Mary & Elizabeth ~ the Fourth Sunday of Advent
Luke 1 39-55
For 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 and about six months further along than Mary. Elizabeth greets her cousin and is excited that Mary has come to see her; and because her own baby has leapt 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 here is the surprise it’s from women, and 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 that she was pregnant. Mary responded to the angel with faith but there would probably come lots of questions and doubts. Who could Mary turn to, who would understand?– she goes to her cousin Elizabeth.
We know she was elderly probably older than Mary’s Mother.
We have to constantly remind ourselves that she was just a teenager, anything between 12-16 and still living at home. 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? Even worse what if the High Priest hear and she is to be stoned?
The many paintings of the Madonna have conditioned us to think of a still, calm, mature woman. Luke presents us with a woman in a hurry. Her haste shows how profoundly she has been moved by the Word she carries, what we see in this hurried journey is God’s urgency to communicate His joy.
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 Old Testament where we first hear these words.
Elizabeth and Mary really wanted the promised Messiah to come. Their country had been devastated by centuries of wars. One nation after another had conquered them and now they were living under the oppression of a pagan Roman government. They couldn’t turn to their religious leaders for comfort and most of them were corrupt. 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 Mary and Elizabeth would settle down and compare notes on their appetites, their mood swings, their backaches and swollen feet. Elizabeth was ahead of Mary, after all. She could have warned her about some things to look forward to, but instead of the older Elizabeth sharing her wisdom with the younger Mary, it is the other way round. Mary launching into a prophecy that we repeat to this day.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, 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.
All she has is her 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 in your life now, something is underway you cannot predict the end of, and your stomach is churning with your own version of morning sickness, then follow Mary’s lead and hand it all over to God.
Mary is often depicted as a docile woman saying ‘yes here I am.’ But in this song 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 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 proud ambitious and the rich. God scatters some, overthrows some, and sends others away empty.
For the 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. Both of them had to believe that God would do what God had promised that was the extent of their faith.
For the real message of Advent is about 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 church and on into the world.
This morning we take to heart the song of Mary – sung so many years ago yet alive and fresh this morning - 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.