Luke 1:39-55 (NIV)
Mary Visits Elizabeth
39At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”
46And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
50His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55to Abraham and his descendants forever,
even as he said to our fathers.”
There’s a certain kind of joy that you can’t bring about by yourself. Let’s call it historic joy. It’s the kind of joy that comes from recognizing that you’ve suddenly found yourself within a historic moment, that the moment that you are personally experiencing right then and there is a part of history that people will write about, wonder about and contemplate for generations to come. It’s the joy that brings people together for a church dedication or out to an event like our first black president’s inauguration.
Usually those moments of historic joy are pretty powerful even if we’re nothing more than a distant witness to the event through television broadcasts, like the joy the world felt when everyone crowded into their living rooms to see the first man in history to set foot on the moon. But the joy and excitement increase as you actually get closer to the event, even more so if you are actually privileged to become a part of the event.
That’s historic joy. And Historic Joy was the only phrase I could think of that would describe what Mary, Elizabeth, and, I suppose you could say, little John the Baptist must have felt as they all came together in a single little room in the hill country of Judea just over 2000 years ago. Historic joy explains why venerable, old Elizabeth would be so humbled at the greeting of a common young girl that she knew as a relative. Historic joy—and, of course, the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit—also explains the rich and powerful words that poured from Mary’s mouth as she responded to Elizabeth: 1. Joy that springs from historic deeds and 2. Joy that springs from historic faith.
Now, you may well be one of the rapidly increasing number of Americans who are not terribly familiar with history, let alone biblical history, so some of this might escape you at first. But, I’m telling you, if you took the time to really drink in the words of Mary’s song, you would understand more about the historic deeds of the Lord our God than some of the world’s most famous scholars of Scripture do.
So drink it in with me. “My soul glorifies the Lord….” Mary knows exactly who this moment is all about. She calls on the God of Israel personally by name: the Lord, the Great “I Am.” And she also knows just what a big deal this is to her personally, which is why she restates that thought like this: “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” My Savior!
“…for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.” Notice how Mary is starting to turn to God’s historical record already. The Holy Spirit is leading her to see a pattern in that record. You could see it in the way that God has worked in the past, and it was being repeated in her own life at that very moment. God takes the lowly and the humble people—people with no status or influence, people just like Mary—and he gives them extraordinary jobs in life that they don’t deserve. Come to think of it, I’m living proof of that, myself.
“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm,” Mary continued; “he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.”
And, like I said, you may not know your history all that well. You may find it difficult to cite any one particular incident that might fit Mary’s descriptions here. But, I have to tell you, this is like Scripture in one easy lesson! This describes lost and rebellious Adam and Eve finding a Savior God in the Garden. This describes old man Abram and his barren wife being told that many nations would come from them and all nations would be blessed through them. This describes a nation of slaves plundering a nation of Egyptian masters without even needing to lift a sword. As Paul the Apostle, himself a blasphemer before being turned by the Lord, said of the Lord’s tactics, “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27).
This made their kind of historic joy on this occasion special. It was not only the fact that they knew that they were watching history in the making. They also had the kind of historic faith necessary to thoroughly enjoy how much this very same kind of salvation had been offered before, with spectacular results. They were able to rejoice in how often before the Lord had helped out the poor, humbled and defeated, while at the same time being joyfully awestruck that the ultimate version of that kind of salvation was gestating in Mary’s womb at that very moment, and they would both have front seats to the action once he finally came.
But one person in that room felt the joy of that historic occasion a little more keenly. I can’t say he understood it better, because I highly doubt that he understood anything at all. I’m just saying that there’s one person who felt it more… well, more purely. I guess that’s the proper way to say it. Do you know which person I’m talking about?
I’m talking about John the Baptist, still a baby inside Elizabeth’s womb. He probably understood very little. He hadn’t even been born yet. But when inspired Scripture records someone saying something by divine inspiration, you really can’t argue with the accuracy of the words. “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.’”
Think about that. The account is inspired through Luke. He reports to us the words of Elizabeth and says that those words themselves were originally inspired by God at the moment they were spoken. Together, they make us doubly sure that this is no joke and no mere figure of speech. The context warrants none of that. John the Baptist couldn’t speak, nor could he understand words. He had never even been able to open his eyes to the light of day! Yet he rejoiced upon hearing the voice of the pregnant virgin, like a newborn responding to his own mom or dad.
Only one thing explains this, and it isn’t a knowledge of salvation history. Yet one thing—specifically, one word—does explain how this unborn child could rejoice at the sound of Mary’s voice. That one word is faith.
I get this question all the time, so I’m not surprised if there’s some variation on this theme running through your head right now: How can a child who can’t even speak yet have faith? It’s a common question and a classic blunder among English-speaking people. Understandable, yes, but a blunder nonetheless.
What’s the blunder? The blunder is thinking of saving faith as a set of historical facts or religious assertions that you accept as true. We use the word faith in that sense sometimes, and that’s why I call it an understandable mistake. But accepting certain statements as true or false is not the essence of saving faith. The essence of saving faith is trust in the one and only true God. The essence of saving faith is summed up in Mary’s Magnificat: “…my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
In that sense the baby in Elizabeth’s womb puts us to shame this morning. His joy was instant, instinctual and overpowering in the presence of his Savior—and not even directly at the sound of his Savior or at the sight of his Savior, but just at knowing he was there by the sound Mary’s voice. And he didn’t even know her name! But here we have a hard time getting out of bed for church when we know perfectly well who we are coming to see! We have difficulty finding time for (let alone finding joy in) studying the Scriptures in our busy, busy weeks! This baby jumped as though he couldn’t wait to have some words with which to express his joy, and we who have full vocabularies can barely open our mouths to speak the Savior’s name in public!
Well put that all behind you this morning, brothers and sisters, and see in the joyful leap of unborn John the Baptist reason for your own spirit to rejoice in God your Savior. You weren’t physically there, but your baptism has joined you to these historic moments of salvation. And God gathered you here this morning to forgive your past coldness and to give you a truly historic faith through that forgiveness, so that we can celebrate our Savior’s birth this week with truly historic joy. Amen.
Advent 4 Historic Joy
December 20, 2009
Pastor Aaron C. Frey Luke 1:39-55