December 14, 2008

Waiting with Mary: Confiding
Luke 1:39-45

When a young woman first learns that she is pregnant, she is typically eager to share the news with people around her. The same thing can be said, of course, about the father-to-be. And the future grandparents! Deb and I could hardly wait to tell family and friends when each of our children was first conceived, regardless of where we were in the world. We’d think of creative ways to pass on the news, sometimes couching the announcement in a prayer or some off-the-cuff type of comment. I can, in the same way, remember the enthusiasm with which some of you announced similar news of your own. Just recently, for example, Jonathan Owen tried to keep a straight face in the offices here at the church when he informed us that Becky was going to have a baby. People want to share the news. They want others to know about their supposed good fortune.

When I first read this account of Mary’s visit with Elizabeth, I thought that that was what she was doing, too. Spreading the good news. Informing others of the favor that she had found in God’s eyes. She just couldn’t hold it in, I thought, so she announced the impending birth of her son to the world. But I was wrong. At least in part. The longer I sat with Mary, the more I realized that something else was going on here. It struck me, for one thing, that Mary began the trip to Elizabeth’s house without informing anyone else of the angel’s message. According to v. 26, the angel appeared to Mary in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. V. 56 further states that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for some three months. Finally, v. 57 recounts the actual birth of John, Elizabeth’s son. From all indications, Mary packed her bags and hit the road soon after the angel Gabriel disappeared. Without telling anyone the news. Without confiding in other members of her extended family. Without sitting down over a cup of coffee with a high school friend. I doubt that even Joseph, her husband-in-waiting, was in on the secret yet.

And another thing. Visiting Elizabeth took considerable time and energy on Mary’s part. What for us is but a few quick words that we can easily read in a couple of seconds—“In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country”—was for Mary a 5-6 day journey! The Judean hills, after all, are a considerable hike from Nazareth, and I assume that they were in Mary’s day as well. Had she simply wanted to announce the news, she could have done it far closer to home and with far less effort. Clearly, Mary was doing something more than merely broadcasting the news. She wanted to visit with Elizabeth in particular. But why?

Luke offers us no answer. We might, however, surmise. Mary, it seems to me, is looking for space. I certainly would be were I in her place. She has, you will agree, a fair bit of processing to do, a number of things to think through. Her life, after all, has changed considerably in the last short while. The fact that she received the angel’s message and said a resounding “Yes” to God in no way exempts her from facing the challenges before her. How will she break the news to her family? How will Joseph react? What will it be like mothering such a child? Will he eat normal food? Will he play ball like the other kids on the block? And even more threatening, will God be a back-seat parent, constantly looking over Mary’s shoulder? When God breaks into our world, shatters our categories and births something new in us, we need space, too. Time to get away and catch our breath. Time to sit and think. Time to pray and reflect. Mary, wisely, recognizes her very basic need for space and distance after such a momentous experience, so she packs her bags and heads south to Judah.

Mary, however, was looking for more than just space or solitude. She was, in fact, looking for someone to confide in. Someone with whom she could process the news. Someone with whom she could think through the implications of Gabriel’s message. Someone who would listen—really listen. And people like that, we perhaps know too well, are not always easy to find. In Mary’s case, she no doubt understood that a great hubbub would arise in Nazareth were the news to surface there. What if she told someone who then failed to keep confidence? Mary didn’t want to get the local rumor mill started. She didn’t want to have to explain and reexplain and reexplain again just what had happened to her. Not yet, anyway. And besides, who would believe her? Moms and dads often struggle to figure out what is happening in the lives of their children. Friends frequently break trusts. And people in general can often be somewhat hard-hearted—quick to form opinions. “Judge first, ask questions second.” Isn’t that how it sometimes goes? Mary longed for a listening ear. She was not so much interested in broadcasting the news as she was longing for someone to confide in.

Mary, finally, was looking for someone she could relate to. Someone who might at least in part appreciate and understand her circumstances. Someone whose journey might in some way overlap with her own. And Elizabeth, her aging relative who has been around the block herself a few times before, was just such a person. Remember? The angel had himself told Mary about Elizabeth’s supernatural pregnancy, hadn’t he? “She might understand,” Mary no doubt thought to herself.

Now, Elizabeth’s circumstances were in various ways different from Mary’s. No two journeys are exactly alike. Elizabeth, for one thing, was married. Mary was only engaged. Elizabeth, for another, was old; her life was largely behind her. Mary, on the other hand, was young with a great deal of life still before her. Yet the thread that binds these two women together was a powerful one. Both of them have been singled out by God for an unusual calling. Both will bear sons through divine decree. Both will conceive under unusual conditions. Elizabeth is old and beyond normal child-bearing years. Mary is an unmarried virgin. And both of these women will be exposed to public ridicule and or at least laughter. It’s not difficult to imagine scoffers on the street of Elizabeth’s village snickering as she walks by. “A cane in one hand and a baby in the other,” they might say. “I hope Zechariah’s retirement plan covers obstetrics and childcare!” And in Mary’s case, the reactions would likely be, as you can imagine, far worse.

