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Luke 1:39-56: Mary visits Elizabeth
A sermon

John P. Nordin
December 24, 2000
4th Advent / Cycle B
Christ the Servant, Lafayette
Luke 1:39-55

Who saw her? Who saw this unexpected figure moving without hesitation across the bare countryside? A young woman, a cloak wrapped around her head, hiding her face from the suspicious gaze of the passersby, pretending not to hear the intrusive questions of the inquisitive, deliberately not thinking of what those around her might be thinking.

She strides steadily, intent on completing her journey before the dangers of the dark night close in around her. The path ascends into the hills, twisting and turning, growing narrower and rougher. At last, as the sun slips beneath the hills and the shadows lengthen across the dry land she sees ahead of her a cluster of small huts nestled into the hill. She arrives in the village, stirring a dog to bark. Down the one street she moves, tired, but determined, until she is in front of the stone house she has sought.

The hours of the trip, the days of planning, the months of worry, all the years of her life and suddenly she is inside and embracing her relative and friend.

And now, with the two women face to face, two stories have come face to face as well. No longer separate, no longer parallel, they wind about each other like the arms of the two women in their embrace. The one story is remarkable, the other -- beyond amazing; the one story is about a hope beyond expectation, the other about a joy beyond all hoping.

The one story is an ordinary miracle, within our expectations, something we can hope for. The woman who lives in the little hut in the hill country tells the story to her younger visitor. It is the story of a faithful priest and his devout wife. For them, life had been good, but without the children that give parents a vision of the future beyond their own lives.

The role of the dice had given the husband of Elizabeth an honor, an honor that comes to the honored priests perhaps but once in a life: he will offer incense in the Temple. He prepares himself by the ancient rituals, and prepares his mind. He enters, and begins the liturgy, following all the rules. And in the middle of the ritual, something goes wrong, something goes right. An apparition, a presence with a message. Their lives, good and faithful, will be crowned with a child, a son. So long has he sought this, so completely has he resigned himself that there will be no child that he struck dumb with the news.

But, skeptical as he is, he will not refuse the message given by the angel inside the holy area of the temple. He completes his work, completes his time of service, and takes the path home, the path Mary will trod some months later. He shares the news, as best he can, with his beloved wife of so many years. Their hope is rekindled, and they come together as husband and wife, man and woman. She conceives and their hope takes wings. The little hut in a little village high in the hill country glows with their love and their thankfulness.

The second story is nothing we could expect, nothing we could anticipate. The woman who made the dangerous journey into the hill country tells this story. It is a story about a young woman of good character and family, who looks forward to an honorable marriage with a good man. She is planning her future, how they will be married, how she will manage the household, hoping for a house full of children and love.

One day, she is overcome, the world fades and she feels God’s presence strongly. She feels God communicating with her, intimately. She will have a child, but not later, she will have one soon. The child will not be hers and Joseph’s but will belong to the world. The child will grow, faithful and strong, but not to old age.

She tests this vision, and the vision remains. And now she is shown her elder relative Elizabeth, a woman advanced in years and wisdom who she has looked up to. She knows that Elizabeth will also have a child, and she is overcome with desire to see her kinswoman.

This desire and the knowledge of God’s vision keep her going through the next days, and, when the time is right, she sets out on the path to the hill country.

Now those two stories have come together, and Mary and Elizabeth know they are part of one story, even bigger and more astounding than either expected. Everything is wonderfully turned around. Mary is the one to whom the greatest angel has brought the greatest news yet she humbles herself to Elizabeth by being the one who takes the time and risk of travel. Elizabeth is the elder, she is a descendent of Aaron, they are in her house, yet she gives honor to the younger. It is the tradition that men do the public talking and the dangerous traveling, yet both Zechariah and Joseph willingly stand aside while the women they love, and who love them, speak these stories.

The women talk, and touch, and through their touch, the child in Elisabeth’s womb communicates as well.

These stories are woven into the fabric of history. Mary speaks, praising God and in her words are heard the echoes of those who have come before.

Hundreds of years before Mary sang, in the time of David, the man Asaph sang in thanks of God’s fulfillment of a promise made hundreds of years before David.

"O give thanks to the Lord...
Remember his covenant forever,
the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations,
the covenant that he made with Abraham,
his sworn promise to Isaac,
which he confirmed to Jacob as a statue,
to Israel as an everlasting covenant...
Sing to the Lord, all the earth,
tell of his salvation from day to day. [1 Chronicles 16:8-36]

The woman Hannah, long before Asaph, a thousand years before Mary, had also not had a child. She had prayed to God for a child, promising to dedicate that child to God’s service. And when God fulfilled her wish, she sang too.

