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Sermon: Blessed

December 15, 2009

Editor’s Note: Our congregation will be using a modified service of Lessons and Carols this week in worship, and so there will be no sermon.  I am posting a sermon I preached three years ago using Luke 1:39-55.  The Lectionary reading stops at 45, but I extended it in order to include the Magnificat.

Luke 1:39-55

The baby’s not here yet.  Technically, this morning is the Fourth Sunday in Advent, which means we got to light all four candles, and we still have a little bit of preparing to do before we can get to that precious baby.

Our last story before tonight’s Christmas Eve service comes to us from an unnamed town in the Judean hill country.  While we are familiar with part of it, Mary’s song, sometimes called the Magnificat, we’re not so familiar with the context of the story.  How is it that Mary and her kinswoman Elizabeth came to that meeting out there in the hills?

Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah were both old.  They were so old that they were beyond the years that they could expect the birth of a child, and that may have been a great disappointment to them, because they had no kids, and in that time and place, having no children was one of the worst things that could happen to a person.

But God has a history with these sorts of situations.  Remember Sarah, old mother of Isaac?  Remember Hannah, old mother of the prophet Samuel?  Despite her advanced years, Elizabeth also became pregnant by an act of God and waited for the birth in her home in the Judean hill country.

It is important to remember that this pregnancy was not an accident.  It was not a fluke.  It was not a “miracle” of modern medicine.  For Luke and people of faith, this was an act of God, and Elizabeth’s pregnancy is filled with God’s purposes.

As if to make a statement to that effect, God took a woman in the other extreme of life.  Mary was very young, and she was a virgin.  Luke goes to great lengths to show us that her pregnancy is also an act of God.  Luke does not want us to imagine possible scenarios that might make the story more palatable to our minds.  He does not want us to think of possible ways that such pregnancies could have happened apart from the miraculous working of God.

The issue at stake is the salvation of all Creation.  That can only happen at God’s initiative.  Human beings, either intentionally or by accident, cannot be agents of salvation.  That role is reserved for God alone.  And so, God has acted in the bodies of Elizabeth and Mary.

At this point, we might cry “foul,” because God did not enlist the help or assent of either Elizabeth or Mary.  Through angel messengers, God simply informed the two women of what was to pass.  And in Elizabeth’s case, God’s angel spoke only to the husband.  That must have made for unusual dinner conversation that evening.

Even so, it seems as if both women accepted their role without much objection.  For Elizabeth, it was natural for her to be happy, even though she may have felt fear at being pregnant at such an age.  What in the world would her future husband say when he found out?  He would have known for certain the child was not his.  Mary would almost certainly be discarded even before the wedding.  She would have a stigma attached to her that could never be erased.  No man would want her, given her past.

Yet, Mary accepted the angel’s words with simple obedience: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  Mary and Elizabeth both seem willing participants in God’s work, even though they were drafted into it without their consent.

It is in this context, then, that Mary and Elizabeth meet.  Mary may or may not be pregnant at this time, but Elizabeth certainly is, at least six month’s worth.  Mary came in the door, dropped her bag on the floor and said “Hello.”  When Elizabeth heard that, the child in her womb “leaped.”  I have never been pregnant, and I can only imagine that it must really be something to have a living child inside you leap.

Then, Elizabeth was filled with God’s Spirit, which means that the words she spoke were God’s words, inspired by God.  “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb….Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”  Blessed.  Mary, the unmarried pregnant woman, is blessed.  Three times, Elizabeth uses that word.  And then, in her inspired poetry, Mary uses the word again.  “Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”  Certainly, both women are blessed, even though they were drafted without their consent and did nothing to cause these pregnancies to happen.

A biblical scholar and rabbi Steven Schwarzchild defined the word “blessed” this way:

“There is no one word that will do,” the rabbi [says]. “It is something like ‘on the right path,’ ‘on the way the Creator wants us to go.’ It is the opposite of the word for sin, which means ‘losing your way.’”  (Steven Schwarzchild, quoted on Homiletics Online.)

But that doesn’t seem to fit what is happening with Mary and Elizabeth.  They may both be on the right path, but their blessedness seems to have a different character.  They are blessed because of what God has done for them, and their blessedness is complete because of their obedience.

As far as we know, these two could have been unwilling participants in the drama, merely accepting their fate, grumbling along like the child who isn’t happy to leave his Christmas gifts to go have dinner at Aunt Matilda’s.  But they weren’t.  Mary and Elizabeth were obedient and accepting of what God was doing with them and in them.

That obedience is the final stage of the preparation.  Advent, as we have mentioned, is like Lent.  It is designed to be a season of reflection and repentance.  But normally, repentance happens on our terms.  We are in control.  I can change my life in the ways I see fit.  I can confess what I feel I am ready to confess.  I can engage in the spiritual disciplines I’m comfortable with right now.

Obedience is something else entirely.  It means letting God determine the path.  Obedience means saying with Mary, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”  It means putting ourselves into the potter’s hands to make us whatever God wants us to be.

The following is a poem that describes what might just happen were we to turn ourselves obediently over to God:

I asked God for strength that I might achieve.
I was made weak that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health that I might do greater things.
I was given infirmity that I might do better things.
I asked for riches that I might be happy.
I was given poverty that I might be wise.
I asked for power that I might have the praise of men.
I was given weakness that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things that I might enjoy life.
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for, but everything I hoped for.
Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am, among all men, most richly blessed.  (Anonymous, Homiletics Online.)

Our blessedness is complete only when we are obedient.  Some of you probably already know what you need to do to be obedient.  You’ve been struggling with something in your soul for a long time, and it’s the right time to do what you know you should.  I think most of us already know.  Now, then, is the time to release control.  Others of you may honestly not know how God wants for you to be obedient.  To you, I suggest drawing near to God to listen and to wait.  Worship, read scripture, pray.  The time will come when you will know what type of obedience God requires.

We are among the many generations that have called Mary blessed.  We don’t do it because she was powerful or wise or beautiful.  We call her blessed because she was humble and obedient.  You, too, can be blessed.

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