Monday, December 21, 2015

Sermon on Luke 1:39-45, for the 4th Sunday in Advent, "Faith is not opposed to waiting"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. In today’s Gospel reading, we have two remarkable women, Elizabeth and Mary, waiting with contentment and great joy, for the fulfillment of God’s promises, and for the birth of their two special sons—John the Baptist and Jesus. Advent is a time of waiting, and for us the wait is nearly over, as Christmas comes this Friday. So much of life is filled with waiting. Today we’ll see in our reading what the gift of faith is, and learn how faith is not opposed to waiting. Faith is the gift of the Holy Spirit. And it’s not just a gift for the old and patient (or more patient), but equally the Spirit’s gift for the young and eager.
Young children are often opposed to waiting. Christmas and gift opening has to be NOW—as soon as I see that present! Young adults are often opposed to waiting—wanting to immediately have that thing I want—car, clothing, jewelry, girlfriend or boyfriend, paycheck, graduation. Older adults are often opposed to waiting—the child, the job offer, the house, the upgraded car, the vacation. Regardless of age, we all wait for different things. The waiting is filled with different kinds of emotions, positive or negative, but time seems to pay no attention. Slowly as we age and mature, we may no longer feel the same urgency to rush time—we may even begin to enjoy waiting. But old or young, waiting is an inevitable fact of life.
One pastor shared the story of how excited his children were to plant strawberry seeds, and imagine the lush sweet strawberries they would get to eat. Yet after several days of waiting for the seedling to sprout, and then many weeks of watching the tiny plant grow, still far from maturity, they quickly lost interest. It would take months to get to enjoy the fruit. Consider the time for a Christmas tree to grow from the planting of the seed till it gets to be enjoyed by a family for Christmas. Or consider the 30 years or so that Mary and others would have to wait while Jesus grew and matured. To see what He would do to save the world, and teach the people, and die on the cross on Good Friday, and rise from the dead on Easter, would be a long way away. Given Elizabeth’s advanced age, she may not have lived to see Jesus’ adult ministry at all. And on the day we meet them in our reading, Elizabeth and Mary were still waiting for these two boys to be born—they were still in their mother’s wombs.
But they were not wasted years or wasted time in God’s eyes. The waiting is not opposed to the promise, and faith is not opposed to waiting. Romans 8:24-25 tells us: “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.” Faith and hope both anticipate and look toward unseen realities. They live in the promise and expectation of what is to come. Hebrews 11:1 says, “Faith is assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is the assurance and conviction of hope. It’s the confident trust that what is promised will come to pass. While waiting and patience can be so difficult for us, whether because we are young and restless, or old and impatient, the Bible celebrates and praises this confident waiting on the Lord. God commends those who wait for things, and may not even receive them in their natural life time (Heb. 11:39).
So faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit, given to old and young alike. When Mary came to visit her cousin Elizabeth, and greeted her, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and overflowed with a joyous shout: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Do you see that Elizabeth, and her child John, still in the womb, were filled with the same joy? And if we read back in Luke chapter 1, we see that this leaping for joy of baby John, was because of the promised gift of the Holy Spirit! In Luke 1:15, the Angel Gabriel prophesied of John, that “he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” The same Spirit, faith, and joy, filled tiny, unborn John, and also filled his aged mother Elizabeth. Old, or still growing in his mother’s womb, they are both vessels of the Holy Spirit and recipients of the Spirit’s gifts.
But the joy and faith that filled them both, was for the same reason—the anticipation of Jesus Christ! With amazing faith, Elizabeth calls Mary, the mother of my Lord! No doubt by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, she realized that God’s ancient promises to send a Savior, a Messiah to save the world, were coming true in the virgin conception of Mary. The promised Lord—her Lord, was now growing inside Mary’s womb! And both she, and John in her womb, perceived this with joy, by the Holy Spirit. It’s amazing and wonderful to realize that even in the shelter of the mother’s womb, God can work the miracle of faith, and fill a developing child with the Holy Spirit. But on the other hand, should we be amazed that God, who made Adam and Eve in His own image, fully intends for all human beings to be in perfect, pure communion with Him? It is only the terrible fall into sin that had driven a wedge between us and God, and ruined that perfect fellowship. But for the very purpose of restoring that fellowship, God sent His Messiah, Jesus, into the world.
