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Sermon for Advent 4 Year C Luke 1:39-55 Mary Visits Elizabeth

November 1, 2015

visitationFor the past couple of weeks, John the Baptist has been the messenger, There has been a lot of talk about axes, pitchforks, and unquenchable fires. So it is a real relief this morning to hear from a different messenger. Mary the Prophet.

Her cousin Elizabeth is the first one to hear what Mary has to say.She too is pregnant — about six months further along than Mary, and much, much older. Elizabeth greets her cousin loudly because she is excited that Mary has come to see her; because her own baby has jumped for joy inside her. Behind the sudden events of this story lie the long years when Israel waited in hope for the promised Messiah . Now there is hope of a new life. And it’s from women. Not the men of the establishment

Just as John prepared the way for Jesus, Elizabeth prepared the way for Mary. In her years of barrenness, she had already experienced the disgrace and rejection of the community that Mary was likely to face when word got out. Mary responded to the angel with faith but there would probably come a million questions and doubts. Who, in all the world, could this young teenage girl go to? “Elizabeth! Of course!”
Elizabeth is older than her mother, but she has never patted her on the head or used that tone of voice that adults use when they speak down to children. No, Elizabeth has always treated her like a fully-fledged person, like a friend, and a friend is what she needs.

Her parents say yes, that she has been looking a little peaky lately and maybe a change of scenery will do her good. So she goes, and on the journey she has lots of time to worry. What if Joseph denounces her? What if her parents disown her? Never mind the shame—how will she take care of a baby all by herself with no place to live, no way to get food, no one to help her?

The many paintings of the Madonna have accustomed us to a still, calm, figure. Luke presents us with a woman in a hurry. Her haste shows how profoundly she has been moved by the Word she carries. To receive the divine Word is not to remain unchanged, but to carry that Word to others. At the same time, what we see in this hurried journey is God’s urgency to communicate His joy. It is the measure of how profoundly God desires our happiness.

This story, known as “the Visitation,” is the longest account in all the New Testament in which women hold centre stage. Elizabeth’s dialogue with Mary “Blest are you among women and blest is the fruit of your womb.” takes us back to the book of Judith: “Then Uzziah said to her: ‘Blessed are you, daughter, by the Most High God, above all the women on earth.’”

Judith gave birth to the people’s salvation, dressed up and adorned to seduce the enemy general Holofernes, before cutting off his head.

There is also an echo of the prophetess Deborah to Jael in the book of Judges: “Blessed be Jael among women.” Jael killed Sisera, the army warlord who governed and terrorised Israel for twenty years.

Elizabeth and Mary really wanted the Christ to come. Their country had been devastated by centuries of wars. One nation after another had conquered them, carried off the best of Israel and looted their cities to decorate a foreign court. They were living under the oppression of a pagan Roman government. They couldn’t turn to their religious leaders for comfort. They had corrupted most of the religious practices. Their whole nation was in a shambles. Their only hope was with God. Only the Messiah could save them.

You would think that at a time like this they would settle down and compare notes on their appetites, their mood swings, their backaches and swelling feet. Elizabeth was ahead of Mary, after all. She could have warned her about some things and given her some others to look forward to, but instead of the elder woman sharing her wisdom with the younger, it is the younger who enlightens the elder, launching into a prophecy that we repeat to this day.

“My soul magnifies the Lord,” Mary sings “and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.” Mary’s Magnificat is the longest set of words spoken by a woman in the entire New Testament. It was all happening inside of Mary, and she was so sure of it that she was singing about it ahead of time not in the future tense but in the past, as if the promise had already come true.

Prophets almost never get their verb tenses straight, because they see the world as God sees it not divided into things that are already over and things that have not yet happened but as an eternally unfolding mystery that surprises everyone. In this divine dance we are all dancing, God may lead but it is entirely up to us whether we will follow.

All she has is her unreasonable willingness to believe that the God who has chosen her will be part of whatever happens next. She doesn’t wait to see how things will turn out first. If there are any big changes going on with you right now, something is underway you cannot predict the end of, and your stomach is rolling with your own version of morning sickness, then you might try following Mary’s lead.

Who knows? Maybe the Holy Spirit has come upon you. Maybe that shadow hanging over you is the power of the Most High.
Mary’s song interprets the national yearnings of the Jewish people. It is a war chant, God’s battle song enmeshed in human history, the “program of the Kingdom of God,”

Mary is often depicted as a docile woman saying yes – here I am. But she also says no

She sings of a God who takes sides and wields a strong arm against those who try to exercise any kind of oppression, those who have become rich through exploitation and injustice, those who use their power to oppress and tyrannize are treated with severity by this God, who spreads his generosity and gifts among the hungry and the humble. God’s “no” resounds powerfully over the pride of the haughty, the ambition of the powerful, and the stuffed bellies of the rich. God scatters some, overthrows some, sends others away. In doing so, God seals this “no” to the established order in this world where those who hold power claim to have the last word.

The women of Israel are instruments of the “yes” of God who announces and promises that new times are coming. A voice for the poor and humble, God’s favourites, Mary can speak and sing because she is herself poor and humble, like Israel, God’s people.

Luther expressed grave doubts about Mary’s sinlessness because in the Magnificat ‘she seemed to vaunt herself in a way inappropriate for a good Christian. But it was a later German, Dietrich Bonhoeffer who stated “The song of Mary ….is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings.… This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind. These are the tones of the women prophets of the Old Testament that now come to life in Mary’s mouth.”

Not all of us can or will bear children. But all of us have been impregnated with a purpose, a dream, a destiny. The pursuit of that purpose will take us through stages of life similar to those pregnant women go through. There will also be moments when we don’t know what’s going on. Like women who are pregnant for the first time, we experience anticipation and joy along with conflicting feelings of inadequacy, frailty, and even anger. Our lives feel foreign to us. We don’t even know ourselves anymore. Sometimes life gets so tough, frightening, or confusing that we feel like we’ve been overtaken by a mysterious visitation.

For that gift to be given to Mary and Elizabeth, they had to be still and quiet. They had to listen to voices that no one else could hear; voices that said impossible things. Each had to believe that God would do what God promised, even to her — even to the person she was.

For the real business of Advent is waiting, and listening and perhaps, as happened to Mary and Elizabeth, some new life will begin to grow within us, new life that can begin once more to transform us; and, through us, to renew our world.

May your souls magnify the Lord, and your spirits rejoice in God your Saviour. For he has looked with favour on you, and all generations will call you blessed. For the Mighty One has done great things for you, and holy is his name. Home By Another Way

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