Today, on this fourth and last Sunday of the season of Advent, the Gospel takes a kinder and gentler tone than we’ve had over the last two weeks with John the Baptizer. Today we have two very unlikely women meeting in a town of Judah. Two expectant mothers get together, which isn’t all that unusual in and of itself, especially considering they are related. But consider this for a moment: one is in the third trimester of her pregnancy even as she’s in the senior years of her life. And the other has just begun her pregnancy as a virgin. Nothing is impossible with God.
Luke doesn’t tell us why Mary went to see Elizabeth, but one can only wonder what it would be like to hear from an angel that you are about to conceive the Son of God by the Holy Spirit while you’re in the process of getting married to a man who’s still scratching his head over the whole business. The local gossip mill was grinding, as it always does. Sometimes it’s best to leave town for a while and take up with relatives who at least would understand.
If anyone would understand it was Elizabeth, a senior citizen well past her childbearing age who was three months away from delivering her son John, the forerunner of Jesus. They form quite an amazing picture, these two women – a pregnant Virgin and an expectant mother old enough to be a great grandmother. Truly, nothing is impossible with God! And just as truly, God doesn’t take the easy or the expected, way. His ways are definitely not our ways; his thoughts certainly not our thoughts. And sometimes God’s way is simply bizarre.
As soon as Mary speaks her greeting, John leaps for joy in his mother’s womb. John is already preaching Christ, and he isn’t even born yet! So much for the common notion that life in the womb is somehow less than human or less than aware. Or that the Word of God can’t get there. Or that infants can’t believe. John was preaching! His mother Elizabeth was the Spirit-appointed interpreter.
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth blesses her younger relative. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Those of you who are familiar with Roman Catholic piety will immediately recognize the first part of the “Hail Mary.” The part we can agree with. Mary is surely blessed, as she herself said, “from this day all generations will bless me.” And the Child in her womb is blessed. He’s the Son of God. It’s the second part of the “Hail Mary we can’t agree with, namely, “pray for us now and in the hour of our death.” The one you want praying for you and interceding for you is Jesus, not His mother, no matter how honored and blessed she might be.
Notice that Elizabeth doesn’t worship Mary or seek her blessing. Elizabeth blesses her and calls her “blessed among women.” Mary is what every Israelite woman aspired to be, the mother of the Messiah. She is the counterpart to Eve. Eve heard the doubting word of the devil and was deceived. Mary heard the Word of God through the angel, and she conceived. Her Child is the devil’s head crusher, the One who would make enmity with evil and conquer death by dying. You might say that Mary is the ultimate fulfillment of motherhood in bearing the promised Savior of humanity. As Eve was the mother of all the living (her name means “life”) so Mary is the mother of the One who is the Life, the Source and Savior of all life. She is the epitome of motherhood and brings a unique dignity to women. One of yours is the mother of God’s Son Jesus.
Elizabeth calls her “the mother of my Lord.” “Why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” That sentence ought to give us pause for a moment. It took Christianity nearly 400 years finally to sort out what Elizabeth simply blurts out with Spirit-filled joy. This younger cousin of hers, a young woman probably 17 or at most 18 years old, is the “mother of her Lord.” And if that doesn’t give you a few pre-Christmas goosebumps this morning, you didn’t have enough coffee or you aren’t listening.
This is the very essence of the Christmas mystery – a great and mighty wonder. The Lord of the universe, the Word through whom all things were made, has a mother! The Word became Flesh and dwells among us. The infinite Almighty Son of God takes up residence in the finite confines of a mother’s womb. The fulness of deity dwells among us bodily. The Creator literally becomes the creature. When speaking of Jesus, God is man and man is God. And Mary is, as the Council of Chalcedon correctly called her, Theotokos, the One who bore God in her womb.
Jesus could have appeared suddenly out of nowhere, I suppose, as a fully grown man. God can dwell among us any way He chooses. But then there would be doubts cast over His work. Does He fully embrace our humanity? Is He fully human, or does He just appear to be that way? (The Greeks believed that the gods took on the form of humans, but no one believed that a god would become human. That’s beneath the dignity of deity!)
Had Jesus not had a human mother, we would forever doubt His humanity. Was He really just like us or did He only appear that way? And in doubting His humanity, we would then question whether He is our substitute under the Law, whether His death actually atones for our sin, whether He truly is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We would doubt that His death embraced the newly born and even the unborn. We would even doubt whether His death on the cross was a genuine one, or just a piece of divine special effects.
Had Jesus shown up as a 30 year old man, he would have sidestepped some of the most difficult and painful parts of our human existence – the trauma of childbirth, the helplessness of infancy, the bumps and bruises of toddlerhood, the challenges of childhood, the awkwardness of adolescence. He would not have known what it’s like to wear diapers, to be utterly dependent on father and mother and to live obediently under them.
It had to be this way, for Jesus to literally be the Savior of all. His human nature embraces all our humanity, from the tiniest cluster of cells in a mother’s womb to the dying breath of the man on a cross. Literally from the womb to the tomb, Jesus embraces the fulness of our humanity with the fulness of His divinity. God is Man and Man is God. File that away for the coming week as Christmas comes around because that is the true reason for the season.
Elizabeth blesses Mary for her faith. Mary took the angel at his word, which was a Word from God Himself. She heard the Word and believed that God would do what He said, no matter how unlikely, how unreasonable it seemed. People weren’t ignorant then. They may not have known about molecular biology, but they knew the basic biology of the bird and the bees. They knew virgins do not ordinarily, if ever, conceive. Joseph did not initially believe Mary, and who knows, perhaps he always harbored a nagging doubt. Who wouldn’t?
Mary believed the Word of God. In this way, Mary is also a picture of every believer. She hears the impossible Word, that in her virginity she would conceive and bear a Son, who would be Immanuel, God with us, to save His people from their sins. And she responds as only faith can respond to the impossible Word of God. “Amen,” she says. “Let it be to me according to your Word.” And that’s how it is with us. God says to us, “In this Son, Jesus Christ, you have life, you have forgiveness, you have peace, you have everything in fullest measure.” And faith simply says, “Yes. Amen. Let it be to me according to your Word.”
God says to us, this Baptism is your new life, the washing away of your sins, your rebirth and renewal, and faith says “Yes, Amen. Let it be to me according to your Word.”
Christ says to us, you are forgiven by these very words that you hear, and faith says, “Yes, Amen. Let it be to me according to your Word.”
Jesus says, “This is my body given for you. This is my blood shed for you.” And faith simply says in the way of Mary, “Yes, Amen.”
Mary is not our mother, as some say. She is our sister. An honored, chosen, unique sister who bore the singular dignity of bearing the Word of God. For that we bless her on this fourth Sunday of Advent and indeed every day when we sing her song of praise the “Magnificat.” She is a perpetual reminder that with God nothing is impossible. An old couple has a son in their old age. A young woman conceives in her virginity. The dead are raised. Sinners are justified.
With God nothing is impossible.
In the name of Jesus,