So much has happened in the last 12 months that has been outside of our control. We’ve lost friends. Some of us have lost family members. And we’ve all lost much of what we loved about life before COVID-19 turned everything upside down. Couple all that with the statistics and graphs and predictions about 2022, and I don’t think any of us need much imagination to understand why lots of folks are at the end of their patience.
Yet here we are, sitting in church the day after Christmas, when the candy canes and colored lights are on sale and stores are already setting up for Valentine’s Day. The world around us is moving on to the next antidote for the darkness. But we aren’t. The greens are still up, the Baby is in the manger, and we are gathered here today in hope and expectation — because we know that the birth of Jesus still holds promise for us today.
As St. John says in our Gospel reading this morning, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
Our world changed forever when God’s Son was born of Mary. He who is the perfect image of the Father left his rightful throne to be with us — coming to earth not as a king or a warrior but as a helpless child.
What does this tell us, that he who knows the name of every star willingly and gladly accepted the limitations of infancy? That he who scatters hail like bread crumbs would humble himself to the point where he must learn how to walk and how to speak and all of it from two feet off the ground. What does this tell us but that God wants more than anything to save every last one of us. He wants us to see who we are in his eyes: beloved men and women and children who are made in the image of God himself, made to love in return the one who loved us first.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and in the light of his presence, we can see. We can see the immensity of God’s mercy; that even amid the pain and sorrow of our world God knows and will accomplish the plans he has for us, plans for welfare and not for harm, to give us all a future with hope.
And all of this rests, not on our ability to get things right, but on the shoulders of God’s Son, who knows precisely what it means to be human, from birth to death and beyond. And it is out of that fullness, out of Christ’s life of perfect obedience and love toward the Father, that we have all received grace upon grace; that we might be given the power to become children of God.
This is the promise we possess, a promise guaranteed in Christ’s name and underwritten in his blood, a promise that will not come down with the Christmas decorations or be boxed up until next year’s holiday season because it is founded in eternity.
Hear these words: Before the world began, God knew each one of us and deemed each one of us as worthy of salvation, no matter our histories or our current struggles or even our fears about the future. God loves us regardless of any and all of that, loves us so fiercely and so selflessly that he would send his only Son into a dark and cruel world, knowing that his life of suffering and death would be what saved us from ours.
This is our hope, our light that illumines the path before us, leading us on toward glory even when we’re not sure we know how to get there — for this light is certain. This light is sure. This light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. AMEN.
“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.”
Today marks the coming to an end of the season of Advent. If you have been following along with the Sunday lectionaries I would not be surprised if your head is spinning a bit today. What happened? Last week we heard about the adult John preaching and calling everyone to repentance. Today the same John is yet unborn, in his mother, Elizabeth’s womb. In both Gospels he demonstrates his prophetic voice by delivering important messages, but that is getting ahead of the myself. (If you want to read the Luke story in more chronological order follow the lectionary for Morning Prayer this coming week. We are in year 2, the fourth week of Advent.)
I want to go back a bit from today’s Gospel and remind us of what has happened in the story right before this. Mary, a devout, teenaged girl, engaged to be married to an older man, Joseph, has been visited by the angel Gabriel. In that visit she was told that she will bear a child who will be the long-awaited savior. This child she will carry will be the Son of God and is to be named Jesus. That encounter ended by Mary answering yes to Gabriel, let it be according to God’s word.
There are many glorious works of art, paintings, sculpture, music depicting this encounter of the angel with Mary. We have a copy of one on the altar in the Lady Chapel that is rests there each Advent. It is the beautifully colored Fra Angelico’s work from the 15th century. I love to look at these various art works of the Annunciation. Most often I focus on the faces of both Mary and Gabriel. Usually, the artist will show Mary concentrating hard on Gabriel. Sometimes she has a dreamy expression, off in her own world it would seem.
Sometimes she has a look of surprise or even shock at what she is hearing. The angel on the other hand most often looks serious and intense, though not stern. He has an important message to bring after all. Recently I saw a pair of statues of this encounter and both Mary and Gabriel had looks of surprise and amazement. Like I said, I enjoy focusing on their faces and wondering what must it have been like to receive and give such a message?
Mary was able to give her consent to what would be, because of her faith in God but the scripture does not give us any other words of hers following this meeting. We are left with Mary’s quiet wonder at what she had been told.
This brings us to the passage from today. We are told that in “haste” Mary traveled a fair distance away to stay with her cousin Elizabeth, whom the angel related is also expecting a very important child. This is not so different of what might have happened to an unmarried pregnant teenager even as late as the beginning of this century. The thought was to get the girl away from the gossip and spare her family embarrassment. In Mary’s time becoming pregnant while engaged to another man could be very dangerous, she might even be killed for it. Making inferences Mary was probably an outcast, alone, separated from her family by their astonishment and lack of understanding of the situation.
So, Mary goes to stay with her cousin. This cousin had had an encounter with Gabriel of her own. Elizabeth is pregnant with a son, John, who will become the prophet to tell others of the savior Jesus’ coming. Elizabeth is also probably isolated from others. She was older, beyond the usual age of childbearing and her husband Zechariah was unable to speak throughout the pregnancy as he did not believe the angel’s message. She too was an item of gossip in her town.
What happens when Mary and Elizabeth meet, the in-utero John leaps and Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit allows Elizabeth to be able to recognize and acknowledge what is happening with Mary.
Both women, likely distanced from others because of the circumstances of their pregnancies, embrace each other. Their relationship is firm; they have another to lean on. They have formed a community of two.
