Fourth Sunday of Advent

Fourth Sunday of Advent

Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 

[And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”] 

Grace to you and peace from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Last week, if you heard the youth message, you would have heard me talk about today’s Gospel verses and how they relate to the pink advent candle, sometimes called the joy candle. I talked about how Mary must have been filled with joy at hearing Elizabeth’s prophecy as it would have verified what she had heard from the Angel who told her she was going to have a baby and that he would be the Son of God.

Today, I want to talk more about Elizabeth as well as Mary. Today’s verses don’t really tell anything about Elizabeth, so let me give you some background information. Elizabeth was a cousin of Mary. She was older and was “getting on in years.” She was also barren. 

Her husband, Zechariah, was a priest. He was serving in the Temple one day in the inner sanctuary where he was alone when an angel appeared to him. The angel told him he was going to have a son and that he should name him John. When Zechariah disbelieved questioned the angel about this because he and Elizabeth were both old, the angel made him mute, unable to talk until the baby would be born. After his time serving at the temple was up, he went back home and not too long after Elizabeth became pregnant.

In due course the baby was born and named John and Zechariah regained his ability to speak. The baby John grew up to be John the Baptist. That’s the end of the background.

At the time of our story, Elizabeth is about 6 months into her pregnancy and can definitely feel her baby moving in the womb. Mary who is newly pregnant makes haste to come visit her. Now while I’m sure all the friends and relatives of Elizabeth were overjoyed at the news of her pregnancy, I think it would have been the opposite for Mary. I mean according to the Gospel of Matthew it took a visit from an angel to keep Joseph from divorcing Mary. 

When I was in the 7th or 8th grade, a girl a year older than me suddenly stopped attending school. One day she was at school, the next day she wasn’t. Rumors quickly swirled that she was pregnant. These proved to be true and supposedly she got sent away to some relatives. I don’t believe I ever saw her again. In those days, in just wasn’t sociably acceptable, especially for one so young, to have a baby out of wedlock. 

In Mary’s time, it would have been even worse. She ran the risk of getting stoned for what the people would have thought happened. As it was, she just left to go to her relative, Elizabeth, for about three months. That means she would have gone back home right around the time Elizabeth’s son, John, was born.

Anyway, back to Elizabeth. At the sound of Mary’s greeting when she arrived, John leaped in Elizabeth’s womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Now in the Bible, when people are filled with the Spirit, they almost always do one thing. They prophesy. This isn’t always prophecies about the future, sometimes it’s prophecies about the present or what God did in the past. Elizabeth does the latter. 

In a commentary I read it said that both Elizabeth and Mary spoke in the perfect tense. I must confess that I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention in English class when I was in school, so I had to ask my wife, who did pay attention, what that was. So now my understanding is that is a sort of mix between past and present tenses. In other words, It happened in the past but is or could be still ongoing. She has gone to the store. She left for the store in the past but she is not back yet so she may still be there.

When Elizabeth says “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” she is speaking in perfect tense. Mary has been blessed and is continuing to be blessed. This blessing of Mary’s is going to take her down some wonderful paths in her life, but they are not going to be easy ones. They start with a trip to Bethlehem when she is quite pregnant and include giving birth in what is basically a barn, running away to Egypt to escape the wrath of King Herod the Great, accidentally leaving 12 year old Jesus behind for several days on a trip to Jerusalem, and watching her firstborn die a traitor’s death on a Roman cross, put there by the religious leaders. Doesn’t sound very blessed, does it?

But it also includes having shepherd’s come to see her baby after being told of him by angels, getting visited by wisemen from afar who said a star led them on their way, seeing Jesus make wine from water, heal people, and preach to thousands, and seeing him after he was raised to new life. That does sound pretty blessed to me and I think that last bit, seeing Jesus raised from the dead would have made the hard times completely worth it.

After Elizabeth finishes her prophesying about Mary and her child, Mary starts in with praises of God, telling what wonderful things he has done (perfect tense again). He has looked on the lowliness of his servant. He has scattered the proud in their thoughts, he has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy according to the promise made to Abraham and his descendants forever.

All these are in perfect tense. God did them in the past and he’s continuing to do them now. But he’s not done yet. He will also continue doing them in the future. This is the great hope of Christmas. The great “I AM”, who was and is and is to come, came to earth as a baby, is here now through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and will come again. How will he come again? We don’t know, although sometimes we pretend like we do. We do know, however, that when he comes again he will be doing what he has always done, lifting up the downtrodden and bringing down the proud and mighty.

So here we are in the fourth Sunday of Advent.During this Advent season  we have been, perfect tense, preparing for the coming of Christ. We’ve put up the decorations, bought and wrapped most of our presents to each other, lit our Advent candles, and opened most of the doors on our advent calendars. We’ve bought food and made arrangements to celebrate with family. We’ve pretty much got all the traditional things for Christmas ready.

Many years ago before I was a staff member, I helped decorate the sanctuary one Christmas. There were only a few of us helping and we may have been rushing things a bit. When we put the lights on the tree we turned them on briefly to test them. They all came on and so we turned them back right away and finished decorating. We come to worship the next morning and one of the trees started blinking. We hadn’t left the lights on long enough to find that out the day before. Soft chuckles could be heard throughout the service. I still chuckle nearly every Christmas when I think of it. A dear saint, Phil Glover, was in charge of the Altar Guild and she took her job pretty seriously. Before the next service started, she had made sure somebody had fixed the blinking. Now to me, it didn’t really matter that the tree was blinking but to Phil, it did.

The truth of the matter is that most of the things we do to prepare for Christmas really matter, whether the lights are blinking or not. All these preparations and celebrations are merely what theologians and philosophers call adiaphora. They don’t really matter for anything. Yes, they’re fun and important in their own way but, as my wife would say, they don’t matter for eternity. 

So what does matter for eternity? How can we prepare for Christ’s coming in a way that makes a difference? We can get started doing what God has already been doing: lifting up the lowly, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, etc… 

Usually, in the scripture, pride is not a good thing. But I have to tell you that it makes me a bit proud to be a part of a congregation that is already good at preparing for Christ’s coming by following God’s example. How have we been doing that? Last week we delivered 280 food items to the Neighbor to Neighbor food pantry. We are providing Christmas gifts to a family that can’t afford them on their own. We have gathered a huge pile of clothing to be given to !st Lutheran’s clothing room to be given away to the needy. We give to the Poinsettia Project where instead of buying poinsettias, most of the money goes to the ELCA’s Good Gifts program helping people in third world countries. We save our empty pill bottles for use by Matthew 25 ministries. We provide household items for Jeremiah’s Letter. Some of us will be providing funds to help with the tornado relief in Kentucky. As a congregation, we do all this and more. Many of us also support other ministries on our own.

These things are not adiaphora, they do matter, for both now and eternity. And when we do these things, supporting different ministries with our funds, time, and prayers, we are helping preparing the way and loving our neighbors. We are helping the prophecy of Mary to be true. 

Christ has come and is coming again. There is work to be done and there will continue to be a need for preparations until that great and glorious does comes. So let us continue to prepare for that day, not just during Advent, but throughout the year. 

Amen, come Lord Jesus.