Good morning, from my office. I am sorry I could not be there with you this morning but it seems COVID is not fully done with us yet. But thanks to modern tech and to Benj who can work it, it is good to bringing you this message on out third Sunday of Advent. But let’s with our advent prayer, from Wil Gafney
We are waiting
We are waiting in the dark
We are waiting in the holy darkness
We are waiting in the womb of God
Between this Advent and the next
We wait. We wait for you.
So here we are in week three of Advent and of our Advent series “how does a weary world rejoice.” Each week we have been reflecting on a different response to that question and a passage from Luke chapter 1.
We began by acknowledging our weariness. It is the end of the year and it has been yet another hard one for our world, for our town and for many of us here. Before we can rejoice I think it is important to recognise that weariness and to bring it before God.
We read about the foretelling of the birth of John the Baptist. The angel Gabriel appears to the elderly priest Zechariah and tells him, he and his wife Elizabeth will have a son. This is something they have been longing for, for a long time. But due to their advanced age Zechariah is sceptical. Zechariah is then cast into silence. He will not speak again until the birth of his son which we read about today.
At times weariness and disappointment can harden us and make us cynical. We recognise that in ourselves too but we seek to resist it.
Then last week the response to our question, how does a weary world rejoice was, “we find joy in connection.” We read about the foretelling of the birth of Jesus to Mary. In a parallel narrative, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her that despite the fact, that she is a virgin she will become pregnant and have a son named Jesus who is the Son of God. Mary accepts this call on her life. However, unlike Elizabeth’s, at this point Mary’s pregnancy must feel to her not so much a gift; but a potential disaster. Her yes to God is costly, dangerous and potentially very lonely. At best, it renders her the object of gossip, scorn, and ostracism in her village. At worst, it places her at risk of death by stoning.
And so after this announcement Mary went with haste to visit her relative Elizabeth, who is now 6 months pregnant. Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, pronounces a blessing upon her.
This blessing, does not alter Mary’s situation. She is still at risk of gossip, scorn, ostracism and death. Her fiancé still might yet leave her, her family disown her.
And Elizabeth no doubt has some fears of her own, about the dangers inherent in her upcoming birth and her age and if her husband will ever speak again.
And yet despite their fears, these two women come together, exchange stories and confirm each other’s callings with loving acceptance. In doing this they realise that what is happening is truly bigger than both of them and their individual stories.
They find joy in their connection.
At times weariness and disappointment can make us want to isolate ourselves. And of course we do need to have time alone. This too can be nurturing to weary souls. But we need to ensure that we balance that with times of joyful connection as well.
And now this week, the response to our question, “How does a weary world rejoice?” is “we allow ourselves to be amazed.”
And having condescend 9 months of story into three weeks, this week we read, “now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth and she bore a son.” Luke does not give us the details but there is so much story in that sentence. So much pain, so much courage, so much to be amazed at. Let us not allow the brevity of that sentence to take away from our amazement.
I hope it is a story that Elizabeth was able to share with her neighbours and the relatives that came to rejoice with her.
And of course we rejoice this week with Su Sze and Shanon and Jeremiah, after the birth of their second son and brother on Friday.
Then, according to tradition, 8 days later her son is circumcised. Circumcision was given to Abraham by God in Genesis as a physical sign of the covenant between them. As Luke has done many times in this story he is connecting it to an even earlier beginning, the beginning of the story of God’s relationship with God’s people Israel. Luke places his story within this larger story of faith. the story that began when God called Abraham and Sarah to leave their homeland and go to the place that God would show them, when God promised them a child and many descendants.
The baby is also named at this ceremony. However, here his parents break with tradition. Rather than naming him after his father or another relative they name him John or in Hebrew Yohanan. This name, given by the angel Gabriel, means God is gracious.
Once the child is named Zechariah is able to speak again.
John’s birth, his naming and Zechariah’s mysterious muteness and then sudden ability to speak again all cause amazement, fear and wonder. There is a sense that while this story is rooted in the history of God, God is about to do a new thing.
The people are talking about it throughout the region and pondering what it all means. I think this remains an ongoing challenge to the church – to remain connected to our history, to practice our traditions and yet remain open to the new thing that God is constantly doing and calling us to be part of.
Elizabeth will not be mentioned again in the gospel of Luke nor is she mentioned in the other gospels but her role in the story is significant.
Of course, her role as mother is crucial and I love that Luke gives such prominence to the role of mothers in his opening chapter.
But Elizabeth lived a long, faithful life before she was a mother and we should be careful to not define this as her only role. She was a woman of prayer, she ministered to Mary and perhaps others, at a time of need, she was a prophet. Between the closing of the Old Testament and this opening of Luke’s gospel 400 years has passed. Some call this period the 400 years of silence. I tend to believe that God is always speaking but there had been no recorded prophecy until Elizabeth’s prophetic blessing on Mary. She was the first to know and proclaim who Jesus was.
At times weariness and can make us turn inward, we see only our own needs. We can see only what we do not have, rather than what we do. We can be overcome with jealousy. How can we be like Elizabeth, choosing to see others, choosing to see what is good and of God, rather than focusing on the negative. How can we choose to speak blessing on others rather than gossip about them? How can we choose to use our gifts to be a blessing to others?
This week I had COVID. Right now Nina has COVID. Hence why I am not there. It also meant I could not be there on Thursday night at the carols at Old Timers. Thanks to all who went. I think that’s an example of choosing to be a blessing.
It has also meant the cancellation of some special weekend plans which has been disappointing. None the less when I woke up on Friday morning feeling well after 3 days of my body doing battle with the virus I was filled with gratitude and amazement for health. Just been able to have a cup of coffee and breakfast filled me with great joy. Perhaps we need to get sick to not take the ordinary things for granted.
In life on this side of eternity it’s easy to be seduced by despair or just by the daily and ordinary disappointments. Doubt and despair can feel authentic and we should never turn a blind eye to the sin and sorrow of the world. But these stories, that lead us to birth of Jesus proclaim, there is joy, there is amazement amidst the despair.