By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
December 19, 2021
Luke 1:39–55 (ESV)
39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” 46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; 52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
I have been reading the narrative surrounding the advent of Jesus my entire life. Well nearly my entire life, there were a few years that I could not read, but after I learned I have read it ever sense. At times these stories become so familiar that we forget the amazing features within. This is probably why I love the arrangement of Silent Night that Rend Collective produced. They add a chorus to the familiar carol that says,
“Be still my heart
Be still my mind
May I still see the magic of that silent night
Fill me with wonder
Keep mystery alive
May peace on earth be my song tonight.”
May I still see the magic of that silent night. The reality is that the night was far from silent. Any mother could tell you that, and any father that has held the hand of their spouse while she was in labor can tell you that silence was not the way to describe the event. But magic yes. There is something supernatural about new life. All the screaming and muck and yet we love the little one that caused such pain.
May I still see the magic of that silent night. I like this chorus because it truly captures the scene. Magic of course is not how most of us would explain it. When we think of the word magic we tend to think of pagan rituals being performed to manipulate the cosmos around to meet our selfish desires. But there is another aspect of magic that we tend to overlook, wonder. The term magic comes from the magi. The magi we meet within the narrative surrounding the birth of Jesus. The magi were interesting people. They were priests, scientists, and advisors. They were the educated class of the ancient Persian culture. And yes they dealt with the things that were unknown by most people so everything that they did seemed to cause awe and wonder. And since we did not understand we referred to their deeds as magic. The interesting thing about Magi is that they were a respected class, they had great knowledge and without the luxury of our modern technologies they were able to do remarkable research. When Judah was taken into exile, some of the wise men among them were taking into this class. Daniel is probably the one that most of us recognize the most. Daniel was a magi this prophet of God, would have been seen as a magician by his contemporaries. And his teachings most likely directed not only Israel into the future, but also the remnant of Persian scholars that remained after the conquest of Alexander.
But we are not talking about the Magi today. We are not even talking about the birth of Jesus today. We are still in that period of time where we are waiting in holy anticipation, holy expectancy, or holy anxiety. We are waiting and expecting God to move.
“In those days Mary arose and went with Haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah.” If we were to read the verses prior to today’s scripture reading we would see that Mary had just been visited by an angel. This angel told her that she had found favor in the eyes of God. I do not know how most people would have responded if some shining angel just randomly showed up in your room, but if it were me I would probably be freaking out. My greatest fear as a child was aliens, and of course my sister’s favorite show was Unsolved Mysteries where almost every week there would be a story of alien abduction. Which means I had a nightmare about aliens nearly every week, I do not think I ever really told anyone about it, but aliens really freak me out. And if you were to ask me to describe the scene of Mary’s encounter with the angel, it is the stuff of nightmares in my mind. I think I am probably not far from the truth because the first thing the angel says to Mary is do not be afraid.
Anyway, the angel explains that God is going to do something amazing, and basically tells Mary that because she has found favor in the eyes of God, He wants her to participate. This of course scares and fascinates Mary. She does not understand how any of this can happen but she also does not deny that God can do what God wants.
We often assume that ancient cultures are not as advanced as we are today. They may not have the same level of expertise as we do today, but they were not ignorant. Mary knew how women became pregnant. She knew that in the natural world what the angel was saying would have been impossible. She also knew the oral teachings of their religion. She knew that there was an anticipated king from the house of David. She knew that this king would have to be miraculous because by all human rendering the line of David was broken, cut off, impossible. The royal line had been killed off by the various invasions because that is what invading armies did in ancient cultures. They would execute those within the royal line if they wielded great influence or they would emasculate them so that they would become a person of ridicule and folly instead of power. The line of David was no longer a viable option. When Israel gained their independence from the Hellenistic kingdoms it was not David’s line that claimed the throne, but someone from the linage of Levi a priest.
