Monday, December 24, 2012

Sunday's Sermon: A Time to Celebrate

Why did Mary go with haste to visit her cousin Elizabeth? Our gospel lesson this morning makes it clear that Mary didn’t leisurely head out to visit her relatives, but she went in a hurry. She was anxious to get there. Why?

Scripture isn’t clear. It doesn’t give us the reason, but we can make some educated guesses. And here is my educated guess, and mind you, an educated guess is still a guess. First off, Mary was engaged to Joseph. As such, they were promised and committed to one another. Essentially, they were married in the sight of the community even though they had not formally tied the knot. This is an important detail to remember because in the midst of this betrothal, Mary ends up pregnant. Now, we know the child to be born is of the Holy Spirit. We know Mary did nothing wrong. We know an angel appeared to Joseph telling him to stay with Mary because the child to be born is of God. We know this, but the community of people around didn’t know this. They were quite unaware of the situation and the promises God made to Mary and Joseph.
And what do you think would happen if the community found out Mary was pregnant before she and Joseph were officially married? The Levitical laws were none to kind to people who committed adultery, and such would be the charge against Mary. She would have felt dishonor. She would have been shamed. Folks would have marked her as a sinner. She would have been pushed far to the margins of her community and folks would say many ill fitting words about her. There was no mercy given to an unwed woman who was found to be pregnant; in fact, she could be tried and killed as punishment. You simply didn’t want to be discovered in such a state.

And so, it is quite possible that Mary went with haste to be with Elizabeth to avoid such a thing happening in her community. It is quite possible she went to stay with her relatives to avoid the shame and misery she would be put through in her home town. In all probability, while Mary knew the promises of God, she was fearful of what others would do to her and how they would treat her. While she knew what the angel had told her, there were still societal consequences, and while the angel’s news was good news, her treatment by society was occasion for fear and trembling. So Mary left. Mary sought shelter and consolation. She headed for her cousin’s home–to be with Elizabeth who was also pregnant and could hopefully offer some consolation and understanding. It wasn’t necessarily a time to rejoice or be excited. It was a time for hiding.

But when Mary arrived at her cousin’s, something quite unexpected happened. Elizabeth experienced something quite different. As Mary called out, the child in Elizabeth’s own womb leapt with joy!

Elizabeth couldn’t wait to tell Mary. Immediately, as Mary entered, Elizabeth proclaimed, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord."

We know Mary’s spirits were lifted by Elizabeth’s words. We know because immediately after Elizabeth spoke, Mary broke into song. We do not have that song printed here this morning, but it is known as the Magnificat–a wonderful song of redemption and hope. While Mary might have left out of fear of what would happen to her in Nazareth, the occasion suddenly was filled with joy, and hope, and life. It became a time to celebrate. Out of fear came joy! Out of a situation of trouble came laugher and celebration! Out of a situation of worry came song! And Jesus hadn’t even been born yet! It was the knowledge of what God was going to do and how God was going to act that caused the situation to change on a dime.

Too often in our world we are surrounded by bad news. Too often we are confronted with situations and things which happen that cause us grief and worry and fear. Too often we become consumed about what others think about us and how they perceive us. Too often we worry about what they say behind our backs. Too often we listen to the news and read the headlines and wonder why the world is full of such misery. Too often we get caught up in that misery and in the overwhelming ordeals of life. We become deadly serious. We stop laughing. We stop smiling. Joy ceases to travel with us. We lose sight of hope.

But what if we remembered God’s promises? What if we remembered that it is into the midst of all this stuff that God put on human flesh and walked among us? What if we remembered that when Jesus entered into all of this stuff, He exposed the Kingdom of God–a reality that is present among us, working sometimes silently, sometimes boldly, but a reality that changes our perspectives; changes our identity; changes our vision of the world? What if we remembered that the world tried to silence Jesus–tried to end the talk of God’s Kingdom coming? What if we remembered they tried to do so by killing the God became flesh? What if we remembered that their thoughts of success were shattered by the resurrection? What if we remembered that Jesus’ resurrection is a foretaste of the promises we share? That justice will reign? That all evil will be destroyed? That all the bad stuff that ever happened will be unmade? What if we believed these promises to be true, even though we have not seen them come to fruition?

Recently, I had a conversation with someone who lost their spouse earlier this year. The holiday season had made things particularly difficult. Grief had made it difficult to hold to many of the family traditions once held dear. Putting up the tree, buying presents, decorating, and baking all seemed like exercises in futility. Each thing was a constant reminder of the loss of a loved one and was like pouring salt on an open wound. It burned. It hurt. It didn’t seem worth the time, the effort, or trouble.

As we talked, I asked this person what the spouse would have thought of this action. "Can you tell me such and such would actually want you to do this?" I asked.

The response was obvious. Not a chance. Oh, it wouldn’t be easy. It would be difficult, even painful. Facing Christmas for the first time without your spouse is not an easy thing. It brings tears to the eyes and reminds a person about the emptiness in one’s heart, but I could see the resolve building in the person’s eyes. I could see the necessity welling within–the need to hold onto the promise that life moves on even without someone so loved. I could see the realization that the pain must be faced, and I could see the need for hope. I could see the need for the reaffirmation of God’s promises. Grief was there, certainly, but there was a need to celebrate–not celebrating a tree or presents or what have you, but to celebrate Christ’s birth–to celebrate the promises of God. Celebration would rise in the midst of grief and turmoil, and that celebration would result in joy. It might take a while to get there, but it will come.

As Christians, I believe part of our job in this world today is to affirm the need to celebrate. I believe it is part of our job to shine a light in the darkness–to point to the promises of God–to realize they give us a reason to hope and to celebrate.

James T. Garrett in his book God's Gift tells of a little girl, dressed as an angel, in a Christmas pageant who was told to come down the center aisle. The child asked, "Do you want me to walk or fly?"

Impossible, you might say? Yeah, but a child full of joy dares to dream the impossible. A child full of hope dares to fly. A child full of the promises of God, dares to ask the question. And as children of God, even in the midst of darkness and fear, we have the audacity to believe the promises of God. And when we remember those promises, that darkness is turned to light. Despair is turned to hope. Trembling is turned to song. Because of the promises of God, we believe it is a time to celebrate. Amen.

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