Pastor Drew Williams
Do you remember the first Christmas gift you ever gave to someone else?
I can’t remember what the FIRST Christmas gift I ever gave was, but I have a memory from when I was, like, I don’t know, 5 years old, maybe? My mom took me and my younger brother out Christmas shopping for my dad. We were on a mission to find my dad the gift that he had asked for… a hairbrush.
You see, it was the early 90s, and even though my dad had cut off his shoulder length hair that he had in college, he still had some length of hair on top of his head that he liked to feather back in just the right way.
And so we ended up finding the perfect hair brush for a dad-on-the-go that had to look good. It was a foldable brush, probably for camping or traveling, that he could fold up and put in his back pocket and whip out whenever he needed to give his coif the old once-over.
Now, looking back, I don’t know why I was so proud of that gift. I mean, I’m sure my mom was the one who suggested it. I’m sure my mom was the one who found it. I’m sure my mom was the one who gave us the money to pay for it. She probably wrapped it, and she probably even helped explain it to my dad when her excitable 5-year-old son couldn’t spit out the words on Christmas morning.
Honestly, my mom gave that gift to my dad. My brother and I just shared in the giving. She did all the work and handed it to us. We were able to just hand it over. But to me, it was just as powerful of an experience as if I had done all the giving myself.
This month, we’re talking about the unexpected gifts we get at Christmas. We’ve talked about receiving hope, even after it felt like we were beyond hope. Last week, we talked about receiving the gift of God With Us, even if we hadn’t asked for it. And today, we’re going to talk about a gift that I think ALL of us want, especially after this last year and a half we’ve had.
We’ll be looking at Luke 1:39-56, which picks up right after Mary was visited by Gabriel and told that she would be the mother of Jesus. She accepted, and Gabriel left, and then we read to see what happens next…
READ Luke 1:39-45
Okay, we’ll keep going through the rest of this section, but let’s just pause to go a bit deeper here first. Mary has just been told by Gabriel that she would be playing a big role in God’s plan. And to help her know that Gabriel was telling the truth, he gave her a report of the miraculous pregnancy of her distant relative, Elizabeth. So Mary leaves at once to go visit Elizabeth.
Now, was this because she wanted to see it with her own eyes? To confirm what Gabriel had told her? Or was this because word had gotten back to Nazareth about Elizabeth’s good news, and Mary felt like going to help her? In either case, Mary had just been given assurance that God was WITH her, and her response was to go be WITH Elizabeth.
Now this was NOT a quick trip around the corner. Nazareth is almost 70 miles north of where Elizabeth lived, and while a quick internet search will tell you that it would take less than two hours to drive there, a SECOND internet search will let you know that travelling by foot or pack animal would take 5-7 days.
(I was curious, so I Googled it, in case you wanted to know a little behind-the-scenes secret to how pastors prepare sermons.)
So Mary, this young teenage girl, maybe already experiencing morning sickness, travels for a week to visit Elizabeth and just be present with her. Maybe she thinks she’ll be able to help out around the house. Maybe she thinks that she’ll be able to bond with Elizabeth because they both had miracle babies. Maybe she’s hoping that Elizabeth will understand her better and receive the news better than her family and Joseph might have.
Regardless of what was going through her head, Mary was sacrificing to go visit Elizabeth. It was hard work. It was inconvenient. It was costing Mary something to be the one to travel to Elizabeth. And when she got there, she did what was culturally appropriate and went inside and greeted Elizabeth as a way of showing her honor.
This is the same as when families get together, perhaps for the holidays, and the younger members arrive and someone tells little Timmy, “Go and say hi to your Gramma.” Because Gramma shouldn’t be the one who has to go and seek out Timmy to get a hug. She’s Gramma! You go give her a hug AND a kiss AND tell her about the last book you read.
If we have that type of understanding of honoring our elders, even a little bit, in our culture, it gives us a peek into Elizabeth and Mary’s culture. Mary traveled to Elizabeth because Elizabeth was the elder. Elizabeth was pregnant. Elizabeth was a matriarch in their extended family. Wife of a priest, now with a miracle baby. Mary acts as a humble, polite young lady and sought out Elizabeth and greeted her.
And when Elizabeth hears her, Luke tells us that she was filled with the Holy Spirit and began to shower blessings and praises on Mary. Even though Elizabeth is culturally superior to Mary, she places herself in the role of the servant, giving honor to Mary.
Not only does Elizabeth echo some of the things Gabriel said about Mary, confirming for her and us that God truly had favored Mary because of his grace, but she also gives us a glimpse of what Jesus’ presence will mean for the hierarchies of the world. When Jesus is involved, the greater serves the lesser, the most important becomes the servant of all, and sacrificial love is the standard.
Mary came to give help and honor to Elizabeth, but instead it’s reversed, and Elizabeth is the one heaping blessings on Mary. But it’s not like the honor is taken from Elizabeth. To the contrary, Elizabeth feels SUPER blessed that Mary, the mother of her Lord, has come to her. When Jesus is involved, there is an abundance that ends up being shared to everyone.
I love how Elizabeth ends her proclamation, “Blessed is she who believed the Lord…” She’s talking about Mary, and she’s commending her for her faith. But, in a way, she’s also referring to herself, because she’s also blessed by the Lord because he has finally answered her lifelong prayer. And the thing to note here is that her first blessing on Mary is worded as “blessed are YOU,” directly addressed to Mary. But this last one is “blessed is she…” It’s more general, meaning that others are invited to respond just like Mary, having faith in the Lord who fulfills his promises. Blessings are abundant when we trust in the Lord.
