Meditation on Luke 1:39–55
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Pastor Karen Crawford
The Presbyterian Church, Coshocton, OH
Dec. 19, 2021
Link to live-streamed service: https://fb.watch/a0Eg01TNPe/
I have been thinking this week at how grateful I am for the blessing of strong, Christian women—my spiritual sisters and mothers in the Lord. You know who you are!! Thank you!!
I received an email from one such strong woman a couple of days ago. Her name is Erma. Just the fact that she knows how to write and send email and do Facebook on her iPad is pretty amazing for a lady of 101—soon to be 102 Lord willing on January 25.
Erma is a widow—has been for many years. Her late husband was a former pastor of the congregation I served on the prairie in Renville, Minnesota. He died relatively young, while still serving as a minister in another congregation. They had been living in a manse—church-owned housing. So, she had no home to live in or to sell. She had been a full-time pastor’s spouse and mother after teaching in a one-room schoolhouse before she was married. Now she had to grieve her husband, move out, find a place to live. Find a job. Start over. And she did, with some help from family and friends, but most of all, leaning on her everlasting Lord.
She began a new life—and what a life it has been.
She writes to Jim and me, “I think of you both so often and keep you in my prayers.”
Young Mary in our gospel reading in the first chapter of Luke has already been visited by an angel who tells her she has found favor with God. And that she will conceive a son and name him Jesus. “He will be great, and will be called Son of the Most High,” the angel says. “And the Lord God will give him to the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Mary doesn’t question the angel’s words. But the young woman, engaged to be married, wants to know more. She asks, “How can this be since I am a virgin?”
“The Holy Spirit will come upon you,” the angel says, “and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”
The angel then tells her about her older relative Elizabeth, who wasn’t able to have children, but is now in her 6th month of pregnancy. “For nothing will be impossible with God,” he says.
Being betrothed was a legally binding arrangement in the Jewish culture of Mary and Joseph’s time. Usually, fathers arranged a match within their own community and extended family. Mary and Joseph, before they married, lived with their families in the tiny village of Nazareth in southern Galilee, which was located in northern Israel. We have no idea how old they were at the time of their betrothal or marriage. Mary would have been young—a teenager by today’s standards. The customary age for a Jewish man of Joseph’s time to marry was 18, but the Roman custom was for the man to wait until he was about 30.
“Betrothed” meant that Joseph’s father had already paid the bridal price or dowry to Mary’s father, but they didn’t yet have the wedding. Mary would have been in seclusion in her father’s home after her betrothal, awaiting her marriage, when the angel visited her. The bridal price wasn’t always money; sometimes it was paid with other goods, livestock, or service. When Abraham wanted a wife for his son, Isaac, in Genesis, he sent out a servant who “brought forth jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment, and gave them to Rebecca; he gave also to her brother and to her mother precious things.” Rebecca was the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother, Nahor, and his wife Milcah.
After Mary hears the angel’s announcement of her divine pregnancy, she answers, “Here I am, a servant of the Lord; let it be according to your word.” And then she “sets out and goes with haste to a Judean town in the hill country”—to the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth. This passage of scripture is known as “the visitation.”
Notice that the angel never tells Mary to go there. Scholars have different ideas of why she would come to such a decision. Even though it isn’t mentioned in scripture, some think that Joseph must have escorted her there, where she would have spiritual support, nurture, safety and shelter for the first three months of her pregnancy.
But the journey would have been difficult. Elizabeth and Zachariah’s village is thought to be a place called Ein Karem. It was on the outskirts of Jerusalem in southern Israel. The distance between the two villages was at least 70 miles! And the young pregnant woman, favored by God, would have had to walk uphill more than 1,000 feet. Some say that her haste may have been partly due to the dangers on the road; the dirt path was a popular place for bandits!
In any case, the point is that Mary seeks out and trusts the older, wiser woman of faith, without fear that she will be judged for being pregnant out of wedlock. Elizabeth, too, has experienced God’s miracles for herself. With her pregnancy after many years of longing, waiting, and praying for a child, she is grateful for the Lord removing her ‘disgrace.’ For the two women live in a society that doesn’t value women who fail to get pregnant and blames women for their childlessness.