Yet even though it seemed unlikely the people of Israel still held hope that the line would be restored, and they believed this because their prophets told them that. These prophets told them many things that had happened, and yet some of what was taught remained unfulfilled. They had been exiled and they had returned to their land, just as the prophets said, but they were still waiting for something else, the return of the king.
The angel spoke to Mary and she accepted the word of the angel, not because the angel made sense, but because Mary trusted God. Mary did not have to understand the science, all she desired was to do her part because she loved her God. She trusted but inside her psyche there was doubt. She said Let it be to me according to your word, but there was still a touch of gray within the silver lining of hope. The angel knew this so this angel told her that her barren relative Elizabeth was six months pregnant in her old age.
This is where we find Mary today. This young confused betrothed girl, who was just visited by this spiritual being, need to prove to herself that what she just experience was real. So in those days Mary arose and went to this town where this relative lived. The first thing about this whole story that is amazing to me is how did she get permission from her parents. Mary was not that old. Most believe that she would have been somewhere between the ages of twelve and fourteen, and I do not know about you but I would not be likely to let a preteen girl go on a journey alone. She most likely was not alone. So Mary had to have told her parents at least something about the angelic encounter. Which she probably would have had to do anyway because she probably woke everyone up with the screaming when the angel first appeared.
So Mary told them about the encounter, and then she said that the angel had told her that Elizabeth was pregnant. Everyone knew Elizabeth was barren, so everyone in the house probably wanted to see what was going on. Mary had just received the message. There was no reason to believe at this moment that she herself was pregnant. So they go on the journey to Judea, mainly to help provide assistance to their aged and pregnant relative.
This is the scene. They go because that is what families do, that is what communities do. When there is a problem we come together and help. If there is a joyous occasion we come together and we celebrate, when there is sorrow we join together and share the burden of the loss. Elizabeth was beyond the traditional child bearing age, she would need help. And Mary’s family would need to be there to help, and they also needed confirmation of Mary’s story.
Mary at this point may have only been with child for a couple of days. Even today we have no way of detecting a pregnancy that early. As far as Mary is concerned she is not pregnant and everything about this story is just a weird dream, but when they get to the town and greet Elizabeth something happens. They enter the house and Mary greets her cousin. There is nothing spectacular to this, even today we say something as we enter the residence of relatives and friends. We do not just enter the house silently. We do not know if Elizabeth was expecting this visit, in reality I am guessing that this was a total surprise, so Mary comes into the house and cries out her greetings and Elizabeth is beside herself with joy.
We are told that the baby within her womb leaped with joy at the sound of Mary’s voice. We all know that fetuses can respond to things going on outside. But the interesting thing about this is not so much that the baby is moving but why.
The message that Mary received from the angel was at least four days old. We are told that Mary left in haste, meaning that she did not spend a great deal of time planning the trip. And the angel said that that Elizabeth was in the sixth month of her pregnancy. In the fifty-sixth verse we are told that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months before she returned home. What all this is telling us is that Mary did not spend a month at home, she went to this town in Judea within a week of the announcement and she stayed with Elizabeth until after John was born. This might not mean much to everyone, except for this one fact, Mary went to visit Elizabeth before the first month of pregnancy. There is no way an ancient person could actually know if Mary was pregnant or not. Mary would not even know at this time if what the angel said would happen actually had. As far as she knew she was just a preteen girl with her entire life ahead of her, looking forward to that day she would be married to Joseph.
But when that baby inside of Elizabeth heard Mary’s voice something happened. Elizabeth knew that the baby inside of her was acting in an unusual manner. The baby inside of Elizabeth was excited to be in the presence of Mary. Then we are told that Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” I want us to stop here. How did Elizabeth know? Humanly speaking it would be impossible even today without extensive testing to know if Mary was with child mere weeks into the pregnancy, and yet Elizabeth knew. She knew that the young woman standing before her was not only pregnant but was carrying a child of great importance.
