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It’s a scene of welcome. It’s a scene that will be played out millions of times over the next few days. A scene of the family getting together. Preparations being made. Houses being cleaned. Beds prepared. Food cooked. Desserts baked. Looking out the windows for a car turning into the driveway. Checking flights to see if they’re on time. Checking weather reports to make sure travelling is safe. Planning. Waiting.
Waiting. This is what we’ve been doing through the season of Advent. Waiting. Today we’re thinking of scenes of welcome. Of get-togethers. Of “make yourself at home”. Of excitement. Of the unexpected perhaps. Depending on your family and friends and loved ones, there may be a certain unexpectedness to what happens. People you thought were coming don’t come. People you thought weren’t coming come. Someone comes who is completely unexpected. Still, the welcome is extended and accepted.
These are all run of the mill everyday scenes though, aren’t they? I’m not talking about anything unusual or untoward in the normal course of events. It’s much the same thing in the story we read today. There’s not a lot of action in the story. Mostly it consists of speech and song. In the story though, a welcome is extended and accepted. When this happens it can it can change everything.
Could such a thing even be possible? Could everything change for the women in our story? Could Christmas 2019 mark a change for us after which nothing will be the same? The thing about these two women is they were living in a promise. They were living in a promise that had been made long ago. “But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is of old, from ancient days… And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they shall live secure, for now, he shall be great to the ends of the earth; and he shall be the one of peace.” A promise of security. Of peace.
They were living in promises that had been made much more recently. For one it was “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth…even before his birth, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit… With the Spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” For the other, it was “And now you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom, there will be no end.” Mary didn’t understand fully what this meant and how could any of us understand fully what it meant and what it means and what it will mean? Nevertheless, she made it her purpose to live in the promise. I will live in this promise, she decided. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
We’re talking about welcomes today. We’re talking about peace. This is our invitation today. To live in the promise of God. To say with Mary “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” The thing about living in the promise of God is, it turns the most everyday scenes into something entirely different. This is no mere meeting of two women that happened 2,000 years ago and why are we even talking about it anyway. We’re not simply a group of people getting together week by week and why do we even bother because it doesn’t look outwardly like much changes. The world goes on in the way that it does. The world went on in the way it was going for Elizabeth and Mary too. Meals were cooked and plans were made for the baby and the Roman governor ruled in Caesarea and Jerusalem and life went on.
But everything changed. You see these women were living under a promise. A welcome was extended and accepted. These two women get together. There is a repeated scene in Luke, particularly in his Acts of the Apostles. You see it time and time again. Two people who have had a religious experience get together and their understanding of their experience is enriched. Think Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Think Peter and the Italian centurion Cornelius. Think of Paul and Ananias. Think of the Jerusalem council. They get together and their understanding of the promise is enriched.
Why should we get together and do all of this regularly and significantly?
Because to live in the promise of God is to celebrate the promise of God. To celebrate the promise of God is to proclaim the promise of God. To proclaim the promise of God is to know the promise of God.
And that’s reason for joy my friends. That’s reason for Joy. Not joy that we have to summon up within ourselves. Not joy that we have to find within ourselves or somewhere else. It’s rejoicing in God having inclined himself toward us. It’s rejoicing because God is with us and welcomes us in the person of his son. Our invitation is to accept the welcome and to live in the promise of forgiveness and transformation and peace and joy and hope and faith and love.
When two or more people get together to live in the promise together they learn something about the promise. It’s not because we’re so smart or so savvy or so Biblically literate (though there’s nothing wrong with being those things, particularly the last one) but it’s the work of God. How do we know this?
It starts with the greeting. The importance of the good greeting. The good hello. We can’t stress this enough (a la Uncle Leo). Mary entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. I said there wasn’t much action in this story but here we have John getting into some pre-natal action. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in Elizabeth’s womb, and she was filled with the Holy Spirit. John would be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. This is the work of God friends. The news of salvation, of deliverance, of rescue, is met by this baby leaping in his mother’s womb. John’s first move! Little John being so filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit that he has to leap just like those calves leaping from their stalls we talked about two weeks ago. Why do we lose the urge to jump for joy? I wish we didn’t. I remember seeing a couple of children literally jumping for joy at a LaserQuest a few years ago. I hadn’t seen something like that in a long time. Did you see the video of the two kids from Eritrea jumping for joy at the sight of their first snow in Toronto? This was something new for them, you see. Snow can seem like old hat to us and the news of God inclining himself toward humanity in the person of this little baby that Mary is carrying can become old hat. May this never become old hat. May the welcomes that we extend and accept this Christmastime and all the time be a constant source of renewal in us.
