39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
46 And Mary* said,‘My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 48 for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
56 And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.
I know a thing or two (or three) about pregnancy.
As a father of three children, I’ve done this pregnancy thing three times now. Or, at least, that’s how I intended to start this sermon. But whenever I say things like that, my beloved wife gently corrects me and says, “You know a thing or two?” You did this pregnancy thing? You?”
She’s right of course. My job was the easy one, but there is just a little bit of irony here, because I also remember that the first time I announced to a friend, “my wife is pregnant,” she gently corrected me and said, “No honey, we’re pregnant. We’re expecting. We’re in this together. I didn’t get this way by myself, you know?” Nine months later, it was “I gave birth to this child.” So yeah, pregnancy and childbirth are kind of a big deal.
The Old Testament has plenty of pregnancy stories, from men and women desperately praying for a pregnancy, to miraculous old-age pregnancies, and my favorite, the great baby-bearing showdown between Leah, Rachel, and their respective handmaids.
Pregnancy has always been kind of a big deal.
Fast forward to our passage today: Here we have two women who shouldn’t be pregnant:
Elizabeth has wanted nothing more than to have a child, and she finally got her wish, but late in life.
Mary had zero expectation of…expecting…at least not this soon, and certainly not this way.
Elizabeth has cause for great joy. Mary has potential for public shame.
There’s also the matter of social status: Elizabeth is an important woman, the wife of a high priest. She is a respected member of the community. There would be high expectations for her son.
Mary is engaged to a carpenter: It’s a low-class, peasant sort of job, just one step up from being a beggar and panhandler in 1st century Israel. No great expectations for this child.
Elizabeth’s child, the child of the high priest…he’ll grow up to eat grasshoppers and honey out in the desert, screaming at people to repent, looking like his mother never taught him to bathe. And even though it’s an honorable job in the kingdom (John the Baptist will make it into a few renaissaince paintings) he still comes in a distant second to the child of the carpenter’s wife…you know, the one who got pregnant without hardly even trying?
Can you almost hear what’s going on in Elizabeth’s head?
Look at the pregnant teenager. The mother of the Messiah. Way to steal my thunder, cousin Mary. Way to take my big event—my miracle—this thing I’ve been waiting for for all my life (do you even know how long a lifetime is?) and make it seem…well….easy. Cheap. If she gets a Messiah…my son better be the Holy Roman Emperor.
What? That doesn’t sound like the Elizabeth you were expecting? Thank God for the Holy Spirit.
And the babe leaped in her womb.
In the old Latin translation of the Bible, the baby doesn’t just “leap” in her womb, but rather “exultavit” — he exults! One early English translation of this verse says the baby “gladded” in her womb. I like that, because babies leap in the womb for lots of reasons. And they do somersaults, and karate chops, and drop kicks, and weird alien moves like they’re about to break out. But baby John…rejoiced.
And who knows? Maybe that rejoicing was as much for Elizabeth’s sake as it was for Jesus. Sometimes, when my kids smile, it breaks through my self-indulgent pity party and reminds me of my humanity. It reminds me that it’s not all about me.
And so Elizabeth encounters Mary.
Mary has had kind of a rough week: Still just a child, having a child, and can you imagine how hard it would be to tell a fiance you barely know that you got knocked up by God Almighty?
No really, that’s what the Angel said. Ohhhh, the “angel,” says the fiance… I mean, I think that’s what the angel said . . . It seemed real at the time. If no one believes me, maybe I am losing it. I can’t go back to my parents. My marriage might be over before it even starts. I’m gonna have a baby . . . and I have no where to go. Why did this happen to me? No one believes me… I’ve really messed up everything.
Not the Mary you were expecting, either? We have this picture of Mary from a thousand paintings and classic representations: She is serene and sweet, confident and faithful, ready and willing to carry the Messiah, to give birth to the savior of the world.
Only, if you go back and read the story up to this point, you don’t really find *that* Mary. Earlier, when the angel Gabriel comes to her and greets her, she is perplexed and afraid. When he tells her all that will happen to her, she says, “How can this be?” and I think you can sense the anxiety in the question. The angel continues and finally Mary says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” Let it be. That doesn’t exactly sound like an enthusiastic acceptance. It sounds like timid resignation. What you say when you know you have no choice.
Mary, of course, is terrified. She stands to lose everything…her marriage, her reputation, her sanity, her life? Remember the fate of those accused of adultery in the Bible. There is no scenario in which this turns out well for Mary.
So when do things change? How do we get from a despondent Mary to the one we know and remember?
The whole point of this sermon series is that Christmas isn’t just about divine encounters with choirs of angels. It is often the human encounters that transform our lives, it is in the face, or the voice, or the touch of another person that we truly experience and encounter God.
What changes Mary? I think it’s her unexpected encounter with Elizabeth. I say “unexpected” because remember, Elizabeth had every right to be bitter, jealous, and condescending.
And Elizabeth looked up, and said: “You are blessed among women, Mary. And blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why did this happen to me, that my Lord’s mother comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting…my child rejoiced in my womb. And blessed are you for believing that what the Lord said to you would be fulfilled.”
And it’s here in that unexpected encounter, that unexpected grace, that something gives, something breaks, something melts, and something changes. And Mary says,
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
When a woman is pregnant, we say that she is “expecting.” There’s even a series of books about pregnancy called “What to expect when you’re expecting.” It’s a popluar baby shower gift, and I think at one time we had four or five copies of it on our bookshelf. But somehow I don’t think that book would have helped Mary and Elizabeth much.
In fact, if there’s a motif to the life and ministry of Jesus, it’s more along the lines of “expect the unexpected.” Jesus said to live our lives as though we expected him to come back at any moment…but then he said we wouldn’t quite know when that was. Expect the Unexpected. And in the meantime, we live our lives as best as we can, we help each other out, and we wait.
Sometimes, those unexpected things in life are pretty hard…sometimes they heartbreaking. Mary and Elizabeth probably learned to expect a lot of unexpected things . . . but your son’s head on a platter, and your baby hanging from a cross . . . you can never expect something like that. Pregnancy is not without pain. Sometimes, pregnancies don’t quite make it. Amy and I have three children, but we had four pregnancies. That’s still a pretty big deal…a pretty hard deal…for us.
And yet…God is at work in the midst of unexpected things, unexpected pregnancies, and unexpected encounters. The spirit moves, and a baby leaps, rejoices inside Elizabeth. Elizabeth offers kind words, unexpected words to her distraught younger cousin. and Mary begins to see God’s plan, God’s love for her, for Elizabeth, and for all the world.
Two of my three children were born in December, and both of those were born late. I have plenty of December memories of waiting…waiting…expecting…waiting. Babies come on their own schedule and in their own time, and you have to be ready when they come. You have to expect the unexpected.
In Advent each year, we wait for Christmas, for our celebration of the birth of Jesus. I sometimes think it would be fun if we didn’t know what day Christmas was going to be until it got here. Maybe December 25…Maybe the 28th? Ooops, this year it was December 16th. Hope you were ready!
The date of Christmas isn’t very unexpected, nor are many of our traditions and rituals (that’s what makes them traditions!). But maybe, while we wait, there is still a little bit of room for the unexpected: I think maybe it’s in our encounters with other people. I pray that you might have the opportunity to be the Elizabeth to someone’s Mary this advent season, to speak words of comfort and encouragement when they are needed most. I pray that you take that opportunity, when you feel God’s spirit leaping and rejoicing inside you. And who knows what unexpected miracle might be born in that moment?
Because as Christians, we all know a thing or two about expecting.