St Michael & St Barnabas, December 14th 2014
Readings – Psalm 126; Luke 1:39-56
Tell me, have you ever recognised someone famous in a crowd, or simply walking along the street? I know some of you have met famous people … but I’m talking about the unexpected encounter. For example, I once bumped into Edwina Curry walking along Victoria Street in London, or I was on duty at the hospital when the actor Kenneth More came to visit a friend. Who is your most famous unexpected encounter?
I often wonder how some people manage to go shopping, or simply out for a walk, without being recognised … perhaps they don’t, but I suspect that often we don’t recognise people unless they are in the right place. I used to work in the library next door, and it was quite astonishing the number of people I know who walked in and straight past me at the desk … a few would walk by, and then hesitate and take a sneaky second look before recognising me and saying hello. But some who knew me well, simply didn’t recognise me in the context … I wasn’t where they expected me to be so they didn’t see me … I suppose they weren’t really looking.
Recognition is our theme this morning. In our reading from Luke, we have three separate, unexpected encounters. Let’s take a look at the first of them. We have heard how the angel greeted Mary and told her the news that God had chosen her to bear his son. The story continues, Luke 1 …
39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb …
Earlier in Luke 1 we heard the story of Zechariah’s encounter with the angel (when, incidentally, he failed to recognise what was really going on). The angel told Zechariah that he would father a son who,
1:14 … will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth.
When the prophet Jeremiah received his commission from God, hundreds of years earlier, we read, Jeremiah 1:5,
The word of the Lord came to (Jeremiah), saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”
Before you were born I set you apart. Like Jeremiah, John was to be another known by God from before his birth, set aside for God’s service from his conception … not only that, but he was to be filled with the Holy Spirit too … so when Mary greeted Elizabeth, the baby, John, leapt in her womb … how wonderful! What a moment of recognition … two babies not yet born, recognising each other as chosen by God … it’s almost incomprehensible to us, isn’t it.
Well, let’s move on to the second encounter and see if that’s any easier to grasp. Back to our passage.
As the baby leapt in her womb, it’s as if the Holy Spirit simply overflows … and Elizabeth too is filled with the Spirit. Without a word being spoken between them, Elizabeth knows the whole story …
1:41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”
Worship, wonder, astonishment … from this elder woman, with status and honour (for her age if not yet for childbearing), towards this slip of a girl, not quite yet a woman, soon to be a social outcast and a refugee … Elizabeth recognises, almost before Mary herself can even be certain, that God has been at work in the most unexpected ways. Look at just how much Elizabeth knows … that Mary is chosen by God (blessed), pregnant (the child you will bear), and pregnant with the long awaited Saviour (the mother of my Lord), and that Mary believed God, willingly trusting him for the outcome,
45 Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!
All without a word being spoken …
These past couple of weeks, we’ve been concentrating on the season of Advent … on waiting for the day of the Lord … and we have said, time and time again, that Advent isn’t simply a time of preparation for Christmas, but looks beyond, to the time when Jesus will come again, not as a baby, but as King and Saviour and Lord.
Mary could have spent the next nine months preparing, waiting for the birth of her baby, focussed on the practicalities of bringing an unexpected (and I’m sure by many, an unwelcome) baby into the family. She must have known that she would be made to feel an outcast, a young, betrothed but unmarried mother …
Perhaps she went to Elizabeth for help, comfort, wisdom to know what to do … or simply to see if what the angel said was true, that Elizabeth was pregnant. But if she had any doubt at all, Elizabeth’s greeting can only have confirmed the angel’s message to Mary … and Mary’s response has ever since, been said and sung all over the world, in Christian churches everywhere. We know it as the Magnificat, from it’s opening words in Latin.
So let’s see what’s going in Mary’s mind at this point …
Notice that she speaks (or sings) in the present tense … not ‘God will do’, but ‘God has done’ …
1:46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
holy is his name.
How could a simple village girl come up with such imaginative poetry? Mary’s words reveal that she was a devout believer … modelled on Hannah’s prayer after the birth of Samuel (you can read it in 1 Samuel 2), Mary’s praise reflects many of the themes of the Old Testament prophets … Mary understands the significance of what has happened, both to herself and to Elizabeth, because she has read the scriptures. Or rather, she has the words to express what has happened because she has read the scriptures, for she could not have understood so clearly without her own encounter with the Holy Spirit . Luke 1:35,
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.
Mary recognises that this encounter with God has far greater meaning than simply that the baby she is carrying will be the Messiah, the promised one. In her song, Mary picks up on several OT themes that look forward, not to the coming Messiah, but beyond, to the day of the Lord … to the promise that the proud will be scattered, the humble exalted, rulers brought low, the hungry fed … even to the inclusion of the Gentiles.
And she sees something else, too … something that the religious teachers of her day, the Rabbis and Scribes, often missed, that when God comes in judgement, he also comes with mercy.
Their expectation was that when the Messiah came, he would bring down their enemies, the Romans. That was really all they were interested in … but this simple village girl, Mary, recognised that God had a far greater plan in mind.
And she also knew that she was a key part of that plan … so when her time with Elizabeth was over … when Elizabeth was about to give birth (it would have been inappropriate for someone who was not yet a mother to be there), and when her own pregnancy was beginning to show, she simply went home to face her disgrace, willingly, knowingly, obediently. Such bravery.
Luke doesn’t tell us what happened next to Mary … that’s Matthew’s story. Luke stays with Elizabeth to continue her story … and his focus soon switches to the birth of the two babies. And so too, although we are only about half way through Advent, our attention begins to turn to Christmas … we can’t help but look forward to the carols in church, the presents on Christmas day, the end of the shopping, the turkey dinner.
In our secular world, the point and purpose of Christmas has changed. It is no longer a festival for the faithful, the devout. It’s an excuse for a party, a family get-together … which rarely lives up to our expectations, especially once the family arguments or rivalries flare up, or we realise that we are in fact lonely, or that there is a pile of washing up to do and everyone else is asleep on the sofa or have disappeared upstairs to play with their presents.
In our reading today, there are three unexpected encounters; John recognising Jesus while they were both as yet unborn, Elizabeth knowing Mary’s story and recognising her as the mother of her longed-for Saviour, and Mary recognising God’s plan beyond the practicalities of the birth of both John and Jesus.
None of these encounters would have happened without the Holy Spirit … so as we move on in Advent towards Christmas, will you ask the Holy Spirit to give you that same insight, that same sense of worship and wonder, to see beyond the trimmings and trivia, to the heart of the Christmas story … God with us, Immanuel … and even further beyond to the end of the story, beyond the cross and resurrection to the coming of the Lord Jesus, as King and Saviour and Lord?
Let’s pray …
Father God, thank you that you have a plan … Lord Jesus, thank you that you came as a baby to bring that plan to fulfilment … Holy Spirit, help us see beyond … beyond Christmas, beyond our own needs and interests … to the end of the story, and in your power to live holy lives in anticipation of that day. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.