May our answer be like Elizabeth’s. She exclaimed with a loud cry. These people were not afraid of showing emotion! “Blessed are you among woman, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” How wonderfully humble! Why me Lord? What have I ever done to deserve this grace? May God grant us such humility. This is a statement of faith on Elizabeth’s part too. Look what she is calling this child. My Lord.
My Lord and my God. THE one. My one. The first time Jesus is called that in Luke’s Gospel. Before he’s even born. My Lord. What does it mean to make such a call? To say that Jesus is who we are going to believe in. To say Jesus is who we are going to trust. To call Jesus our Lord and not wealth or fortune or fame or ideology or ourselves. It means to live in the promise. The promise of Christ’s return. The promise that the day is coming when swords will be beaten into ploughshares. The day when mourning and crying and pain will be no more. Just as Mary and Elizabeth and the nation of Israel were awaiting the Messiah, the Christ, we’re waiting for Christ’s return. To live in the promise is to hold onto faith and hope and love – to be heralds of the Kingdom that has come and is coming just as the angels were heralds of Jesus’ birth.
It’s more than this though. We see this in the welcome of our story this morning. In this scene, we’re looking at we see the church. We see the person of John. The herald of Christ. The one who points to someone greater than himself. We see the one on whom we are founded. Our rock. Our shepherd. Like Mary and Elizabeth, we live in a time of waiting. We’re expecting. We’re expectant. Just like a mother who is expecting, we’re living in the presence of the one whose arrival we’re expecting. We feel the kicks, as it were. The leaps. (With thanks to Karl Barth for this thought)
Mary can only respond in a song of praise. My soul magnifies the Lord. Not because he needs it but because that’s what I’m created to do. To extoll my Lord. To lift him up. To make him known. He has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. There’s a lowliness of spirit here for sure, a humility, but also lowliness because through the years it has been through the lowly ones that God has worked. A youngest sibling shepherd boy from a town known as the House of Bread. A labourer’s son from the same town. The Bread of Life. The Mighty One has done great things for me! He has remembered us. The lowly are lifted up. Those who bow down and cast themselves on the mercy of God are lifted up and find life. The powerful are brought down from their thrones – and not just people who actually sit on thrones of injustice or hold the reins of oppressive power but all of us who seek to elevate ourselves to a place of worship. He has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy. There’s an element to the great reversal that will take place at the end of time and that second Advent happens and Christ returns and the justice of God will be made known fully and completely. It’s an outcome of which Mary is so sure that she sings about it in the past tense!
In the meantime, we live in the promise and in the presence of the one for whom we wait. We live in the peace of Christ and ask Christ to make us channels of his peace. In the meantime we welcome him. In welcoming each other we welcome him and come to know more of him. Not just our friends and family of course or those from whom we might expect something in return. We’re called to welcome the stranger. To hold a banquet and invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. It’s what Jesus will say later on in Luke’s story. People in need of help. People in need of a welcome. In some mysterious way, God is revealed in this. We learn more about his truth. We learn more about the promise under which we live as followers of Christ. We hold such a dinner every Saturday night here for 5 months. You’re welcome to it. Welcome someone close to you this Christmas season who has nowhere to go. Come to the Friendship Room Christmas Eve after the candlelight service. It was snowed out last year. Open house. Come sit with some young people who long for a taste of home on Boxing Day at Horizons For Youth. We could go on and on.
We’re anticipating Jesus’ arrival on Christmas Eve. I hope you can join us. Also, we’re anticipating Jesus arrival. This is the promise under which we live. We’re going to proclaim the former on the 24th. Would you make it your purpose along with me to live in the promise every day? To live in this promise together and welcome Christ. May this be true for all of us friends. Merry Christmas to each and every one.