Today’s Gospel lesson is all about journeys and blessings. Not only the journey undertaken by Mary to visit her relative Elizabeth, but also the larger journey she had embarked upon when she gave in, and said “yes” to the plans God had in store for her. And not only the blessing that Mary was given when she was chosen as Theotokos, which is Greek for “God Bearer,” but also the blessings she and Elizabeth both received when they trusted God to follow through with the mighty deeds that had been foretold by the angel Gabriel.
You know these stories: It was Gabriel who visited first Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, and then Mary to tell them that God was on the move, and that they had an important part to play in his plan for the salvation of the world. The angel first appeared to Zechariah in a vision, in the temple in Jerusalem, where he was serving his turn as priest, and told him that his wife would bear a much-desired son in her old age, that they should name him John, and that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit. “He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God,” said Gabriel. “With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah apparently had a bit of a tough time getting his brain wrapped around Gabriel’s prophesy and, for his disbelief, was struck dumb for the entire period of his wife’s pregnancy. Which might have been a good thing for him. As Elizabeth’s belly began to swell, however, seeing was believing for her… and she rejoiced exceedingly (Luke 1:5-25).
And as Elizabeth’s pregnancy progressed, Gabriel made a second trip to Earth, this time to the little village of Nazareth in Galilee, and appeared to Mary, who was engaged to be married to a fellow named Joseph, and told her that this was her lucky day… she had found favor with God and was, herself, going to have a baby, who she would name Jesus. “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High,” said Gabriel, “and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Sounds like the kind of news any young Jewish mother would like to hear, right? Messiah’s coming… and you get to be his mom! But Mary’s response was, “Wait… what? That might be kind of awkward because, you see, I’m still a virgin.” Implicit in her comment, I believe, was: “What will Joseph say?” And maybe that was why Gabriel didn’t strike her dumb the way he did Zechariah. He knew she would have some ‘splaining to do, and that she’d need her voice to do it. So, he just looked at her (kindly, I think) and reminded her that “nothing was impossible for God.” And Mary, like Elizabeth, embraced what God had in store for her. And so, it began (Luke 1:26-38).
Journeys and blessings. Do you sometimes feel as if you’ve “run your race?” “…fought the good fight?” “…made your mark in the world?” whatever that might be? That your life’s journey is pretty-much complete, and now you’re just hanging out, marking time? And the blessings? Of course, every new day’s a blessing… every recovery from illness… every birth and every success of a loved one… every time your favorite sports team comes out on top. All of these are blessings, and there’s plenty more like them—almost too many to count! And I believe God forgives us when we occasionally become prisoners of our own inertia… content to mark time and count our many blessings, rather than actively and continually discerning how we can be a blessing to the world around us by participating in the plan for its salvation. Yeah, I know it’s a conundrum… “What role does God need me to play in helping to bring about his Kingdom?” Maybe Elizabeth and Mary asked a similar question back in 6 AD (by Luke’s figuring). But here’s the thing: God is full of surprises. He never stops. He’s not done with this old world and, if you’re still here on this Earth, God’s not done with you, either.
The Season of Advent can be a funny time, can’t it. And not funny “ha-ha”. . . funny odd. And sometimes difficult. On one hand, it’s the build-up to Christmas! A time when we prepare to commemorate Jesus’ first-coming, two-thousand years ago, with praise and caroling and gift-giving, and by trying to be just a little bit kinder and more loving to people around us. But there’s more to it than that. It’s also a time when we are to take stock of our lives and prepare ourselves for the second coming, a day on which Jesus told his disciples that “the powers of the heavens will be shaken . . . and the Son of Man will come on a cloud, with power and great glory” (Luke 21:26-27). Just two weeks ago we listened as the Baptizer admonished his flock to “repent . . . prepare the way of the Lord . . . and to make his paths straight” (Luke 3:3-4). And we might have shivered a bit last week when he spoke of a new kind of Baptism that was coming into the world, not of water, but of the Holy Spirit… of wheat and chaff and unquenchable fire (Luke 3:16-17). Kind of scary, huh? So, amidst all of the happy anticipation of Christmas, there’s also cause for unease. It’s a time when joy and a sense of feeling blessed can seem elusive. Astronomically, Advent is a dark time of year… the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and longest night of the year, took place just a couple of days ago.
But you know what? We’ve turned the corner. The days are getting longer now. The darkness is receding. Light and hope are returning to the world. So, prepare yourselves. Prepare yourselves for a new beginning… to say “yes” to whatever journeys and blessings God has in store for you this Christmastime and in the coming year. You may think your dance card is full. You may think you’ve already got your ticket punched. Or you might think that you’ve made such a mess of past journeys that you’re unworthy of a second chance. But if that’s what you think, you’d best think again. Nothing is impossible for God, and it’s never too late. Our God is a God of a million second chances.
So, here’s an Advent benediction for you:
I wish you the strength and courage to say “yes” to God, and joy in your new journeys wherever they may take you.
May your path be tolerably straight, and always illuminated by the Light of Christ.
May you, yourself, be a reflection of that Light.
May the Mighty One look with favor on you… and have mercy on you… and do great things for you.
May you become an instrument of Christ’s healing and reconciliation in the world.
May you be lifted up and filled to bursting with his grace and peace.
Here’s what I pray for you, my brothers and sisters, as we stand upon the threshold of this new, glorious Christmastide: that you may be blessed as much as you can stand!