“A Blessed Visitation” (Sermon on Luke 1:39-45, by Pr. Charles Henrickson)
“A Blessed Visitation” (Luke 1:39-45)
It was a meeting of the moms. Two expectant mothers, one old, one young. One was six months along; the other, newly pregnant. And the fact that they were expecting was totally unexpected! Both of them were pregnant when really neither one of them should have been, under normal circumstances. But these circumstances were anything but normal. What was happening was much better than normal.
This meeting of the moms was the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth. Elizabeth was the older woman; Mary, the younger. Elizabeth was in her sixth month; Mary’s pregnancy had just started. And we’ll get to why neither one should have been pregnant in a moment. But it was at this time that Mary goes to visit her older relative Elizabeth, traveling from her home in Nazareth, up in Galilee, down to the home of Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah in the hill country of Judah.
“The Visitation” is the term that is commonly used when referring to this meeting of these two most uncommon mothers, Mary and Elizabeth. There is even a day in the church year set aside for observing the Visitation. And it comes up in the lectionary also on this Fourth Sunday in Advent in the Year of St. Luke.
But the key to this story is that it is not just a meeting of the two moms. It is also the first meeting of the two baby boys they are carrying inside of them. In particular, it is the baby boy that Mary is carrying that will make this–both for the people involved in this story and for us as well–that will make this “A Blessed Visitation.”
Now there is a back story to each of these pregnancies that should not have been. Let’s start with Elizabeth. She was an older woman, well beyond her childbearing years. And what’s more, she had never been able to have children. This was a great disappointment to Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah. Zechariah was a priest who served in the temple in Jerusalem. One day he was there, in the Holy Place, ministering at the altar of incense, when all of a sudden an angel appeared. It was the angel Gabriel, who told Zechariah that he and his wife Elizabeth were finally going to be able to have a child. It will be a boy, and they are to name him John. And the angel said that God would have a special calling on John’s life: that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb; that he would be a great prophet like Elijah; and that John would go before the Lord to prepare his way. This sounds like Gabriel is saying John will be the last great prophet immediately before the coming of the Messiah–which indeed he was. So after receiving this awesome news, Zechariah goes home, Elizabeth becomes pregnant, and she is six months along with baby John when Mary comes down for a visit.
And what had just happened that prompted Mary to go visit Elizabeth was that the angel Gabriel made another surprise announcement, this time telling Mary that she also would be expecting a child she didn’t expect. Now it’s not that Mary was too old or unable to have children. No, what made this pregnancy unusual was that Mary was not married. Yes, there was a time when that sort of thing was considered unusual. But what takes it from the unusual to the unique was that Mary became pregnant while remaining a virgin. That just does not happen. And this is the only time it ever would happen. But it was fitting that it should happen in this way, for the child Mary would bear would be totally unique.
The angel Gabriel said many wonderful things about this boy to be born. He told Mary: “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And then Gabriel added: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy–the Son of God.” Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary. True God and true man, in the one person of Christ. This baby Jesus will be the Son of God come in the flesh. He will be the great Messiah prophesied so long ago.
Gabriel also told Mary: “And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.” And that is how Mary comes to visit Elizabeth. They’ve both got these miracle pregnancies in common.
And so this is where we pick up the story today. Mary goes to the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, she enters the house, and she greets Elizabeth. And when she does, the sound of her greeting is picked up by baby John, in the womb, and he does a joyful little leap! Remember, the angel had said that John would be filled with the Spirit even in his mother’s womb. And so when Mary greets Elizabeth, the Spirit causes John to recognize that Jesus was there, too. Everywhere that Mary went, the Lamb was sure to go–the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, as John himself would proclaim years later.
The presence of Christ among us brings us great joy. The gospel sound that greets us here in the church lets us know that Jesus is here, and so we rejoice. Most of us are probably past our leaping prime, but the arrival of Christmas should get at least ten Lutherans a-leaping.
So John leaps, and Elizabeth too is filled with the Holy Spirit and starts to get excited. She tells Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Mary, you have been given a great honor, to bear the Savior of the world. I mean, I am honored to bear the forerunner of the Lord, but you get to give birth to the Lord himself! What a wonderful blessing!
Elizabeth continues: “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Hear the humble faith in Elizabeth’s words. She realizes that she is not worthy of such a visitation. And at the same time, she realizes that her Lord is coming to her, bringing great blessing. Such humble faith is truly the work of the Holy Spirit.
Do you have the humility and the faith of an Elizabeth? Yes, I believe you do. You recognize that you are not worthy to have God grace you with his presence. You know you are a sinner–you confessed that earlier in the service. You and I don’t deserve to have our Lord come to us with his blessing. It is purely by his grace and his mercy that he does.
And you have Spirit-wrought faith, as well. As with Elizabeth, the Holy Spirit has worked in your heart, through the gospel, so that you trust in Jesus as your Lord and Savior. You know that that little child came as our brother, in the flesh, so that he could do the only job that would save us. He came to do the Father’s will, to keep God’s law perfectly on our behalf. Christ came to offer the one perfect sacrifice that atones for all our sins, to suffer and die a sinner’s death on the cross, taking the punishment that the law requires and that we deserve. He came to be our peace and our life, shown when he rose victorious over sin and death, granting us blessing and joy in their place.
Yes, when Jesus enters the house, you get all of these blessings with him. This is enough to make someone leap for joy, as Elizabeth tells Mary: “For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.”
Then Elizabeth has one more word for Mary: “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Faith–that is what we’re seeing here, all around. The faith that Elizabeth had to know that this was no ordinary child Mary was bringing into the room, it was the Lord himself. And the faith of Mary. Elizabeth commends Mary for her faith, that she, Mary, believed the great things the angel had told her about the son she would bear.
Dear friends, the meeting of the moms is a meeting of two great women of faith. Both Mary and Elizabeth stand out as wonderful examples for us. They believe the Lord’s words, and they receive his gifts. The Holy Spirit will work such a Mary-and-Elizabeth faith in you, too.
You see, there’s a whole bunch of miracles that we see in our text today. The way that both Elizabeth and Mary got pregnant, of course–in each case, miraculous. But also, the way that they both believed and rejoiced in the good news of their Lord and Savior Jesus Christ–that too is a miracle. Even little John got in on the believing-and-rejoicing act. Any time anyone is given the gift of faith and joy in the Lord–that is a miracle of God. It is the work of the Holy Spirit, working through the Word, working in our hearts, creating a saving faith and a blessed joy. And the great thing is, you and I have the same good news and the same Holy Spirit at work in our hearts today.
Today we have heard the story of the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth. It was a meeting of the moms, yes. But don’t forget those boys! They meet, too, Jesus and John do. And wherever Mary’s baby boy goes, he brings blessing with him. Even in the womb, he brought blessing and joy to the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah. And Jesus brings blessing and joy into our homes, too. When we gather with our family for Christmas–when the Christ of Christmas is the reason for our merriment–Jesus brings the joy with him. When we gather here with our church family, here in God’s house, Christ is surely present to bless us with his gifts. Christ is here, visiting us with his grace and favor. And that makes this a most blessed visitation.