Fourth Sunday of Advent

Waiting A Little Longer

Saint Luke 1:39-56

My two dear sons grew up having to endure a family Christmas tradition that is absolutely terrible when you’re a young kiddliwink, bursting with anticipation for what Santa has wrapped up and left waiting under the Christmas tree. Because my dear old dad was a pastor like me, I had to wait, not only until after the Christmas Day Service to open my presents, but also until after we had come home from church and had lunch, too. Then we could gather around the tree and tear into all that joy and wonder kept hidden under the wrapping paper and bows and ribbons. And so, when I became a dad, I felt it only right to pass on this terrible torture of having to wait, to my sons, whom I love.

This year you all get to experience a bit of this Christmas torture—the little frustration of being so close to Christmas and having to wait, because this morning we’re still in the blue of Advent, we’ve still got that last candle on the wreath to burn. You church children will just have to wait for this evening to come, for your pastor dad says it’s not yet time to celebrate Christmas. But thankfully, the waiting will not be long.

This morning we heard of a woman of great faith and the wonderful Christmas gift that is brought to her. This gift is still all wrapped up and yet this woman knows exactly what the gift is, for it has been revealed to her by God the Holy Spirit that the priceless gift of Christ, for her and for the whole world, has come. She would still have to wait, and for longer than just a few hours. Nine months would still need to pass before the Saviour of the world is born. But what is that after all the many years of waiting for God’s promise to be fulfilled—all the centuries of patient and faithful waiting by those who came before her, who believed that, as God had said, the Christ would come? Now, for Elizabeth, the elderly cousin of Mary, the waiting is almost over and what joy fills her heart! And not only joy for Elizabeth, but also joy for the child within her womb, who leaps with joy and gladness as soon as the sound of Mary’s arrival and her word of greeting comes into his mother’s ears.

If you were new to this story that’s before us this morning, you might have some questions right about now. Elizabeth, as you just heard me say, is a woman of advanced years. But here she is carrying a child within her. How can this be? And not only is Elizabeth well beyond the age for having babies, and her husband Zechariah is also quite old, up until six months before this, she had been barren her whole life—she’d been unable to have children. If you didn’t know the story, you would surely want to know how this could be possible.

Well, it wouldn’t be possible, except for God making it possible. This is what Mary was told when she learned, only a short while before her visit to Elizabeth, that her kinswoman was with child—when she was also told that she, a virgin, was with child, too. “How can this be?” she asks the angel Gabriel who gives her the news. “How can this be?” In reply, the angel says, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” As history tells us, God has a record of doing what man thinks is impossible.

While this record includes countless things, let’s confine our attention to some miraculous birth events. We read in Genesis 21 that Abraham’s previously barren wife Sarah gives birth to Isaac when she’s ninety years old, and Abraham himself is one hundred. And the prophet Samuel only comes into this world and is born because God graciously heeds the prayer of childless Hannah and causes him to be conceived in her. Of course these Old Testament examples of God’s gracious intervention happened in order to serve His loving purpose of bringing salvation to this sinful, fallen world. Both Isaac and Samuel have important roles given them by God in this divine work.

The Lord’s divine work of saving mankind, after all the years following the birth of Isaac and the birth of Samuel, is now, as we see in today’s Gospel account, about to come to its fruition, it’s completion, in the children being carried by Elizabeth and Mary. Elizabeth’s son John will come to be the Forerunner, preparing the way for this world to receive the Child of Mary. And, as we see, he’s already at this work. Three months before his birth, the one who will come to be called “the Baptist” jumps for joy in his mother’s womb, not because Mary has come to visit, but because His Saviour, still wrapped up in Mary, has come. John’s leap for joy is his way of announcing what He would say of Jesus some thirty years later, namely, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!”

With a bit of help offered by the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth understands what her unborn son is announcing in her. And she, too, is filled with joy. She exclaims with a loud voice to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” And that’s not all, for she’s got one more “blessed” in her. She also exclaims, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Here she’s speaking of the blessing that she has received, the blessing of forgiveness and salvation and life without end that she has in Christ, the blessing of which the Lord had promised to her and to all His people of old through the prophets. This, dear friends, is how Elizabeth means that she is blessed. But what about Mary? And what about the fruit of Mary’s womb? In what sense are they blessed?

The blessedness of Mary is of a two-fold nature. She is blessed as is Elizabeth, and all the faithful, with forgiveness through her Saviour, who is also Mary’s Son. She, therefore, has both the blessing of salvation and the blessing of being the theotokos, which is a title in the Greek language given to Mary that means the “God-bearer.” The first she has in common with all who believe and are saved; the latter is an honour that she shares with none other, for there is only one Saviour, only one Word made flesh, and Mary is the one chosen by God to be His mother. Mary is indeed, as Elizabeth said, blessed “among women.”

The world’s Saviour, newly conceived in the womb of Mary, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is, of course, as Elizabeth says. He is blessed. And as with His mother Mary, His blessedness is also of a two-fold nature, corresponding to who He is being both true Man and true God. As true God, His blessedness is from all eternity; it is an attribute not given to Him, but with the Father and the Holy Spirit, is existing in Him as the fountain and source of all blessedness, which no one may have except that God graciously gives and bestows it. And then, as true Man, because He comes into this world in greatest humility, setting aside, for the most part, all of His divine attributes and power, Jesus is the recipient of blessings from His heavenly Father—and all for our sake. He is blessed from above with authority and strength that He might carry out the work for which He is sent to do, that He might be our Saviour and Redeemer.

When Elizabeth is all finished with her pronouncements of blessedness, Mary sings a joyful song of praise to God, in thanksgiving for all of His rich and wonderful blessings. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she extols, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked upon the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed, for he who is mighty has done these great things for me.” Mary is well aware that man’s ways are not God’s way, for if God worked as man does, she would not be the one carrying within her the Son of God. No, that honour would go to another—to an earthly king’s daughter, or some such one of worldly greatness, not to a poor maiden from nowhere—from little, backwater Nazareth, like Mary. But, as Mary’s song tells us, God works differently. He scatters and brings down the proud and mighty, while exalting those “of humble estate.” He fills “the hungry with good things and the rich he has sent empty away.” God gives His blessing to those who need it—or should I say, to those who know they need it—to those who come before Him as beggars with open, outstretched, and empty hands, whose trust is not in themselves, but who look solely to God for His mercy and grace.

There’s a good reason why Mary’s song is the Church’s song, for like Mary none of us are worthy of the great blessings that God freely gives in Christ. As Saint Paul says, we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”—we don’t measure up to the standard of holiness and righteousness that God demands, nor can we ever on our own. But God, in His mercy and grace, provides a way. He sends His Son to be born of a virgin, to be born in the humility of our flesh, so that He can stand in for you and receive the judgment that you deserve because of your sin. Jesus takes your place; He bears your sin and the Law’s full condemnation for that sin; He suffers and dies that you might be saved and have life without end.

Now, I seem to recall saying that you have to wait a bit yet for Christmas to come. And that’s still true. But for the gift that God gives, there’s no waiting at all. The gift of your Saviour is already given. You have it in your baptism. And the ongoing forgiveness that keeps you in this saving grace is yours without cost every Lord’s Day—freely given to all who hunger and thirst for it. So enjoy this last bit of Advent, dear friends, and with Mary, magnify the Lord and rejoice in God your Saviour. Amen.