Passage: Zephaniah 3:14, 15, 17; Luke 1:39-45
Date: December 17, 2006
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
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Today's gospel reading forms a literary transition for Luke. There have been two angel appearances, one to Zechariah and one to Mary. The former, a priest, was told that his beyond-child-bearing-age wife will produce a son. The latter, a young woman, betrothed, learns she too will give birth to a special boy, but without the aid of her husband. Parallel visitations and pregnancy announcements. Parallel birth announcements are to follow. In between, our scripture, the two women need to meet. Luke arranges it nicely.
The angel Gabriel had come to Mary in the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy. Following Gabriel's departure from Mary, our episode begins. Listen. Listen to the wonder, the excitement, the responses. (39-45)
Here is the scene: Mary, a young woman, left Nazareth on her own, quickly. Normal people did not travel alone back then, especially single women. Perhaps she believed herself somehow protected because of her heavenly visitor. She went to an unidentified town some distance from her own, where Zechariah and Elizabeth lived. Elizabeth may have been something like an older aunt, twice removed. That is, probably not immediate extended family.
Think about how much fun this meeting must have been for those two women. In a sense, I am the wrong gender to be telling this story. This is the beginning of a three-month slumber party between two pregnant women, after all.
In some ways, what we have reported here is shocking, TMI, too much information. That culture, like many today, exhibited great reserve in public about personal things. I remember when Aimee, our first, started moving inside Linda, how excited we were to feel an elbow or a foot or whatever it was, move across Linda's abdomen. Did we tell about it? You bet! Would a child leaping in a womb become street talk in Jesus' day? Not on your life. Much too much womb talk for public consumption. But there it was, for all of us to witness.
Remember the sequence: pregnant Elizabeth and her unable-to-speak-since-the-encounter-with-the-angel husband were sort of in hiding. Perhaps she somehow felt shame at being with child so late in life, or wondered what people would think about her, or her husband. Mary, pregnant and not yet in a consummated marriage to Joseph, high tailed it to see Elizabeth.
For Luke, the family and geographical logistics are not important, but the greetings sure are. Mary entered the house and greeted her kinswoman. There is no biblical evidence that Elizabeth knew beforehand about Mary. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Now, if we are paying attention, we will remember that prophets are the ones who are filled with the Spirit. So, we will hear Luke's intention: God speaking through a bouncing baby, through the words of this aging peasant woman.
"Honored are you among women, Mary
and honored is the fruit of your womb."
Through the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth recognized the "favor," the blessing with which Mary had been graced by God. She also affirmed the blessedness of the one growing inside. As in the tradition of Isaiah and Jeremiah, so here God calls prophets even while still in their mothers' wombs. Elizabeth blessed Mary on two grounds: first, because she had been chosen to be the mother of the Lord; and second, because she had believed the word of God. Remember, in Luke, Mary is the first believer. Let me underline that. Mary was blessed not because she had particular skills, gifts, or qualities. All we know is that she was a poor peasant girl betrothed to someone in her obscure village. The angel did not say she was selected because of her list of virtues. Mary emerges blessed due to her acceptance, for her trust in God's action in and through her, in all of its mystery. Note, her acceptance was not passive. Her trust would bring to her danger of scandal, reproach, possible divorce, and later, searing pain and dishonor. In Luke, Mary becomes the example of all who accept God's action in Jesus Christ, and therefore in faith, accept even the horrible dishonor of the cross.
So, there they were, the two very different faithful women, pregnant, pausing, together. In times of crisis, some of us isolate ourselves, cut ourselves off from the very people we need. But others of us seek kindred spirits, confidants, soul mates, those who have experienced similar things, ones we can trust with our own insides. It is a mistake to read our psychologically oriented existence into their non-psychological one. Yet, perhaps Mary needed Elizabeth to confirm her experience with the heavenly messenger, to tell her who she was and that it was OK. The surprisingly pregnant older woman became a sign for Mary, a sign which faith embraces. Their interchange, their time together strengthened their faith and pointed to future promise. Elizabeth confirmed God's blessing inside Mary. And, Mary's entrance into Elizabeth's hiding broke that reproach and signaled the next step for Elizabeth.
Yes, this was a literary device for Luke to get them together. He needed it for the birth narratives to unfold. Luke used it to confirm the pecking order: John first, preparing the way for Jesus later. But, the women also needed it for each other, in a sense, to hold each other up.
The day after the big wind storm last week, I drove to Tacoma and back. Many areas had lights on, and things appeared to be normal. Other places were closed, devoid of customers, dark. Along the way, I looked for wind damage. After a while, I began to observe a pattern. In areas of significant forest, I saw some broken branches on the ground, but no downed trees. In areas where trees were only thin strips of what had been forest, you know, those little borders along the freeway, there numerous trees had blown down. So had great trees which had stood alone. It is their nature, Douglas Firs and others, to grow near each other. They do not realize it, but they need each other to withstand the storms of life, century after century. Without knowing it, they give each other the power to continue to grow, simply by being somewhat close to each other. And when they are not, they are far more vulnerable to the storms of life.
I like that metaphor for God's intention for us. Surely younger Mary needed older Elizabeth to confirm what she already knew of God's presence in her. Just as surely, Elizabeth needed this young woman to realize more fully the nature of the child within her.
During this pregnant pause in their lives, wouldn't you like to know some of the things they talked about when Zechariah was not listening? Think about it. Two women, two peasant women, different generations, believed themselves chosen by God Almighty. Surely they remembered their ancestral stories: those two midwives back in Egypt who refused to do Pharaoh's bidding, who tricked Pharaoh and saved the lives of Hebrew male babies. Surely they remembered Pharaoh's daughter, who went against her powerful father's order, and not only rescued but raised Moses. The midwives and the daughter-powerless, helpless women of immense power, who changed the course of history there. Not dominated by male power, those women made the first Exodus possible. Now Mary and Elizabeth, called by God at the outset of a new exodus. They would birth, preserve, and raise the children whose destinies, despite beheading and even crucifixion, would open the dawn of a genuinely new age. Their sons would change the course of human history, our story.
A pregnant pause, out of need, out of joy, out of hope. Unexpected power. Unexpected presence, blessing. Unexpected future, about to be born. A pause before the advents. The good news of great joy was on the way! Rejoice with them, in them, for them. Because of them, the world is changed, and we are here. Amen.