Sermon: The Bearers

24 December 2006

Rev. Jennifer Whipple
Congregational Church of Brookfield
The Bearers
Micah 5
Luke 1:39-49, 56        

            Each Advent Season I have a different concern or focus come to the forefront in my life.  I am convinced that God’s head is shaking back and forth too, because I usually don’t catch on until about now…the final Sunday in Advent is about the time the light bulb goes on, and I realize what it is that God has been so blatantly trying to get me to think about for the past month.  A few years ago the message was about how we do or do not properly prepare our hearts for Christ’s birth.  Last year, having just officially taken my position here and preparing for a wedding, the message was about slowing down, about balance.  This year I finally realized that the message God has been trying to bang me over the head with is about the way that we do or do not wait…the way that we spend time being still and waiting for God to speak to us, for God to act in our lives.

            I have spent a lot of time in conversation and prayer the past few weeks asking questions. The majority of the questions that have come to my mind are about Elizabeth and Mary and their story.  In today’s scripture lessons, we hear the prophecy of something huge coming out of a tiny insignificant village named Bethlehem , and then we come to find out that the tiny insignificant village will be the home of the Messiah.  But first we have to make it through the period of waiting.  In our scripture lessons today we hear the story of two cousins, one much older than the other, both pregnant and in extraordinary circumstances. 

            Advent is a season of waiting, a season of hope, a season of questions, a season of joy, a season of giving ourselves over to God.  That is why the gospel story for this morning is so perfect.  Luke is the only gospel in which the stories of Elizabeth and Mary are told together, are connected, and are the focus of what is occurring…they are the Bearers.  They are the ones who were called to bring these amazing baby boys, John the Baptist and Jesus Christ into the world.  They are the bearers of amazing news.  Unto them children will be born who will change the world, who will spread the love and the message of God, who are precursors to our faith – the faith that we continue to share to this very day.

             In the meeting of these two kinswomen two miracles meet.  Elizabeth was much older and barren.  Despite hers and Zechariah’s desire they were unable to have children.  This was considered a sign of divine disfavor, and therefore a disgrace…especially in the family of a priest, which Zechariah was.  And yet here is Elizabeth pregnant with a baby, a miracle who would set the stage for Jesus’ public ministry.  She handed herself over to God with joy and longing, even though she must have been full of questions.  Her husband, Zechariah, however, did not believe and so he was made mute.  Elizabeth is left to carry on the story for a bit.  The second miracle happened to a teenage virgin engaged to be married.  An angel appeared to tell her that she was the chosen one-- that she would conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit and bear God’s son.  Despite the issues Mary knew she would have as a young unwed pregnant woman in her time, she turned herself over to God.  “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

             As soon as Mary had her encounter with the Angel Gabriel she left for a 50 mile journey to see Elizabeth, whom Gabriel had told her was also pregnant.  Elizabeth was 6 months along in her pregnancy when Mary journeyed to her.  But after we hear of their extraordinary greeting, one that is surely inspired by the Holy Spirit, one that gives honor to the miracles that are happening in their lives and inside their bodies and praise to God who makes all things possible, we lose what happens next.  After Elizabeth ’s joyful proclamation that Mary was the mother of her Lord and Mary’s song of praise to God, the scripture continues on to explain that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months and then returned to her home.  But what happened in between did not make it in to writing.  What happened in between is the stuff that does not make it into our narrative either any longer during most of our Advent Season…it was waiting.

             We live in a society that does not easily wait. We grow annoyed when we have to wait in a long line at the grocery store, or especially the DMV.  We become angry when our dentist appointments are held up.  We develop road rage when someone isn’t driving fast enough or when we get caught in traffic.  So we have taken the joy and excitement out of waiting by booking schedules that are impossible to attend to or to balance.  We have taken the anticipation out of it all.  We can learn a lesson or two from Mary and Elizabeth who spent time with one another waiting…we can imagine that they waited with all the hope, joy, questions, fear, expectations, love, and faith that two women in these extraordinary and inexplicable circumstances (at least by the world’s standards) could possibly have.

             There is a writing in the book Seeds of Hope, writings by Henri Nouwen who was a priest, professor, and missionary.  Nouwen writes about Advent, of the in-between that we miss.  He asks the question about how we wait. 

            “How do we wait?” Nouwen asks, “ One of the most beautiful passages of scripture is Luke 1…which suggests that we wait together, as did Mary and Elizabeth.  What happened when Mary received the words of promise?  She went to Elizabeth .  Something was happening to Elizabeth as well as to Mary.  But how could they live that out?

