Here we are on the fourth Sunday in Advent. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve and then Christmas Day comes on Tuesday. We’re almost there. We are on the cusp of Jesus’ birth.
Those of us who have had the privilege of being parents; do you remember the joy you experienced when your children breathed their first breaths and let out their first cries? And then there are those who are adoptive parents. Do you recall the joy in your hearts when you first saw the child that you hoped someday to welcome into your family and the absolute joy you felt when the final papers were signed off?
My parents had both of those experiences. After trying to have children for fourteen years with no success, they finally adopted my sister Judy. On the day that Mom and Dad went to pick her up from Children’s Aid, Mom woke up and was sick to her stomach. What she didn’t know at the time was that her morning sickness was the first clue that my sister would not grow up an only child.
Mom talked about what it was like to pick up Judy, my adopted sister. She remembered it well. She could describe the clothes Judy was wearing. She knew the names of the workers who had helped her and Dad through the process and with the paperwork. She could describe the room where it had all happened. It was etched in her mind because she who thought she would never have children finally was a mother.
She also told me about the day I was born. How my Grandfather, her Father, insisted on driving her to the hospital because he didn’t trust my Father to get her there on time. He was a scrappy little Englishman of about 5′ 4″ but he was tough as a bulldog and his word was law. Mom remembered getting to the hospital and going into the delivery room. The last words she heard were, “You won’t feel a thing,” before the anesthetist knocked her out cold. That’s what they did sixty-three years ago when a woman was having her first child at the advanced age of thirty-six. I’m glad that things have changed that way. But Mom eventually woke up and remembered the nurses bringing me to her from the nursery so she could feel the joy of holding her birth child for the very first time.
We, who are parents, all have those memories. I know I do. And I also think that the memories of mothers and fathers can be quite different because we experience the birth of our children from very different perspectives. But in the end, it’s an experience that makes us want to leap for joy.
Today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke is about another leap of joy at the anticipation of a birth. But it’s not from a mother or a father. It was the joy felt by another baby.
Just a bit of background. This story is in Luke 1. The two stories that immediately precede it have an important bearing on it. In Luke 1:5-25, is the story of how the angel Gabriel comes to a priest named Zechariah and tells him that his wife Elizabeth will have a baby. This is a bit of a surprise for Zechariah because Elizabeth has been unable to have any children and is now well past the normal age of child bearing. So Zechariah says, “How is that possible? My wife is too old.” And Gabriel says, “Don’t worry about it. God’s got this!”
This child was an important part of God’s plan of salvation. He was to prepare the way for the Messiah. This child, of course, was John the Baptist. It’s also important to note that Elizabeth had a cousin who just happened to be Mary who would become the mother of Jesus. So that means that Jesus and John the Baptist were – if I have this right – second cousins once removed. Nonetheless, they were related.
In the next story in Luke 1:26-38, we find the story of the angel Gabriel making another announcement. This time he is telling Mary that she was going to have a baby by the power of the Holy Spirit and that he will to be the Saviour of the world. Mary says, “But how is that possible since I am still a virgin?” And, once again, Gabriel says, “Don’t worry about it because God’s got this.” Mary is still having trouble with this whole concept and just to prove that what he said is true, Gabriel tells Mary that her cousin Elizabeth, who had been unable to have children, is now pregnant and in her sixth month – because nothing is impossible with God.
That’s the background. Today’s reading brings these two stories together. Mary wants to check out the angel Gabriel’s story and so she decides to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Let’s pick the story up at Luke 1:39-42 (NIV) where we read:
At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!
So Mary takes the journey to see her cousin Elizabeth somewhere in the hill country of Judea. It may have taken her couple of days to get there since she was from Nazareth which is in the northern part of Judah whereas the hill country was generally considered to be more in the south. Remember that Mary, by now, pregnant, is somewhere near the beginning of her first trimester. So she’s not very far along.
It’s interesting that as soon as Mary enters the house and greets her cousin, Elizabeth feels her own baby leap in her womb. So something is happening here. One baby, not even yet born, who we know as John the Baptist, recognizes the presence of the Messiah, Jesus, who has just recently been conceived.
And then we learn something else. It says that Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. That’s not an unusual occurrence in the New Testament where people are often described as being filled with the Holy Spirit. The significance of this is that, as far as I know, this is the first time it happens in the New Testament.
