I Samuel 2:1-10; Romans 12:9-16b; Luke 1:39-57
We have reason to celebrate tonight. This is a joyous occasion, a remembrance of a happy meeting between two expectant mothers who were to play important roles in God’s unfolding plan of salvation. It is an occasion of happy reunion, of babies leaping in the womb, of women filled with the Spirit proclaiming God’s greatness and shouting their thanks and praise. It is an occasion of rejoicing – not only in what is, but in what is to come. A time when faith proclaims what it has begun to see.
Luke prepares the scene by telling us what has happened to these two women. Elizabeth, he tells us, was a woman “getting on in years” who was barren. Her husband, Zechariah, belonging to a priestly order, was responsible for serving in the Temple from time to time. During his most recent service he had entered the sanctuary of the Lord and had there seen an angel who told him that the prayers that he and his wife had been offering for many years were now to be answered. They would have a son, whose name was to be John. “You will have joy and gladness,” said the angel, “and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.” And so it was. Elizabeth, long barren, conceived a child, just as the angel had foretold.
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy an angel was sent also to Mary, a young girl living in the Galilean town of Nazareth. To her the angel gave a similar yet even greater message: “you will conceive in your womb and bear a son… (and) he will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High… and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary was stupefied. “How can this be?” she asked, for she was not yet married. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you,” the angel responded, “therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.” And as assurance that such an unlikely conception was well within the realm of God’s power, the angel told Mary of the remarkable pregnancy of her relative Elizabeth who had conceived even in her old age. “For nothing will be impossible with God.”
“In those days,” Luke tells us, “Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country” where Zechariah and Elizabeth lived. And this is where the joyous meeting occurs. When Elizabeth hears Mary’s greeting, the child leaps in her womb, Luke tells us, and she, filled with the Holy Spirit, blesses Mary as God’s chosen one and praises her for believing what was spoken to her by the Lord. Mary responds in joy in the lovely song of praise we know as the Magnificat, praising God for the great things he has done for her.
A joyous occasion, a happy meeting of two expectant mothers, rejoicing in their good fortune. Or so it would seem. But if we reflect a bit on the actual circumstances of these two women, we might wonder if it is actually their good fortune that they are celebrating.
In fact, their lives had suddenly been made more difficult. Elizabeth and her husband, in old age, having long borne the scorn of neighbors who wondered aloud why God might be punishing them with barrenness, now are the subjects of further gossip and speculation. While news of pregnancy may have been a welcomed word years ago, now Elizabeth’s child is an untimely interruption in her later years, a joy perhaps too long delayed. Here was a child she would have to care for in her old age, and one she would not likely see into adulthood. The attention – perhaps even the derision – of her neighbors was more than she desired. It was a mixed blessing at best. Only great faith in God could get her through these days.
And Mary, still a child by our standards, joined now to a man considerably older than her in a marriage arranged for practical reasons not romantic ones, is prematurely burdened with the responsibilities of motherhood. How could she not feel embarrassment and sadness and confusion at the sudden change in her circumstances? Is this the life she would have dreamed for herself? It was a mixed blessing at best. Only great faith in God could get her through these days.
Yet both Mary and Elizabeth believe that God has given them cause for joy. In their difficult and unsought-after circumstances, they see God at work. Many might consider their response unrealistic or even absurd, given the challenges presented by their circumstances. But they see the hand of God, they believe in the goodness of God, they witness to the power of God, they trust in the love of God – and so they are able to praise and thank God for what God is doing, even in these difficult and unwanted circumstances.
Each beset with socially problematic pregnancies, each the object of curiosity and gossip and slander, each trying to embrace heavy responsibilities that have come to them in a sudden and untimely way, each with more than enough reason to be burdened and distraught by the awkward situation in which they find themselves… and yet each rejoicing in God! What is it that gives them cause for rejoicing? What do they see that their neighbors do not? How have they found meaning and fulfillment in their predicaments?
The fact is that they see something much larger taking place, a work of God that includes their own individual circumstances but that extends far beyond them.
They see a revolution taking place.
In her song, Mary rejoices that God “has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant” and that “the Mighty One has done great things for [her].” But even more she rejoices in the revolution God is accomplishing, a revolution in which the proud are scattered in the thoughts of their hearts (v.51), the powerful are brought down from their thrones (v.52) and the rich are sent away empty (v.52). In this revolution God will lift up the oppressed and the lowly and fill the hungry with good things (v.52, 53). In God’s great mercy, God has come to the help of his servant Israel.
Notice that the verbs in this song of praise are in the past tense, rather than the future tense. So sure is she that these things will be accomplished that she speaks of them as if they already were.
The revolution is first of all a moral revolution. God “has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” The proud are those who care nothing for God; those who imagine themselves to have no need of God. But in the reign of God they will find their pride destroyed. In God’s reign it is the poor in spirit who are blessed; it is the meek who inherit the earth; it is those who hunger and thirst after righteousness who are filled. The proud and the haughty will receive no reward from God. Those who are righteous in their own eyes and in the eyes of others will find that they have no claim on God. Those who boast in their own goodness will find themselves least and last in this kingdom.
The revolution is also a social revolution. God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” Those who dominate and oppress will find the tables turned in God’s kingdom. They will be exchanging places with the poor and the outcast. In the reign of God, leaders are servants. The first learn to become last. And the last, in their broken and unworthy state, find themselves exalted. In God’s reign there are no “untouchables,” no outcasts, no forgotten ones. Every person is valued and loved, no matter who or what they are.
The revolution is also an economic revolution. God “has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” Those who hoarded their wealth and built bigger and bigger storehouses for themselves will find themselves resource-less and empty-handed. They will see that they were meant to have been stewards of the good things they were given, with responsibility for those in need. Their greed will be exposed and the riches to which they cling with such intensity will be given away. In God’s reign it is the poor who will benefit, the hungry who will be filled, the broken who will be healed, those who have had nothing who will be rich beyond measure.
And what Mary and Elizabeth saw was that this kingdom was now here. It was not just a far-off promise to be hoped for, but a very certain reality that was already being accomplished. Yes, it was yet to be fully realized, but it was also taking place now, and their sons were to have key roles in ushering it in.
The reign of God has begun. The revolution has begun. God is at work in our world, through those who have grasped the vision. You and I are part of it. We are called to live its values and to invite others to do so as well. We are bearers of this good news and catalysts of the changes it foretells. We are “kingdom people” in whom and among whom these changes are taking place. We value the lowly and resist the proud. We honor every living creature and resist those who would oppress them. We are working to make sure that the hungry are fed, and standing against those who believe it their right to amass wealth without thought for the common good.
God is at work in our world. And even though our circumstances in life may be difficult, even though the particular path we have been given to walk seems always to lead uphill, we are able to give thanks and praise, because we are certain that God’s promise is sure and that God’s purposes will be accomplished. That is why Mary and Elizabeth were able to rejoice, and it is also why we can be people of hope and of joy.
“Rejoice and be glad. The kingdom of God is at hand.”
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