39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 56And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
2But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days. 3Therefore he shall give them up until the time when she who is in labor has brought forth; then the rest of his kindred shall return to the people of Israel. 4And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth; 5and he shall be the one of peace.
A man speaks frantically into the phone to the doctor, “My wife is pregnant, and her contractions are only two minutes apart!”
“Is this her first child?” the doctor queries.
“No, you fool!” the man shouts. “This is her *husband*!”
It seems to me that having children can bring a lot of emotions to the surface. As the man in the open joke shared, fear is one of them. For some, the birth of a child brings about joy, for others, excitement. For those that have wanted to have children and not been able to, perhaps sadness is an emotion that you experience. But today I want to focus on an emotion that Mary revealed as she sang her magnificat: Hope. Mary, though living in difficult times, expresses hope, and I hope that we can learn from Mary that hope is an emotion that we all should be experiencing this Christmas. Hope in the future, and hope for the here and now.
Our scripture for today begins by telling us that soon after Mary receives the news that she is going to give birth to the Messiah from the angel Gabriel, she takes off to the hill country of an unnamed Judean town where she entered into the house of Zechariah and her relative Elizabeth. Now it is impossible for us to know all that went on in the conversation between Mary and Gabriel, but based on what we find in the text, we do not see Gabriel telling Mary that Elizabeth’s son is going to prepare the way for Mary’s son. The angel simply tells her that Elizabeth is pregnant in her old age. Furthermore, Elizabeth does not have an encounter with the angel, her husband does. So this makes this meeting between Mary and Elizabeth even more interesting to me.
Mary knew that Elizabeth was pregnant, but nothing more than that. Elizabeth might not have even known that Mary was pregnant. But our text tells us that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting as she walked in the front door, the baby in her womb leaped for joy. And Elizabeth speaks to Mary and blesses her and asks in verse 43, “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?”
How did Elizabeth know that Mary was carrying the fetal Lord in her womb? She didn’t have an interaction with an angel, her husband did. And we don’t have record that he was told that Mary was the one that was going to give birth to the Lord. And even if Gabriel had revealed this to Zechariah, he wasn’t telling anyone! Elizabeth knew that Mary was pregnant with the Lord because she was filled with the Holy Spirit (v. 41). God had gifted her with the insight of what was going to happen and the ladies celebrated what God was doing with them, for them, and through them. God was giving this older, barren woman a son that would prepare the way for the Messiah. And God had chosen this young woman Mary, probably no more than 13 years old herself, to be the earthly mother of God’s one and only son. Indeed, this was reason to celebrate. The very person that they had been expecting and hoping for their entire life was about to be born.
I remember when I was probably 13-years-old walking down the road with the neighbor girl having a deep conversation like only 13-year-olds can do. We were just out for a stroll, making conversation, and somehow our conversation turned to our desires for future generations. And I remember her telling me that she wanted to have children and she wanted her children to have children. But she hoped that her grandchildren would never have children because she believed that the world would be such a terrible place to live in by the time her great-grandchildren would be born that she didn’t want them to have to live in that kind of world.
I don’t know what prompted her to think like this. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that the movie “Terminator 2” had just come out the previous year, depicting the fall of humanity, having been taken over by machines in the year 2029. But it was clear that my neighbor did not want her great-grandchildren to have to suffer through a world that had fallen into such a dismal existence.
Now Mary didn’t live in a world that had been taken over by machines, but she did live in a world that seemed to have fallen into a dismal existence as well. Rather than machines, Mary lived in a time when the Romans had overtaken the Jewish people, controlled the Promised Land, and had the audacity to tax the Jewish people to fund the Roman Empire’s political system and military dominance.
But Mary had a different outlook on life than my 13-year-old neighbor did. Where my neighbor’s outlook on the future was dim, Mary’s outlook was that of hope. While my neighbor saw despair, hatred, pain, and suffering, Mary saw promise, love, joy, and peace. Mary saw the weak lifted up, the hungry filled, the poor content. Mary had this outlook on the future because of what God had done in the past and because of what God had promised to do in the future; a promise that is partially fulfilled by the baby growing in her womb.
I believe that how we see the future has something to do with how we live today. It is common during Christmas time to sit around and talk about the good old days. Sometimes we talk about the good old days when everyone went to church on Sunday and the stores were all closed because everyone was observing a day of rest. We can talk about how hard it is to be a Christian today and the challenges that we are up against. I heard a radio program this week where the disc jockey was complaining about how someone trying to sell him a “holiday tree” instead of a Christmas tree. And some people see these things and say that the world is indeed slipping further and further away from God and maybe closer to some apocalyptic scenario like that depicted in the Terminator movies. But as for me, I choose not to be a complainer or a reminisce-er. I choose not to focus on the days of old and talk about how we need to go back to those days. No, I am a hoper. Like Mary, I know that there is a lot wrong with the world today. From violence to poverty, hatred to injustice, our world is far from what God intended for it to be. But my hope does not rely on returning to a time six decades ago. My hope is in the promises that God has made that through his son all things will be made new. And my hope is in the people that God has called out as his people to help bring God’s kingdom to this world. My hope is in God and in God’s people called the church.
