Sermon for 12-11-11: “Journey to Bethlehem, Part 3: Mary Visits Elizabeth”

This sermon is part 3 in our Advent sermon series, “Journey to Bethlehem.” Today’s scripture challenges our understanding of what it means to be “blessed.” Three times, Elizabeth tells Mary that she’s blessed, but her “blessedness” certainly isn’t related to job or home or health or wealth. Mary’s blessedness came to her because she opened up her heart to God; she gave herself completely to God; she answered God’s call.

God wants all of us to be blessed in that same way. And we can be!

Sermon Text: Luke 1:39-56

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Bill Cosby told a story once about the challenge of getting his kids ready for school one morning, all by himself, without his wife’s help. His wife was sick and in bed. We have a rule in our household that Lisa, my wife, is not allowed to be sick, so this never happens to me. We dads do our best when it comes to taking care of the kids, but let’s face it: no matter how hard we try, things are just different when dads are in charge of the kids. I’m not saying it should be that way, and I hope we dads are getting better at it. But still…

When I was a kid, I had Napoleon Dynamite hair, very curly and kinky and tangled up. Parted on the side! And I hated when Dad was in charge of getting me ready to go somewhere. He had this shiny metal comb, and it was like a medieval torture device, and he would scrape that thing, mercilessly, across my head. And I’m like, “Ow, Dad! That hurts!” When he got through, I would reach up and feel my scalp, to make sure I wasn’t bleeding! Do you know what I mean? Things are different with dads in charge of kids.

Anyway, Bill Cosby described making his kids breakfast while his wife was in bed sick. And because he was a dad he was thinking about what would be easiest to do. And they had chocolate cake from the night before. So he thought, “Why not? Cake is made from good things like eggs and wheat and milk.” I mean, we eat doughnuts for breakfast, and that’s nothing but cake that’s been fried! So what’s wrong with cake? So he gives his kids chocolate cake for breakfast, and they’re so happy and so excited that they run around the kitchen literally singing, “Dad is great/ Gives us chocolate cake/ Dad is great/ Gives us chocolate cake.” Of course, they make so much noise they end up waking up Mom, who is not happy that her husband gave chocolate cake to the kids for breakfast.

But the point is, they were so happy that they literally broke out in song. Do you know how that feels? My two boys have done this recently. They’re so happy about Christmas coming that they have made up their own Christmas songs. And they sometimes want to sing these songs first thing in the morning when I just roll out of bed and haven’t had coffee yet. But kids are better at experiencing this unbridled kind of joy than we adults are.

In today’s scripture, Mary—who, remember, at 13, was hardly a grown-up herself—experiences such happiness and joy that she feels like singing. And she does sing… a song the church calls the Magnificat, Latin for “magnify,” as in “my soul magnifies the Lord.” We often read these words of scripture in such somber tones, but, really, this whole scene between Mary and Elizabeth should be read as nothing but pure joy! We should be singing and dancing!

But I’m sure that as joyful as Mary was in today’s scripture, she probably wasn’t quite feeling the joy in the days leading up to today’s scripture. When we last saw Mary, the angel Gabriel told her that she had conceived a son, who was the Messiah and Savior of the world. Mary believed the angel, and she accepted God’s will for her life, saying those beautiful words, “Here am I, servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”

Can you imagine what happened next? Can you imagine how afraid she must have been? This unmarried 13-year-old girl, pregnant by an act of the Holy Spirit, was now a part of God’s cosmic plan of salvation, and was now responsible for bringing God’s own Son, the Messiah and savior, into the world… It’s a lot to process, isn’t it? God didn’t want her to be alone in this process. So he gave her a sign as a source of encouragement, strength, and comfort: Elizabeth, her “relative”—could be a cousin, an aunt, or even a great aunt—has conceived, and she’s having a baby, even though Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah, were previously unable to have kids and are now past childbearing years.

I can relate to Mary’s experience, at least a little bit, when God first called me into pastoral ministry many years ago. I sitting in church, listening to my pastor’s sermon, when I started daydreaming. Now I know many of you daydream when I preach—and some of you close your eyes and just dream dream when I preach—but this daydream was different: I imagined myself standing in the pulpit, preaching this same sermon on this same text. And as I imagined myself doing it, I felt an intuition, a tug on my heart, something like a voice saying to my spirit, “You should be doing this.”

I told Lisa about this experience on the ride home from church. I said, at least half-jokingly, “Maybe I should become a pastor.” And Lisa said, “I think you should. You’d make a good pastor.” And I’m like, “Whoa! Come on, honey. You know I was just joking!” But her words were actually at least a small sign that this was something I should think about and pray about. But this was a lot for me to take in. I had already changed careers once. I had gone back to school in my mid-20s to get an engineering degree, and I was happily working as an engineer. I thought God was calling me to do that! You mean God had yet another plan for me? It would be so disruptive to my life and my family. We owned a home. We had a young daughter and another child on the way. How could I afford to quit my job and go to an expensive seminary?

Months later, I was with my friend Mike at the Music Midtown festival in Atlanta. Mike was one of my best friends from college. I hadn’t seen him in years. He had been out of state and only recently moved back into town. So we were at this concert, catching up on one another’s lives. I was telling him about my job, and I volunteered reluctantly that I was thinking and praying about becoming a pastor. And without skipping a beat, Mike said, “I can definitely see that. I think you should!” That was another sign!

