Fourth Sunday of Advent
Mary was the last person in the world who you might think would be ready to take on the responsibility of bearing and raising the child of God, the Messiah, Jesus. Mary was a nobody- a peasant girl of probably about 14 or 15 years old. Today, she would have been a freshman in high school. More than that, she was pregnant in a culture and society that met unwed, teenage mothers with great disdain. Such people were shameful and undeserving of mercy or goodwill. No one expected anything good to come from Mary.
Elizabeth herself didn’t seem to be in a great position for raising a child, but there she was, pregnant too. Elizabeth was an old woman and considered to be long past her child-bearing years, but there she was, five months pregnant with one whom the angel Gabriel said would be the messenger of the Messiah. No one expected anything good to come from Elizabeth either.
God was with these two women. God had shown favor to these two lowly, overlooked, and dismissed women. God had planned on bringing about salvation through these two women.
Mary, the 14 or 15 year old freshman in high school had just found out that she was pregnant and if that wasn’t complicated enough, she also was visited by the angel Gabriel who told her that she was pregnant with God’s child who will be the Messiah. Amazingly, Mary responds “Yes” to her charge to bear the Son. Even so, Mary has a lot on her plate. She wonders how she will be a mother for the first time and be a good parent to the Son of God- a tall order for a small-town peasant teenager. Mary hears that her much older relative Elizabeth also is miraculously pregnant. Mary decides to pay her relative a visit. Perhaps she goes to help her elderly relative prepare for her own birth or perhaps Mary goes to get a little bit of encouragement as she faces her own uncertain future.
When Mary finally gets to the home of Elizabeth a connection is made and their stories join together. The bearer and nurturer of the Messenger has met the bearer and nurturer of the Message. These women who might have been voted least-likely-to-succeed have their unlikely stories joined together by God. The yet-to-be-born John the Baptist is filled with the Holy Spirit and kicks in joy at the arrival of the yet-to-be-born Jesus who will bring about peace, justice, and salvation for all. Elizabeth too is filled with the Holy Spirit and she recognizes that in this ordinary moment of two pregnant and vulnerable relatives greeting each other, God is doing something amazing that is going to transform the world and bring it to wholeness. She exclaims to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Then she marvels at the fact that God has blessed her, an old and formerly barren woman, with the opportunity to be a part of this momentous occasion in salvation history. Elizabeth wonders aloud, “…why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”
Then, Mary too wonders at the absurdity of the situation. Two women who should not be standing in joy and honor by the world’s assessment are shouting and crying in joy. One should have remained an old woman without a child to raise. The other, at worst should have been the object of ridicule and scorn for her teenaged, unwed pregnancy, and at best she should have been pitied. The angel who visited them and their families had a different message from God. They were to have a most honorable and important role in God’s plan for salvation- they were to bear the messenger and the Son. They were to teach them what God desires for this world. They were to provide encouragement and hope for them when their tasks seem too overwhelming to fulfill. These women were chosen by God to help bring about peace and justice for the whole world.
It all seems so strange and unfamiliar. Nothing like this has ever been done before… or has it? As Mary contemplates the absurdity of God favoring the lowliness of her, she remembers the history of God’s saving works and suddenly it doesn’t seem so absurd.
Mary remembers that God has always favored the lowly, the weak, the despised, the forgotten, and the poor. Elizabeth wasn’t the first old or barren woman that God miraculously helped to conceive a special child. Sarah, the wife of Abraham and mother of all the Hebrew people was 90 years old when she finally gave birth to Isaac. Hannah, the mother of the great prophet Samuel was barren for many years before she finally became pregnant.
Mary remembers that the nation of Israel itself was a small and insignificant tribe of people, yet they were made to be God’s chosen people. When they were enslaved and suffering in Egypt, God delivered them from the mighty hand of Pharaoh and brought them to the Promised Land. When the prophets of God seemed to have been completely wiped from the face of the earth by the nefarious King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, God raised up the weak, whiny, and scared prophet, Elijah, and through him brought about hope and peace.
In one sense, the fact that God shows favor and places the grand finale of salvation history in the wombs of an old woman and an unwed, teenaged, peasant girl is absurd and even shameful. But on the other hand, it isn’t so unusual because God has been dwelling with and working through the absurd, the shameful, and the weak since the beginning.
The Spirit of God within Mary is too much to contain within herself. She can’t help but sing out a song full of the hope that is given by a God who has proved over and over again that we are not lost, we have not been abandoned, and all wrongs will be made right. She sees her story joined with Israel’s story and most importantly, joined with God’s story.
46And Mary [sang], “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Mary’s story has been joined to Elizabeth’s story, and their story has been joined to God’s story. Our story too has been joined with God’s story. God has looked with favor on the lowliness of Mary and made her a part of God’s salvation story. God has looked on your lowliness and has made you a part of God’s salvation story.
The Christ child comes to this world for you. You may feel like Elizabeth who asks in amazement, “Why has this happened to me?” or you may feel like Mary who asks of the angel, “How can this be?” Why me? What good have I done to deserve such abounding mercy and grace? Surely my struggles and fears are too low for God to reach. We may think that God has bigger fish to fry than us with our meager lives. But God sees things differently. God thinks the world of you and then some. God has never forgotten anyone who was lost, weak, or hungry. We join our hopes with Mary’s hopes and we join our song of faith and joy with Mary’s song. God has looked with favor on the lowliness of you and me in the face of whatever we might otherwise think makes us ineligible of favor and mercy. The old and the young, the whiny and the scared, the weak and the tired, the small and the insignificant, the sick and the suffering, the hungry and the poor, the sinners and the lost- God favors you. God favors you just as God favors Sarah, Hannah, Israel, Elijah, Elizabeth, and Mary. God’s lovingkindness has endured from generation to generation and will continue to endure for all whom God has loved. God’s lovingkindness has endured for you.