            I find the meeting of these two women very moving, “ [Nouwen continues], “ because Elizabeth and Mary came together and enabled each other to wait.  Mary’s visit made Elizabeth aware of what she was waiting for.  The child leapt for joy in her.  Mary affirmed Elizabeth ’s waiting...These women created space for each other to wait.  They affirmed for each other that something was happening that was worth waiting for.”

             There was something worth waiting for.  So Mary stayed with Elizabeth .  We have no idea what they did during those next three months, aside from take care of the day-to-day things of life.  Instead it is left to our imaginations.  And as angelic as the stories in the Bible make these scenes appear, we know that there is a reality to this situation that one cannot truly know unless they have born children themselves.  I have not had a child, but I do know women who have.  I watched as my sister-in-law experienced her first pregnancy with my nephew, and I am watching and feeling and listening and loving again now as she experiences her second pregnancy, one that will bring my three new nephews into this world.  And along with her pregnancies have come the  of such things as morning sickness, exhaustion from walking up a flight of stairs- tending the house- and running my nephew back and forth, sciatica, muscle aches…you name it.  We can only imagine what these things must have been like for our aged Elizabeth and our teenage Mary in the days when childbirth was much more dangerous, and there was no Tylenol! 

As I imagine what might have happened I think about Mary & Elizabeth dealing with these realities together, praying together, sharing with one another in the changing of their bodies, planning together for the care of their children, shedding tears of both joy and concern about the unknown, and perhaps at the very end sharing in the birth of John the Baptist, himself…Mary holding Elizabeth’s hand encouraging her through the birth, holding John during his first cry, and affirming the miracle that had occurred through her cousin.  These two women trusted one another, and they trusted God.  They trusted God enough to make their miracles reality despite old age, societal standards, and overall seemingly impossible conditions.    

             So why on earth would I preach this sermon with only mere hours…not months, weeks, or even days…left until the Advent season is over, and we celebrate the birth of Jesus?  Why?  Because I believe that within the missing piece of this story lie two important lessons. 

             First, we have the opportunity to celebrate Advent each year.  The gift of this opportunity is that each year there is something new about it, whether that is due to our own personal circumstances or those of the world around us.  We just need to take the time to realize that newness.  Each year we read the same story, hear the same scriptures, light Advent candles, and teach our children about the baby born in the manger.  And yet it never ceases to amaze me that each year there is something different and new about it.  The gift of Advent is that each year we do not only hear and share and teach and light candles…each year we are invited to do these things.  We are invited to hope and joy and expect. We are invited to hear about these miracles anew and to spend some time waiting and celebrating them instead of filling each and every moment up in doing.  We are invited to spend some time being and letting God speak to us anew.

The other message, which is maybe a bit more meaningful at this time in Advent, is that the attitude with which Mary and Elizabeth, the Bearers, faced the new ways that God entered into their lives, can be an example for us in our daily lives, and in our lives in community…not only in Advent but all year long. 

               In Seeds of Hope Nouwen continues, “I think that [the story of Elizabeth & Mary] is the model of Christian community.  It is a community of support, of celebration, and affirmation in which we can lift up what is already begun in us. The visit of Elizabeth and Mary is one of the Bible’s most beautiful expressions of what it means to form community, to be together, gathered around a promise, affirming that something is really happening…The whole meaning of the Christian community lies in offering a space in which we wait for what we have already seen.  Christian community is the place where we keep the flame alive among us and take it seriously so that it can grow and become stronger in us.  In this way we can live with courage, trusting that there is a spiritual power in us that allows us to live together in [this crazy world].

              Elizabeth and Mary were true examples of what it meant to live each day of their lives with courage and trust in God’s plan for them, a plan to be the Bearers of two extremely important babies.  They were true examples of what it meant to know when and how to wait, to truly rest their bodies and their otherwise hurried lives in order to allow God’s love and purpose to grow within them.  They were true examples of what it meant to encourage and to support one another, to sit with one another in the unknown and still look forward in anticipation to what could be. 

As we prepare to welcome the Christ child again this year let us learn from the Bearers to take time to open ourselves up to the unknown and exciting new ways that God is able to enter into our lives as well.  And may God’s blessings be with you and yours at this Christmas, in the New Year, and beyond.  Amen.



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