I grew up near both of my grandmothers. They were very close friends, but there also was the barest hint of competition between them. This showed up one day after I had spent a Saturday night with Grandma Greenlee. The next day, Grandma Williams asked me if we had gone to church. Of course, we had gone to the Methodist Church where Grandma Greenlee was a member. Grandma Williams, a life-long member of the United Church of Christ where my family attended, asked if I had liked it, and I replied that I had—very much. “What do you like about it?” she asked, suspiciously. “I like all the singing. They sing a lot!” I replied. “Oh,” she sniffed. “Those singing Methodists.” It was kind of a funny thing to hear her say, since she had studied at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and had been a professional singer and pianist.
Singing is an important way that we as Methodists express faith. John Wesley’s brother Charles wrote more than 6500 hymns. Some of them were hymns for Christmas and Advent. “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing” and “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus” are two of the most familiar.
Songs and hymns are important because they proclaim our faith and our doctrine—they explain it and help us express it. They also help guide us through the church year, beginning with Advent—a time of reflection and repentance that prepares us for the celebration of Christmas. The retail world may be rocking around the Christmas tree well in advance of Halloween, but the Church calendar gives us time to prepare our hearts to celebrate the arrival of the Christ Child, in part through the songs we sing.
Scripture is full of songs. Some passages are described as songs, like Mary’s song which we’ll focus on in a couple weeks. But others are simply words and passages that fit the definition of a carol—songs of praise and joy. Elizabeth’s words to Mary overflow with the praise and joy of a carol, and they teach us something about anticipating the arrival of the Messiah.
Just halfway through the first chapter, Luke has already told two wonderful stories. Zechariah, whom we’ll focus on next week, has been told by an angel that his elderly wife Elizabeth would have a son—a son who would make an enormous impact on the world in preparation for the coming of the Lord. Mary has also been visited by an angel, who has told her that she will have a son, who will be called holy, and who will be called the Son of God. The little story of our passage weaves the first two stories together.
Mary, caught up in the astounding news she has just been given, hurriedly makes her way to a town some distance away, to the home of her kinswoman, Elizabeth. Upon arriving, Mary walks right into the house and greets Elizabeth. Upon hearing Mary’s voice, Elizabeth—six months pregnant—feels her unborn baby move. And the baby doesn’t just kick a tiny leg or wiggle into a more comfortable position. He leaps!
At that moment, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. She bursts out into what one author calls “the cry of the Holy Spirit in song”: “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.”
On its own, this is such a lovely story. But its few short lines convey so much about how Elizabeth responded to the coming of the Christ Child into the world, and they prod us to think about how we are to receive Jesus in our own lives—as we celebrate his birth and wait for his return.
When Mary showed up on her doorstep, Elizabeth knew only that her own son would prepare the way for the coming Lord. Mary had gotten a heads-up about Elizabeth’s pregnancy, but as far as we know, Mary’s would have been a complete surprise to Elizabeth. And, Mary was just a few days pregnant. Even if Elizabeth had looked up at the sound of Mary coming through the door, there wouldn’t have been any tell-tale signs.
Elizabeth is completely taken by surprise in the moment when she hears Mary’s voice. The first surprise is the baby’s leap in her womb. If you’ve ever been pregnant, or rested your hand against a mother’s tummy as her baby moves, you know how what a miracle that is. But this is an extraordinary movement—an extraordinary sensation.
And it’s not just a physical experience. In that same moment, Luke tells us, as she feel her baby’s leap, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, and she’s able to interpret the meaning of her baby’s movement. Her baby is reacting with joy to the presence of the very Lord whose way he will prepare. What a surprise!
When Jesus makes his presence known to us, it may be just as surprising. We may not expect him in to make his presence known in a sudden, undeniable way. Our acknowledgment of Jesus’ presence can be kind of ho-hum—a routine thing. We know the story of his birth, life, death, and resurrection so well that we can each probably do a pretty fair job of telling the story from beginning to end. We know it—in our heads. We don’t expect any sudden jolts of revelation.
But, Jesus still has the power to surprise us with his presence. All of a sudden, when we least expect it, our spirits can leap for joy when we encounter him. We feel an excitement, a sense of recognition. It’s not just a knowledge in our heads but a feeling deep in our guts that Jesus is present in way we’ve never felt before. It may be such a surprise that we can’t even grasp what has happened. We need the Holy Spirit to reveal to us what has happened—who has happened.
This happened to me when I was kneeling at my mother’s bedside as she was dying. When the moment came, and she had passed away, I started to cry. The aides and nurses standing nearby thought I was crying from grief. But, I was crying with joy. Because I felt in that moment that Jesus was present with me and with her in a way I had never felt before. Jesus can surprise us.
Elizabeth’s song is truly a carol—full of blessing and joy. She exclaims over the blessedness of Mary, who has been chosen to bear the Son of God. She exclaims over the blessedness of the child to come—Elizabeth’s own Lord and the one her own son will serve. And then she speaks the line that should become an Advent earworm for us all: “Blessed is she who believed that that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
This word of blessing is different from the word Luke used in the first two blessings. The first two are what we might ordinarily think of as a blessing—words of praise, a prayer that someone will experience God’s goodness. But that last one: that word of blessing is reserved for those who have had the privilege of receiving God’s divine favor. Why does Elizabeth call Mary “blessed” in this way? Not simply because she has been chosen to bear God’s Son, but because she has believed in what God promised to her and to her people. She believes that what God says will be fulfilled. Elizabeth might see herself as being blessed in the same way. Both women believed that God’s promises would be fulfilled.
Believing that God’s promises will be kept leads us to be blessed as Mary and Elizabeth were. We may not have angels visiting us with divine announcements. But God has made promises to us: the promise that through our faith in the Christ Child, we can be forgiven for our sins, and that we can have power over the sinfulness in us. The promise that through our faith in Jesus, we can live eternally, with all the joy and peace and confidence that implies. God promises that we will never be alone as we work through the trials of our lives. And, God promises that one day, the world as we know it will be made perfect, just as we can be made perfect in love.
Truly believing that God’s promises will be fulfilled blesses us as Mary and Elizabeth’s were blessed. By this confidence in God’s willingness and power to fulfill God’s promises through Jesus, we are led into an even deeper relationship with God. This kind of belief—this kind of faith—affirms that we are made the privileged recipients of God’s favor through the gift of the Christ Child. This is the blessing of Elizabeth’s song. This is the blessing of Advent—that we can sing of God’s promises and of our faith that what God has spoken to us has been and will be fulfilled. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young