All of this prompts Mary to respond with her own prayerful song of praise. Maybe your Bible labels the next section as Mary’s song, but it is traditionally known as the Magnificat, named for the Latin word that starts the whole thing in the Latin translation.
Now, there are a lot of Bible scholars who spend a lot of time examining in great detail each and every phrase that Mary says here. They connect different parts of it with different parts of the Old Testament prophets, and they theorize whether Mary is prophecying about the future, or if she is quoting from the Old Testament, and…it’s…a lot. Really, really nerdy. Really, really long. One of the commentaries I consulted in preparation for this sermon spent over 6 pages just looking at these 9 verses!
I don’t want to go THAT in-depth. However, I WOULD like to point out one nerdy point that I think can be pretty insightful for us today. In this song, whenever Mary refers to God’s actions, she always uses verbs in the PAST tense.
“He has been mindful…” “has done great things…” “has performed mighty deeds…” “has scattered…” “has brought down rulers, but has lifted up the humble…” “has filled the hungry…”
All of these proclamations are in the past tense and point to God’s action on behalf of those he loves. They don’t so much declare who God IS, but what God DOES as the powerful deliverer of the needy and oppressed. God doesn’t turn away from the downcast, avoiding them at the street corner or outside of the grocery store as so many people do. But God turns TOWARDS want and oppression in compassion. He turns TOWARDS the needy with a spirit of rescuing intervention.
Even though Mary is still very much a young girl, living under a social code that puts her pretty low on the totem pole, living under Roman occupation, she still holds on to the promises and character of God who is with her, who has favored her with his grace.
The verse that I think sums it up the best is verse 49, “for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.”
Has done. Past tense. Already completed. The battle has been won. So magnify and glorify the Lord with me. Rejoice in God my savior.
Then our passage ends with this little summary phrase, “Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.”
I said at the beginning that we were going to be talking about a gift that ALL of us want this year. This passage shows us the gift of companionship. The gift of going through it together. And after a year and a half that feels like no other time in our lives, we all need the gift of companionship, don’t we?
And today’s passage shows us that companionship is something that we all can GIVE as well, but we don’t have to muster up the strength on our own. No, today’s passage makes it very clear that God was the one that enabled and empowered both Mary and Elizabeth to give companionship to each other.
It’s only because of Gabriel’s message to Mary that she seeks out Elizabeth. And Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit as Mary arrives. Sure, it involves sacrifice to go and be with someone and give them companionship. Mary had to travel all the way to Elizabeth. Elizabeth hosted Mary and gave her time even though she was very pregnant. But both of them were giving out of what had already been provided by God.
It’s just like my Christmas gift to my dad. I simply got to SHARE what had been provided for me. God’s gift of presence with us is what enables us to give companionship to each other.
God gives. We share.
We aren’t asked to give out of our own power or strength or energy. God prompts us to give out of what we’ve received already from God. God has already proven himself as a companion to the least and the lowly. And he has come from heaven, leaving his throne to give us companionship as Jesus. It’s because of that that we GET to give companionship to each other.
And when we do give out of what God has given, we realize that there’s always more where that came from! God’s abundance means that when we give companionship to someone else, it blesses us too! Because we’re living in the way God created us for.
And that last point right there is why it can seem like a battle to find companionship and give companionship. Because we have an enemy who wants to stop us from living in the way of Jesus. We have an enemy who wants to distract us with fear. How will they treat me? Will they reject me?
Our enemy wants to distract us with loss. I can’t give companionship to anyone else right now, because I’m going through too much. I can’t burden everyone with that.
Our enemy wants to distract us with anger. They aren’t behaving correctly. They believe WHAT about vaccines?! They posted THAT on social media?! I can’t believe them!
Our enemy wants to distract us with those things so that we pull away from each other.
But God gives us his Presence, he becomes our companion in each season. He joins us in celebration, and he sits with us in grief and lament. And when we give each other the dignity of companionship, God is glorified and we are drawn together.
God gives. We share.
So, here’s what I’d like to suggest for us this week. What if we took two words into this week with us? Rejoice and Remain.
What if you entered this next week with the word Rejoice on your mind? Rejoice in God, how he has provided in surprising and unexpected ways this past year? Or rejoicing in ways he has brought you companionship over the course of your life. What kind of stories would come to mind for you? What kind of joy could you share with those around you by telling them about how God has given you companionship? What if you were able to tell someone that they were a gift from God to you, even in a small way? What kind of change would that make to your week? To theirs?
Rejoice in the Lord. And Remain with someone. Who is God calling you to remain with?
Mary remained with Elizabeth for 3 months. That means that she was there through the end of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. She might have even been there for the birth of John. And it means that Elizabeth was there while Mary was beginning to go through the first trimester of her first pregnancy. Giving her love and help before she prepared to go home to face the music with Joseph and her family.
Who is God calling you to remain with? Who is God inviting you to give companionship to this week? We can share the gift of presence over a cup of coffee, or over the phone, or since we’re all experts at zoom now, we can even do a video call. What if each of us just asked God for one person to be able to share companionship with this week?
Because when we share the gift of companionship, it glorifies God. It draws us together. When we give the gift of companionship, the lonely are healed and the outcasts are welcomed because there is ALWAYS more room at the table of grace that God invites us to.
There is always more blessing from the Creator of the universe. We GET to share it. We GET to give it. Isn’t that good news?