Advent 3 Sermon (Dec 15, 2013): “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”

Luke 1: 39-56
39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “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 leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 
46And Mary said, “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.”
 56And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her hom


Luke begins his gospel with the story of two very different pregnancies.

We first meet Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah, both righteous before God and who have long waited to have a child.  But according to the Bible, they are quote “getting on in years,” (which means they’re getting older) and they haven’t been able to conceive.  But now, later in life, comes the surprising and miraculous news that Elizabeth is indeed pregnant.

And then there’s Mary, a young, unwed teenager who receives the shocking news that she, too, is with child.   

And today’s scripture passage tells us what unfolds when these two women meet. 

Now, while no two pregnancies are the same, I think that each pregnancy is a time fraught with expectation and emotions.  Joy and hope are certainly high on that list.  But if we’re honest, it’s also filled with a good amount of fear and trembling as well. 

When I talk with most expectant mothers, the first ten minutes are usually filled with all that they’re excited about- the delight, the anticipation, their hopes and dreams.  But then, if you sit with them just a bit longer, the deeply held anxieties and uncertainties seem to slowly follow.  Concerns about the health of the baby, or the health of the mother, the health of relationships once the baby arrives, how siblings or pets might respond- any complications that might arise, all these fears also lie within those who are expectant.

I’m certainly familiar with the whole gamut of emotions and mild waves of panic that inevitably wash over expectant parents, making us wonder, “Can any of us ever really be ready to be stewards of another human life?”

And so this Advent season, I think of young Mary, hearing the news of a pregnancy she did not plan for, a pregnancy that would not sit well with her parents or her community, a pregnancy that Joseph, her fiancé, does not yet know about…and I can only imagine the mixed emotions, the concern and downright stress she must be undergoing.    

What will her parents say?  How will her neighbors react?  Will Joseph break off the engagement?  Will she be alone?   

 In the verses immediately preceding this passage, Mary seems to take the news from the angel fairly well, considering how huge the news actually is.  But then, I think we get a sense of Mary’s true state of mind in the first verse of today’s story: “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country…”  Mary set out and went with haste; in other words, she left town.  In fact, she ran as fast as her first-trimester body would allow, seeking out her cousin Elizabeth, who she’s heard is also pregnant. 

Who knows all the thoughts that flooded her as she made that journey?  How scared she must have been?  Did she cry along the way? Or laugh at the absurdity of it all?  Did she rehearse how she might break the news to her family or to Joseph?  Was she afraid and lost?  Confused and overwhelmed? 

We can only use our holy imagination and wonder…

But then she finally reaches her destination, stands on Elizabeth’s doorstep, and I wonder if she had second thoughts about making her presence known.  After all, how would her righteous cousin Elizabeth and her priestly husband respond to her pre-marital pregnancy?  Would they believe her and take her in, or would they shame and shun her, turning her away? 

 But with no where else to go, Mary takes a risk and greets her cousin. 

In the midst of Mary’s uncertainty and fear, Elizabeth’s response draws her in, envelopes her in blessing and joy, not in judgment or shame, accepting her and her situation, even blessing her, rejoicing with her.    

We need more people like Elizabeth in this world.  People who are willing to move past judgment and shame to offer God’s blessing.  People who look at the world and see God’s redeeming work at hand, rather than seeing the worst in others and themselves.   

We need people like Elizabeth who can move us from a place of fear to a place of hope and singing.  We need people like Elizabeth.  People who see us, and can spot the expectant Christ child that longs to be born in us and in our lives.  

Meister Echkhart a German theologian and mystic says, “We are all called to be mothers of God, for God is always waiting to be born.” 

Some people assume that this Advent is particularly special to me because I, too, am very pregnant through this season.   If you’ve not already heard and couldn’t tell because this robe actually serves as great maternity wear, Mike and I are expecting our first baby at the end of January. 

And admittedly, there is something very special and profound about being so expectant in this time when the church universal awaits a baby, in this time when pregnant women actually make their way into the pulpit, both literally and through scripture.  But then I think of Advents past and of Advents to come, I am reminded that each one is profoundly special in its own way. 

Last Advent, I wasn’t 7 months pregnant, but we had just recently lost our first pregnancy to a miscarriage.  And that season of Advent as we sang those minor-key hymns and songs of longing and hope, helped me to mourn that loss in a very distinct and necessary way.  And the fact that I was joined by a community of people awaiting a child; not necessarily their own child who would join their family, but the child, the Christ child; that realization that I am not alone but that we are all still waiting brought great comfort to me. 

