Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Sermon for December 5, 2021
Luke 1:39-45 (Translation from Wil Gafney's new book, A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church) Mary Visits Elizabeth
Mary set out in those days and went to the hill country with haste, to a Judean town. There she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. Now when Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. From where does this visit come to me? That the mother of my sovereign comes to me? Look! As soon as I heard the sound of your greeting in my ear, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Now blessed is the one who believed that there would be a fulfillment of those things spoken to her by the Holy One."
When you lost your first tooth, who was the first person you told? Who did you tell about your first kiss? When you realized you might be in love, who was the first person, maybe other than the object of your affection, that you shared that joyous news with? Name changes, transitions, new schools, new jobs, big moves, crushing loses... who do you just have to tell when something momentous and life-changing happens to you? How did you decide that this person was the person you needed to tell? Is it someone you’ve known a long time or, maybe your whole life? A relative? A newer friend who has already proven themselves deeply trustworthy? Is it your spouse, if you have one? A sibling? A trusted older mentor? What does it take for you to entrust the biggest news in your life to someone?
When I consider why Mary chose Elizabeth as what seems like the first person to tell about her miraculous and scandalous pregnancy, I wonder if Elizabeth’s own miraculous and scandalous pregnancy made Mary feel safe in confiding in her. Last week, Sarah invited us to remember Mary’s incredible encounter with the angel Gabriel. It was an encounter that started with fear and confusion and ended in great hopefulness. Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, had had a similar encounter with Gabriel. He was informed that God would grant them a child, and Zechariah, an older man and a priest, mostly had questions about how this could happen given his and his wife’s ages. He seemed less hopeful than suspicious or, at least, doubtful. He wound up unable to speak though Elizabeth’s entire pregnancy, ostensibly to be given to really consider why he didn’t believe the angel in the first place.
But, Elizabeth... she could speak, and when she realized she as pregnant, as Hannah had once done and Mary will soon do, she gave thanks and glory to God. Because she had wanted to be pregnant, and her community had judged her harshly for her inability to carry a pregnancy to term. She had known what it was to be looked down on by her neighbors because she was not living up to community standards around creating families. And, Mary, though much younger, only a young teenager, really, would have heard what people said about Elizabeth. Kids hear everything adults say. It is unsurprising that when Mary found herself in a different kind of scandal around reproduction and divine visitations, she might go to Elizabeth.
Elizabeth has lived with years of communal scorn. Elizabeth was carrying, at the same time, an unexpected child who would have a divine mission. And, while pregnancy is always a great physical risk, it is a particular risk for people on both the young and older ends of the age spectrum. Of everyone Mary knew, Elizabeth was probably the one who best understood just exactly how dangerous and also wonderful this pregnancy could be. So, of course, it is to Elizabeth’s home that Mary travels. This is the biggest news of her life and she will entrust Elizabeth with it.
In her commentary on this text, Judith Jones notes that, while the angel foretold that Elizabeth’s child would be a prophet, it is Elizabeth who offers up prophetic blessings to Mary. Upon feeling her own baby leap inside of her, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. Mary doesn’t even have the chance to tell her what has happened yet but Elizabeth already knows. Mary is blessed and her child will be blessed. She calls Mary the “mother of my sovereign.” Mary isn’t even showing yet. But, Elizabeth knows because the Holy Spirit had made it plain to her. As soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, she knew. And, with her silenced husband in mind, Elizabeth said, “Now blessed is the one who believed that there would be a fulfillment of those things spoken to her by the Holy One.” How relieved Mary must have been to be received with such hopeful welcome.
Today is typically known as the Sunday of Peace during the Advent season. We must consider what kind of peace Mary and Elizabeth might have been hoping for. In her commentary on this text, Wil Gafney reminds us that Jesus is promised to bring reconciliation to a world full of what she called “fractured and unreconciled people.” The world, I’m afraid, has not grown less fractured and unreconciled in these last 2,000 years. Jesus would become the child of parents who could have been split apart by the nature of his conception, but weren’t. He will be born into a family marked by miraculous and weird births that are greeted with joy. He will live in a series of communities... Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum... among his own Jewish people and alongside Gentiles, all oppressed by the imperial power of Rome.
In her commentary on this text, Niveen Sarras notes that there was a significant and disastrous Israelite revolt the year that Jesus was born. Jesus and his family lived a scant four miles from a city completely destroyed and enslaved by Rome because they revolted. The peace that Mary and Elizabeth knew Jesus could bring wasn’t just a warm and fuzzy feeling in people’s hearts. The Messiah was coming to rearrange the world, lifting up the lowly and tending to the forgotten, building a Kindom rooting in God not an empire rooted in greed and brutality.
As Jones says in her commentary, Elizabeth lives into this hope for the messiah by overturning the social conventions that would have demand she shame Mary. Mary is at peace with this wholy and holy unexpected turn in her life because she knows that God can do impossible things like bring pregnancies to surprised women and break apart the most powerful empire. At this point in the story, pregnant and tending to each other, neither Elizabeth nor Mary fully knows what to expect in their sons’ divinely-shaped futures. I mean, how could they? And yet, they still rejoice because in that moment, they were blessed with the confidence to believe that God can work through them and their families, lowly and scorned as they were. May the stories of their hopeful confidence in God’s work for peace in this world bless us with the same kind of confidence.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Wilda C. Gafney, "Advent II," A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2021)
Niveen Sarras: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-139-45-46-55-4
Judith Jones: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-139-45-46-55-3
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.