Seward United Methodist Church
Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Seeing the Blessings

Luke 1:39-55

 We talked about this story a few months ago in the FAITH class, and when I saw it come up again as one of the Lectionary texts, I wanted to have the chance to talk about it again, but maybe not in a way that we would normally think about.  

 First things first, let’s set the stage a little bit.  Luke’s Gospel is unique among the Gospels in that it also includes the background story of John the Baptist and his birth.  It seems the reason for that is that Luke wrote his Gospel from the perspective of Mary, and this story is part of Mary’s experience of the birth of Jesus.  

 John the Baptist’s parents were Zechariah, a priest, and Elizabeth.  It is also a miraculous birth story because Zechariah and Elizabeth were older, Elizabeth being beyond the age of child-bearing.  And what’s more, she had never been able to have children.  But Zechariah was told that he and Elizabeth would have a child in an angelic vision, and sure enough it happened.

 Six months later, Mary had her own angelic vision, telling her that she would also experience a miraculous pregnancy, in this case the miracle being that she had not been with her soon-to-be husband.  And one of the signs that Mary was told of in this vision was that her relative Elizabeth was already expecting.  

 So soon after this vision, Mary went to visit Elizabeth.  We don’t know exactly where Elizabeth lived, but since Zechariah was a priest, we know they lived in Judea, which was a 3 to 5 day journey from Nazareth.  

 We also don’t know how exactly Mary and Elizabeth were related.  Tradition says that Jesus and John the Baptist were “cousins.”  But if they were literally first cousins, then Mary and Elizabeth would have been sisters or sisters-in-law.  But there was a large age difference between Mary and Elizabeth.  Mary was probably 14 or 15 years old.  Elizabeth was beyond the age of child-bearing, so she may have been 45, 50 years old, maybe even older.  That’s a pretty large age difference for sisters or sisters-in-law, not impossible, but significant.  What’s more, if they were sisters, I think we would be told that.  So maybe Mary and Elizabeth were cousins or second cousins.  Would that have made Jesus and John second or third cousins?  I get confused about all those things.  In the end, it doesn’t really matter.  But suffice it to say, people were more connected to their families in first century Hebrew culture than we are.  And the word cousin doesn’t always mean first cousins.  So somehow or another, they were related.  

 But it was more than just a family relationship:  Mary and Elizabeth were also close to each other.  They knew each other and shared a close relationship.  And now they are both sharing a rather unique experience.  They are both pregnant, and neither one of them should be.  One is too old to be pregnant; the other is too young, and not to mention, a little bit too unmarried to be!  And shared experiences, especially difficult experiences like an “out of time” pregnancy, have a way of bringing people closer together.

 When Elizabeth is greeted by Mary, the child within her leaps.  This may be a hint that John is going to have a particular sensitivity to the work of the Holy Spirit.  And Elizabeth speaks prophetically:  “You are blessed above all other women.  What an honor that the mother of my Lord should visit me!”  Mary is blessed for her obedience to God’s word, just as the angel promised.

 The words of the angel that visited Mary are confirmed.  And I think that was very beneficial for her.  I don’t think it’s out of place or a lack of faith to think that there were some lingering questions in Mary’s mind.  She responded in faith to God’s message to her, but maybe doubt tried to creep into her mind:  “Did I really experience that?  Was it real; or just my imagination?”  

 It’s good for us to receive confirmation from time to time, and one of the best sources of confirmation we can find comes from those who have already walked along the very road we are walking on.  

 Do you have that person in your life?  Do you have that person who sees and recognizes the blessings in your life and calls your attention to them?  Do you have that person in your life who offers you support and guidance and encouragement in difficult times?  

 I see Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship very much as a mentor and mentee type relationship.  They are a generation apart.  Elizabeth is more experienced in life and in faith.  And so she can be a source of guidance, support, and encouragement.  

 Do you have that kind of relationship in your life?  Do you have someone in your life who is typically older, maybe a generation older, or at least “older” in their Christian faith, who is able to offer your guidance and encouragement?  

 I am very glad that I do.  One of my best friends is one of the other trip leaders for the Algonquin Canoe Camp program that I’ve been involved in for many years now.  In fact, the first time we met was when I went on the trip as a scrawny 14 year old boy, and he was the leader of the trip.  So we’ve known each other now for more than 20 years.  At the time we met, I was not yet a Christian.  I was involved in the Church, but I did not yet have a personal faith.  He helped me to know Jesus.  And a few years later I began to feel a calling into pastoral ministry, and he helped me to walk on that path.  And he’s still a source of guidance and encouragement for me in the challenges of pastoring.  Not that you folks offer me any challenges!  And he’s also someone who sees the blessings in my life and calls attention to them when I might not see them to be blessings.  

 Do you have that kind of a person in your life?  

 Conversely, if you are closer in age to Elizabeth than Mary, the better question might be:  Are you that person in someone else’s life?  Are you the person who is offering support and guidance and encouragement in the life of another believer?  

 One of the things I heard many years ago and have found to be true is that the Christian faith is better caught than taught.  In other words, we are more likely to “catch on” to becoming a follower of Christ by being around people who know Jesus rather than being sat down in a Sunday School class or Bible study and being “taught” to know Jesus.  It’s not that teaching lacks value, it’s just that we are more likely to come to know Jesus informally, through a relationship, rather than formally, through a program.  Do you have relationships in your life where you are passing on your faith?  

 The thing about relationship is that it can’t be forced.  We can’t decide we’re going to have a relationship with so-and-so to help them know Jesus.  We have to let it happen.  But it is good for us to look for opportunities for relationship to happen.  And we can keep our eyes open for experiences that we share with others that can become the foundation for a relationship.  

 We grow through these kinds of relationships.  Obviously, we grow through receiving guidance and support from someone who has been walking with Jesus for longer than us.  But we are also challenged when we become the person offering those things to someone else.  And we should each be looking for the opportunity to become

a part of relationships where faith can be caught.  Because this is the most effective ways that the Christian faith can be passed on from person to person.

(If time allows)  

 Let’s close by looking briefly at Mary’s song, often called the Magnificat, because that’s the first word of it in Latin.  

 Mary’s song is very similar to Hannah’s song that we looked at last month.  Both are Hebrew poetry, which is defined by what scholars call “synonymous parallelism,” which means that there are sets of two lines that echo each other, saying something very similar, but in different words.  Her poem is also steeped in Old Testament phrases and ideas.  Mary knew the Scriptures very well.

 It consists of four parts. First Mary praises God for what he has done for her.  Then she praises God for who he is.  Then she praises God for the way in which he turns the world upside down.  And finally, she praises him for keeping his promises.

 The thing I really want you to see in Mary’s song, because it fits with what we’ve been looking at lately, is that it is a song of revolution.  It’s about the world and its values being turned upside down.  In the Kingdom of God, the ways of the world are turned on their heads:  Princes fall from their thrones and the poor inherit them.  The hungry are satisfied, but the rich are sent away empty.  

 As we prepare for Christmas, let us each ask ourselves:  Are our hearts full of the world or hungry for God?  Are we looking for the chances to raise ourselves up to humble ourselves?  Are we living by the worlds’ values:  Wealth, status, power?  Or are we living by God’s values:  Humility, love, and service?  

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