Preached by Brenda Holden on 23 December 2018: Fourth Sunday of Advent
Micah 5:2-5a; Luke 1:39-45
For us the waiting is nearly over. We have lit the fourth of the Advent candles this morning and for us, our Christmas celebrations are just a day or so away. The longed for event that has been advertised in our shops and on the TV for the past few months is almost here, but not for Mary in our story. Early in her pregnancy Mary felt the need to get away. She needed time to think and pray – to prepare for the birth.
Perhaps she needed to avoid questions from her neighbours. Perhaps she felt her parents needed time and space to come to terms with the situation. Mary was in a potentially shameful position as an unmarried and pregnant teenage daughter. A situation which became more complicated when the father of the expected child was not Mary’s betrothed.
The reality of the acceptance of her vocation to bear God’s Son was impacting on both Mary and her family. Mary chose to visit her cousin Elizabeth in order to let the dust settle – to give her parents time to hear God speak to them. The loving support of her parents would be necessary if the pregnancy was to come to a successful fruition.
What we have heard in our Gospel reading is two women, Elizabeth and Mary, who were both caught up in God’s drama. For both of them their lives were turned upside down- they were both gripped within God’s mysterious presence they were both part of a miracle. They were both discovering, first hand, God’s love and discovering a sense of direction in their lives to which they had no choice but to be obedient.
The conceptions of both John and Jesus were impossible in human terms. They were both miraculous. Elizabeth was beyond the age of bearing children – throughout her long married life she had been childless – she had inwardly yearned for parenthood but she was cruelly labelled as being old and barren.
Mary, on the other hand, was too young, unmarried and a virgin. She was not expecting to have her first child until after marriage. Mary’s pregnancy would make her a social outcast as Elizabeth’s would make her a laughing stock.
At the point of our Gospel reading it has been a while since Mary first agreed to the angel’s request with her words ‘let it be according to your word…’ . The reality the situation was becoming apparent. In the time that has passed she has quickly grown wise beyond her years. She has left behind her former innocent teenage self who was sheltered in the bosom of her family as she prepared for her wedding day.
The meeting of the cousins was a bridge of mutual recognition between two deeply religious women. It was an opportunity for them to find strength in the presence of the other away from hurtful comments. The two cousins could be at ease with each other as they prayerfully reflect on the miracles inside their bodies as they accept the challenges ahead.
When they met, their greeting was full of joy – hope and expectation bubble up inside them. Elizabeth tells Mary that her child is the Lord giving Mary assurance and confirmation of her role. Elizabeth’s delight and joy resulted in the baby leaping in her womb and Mary burst into a song of praise ‘The Magnificat’.
The choir has just sung the Magnificat for us instead of a psalm this morning. It is a familiar canticle in the Church which is said or sung daily as part of Evening Prayer or Evensong and the words have been set to many beautiful musical settings down the years.
The words have echoes of Hebrew Scripture. Hannah, another childless woman in the Old Testament, sang a song with very similar words following the birth of her son Samuel. Like Elizabeth and Mary she knew that she had been blessed to be part of God’s plan – Samuel would be a significant and well known character in God’s story.
The Magnificat is a song full of joy and praise and the words fit both Mary’s and Elizabeth’s situation.
The song speaks of the reversal of man-made situations for those who fear God. The proud are scattered; the mighty are cast down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up; the hungry are filled with good things and the rich are sent away empty. These ideas resonate with Hebrew tradition associated with God saving his people and the expectation that he will do so once more.
In these last days of Advent it is so easy for us to be caught up in the frenzied busyness of our man-made preparations for Christmas. It has been good for us to be here this morning to pray and worship alongside Mary and Elizabeth.
This Christmas, may God come into our hearts, homes and communities to make a way in the wilderness of our neighbourhood and our nation. Amen.