With Elizabeth’s affirment of who this baby is that she is carrying, Mary is better able to understand what this means. And as she grows in her comprehension, the surprise and fear quickly turn to joy. Her joy overflows in song, a famous song from generation to generation. We have spoken it and heard it twice this morning. Mary’s soul is filled with God’s presence and her gratitude and joy abound. Those emotions are not present in any of the artistic works I have seen from the annunciation. Mary did not sing with Gabriel’s message. This joy at becoming the mother of Jesus, who he will be and what he will do, has taken time for Mary to comprehend. And it is in the supportive presence of Elizabeth that has assisted in this growth.
Being in community with another who is going through similar things helped both Mary and Elizabeth in living into who are these children they are carrying. While the message to each was given by the angel alone, it was the community, the relationship between the two, that aided in the realization of what this meant. Mary would continue to draw on her community to grow in understanding of who Jesus is, throughout his time on earth.
So, what can we learn from this story this morning? Following Mary’s example, as we live with Jesus, it is important that we have a community to assist us in that relationship and in building joy, finding peace and being able to sing out our gratitude for it.
While God or his angels may speak to us alone, we need the Christian community to assist in our understanding of what is His message.
Each of us is a part of many communities. There are communities built around our work, our roles as family members, a like of a certain game or sport, our own physical neighborhoods and so on. However, it is our community which has at the core a shared love of God and desire to know him better, that assists us to grow into our relationship with Christ. Just like Mary, it is this faith community that will help us get beyond fear and amazement to reach joy and peace.
How do we build such a faith community? It is through regularly spending time together, sharing scripture, praying for each other, caring for one another, and demonstrating the love of Christ to the wider world. Community can grow also by working towards a common goal—perhaps helping this worship space reflect the glory of God or in participating in one of the intergenerational formational activities of the church. Another important characteristic of a true faith community is seeking and welcoming others to join it. There are multiple opportunities to build these faith communities that can be areas of growth and understanding of who Jesus is.
Remember that Mary was able to say yes to God at that original encounter with Gabriel, but she did not experience the joy until the affirmation of her cousin and the sign from the yet unborn John. It was then that Mary could sing out her understanding of the wonder that was happening to her and her gratitude for this son that she would bear.
While you have already heard her song twice this morning, I think reciting it again together is a good way to end the Advent season. Please take your bulletin and let us say the Magnificat along with Mary to express our joy at this soon to arrive Messiah.
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
My spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
For he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
The Almighty has done great things for me,
And holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
In every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
He has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
And has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
And the rich he has sent empty away.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel,
For he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers,
To Abraham, and his children forever.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit:
As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.
Today, we’ve all received a Christmas card from our good friend John the Baptist, and it reads: “Happy Holidays, you brood of vipers!”
We laugh, but that’s actually what’s going on. John is speaking to us; and his words cut. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”
What would your reaction be if you opened a card like that? We’d think, How judgmental can you get? And then throw the card in the trash without a second thought because we don’t need someone hating on our good intentions. After all, we’re mostly nice, law-abiding, God-fearing people. Isn’t that enough?
But what we forget is that John’s original audience was also made up of decent, law-abiding, and God-fearing people — who were just as complex, just as good and just as bad as we are.
Humankind hasn’t changed. Beneath the surface, every one of us is a mess of pride. Of jealousy. Of idolatry. Of “me first and then we’ll see about everyone else.” And if we’re honest with ourselves, we can admit that. Think of the story in John’s gospel of the woman caught in adultery. Jesus says, whoever is without sin can cast the first stone — and what happens next? Everyone leaves because everyone has sinned.
John knows this, knows that “no one is righteous. . . . All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” He knows this, and he won’t rest until those who hear his message will accept it as truth — because the stakes are higher than anyone realizes. Hope is on the horizon, and if we could but raise our eyes from the ground, we would see it.
“For behold, darkness covers the earth, and thick darkness is over the peoples; but the LORD will rise upon you, and His glory will appear over you.”
A light is dawning in the east, and in the grey shadows of morning, the world is changing. Valleys are being filled, crooked paths are made straight, and rough ways are smoothed. The one crying in the desert is preparing the way of the LORD, then and now. For what must be prepared, what must be brought low, what must be set right but our hearts, our hearts that are restless and wandering and confused until we find every good in God himself?
John challenges us to grapple with the fact that we are just as broken as the soldiers and tax collectors and sinners gathered in the desert that day. We are just as desperate for Emmanuel as Israel was of old. In the classic words of our last Prayer Book: “We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep. . . . And there is no health in us.”
There is no health in us — but the physician is coming. Our savior is coming. Not as a baby boy in weakness. Not as a man bound for the cross, but as a conquering king.
In righteousness he will judge. Before him, nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. “All power is his, all glory! All things are in his hand, all ages and all peoples, till time itself shall end!”
And yet the one who is coming, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, the conquering king. . . . he is like a Lamb who was slain. His robes are dipped in blood. The writer of Hebrews tells us that we have a great high priest who has been made like us in every respect, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near the throne of grace, for Mercy himself is found there.
For this we sing. For this we shout. For this we rejoice and exult with all our hearts, for the LORD will save the lame and gather the outcast. He will proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind. He will change our shame into praise and renown in all the earth.
And this is not just a promise we are looking forward to. It is a gift we are given now, for Christ came in weakness that he might rise in strength and return in glory. And on that day, all will be set free and all will be made right and all will obtain the freedom of the glory of God.
Therefore we will trust and not be afraid; for the LORD God is our strength and our song, and he has become our salvation. Cry aloud, inhabitant of Zion, ring out your joy, children of God, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel. AMEN.