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That has nothing to do with the sermon other than serve to introduce us to our lesson from the Gospel of Luke which, above all the books in the New Testament, highlights women. It begins with the birth of John the Baptist, focusing on Elizabeth, his mother. The next major section is Mary's, the unknown girl from an unnamed family from an unremarkable town who becomes an unwed mother...but never unknown again. Then follows the prophecy of an old woman named Anna. Many of Luke's stories from Jesus' ministry are about women: the widow of Nain, the sinful woman who anointed Jesus with expensive perfume, several women healed of diseases, the widow who gave her last two pennies. On Easter morning it was the women who went to the tomb, and it was they who first brought the news that Christ had risen. And all this, mind you, from a culture in which women did not count for much at all. A message here? What do you think?
Back to our lesson. Two women. Relatives. Elizabeth and Mary. The passage we just heard from Luke's gospel is preceded by the annually-repeated annunciation to Mary concerning an impending blessed event:(2) "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus." Mary asks how this is possible since she is still a virgin; the angel says not to worry: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you." Uh-huh. Then, as proof that this incredible announcement could be taken seriously, Gabriel continues, "Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God."
Now we come to today's text and find young Mary (and young she surely was - we are told she was betrothed to Joseph, and betrothal in that day and age normally occurred when a girl was about twelve or thirteen years old and lasted for approximately a year(3))... young Mary has made a quick trip from Nazareth to the country home of an older cousin. As Luke presents it, "When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!'" Joyous meeting, right? I wonder.
Truth be told, I doubt that it happened just that way. After all, no one had a tape recorder running, and no one actually wrote these events down until some 70 years or so had gone by. What we have in our text is a sanctified summary that has enjoyed the filter of human memory that blessedly remembers good and forgets bad. I think there is lots more to the story.
Try to hear it as if you had never heard it before. I doubt that Mary headed to the country with that sense of utter joy and excitement that we all give her credit for. Actually, I suspect she made the trip in much the same way that other teenage girls have through the centuries who found themselves "in a family way," shipped out of town to avoid the inevitable embarrassment.
Elizabeth was also pregnant, as we know. In her case, though, the coming baby was a RELIEF from embarrassment rather than the cause of it. Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah the priest had been trying for years to have a child but to no avail, and in that society, childlessness was considered a curse... unless, of course, you did not happen to be married. Like Mary.
"Welcome, cousin. Come in and make yourself at home. Stay as long as you like. And what is the news from Nazareth?"
We know her news. "My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed..." And not many months later some shepherds on a Bethlehem hillside would hear more news, the rest of the story: "Do not be afraid. I bring you GOOD NEWS of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord."
WONDERFUL news! And we love hearing it again and again. But the truth is, that is not the only news out there. The news is also that the rate of murder and robbery in the United States reaches its peak in December. The news is that the Christmas holiday ranks just behind Memorial Day weekend in the number of car wrecks on the highway. The news is that there is a significantly higher suicide rate in this season of surpassing joy because so many instead experience surpassing pain. The news is that too many families which celebrated Christmas in 1999 will not do it in 2000 because they are not families anymore - the circle has been broken by death or divorce. The news is that the town of Bethlehem will have no official celebration this year because of the threat of terrorist attacks.
How still we see thee lie;
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep,
The silent stars go by.(4)
Ironic words, eh? This is the news, not only from Nazareth of Galilee, but from all the Nazareths everywhere. This is Christmas. No tinsel, no glitter, no high-sounding words or angel songs - just harsh reality.
For what it is worth, neither Mary nor Elizabeth lived a tinsel-and-glitter existence either. Like us, they lived in a world of harsh realities. If our world has terrorists - the PLO and Osama bin Laden, so too did their world - the Zealots and the Judas Iscariots. If our world has its decadent dictators - Saddam of Iraq or Kaddafi of Libya, so too did their world - Herod of Jerusalem. If in our world we hear freedom's cry coming from China, so it came in their world from the Jewish people suffering under the occupation of the Roman legions. Their world and our world are not really so far apart.