Elizabeth, too, knows that nothing is impossible with God!
What we sometimes overlook is that Elizabeth is a prophet, along with her son, John the Baptist. John leaps in the womb as Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit at Mary’s greeting. Because she is filled with the Spirit, she is the first to recognize the work of God and declare the true identity of the child in Mary’s womb. Jesus is the Lord!
Elizabeth exclaims 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?”
But the phrase that jumps off the page in our gospel reading to me is when Elizabeth proclaims to young Mary, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Friends, it was Mary’s strong faith and faithful response that opened the way for the miracle the angel had announced.
And I wondered if I had ever missed a blessing for lack of faith. I wondered if we have ever missed blessings God had wanted for us because we lacked faith. Do we truly believe in what the angel proclaimed to Mary—that nothing is impossible with God?
The visitation ends with Mary’s song—also known as The Magnificat. I discovered in my reading that the Early Church fathers thought it was Elizabeth and not Mary who wrote and sang this song, an echo of another formerly barren woman’s song—Hannah of the Old Testament.Like our reading from the prophet Micah that offers hope to an oppressed people, Mary’s song “declares boldly what God will do to rescue desperate people. The lowliest receive God’s attention and saving intervention. They are ‘lifted up;” the hungry are filled….a series of great reversals is announced: the proud, powerful, and rich are scattered, brought down, sent away empty; the lowly and hungry ones are lifted up, filled with good things.”
Whether it was Mary’s or Elizabeth’s song doesn’t really matter, does it? For the song belongs to both of them—and it belongs to all of us. But let’s not miss that it is a revolutionary proclamation—by its words, by the surprising voice or voices that sing it, and the humble place from which it is sung. It is not sung from the temple in Jerusalem, but here in this rural home in the hills of the Judean countryside. “It is announced by two women with no status, not by the learned official clergy. It anticipates a child who cannot yet live outside his mother’s womb, so tiny and fragile is he; yet he will grow and—like his older cousin—become ‘strong in spirit,’ the Savior of the world.” (Kimberly L. Clayton.)
On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, we light the candle of LOVE and remember how Love became flesh and dwelt among us. We rejoice with Mary and Elizabeth for the gift of the Messiah and the one who prepared the way for Him. And for the God for whom nothing is impossible!
And we give thanks for all the strong, godly women whose example has inspired us to keep going, press on, persevere, do what is right–no matter how hard and dangerous the path of righteousness.
My 101-year-old friend Erma is walking with a cane now. She has trouble talking on the phone because of some hearing loss. She finds it hard to write because of arthritis in her hands but is glad she can communicate by email. In spite of her arthritis, I am sure she is still crocheting prayer shawls, blankets, and hats for newborn babies. This is Erma.
She tires more easily than before. She uses the elevator at church. She doesn’t drive anymore. She rides to church with Inez—another strong woman of faith. But she still manages to take care of herself, she says, while other residents of her senior living community are on Assisted Living.
We give thanks for the Ermas of this world who model for us how to walk in the light of the Lord when we journey through valleys of darkness. Who pray for us and encourage us by saying they pray for us! Who reveal God’s love and kindness with their love and kindness!
Who urge us to hold onto our faith. No matter what.
For blessed are YOU who believe!
Let us pray.
Holy One, we thank you for Mary and Elizabeth—two strong women of faith whose obedience and willingness to be used by you led to the coming of the Messiah, the Savior and Light of the World. Thank you for your love and tender care of us revealed through words and acts of kindness and generosity here on earth. Teach us to pray for one another, Lord, and to encourage each other as we journey through valleys of darkness. Give us strength and courage to pursue paths of righteousness no matter how difficult—like Mary and Elizabeth. Help us to truly believe in your miracles, your mercy, and your everlasting, unconditional love shown through the greatest gift of all—the sacrifice of your Son. Help us to embrace and share the angel’s uplifting words to Mary to all who need encouragement in a God who is present with us always, who wants to bless us with His miracles, a God for whom all things are possible. In the name of Emanuel we pray. Amen.