Visitation Sermon

Today we commemorate The Blessed Virgin Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth. They have both been miraculously made with child. Elizabeth and Zechariah, long past the age of child bearing, are now expectantly awaiting the birth of John the Baptist. Mary, who is still of tender years and unmarried, is with child not because of a man, but because the Holy Spirit came upon her, and the power of the Most High overshadowed her. The child she will bear is holy – the Son of God. And so Elizabeth, speaking by the power of the Holy Spirit, calls her “the Mother of my Lord”. And that is what Mary is – the Mother of God. Jesus – the Son of God – is her son. The child that Mary will bear and place into the manger is God. These are strange things, they do not make sense to human reason. They can only be grasped by faith. That is why Elizabeth also says, “blessed is she who believed…” Mary is blessed, for she believed the Word of God spoken to her by the angel.

The curse of Eden, where Eve took the apple ate of it, and gave it to her husband and he ate of it – will be undone through the child Mary will bear. That is why the promise given to Eve was that “her seed… shall crush the head” of the serpent. Singular – seed. The fruit of the woman alone. Jesus is the Son of Mary, but will have no human father. His Father is God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. Joseph will serve as step-father, foster-father. He will fulfill his duty humbly, and faithfully, as will Mary. But while Jesus is fully human, he is not only human. He is also very God of very God.

This account of the conception and birth of Jesus goes against everything our culture holds dear. Two old people who have been kept childless for years so that when they finally do receive their hearts desire, it is timed with the arrival of Jesus. They did not willingly delay having a child – God willed that there be a delay. A young unmarried woman who is pregnant and does not seek to escape from that responsibility  or that birth. A man who faithfully fulfills the position of father for a child who is not his own. And this is the part that really offends today’s sensibilities – a God who asked none of them their opinion of what he will do, and seeks no permission to carry out His will among them. Elizabeth and Zechariah must wait patiently for the Lord to give a child to ease the burden of their childlessness. Mary will bear the Son of God in her body because God sent the angel. Joseph will marry her at God’s command. God simply assumes that their bodies – which he created – are his to do with as he pleases.

Society continues to pretend that families are not created and blessed by God, as husband and wife come together in love, and give birth to children. Rather, we are told, any combination of people can play at being families. And those who object will be taught to comply. That is not how God created it in the beginning. He created them, male and female, because it was not good for the man to be alone. He brought man and woman together so that she might be a helpmeet for him. And he blessed them and said “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” It was the curse of sin that would turn God’s beautiful creation of the family into a battleground. Marriage was created to point to the relationship between God and his people – in the Old testament God and Israel, in the new, Christ and his Holy bride the church.

Division and dissentions and broken families are the result of living in dark and sinful  times.  And yet, it was into no less dark a time that our Lord came. Mad Herod would kill the children of Bethlehem in a vain attempt to snuff out the light. His Son – Herod Antipas – would have John the Baptist killed for speaking the truth about his adultery. And His grandson Herod Agrippa would have James the apostle put to death by the sword simply to amuse the people. The kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent take it by force. Against all the forces of evil in the heavenly realms, against all the forces of Satan, against all the forces of our modern culture that would sacrifice the children for the convenience of the parents, that would destroy the family, try and undo the Word of God, and corrupt every good thing, we have, standing like a fortress besieged, two women – one a teenager, the other aged. The two most unlikely heroes in history. What could they possibly do to disrupt the entire plan and purpose of the devil, what can they do to fight against 6,000 years and counting of a culture of death. What can they possibly do to beat back all the forces of Satan?

They believe the word of God that is spoken to them. The word that caused Mary to conceive in her womb and bear a son. That would give her the courage to travel 70 miles from Nazareth to the hill country of Judea to her cousin. Not so they can plot a revolt against Rome, or discuss strategy for a political campaign. But so they can visit. No really, that’s it. The young girl Mary, barely more than a child herself, hears the word and believes, and she goes off to visit her elderly cousin. In that moment, all the forces of evil are brought to nothing. Because here, we see God’s plan being enacted.

Don’t misunderstand. It’s not that Mary or Elizabeth will crush the serpent’s head. Mary is blessed among women. She is the Mother of God. But dishonors Mary’s name when she is given more than God has given her. She does not participate in the redemption. She is not the one to save us from our sins. We don’t pray to her or ask her blessing on us. But in this picture of two women, meeting, and probably sitting down for tea or some afternoon drink, Satan’s plans are unraveling. For here we see John the Baptizer already pointing to Jesus – while both are still in the womb. John leaps for joy when he hears the voice of Jesus’ mother. It is the first, but far from the last time John will point to Jesus. And in that leaping, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit. She speaks God’s word of encouragement to her young cousin. Mary bears in her womb Jesus who is the Christ, the anointed, the Son of God. And he will be the one to redeem – not Just Israel – but all the nations. His word will stand. For the Word of God endures forever. The powers and principalities of this present darkness come and go. The kings of the earth set themselves against the Lord and against his anointed. But he who sits in the heavens laughs. The Lord holds them in derision. God the Father Almighty sends His archangel Gabriel, to bring that sword of God’s wrath and judgment into the world. And he does it in Nazareth, to a virgin pledged to be married to Joseph. That is how God acts. Through the simple, the weak. The almost tragically unprepared and unable. In the distant past, God had delivered Israel from the Midianties with only 300 soldiers. He sent home 20,000, and then 10,000 more. Solely because he wanted the people to believe without any doubt that the only reason they won was because God had given them the victory. And so Gideon won a tremendous victory over the 100,000 of the Midianites. Later, Hezekiah would be trapped in Jerusalem by 185,000 of Sennacharib’s troops. He faced certain destruction. Until the night the angel of the Lord slew them all. God preserves his people.

And yet, no other part of Holy Scripture can compare to the miraculous events of our Gospel reading. Two women in the hill country, greeting each other in the name of the Lord. And from their wombs will arise both the greatest of the prophets – and more than a prophet. John the Baptist, who will prepare the way of the Lord, who will make straight a highway for our God. And yet, as great as John will be, he will be unworthy to even unlatch the sandal of Jesus. Jesus is the only begotten Son of God, begotten of his father before all worlds. He is the one who will crush the serpent, who will go into death in his body, and so destroy death. That’s what’s happening here. The mighty will be cast down, the poor raised up. Not in the sense of a great social revolution or a worldly struggle between classes. That’s the dark philosophy of man at work – blinded by sin, and the blind leads the blind into the ditch. No, the mighty, the strong one – Satan, will be cast down, and the humble – Jesus will be exalted to the right hand of the Father. A simple country girl will be the one to carry him. Her cousin will carry the one who will announce him, who will prepare the way. God works through the simple, the humble things to carry out his plan. To bring Jesus into the world, so that you would have salvation in His name. And all those who believe in his word, and on his name, will be saved, will be torn from Satan’s grasp, and will be given the salvation earned on the cross by Jesus.

“Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” May we all be blessed by this fulfillment of the Lord’s word. For the fulfillment of that word is the Lord Jesus Christ, born in the manger, crucified under Pontius Pilate for the forgiveness of sins, and raised again on the third day from the dead.

As Mary and Elizabeth believed the word spoken to them, may we also believe this word of God that speaks forgiveness of sins, and brings to us life and salvation. May we also be accounted as blessed of God.

Amen.

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