it would be the news that someone close to you who had been very sick was getting better and would soon be home. Perhaps it would be seeing that the flood waters that had threatened your home were receding. Perhaps it would be the message that all your money worries or business worries had been taken care of and you could relax. Perhaps it would be the phone call to say you had been hired for the job you always wanted. Perhaps it would be the news that the pandemic is finally over.
Whatever it might be, you might do things you normally wouldn’t such as to grab the hands of someone nearby and dance. Or shout and throw your hat in the air (if you have one) like new graduates do at the end of the ceremony. You might call everyone you know and invite them to a party. You might sing a song. Maybe even making one up as you went along out of bits of poems and songs you already know, or perhaps by creating new words for a favorite hymn.
If you lived in any kind of culture where rhythm and beat mattered, it would be the kind of song you could clap your hands to or stomp on the ground. Maybe even dance.
Now read Mary’s song like that. It’s often called the Magnificat after the first word in its Latin form. The Magnificat is one of the most famous songs in the Christian church. It’s been whispered in monasteries, chanted in cathedrals, recited in small remote churches by evening candlelight, and set to music with trumpets and kettle drums by Johann Sebastian Bach.
We might think of the song as the gospel before the gospel. A bright and heartfelt shout of triumph thirty weeks before Bethlehem, thirty plus years before Calvary and Easter. It may easily have been accompanied by a dance, a clap, and a stomp. Mary’s song is all about God and it’s all about revolution. And it’s all because of Jesus – Jesus who only has just been conceived, and not yet born but who has made Elizabeth’s baby jump for joy in her womb and has made Mary giddy with excitement, hope, and triumph. In many cultures, it is the women who really know how to celebrate, to sing and dance, with their bodies and voices saying things that are far deeper than words. That is how Mary’s song comes across.
Mary will have to learn many other things. A sword will pierce her soul, she is told when, Jesus is still a baby. She will lose him for three days when he’s twelve (she and Joseph had traveled for on their way back to Nazareth before they noticed he wasn’t among the traveling party). She will think he has gone mad when he is thirty. She will despair completely for three days in Jerusalem as the God she wildly celebrates seems to have deserted her as she watches her son’s agonizing death on the cross and subsequent burial. All of us who sing her song would remember these things, too. But the moment of triumph will return with Easter and Pentecost and will never be taken away.
Why did Mary launch into a song like this? What has the news of her son have to do with God’s power overthrowing the power structures of the world, demolishing the mighty and exalting the humble?
Mary and Elizabeth shared a dream – the ancient dream of Israel that one day all that the prophets had said would come true. One day, Israel’s God would do what God had said to Israel’s earliest ancestors – all nations would be blessed through Abraham’s family. But for that to happen, the powers that kept the world in slavery had to be toppled. Nobody would normally thank God for blessings if they were poor, hungry, enslaved, and miserable. God would have to win a victory over the bullies, the powerbrokers, and the forces of evil that people like Mary and Elizabeth knew all to well. They knew because they lived in the dark days of Herod the Great, whose brutality was backed up the leadership of the Roman Empire.
Mary and Elizabeth, like the Jews of their time, searched the scriptures. They read and meditated on the psalms and prophetic writings that spoke of mercy, hope, fulfilment, reversal, revolution, victory over evil, and of God’s coming to the rescue at last by sending the promised Messiah.
All of that is poured into Mary’s song, like an effervescent drink that bubbles over the edge of your cup and spreads out everywhere. Almost every word of her song is a biblical quotation that Mary would have know from childhood. Much of it echoes the song of Hannah, the barren wife, in 1 Samuel 2, that celebrated the birth of Samuel, the son she never thought she would have, and all that God was going to do through him. Now these two mothers-to-be celebrate together what God is going to do through their sons, John and Jesus.
Luke, here, is setting the scene for what is coming as the two boys grow up and, as adults, do become the agents of God’s long-promised revolution, the victory over the powers of evil. Much of Mary’s song is echoed by her son, Jesus’ preaching as he warns the rich not to trust in their wealth and promises God’s kingdom to the poor.
But Luke hasn’t only painted a big picture. Mary’s visit to Elizabeth is a wonderful human portrait of the older woman, pregnant at last after hope had gone, and the younger one, pregnant far sooner than expected.
It could have been a moment of tension. Mary might have felt proud and Elizabeth resentful of each of their son’s role in the redemption of Israel. None of that happens. Instead, the intimate details of John, three months before his birth, leaping in the womb at Mary’s voice, and the Holy Spirit leading Elizabeth into shouted praise and Mary into song are shared here by Luke.
Underneath everything is a celebration of God. God has taken the initiative. God, the Lord, the Savior, the Powerful One, the Holy One, the Merciful One, the Faithful One. God is the ultimate reason to celebrate.