There is no way that Elizabeth could have known Mary was pregnant. And this is why this interaction is so amazing. I have read this story countless times throughout my lifetime, and not once did it occur to me that Elizabeth could not have known about Mary’s pregnancy prior to the meeting that day. It is highly likely that Elizabeth even fully understood the implications of her own pregnancy but God was active. Elizabeth not only calls Mary blessed, but she goes on to say, “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” This is also a profound statement. Although the term Lord has a variety of meanings in Greek culture, among the people of Israel the use this term only for unique situations. It is the term that they use almost exclusively in reference to God. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures the term we translate as Lord, is always used for the divine name. Not only does Elizabeth recognize that Mary is in fact pregnant but that the child that she carries is of divine origin. And the confirmation of this in her mind is the fact that the child within her own womb is leaping for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice.
We do not know how much Zachariah and Elizabeth communicated during her pregnancy, Zachariah was mute from the moment he left the temple until John was circumcised and named on the eighth day after his birth. But is clear that he found some way to explain to his wife the unique place their son would have in God’s emerging plans. John was destined to be the voice calling out in the wilderness to prepare the nation for the coming of their long awaited king. When John started leaping he confirmed the revelation in Elizabeth’s own heart that the young woman standing before her would become and was the mother of not only their messiah, but God incarnate.
And Elizabeth looks Mary in the eye and says, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” This is a somewhat enigmatic statement, but I want us to consider the greater picture. Elizabeth is actually comparing Mary to Zachariah. Zachariah did not believe when the angel came to him, and the sign that he was given was an inability to speak. Mary on the other hand, believed. She said to that angel, “may it be done as you have said.”
Does this interaction speak to you? The first people to bear witness to the gospel of God, was a pre-born fetus, and women. The very first person in the New Testament to be recorded as being filled with the Holy Spirit is a woman that for her entire life was cast in shame because she was unable to bear a child, and now she is celebrating the presence of her God who is embodied within the womb of the child standing before her. And that child is call the most blessed of all women, because she had faith. She trusted the word that God had given to her and she moved forward within that hope.
This story tells us many things. One might say that it gives us insight to when life begins because Elizabeth recognized the unborn child just barely implanted into the lining of Mary’s womb. But is also shows us the awesome power of the Spirit of God.
How many of us would be so bold as to look at a child and make the proclamation that Elizabeth made? It did not make sense that Mary of all people would be pregnant. She was not yet married, she was still living within her father’s house, and Mary said she had not been with a man. It seemed impossible, and yet Elizabeth did not hesitate to speak the proclamation.
I want us to consider that. I want us to let the story sit within our hearts and our minds. We sing the song Mary did you know, but maybe we should sing Elizabeth did you know. We have two very unlikely women, one barren and the other a poor unwed girl both standing together as the first witnesses of what is about to happen. And what do they have to say?
Luke 1:46–55 (ESV)
46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; 52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
They say we are willing to believe. We are willing to walk forward even when we do not understand. We are willing to trust God. They are willing to stand and walk in their faith with the hope that God will do all that he has promised and are willing to do their part.
What do we say? The magic of that silent night is right before us. This young woman just days into a pregnancy goes to visit her barren cousin who is now in her sixth month, and even before modern science could prove the reality that was unfolding they knew God was at work in a real and unusual way. Do we believe? Do we believe that God came down from heaven and clothed himself in humanity to change the course of history? Do we believe?
I believe. I believe because I have watched as people that call upon the name of the of Jesus have come together and done things seemingly impossible. I have watched as our community has come together to help others that we do not even know because something inside us has prompted it. I have seen the results of the magic of that silent night. I have seen people turn their backs on selfish interests and instead worked toward peace. I have seen the results of the child that Elizabeth announced that day. That child grew to become a great teacher. That child is Emmanuel God with us. That child grew, lived, and took my sin and shame for his own, and he bleed and died so that I could be restored. And that child has called me to participate in his kingdom. A kingdom that transcends the kingdoms and wisdom of humanity. A kingdom where we love God, embrace the Holy Spirit and live the love of Christ with others. The magic of that night is that God come to us so that we could once again become the people he created us to be. Do we believe?
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