Happy Christmas everybody, don’t know if I’ll be back on here before Christmas or indeed how soon afterwards.
To fill space find the sermon I did for today – not sure if somebody might find it useful. It’s talking about Elizabeth and Mary.
Micah 5 v 2 – 5a (ending with “and he shall be the one of peace.”)
Luke 1:39 -55
You know what it’s like when everything’s suddenly turned upside down and you go to visit somebody. It can be a bit scary, not knowing if you’re going to be hugged or whether it’s going to be a stiff welcome where everybody is awfully polite before sitting down to have a serious talk. I’ve had a few of those moments in my life.
It can be especially difficult if there is a bit of a journey involved to get there or you haven’t had a chance to speak to the person you’re visiting before you get there.
That’s how it must have been for Mary. She was a young woman, probably still in her teens and she’d gotten pregnant in circumstances she knew were good and holy, but which others wouldn’t have seen in the same way. She was sent off to stay with her relative in the hill country of Judea which may have been up to 50 miles away. A long journey in those days. She didn’t know what reaction she’d get from this older relative, if she shared what had happened and her excitement about it would she have been believed or would she be judged by Elizabeth and Zechariah too? Remember this wasn’t just any couple she was being sent off to, Zechariah was a temple priest – a religious man.
Then think what it would have been like for Elizabeth, she was having this young relative come to stay whilst she was pregnant too. An event which others were rejoicing about, but would have been confused about too. She was going to have to explain that Zechariah couldn’t speak and what was going on there.
There must have been an element of nervousness on both sides as they got ready to meet. Was this going to be one of those awkward meetings or would it be a chance to share the excitement about everything that had been going on however strange it all my seem?
It is in this atmosphere that the two women meet each other. Mary greets her older relative as would have been customary but as I say it would probably have been with some apprehension.
When Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting the baby within her jumps within her and she is filled with the Holy Spirit. She gives a loud and joyful cry because she recognises that the baby Mary is carrying is the Lord.
Imagine the relief for Mary, all those “what if” thoughts she must have been carrying throughout the journey are dispelled. She knows that not only is she welcome but that Elizabeth gets what is going on and is going to believe her. She is going to be able to share her excitement and talk about what is going on.
It seems like in that moment Mary is able to let everything out because she knows she is in a safe space where she is understood. And so she replies to Elizabeth by letting out a song of praise. Mary’s song which has become known as the Magnificat is a huge song of praise and celebration.
Tom Wright explains that Mary and Elizabeth shared a dream, the ancient dream of Israel; that one day all that the prophets had said would come true. They believed that one day Israel’s God would do what he had said to Israel’s earliest ancestors that all nations would be blessed through Abraham’s family. However, they understood that for that to happen the powers that kept the world in slavery had to be toppled. Nobody would normally thank God for blessing if they were poor, hungry, enslaved and miserable. God would have to win a victory over the bullies, power-brokers and the forces of evil which people like Mary and Elizabeth knew all too well. They were living in the dark days of Herod the Great whose casual brutality had been been backed up by the threat of Rome. *
Mary and Elizabeth like other Jews of their time would have searched the scriptures and soaked themselves in the psalms and prophetic writings which spoke of mercy, hope, fulfilment, reversal, revolution, victory over evil and of God coming to the rescue at last. Prophecies like the one we heard from Micah.
So this song of praise comes from two women who understand something of the fact their children are going to be involved in fulfilling these prophecies. Yet, as we find out later when Mary goes with Jesus brothers to speak to him in Matthew 12 verse 46, presumably to try and take him home, Mary doesn’t understand it all. She doesn’t know that the baby she is carrying will eventually take the road to the cross and die a brutal and painful death before rising again.
At this moment her hymn of praise comes from a place of hope, excitement and celebration.
Part of the excitement and celebration will be coming from the fact that these two women knowing that God, through their pregnancies is breaking 400 years of apparent silence since he last gave a prophecy through Malachi.
That all happened 2000 years ago though, so what does it have to say to us today?
Well I want to say quite a few things.