"My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God....
The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts." [1 Sam 2:1-10]

And hundreds of years before Hannah, the woman Deborah had sung of how God has fulfilled promises:

"Bless the Lord
Tell of it, you who ride on white donkeys,
you who sit on rich carpets and you who walk by the way...
Awake, awake, utter a song!
The kings came, they fought:
The torrent Kishon swept them away.
So perish all your enemies, O Lord!
But may your friends be like the sun as it rises in its might." [Judges 5:1-31]

And hundreds of years before Debora, back to the dawn of history, back to the beginning of recorded memory, the woman Miriam, prophet, sister of Aaron, took tambourine and sang and danced in praise of the God who had led Israel out of Egypt, across the Red Sea to desolate safety in the dry wilderness.

"Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea." [Exodus 15:19-21]

And now after Miriam, after Debora, after Hannah, after Aspha, the woman Mary stands in the simple room of the rude hut high in the hills of the poor country and she opens her mouth, and more than a thousand years pour magnificently out:

"My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior."

For a thousand years and more, the people have been waiting, remembering a promise, unfilled.

"He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts"

Two pregnant women, one faithful priest, followers of a hidden God in a poor hut in the hill country far from the Temple, far from Rome's illumination. Night gathered around it, darkness surrounding them, they praise the light which will break on them like dawn from on high.

They praise and hope as their people have for a thousand years and more. These poor people know the Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing, he frustrates the plans of the peoples. These three in a fragile hut know the counsel of the Lord stands forever, the thoughts of his heart to all generations. They know the Lord is looking down from heaven; seeing all of human kind, seeing where these three have gathered together in the name of the Lord. [Psalm 33]

But will now be the time, will today be the day that the hopes and fears of all the years be met in this place and this time. This will be the hinge of fate, the day, the moment that past turns to future, that hope turns to action.

Now in these two holy women, in the children they carry and in the two honorable husbands who will love and help them, now the promises of God will come to fruition.

The stories of these two women are pregnant with expectations for the future. Elizabeth feels the weight of the future growing within her. She feels the kick of that child within her and knows it is the future demanding to be born.

How long Israel has waited, and how long the faithful people within Israel have waited for Israel.

The women know that from now on, generation after generation will look to this time and this place. Generation after generation into the future, as far as one can imagine and yet farther, this time, these stories will not fade into the dust of the past.

And from where they stand and embrace they can see one shape of the future. Things will change. The grinning, evil, oppressors will face their comeuppance. Those who use money as a weapon will find it slipping from their control. The nation, bowed down under oppression will stand up. God will caress the poor, God will feed the hungry, God will give justice to those that suffer. The promise will be kept, the truth will out, God will not be mocked any longer.

The world will shift, Jerusalem will no more be examined in the light of Rome, now the Palatine will be seen from the perspective of Jerusalem. Decrees from the Senate will not sway the hill country; now words from the mount will drown the chatter of the Forum.

The night passes, and then the next day. The women talk, they touch. And having shared their stories, and they hopes for the future, they know it is time to move into that future.

Elizabeth faces the last difficult days of waiting before she can hold the future in her hands. Mary’s future is with her betrothed husband, not here in the hill country. She must travel back home, and then travel with Joseph on a journey at once less lonely, and more strenuous. Mary’s future is Bethlehem.

And so the stories, woven together for a brief time, now spiral apart. They will turn, twist and spread, one echoing the other. One birth, and then another birth, one child and then another child. One remarkable youth will begin to announce the future, and one even more magical youth waiting for the right moment to begin the future.

The stories will spiral apart, will grow in parallel, and then come together. Elizabeth’s child will baptize Mary’s child, in another reversal. Then the stories will spiral apart once more, yet remain linked, as Elizabeth’s child will die painfully and unjustly, and his followers scatter. A little while, and Mary’s child will die painfully and unjustly, and his followers will scatter to the winds.

And then for three days the stories will shrink and fade, sink into the earth, disappear from sight, wither and die. But Mary’s child is not gone, and Elizabeth’s child did not proclaim him in vain.

The followers of Mary’s child will scatter in purposeful mission. Disciples into Israel, two on a road to Emmaus, one by the road to Ethiopia, one on a road to Damascus. They will travel roads more dangerous, and journey much farther than the hill country beyond Jerusalem. They will find a greeting sometimes less and sometimes equal to Elizabeth’s greeting of Mary.

Their stories will weave and spiral in and out, together and apart, in a pattern every changing, in a weave spanning the earth, picking up threads from every culture, a pattern none of us command or know the finish.

And each year, as the Earth spirals around again toward this time, cold and bare here, warm and bursting with life in the south, the story of Mary and Elizabeth will come around again to us.

And again we hear the story of Mary’s child and Elizabeth’s child. Not the story of how it began, because it began before the dawn of time. But one story in the middle of time, when time changed, when the past ended, and the future began.

One story of two women, their husbands and their children. The story of all stories, the history of all the future, the beginning of every hope -

is there, in that woman, moving in deliberate purposeful haste along the road into the hill country, into our future.