Delivered at Gordon Chapel on 4 September 2016 by Jeff Lowndes
SERMON: Luke 1.39-56 – Elizabeth & Mary
Today is a special day – we are celebrating the 4th anniversary of St Elizabeth becoming our Patron Saint. Please do read the booklet given to you on arrival which gives more background to this story – with the bonus that it helps make for a shorter sermon:-)
Some of the most beautiful words in scripture are given in Luke’s Gospel and we use them in our services to this day, the Magnificat, the Nunc Dimittis and the Benedictus are in our liturgy, and in our hearts.
Elizabeth would become the mother of John the Baptist and Mary the mother of Jesus. But lets go back a little.
It’s not really clear whether Mary had married Joseph or was being treated with hostility by her neighbours. Some commentators believe she may have even been in danger of being stoned to death in her village and so had to flee for a while – perhaps whilst Joseph decided what to do!
So, she seeks refuge and it’s to a relative that Mary goes in the Judean hill country (that’s some journey in her condition – was she alone or perhaps escorted by her father – we don’t know).
The scriptures don’t make it clear whether Elizabeth was a cousin or aunt – so perhaps we can assume she was her aunt because she was much older than Mary. And it’s Elizabeth who played a significant part in this story – what would have happened if she had turned the young girl away and not shown hospitality.
Elizabeth had wanted children all her life but it never happened. Then the angel told her husband Zechariah that she would conceive. He was taken aback and perhaps said something like ‘at her age – you’ve got to be joking’ – for which lack of faith Zechariah was struck dumb. But the angel’s promise was true and Elizabeth did conceive.
Perhaps this helped Elizabeth understand Mary’s plight and put aside any prejudices and traditional views she might have – for Elizabeth was 6 months and Mary was about 3 months pregnant.
The two women hadn’t met for ages – so it was time to catch up on the news. You might think that Elizabeth’s first reaction would be to sit down with Mary and tell her all about her own news first. That she’d experienced a miracle, been touched by an angel and her barren condition reversed. She would have wanted to talk excitedly about her own baby, her own plans. But instead she greeted Mary, made her welcome and gave her priority.
Perhaps Mary’s visit was also a help to Elizabeth, who may have had difficulty dealing with her own situation. For Luke (1.24) tells us that she had remained in seclusion for 5 months, that was a long time during her pregnancy, and difficult to discuss with a ‘dumb husband’!!
We don’t know what Mary said when she arrived at the house and called out a greeting, but Elizabeth’s baby leapt in her womb, and she said to Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?
This is important – for Elizabeth became the first person to acknowledge Jesus as Lord – once again a woman takes a leading and perceptive role in scripture and in the life of Jesus.
But there were some unusual things about this meeting in that time and place. Remember that Elizabeth was elderly at a time when people honoured old people. She was from a priestly line and was also the wife of a priest, so enjoyed high status. Mary, on the other hand, was perhaps unmarried and not in good standing with her community.
So young Mary, should really have honoured Elizabeth, been a little deferential – but the opposite happened – it’s Elizabeth, the older woman, who defers to Mary and says: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” And then Mary proclaims the beautiful and powerful words of the Magnificat: “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour…”
Her joy is obvious – bubbling up and running over. And we are glad with Mary, for joy is contagious. Mary’s excited – Elizabeth’s excited – and we can be excited for this is a story of God touching the lives of two ordinary women, blessing them – and blessing the world and us through them!
Elizabeth must have been like a mother to Mary – she accepted her, gave her assurance and confidence – making her doubts, fear and misgivings fade away . Now together, they could see what it meant to be called by God, empowered and filled by the Holy Spirit.
We don’t know whether there were any witnesses to this event who were inspired, and carried out the good news into the countryside, making hearts burn and hopes rise that the Messiah was on the way, and that the oppression of the Jewish people might end.
There will never be another mother of John the Baptist, or another mother of Jesus. But God still touches lives, and he still blesses people. He touches your life and mine – we may not always recognize it – but He is surely trying to make something wonderful out of our lives so that we will become a blessing to others – as Elizabeth was to Mary.
We know that God didn’t promise Mary an easy life – but a life worth living. She would have hard times but they would not define her life. As Mary said in her song of joy: “From now on all generations will call me blessed.”
Mary said those words over 2000 years ago, and they have proven true. Generations have come and gone, but one thing has been constant. That one thing is this. All generations have called Mary blessed, because she answered when God called – because she allowed herself be used for God’s purposes. We call her blessed because she did her part in bringing salvation to us.
Today, we tend to think of people as living blessed lives if they have wealth, power and privilege – but that isn’t really true. A blessed life is a life worth living – a life that leaves our world a better place. The Good News is that God offers us the same thing – lives used for a purpose, lives worth living.
God has a purpose for each of us, just as he had for Mary and Elizabeth. All we have to do is to listen and live as God calls us to live.
Every parent, every relation and every teacher has the potential to change a child’s life. Every church contributes to the building of the Kingdom. And every one here has a chance to make Christ’s love known. I cannot say that all generations will call you blessed, or that people a thousand years from now will remember your name. But I can say that if you say “Yes!” to God, he will use you for a special purpose.
It may be that you are simply called to be there for someone just as Elizabeth was there for Mary when she was needed. Let us pray that when the time comes we’ll rise to the occasion – whether for someone we know, or a stranger – what we say or do may have results that we can never imagine.
We can all sing Mary’s song in our own land, in our own time and in our own life. By doing so we will be working towards a future full of promise, goodness, mercy and justice. We will be bringing the Kingdom of God ever closer, but it may not always be easy to be faithful in this troublesome life, we need help and the example of Mary & Elizabeth can guide us.
Perhaps at the core of the faithful lives of Mary and Elizabeth is that, in the midst of life, they asked, “what is God really saying to me” and that is what we should be doing, listening for that still small voice.
God has many blessings in store for us as individuals and for all our congregations here in Fochabers and throughout the world. If we believe, if we trust, if we have faith, then miracles can happen, for nothing is impossible for God. We can change and become the people that God wants us to be – reaching out to others, showing hospitality as Elizabeth did for Mary, spreading the message of God’s love,
It has been said that “Hospitality is the first step towards breaking down the barriers around the world. It is the way that we can turn a prejudiced world around, one heart at a time. Hospitality binds the world together.
Mary entered the house of Elizabeth and Zechariah, was offered hospitality and the grace of God grew there and went forth – it is with us today.
Next August we will honour Elizabeth, Duchess of Gordon for her generosity in creating the Gordon Chapel we know today – that was hospitality which we must continue to pass on to others.
But tonight we can be proud that we have chosen Elizabeth to be our Patron Saint.
So, let us go from here to open our doors, at home, in the church, and in the workplace, and offer God’s hospitality wherever it may be needed.