Firstly, Mary wasn’t praising God from an easy place. She was a young woman who had become pregnant in wonderful yet unusual circumstances. She was living in an occupied country under the rule of a king who was cruel and that was on top of the day to day difficulties that people faced then just to survive.
The words of her song of praise speak of a God who has blessed her in that place of difficult living, just as he has been with and blessed others living difficult and painful lives over the years.
It is a song which uses the language not of the rich and powerful, but rather of those without much in material terms.
When I was bringing my daughter up and we were living on very little and she couldn’t have alot of the things that other people at school had there was something important that I taught her and that was we were skint but we weren’t not poor.
We may not have had the foreign holidays, or the nice house some of her friends had and sometimes we were looking at the gas metre working out if we could afford to put the heating or not but we had our flat, and we had food. We also had a good extended family and she knew ours was a safe home where friends who didn’t have such easy environments to live in could come and be welcomed. She knew part of that welcome was tied up with our faith and that God particularly cared for those who were struggling. She grew up knowing that we were blessed and that God was to be praised for that blessing.
So we are called to be Mary’s and Elizabeth’s praising God for the reality of his love and his care in the mist of circumstances which aren’t always great by the worlds standards.
Secondly, both this hymn of praise and Elizabeth’s greeting come out of a place of knowing God and being filled with the Holy Spirit.
It was the Spirit which filled Elizabeth and caused her to cry out and it was the spirit which influenced Mary’s heartfelt hymn of praise. Both of these women were filled by God because they had met and recognised God. Their words were a response to God coming from the Spirit of God.
Now I don’t know about you but I’ve seen and heard some things over the years which may or may not have come from a filling of the Holy Spirit. They are things which make me think um…..not sure about this. Then there are things which I have seen, heard and experienced which I do know come from the Holy Spirit.
There are various things which differentiate those things which I’m not sure about and those things which I am certain of. The first thing which is different about those things which I know definitely are of the Holy Spirit is they definitely display the fruit of the Spirit that we hear about in Galatians chapter 5 verses 22 and 23.
They are displaying love, something we see very clearly within what Elizabeth and Mary say.
They display joy and that is something we see lots of in what the two women say and how they say it.
They show peace. Both women were going through extraordinary pregnancies but this reading shows both Elizabeth and Mary had peace about their pregnant state and the circumstances surrounding them.
There is kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control on display. Yes they are being quite loud in their celebrations but those shouts of praise are taking place in Elizabeth’s home which is an appropriate situation.
All the hallmarks of the Spirit are there within the words of both Elizabeth and Mary.
So when we are judging whether something is coming from the Spirit or not I would say that we need to think does it reflect the fruits of the Spirit or not?
Is what we are doing or saying showing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control or not?
The final thing I want to draw out from this passage is that the hope and excitement within it comes from a knowledge of the scriptures being fulfilled. Elizabeth and Mary knew the scriptures. They could have hope in what was happening because they knew what had been promised.
Do we have that same knowledge of what Gods promises to us are and if we do know them do we believe them?
The bible tells us that Jesus will return and we have to be prepared. Luke 21 verses 25 – 28 tell us “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
This passage is one which people get very caught up in trying to interpret but the message of it is the same as it was had been for Mary and Elizabeth in the times before their pregnancies. The Lord is coming and we need to be patient and prepared. Christ will return and we need to be ready and expectant for it.
How do we prepare then? Is it by buying more and more stuff, or by putting together bunkers full of supplies for when disaster strikes as some people do?
No it’s about carrying on as faithful people being ready to listen and come back to God. Worshipping out of conviction rather than routine. It’s about taking seriously the four callings of the calling of the Church to respond to the gospel of God’s love in Christ and to live out its discipleship in worship and mission through worship, learning and caring, service and evangelism. It’s about getting back to the bible and knowing those promises and being ready for the fulfilment of them.
So let us this Christmas time know something of the hope and joy which Mary and Elizabeth had. And let us praise Christ from whatever place we find ourselves in, being ready to express our praise through the Holy Spirit in ways which demonstrate the fruits of the Spirit with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.
*Tom Wright paragraph comes from Luke For Everyone.