MESSAGE: “Mary Visits Elizabeth”
Text: Luke 1:26-45, 56
Liturgist Text: Luke 3:1-6
Purpose: the purpose of this message is to encourage cultivation of a posture of peace toward one and all.
There is great excitement over the arrival of a child through birth, adoption or perhaps foster care. Preparations follow: prenatal care, birthing or parenting classes, creation of a nursery, financial planning. But there are also emotional and spiritual preparations, too. Mary embraced God’s purpose with the help of a mentor, Elizabeth. Are there mentors to guide us in the ways of peace? Or are we Elizabeth—the understanding mentor called to help another into a Christmas miracle of peace?
Having entered advent through the doorway of hope given voice through prophetic promise, we begin a journey to Bethlehem, the birthplace of the Prince of Peace. There are multiple expressions of peace. There is a peace forged by diplomacy or surrender between two opposing parties, and another crafted through forgiveness. There is an inner peace of serenity enjoyed by those comfortable with self and others. There is a peace born from contentment, when our interaction with the world fits us like a hand to a glove. I am delighted that I experience that kind of peace as your pastor. And there is a peace that passes all understanding when we feel one with God, eager to embrace God’s purpose for our lives.
When the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would give birth to a son, whom she would name Jesus—a Son of the Most High who would sit forever on David’s throne, she was filled with wonder as she marveled at God’s favor. Unlike Sarah who laughed at the suggestion that she would give birth in her advanced age, or Moses who tried to side-step God’s call upon his life, Mary embraces Gabriel’s announcement without resistance. She seems to be at peace with God in a profound way.
Peace with God, perhaps, but definitely not peace with others. She was engaged to Joseph, but the marriage was yet to be scheduled, or for that matter, consummated. Scripture records Joseph’s struggle with this scandalous surprise. Not wanting to expose Mary to public disgrace, yet faithful to rabbinical teaching, Joseph plans to divorce her quietly. “Surely,” he rationalizes, “either she violated her promise of betrothal or another violated her, protected by her silence regarding his identity. Her story about the angel Gabriel, while creative, is just too far-fetched to be believed.”
Joseph’s reaction is the one we are told about, but you can be sure Mom and Dad had something to say as well, and it was likely on the skeptical side. And what about sisters and brothers? Friends and relations? Rabbi and the Women’s Circle? What about the neighbors? Even if her pregnancy was kept in confidence, her physical reality would announce the indiscretion soon enough! Peace with God, perhaps, but definitely not peace with others.
The writing was on the wall: to find any kind of peace, Mary would have to go away. But, where? Her resources were limited. Who would receive her in her current predicament? Without assumption, judgment or reproach? Cousin Elizabeth, that’s who. Elizabeth would understand, for she was expecting too, not just any child, but a specific child of promise, also announced by an angel of God. In her spiritual journey, Mary was drawn to Elizabeth like a honeybee to pollen.
Let us step out of the biblical story for a few moments to consider the implications and power of a human connection like this. Intuitively, we can sense when someone believes us or not, understands us or not, respects us or not. When there is no trust, there is no peace.
My wife and I observed this with two Westie brothers we rescued from abandonment. Salty, like our other two canine friends, Prydein and Max, formed a deep attachment to Jude. Since she adores them and is the primary one caring for them every day; that is to be expected. Jack, however, was quite aggressive when he first came to us, and Jude and I both have scars to show for it. Jude’s initial fear of Jack prompted her to briefly consider re-homing him, but I encouraged her to give it time. Eventually, Jack became less aggressive, though never completely predictable. In his years with us, his attachment to me was stronger than it was to Jude, probably because of that latent, perceived fear.
At our men’s breakfast yesterday, someone mentioned a tongue-in-cheek joke told by an online commentator. He said, “If you want to reduce the number of Christmas presents you need to buy for folks, just introduce politics into the dinner conversation at the Thanksgiving table.” Sadly, the current climate of political, environmental, social, economic, medical, and religious differences among us splinter relationship even within our own families. For any who may be interested, there is a book called, The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict, by The Arbinger Institute, around which I would love to facilitate conversation. It you are interested, please let me know and we can create a forum for that after the first of the year.
Simply put, it is the best book on conflict resolution which I have ever read, and I endorse it as heartily as our District Superintendent and Bishop. Its basic idea is that our posture toward those with whom we disagree often short-circuits genuine attempts to communicate, understand, compromise or chart a cooperative way forward. By auditing our own motives and demeanor, we can create space for authentic dialogue and peace, even in the midst of disagreement or difference. The strategy works for individuals, committees, families, communities and nations. Even wars have found resolution through application of its principles.
Returning to the biblical story, in Elizabeth, Mary finds a kindred soul who not only identifies with her pregnancy but who understands from personal experience God’s claim upon Mary through this extraordinary pregnancy. When Mary greets her, Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, replies, “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.”
The affirmation Mary receives from spiritual mentor Elizabeth is exactly what she needs to be at peace with herself and the miraculous journey God has placed before and within her. Mary’s personal advent erupts into a doxology of praise which we celebrate as the Magnificat. It is a beautiful poem which prompted John Wesley to number Mary among the biblical prophets by noting that she spoke ‘under a prophetic impulse” (Notes, 1:46).
Mary stays with Elizabeth for three months, right up until the time when Elizabeth herself is ready to give birth to a child—a child we know as John the Baptist, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh will see the salvation of God.” As John prepares the way for Jesus, Elizabeth has prepared the way for Mary.
And what about us? The polarization of our society and nation clamors for a pathway to peace. Are there mentors to guide us there? Or are we, perhaps, the very mentors through whom God intends to work? Maybe then, the song we often sing at this time of year will be the reality we share: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me…”