Christmas has come – and the greatest gift of Christmas is that God has come, as one of us… as a person, as God with us. God as humankind, in humankind, through humankind. God in Christ. Christ in us. And we will celebrate this gift all season long – through stories of birth and rebirth. The receiving and giving of birth. Last week, we encountered Hannah, and how God filled the emptiness of her life with Godself, and with the birth of her son Samuel, who in turn, became God’s gift from Hannah. The gift of life, through us, and in us. This week we discover a wonderful text, sharing the gladness of birth accompanied by family, friends, and especially by the Spirit of God.
Only Luke the Physician tells the story of Elizabeth, Zechariah, and John. Of Elizabeth, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. Of the connection between them all. It’s as if, in his clinical notes, it was important for him to include the entire history and physical findings of all persons who had a part in the coming of these two sons… these two boys who would each change the world in their own way… one preparing for change, and the other making it.
Elizabeth was a daughter of the Aaronic priesthood. Her husband served as a priest, and so we know immediately, as the story opens, that these were faithful people of God. They had lived well past child-bearing years, and Elizabeth had most likely made peace with her aging body, and her childlessness. Imagine her husband arriving home from Temple one day, writing out what he could not speak… ‘God has answered my prayer… you will have a baby soon.’ Oh my! Whoever said that there was nothing funny in the Bible??? We don’t know what Elizabeth said, but we do know that before long, Elizabeth became pregnant, and spent the first five months in seclusion... she had plenty of things to do to prepare herself for childbirth – physically, mentally, spiritually. Prayerful preparation to receive a child when you’ve thought this wouldn’t come takes great care. Imagine what Elizabeth had to think about…
The Angel Gabriel had spoken to her husband, giving him the name of their child – John. And the angel told him what John would become: “…great in the sight of the Lord… filled with the Holy Spirit. 16He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ Imagine preparing for a baby boy like that!
Gabriel visited Mary too, and named her child – Jesus. And told her what he would be:
2He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end… the child will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” Gabriel was not speaking to an older woman, experienced in community. This was a young woman, who knew stories of a coming King, but had no idea the King would come as a child – let alone as her child.
And then, the angel brought Mary a very loving message: 36’… your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Nothing will be impossible. God makes all things possible. If you Mary, are overcome with what seems impossible for you, know that you are not alone. In this large, large world there is one whom you know, who is also moving through an impossible thing, from and with God.38Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ The angel departed from her. And Mary hurried to Elizabeth’s home.
You never know what God will birth into your life. You may be moving through your life, having accepted its fullness, its emptiness, understanding just who you are, and what your sense of life is when… someone comes home to tell you your life will change. What do you do? How do you wait for something you didn’t expect?
Henri Nouwen, in his beautiful essay, “Waiting for God”, writes this: “I find the meeting of these two women very moving, because Elizabeth and Mary came together and enabled each other to wait. Mary’s’ visit made Elizabeth aware of what she was waiting for. The child leapt for joy in her. Mary affirmed Elizabeth’s waiting. And then Elizabeth said to Mary, “Blessed is she who believed that the promise made her by the Lord would be fulfilled.” And Mary responded, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.” She burst into joy herself. These two women created space for each other to wait. They affirmed for each other that something was happening that was worth waiting for.’
‘I think that is the model of Christian community. It is a community of support, celebration, and affirmation in which we can lift up what has already begun in us. The visit of Elizabeth and Mary is one of the Bible’s most beautiful expressions of what it means to form community, to be together, gathered around a promise, affirming that something is really happening.’
‘This is what prayer is all about. It is coming together around the promise. This is what celebration is all about. It is lifting up what is already there. This is what Eucharist [or our time of Waiting Worship] is all about. It is saying “thank you” for the seed that has been planted. It is saying “We are waiting for the Lord, who has already come.”
‘The whole meaning of the Christian community lies in offering a space in which we wait for that which we have already seen. Christian community is the place where we keep the flame alive among us and take it seriously, so that it can grow and become stronger in us. In this way we can live with courage, trusting that there is a spiritual power in us that allows us to live in this world without being seduced constantly by despair, lostness, and darkness. That is how we dare to say that God is a God of love even when we see hatred all around us. That is why we can claim that God is a God of life even when we see death and destruction and agony all around us. We say it together. We affirm it in one another. Waiting together, nurturing what has already begun, expecting its fulfillment – that is the meaning of … friendship, community, and Christian life.’
Elizabeth began her journey in seclusion, but she wasn’t allowed to remain there. God sent her Mary, her relative, to companion with her and to assure her of her capacity for birthing newness in an aging body. Mary received the gift of affirmation, that Elizabeth, a faithful woman of God, recognized God in her, and knew the presence of God made real. What might have been fearsome, became faith. What once was only wishful thinking, became hope.
Elizabeth’s story reminds us that we are always pregnant, audaciously expectant, full of God. We bear God’s light and God’s love, often without realizing it. When we don’t see it, or feel it in ourselves, our community finds it in us, affirms it in us, and proclaims that which we, together, have already seen and known. We give one another space for God’s word and God’s promise. We seek each other out, we move together in community, to bear witness to Emmanuel – God in us, God with us. We stand and sing, as we did in our opening hymn today, Zechariah’s song – “Blessed be the God of Israel, who comes to seal peoples free!” We sing our song together, “Emmanuel – God is with us! We are waiting for the Lord, who has already come!”