So how are you coming with your list?? We have a matter of hours to go and you’re either settling into a peaceful anticipation of Christmas or you have ratcheted up the stress level to new heights to pull off the celebration of your dreams. There are signs of the season that come at us from every direction. One place that changes this time of year is our mailbox. It starts with the delivery of slick catalogues even before Thanksgiving arrives. Then the Christmas cards start arriving. It’s the one time of year I look forward to opening up my mailbox! We write a Christmas letter each year—it’s not done yet but it will be soon. One year it became a “Lenten Letter” so I’ve learned not to stress over it. We try to recap the year for those who at least pretend to be interested in our lives! My friend calls these sorts of holiday mailings “brag and gag letters.” We include photographs that show off our best side and tell tales of great accomplishments and proud moments. This same acquaintance threatened to start off her letter one year describing the arrest of her daughter for belligerent and aggressive behavior at home while the other daughter had announced during the course of the year that she had switched from Christian beliefs to pagan tendencies. Now that’s the kind of letter that can either make you laugh because of its stark honesty or drain the joy right out of your holiday! Of course it’s no longer just at Christmas that we are subjected to the perfect portrayals of peoples’ lives. With the ubiquitous presence of selfies we have the potential to feel lousy about our own lives every day of the year as people upload photo after photo of winsome smiles in enviable locations. Our expectations for Christmas are peace and joy but sometimes it feels like pageantry of the perfect!
So perhaps, on this Sunday that is just two days before the big occasion, we need to sit with Mary and Elizabeth for a while. There is a simple beauty to these two women, both expecting babies in unexpected ways! Elizabeth is past the child-bearing age and is childless. But God has blessed her and her priest-husband, Zechariah, with a pregnancy and a promised baby boy. Mary’s pregnancy—well, we know about that story. We’re just thankful that Joseph believed the dreams God gave him that 1) reassured him that Mary had not been unfaithful to him and, 2) urged the two of them needed to settle into this pregnancy with great anticipation. In the meeting of these two women in the remote Judean hill country, we see God working in deeply personal ways that promise to shake up the world!
We don’t know what prompted Mary to travel to see her older relative after the annunciation by the angel Gabriel. She was told that Elizabeth was expecting in her old age and that may have been enough to coax her out of town. It’s also possible that Mary needed to get out of Dodge to avoid the stigma that would certainly come her way as her belly bloated before there hadn’t been a wedding. Whatever the cause, Mary’s arrival provides confirmation to Elizabeth that the Holy Spirit is at work. Her husband had been muted when he doubted the angelic announcement that his wife would have a child. So Elizabeth wasn’t able to hear about his holy encounter. Shut off from conversation with each other, Elizabeth must have pondered her pregnancy. When Mary arrives God gives confirmation through leaps in the womb that this baby is special. Elizabeth met God in those kicks and she, the wife of the silenced preacher, became the prophet. She pronounced the importance of these two babies who were linked by DNA but, more importantly, in holy purpose. Mary’s arrival at Elizabeth’s home confirmed to both that the Spirit was at work.
Mary had this remarkable encounter with the angel Gabriel, announcing to her that she would become pregnant with a child who was of the Holy Spirit. Mary and Joseph feared God—respected God’s great power. Yet Mary is unafraid. There is this paradox in the Christian faith that insists that we fear, respect, stand in awe of God’s majesty and might. But, when we encounter God in visions, dreams, through the words of trusted friends or in unsolicited thoughts that bring our attention to God, we experience God as merciful. Rather than being wrathful, Mary meets the God who has patiently led a stubborn people for thousands of years! Rather than meting out justice, God offers forgiveness. Mary empties herself to make room for the Messiah. Rather than chasing around after the next ten things on our list, Mary models for us the need to rest in God’s presence and promise.
After Elizabeth prophesies in the power of the Holy Spirit about these leaping babies, Mary sings a song for all generations. The words to her prophecy foretell a reversal of the order of things in our earthly lives. Charles Campbell states that her song “invites us beyond our realistic expectations and our numb imaginations.” Have we settled for realistic expectations? Have we given up on stepping out in faith to follow the leading of our God? Mary’s revolutionary words almost sound like a protest song of the sixties. But there is no anger in this young woman’s voice that cuts through the dark. She assures generations to come that Jesus’ arrival announces good news to the down-trodden and judgment for those who have replaced God with self. Charles Campbell writes, “In the women’s actions, the world is indeed turned upside down. Hierarchies are subverted. The mighty are brought down. Two marginalized, pregnant women carry the future and proclaim the Messiah.”
This story is about two women who were expecting. But their pregnancies pushed them beyond the boundaries of their safe expectations for how their lives would play out. God brings them together to provide them the community they lack. They needed each others’ support. Their meeting revealed that God was powerfully at work in the forming of these infants. They were ordinary women of faith, ready to love the child God sent them, and to raise them to fulfill God’s plan for them. In humble Mary and Elizabeth, who were expecting something far beyond their wildest expectations, we encounter God’s upheaval to the comfortable status quo.
Like these two Biblical women who humbly lived the faith 2000 years ago, we are marginal people. That’s good news, actually. We may think that we are super important people because our lists are long this time of year and we are putting miles on our cars with errands and outings. But the drama of the world doesn’t hinge on our actions today. We are able to—and, more importantly, called to—listen and wait for God to break into our mundane routine. Mary and Elizabeth model for us, just two days before Christmas, what our focus must be. We must expect for God to show up and turn our carefully scripted plans upside down. We saw God in the faces of those who received our gifts yesterday at a nearby mobile home park. We expect to hear God in the voice of the difficult relative who always sits around our table at the holidays. We expect to sense Christ’s presence through the words of our church friends. Michael Bennett stated that, “Congregants need to sit for a while with a people—and a God—who will accept them as they are, not as they feel expected to be.” That’s what is available to you each Sunday! You don’t need to come in to worship with picture-perfect smiles and all the details to your lives in perfect order. You are invited to come as you are, with a spirit open to God’s presence. There’s no room in Advent for numb imagination and realistic expectations. Don’t come into worship unless you embrace an expectation to be changed! As Mary and Elizabeth discovered, God is at work! Anything is possible! Jesus is near.