Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent – December 23, 2018
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
I have shared with people recently how these last couple of years have been a rich season of ministry for me as I have had the joy of baptizing the babies of young women I’ve known since they were high school or college students, young women who babysat my boys when they were little. One of the great blessings of staying put in a congregation – which I hope to do for some time to come – is developing these kinds of relationships over the years. There’s something extra special in seeing these young women who temporarily mothered your children for a few hours as babysitters have children of their own. Not only are the babies a delight, but there’s a beautiful transformation that takes place as these young women become these loving, tender mothers.
I’ll bet most of you have had similar kinds of joys in your lives as you’ve watched friends or loved ones or your own children become parents. It is a joy, to be sure. But it is often a complicated joy, isn’t it? For one, seeing people you knew as kids suddenly holding a baby in their arms reminds you how old you’re getting! I know that some of those women whose babies I’ve baptized were your Sunday school students. I know that some of their parents were your Sunday school students! So, while it is a joy, it is a complicated joy as you are reminded of the swiftly passing years. These babies can be a complicated joy for those who, like dear Elizabeth for most of her life, have been unable to have children of their own. They are a complicated joy even for the mothers themselves. It is not uncommon for new moms to weep while holding their new babies – not just happy tears, and not just because of all the hormones running loose in their bodies, but because they feel overwhelmed and scared to death over the immense responsibility they now feel as they hold that little human in their arms.
Our gospel reading for this fourth Sunday in Advent paints a picture of joy. It is one of the most beautiful, tender moments you’ll find anywhere in the Bible. Mary travels to a town in the hill country outside of Jerusalem to visit her aunt Elizabeth. Mary has heard from the angel Gabriel that her elderly aunt is expecting a baby. Mary, of course, is now expecting a baby of her own. As Mary enters the house of her Uncle Zechariah and her Aunt Elizabeth, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy! John the Baptist is already doing his job of pointing to Jesus! Elizabeth is full of joy too! To be more specific, she is filled with the Holy Spirit! She gushes with Spirit-filled joy upon seeing Mary, saying, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Like the child in her womb, Elizabeth also knows who the baby is that Mary is carrying: “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Elizabeth praises her young niece for trusting in God, saying to her, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Mary is full of joy as well. So much so that she bursts into song.
It is a scene of great joy, but it is a complicated joy. For while part of the motivation for Mary to come to her aunt and uncle’s house in the hill country is to see her pregnant Aunt Elizabeth for herself and probably to help as one of her midwives, it is also true that it was probably a pretty good time for Mary to get out of Nazareth. Once Mary started showing, there would be all kinds of rumors going around. It wasn’t that long ago in our own country when, in order to avoid scandal, pregnant teens would go off and spend a few months at a home for unwed mothers. The embarrassed parents would concoct some story about how so-and-so were doing to stay with relatives for a while. Part of Mary’s motivation, then, surely was to avoid some of that scandal. If she was out of sight and out of mind for a few months, the math surrounding the dates of her wedding and her delivery date would be a little more fuzzy. People would be less likely to figure things out. This time with Elizabeth was a joy, no doubt about it, but it was a complicated joy.
It was complicated for Elizabeth too. For while she was no doubt thrilled to be expecting a child in her old age, she also probably had to endure the snickers and knowing smiles of people who were surprised to find out that their elderly priest and his wife were still…active in that way. More seriously, having a child now would also have been a sad reminder of all those lost years when she was younger and had more energy to do things with her child, when she might have expected to live long enough to see her child marry, perhaps even to become a grandmother – something that surely wouldn’t happen now. It was a joy, but it was a complicated joy.
I’m sure both Mary and Elizabeth had that glow that expectant mothers get. They experienced great joy over the children they carried in their wombs. But the source of their joy goes even deeper than that. When Elizabeth greeted her niece, she not only said “Blessed is the fruit of your womb,” but “Blessed is she who believed.” Their joy came through believing in God’s promises. It came through trusting in what God was up to in their babies. Their joy came through faith.
In a beautiful sermon on these passages from Luke, Martin Luther said that there are three miracles in this story. The first is that God became a man. The second is that a virgin conceived. The third is that Mary believed it! “The last of these,” Luther wrote, “is by no means the least.”
We gather here today on Christmas Eve Eve. It is a time of great joy for many of us. We are nearing the end of our season of Advent waiting – in fact, by the end of this service we’ll be singing “Joy to the World.” We celebrate over these next several days with feasts of great food. We exchange gifts. We enjoy twinkling lights and fun music and great movies. We enjoy being with friends and loved ones. It is a time of joy.
But it’s a complicated joy, isn’t it? Because real life doesn’t just stop for all the festivities. In some ways, the struggles of life become even more intense. If money was already tight, you really feel the squeeze. If you were already missing someone, you miss them even more. Time with loved ones can be a joy, but they can also open up old wounds. All those feasts can be a delight, but some are quietly praying that loved ones will stay sober through it all. If you or a loved one are facing a debilitating or life-threatening disease, you don’t get a break from that just because it is almost December 25th.
Our lives are complicated. Even those who seem to have it all, those who seem to have it all together, those who look so polished in their Christmas cards and Facebook posts, are almost certainly facing some kind of struggles, even if you can’t see them. That’s just how life is, for all of us. It is the reality of life in this fallen world.
But these two lovely women in our gospel reading preach beautifully to us this morning. Mary and Elizabeth point us to where we can find joy in this midst of our complicated lives. They point not to themselves and their maternal glow, though that is certainly a joy. They point to the children they carry. They point to the grapefruit-sized prophet, who was coming to prepare the way of the Lord, who already now was leaping for joy in the womb as his Lord drew near. They point to the berry-sized savior, who was coming to scatter the proud and lift up the lowly, who was coming to fill the hungry with good things, who was coming to fulfill God’s promises by bringing mercy and salvation.
The deeper source of joy Mary and Elizabeth point us to is the joy that comes from believing that these babies are being born to accomplish something for us. It comes from trusting that they have come so that we would know God’s presence in our lives, so that we would know God’s salvation, his mercy, his love. It comes from faith that God is with us, even when our lives are complicated.
It was a great miracle that God became a human being in Jesus. It was a great miracle that a virgin conceived. It was a great miracle that Mary believed it!
May God do a miracle in you today by sending his Holy Spirit to stir your heart to faith in what he has done for you through these babies, so that even in the midst of your complicated life, you would know this joy.
For it was faith in what God was up to in Jesus that made John leap for joy in utero. It was faith that God was fulfilling his promises that made Elizabeth exclaim in joy with a loud cry. It was faith that God was with her, faith that God had looked upon her with favor, that gave Mary not only the strength to carry out her calling, but the joy to sing while she did so.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church