Sermon for the 4. Sunday of Advent, December 23, 2018, Deacon Sue Nebel
Here we are, the last Sunday of Advent. All four candles on the Advent wreath are lighted. We are standing at the threshold of the event we have been preparing for: the birth of Jesus. Christmas. In the Church we are intentional about making Advent a time to slow down, reflect, anticipate. A time to be quiet. To prepare ourselves to experience once again the gift of God coming into the world to live among God’s people. Advent, a quiet season. Interestingly, the readings that we have heard so far in this season, especially the Gospel lessons. have been anything but quiet. Descriptions of the end of the age. Roaring seas. The powers of heaven shaken. People trembling in fear. Then along comes John the Baptist. I cannot imagine him speaking in anything but the highest volume possible. A voice crying out in the wilderness, urging people to repent their sins and begin anew with baptism. Proclaiming that one greater than he is coming to change the world. One who will baptize with Holy Spirit and fire. Not exactly calm, quiet words.
Today, the tone shifts. We hear a Gospel lesson that is quiet, simple: the story of The Visitation. No loud voices, no noisy crowds here. Just two women, Mary and Elizabeth. We have gone back to the beginning. Back to the first chapter of Luke. Back to the beginning of the story of Jesus. Today’s story of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth comes right after the account of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary. Gabriel comes to Mary with the message that God has chosen her to be the God-Bearer. She will conceive and give birth to a son who will be called Jesus. He is destined for greatness. When Mary questions how this can happen because she is a virgin, Gabriel responds by pointing to her relative Elizabeth. Elizabeth, who had been unable to have children and is getting on in years, is now in her six month of pregnancy. “Nothing is impossible with God,“ Gabriel tells Mary. We do not know how much time lapses between Gabriel’s visit to Mary and her departure to visit Elizabeth. Luke only tells us, “In those days Mary set out with great haste. . .” There certainly has been enough time that Elizabeth has heard the news about Mary’s pregnancy. We also do not know why Mary makes this journey, but the phrase “with great haste” indicates a sense of urgency. Perhaps she needs to get away from Nazareth before her pregnancy becomes apparent and the shaking of heads and whispered conversations start. She may need some quiet time to grasp what is happening to her. She may believe that Elizabeth is a person who can understand her situation and provide support. Mary knows the story of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. It is story that parallels her own. The angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, and told him that his wife would bear a son whom they should name John. Gabriel said, “You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.” Another promise of greatness.
When Mary arrives at her destination and enters the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth, she calls out a greeting. Elizabeth, her spirits rising at the sight of her young relative, greets her warmly. She tells Mary that the child in her womb has responded as well, leaping in joy. “Blessed are you among women,” she tells Mary, “and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Former Roman Catholics among us will recognize those words. They are part of the Hail Mary. Elizabeth also affirms Mary’s willingness to accept the role that God has given to her: to give birth to Jesus. Two women, looking ahead to the birth of their sons. Wondering what the future will hold for them. A quiet scene, filled with hope. For the hearers of Luke’s story, and for us as well, this moment is tinged with a sense of sadness. We know what that future for these unborn children will be. Yes, they will become great. Elizabeth’s son will be known as John the Baptist, attracting crowds with his message of a new kind of life. He will awaken hope in the people. Jesus will come into the picture, to be baptized by John. Jesus will continue to give people hope. Through his teachings and actions, people will learn about a God of love. A God that loves all God’s children. Jesus will describe a new kind of world, a woard as God wants it to be. Where everyone is valued, where everyone thrives. The sadness is that both John and Jesus will suffer. They will be arrested at the hands of those in power and die brutal deaths.
Those stories come later. Let’s go back to Mary’s visit to Elizabeth. Two pregnant women, anticipating an event that will change their lives. Two figures who are the embodiment of hope. Hope, that feeling and orientation to life that is rooted deep in our being. Hope is strong, urgent, persistent. In dark times and facing great challengers, hope refuses to be defeated. I learned a lot about hope in my years of working as a hospice chaplain. I journeyed with people as they navigated their way in the darkness of serious illness and moved toward the end of their lives. Hope was important to them. It kept them going. Hope, I learned, as I talked and prayed with people, is incredibly strong—and flexible. Often, patients and their loved ones had to accept the fact that their hope of a cure or long life was not going to be realized. They had to let go of that hope and find something new. I experienced it time and time again: the strong determination to find hope. The new hope was often for more time. Time to see people whom they loved or time to take care of some unfinished business in their lives. And finally, the hope for a peaceful end to their life. Hope is strong. It doesn’t quit. It changes and becomes something new.
In the season of Advent, some churches have responded to people for whom the approach of Christmas is difficult. The pain of loss or loneliness make it hard for them to join in the brightness and joy around them. Churches offer Blue Christmas services in the season of Advent. An opportunity for these people to find acknowledgement and acceptance of their sadness. A place where they can find, for a short time, a community of shared experience. I am convinced that hope brings people to these liturgies. The deep longing for a ray of new hope in the midst of their personal darkness. Their host churches hope they may experience the loving presence of God.
What about now, today? What you hope for? Our world is marked by unrest and violence. Our own nation struggles with the chaos and dysfunction of our government and political system. We may be experiencing challenges in our personal lives. It can seem hard, if not impossible, to have hope. But I believe hope is there. It is persistent, determined. But we need to search for it. I invite you, as we leave Advent behind and move into Christmas, to find some time to sit quietly and search for that hope. It might be later today or this evening. Perhaps in the wakefulness of night, or in the early light of tomorrow morning. Look into the deepest part of yourself. What is the hope that resides there? What hope sustains you? Name it. Embrace it. Give thanks for it. May you cross the threshold to Christmas in hope.