Of all people, then, Elizabeth has had the range of experiences that might enable her to understand—to connect with—Mary and the situation that she finds herself in. Elizabeth, like Mary, could understand the thrill and excitement of being selected by God for such a favored task. Elizabeth, like Mary, could anticipate the less-than-encouraging public response that undoubtedly looms ahead.

And so, fresh off her encounter with the angel, Mary makes the 5-6 day journey to an unnamed town in the hills of Judah, bursts through the door of Elizabeth’s house, and greets her aging, pregnant relative. She is hoping to find space. Hoping to find someone to confide in. Hoping to find someone who might understand something of the journey that she is on. Did Elizabeth know she was coming? Was she prepared for such an emotional and lengthy visit? Who knows?

Of far greater importance than such logistical details is Elizabeth’s response to her just-arrived guest. In the middle of her own pregnancy, one might expect Elizabeth to be a bit testy. Perhaps some comparing of notes. A hint of competition or even jealousy. “God did this for you,” Elizabeth might have said, “but don’t forget what he has done for me.” Or “God placed within your womb the Lord himself, but he called me to birth only John.” “I’m older than you,” Elizabeth might have said, “so why am I playing second fiddle?” But we find no such comments. No dissension. No trace of contempt.

Instead, Elizabeth turns out to be all that Mary had hoped for. So excited is Elizabeth, Luke informs us, that she was herself overwhelmed by the Holy Spirit. Good grief, even the baby in her womb bounced with delight! Suddenly, Elizabeth herself bursts into song, acknowledging Mary’s sacred role, affirming the chosenness of the baby in Mary’s womb, and thanking God that she herself has been privileged to extend hospitality to her young relative from Nazareth. Isn’t it striking? Isn’t it wonderful when another person so deeply identifies with our own situation, our own fears and our own joys, that they feel blessed of God just to be with us? Mary traveled all the way from Nazareth to the hills of Judah in order to share with and confide in this cherished, aging relative of hers, and Elizabeth is herself blessed by the news. Already, the one whom God is birthing in Mary is bringing joy to those around her. Already hope is appearing in the faces and voices of those who come near the child-to-be.

As we wait with Mary during this Advent Season, and as we open ourselves to the same God who continues to this day to come and birth new life in all of us who would dare to say “Yes,” we might want to follow her example and take a journey of our own to some solitary place. The hubbub in Grantham, Mechanicsburg and Dillsburg can be rather stifling. People get irritable, the world confusing, the credit cards overloaded, the calories innumerable. Where might you go for a few hours or even a few days, to sit and pray? What space can you carve out to think about what God is and is not doing in your life? To reflect on your fears, concerns and joys? It might not be easy—the hills of Judah were a 5-6 day journey for Mary. Was it worth the effort for her? It probably will be for you, too.

We might in the same way want to make the effort to find someone to confide in, someone with whom we can share our deepest joys and sorrows. Someone who might understand and appreciate something about our journey. Perhaps we want to share the joys of our hearts with someone else. God is birthing something new in us. He is shattering our categories and stretching our wombs, and we are not certain as to what everything means or what might be involved. There is someone in the area, perhaps even in this room, who is waiting for your visit.

Or maybe you don’t sense God birthing anything at all in you right now. Your life is empty. You are grieving, confused, discouraged, maybe even angry. Angry at others. Angry at the world. Angry at God. There is someone in this area, in this room, in your Sunday School Class or small group, who is waiting for your visit. It may not be easy. You’ll have to open up a bit. You’ll have to resist those pervasive instincts that keep pressuring you from within to clam up and keep everything to yourself. Mary had to travel 5-6 days to see Elizabeth. Do you think it was worth the effort? It probably will be for you, too.

And one final word for all of the potential Elizabeths here this morning. If by chance a Mary in the area comes to visit you, share with you and confide in you, please don’t lock the door. Please don’t worry so much about wrapping presents and roasting turkeys that you fail to give a listening ear. And then, when you sit down with Mary and listen—really listen—don’t be surprised if you begin to feel the Christ-child bouncing around in your own womb, too. It is a funny thing, but that is precisely what Advent is all about. Often times, God comes to us through the visits of others who bring their joys and sorrows along with them. Then, the life that they bring begins springing up in us as well. After seeing Mary, Elizabeth herself was overcome by the Spirit of God and burst into song. And now that Mary has confided in Elizabeth, she, too, will burst into one of the most glorious songs ever sung.