But what does it mean to be filled with the Holy Spirit? It can mean different things at different times but there are a couple of things that happen when someone is filled with the Holy Spirit. First, they have an almost hyper awareness of the things of God. They are sensitive to the Holy and ready and willing to act on that sensitivity. The second thing is that they are filled with joy. I cannot remember any time in the New Testament where someone was filled with the Holy Spirit and then just moped around all day. No. Usually, it was accompanied by great exuberance and an outpouring of the Spirit. That could come in great sermons such as what happened with Peter in Acts 2. It often resulted in speaking in tongues or prophesying. Sometimes people sang or danced. There was just a great outpouring of joy.
Knowing what it means to be filled with the Holy Spirit helps us to make sense of verse 42 which says that, “In a loud voice [Elizabeth] exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!’” Elizabeth could not have known that unless it was by the power of the Holy Spirit that had just filled her. She knows who Mary is and who her baby is because the Holy Spirit within her let her know. Let’s face it, as far as we know, up until this point, Elizabeth had no idea that Mary was even pregnant. Remember that Gabriel told Mary that Elizabeth was expecting. There is no indication in Scripture that Gabriel said anything about Mary to Elizabeth. Mary had just walked in the door and said, “Hi,” to her cousin. She did even have time to say, “Guess what?” Elizabeth, by the power of the Spirit, knew Mary’s news before she could even get the words out.
By the way, do you recognize the words that Elizabeth said to Mary? They’re rather famous. Anyone from a Roman Catholic background should be able to tell us why. They are the basis of the Hail Mary. The actual words of a traditional Hail Mary are, “Hail Mary, full of grace. Our Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.” That comes from Elizabeth’s Spirit filled exclamation when she first sees the expectant Mary.
As Protestants, of course, we don’t do Hail Mary’s – or at least most of us don’t but we get the significance of Elizabeth’s words and understand their importance in telling us who Jesus is.
LEAPING FOR JOY
But Elizabeth is not yet done. Let’s see what else she has to say in Luke 1:43-44 (NIV):
But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.
Elizabeth is over the moon that Mary, her young cousin, has come to visit her bearing the Messiah. And now she tells Mary how she knows all of this. It is because as soon as the baby inside of Elizabeth heard Mary’s voice, that baby leaped for joy. Now I don’t know exactly how much a baby can leap inside his mother’s womb but clearly, it was more than a common kick or punch. Elizabeth felt her baby move in an altogether different way than she was used to. And because of that, she recognized the significance of Mary’s visit and the child she bore.
Her baby leaped for joy. He leaped for joy when he heard the voice of one who came bearing Jesus. When you think about it, that’s quite a challenge to us. Mary came bearing Jesus and John the Baptist leaped for joy. Think for a moment what that says to us. We, who are Christ followers, are bearers of Jesus’ message to the world. We bring his message of love and hope and forgiveness to a broken world and when we do that we bring him.
But when we do that, how do people respond? Do they, like John the Baptist, leap for joy? They should because the message that Jesus has given us to share is the message that can change hearts and change lives for the better, not just in this life but in the next as well. People should leap for joy but, if I’m going to be honest with myself, I don’t see that happen very often.
I probably get more opportunities to share the Gospel than most of you do. That’s primarily a function of who I am and what I do. When I am with a grieving family after the death of a loved one, I always gently share Jesus. When I’m out and about in other situations and people discover that I’m a minister, they often feel compelled to talk about their faith or lack of it. And I’m good with that because every one of those opportunities opens doors to people’s hearts.
When I share the message of Jesus with other people, I generally get one of two reactions. One is open hostility but, to be honest, that happens very, very seldom. Most people are polite. They respectfully listen. And I usually respectfully listen right back when they what to share their views about faith because I happen to believe that sharing what we believe should be a dialogue not a monologue. And I’ve also discovered that if I’m not willing to listen to what they say, they won’t be very open to what I say.
But very few people, in my experience, respond with exuberance. Very few people leap for joy… except at one time of year. Except now. I don’t know about you but my personal experience is that people are more open to Jesus at Christmas time than at any other time of the year. I’m not sure why that is. But I have a hunch that it has to do with the fact that, despite all the energy put into it, the societal effort to secularize Christmas just hasn’t worked. When all is said and done, the vast majority of people, including Christians, Muslims, Jews, agnostics, atheists and even anarchists, know that Christmas really is about Christ. So, you people who have signs on your front lawn saying things like “Keep Christ in Christmas” and “Christmas is about Christ”, keep those signs up because I think message is getting out and you’re making a difference.
Another sign is that this year I’ve had lots of salesclerks in stores wish me a Merry Christmas. It seems that retailers have got past the need to be politically correct and are allowing their sales staff to say whatever they want rather than insist on the more generic Happy Holidays. I think that’s a good things because it shows that there is an openness to Jesus which makes sense because Christmas is, after all, the celebration of his birth.