Or I think of my grandmother’s last Advent season with us many years ago.  She died in February, but was declining quickly through December.  And I remember how meaningful it was to await new life through the birth of a babe born in Bethlehem as we walked with her through her end of life.  And how much hope and strength she found in the promises of the coming of the Christ child.  

Advent is a season a season for all of us, that holds profound depth and is full of meaning for each of us, no matter where we are in life-  whether we are mourning loss; facing end of life; expecting first children or fifth grand-children; whether we are enjoying a break from school, or burdened by the busyness of this season, Advent calls to us to pause and remember that, “We are all called to be mothers of God, for God is always waiting to be born.” 

We are all bearers of God to this world, and this season of Advent is a time to remember that we are all called to be expectant, to be waiting and making preparations for Emmanuel, God with us.  And we need this time of Advent, to prepare and make way, for what awaits us on the other side is completely and utterly life-changing. 

Those serene, silent-night nativity scenes do not do full justice to what God is bringing into the world through this child, just as sweet, cherubic pictures of babies sleeping do not do full justice to what new parents can expect once their baby arrives. 

This biblical image of two modest, pregnant women, Elizabeth and Mary, carrying the messenger and the Message, on the brink of changing the course of human history through what grows within them, shows us a glimpse of a world about to turn, the world that Mary sings of in her song, the song we’ve come to know as the Magnificat.

“My soul magnifies the Lord,” she says.  And not just because of the good things God has done for her or me or you personally, but because of how the world is about to change. 

Mary’s song tells of a world where the proud are scattered, the powerful are brought down, and the lowly lifted up; of a world where the hungry are filled and the rich are sent away empty; a world where God hears and answers the plight of the lost, the last, the least and the lonely.  And a new world order is established where indeed the last shall be first and the first shall be last. 

Mary’s song is a radical one.  It is a song of hope birthed in a time of hopelessness and a song of joy birthed in a time of uncertainty.  A time not so unlike our own: where disparities between the rich and the poor seem ever-more insurmountable; where there are those who feast until they are grossly full while others go away hungry; where there are homes filled with prettily-packaged gifts while others have no place to call home at all.

It is into this time that Mary sings, sings and dreams of a different kind of world.  And through her song, she not only names those promises of God, but is able to enter into them.  To claim her place in how the world might change. 

Songs are like that sometimes.  Helping us to believe the words we sing in ways we might not otherwise. 

So Mary sings, and in this Advent season, we join her song, claiming our own place in how the world might change.  And helping us to see how we are lodged in that promise.  Recognizing that we, too, give birth to Christ in this world through our actions and our lives, that we, too, can allow God to enter in, embodied in flesh, to become a real presence that brings about change.

There is risk, however, in that time of expectation and there is risk in birth. We cannot live lives of complacency and comfort and expect new life to come.  We must take a dangerous journey, even as we are expectant, and we must boldly sing and live transformation. 

Because our Advent preparation and waiting is not just for the birth of a child, but for the birth of a whole new way of life. 

A revolution, not fought with weapons of war, but with love, forgiveness, mercy and healing.  A revolution, brought not by force and powerful men, but by two pregnant women, and the birth of a baby in a manger.

Last week, the world lost someone who understood that kind of revolution.  Nelson Mandela lived that kind of revolution.  After 27 years in prison, he was finally released and changed a nation and challenged our worldview by choosing forgiveness and reconciliation over punishment and retribution. 

He is known to have said, “In my country, we go to prison first and then become President.”  If I’ve ever heard a real-world embodiment of the Magnificat, of the lowly being lifted up, that’s certainly it.  From prisoner to president, Nelson Mandela birthed a new kind of South Africa, and while that birth was full of risk, he chose to do so any way.

And we are called to do the same in our own lives, in our own way.  

To birth new friendships and understandings that cut across divides;

To birth new ministries that are life-giving;

To birth new ministers who will serve passionately.

Madeleine L’Engle reminds us that there is no good time for birth to take place, “yet Love still takes the risk of birth.”

In this season of Advent, may we prepare our hearts and homes to be ready for Love to be born among and within us.  Let us be expectant, and allow hope to take root in us, so that come Christmas, we may know how to nurture it and grow it, so that it may blossom and flourish in our lives and in our world.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

ImageArtwork: The Visitation by He Qi

1 thought on “Advent 3 Sermon (Dec 15, 2013): “What to Expect When You’re Expecting”

  1. Pingback: Advents past and yet to come | Along the Graybeard Trail

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