And, like you and me, they lived in a world that had its own private and personal realities. They lived in a world where old ladies were not supposed to get pregnant and neither were young ones who were not married. They lived in a world where human life was held too cheap, a world that eventually took the lives of both of their children. And yes, they lived in a world that did not understand the ways of God.(5)
So saying, they could be excused from any pious theologies. Why not just talk about the hand they have been dealt? The morning sickness, the backaches, the swelling ankles, the pickles and ice cream diet? But what do we hear? The marvelous strains of the "Magnificat." It has been said that religion is the opiate of the people, but, as Stanley Jones once noted, "the 'Magnificat' is the most revolutionary document in the world."(6) The words in young Mary's mouth sing of a world that is different from hers, a world that has experienced three revolutions:
And do you notice the way she phrases it? All in the past tense. She is so certain of God's revolution that she speaks as if it has already happened. That is incredible faith, faith in a God whom we have already come to realize does things in unexpected ways and through unexpected people.
This is the news from Nazareth - the harsh realities are not the final word. On the wall of the museum of the concentration camp at Dachau is a large and moving photograph of a mother and her little girl standing in line of a gas chamber. The child, who is walking in front of her mother, does not know where she is going. The mother, who walks behind, does know, but is helpless to stop the tragedy. In her helplessness she performs the only act of love left to her. She places her hands over the child's eyes so she will at least not see the horror to come. When people come into the museum they do not whisk by this photo hurriedly. They pause. They almost feel the pain. And deep inside they are all saying: "O God, don't let that be all that there is."(7) Mary's song says it is not!
And Christmas itself says it is not. In a unique way, that humble birth in Bethlehem affirmed God's unflagging interest in this world. No wonder we celebrate! Despite the Scrooges out there who annually decry the commercialization, the crassness and the blatant sentimentality of so much of the Christmas preparations, it is still a magical time of the year. The multi-colored lights at doorways and windows, the magnificent window displays, the wreaths, the tinsel, the reds and greens and sound of bells - it all evokes a tone of excitement and anticipation.(8) It is as if the entire globe is preparing for a visit from an emissary from another world. Because we ARE!!!
If there are any big changes going on with you right now, if something is underway for which you cannot see the outcome today, 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 thing that looks for all the world like a black cloud is the overshadowing of the Most High. While it certainly would be nice to have some details about how it will all turn out, that is not really necessary, is it? You know how God has acted in the past.(9) You have heard the news from Nazareth.
Is it old news? Yes. But it is news that is as new as tomorrow's paper. And that is why churches all over the globe are packed at Christmas. Because this is news we need to hear again and again and again, and the more I bring the news, the more I know it.
Tonight will mark my 20th Christmas Eve in a row of bringing that news. I am older and wiser than when I started. I have seen many things in my own life and in the lives of my parishioners - disease, depression, dependency, divorce, disaster, despair, death - and more of all of it than anyone would like. So have you. But I have also seen bodies, minds, and spirits healed, families strengthened, lives changed, new beginnings, and a calm assurance at the end of this earthly day that is a joy and honor to share. All by the power of the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And knowing the difference it has made, and can continue to make, makes me ready and anxious to share that news again.
I believe in Christmas. I believe in God's good news.
Do you believe?
The news from Nazareth...and Bethlehem, and Galilee, and Jerusalem, and Calvary on this blessed Christmas Eve is that the babe in the manger is the Savior of the world. It is the God of all creation who enters history on this night of nights. Yes, I bring you good news great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior is born to you; he is Christ the Lord...Glory to God in the highest!
1. Warren Times Observer, 12/21/2000, S-15
2. Luke 1:26-38
3. Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus (Fortress Press, 1969, translated from the third German edition, 1962), p. 365
4. Phillips Brooks, 1868
6. Quoted by William Barclay, Daily Study Bible, CD-ROM edition (Liguori, MO: Liguori Faithware, 1996) used by permission of Westminster/John Knox Press
7. www.SermonIllustrations.com, 1999
8. "Mary and Elizabeth"
9. Barbara Brown Taylor, "Singing Ahead of Time," Home By Another Way, (Boston: Cowley Publications, 1999), p. 18