[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, this past Sunday, December 23.]
On this fourth and final Sunday of Advent, our theme word is peace, the peace that God makes between Himself and those who trust in Him for lives made new by the grace--the charity--He offers to all through Jesus of Nazareth.
Our Gospel lesson for today shows us that peace from God is a product of faith that results in joy.
The lesson, Luke 1:39-56 recounts what the Church calls the Visitation, the time when Mary, the virgin, pregnant for Jesus, visits her relative Elizabeth, once thought to be barren and past menopause, now six months pregnant for her son, John the Baptizer.
Both women had reason to fear the reactions of their neighbors to their pregnancies.
Although Elizabeth would have often been marked as faithless for not having birthed children through her long years of marriage to Zechariah, now that she was old, the gossiping tongues would wag about two elderly people having a baby.
Mary faced scorn (and the Jewish law even said that she could be stoned to death) for the sin people would assume she’d committed, having intimacy with a man before marriage.
And yet, our lesson portrays no fear in either woman. They are at peace with God because of their faith in God and the unfolding of His plans for the human race...and for them. Instead of being afraid, these two women rejoice!
Take a look at our lesson with me now, please, starting at verse 39: “At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth.”
Mary’s world has just been rocked. Gabriel, an angel of God, has told her that in nine months, she will give birth to the Savior of the world. Mary, then unmarried, will become the mother of God the Son. At the same time, Gabriel tells Mary about Elizabeth’s pregnancy and, we’re told, Mary hurried and got ready to see Elizabeth.
The Holy Spirit conceiving God the Son in the womb of a virgin mother is a miracle. But maybe the greater miracle is how quickly and enthusiastically this young woman believes and because she believes, she acts.
The Greek in which Luke wrote his gospel says that Mary prepared to visit Elizabeth “with haste.” Through worship, prayer, and attentiveness to God’s Word, Mary knew God. Her belief, resulting in action, contrasts with the men among Jesus’ party of believers who wrote off the women’s story of a risen Jesus at Easter as “an idle tale.”
It strikes a contrast too, to the male disciples with whom the risen Jesus walked to Emmaus about whom Jesus said, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” (Luke 24:25)
Mary was far from slow to believe!
I don’t know about you, but her faith shames my own. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve faced decisions, received clear guidance from God’s Word and confirmation of God’s will in prayer and conversations with other Christians, and still been slow to act. May God forgive my fearful slowness and, instead, help me to trust in Him and do what He calls me to do.
But why did Mary go to Elizabeth? We can surmise that she went, in part, to help Elizabeth with the birth three months later. But I think there may be a deeper reason. You see, Elizabeth and Mary, in essence, were the first members of Christ’s Church, the first to believe that the Child in Mary’s womb was God the Son. They were the first members of the body of Christ in the world.
It’s abnormal for Christians not to seek the fellowship of other believers. Decades later, the preacher in Hebrews would tell believers not to give “up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:25).
In Christ’s Church, this fellowship of recovering sinners, we encourage one another’s faith, we inspire each other to live out our faith, and we hold one another accountable when our faith is flagging.
No wonder Mary ran to Elizabeth.
No wonder she ran to the Church at this moment of trial and of joy. Many of you could testify as to how important the Church has been for you in moments of trial and of joy!
Verse 41: “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! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!’”
John the Baptizer was not yet born but was very much alive. When he heard Mary’s greeting, he knew that his Savior Jesus was present and he “leaped” in Elizabeth’s womb.
The Greek word used by Luke in his original manuscript only appears in three places in the New Testament, two of them here in verses 41 and 44. The other place is Luke 6:23. There, the grown Jesus tells His disciples, including you and me, how we should react when we are persecuted for believing in Jesus. “Rejoice in that day,” Jesus says, “and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.”
John, the last of the prophets of the old covenant, would be persecuted and ultimately, lose his life for his faith in the God we know in Christ. But, from the beginning and to the end, he leaped for joy over Jesus!
You and I are fortunate to live in a land in which Christians aren’t persecuted, though we are often shunned or marginalized.
But with the apostle Paul we can say, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Romans 8:18)
And we can remember what James tells us in the New Testament, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4)
Listen: Nothing--not adversity, pain, or even death--can rob the believer in Jesus of their joy.
We know that through Christ, by Whom we were claimed in Holy Baptism and Who sent the Holy Spirit to create faith within us, we belong to God forever.
Even Lutherans, known for being staid and quiet, have reason to leap for joy!
Elizabeth shared in the joy of her son. She feels blessed that Mary, who has trusted in God’s promises and bears the King of kings in her womb, has come to her home.
In verses 46-55, Mary gives witness to her faith in the God about to be revealed to all the world in Jesus. In this faith, she experiences and verbalizes the peace she has with God and with God’s plan for her life, as well as joy for all that God is doing.
Mary describes herself as a person in a “lowly state,” a phrase that translates Luke’s use of a word here that can also mean humiliated.
In a way, Mary has been humiliated by God, forced to deal with the insults of religious snobs over her pregnancy and illegitimate baby.
But more broadly, the life of her nation has been one of frequent humiliation by the world despite being God’s people.
And, most broadly of all, every human being, despite being made for eternal life and in God’s image, is humiliated by our common sin and by the death that shadows and taunts and haunts us.
But, Mary is saying, these humiliations aren’t fatal or never-ending for the one who trusts in the God we meet in Jesus.
Just as all generations would come to see Mary as blessed for the role that God had given her to play in salvation history (verse 48), through Jesus, God’s mercy would be extended “to those who fear him, from generation to generation” (verse 50).
This Jesus, growing in Mary’s womb, would be more than just a baby born in a Judean barn. He would turn the world upside down: bringing down rulers and rich folks who act like gods, lifting up those humble enough to acknowledge their need of Him, feeding the hungry while sending the sated and selfish away from Him, “the bread of life.”
Mary’s Magnificat, which is what we call the poetry that she voices at this moment in the Visitation, is a creedal statement of trust in God, expressing the faith of believers in God in both Old and New Testaments...and today!
God will overturn the lies this world tells us about what it means to live good lives, lies that we seem to hear more at this time of year than at any other: The lies that tell us that to live means to own more, dominate more, lord it over others more, have the bigger name, the bigger house, the bigger wallet, the bigger power.
But when God came into the world to conquer sin and death, He did so as a powerless pauper in a backwater of a conquered country.
And He gives the power to live forever to those who humbly take up their crosses--owning the sins of which we are all guilty and for which we all deserve death and separation from God--and follow Him.
“Repent and believe,” the Babe of Bethlehem, now crucified, risen, ascended, and one day, returning tells us.
The humble respond, with even Mary, who would later appear to have her misgivings or doubts about the wisdom of God’s plans for her son, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24, ESV)
Jesus says, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die.” (John 11:25-26)
This was the faith of Mary.
This was the faith of Elizabeth.
This is the faith of the Church.
This is the faith that produces peace and results in joy.
This week, as we prepare to celebrate Christmas, I ask you to be open to the Holy Spirit building a deeper faith in Christ within you. Seek Him in His Word and in prayer in His name. Through these things, along with the sacrament and the fellowship of other believers we enjoy here at Living Water, let Christ give you His peace.
And because of all His promises to you, take time to savor the joy of being His child, His disciple, now and forever. Amen
[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]