This sermon was delivered on December 23, 2012 at Wallace UMC.
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
I don’t think anyone back then really was expecting what happened, least of all Mary and Elizabeth.
Sure, everyone hoped for a savior, a deliverer, someone who would finally bring justice, peace, joy and love to the world, but… honestly, I imagine not a lot of people had much hope things would get better. Remember, these people are the Jewish people. While they were delivered out of Egypt, and grew great and powerful… they also suffered greatly as well. They suffered war, devastation, exile, and conquest at every turn. They were aliens in their own lands, occupied by a foreign power, while they had some freedom, it was only at the end of a R0man spear, and by the whim of the Roman Emperor. Honestly, things didn’t look good, and there wasn’t much hope, especially for these two women.
Oh, there was hope enough, I suppose. Elizabeth was the wife of a high priest—a pretty good place in society to be sure, but with one catch. She was barren, and now well beyond the age of bearing a child. What consolation there was for being in a fairly high place in society cannot match the grief a woman might endure when she’s told she can’t have children. And as for Mary, again, things weren’t too terrible, I suppose. I mean, she’s engaged to be married to a good man, albeit a much, much older man. She would have some stability in this world, which is more than a lot of people could ask for, but then again, her life was never going to be a bed of roses. She and Elizabeth remained second class citizens among a society made up 0f second class citizens, doubly disenfranchised, doubly discriminated against. There wasn’t much hope for these two—until Love came down. Until Love broke into their lives. Until Love turned everything upside down.
Today is the fourth Sunday in the season of Advent, a day we celebrate this humble yet utterly joyous, utterly amazing and beautiful moment in the lives of Mary and Elizabeth. Today is also the fourth and final part of the Advent Conspiracy, this sermon series I’ve been leading us through in an effort to make this season something special, something worth remembering. We’ve been focused on 4 simple ideas this season, 4 principles to keep in mind this season before Christmas: Worship Fully, Spend Less, Give More, and Love All. Today, I think most appropriately, we’re exploring how best to love all, and I can think of no better day to do that than this one.
You see, I say that because the meeting of Mary and Elizabeth is when Love truly broke into the world, and that love came for all. Once upon a time (as most good stories tend to go) an angel came to Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth, and told him he would have a son with his wife. He didn’t believe it, of course; who would? Elizabeth was too old, and on top of that, barren. But sure enough, Elizabeth conceived, and for his unbelief he couldn’t speak until the baby was born. Not only was Elizabeth blessed to have the story turned around, that she should become a mother at her age, but her son would be the messenger to the people to make way for the coming of God as well! Love came. Love turned everything upside down. In the process, Love gave her hope.
As for Mary, well, her world was turned upside down even more drastically than Elizabeth! That same angel that came to Zechariah paid her a visit as well, and told her that she was going to bear a child—even though she had never been with a man before. Now, again, Mary was barely a child herself, only about 13 or so. Also, she wasn’t married to Joseph yet. This announcement was not exactly one that most people in her position would be joyful about. But then again, Mary is not most people.
So we finally get to this story, this very simple meeting of Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist, and Mary the mother of Jesus. Two women who are now expecting when they not too long ago had any reason to expect. Two women with hope who up until recently had little to hope for. Their meeting is a very simple, human thing. It’s not grand. It’s not a huge party. Just Mary visiting her cousin. But it’s also a meeting that gave rise to one of the most famous and most powerful passages in the New Testament.
Elizabeth, already six months pregnant, cries out when Mary greets her. She is filled with the Holy Spirit, and pours gives blessings upon blessings on Mary. The child in her belly jumped when she saw her! Elizabeth knew, without a doubt, that the child in Mary’s womb was going to be nothing less than the Lord, the Messiah, the Christ, the prince of peace, the lord of love, Immanuel, God with Us. Elizabeth knew! The unborn John knew! This was something worth celebrating, something worth rejoicing about, because they knew that Love was going to break into the world, and turn everything upside down. It happened when they weren’t expecting it, but they were waiting for it nonetheless.
You see, this is what happens when love breaks into the world. When love changes a life. When love changes all our lives. And I know, it’s a real easy thing to talk about love sometimes, especially around Christmas. Suddenly people remember to act like we’re supposed to, you know? Being charitable to one another, giving out of our own hearts—it’s a wonderful time of year. At least it should be.
