a sermon on Luke 1:26-56
preached on December 21, 2014, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
As some of you know, I am a collector of nativity scenes. Over the past seven or eight years, I’ve managed to assemble a collection that includes a depiction of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus from every continent except Australia and Antarctica. I’m still trying to complete those last two, though I suspect that anything from Antarctica might be nothing more than a puddle of water by the time it gets to me!
The incredible thing about all these nativity scenes is the variety of different ways that they depict the same story. The materials vary based on the things common to that part of the world, and there are cultural differences in dress, look, and even skin color. Even beyond this, though, these different nativities show Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and others with a variety of different expressions and feelings. Sometimes they are shown with great seriousness and piety, other times with a bit of happiness and satisfaction. One setting has nothing more than the name of each character in a simple typeface on a block of wood, and there’s even one where Mary looks so peaceful and prayerful that I think she may be asleep!
All these different depictions of the nativity remind me that this is ultimately the story of God coming into our world, taking human form just like us, coming to us to relate to us as one of us. While Jesus was certainly born into a particular time and place, bearing the cultural, religious, and personal markers of his human identity, all these different depictions of the nativity remind us that we are constantly called to make this story our own.
The pre-birth story that marks our reading this morning is filled with so many wonderful moments that can touch our lives: the visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary, the news that the young virgin Mary will bear a child by the power of the Holy Spirit, the visit of Mary to her relative Elizabeth, the songs offered by Elizabeth and Mary as they sort out what these strange events mean for one another and the world, and the extended conversations between these two very blessed women about the children they are bearing into the world. All these different elements of this story connect to our lives in different ways based on our individual experiences, our cultural backgrounds, the circumstances of our time, and even our varied spiritual experiences. As we sort out what all these things mean for us, all those different nativities might help us a bit, for just as they give us so many different depictions of the same story, so we can remember that we will carry even among us gathered here today many different connections to this story behind the birth of Jesus.
Even with our varied interpretations and connections, there are I think two particularly important elements of this story for us to carry with us in these final days on the journey to Christmas and beyond. The first is the vision of holy friendship that we see in the encounter between Elizabeth and Mary. Our Advent Bible study lifted up this theme beautifully, and so some of you have talked about this with me before, but there is something truly incredible that we see in the encounter between these two pregnant women. Elizabeth and Mary are connected by many things. They both thought that they could not bear children—Mary because she was too young, Elizabeth because she was too old. They both were wandering through the uncertainties of pregnancy in a day and age when the health of mother and child were at far greater risk than today. And they both knew through an encounter with the divine that the child each was bearing would be special and set apart for God’s incredible purposes.
These common experiences brought Elizabeth and Mary together in a bond that only they could understand. In reflecting on this connection, author Enuma Okoro observes, “It is a testament to God’s care and provision that each woman has someone to journey with as she navigates the peculiar seasons in which she finds herself.” (Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent, p. 67) As we reflect on this story and make it our own, we can think about the holy companions that we have on our journeys. Who can open our eyes to a deeper understanding of how God is at work in our lives and our world? What sorts of people are among us—or should we seek to be among us—who can remind us of our blessedness and challenge us to help others to embrace their blessedness? How can we be ready to welcome people into our lives—and into the life we share in this place—to be the kinds of companions that we need to journey with us?
The holy friendship that Mary and Elizabeth shared can take so many different forms in our world. For some, it may come in the relationships of marriage and lifelong commitment. Others may find it in friends who can walk together amidst the many changes of life. Some may find it within their families, with siblings or even between parents and children. And some holy friendships may even last for an extremely short season of life and yet still show the kind of divine presence and holy imagination that emerged so beautifully between Elizabeth and Mary. Whatever form these holy friendships may take, they all can build on the kind of connection that Mary and Elizabeth shared, for just as they found support in one another as they waited to welcome their children into the world, we too can deepen our faith and find new hope as we share our joys and struggles with one another along the way.
Just as holy friendship can open us to one way of making this story our own as we find a new and different way to live together, the great song of Mary that follows in their encounter can show us to a new way of being in the world. Mary offers this great song known as the Magnificat after her initial encounter with Elizabeth, as the impact of their shared joy settles in all the more. Mary’s Magnificat, so named because of its first word in the Latin that was the primary language of the church and Bible for so many years, builds on the tradition of the psalms and canticles of the Old Testament, especially the Song of Hannah, mother of Samuel, to give praise for God’s great works and the promise of justice and righteousness for all creation that is being fulfilled in Mary’s life as she bears Jesus into the world.
But this is more than any old song. Mary’s song here is the song of a mother who realizes that her child will change the world, of a woman who recognizes the deep blessing that has come to her and the world through her because of the child she is bearing, of a person who can see the transformation that God is making real in the world. Mary gives praise to God for the things that she is experiencing and the blessing that she is finding, but she clearly knows that this is ultimately not about her. She continues her song beyond this personal understanding of blessing to give praise to a God who brings favor when the world would never dream of such, shows mercy from generation to generation, scatters the proud from their places of privilege, turns the tables of power upside down, offers a strange but real preference for those who are poor or in need, fills the hungry with good things, and remembers promises of mercy and hope.
Empowered by the gift of holy friendship with one who understands the challenge and blessing of her life, Mary proclaims the greatness of a God who turns the world upside down, and we can echo her words of praise not just in the gift of our next hymn based on her song but also by living our lives in ways that further God’s justice, peace, mercy, and grace in our world. The incarnation of Jesus that we celebrate at Christmas becomes real when we find ways to make this story our own, when we discover how God has not just broken into the world of first-century Palestine but twenty-first century New York City, when God’s presence is not just something that we experience in our hearts but that we see taking root around us in the transformation of our world.
In the holy friendships of our lives that give us space for fear and hope amidst uncertainty, in the joyful songs that challenge us to make God’s work more real in our world, we encounter the one who comes in these days, the one who turns everything upside down in a baby born in the most humble of circumstances who yet reigns over all the earth, the one who makes all things new through death and resurrection to new life. So as we journey these final days toward Christmas, may we find ways to make this story our own, whether it be in nativity scenes that help us to see these characters as people like us, in seeking holy friendships that open us to God’s presence in our lives in new ways, or in the ways we join all that God is doing in our world to live out the joys of Mary’s song. And as we go along this way, may we be ready to welcome the fullness of Christ’s gift into our lives and our world both this Christmas and when he comes in power to finish making all things new. Lord, come quickly! Amen.