Sermon preached for the Fourth Sunday of Advent at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
He shows mercy to everyone,
from one generation to the next,
who honors him as God.
He has shown strength with his arm.
He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed.
He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
remembering his mercy,
just as he promised to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”
Well friends. We’re almost there.
We’ve been waiting for this week a long time. I know I’ve been so focused on tomorrow that I kept forgetting about today. Kept forgetting that today deserved a sermon too. I imagine many of us are more focused on tomorrow right now, but kudos for showing up today.
We are almost done with waiting, but not quite. One day more.
We’ve been talking about promises this advent—God’s promises of hope, peace, joy, and love. We’ve seen the way God’s already brought some of these promises to fruition, while others have yet to be fully realized.
This morning’s scripture hits us right when promises are beginning to come true for Mary and Elizabeth. Both women were pregnant in unexpected ways, yet both were promised a child, and they carry those promises inside them, literally. The children aren’t born yet; the promise is still unsure. Like us, they’re in the in-between time.
You would think that when Mary sings, she would sing about what is to come. About the baby promised to her, and all the amazing things he’s gonna do. And yet, when she bursts forth with her song of joy, Mary sings about what God has already done.
I don’t know if you noticed, but the Magnificat, Mary’s song of praise, is mostly past tense.
God has shown strength with his arm.
God has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
God has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
and lifted up the lowly.
God has filled the hungry with good things
and sent the rich away empty-handed.
Mary trusts in God’s promises not out of dumb faith, but because of what she knows, what she’s seen. She trusts God because she’s seen God do amazing things, from what she knows from her own life and that of her people, from her family’s stories and her sacred scriptures. She trusts God to care for her through this big, scary thing—a pregnancy that is upending her life—because she knows God has cared for her and her people for a long, long time.
We too, like Mary, can trust in God’s promises because we know what God has already done. We can look back at our own history—dictatorships toppled, wars ended, people fed, disasters averted. We can look back at our own lives—when we were forgiven or able to forgive, when we found love we didn’t deserve, when there was a seed of peace among chaos.
It’s easy to see only what is difficult and damaged in the world, and the wrong is great and strong. But so is the good, and part of our call is summoning the will to see it. To see throughout the strands of history and our own lives God’s activity pulling us toward a brighter future.
The spiritual practice of trusting in God’s promises is also the spiritual practice of seeing God’s deeds that have already been accomplished. It’s learning to look forward in hope by looking back in faith.
Mary loves God. It’s plain to see. You don’t say yes to the kind of life-changing event she did without there being an element of love or fear, and the angel told her she didn’t have to be afraid.
Mary loves God because of what God has already done for her and for her world. It gives her the courage to bear Emmanuel, God’s own son.
Her love reminds me of something a friend of mine said the day I graduated college. Graduation days are themselves days of great promise, not because we know what is coming, but because we know what we have been prepared for. Most of us didn’t graduate with crystal clear five-year plans, and yet we knew the classes we’d taken, the skills we’d acquired, the strengths we’d gained. We had hope in the future because we trusted we were prepared for it.
This friend was giving the student commencement speech that day. Six years later, I can still remember exactly what she said, and how it brought tears to my eyes, right there on the quad.
She was talking about her grandfather, who only lived a few years after she was born, but who she knows, from stories and pictures, loved her deeply, and this is what she said:
“What a gift it was to be loved by him, not because he knew me, but because he wanted to know me so badly.”
It’s easy to love people whom we already know fully deserve it, who have fulfilled all our desires, but it’s more faithful to love those we don’t fully know yet. More faithful to love those we want to know.
That is how Mary and Elizabeth loved their sons—with the love of mothers who are eagerly awaiting getting to know their children.
This is the gift that we too have to offer our God, who offers so much to us. The gift of loving not because we everything about God, but because we want to. The gift of loving before every promise is fulfilled, every i dotted and every t crossed. This kind of love takes trust, and it’s what God delights in most.
For most of the world, the wait is almost over. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and the next day is Christmas, and then it’s all done. But for us, for Christ’s own people, we believe that these Christmases are only waystops along a longer journey. We believe that Christ is coming back again, to fulfill those promises God made of peace on earth, goodwill to all.
We know a lot about Christ. From scripture and songs, from our families and our own lives, from what we feel and hear in prayer, we know much. But we don’t know everything. We can’t. Partially because we are human, but partially because Christ’s story, like ours, isn’t finished yet.
But we can feel it coming within us, joy kicking around our insides like Elizabeth’s dancing baby boy. We can feel what God is doing, long before we can see it. That’s called faith.
Christ’s story won’t be finished until love sweeps this earth like a tidal wave, and sin and sorrow and suffering go under in the waves. That’s the promise.
We are still waiting. We wait today, and we’ll wait in February and August and every Christmas until Christ comes again, and all God’s promises are fulfilled.
But until then, we keep trusting. And we keep loving. And there are days when that turns out to be enough.
So with Elizabeth, we can say, “happy is she who believe the promises of God.” Happy are you who believe the promises of God.
Happy are you who love, not because you know everything, but because you long for more.
Happy are you who love, even in the in-between times.
To God be the glory.