Summary: As we prepare for our Lord’s birth among us, we are confronted with God’s realtiy: Things are not always what they seem. God’s ways are not teh world’s ways.
Things Are Not What They Seem
Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus, the Christ. Amen.
After 2000 years of listening to the Christmas story, it’s easy for us hear it as a familiar and sentimental tale, imagining quiet and serene scenes like those on many Christmas cards and even in the Christmas carols. “Gentle Mary laid her child, lowly in a manger.” “The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes; But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” But do not be misled; things are not what they seem. This is a story of scandal, of things happening that just shouldn’t be happening, a story that leaves behind “propriety” and “the way things are supposed to be.” This is the story of a mysterious, unpredictable God, One whose plan involves the meek, the lowly, the rejected and the forgotten, while leaving the high and mighty ones confused and scratching their heads.
Today’s section of the story paints the picture of Mary and Elizabeth, rejoicing together as the full terms of their pregnancies draw near. But there’s more to the story than meets the eye. Let’s back up a bit and hear about how Elizabeth and Zechariah came to hear the news about their miraculous surprise.
"In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was named Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
"One day Zechariah was serving before God in the temple. It was his duty to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at this part of the service, the whole congregation was praying outside. Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared. Zechariah was terrified, but the angel said to him, "Don’t be afraid, Zechariah. Your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many people will rejoice at his birth, because he will be great in the sight of the Lord. Even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will lead many of people to the Lord. The spirit will guide him as he prepares the people for the Lord’s coming." Zechariah said to the angel, "You’re kidding, right? I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years." The angel replied, "I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, since you didn’t believe my words, you will not be able to speak until the day these things take place."
"Meanwhile the congregation was waiting for Zechariah. They wondered why he was taking so long in the sanctuary. When Zechariah finally came out, he couldn’t speak. They realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went home to explain all this to Elizabeth." (Luke 1:5-24, condensed & adapted)
Elizabeth shouldn’t be pregnant. Zechariah puts it gently when he says, “my wife is getting on in years.” Most likely Elizabeth had passed her childbirthing years a long time ago, so having children of their own was no longer a realistic possibility. But there, in the temple, the Angel Gabriel announces the news that they will conceive and give birth to a child. I can’t say as I blame Zechariah. When nature moves on, that’s that. But there stood a messenger of the Lord with news to the contrary, unexpected news.
Then there’s Mary’s unexpected news. Engaged to Joseph, she’s suddenly told that she’s going to have a baby. While simply politically incorrect in today’s society, this kind of “unexpected news” could have spelled a death sentence in Mary’s day. Being pregnant without being married spoke of humiliation, impropriety, and unfaithfulness, not “here I am, the servant of the Lord.” Mary’s life was forever changed by the angel’s news, and it didn’t begin with the birth. Young girls don’t just get pregnant with no explanation. But there stood a messenger of the Lord with news to the contrary, unexpected news.
So as today’s part of the story opens, we see two women pregnant, and neither one supposed to be. One is too old, and the other is too young, and unmarried. Yet here they are, not bemoaning their fate, but daring to rejoice in God’s handiwork. Elizabeth declares, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (Luke 1:42-43) Mary’s song overflows with joy at the promise of God’s working in her life, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me.” (Luke 1:46-48) These women are filled with the Holy Spirit, seeing God at work in the midst of their circumstances. But Zechariah, the voice of the religious establishment, had been silent, muted by his doubt and disbelief, while these two women dance and sing and prophesy about the future that God has in store. Things are not as they seem.