LUKE 1:39-49, 56

DECEMBER 8, 2013



            I'm sure you've heard the slogan ... "Put Christ back in Christmas."  It pushes back at the commercialism, the Black Fridays and the Cyber Mondays, which runs rampant this time of the year.  Personally, I like the slogan.  It's a good reminder, even for church people, to put our emphasis in the right place.

            There is, however, another star in the Christmas story.  We Protestants tend to forget that.  Listen to these words from Mark Trotter.  In a recent sermon he said,  "I wonder if you have ever noticed, the story of the Nativity, as Luke tells it, is really a story about Mary.  So I have a slogan.  I think we ought to put this on our bumpers, 'Put Mary back into Christmas.'  She is obviously the star. She is surrounded by a supporting cast of actors: Elizabeth, Zechariah, shepherds, angels, Gabriel, the archangel, Simeon and Anna will come in at the last scene, and, of course, there is Joseph, who has a non-speaking role.  He shows up in the third act, in the stable, among the oxen and the asses.  That's Joseph's role.  But the star of this story is Mary.  That's obvious.  The spotlight is always on Mary."

            Actually, she's more like George Clooney in the movie current movie Gravity.  He plays a key role at the beginning of the movie, but recedes to the background as Sandra Bullock's character carries the movie.  Jesus is the real star of Luke's Gospel, but at the beginning Mary gets more screen time than Jesus.  We see that in our passage for today.  We have another story about Mary, including a member of the supporting cast, her cousin Elizabeth.  Open you bible to Luke 1:39, and follow along with me as I read.


            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 Marys 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.


            And then skipping to verse 56.


            And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.


            I want to highlight three things this morning.  First, note the contrast between the two women.  What we have here is the story of two women ... one too old to be a mother and one too young to be a mother, both however, are pregnant.

            They are cousins, and given the age difference, probably distant cousins.  Elizabeth, the city cousin, lives in a Jerusalem suburb.  Her husband, Zechariah, is a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem, meaning he was a man of some importance.  It says they lived in the hills of Judea no doubt an upscale neighborhood. 

            I think of my hometown of Glendale, California.  My college buddy, Al Perkins, lived in the foothills.  Living in the foothills, his family had a great view of the Los Angeles basin, especially at night.  They got to see the city lights twinkling below.  I didn't.  We didn't live in the foothills.  We lived down in the basin.  The houses in the foothills cost more than the houses in the basin.  So, given the fact that Elizabeth and Zechariah, lived in the foothills of a metropolitan area, they likely were people of status ... sophisticated people.

            Mary was not a person of status or sophistication.  Mary, the country cousin, hails from Nazareth, a town with a poor reputation.  Remember Nathaniel's quote?  "Can anything good come from Nazareth?"  Mary even comments on her status.  Speaking of God she says, "For he as looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant."

            Mary, the country cousin, was likely uneducated, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old at the time.  She was betrothed or promised to a carpenter in her village, a man undoubtedly a lot older than she was.  That was the way it was in those days.  And now she is pregnant, miraculously.  Joseph had had nothing to do with it.  She had never been with a man.  The angel Gabriel, who announced her pregnancy, also told here that her cousin Elizabeth, well into her menopause years, was also pregnant, so she travels four or five days to visit with her.  Maybe Elizabeth would understand her situation.  Maybe she could give her some counsel. Maybe Elizabeth would help her figure out a way to approach Joseph about this matter.

            And when Mary arrives at Elizabeth's home, Elizabeth, the culturally sophisticated, the economically advantaged, defers to the simple, uneducated, uncultured Mary.  Elizabeth listens to Mary's story, and she rejoices.  Mary ends up staying for three months, probably until Elizabeth gave birth to John.  I wonder what the two of them talked about during those three months?  I'm sure they touched on just about everything ... angels and babies and men and God and Israel and the world.  I wish I could have been a fly on the wall.

            So, note the contrast between the two women.  Second, note the joy.  Listen to how Elizabeth put it.  She said to Mary, "For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy."

            All of us have one annual event, or one family tradition, that definitively makes Christmas official.  What is yours?  What ritual of yours inaugurates the Christmas season?

            For some of us it's the hanging of the greens, the act of putting up the tree, decorating it and the house with all those much-loved cheesy, twinkly, shiny ornaments and knick-knacks.  For others it may be a traditional Christmas cookie-baking marathon or maybe it's the music, the first sound of a Christmas carol in the mall, or a special choral presentation at church, or a Christmas concert at the Holland.

            For an eight year old girl, it was the decorating the tree that inaugurated her Christmas season.  As each old, beloved ornament was unpacked, she crooned over it, declaring each in turn to be her favorite.  As usual there were a few casualties, a beak broken off a bird ornament, a tear starting to develop along a snowflake, the string hanger missing from a home decorated ornament.  But no manner of chips, crunches, or cracks could squelch her joy.

