December 23, 2018/ Advent 4/Richard Holmer
Our son Eric recently sent us a video of a performance that included their son, William. William turns three this week, and he was singing along with his class in their church’s preschool Christmas program. Well, he was singing some of the time – and looking around some of the time – and trying to remember the gestures that went along with each song. At times he was about half a beat behind – which made it that much more adorable. He was the littlest one in the group, and he looked sharp in his blazer and bowtie.
The name of their preschool is Little Blessings – and the whole class fits the bill. The concert was pure joy, and those kids are indeed a blessing. Today’s gospel reading is full of blessings, blessings which also have to do with children. We hear how Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth: two expectant mothers who have been unexpectedly blessed. Before Mary has a chance to share her amazing story, the Holy Spirit reveals to Elizabeth the wonder God has accomplished and she exclaims with a loud cry: “Mary,” she says, “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? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Mary is blessed to be the mother of the promised Savior. (And blessed to believe it!)
The “fruit of her womb” (Jesus) is blessed – because he is, after all, God’s only begotten Son.
Elizabeth is honored and blessed to be visited by the mother of her Lord (and by that Lord himself, still in the womb). She is also blessed to be expecting a son of her own, a son who will brow up to be John the Baptist, who “will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.”
All these blessings have this in common: all of them are most improbable. Consider: Mary is a virgin – and yet somehow pregnant! Further, she is such an unlikely candidate to bear God’s son: very young, humble and, well, ordinary. Elizabeth is also an improbable mother-to-be. Like Sarah long before her, Elizabeth had been barren and was thought to be too old to have children. Her husband, Zechariah, certainly thought this prospect was inconceivable. Most improbable of all: God being born as a human: true God AND true man!
It is through such unexpected blessings that God intends to bless the whole wide world. Mary sings of this coming blessing in the beautiful words of the Magnificat:
“… the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors….”
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What, then, does it mean to be blessed? (and who does the blessing?)
To be blessed is more than being lucky. It’s lucky to find a parking spot in a crowded downtown, to get a half-price ticket for a show like Hamilton, to win the Lottery (or any contest). Blessing isn’t a matter of luck. You are blessed when something good is given to you. Blessings can’t be purchased – they can only be received. To be blessed is to have your life made fuller and more abundant by God.
In the bible, blessings most often come in the form of God’s gracious mercy and love. Mary is profoundly grateful to God for the gift given to her: “Surely,” she says, “from now on all generations will call me blessed.”
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke about what it is to be blessed: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
Likewise, he adds, “blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”
“blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“blessed are those who know their need for God, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Gracious blessings come from God in unexpected ways to people whom the world may consider unworthy. Whenever and however mercy arrives, it is always welcome – and gratefully received.
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God also blesses in another way. To be blessed is to be used by God as an instrument of his saving work – to directly participate in bringing the love of God to this needy world. Simply put: it is a rich blessing to bless others. So it is that Mary and Elizabeth are doubly blessed. Each is blessed with the gift of a son. And they are also blessed to play an essential role in God’s work of salvation: bringing great blessings to the whole wide world.
And what kind of blessings are in store? Mary tells us: She sings:
“The Lord scatters the proud in the imagination of their hearts.”
“The Lord lifts up the lowly – and brings down the powerful from their thrones.”
“The Lord fills the hungry with good things – and sends the rich away empty.”
“The Lord remembers his promise, and so helps his faithful people.”
When we pay attention, we notice how God’s blessing may look different, depending on your status and point of view. The gospel shows how God truly has concern for all people – AND a special concern for the least and the lost: for those this world deems worthless and undeserving, for the poor, the brokenhearted, the sinful, the sick, the outcast, the stranger.
And there are stern words for those who are powerful, wealthy and proud – those who are certain of their own goodness.
God’s coming into this world promises to bring blessings – and also changes, changes that may not be welcomed by all, especially those who are interested in the status quo. Some changes may not be recognized at first as blessings. Rory Cooney has written a hymn that is a paraphrase of Mary’s words in today’s gospel – the verses commonly referred to as the Magnificat.
Listen to how this hymn emphasizes the changes, which Mary anticipates, will come as a result of her son’s birth: (Canticle of the Turning)
My soul cries out with a joyful shout that the God of my heart is great, And my spirit sings of the wondrous things that you bring to the one who waits. You fixed your sight on the servant’s plight, and my weakness you did not spurn, So from east to west shall my name be blest. Could the world be about to turn?
Refrain: My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn. Wipe away all tears, For the dawn draws near, And the world is about to turn.
Though I am small, my God, my all, you work great things in me. And your mercy will last from the depths of the past to the end of the age to be. Your very name puts the proud to shame, and those who would for you yearn, You will show your might, put the strong to flight, for the world is about to turn.
From the halls of power to the fortress tower, not a stone will be left on stone. Let the king beware for your justice tears every tyrant from his throne. The hungry poor shall weep no more, for the food they can never earn; These are tables spread, ev’ry mouth be fed, for the world is about to turn.
Though the nations rage from age to age, we remember who holds us fast: God’s mercy must deliver us from the conqueror’s crushing grasp. This saving word that our forbears heard is the promise that holds us bound, ‘Til the spear and rod be crushed by God, who is turning the world around.
Know this: God is not vindictive. Jesus comes not to condemn, but to save. Yet Jesus does proclaim that the last shall be first, and many who are first will be last. The humble will be exalted – and the exalted will be humbled.
Commentator John Petty says this about Mary’s Magnificat: “God is always on the side of those at the bottom, those who are excluded, those who are left out. Yet God does not triumph over their oppressors in a vindictive act, but rather a loving one. God wants their oppressors to CHANGE and join the mission of the kingdom.”
Theologian Leonardo Boff adds this insight: “God flings the proud of heart to the earth, in the hope that they will be delivered form their ridiculous vaunting and flaunting, to become free and obedient children of God and brothers and sisters to others.”
God aims to save every last one of us. Christ’s coming will finally overturn all our worldly notions of “winners and losers,” by bringing love, mercy and blessing for all.
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The great blessing that came to Mary has come to all of us as well: Like Mary and Elizabeth we are doubly blessed. Unto us a child is born. Unto us a Savior is given. We are blessed by God’s mercy and we are blessed to be a blessing to others.
You and I are the recipients of God’s gracious gift of salvation – and we are called to be God’s instruments by extending the blessing of salvation to this troubled and messy world.
You and I can be bringers of God’s grace and peace and mercy.
We will sing the good news in our closing hymn today: Christ has opened heaven’s door and we are BLESSED forevermore.
Like Mary, we are given the opportunity to be courageous and faithful instruments of blessing to this world that God dearly loves. With Mary, we can learn to say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be….”
Thanks be to God.