But here’s a message for us Christians. We should not get all hot under the collar when someone says Happy Holidays to us. And we should not get upset when someone says, Happy Hanukkah, or Feliz Navidad or Happy Kwanzaa. Do you know what we should say when someone says those to us? We should say something like, “Thank you. You too.” Or how about, “Thank you. And Merry Christmas to you.”
There is no need to get offended or uptight when someone says something other than Merry Christmas. When Christians do that, when they get their knickers in a knot, what kind of an impression do you think it leaves with the other person? Do you think it makes them more or less joyful to see Christ in Christmas? Do you think it help our cause to spread the message of Jesus or does it hinder it? I don’t have to tell you the answer to those questions because you already know them.
Don’t be that Christian who closes another person’s heart to the Gospel by getting all bent out of shape because someone uses the wrong words. Instead, respond in a way that makes that person want to share with you and wants to talk with you. Respond in such a way that people will be open to the Jesus’ message rather than closed to it. However someone expresses the joy of the season, take it for what it is because they are expressing the joy of the season. Remember that they know that Christmas is the celebration of Jesus’ birth. This is your opportunity to present Jesus to them. And they may not leap for joy because, as Canadians, we tend not to do things like that, but at least they’ll be happy to see you which is a great start because it means that the doors of their hearts are open.
CONFIRMING GABRIEL’S WORDS
There is, of course, another significance for Mary. We find it in Luke 1:45 (NIV) where Elizabeth says this to Mary: “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
Remember that when the angel Gabriel first went to Mary and told her of God’s plan for her to become the mother of the Messiah, that she wasn’t too sure about this. Yes she was obedient to God’s will and she was willing but she wasn’t at all sure how she could become a mother given that she was still a virgin. Do you remember what Gabriel said to her? He reminded her that with God all things are possible.
Remember also that when Mary arrives to visit Elizabeth to see if what Gabriel had told her about her cousin was true, Mary is barely pregnant. They didn’t have early pregnancy tests in those days. There were no blood tests, no stick to pee on. In fact, despite what Gabriel had said to Mary, there is no way she can know that she is even pregnant. But she is. She doesn’t need to go to the doctor or get a home pregnancy test kit. All she needs is to see her cousin who confirms what Gabriel had said in two ways. First of all, this woman who had been barren and is well past the age of child bearing is into her third trimester of pregnancy. And second, she knows that Mary is pregnant because the Holy Spirit has told her what her baby’s leap for joy actually means.
Now Mary knows. She will be the one
to bear the long awaited Messiah, the Saviour of the world. This new life
within her will someday give his life to give life to the rest of the world.
And for that we should all leap for joy.
PRAYERS OF THE PEOPLE
Holy God, we approach you with awe and humility. Your strength is seen in the might of the rocky hills and roaring rivers. Your power is evident in the tremblings of earth and heaven. Your love is shown to us in a child born in Bethlehem.
We approach the day when we celebrate Jesus’ birth and are reminded, once again, of your presence in our lives. During this Advent season, we have focused on the hope that you give to us. We have tried to experience your peace. We have felt the joy. And we ask again for your precious gift of love. We thank you for Jesus, in whom you came to live with us in a new and wonderful way. Come to our hearts and live, anew, within us, we pray.
We, also, pray O God, those for whom Christmas brinkgs sadness. We lift up in prayer those who remember loved ones who are no longer with us, especially those who are experiencing the first Christmas after the loss of a significant person in their lives. We pray for those whose are living with the loss of health and security. We pray for those whose Christmas will be poorer because of a downturn in family economics through job loss, strikes or other financial hardships. We pray, also, for those who are experiencing depression at this time of year; touch them with a special measure of your joy.
Our prayers are lifted up for the education system of Ontario, that peace may be found, that justice and fairness may be established in affordable and responsible ways. May the words of Micah 6:8 be applied to this situation, to seek justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God.
We lift up in prayer those who have been in hospital this week. We remember especially Lyle and Sharon. Touch them and all others under your care with you Holy and Healing Spirit.
May your love shine down during this Christmas season so that your peace may rest in our hearts. We look to the day when your peace will rule all creation.
God of Advent, we look forward to
the coming of the Christ Child of Bethlehem into our hearts and lives. God of
the coming Christmas, may we come to appreciate what a wonderful and special
gift he is. We pray all of this in Jesus’ name. Amen.