Has God ever given you a sign to encourage you, to strengthen your faith, or to comfort you? I’ll bet he has. It takes practice to see the signs when they occur, but they’re there! There’s a great line in a song by a singer-songwriter named John Hiatt that goes: “You wouldn’t know a burning bush if it blew up in your face.” We need to get better at spotting burning bushes when God sends them our way! But I think more often than not, God uses other people to be a sign for us.

Who are the people in your life that have encouraged you, or strengthened your faith, or comforted you during a difficult time? I want you to consider that God himself has placed these people in your life as a sign. God might be trying to tell you something through them!

In today’s scripture, Elizabeth was that kind of sign to Mary. Adam Hamilton, in his book The Journey, describes it like this:

Imagine Mary’s feelings as she heard Elizabeth’s words. It had been at least ten days since Gabriel had appeared to Mary with his confusing announcement. She had spent the last nine days traveling with her secret, uncertain, afraid, and wondering how any of this could be true. But then, before she could even tell Elizabeth what had happened, Elizabeth showed that she knew Mary’s secret, and Elizabeth was filled with joy on Mary’s behalf. Elizabeth went on to say, in essence, “Listen, child. you don’t have to be afraid. You’ve been blessed. Blessed! Don’t you see it? You’ve been chosen to be the mother of the Messiah.1

Elizabeth tells Mary three times that she’s blessed. But what does it mean to be blessed? We usually think of blessings as material blessings: possessions, like our homes, our jobs, our health, our wealth.2 But God tells us through today’s scripture that that is not really what blessing means.

Isn’t this a message that we all need to hear, especially during this time of year? I heard an ad on the radio the other day directing us husbands or boyfriends to some jewelry store on behalf of our wife or girlfriend. The ad said that we don’t want our wife or girlfriend to be disappointed when they open their Christmas gift and look at us as if to say, “Is this the best you can do?” The ad makes us feel guilty, because it tells us that we’ve probably failed in Christmases past to buy her the right gift. And let’s get it right this time. And if we do, the ad says, we’ll ensure her happiness for the next 365 days.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with diamond and gold jewelry, and, guys, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t give your wife or girlfriend those things if you want to, as an expression of your love. And if someone wants to express their love to me, Fry’s Electronics is an excellent place to start! But let’s not imagine that something like that can bring true happiness! Don’t imagine that anyone can be truly blessed because of some thing! And yet I fear we constantly face that grave  spiritual temptation of thinking of blessings as stuff we possess.

On Black Friday a couple of weeks ago, I heard an interesting story on Marketplace, that business show that comes on public radio. Some business professor had done some research that said that once you get over a certain base level of income—he put the figure at $60,000—having more money and more possessions and more wealth will not increase our happiness. In fact, the more you have, he said, the more you want to have. It begins a cycle of unhappiness. Many of us who’ve ministered among the poor on short-term mission trips to Honduras or Paraguay or Mexico have noticed that people who have almost nothing by our standards can experience happiness and joy at least as much as we do. There doesn’t seem to be much of a correlation between wealth and happiness.

I kind of think that’s what Mary means in her song when she says that God has “filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed.” The wealthier we are, the more likely we are to confuse our built-in desire for God our Creator with a desire for created things—things which promise us the world but can’t deliver the goods. Only God can do that!

There’s no getting on our high-horse talking about the rich, because, by any worldly measure, it’s us. By virtue of being middle-class or upper middle-class Americans, we’re among the wealthiest two- or three-percent of the world’s population. I don’t want to be sent away empty-handed! Do you? I want God to fill me with good things! So this line in Mary’s song bothers me. Mother Theresa, who ministered among the poorest of poor in the streets of Calcutta, India, said that there are two kinds of poverty in the world: material poverty, the kind of poverty that she saw every day in Calcutta, and spiritual poverty, the kind of poverty she saw in places like the United States. Of the two kinds of poverty, she said, spiritual poverty is worse.

I don’t want to experience either kind!

Listen! Mary was blessed probably more than anyone else who ever lived, and yet please notice that her “blessedness” wasn’t related to her wealth or money or possessions. Why was Mary blessed? She was blessed because she opened up her heart to God. She gave herself completely to God. She answered God’s call. She said, “God use me as you see fit. Use me to accomplish your good purposes. Make me an instrument of your love and peace and joy.”

Brothers and sisters in Christ, God wants each one of us to be blessed in the same way. If we’ve invited Jesus Christ to be part of our lives through faith and baptism, and we’ve experienced new birth through the Holy Spirit, we already have everything we need. God has given us everything we need to be truly happy and joyful. It’s all right here! [Share experience of reading Isaiah recently.] This is what life is all about!

Because of God’s grace, we have more than enough! I pray that the Holy Spirit will enable us to live our lives as if we have more than enough.

If we can only do that, we may experience a joy and a lasting kind of happiness that make us want to sing! Amen.

1. Adam Hamilton, The Journey (Nashville: Abingdon, 2011), 66.

2. See Hamilton, 67. My wording about blessedness is very similar to his.

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