First Lesson: Micah 5: 2-5a
Responsive Reading: Luke 1: 46b-55
Second Lesson: Hebrews 10: 5-10
Gospel Lesson: Luke 1: 39-45
Grace and Peace from Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
I want to tell you the story this morning of a girl who was cut-off from nearly everyone around her. I want also to tell you the story of the woman who took her in when no one else would. This morning’s Gospel lesson is the tale of Mary and Elizabeth.
As we reflect upon these ladies story, consider the emotions that Mary an unmarried woman her early teenage years was undergoing. Mary’s pregnancy for many was not a joyous occasion; no one was going to believe that she was actually a virgin. Mary probably had a hard time admitting it due to the circumstances. Mary probably had to face the shame of her pregnancy alone because those around Mary were probably going to distance themselves from her.
Elizabeth was on the different end of the social spectrum from Mary. Elizabeth lived in a culture where a woman was considered a failure if she didn’t produce children. Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah had seemingly done everything right: they said their prayers, they watched Elizabeth’s health, and they waited until it seemed to be too late. Zechariah went to the Temple nearly every day of his life praying for a child, still praying out of habit once it was thought to be no longer possible. One day the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah announcing that his wife Elizabeth would bear a son. Zechariah’s doubt that this would actually happen was so strong that he went mute until the day of the child’s birth.
So here were two women united by their pregnancies because they had no one else but each other. No one else who would believe their story! As we look around the congregation today, not many of you probably think that you are going through what Mary and Elizabeth were going through. We don’t have teenage moms or previous barren pregnant women surrounding us, yet Mary and Elizabeth’s story matters to us on this day.
We have people within our congregation on this morning that are struggling with many of the emotions underwent by Mary and Elizabeth during the holiday season. For many people within our midst, Christmas is one of the most painful times of the year. Christmas for many people will be a painful time reflecting upon loss of their loved ones; this loss occurs on either an emotional or a physical level. Christmas breaks people like no other time of the year. People’s joyous celebrations often bring pain to the lonely, and sad. Many people go through the Holiday season struggling with the question of whether “Are they worthy of love in their lives?”
Some years ago, the band Bowling for Soup wrote a song entitled “High School Never Ends” which says how we claim to be wiser and more mature as the years pass us by, but society still defines by beauty, status, and power. So even though on the surface Mary and Elizabeth were quite different in many ways they were quite similar. Their same emotional needs were why these women needed to come together.
Ultimately in the absence of connection, there is suffering. The world is full of people trying to get and keep connection.
Mary stays with Elizabeth for three months before returning home. One interesting thing about the tale of Mary and Elizabeth is that it never has Mary telling Elizabeth her big secret of a virgin birth. Elizabeth seems naturally knows her secret. Perhaps Elizabeth’s knowledge helped convince a scared, young girl in Mary that God’s plan would eventually come to fruition in her.
As we hear the story of Mary and Elizabeth, their story might seem unique. Although their story is similar to many people’s stories of going through life seemingly more and more isolated from the world around them only to be brought back by God’s promise.
Think of the Biblical story of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was a Jew, who sold out to the Roman Government. All of Zacchaeus's former friends wanted nothing to do with him. Zacchaeus had experienced all sorts of rejection in life but made all kinds of money along the way.
Zacchaeus eventually becomes so desperate for love and affection that he dares to climb a tree to see Jesus. Zacchaeus probably looked like a fool to everyone watching him, but he just didn’t care. Jesus finally spots Zacchaeus. Jesus’ response to Zacchaeus is interesting in that Jesus never seeks to point out to Zacchaeus where his life went wrong. The truth is Zacchaeus knew better than anybody where his life went wrong. Zacchaeus knew his sin and shame better than anyone else, yet Jesus vowed not to leave his side. Jesus deemed that Zacchaeus was worthy of receiving love, no matter what anyone thought about his situation.
The need for connection in the midst of despair brings to my mind another Bible story that we all know. The story of the Woman at the well in the Samaritan village of Sychar in John 4. If anyone could go through life thinking that they are not good enough for Jesus, it would be this woman. The woman at the well had a string of failed marriages, and was now living with another man out of wedlock. Jesus still approached this woman. Jesus interacting with the woman at the well was probably going to cause people to start spreading all kinds of rumors about their relationship. For this, Jesus wasn’t going to care because his message is more powerful than a million people’s small words. Jesus doesn’t ignore her situation or dismiss it as a sign of the times. Jesus ironically enough never issues a word of judgment toward her. Jesus knew that this woman was vulnerable and hurting. Jesus merely seeks to tell her that the Gospel is for her. Jesus is reminding her that there is no confession or isolation too far from which a return is not possible.
When I was working in Lamberton, I had a congregation member that I’ll call Phil, who was in recovery. I didn’t know Phil very well since he was very rarely in the church. One day, Phil approaches me wishing to get together to complete the fifth step of his AA program. The 5th step is called the step of confession where we admit our wrongs to another human being. Opening this stuff to a complete stranger for Phil was going to be hard. As soon as we sit down, I let Phil know that I understood what he was going through. I talked to Phil about how easy it is to give into emotional pain having grown up around my Grandma’s alcoholism as a child. I didn’t believe Phil to be a worst sinner than any other sinner; I merely let Phil know that he had made different bad decisions. Phil’s decisions could not be separate from the human realities of how we all have pain! Each of us has hurt deep down inside! I remember several months after this visit Phil talking to me saying that this was probably going to be the best conversation of his life. No conversation between individuals was going to be more authentic as we dared to embrace each other’s rough edges and vulnerabilities. Phil was in church nearly every Sunday after that because his whole outlook on church and forgiveness changes after completing his 5th step.
