Leaping for Joy
Theodore Baker translated the lyrics from a 15th century carol. His German to English translation is just what we sung.
“Lo, how a Rose e’er blooming from tender stem hath sprung!
Of Jesse’s lineage coming, as men of old have sung.
It came, a floweret bright, amid the cold of winter,
When half spent was the night.
Isaiah ’twas foretold it, the Rose I have in mind;
With Mary we behold it, the virgin mother kind.
To show God’s love aright, she bore to men a Savior,
When half spent was the night.
Sure this is not as Christmasy as you may have liked on this Fourth Sunday of Advent and maybe Holy Night was more of what you were hoping for this Sunday. But it isn’t Christmas yet. Tomorrow night we will celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and then for 12 days we keep celebrating it. Next week in worship we will walk through the Old Testament and New Testament texts to hear of the promise of the Messiah and then the Messiah’s arrival. We will listen to 9 scripture lessons and we will sing 9 Christmas Carols. All the good ones.
But not today, today we are still in preparation mode. We are making that last ditch effort to ready ourselves, ready our souls, ready our hearts for the gift that comes on Christmas morn, or as they hymn put it, “when half spent was the night.” So instead of ringing Christmas fully in this Sunday, we get this simple and nice text about two relatives coming together celebrating the fact that they are both pregnant.
I am sure, since they were family, they had discussions in the past about Elizabeth not being able to conceive. As the women would gather at any family function, talk would happen and although Mary was still young and not married she would be invited into those conversations because soon she would be. Mary probably understood the pain and disappointment that Elizabeth, a preacher’s wife, couldn’t conceive children. In every synagogue all the members simply wanted to see Elizabeth pregnant as much as possible. A pregnant preacher’s wife is like catnip to church ladies. I am sure the rumors of why she couldn’t were being placed back upon Zachariah. But now they had been visited by angels and Zack still had his doubts. So the Angel Gabriel strikes him mute until their baby is born. Can you imagine that parsonage; a mute rabbi and a pregnant rabbi’s wife expecting their first child in their older years.
Meanwhile in Nazareth, the Lord’s angel also appears to a virgin named Mary who was engaged to a man named Joseph. She was probably just a teenager when the angel came and told her that God had picked her to bear his Son. It was in her womb that the Christ Child, the God-man, would be born. She is taking this all in, trying to understand her, when the angel tells her that her Elizabeth is pregnant as well. After the angel leaves Mary runs off to the mountains to spend time with Elizabeth and make sense of all that is happening.
Growing up with three sisters there is only one thing that comes to mind when two pregnant women of the same family get together for the first time. I have seen it happen with my own eyes. I have seen it when sorority sisters see each other for the first time in a while. Or best friends who have been gone forever come back to see each other. They all use that high pitched scream they used to have anytime they saw a picture of teen heartthrob. It starts off a normal human pitch, but still loud, and eventually it moves into a noise that only dogs can hear. Somehow that is all I can think of when Mary shows up at Elizabeth’s house, both pregnant, both visited by angels, both told of the great thing their sons will do for this world. All I can picture is…AHHHHHH, OHHH MY YAHWEH!!!!!! Yes this is the small gift here on Christmas Adam, a sorority sister yell.
As they meet for the first time the baby inside Elizabeth gives a wallop of a kick. Even John the Baptist in utero understands the wonderful thing that is happening in this moment. The one who is to pave the way is in one belly, while the one who is to come, is still an embryo in the other. The holy moment of confirmation of God’s plan to save the world was understood by all of those involved.
When Alycia was pregnant with Dean two of our friends were also pregnant and due the same time. All three of their due dates were only days apart. So they would chat on the phone here and there and compare where they were in the process of baking a human. They would compare doctor check-ups, progress reports, different pains and cravings. They would talk about the inability to sleep, swelling in places that never were swollen. The list would go on and on. I say this as the husband and the father of the soon-to-be born. As a man I don’t understand what it is like to hold life inside me. I thought, after a bad burrito, I was close, but I was soon told differently. My ears would go deaf to some of those things that Alycia and her pregnant friends would discuss but I could not relate. But all three of them could because they were going through the same thing at the same time.
