Monday, December 21, 2009

Sermon on Luke 1:39-45, for the 4th Sunday in Advent, "Blessed is she who believed!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. In today’s reading we have a wonderful example that shows us how we’re spiritual beings already from our conception, even before natural birth. Becoming a spiritual person capable of faith and trust in the Lord is not something that occurs at some undefined point in late childhood, or even in adulthood—but from the very inception of our human life, we were created to be spiritual, believing souls. This passage stresses that faith is above all how we’re blessed by God. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

John the Baptist wasn’t a “late-bloomer” by any stretch of the imagination. He had a commission from God before his birth to be a royal messenger to prepare the way for the Lord. The angel announcing the promise of John’s birth to his father Zechariah, said that John would be “great before the Lord”…and then went on to give the surprising promise that John would be “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15). This somewhat cryptic promise was fulfilled when John was filled with the Holy Spirit in his mother’s womb, and began leaping and dancing inside her for joy—at the sound of Mary’s voice. A child leaping in the womb is ordinary; but the timing and the exuberance of John’s excited leaping for joy at the sound of her voice clearly show this was God’s Spirit at work even in the womb.

John wasn’t a late-bloomer, because as a prenatal infant inside the sanctuary of his mother’s womb, he was already giving witness to his younger cousin Jesus’ arrival. The Holy Spirit created faith in his coming Lord Jesus, and he recognized the sound of Mary’s voice, the mother of Jesus. He was a spiritual soul, filled by the Holy Spirit, just like us. We’re created, as the Psalmist writes, to lean on the Lord from before our birth, to trust Him from our youth (Ps. 71:5-6). In a day and age when the sanctity of the womb and the life developing there is so often questioned or even brushed aside, it’s valuable to see how the Scripture acknowledges life and spirituality even since conception. It’s a unique life and soul residing there in the womb.

We should note another example of how Scripture acknowledges life in the womb. The word used in our reading to describe the prenatal child John, is the Greek word “brephos.” Why is that significant? Because the same word “brephos” that describes the unborn John, is the word used to describe the infant Jesus, after His birth. It’s the same word used to describe the little children that Jesus wanted to bless, but His disciples tried to hinder Him. The same word that described how Timothy learned the holy scriptures from his infancy. There is no distinction of value, of personhood, or life between a child still in the womb, a child newly born, or a child in early youth. The word is used interchangeably. There are other word choices that could describe a young child as distinct—but in these examples all are “brephos.” Regardless of whether he’s inside or outside of the womb, he’s a living child, and the size or the location of the child doesn’t change his value. At each and every stage of life, we’re created to be spiritual souls.

Truly Mary and Elizabeth’s wombs were sanctuaries of faith and life, and brought these two women of faith together. Their wombs were a place of safety and the miraculous growth of life for John and Jesus. Two cousins who shared a common ministry in proclaiming the coming kingdom of God, and the baptism of repentance and the forgiveness of sins. John to be a forerunner, Jesus to be the promised Savior. John’s birth, teaching ministry, and death all foreshadowed Jesus’ birth, teaching ministry, and death. But the greater One was clearly Jesus.

John later said of Jesus that while He came after John, Jesus was greater than John because He existed before John (John 1:30). There’s a mind-bender! Jesus was born as a human after John, but Jesus pre-existed John from all eternity, as the Son of God. This is reflected in the Old Testament reading where Micah prophesied this One who would come as the Ruler of Israel having an origin from old, from ancient days—literally from days of eternity! (Micah 5:2) Who could exist before His own birth? Only God, born as the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. So Jesus was clearly the greater. But these two miraculous children, Jesus and John, developing as growing embryos in their mother’s wombs, brought Mary and Elizabeth together by faith. Because of John’s witness to his mother, the same Holy Spirit filled Elizabeth as she shouted with inspired joy: “Blessed are you [Mary] among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Without Mary even telling her that she had divinely conceived Jesus in her womb, Elizabeth already knew it by the Holy Spirit.

Elizabeth counted Mary as blessed—blessed because of the child she bore, and blessed because Mary believed that God’s Word spoken to her would be fulfilled. So which of these blessings was greater? For Mary to be the mother of God, Jesus Christ, or for Mary to believe in the promise of God’s Word? Our natural reaction would be to think the greater blessing lay in being the mother of Jesus, who was truly God in her womb. That she would give birth to the singular Savior of the world, a birth unique and unlike any before or after. The women of Jesus time felt the same, as they spoke to Him some 30 years later when He was an adult. One woman said to Jesus: “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” What greater honor for Mary than to be mother of this exceptional Messiah?! But Jesus’ quick reply shows us that the greater blessing for Mary was instead to believe in the promises of God. Jesus answered: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:27-28). Jesus showed that the greater blessing for Mary and for all, is to hear the word of God and keep it! So Elizabeth’s second blessing was greater: “Blessed is she who believed!”