            And after everything had finally been carefully placed on the tree, the eight year old girl began jumping on the couch in flagrant disregard of the standard house rule of no jumping the furniture.  At the peak of each jump, and with her eight-year-old height no longer a limitation, the girl could see the ornaments hanging at the very top of the tree, and then enjoy the expanding width and number of decorations as her bounce took her back down to the couch cushion.  With every bounce up and bounce down, she delighted in the brightly lit, decorated tree.  Squeals, oohs, and aahhs accompanied each jubilant bounce.  She was literally jumping for joy.

            Do we ever let ourselves jump for joy?  The only place adult jumping for joy is socially sanctioned seems to be at sporting events.  When the puck slides into the net, the ball cracks off the bat, when the player crosses the goal line, crowds get out of their seat, spring to their feet, and jump up and down with the excitement of the moment.  But other than celebrating in sports, we're pretty shy about jumping for joy.  We leave the joyful gymnastics to children.  We maybe even feel that such unabashed exuberance is childish.

            Every few years some film studio puts out another "life of Christ" movie, and no matter how pious or reverent, no matter how controversial or creative, no matter how inspired or insipid, all these films share a common vision of Jesus the Messiah.  Other than the movie, Godspell, he is always portrayed as some tall, long-locked, solemn, sermon-spouting fellow who walks as though he is treading on eggshells and whose face always looks as though he has just finished sucking on a big kosher dill.  Every film-maker is anxious to show how being the Messiah was a soul-sobering, mind-sobering business.

            Think how scandalized everyone would be if some radical director cast Jesus as a short guy with a round little belly, that shook when he laughed like a bowl full of jelly!  No, Jesus wasn't Santa Claus, but it's almost as if we need Santa at Christmas to free us to laugh and jump for joy at Jesus' coming.  Don't you find that just a little bit tragic?

            Perhaps we need Santa at Christmas because we have a flawed understanding of Jesus.  He wasn't all that dour.  The Pharisees, after all, described him as the life of the party, in their eyes something of a glutton and a drunkard, and from today's gospel text we learn that the first reaction to Jesus' presence on earth, albeit in the womb at the time, was joy.  Joy so tremendous, joy so complete that it even affects unborn babies. 

            So, note the contrast.  Note the joy.  Third, please note the message:  God is good.  And Mary said, "My soul magnifies The Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he as 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."

            You and I do not fall into God's plan in quite the same way that Mary did, and yet we know what it is to be humbled by God's concern for us.  After all, who are we that the God of galaxies and mega-galaxies should be aware of our needs?  So with a deep gratitude, we teach our children a fun little table grace.  We teach them to pray, "God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food."

            God is good.  Not only because God chose the lowly maiden of Nazareth, not only because God is aware of our needs, but also because God keeps his promises.  That is a major part of this great miracle in Mary's eyes.  Look at the end of what she declares.  We skipped over it a bit ago, but look at it now.  She declares, "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."  The coming of the Messiah was the fulfillment of a long awaited promise.  God is good because God keeps his promises.

            That doesn't mean life isn't difficult.  That doesn't mean we don't lose people we love.  That doesn't mean we don't get impatient or disappointed.   I think of the couple who went to do their Christmas shopping, and decided to split up in order to divide and conquer.  They each had their cell phones with them and when the woman was done she called her husband and asked, "Honey, where are you?"

            Darling, he said, do you remember when we were first married and the jewelry shop where you saw that diamond necklace you loved?  But we didnt have enough money at the time, so I said, Someday Ill come back to this shop and buy that necklace for you.  Do you remember that shop?

            Yes! she shouted, excitedly.

            Well, he said, Im in the Home Depot next door to that jewelry shop getting some supplies.

            Life can be disappointing and Christmas does not always live up to our high expectations, but one thing remains constant.  God is good.  God is good. 

            Let's close with a word from Corrie Ten Boom.  Corrie ten Boom was a Dutch Christian who, along with her father and other family members, helped many Jews escape the Nazi Holocaust during World War II and was herself thrown into a Nazi concentration camp for it.  Here's what she said,


            Often I have heard people say, "How good God is!  We prayed that it would not rain for our church picnic, and look at the lovely weather!'"  Yes, God is good when He sends good weather.  But God was also good when He allowed my sister, Betsie, to starve to death before my eyes in a German concentration camp.  I remember one occasion when I was very discouraged there.  Everything around us was dark, and there was darkness in my heart.  I remember telling Betsie that I thought God had forgotten us. "No, Corrie," said Betsie, "He has not forgotten us.  Remember His Word: 'For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him.'" 


            Corrie concluded by saying,


            There is an ocean of God's love available.  There is plenty for everyone.  May God grant you never to doubt that victorious love whatever the circumstances.


            God is great.  God is good.   Amen.