By Pastor Tracey Leslie
(From the sermon series This Holiday Season: Unwrap Your Gift)
Scripture: Luke 1:39-45
Let’s just admit it right up front: this is a weird day in the church. Technically, it is the final Sunday of Advent – those four Sundays leading up to Christmas; a season to spiritually prepare for the arrival of Christmas. So this morning, technically, it’s still Advent. But this evening (when the sun sets at 5:25), it will be Christmas Eve – a completely different season on the Church’s calendar. It’s a bit of worship whiplash. Add the whole awkwardness that – although I know not everyone here this morning will be able to come back tonight at 6:00 – I hope at least many of you do and, for those who do, I’m sure you wouldn’t appreciate hearing the same service and sermon twice in the same day. So, don’t worry. This evening will be different.
Now, this morning’s gospel is the story of what happens when Mary, the mother of Jesus, goes to visit her elderly relative Elizabeth who is pregnant with John the Baptist. Only Luke tells us this story. Not only is Jesus miraculously conceived; but the conception of John is also miraculous. Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah, were never able to have children and now Elizabeth is too old to get pregnant. I mean, I don’t want to go into the birds and the bees here in the sanctuary but, we all know how it works, right?
Just imagine the remarkable joy when these two women, relatives, come face to face as first-time mothers-to-be. According to Luke, Mary would have been in her first trimester while Elizabeth is in her last. There would have stood Elizabeth, wrinkles and gray hair, no doubt as big as a house coming face to face with this sweet teenage girl whose little baby bump probably wasn’t even visible yet under those loose-fitting robes of antiquity. In a culture where elders were well-respected it shouldn’t surprise us that Elizabeth is the first to speak. But it is about more than seniority for Elizabeth is divinely inspired; “jump-started,” we might say, by the child in her own womb. John the Baptist launches his prophetic career before he’s even cleared the birth canal. And his mother’s words to Mary are a pronouncement of blessing; a trilogy of blessing really.
First, Elizabeth affirms that Mary is blessed because of her chosen role or “job position” for the Almighty; second, she is blessed because of the presence of this divine child within her womb; and she is blessed, finally, because she has believed in the Word of God. Last Sunday in worship I told the story of the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary to announce Jesus’ birth. When the angel tells Mary that she will be impregnated by the Holy Spirit, Mary replies with her famous words: “Let it be with me according to your Word.” Mary believes – she places trust – in the Word of God. So she is thrice blessed.
But what does it really mean to be “blessed.” It’s a pretty over-used word in our culture. When people sneeze, we say “God bless you.” Sometimes when we ask Christians how they’re doing, they respond “I’m blessed.” Sometimes they elaborate, “Too blessed to be stressed” which seems a bit of an indictment upon those of us who are worry-warts by nature not nurture. So what does it really mean to be blessed?
Well, technically speaking, blessings can solicit, distribute, or celebrate the favor or grace of God. Furthermore, when we celebrate God’s favor or grace, it is a form of worship. Put in pretty mundane terms, it’s kind of like we’re thanking God and congratulating the person simultaneously. What I mean by that is that – to name someone as blessed – means that we name or identify how we see God’s grace working in their life; how it has been made real in their life. Blessing – at least the Greek word used here – is closely connected to the Greek word for praise. So blessing involves praising God because God is good and the source of every good gift. Blessing, my friends, is something we do out loud to identify and name the presence of God’s grace or favor in one another’s lives. Even before the birth of Jesus, Elizabeth is able to discern that this child in Mary’s belly will be the bearer of God’s grace or favor and so she names it, she celebrate it aloud, as a blessing.
Just before our service concludes this morning, I will recite Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus; a story we’ve all no doubt heard… if not in church at least on the Charlie Brown Christmas special. There is that line where the angel speaks to the shepherds and proclaims: “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favors (or graces).” That’s the line I want you to focus on. That’s the line I want you to remember. Glorifying and praising God is inseparably linked with the ways that God favors or blesses his creation. And blessing can be a way of glorifying God by identifying the ways that God’s grace or divine favor is operating in someone’s life. That’s what Elizabeth does. She understands that they are about to experience the saving grace of God through the child in Mary’s womb and she understands the critical role that Mary plays in “birthing” God’s grace or favor. Mary will deliver God’s grace as a baby and, I’m guessing, there were still days when Mary found that pretty astonishing and mind-boggling. So Elizabeth affirms what is taking place in Mary’s life; she names it and celebrates it. “You’re blessed, Mary, because God is doing something so gracious and favorable for all of us in and through you.”
Blessing is the way we name and identify God’s grace and that’s a very important thing because sometimes we struggle to see the evidence of God’s grace on our own. When we’re going through a difficult time, we may have trouble seeing God’s blessings in our own lives. Sometimes all we can see is what’s “not working;” all we can see is what’s going wrong. We develop tunnel vision. So we need others to help us. We need others to say, “Blessed are you!” and to name for us how they see God’s grace operating in our lives. What a gift that can be to someone who’s struggling; who’s feeling lost or has lost hope.
Even more than that, we can be the ones to pray or evoke God’s blessing over someone’s life. Blessings are performative speech; they make things happen. They hold power; they change reality. We all know and have experienced the power of words over our lives. The words children receive from their parents shape their identity and they impact them for the rest of their lives. Sometimes the words that couples speak to one another in the heat of an argument can create wounds that are deep and hard to heal. In scripture, the opposite of blessings are curses… not like swear words, but speaking in ways that seek God’s punishment of someone. Friends: words have power and we need to use them well. You can call forth God’s blessing over the life of someone else.
In Luke’s story of Christmas, the shepherds receive word from the angels about Jesus. It is good news of great joy for everyone; it is the news of how Jesus brings peace and reveals God’s favor or grace. When the shepherds get to the manger, they tell others what the angel said to them. They share those powerful words. And those words become a blessing to Mary; she holds them in her heart; she treasures and ponders over them. And shepherds, my friends, had no authority in the ancient world; they were disrespected and marginalized. So you don’t need to be someone especially religious or with theological training; anyone can speak God’s blessing over the life of someone else. We live in a world right now so full of angry, hateful words. Words hold power; words shape reality. Of all the gifts we give this Christmas – all the stuff under our trees – let’s not forget the gift of the spoken word. Give someone you love a blessing this Christmas. Because it’s up to use: we can choose to call forth and to name and celebrate the grace of God in the life of someone else. We can choose blessing.
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