Mary’s greater honor, and the reason for her being chosen to bear the Christ-child was because of her faith and willingness to commit herself to the Lord’s will and service. Being a disciple of her unborn Lord, who was being knitted together in His mother’s womb—being a disciple was the greater honor. And if God so greatly favored and blessed an ordinary, faithful believer like Mary, who was of low estate, how can we expect any less? Why do we doubt that the Lord can use us to great service in His kingdom if we’re willing, and if we’ll believe? Even if the one-time, unrepeatable honor and miracle of being the mother of Jesus has already been given—how can we ignore the greater and infinitely repeatable miracle of being a disciple of Jesus? To which is attached greater blessings?! Discipleship of course. We’ve no idea how the Lord will carry out His work and will in us, if only we’ll become His ready servants like Mary.

Our highest blessing is by being disciples and believing in the Lord's promise, and waiting for its fulfillment. In Advent we’re reminded that sometimes the wait can be quite lengthy for the fulfillment of God’s promises. We hear the promise, but do not yet see the fulfillment. Jesus may not even come in our lifetime, which means we must live on by faith. The Holy Spirit plants the seed of faith in our hearts and nourishes it through His spoken Word. The seed of faith is growing within us, and it will flourish and produce blessing in our lives, so it can be spoken of us: “Blessed is he/she who believed!” We’re blessed to hear God’s word and keep it, by hearing the Good News of what Jesus has done for us, and living lives of repentance and forgiveness for ourselves, and of forgiveness toward others. We’re blessed because we’re living out our created purpose to be spiritual beings from our conception to beyond our death into eternity. We’re blessed in this way because Jesus sanctified or made holy all of human life, from His conception to His death and resurrection. If we don’t believe, we don’t share in that blessing. We don’t share in the joy of knowing our coming Lord.

As we consider what it means to be blessed by the Lord, and to be open to His service—we realize that it doesn’t have anything to do with our own power or status or privilege. We can be the lowliest handmaiden in God’s kingdom, to the president of a nation, and God views us as equals in His sight. He doesn’t need our greatness to accomplish great things through us. The difference that you make in God’s kingdom, as you make yourself available to His service may be something that changes the world—or it may be the immeasurable miracle of changing someone’s life. Perhaps your great service will never be seen or recognized. Perhaps only God will see it—then all the better! For our Father, who sees what is done in secret will reward us (Matt. 6). We don’t need trumpets to announce our good works in this kingdom—we don’t need the credit or admiration of fellow humans. All the reward that’s worth seeking comes from the quiet, humble, faithful, and often un-recognized service in the kingdom of God. A record of service that you don’t even count or keep track of, but simply do out of the faith in God to keep His promises, and the love for what He has done for you.

Maybe your greatest act of service in God’s kingdom this Christmas season will be to do like John the Baptist—to joyfully bear witness to Jesus, our Lord. The simple act of telling another human being that the greatest purpose God has for them is to believe in our Lord Jesus and to know His saving love for us. To let someone know that God created us to be spiritual beings—from our conception onward, we’re capable of faith in God. Too many are missing out on God’s purpose for their lives, and are living with an unfilled hole in their lives and in their soul. And the secular celebration of Christmas is just one example of how we try to fill that hole with all other kinds of things that ultimately won’t satisfy. But having that faith, having the blessing of believing, is a gift of the Holy Spirit that comes by speaking God’s Word. This brings us right back to Jesus’ words: “Blessed is the one who hears the Word of God and keeps it.”

Mary, Elizabeth, and John the Baptist all had this in common—they heard the Word of God and kept it. By faith they made themselves willing servants of the Word of God. Both the Word of God in Scripture that promised their Messiah, and the Word of God that was incarnate in Jesus Christ. In Christ they witnessed the miracle of God’s divinity being joined with humanity from His miraculous conception onward through His life. His life sanctified all of our life, and His death brings us the forgiveness of all sin. There is no greater blessing or honor than to believe in Him and be His willing servants. So we join them in being messengers of the Good News, that this Jesus is God born in human flesh. That He came once to earth to show His love by His remarkable death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. That He Himself is our peace—this Christmas and forevermore. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. How does this reading from Luke 1:39-35 (see also 1:15) show that we were created to be spiritual beings from our conception? See also Psalm 22:9-10; 51:5; 71:6. What implications does the start of life (and our spirituality) have for baptism? For life issues, like abortion?

2. How can we guard the sanctuary of the womb, to see that it remains a place of safety for a growing child? How can we reach out to women facing the challenge of unplanned pregnancies?

3. It has been said that there are only 4 differences between an unborn baby and a newborn: size, level of development, environment, and degree of dependency. Why do none of these change a person’s status as a human being at any stage of life? How does the Bible affirm that life in the womb is same as life outside? Read Luke 1:41, 44; 2:12, 16; 18:15. (the same Greek word “brephos” is used in every instance)

4. What common things did John and Jesus share? How did their growth in their mother’s wombs bring together these women of faith? How was the Holy Spirit at work in John and Elizabeth?

5. What was the greater blessing for Mary: to be mother of Jesus, or to be blessed because she believed in the promise of the Lord? Cf. Luke 11:27-28.

6. What’s the greatest blessing for us? How can we spread that to others, as a gift? How did that blessing come at Christmas?

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