Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on Dec. 19, 2021

Posted by on Sun, Dec 19, 2021 in Advent, Sermons

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

Dec. 19, 2021

Think of receiving such astonishing news as Mary and her ‘kinswoman’ Elizabeth have received. I imagine each one, alone and shaking her head saying ‘I can’t be pregnant. It’s just not possible!’—and yet, here we are. It was impossible for each in different ways. Mary is young and not yet married, possibly even worried about beginning married life. She is still her parent’s daughter more than Joseph’s almost-wife. Elizabeth has long since passed any hope of having a child, and after many years of marriage to a faithful temple priest, she expects no real surprises ahead. That Archangel’s visit changes everything!

They see it in each other, know it in the moment. The child within Elizabeth leaps inside her—I’ll bet it startled her, and she laughed at the sheer relief and joy of it. They embrace and are filled with possibility. Mary’s song reveals power and grace. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.” Sometimes we mistakenly pair these words with Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she is to bear a son. Yet that isn’t when it comes, rather she was said to be perplexed and greatly troubled at first. Then she must have told Joseph and according to Matthew’s gospel he wasn’t too happy about it, and “planned to dismiss her quietly.” It wouldn’t have gone over well with Mary’s parents either—if Joseph knew there’d be public disgrace, surely her parents would too. It was likely a lonely and lost feeling time for the young woman—girl really, and perhaps one riddled with fear and self-doubt as to what she’d heard the archangel say. It isn’t until the moment with Elizabeth that it all changes. 

Elizabeth had wanted a child but was barren. Sources say when the archangel spoke to Zechariah of the news, Elizabeth was already in her upper 80’s. (Eighty may be ‘the new sixty’ but I doubt you’d feel that way finding yourself pregnant at that age!) Zechariah wasn’t surprised, he simply didn’t believe it! Gabriel tells him not to be afraid, that he and Elizabeth will have joy and gladness, many will rejoice, the child will be great in God’s sight, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before his birth. He’ll have the power and spirit of Elijah and turn people’s hearts “to the Lord their God,” going before him “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” No, Zechariah isn’t buying it; How will I know that this is so? We’re too old! Gabriel gets huffy and declares him mute, which lasts through the entire pregnancy and eight days after John’s birth. One wonders how he told Elizabeth, and what a strange vehicle Gabriel’s message his muteness must have seemed. She stayed in seclusion for five months — hoping? Wondering? Only then does she know this child is God’s gift to her and the end of her “disgrace.” And now Mary arrives.

This is what the artist Sadao Watanabe depicts on the large print you saw on your way into church, and in your bulletins this morning (page 7 at 8am, pg. 13 at 10:30). Each woman is touching the other’s pregnant belly. The artist doesn’t actually show them as pregnant, nor are we given any idea which woman is which, perhaps to help us each enter into the moment. Their faces are very close, each kneeling, hands holding each other. The powerful moment is immediately visible. They are embraced by the grace of God as they are wreathed with flowers here, and receive that grace through each other. This moment of knowing between them is wordlessly eloquent, palpable, both human and holy. 

I’m enormously grateful for our live-streamed services bringing us together in new ways, and for those who make it possible.  I also dearly miss the moments of sacred and real presence with so many of you—who see us but we don’t see you. Yes, online worship is far better than not gathering our faith community at all, it is a ‘God-send’ in these times! But could Mary and Elizabeth have done this by Zoom? She hiked up into the hill country to the next town to be with her cousin—no Airbnb reservation, no mask, no texted selfies from the road. Somehow booting up and logging in doesn’t evoke the same tangible beauty of the moment, the excitement in her step. What did she expect in going?

‘The Magnificat’ —Mary’s song. Like Advent, it is a litany of living hope, and by the time she is saying it, about three months into her pregnancy and life with Joseph, surely hope is desperately welcome. What sustains her? What has been our hope these past two years of long months or even these weeks of Advent? Where do we most need to see hope’s light? We’ve all learned that control is illusory, that anyone can get sick, that many and much in our world needs healing, peace, and new life. And so we try to change what is broken or live through it. We look ahead at what God’s kingdom could be. We look back at what has inspired hope before, where God has been present in us and how God meets us in that hope. Mary’s song is that God “has done great things for me” and has come to our help, has remembered the promise of mercy made “to Abraham and his children forever.” God has lifted up the lowly and filled those who were empty; something both Mary and Elizabeth know all about. 

I’ve heard many of you say these past two years have helped us see what is precious, what matters most—and what waiting with no end-date does to us. Reflection helps us draw strength from where we’ve been and look forward with new eyes. As Christians who await the birth celebration of the world’s Messiah we live in that hope, and in expectation of him entering into our lives, our very being, be it in our times of joyous anticipation or darkest pain and emptiness. The good news is that he enters into it all. Do we find it easier to see or even forget to see in good times? Hard to dare to believe in times of exhaustion, desperation and darkness? 

Christ entered into both at once last Sunday. People who mourned the loss of last year’s Sing & Play-Along Messiah were overjoyed to gather for it. Musicians signed up early, people skipped the Seahawks game, drove in from out of town, those unable to come sent their gifts in, and all present were extraordinarily generous. Our expanded community had enormous fun and poignant joy as we raised $4200 to directly help people in greatest need through Issaquah Community Services! This is how Christ’s light enters into real lives; ours and theirs. It doesn’t mean this hasn’t been an incredibly tough year. Even for those of us who didn’t lose jobs or homes or loved ones to the pandemic it’s been hard, and it’s okay to feel grief in the other parts we have lost. I don’t know anyone who has made it through the past two years without experiencing  more of that sorrowful distressing side than they had before covid began. We’d all like a vaccine booster for that! 

When I first saw this extraordinary piece by Watanabe, I was speechless. It was in the middle of so many months during which we couldn’t hug each other, and here they were doing just that—recognizing God’s great love present and alive within each other. So much so that it leaps! 

As Elizabeth realized what they were sharing, she knew that blessed was the one who had believed in fulfillment of God’s promise. You don’t have to be six months pregnant for that to happen—I felt it the first time I got to hug someone dear to me after over a year of distanced precaution. My heart broke open and I simply wept. When have you felt such blessing? It is with me every time I lock eyes with you and know I’m seeing the face of Christ looking back at me. This is God coming to us amidst whatever wreckage, division, or hopelessness we’re in, to save us.

[at 8am] We sang it as we gathered to light the final Advent lamp this morning;

[at 10:30] We sang it just now to prepare for our gospel reading;

O come, Desire of nations, bind in one the hearts of all mankind; bid thou our sad divisions cease, and be thyself our King of Peace. Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear. Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

© 2021 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved. Posted with permission.

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