While Elizabeth and Mary were uniquely involved in the unfolding of God’s promise, in a way that we can never duplicate—we are, nevertheless, able to share in the same promise and blessing through faith. When Elizabeth blesses Mary, she first blesses her as a woman, then blesses her son Jesus, who is going to be born—then she closes by blessing Mary for believing in the fulfillment of God’s promise, spoken to her. In other words, Elizabeth blessed her for her faith. Some 30 or so years later, when Jesus was an adult, and teaching the people, an anonymous woman echoes Elizabeth’s words of blessing—and then Jesus completes and elevates the blessing—in a way that is parallel to Elizabeth’s original words. The anonymous woman says of Mary and Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed! But [Jesus] said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” Mothering Jesus was a unique blessing, that none of us will share. But discipleship—hearing the word of God and keeping it—is a blessing that we all can share! Believing like Mary, in the word and promise of God, and living with hope and faith, is a blessing we all can share.
Jesus echoed Elizabeth, and both teach us that believing God’s Word and promise is a blessing for us all. God’s promises unfold in time. They are extraordinary, world-changing promises, and they are delivered according to God’s perfect timetable. But unfolding in ordinary human time. With days, weeks, months and years to wait and to pass. Not useless time, or wasted time, but time to be lived in faith, hope, and joy. Time of growth, time to enjoy and celebrate God’s gifts, time to serve God and our neighbor through love and faithfulness in our life. Faith is not opposed to waiting. Faith can celebrate and enjoy the wait.
Hear a few words from the Psalms, that speak of this hopeful waiting: “Indeed, none who wait for you shall be put to shame”… “you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long” (Ps. 25:3,5); “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!” (Ps. 27:14); “But for you, O Lord, do I wait; it is you, O Lord my God, who will answer” (Ps. 38:15); “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than the watchmen for the morning” (Ps. 130:5-6). These verses echo the same truth, that there is blessedness in waiting, in calling out to the Lord in prayer, in waiting for His salvation and in hoping in the word of the Lord. Just like Mary, just like Elizabeth. The delayed anticipation is building to something far greater—toward a great gift and joy—which sustains us during that time of longing.
We already said that Advent and Christmas are about waiting, and how children especially find it hard to wait. But Christmas is most certainly for children—from the children yet born, jumping for joy in the mother’s womb, to the 90+ year-old children, still filled with childlike joy at Christmas. The joy and hope of waiting is part of that gift of the Holy Spirit, and it’s God’s gift to you, whether still in the womb, waiting to experience life in the world, or whether life in the world is drawing to its natural close. Wherever and whenever you are waiting, wait for the Lord, and hope in His Word! However young or old you are, you are still a child of God, and Christmas is for you, because Jesus is for you!
Jesus is the object of our faith, hope, joy, and waiting. It all centers and radiates outward from Him. From the joy of Elizabeth at greeting the mother of her Lord, to your joy this Christmas, greeting and celebrating the birthday of our Lord Jesus, to the everyday joy of waiting for His return—Jesus is the object of that joy and faith. He was the promised Lord, sent into the world to redeem us from sin, to heal the terrible damage of sin and death that have so pervasively infected God’s creation. But He comes to heal that divide between God and man, to bring the hope and salvation God had so long promise. And for this, Jesus is our joy. He is the reason that faith is not opposed to waiting, but faith can confidently and eagerly remember what God has done, and look forward to those promises God is still yet to fulfill in Jesus Christ. A blessed wait for all who believe that there will be a fulfillment of what is spoken to you from the Lord! Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      The preborn sons of Elizabeth and Mary would change the world. Who were they, and what difference did they make? What was miraculous about the conception of each child? What was different?
2.      In Luke 1:41, the word for “baby” is brephos in the Greek. It’s a word used for a child, either growing in the mother’s womb, or a born infant, still nursing. What happens to John, this preborn child, when Mary greets Elizabeth? How does she describe what is happening? Luke 1:44.
3.      Earlier in Luke 1:15, the angel Gabriel tells Zechariah, John’s father, that John would be “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb”. What does this important phrase, along with Luke 1:44, tell us about how God is able to work, even in a preborn child? As far as God is concerned, is an infant, even in the womb, a vessel for His Holy Spirit? Psalm 22:9-10; 71:6. Contrast Psalm 58:3, of the wicked.
4.      Elizabeth blesses Mary, in Luke 1:42-42. What blessings does she speak upon Mary? In verse 45, what is the reason for this great blessing upon Mary?
5.      How does Elizabeth’s blessing compare to the blessing spoken by an anonymous woman in Luke 11:27, and Jesus’ description of a higher blessing in verse 28?
6.      While the unique blessings of childbearing John the Baptist and Jesus were unique to Elizabeth and Mary alone, how do we share in the blessings of their offspring, and the blessings of discipleship (Luke 11:28)? Cf. Genesis 22:18
7.      Why is faith not opposed to waiting? What are the blessings of waiting in faith/hope? Romans 8:24-25; Hebrews 11:1-2, 13, 39-40.

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