In less than one month, my first child is due to come into this world. And if I did not have hope for this world, I don’t believe that I would have the desire to bring human life into this world. And the reason that I have hope for this world is because God has a plan. A plan to prosper us and not to hurt us. Listen to the words of Jeremiah 29:4-14:
4 This is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: 5 “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” 8 Yes, this is what the LORD Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. 9 They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the LORD.
10 This is what the LORD says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my gracious promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart. 14 I will be found by you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back from captivity. I will gather you from all the nations and places where I have banished you,” declares the LORD, “and will bring you back to the place from which I carried you into exile.”
Do you see how this relates? Jeremiah received this word from God during the Babylonian captivity, around the year 586 BC. The people of God had been overtaken by another nation, much like they were during Mary’s day. But God says Fear not! I am with you. And though times might be tough and it might seem like I have abandoned you, I have a larger picture in mind. I will gather my people together and they shall enter into the Promised Land once again.
It seems to me that so many people, so many Christians, seek to get out of this world as quickly as possible. “Heaven is our home” seems to be the Christian mantra. And yes, we should anticipate the kingdom that is to come with great joy. But as God spoke through Jeremiah to the Israelites in exile he told them Don’t just anticipate the day when you are to return to the Promised Land. Make the most out of what you have today as well.
They are told to build houses, marry and give their children in marriage. And they are told to seek peace and prosperity in the place where they are. Again, this is in no way meant to take away from their anticipation of returning to the Promised Land. But they are to go on living their lives as they are called to live even in this foreign place.
This is a good example of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God exists in two separate realms: the already and the not yet. The kingdom of God is the kingdom in which we have our primary citizenship. While the kingdoms, empires, and nations around us adhere to a different set of rules where the autonomous individual seems to reign supreme, in the kingdom of God, we serve the almighty God and each other. We love our enemies, pray for those that persecute us, turn the other cheek, and walk the extra mile. And even though we as human beings are incapable of living a perfect life, we try.
As we lay down for bed at night, I like to lay behind my wife, wrap my arms around her belly, and drift off to sleep. The reason I wrap my arms around her belly isn’t to gauge her girth. No, I wrap my arms around her to feel those sudden moves, kicks, and turns taking place in her womb. I know that there is something real, something alive in there. And I know that soon this fetus will be a child; a living, breathing creature among us.
Much as this child growing within my wife will be fully known among us, one day the kingdom of God will be fully manifested and known when our king comes back to rule his people. And when that day comes, there will be no my crying, no more pain, no more hatred. Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. The lion will lie down with the lamb and will eat straw like the ox. We will beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks. The kingdom of God is here today as a glimpse of the kingdom of God that will one day be fully known just as those kicks I feel at bedtime reveal a child that shall soon come into the world.
We as the church are called to be those kicks, small examples of what is to come. And this past week I have experienced little kicks of the kingdom frequently. On Friday, the 18th, one of the largest snowfalls I have ever seen blanketed our fine city with about two feet of snow. Everything was shut down. There was no mail; there was no church by Sunday. People couldn’t get out of their driveways or even out their front doors. And if they did get out of their homes, there was nowhere to go.
But about midday Saturday, people began to shovel their way out of their homes, down their sidewalks, and dig out their cars. And that is when something amazing happened; that is when I experienced small kicks of the kingdom of God. Neighbors that I had never spoken to before were now entering into conversations with me like we were old friends. Strangers grabbed shovels and helped one another find their cars. Friends checked in with the elderly and homebound to make sure that they were okay and had everything that they needed.
I had to ask myself, “Is this really the same world that my neighbor 17 years ago was fearing?” What do we have to fear? Sure, the world is bad at times. War, famine, genocide, poverty. We know that things are not perfect, but we have hope and we live hope, and we spread hope. We hope because we see these little kicks of the kingdom of God, and kingdom that exists in part today and will one day be fully known.
The kingdom of God grows like that child of hope maturing within my wife’s womb. It starts out slowly and nothing more than two cells combining to make one microscopic organism. But it grows and develops to the point that everyone knows that it is present.
We have hope because of what God has done through his son Jesus Christ. We have hope because of what God is doing through his people today. And we have hope because of what God will do in the restoration of all things.