However there’s so much that is just beyond our vision sometimes. It’s easy to get blinded by the holiday cheer that we ignore the suffering that surrounds us. There are so many people that are hurting in the world. There’s so much pain, so much suffering, so much injustice and evil it makes your heart sick. For some reason, the holiday season makes those in mourning, those who are in pain and suffering all that much more noticeable. The tragedy in Newtown is one such a thing; the lives lost in the massacre leave a huge scar on all of us. So is the devastation of Hurricane Sandy—there’s still so many people displaced, so many lives lost, and so much work to be done. And then, there are the everyday disasters that go unseen, unnoticed by the media. We live in a world broken by sin and death, suffering and disconnectedness—but it doesn’t have to be this way. No, it can be different—it must be different!
It must be, because we are supposed to be a people who are living a transformed life, a life changed by love, turned upside down by hope, and given new joy by the God who became flesh to dwell among us. We are a people who need to be able to sing with Mary as she sang—“My soul magnifies the Lord! My spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant… He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” You see? We are a people who must be living out this kind of love in the world; this love that turns everything upside down for the betterment of all people, all people all over the world.
It starts with you, though.
It starts with a choice, the choice to love all as Christ loved all. Christ is working in the world. Love is changing the world. You get to take a part in it this year. Love is a hard thing to do, especially when everything around us begs the question: “Is it really worth it? Is it worth it to love all? The problems of the world are too big to just “love” them away.” Well guess what? It is worth it. Yes, the problems are great big ones—but we have to address them. We have to. Christ came to save us from ourselves, and only asked us to believe in return, to have faith. Faith that love really can change the world.
It starts with you, and it starts with love. Last week, I told you to bear fruits worthy of your repentance—this week, I want you to love like the world depends on it, because my brothers and sisters, it does. The world desperately needs love, and that love needs legs. It needs hands. It needs people willing to take a risk, and give of themselves to others and to God. If God is love, and we worship this God, why shouldn’t we be the most loving people on the planet?
It starts with a gift. It doesn’t need to be much, but I ask that it is something. Today and tomorrow, Christmas Eve, there will be a special offering for 3 different charities. 3 charities that make a difference in this world. 3 charities that offer love to those who need it.
Imagine that a simple gift of a food could mean life or death for someone this winter. Imagine that something you may not even think twice about, like spaghetti or canned goods, or just some money you’ve been saving could spare someone from a rainy day. 11% of the population in the surrounding area of this church live below the poverty line. These are our neighbors. These are people who are in need. If you give to Manna Ministries, Love can turn their world upside down.
Imagine that a gift of water could mean life to someone. That a simple gift could mean an entire community has clean, drinkable, accessible water. 783 million people around the world lack access to clean water. That’s 1 in 9 of us. 1 out of nine people, men women, and children, lack water. That’s something we barely even think about. That’s something that’s essential to life. You can change that. If you give to Living Water International, your money can go towards building wells, and providing clean, necessary water for people in desperate need of it. If you give to Living Water International, Love can turn their world upside down.
Imagine that a gift of freedom for someone. More children, women and men are held in slavery right now than over the course of the entire trans-Atlantic slave trade: Millions toil in bondage, their work and even their bodies the property of an owner. Trafficking in humans generates profits in excess of 32 billion dollars a year for those who, by force and deception, sell human lives into slavery and sexual bondage. Nearly 2 million children are exploited in the commercial sex industry. This is reality for these people; this is not some kind of scary story. This is real, and this needs action. The International Justice Mission is a charity that works to end this, by legally tracking down human traffickers, and putting them to justice. They free countless women and children. They care for the survivors, hold the perpetrators accountable, care for the survivors after the ordeal is over, and work for structural change so the slave trade is history. This is something you can take part in. If you give to International Justice Mission, Love can turn their world upside down.
These are 3 charities. No matter which one you choose, you can’t go wrong. I’m asking you to think about it. Think about what love can do for this world. It means food. It means water. It means freedom, safety. Love means life.
Christ came to give us life, to deliver all of us from sin and death, and now it’s our turn to do our part, to participate in the salvation of the world. Let your soul magnify the Lord, Rejoice in our savior. Let love turn the world upside down.