The interesting thing about Mary and Elizabeth’s relationship is it bounded by their mutual trust that God will deliver them from their present isolation. God will one day take away their shame.
The movie Good Will Hunting tells the story of Will Hunting an orphan that grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. What made Will Hunting unique is that he is a genius. A genius that seeks to run away from his gifts at every opportunity because of his pain. When he meets a girl, he lies to her about having twelve brothers because Will didn’t want to admit to being an orphan. Will goes through life terrified that the secret of his past will be exposed opening himself up to another painful rejection. Will’s natural instinct is to run from any personal commitment. Will Hunting was caught up in a never-ending cycle of shame-isolation-loneliness. Will would always respond to this period though either cigarettes, alcohol, or fighting. The break though in the whole movie occurs when Will’s therapist one day embraces him while assuring him “It’s not your fault.” You are not to blame for how other people have made you see yourself.
Will Hunting is not unique. I remember the night before my sister Anne started at Concordia, she asks me “What if I don’t make any friends?”. Anne’s question seemed like a strange question at the time considering she was the prom queen at a relatively large high school; Anne is plenty outgoing yet even Anne struggled with these questions of “Who will accept me?”
Mary faced this question during her pregnancy. Mary knew that a higher spiritual purpose was at work within her. The words of Isaiah 61 shed insight on this question “He hath sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound”. People being set free because of the coming birth of the Messiah above all else is the reality of the Christmas season.
There is no better person to make this point then Linus of Charlie Brown fame. Everyone knows Linus for his famous security blanket. Linus would never be seen anywhere without the blue blanket. Lucy, Snoopy, and Sally try everything to get Linus to drop his security blanket. Linus’ blanket for some served as a source of his ridicule, but Linus could never let it go. The truth is Linus is more like us than we might imagine. We all have our blue blankets. We all have our ways of shielding ourselves from the truth of the world around us. For many people, this might be their spiritual pride as they to cling towards bitterness, anger, and judgment towards other people. For other people, it might be spiritual despair wishing to cut ourselves off from the world around us for fear of never getting hurt. Blue blankets take many forms.
This year has been fifty years since the Charlie Brown Christmas first came on the air. As the Christmas pageant falls apart, Linus the one who was thought to lack courage interrupts. Linus starts reading the Christmas story from Luke 2 when he starts reading something happens as Linus says the words of the angel to the shepherds “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” Linus drops his blanket in front of the entire world. Linus is exposed. Linus’ sin and shame is on the stage for the whole world to see.
This scene brings us back to our Gospel lesson for today. The thing about the Gospel of Jesus is Jesus sees us as we are, Jesus doesn’t demand that we cover ourselves in his presence. Jesus sees our shame, sees our guilt, and declares your sins to be forgiven.
Mary approaches her cousin Elizabeth today in the weakest and most vulnerable positions. Mary approaches Elizabeth as a scared, young girl with the weight of the world upon her shoulders. Mary had her secret, yet then she saw Elizabeth. When Elizabeth came into Mary’s presence, the lesson says that “She is filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Mary was not going to be alone through her ordeals. In Elizabeth, Mary was going to experience unconditional love and acceptance to heal her from the pain of the world around her. Just as we shall experience the unconditional love and acceptance of Jesus to heal us from the pain of the world around us. What Christ’s acceptance of us should allow us to find grace not only in our imperfections but the imperfections of others.
We know the end of this story. Elizabeth gives birth to a son named John. John would become famous for his baptisms. Mary gives birth to a son named Jesus. The tale of these women’s pregnancies is not a story of healing or everything instantly becoming right within their lives. The tale of Mary and Elizabeth’s pregnancies is a story of the redemption of God bringing unto these women his grace and salvation.
Mary was always going to have walk around with the emotions and physical scars of her pregnancy. Elizabeth would never be able to escape the painful years of seeking to conceive a child within her youth. Mary and Elizabeth though would be made whole.
The story of Mary and Elizabeth points to many of the ways in which God is working within our world today. God is working in the lives of people that many might choose to isolate or cast out. The new reality of God’s grace is that the people that we consider to be shameful, God considers them to be holy. This new reality of God’s grace is all around us even as difficult as might be for many of us to see on this day. Amen
 Luke 1:39-45
 Jones, Judith. “Commentary on Luke 1:39-45(46-55).” Working Preacher. Luther Seminary. 20.Dec.2015. web. Dec.15.2015.
 This paragraph was influenced by a reflection by Dr. Jeannie Miller Clarkson entitled “Speaking to Christmas Pain Brings Christmas Peace” . JeannieMillerClarkson.com. 10.Dec.2015. Web. Dec.15.2015
 Bowling for Soup. “High School Never Ends.”The Great Burrito Extortion Case. Jive Recors. 2006. CD.
 Zimmerman, Aaron M.G. “Brene Brown and the End of Shame”. MBird (Mockingbird Ministries). 1.Nov.2012. Web. Dec.15.2015.
 Luke 19:1-10
 John 4:1-30
 This thought process on the difference between shame/guilt comes from Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly. Penguin Random House. 2012.
 Kozo Hattari, Makala. “What Good Will Hunting Teaches Us About Men, Shame, and Suicide. “ Good Men Project. 12. Nov.2014. Web. Dec.15.2015.
 Isaiah 61:1
 Soroski, Jason. “Just Drop the Blanket: The Moment You Never Noticed in A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Crosswalk . 14. Dec.2015. Web. Dec.15.2015.
 Luke 2:10
 Soroski, Jason. “Just Drop the Blanket: The Moment You Never Noticed in A Charlie Brown Christmas.”
 Luke 1:41
 Jones, Judith. “Commentary on Luke 1:39-45(46-55).”
Pastor Stew Carlson
These are all Sunday sermon's written by Pastor Stew.