Mary and Elizabeth get together and they have three months of this shared experience. Mary can see into her future and prepare for what life will be like at 9 months pregnant. The scripture says that when she came to visit Elizabeth was six months pregnant and Mary visited for three months. She left in the final weeks before birth. I wonder if she did because that is how pregnant she would be when she would be wandering the streets of Bethlehem looking for a place to give birth to her son? Mary gained first hand experience on what was awaiting her and it was a vital connection she probably needed.
Someone once asked me what to expect when you have children. I told them that what they should do is write down what their life looks like now on a piece of paper. Write down what you and your spouse love to do and what your favorite hobbies are. Write down the moments of joy you have in life to. Then get in your car and drive down a highway you can get up to at least 70 miles an hour on. Then when you are cruising at 70 miles an hour, take that piece of paper and ball it up and chuck it out the window. That is what is like when you have a baby. It changes absolutely everything but what is so amazing is that you never truly want that piece of paper back because what you have now is so much better.
I am sure there were moments with all of you who were expecting your first child that you needed to get ready for it. I am sure they are different for everyone, both mothers and fathers. What moment was it for you? Was it when the nursery was finally all painted and all the furniture was in? Was it when you had to child proof your house and you realized it would take you a second or two to get into any drawer or toilet in your house? Was it when you had to install that car seat for the first time and you wondered what deranged person invented such a horribly complicated device?
I think we witness Mary’s moment right here in the scripture. Elizabeth is so happy to see Mary and so elated about how her baby jumps when she comes that she says this to Mary, “With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.” I love the last part of that verse, “Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”
With this Mary breaks out into song, which is referred to as the Magnificat. This song of praise starts with Mary, moves up to God’s people, then the rest of the world and then to God. It is a song of praise and thanks giving that seems just to erupt from Mary’s soul. The honor, the joy, the hope, the peace, the love that will be coming from her body, her baby, is overwhelming. Here is what she says;
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
47 In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
48 He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
49 because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
50 He shows mercy to everyone,
from one generation to the next,
who honors him as God.
51 He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
52 He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed.
54 He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
remembering his mercy,
55 just as he promised to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”
We don’t know much about the rest of their pregnancies. This is the only peek we get into the both Mary and Elizabeth’s baking process. For the other six months they are isolated from connection for all we know, but for these three months they spend it with each other. This is their big connection to community, to ready themselves for what is to come.
Why are you here this morning? Why did you feel that today, the fourth Sunday of Advent, the first Sunday of winter, was a good day to come to church? Are you here because you were hoping to get a sense of Christmas? Are you here because of the darkness that invades your life this time of year and you needed some light? Are you here because this time of year you desperately seek some sort of connection to make sense of it all? What brings you here this morning?
My hope is this is not the last time we will worship together before Christmas morning. I truly hope you will come to one of the Christmas Eve services in order for us to truly celebrate the birth of Christ. It isn’t Christmas yet, but it is right there. We can almost feel the birth pains starting. The baby’s kicks are getting harder and we can tell there isn’t much room in the womb. God’s promise will be fulfilled.
Elizabeth tells Mary, “Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.” God’s promise will be fulfilled. This Christmas seems darker than others. Maybe it is just me, maybe it is just darker in my own eyes. All I know is I cannot wait to see the light.
Our final hymn today is another Christmas Carol but it is still dark and somber. In the Bleak Midwinter was written by Christina Rossetti as a Christmas poem for an American magazine in 1872. She imagined the Nativity in a snowy Northern landscape and what it would have been like if Christ came into the world she knew. In the early 1900s it was put to the familiar music that we know it by. I love this carol but what I love is that in the somber tune, the quiet melody there is a hope and joy. It feels distant. It still feels far off but it is there. Listen to the words of the second verse,
Our God, heaven cannot hold him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty
The light is coming and tomorrow night we will welcome him. But today, this morning we celebrate the fact that we are happy because we believe that Lord will fulfill his promise. God will live up to what God says. Light will come to eradicate the darkness. This is why we gather together on this fourth Sunday of Advent, on this last day of preparation. We come to ready ourselves, remind ourselves, in the midst of this community we love that we will find the hope, peace, joy and love in the babe in Mary’s womb.
And all God’s people said. Amen.