“Expecting”Dr. Brett Patterson Luke 1: 26-55 Year C - Fourth Sunday of Advent
When you were younger, you might have kept a count of the number of days until Christmas. I know that we are keeping a count in our household this year; we even have a little calendar with an official count, marked by cotton balls. Dad, how many days until Christmas? We are only two days closer than when you last asked. I wish Christmas were already here. Have you had a similar conversation in your family? What is the purpose of the count? We know that there is a special time coming, and for some of us, that special day makes all the days before seem rather dull in comparison. We spend many of the hours of these days thinking ahead, anticipating what is coming, sometimes missing other opportunities. Others of us like to savor these moments, to add a little bit more to our expectations each day.
We might think of presents sitting on a table or under a tree. Some of us want to rip into them the moment we see them. Others of us like to have the presents sitting there for hours, perhaps even days. We like to enjoy the fact that gifts are on their way; we appreciate the wrapping paper; we like to guess what might lie inside. There are many times in life, though, when we have to wait for what is coming; we have no choice to speed up the process. We speak about what is coming, and we count the days.
We might think of a wife who is waiting for her husband to return from serving a military tour overseas. We might have entered the hospital and are anticipating the time when we will be released so that we can go home. We might have taken a new job and are anticipating the move to another state. We might have been working on a project, perhaps building a house, and are looking forward to the time when we are finished and can move into the new home. There are many times in our lives when we live in expectation of something.
One of the most significant, of course, even bears the name. Someone asks a couple if they are expecting. We know that the mother-to-be starts that nine-month journey, as the baby grows inside her. Husband and wife anticipate what that new life will mean for their family. Will the baby be a boy or a girl? Will the baby have the father’s hair color or the mother’s? Whose eyes will the baby have? There are so many unknowns, and there are dangers and challenges along the way. Mothers-to-be are encouraged to have regular visits to their doctors. The anticipation often plays out in designing a room for the baby, setting up a crib and crib set, buying basic toys and blankets, arranging a warm, inviting room. Husband and wife look forward to the coming of that baby.
The first chapter of Luke gives us only hints of what Mary must have been experiencing during her time of expectation. Her journey, of course, began in the most unusual of ways, in fact in what would be a unique and unduplicated way. An angel, one named Gabriel, came from God to Mary to announce that she would become pregnant not in the usual way, for she was not to have just a human child. God’s Spirit would spark the baby’s growth in her womb, for Mary was to carry God’s Son.
Have you ever paused to imagine this scene? There are a number of artists who have sought to capture this moment in a painting or other form of art; there are a number of interpretations. We wonder how overwhelming this encounter must have been. Just being in the presence of one of God’s messengers is humbling enough; the text tells us that Mary is troubled; she is afraid of the angel and his greeting. Even though he tells her not to fear, that God favors her, she must have had difficulty understanding exactly what Gabriel was telling her that day. Can you imagine an angel coming to you to tell you that God was going to use you in such a miraculous way?
Think again to what Gabriel declares. He says that she will conceive even though she has not yet married Joseph, that she is to name the boy that will be born to her Jesus, that he will be the Almighty’s Son, and that he will rule over Israel. Mary comes from a humble family and setting. How could her son be a king? How could her son be the Messiah? How could her son be the Son of God? How could Mary understand what Gabriel was saying? She would have the next nine months to ponder and then the rest of her life to work on understanding what it meant for her to be the vessel by which God’s Son entered the world.
We know this announcement affected others. We certainly think of Joseph and the challenges he faced. The Gospel of Matthew offers that perspective. But here in Luke, we see that Mary is not alone in her expectation; there is also Elizabeth. In fact, as soon as she learns of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Mary runs to her. Everyone thought that Elizabeth was too old to conceive, and certainly if this had been the typical routine, she would not have, but here God’s plan for Jesus’ ministry involves someone who will prepare the way for his coming. Elizabeth is to give birth to John the Baptist, who will work on building the expectation for Jesus, who will preach a message of repentance so that the people will be humbled and awaiting the Messiah.
Luke gives us an account of these two mothers-to-be coming together for mutual encouragement. Can you imagine this encounter? Perhaps you know something of the bond between women who are sharing this journey at the same time. They each are living the miracle of having a life grow inside them; they each are living in expectation of giving birth to a child. Now together they are going to try to understand the mystery and the miracle of God’s plan. Further signs and wonders confound and encourage them. For when Mary enters and explains what she has learned from Gabriel, the baby John jumps in Elizabeth’s womb. Mothers-to-be know the excitement of feeling the baby move, feeling the baby kick, at least the first few times. They are vivid reminders that there is life inside. So that excitement is here between these two women, but it is more than that; the movement comes at a pivotal point and reinforces what the angel has proclaimed. God’s hand is on these events.
Elizabeth praises Mary for being open to God’s plan, and here we have one of the more moving passages of Scripture. We have Mary’s song of praise. We only have glimpses into Mary’s state of mind, and here in a passage often called “the Magnificat,” Mary reveals to us her faith and her expectation of God’s greater plan. She is humbled to be included, but she cannot contain her joy either. She realizes that there are great blessings here and that God has chosen her to be near the center of them. She lifts her prayer of thanksgiving, offering praise to the Lord for His mighty acts. She knows that God brings down the proud, but has exalted the lowly. She feels that she is not worthy of such blessing, but understands that future generations will tell her story. God turns worldly standards upside down: the rich, the powerful, the influential will be turned away, but the poor, the abused, and the outcast will find healing and love. In Mary’s song, we see that she already understands a theme that will be central to her son’s preaching about the kingdom of God. God’s values are radically different from the values promoted among earthly kingdoms. In these events, Mary sees God fulfilling promises that were made to the Israelite people all the way back to Abraham. God has not abandoned Israel, and Mary praises God’s mercy and faithfulness.
It is a beautiful prayer, though we Gentile Christians may not be able to relate to it all that well. We do not understand the concept of fulfilling promises made to the Israelites; we have not lived it. In many ways we are outsiders here. We need to remember that Elizabeth and Mary are Jewish, and they are celebrating a connection that we do not fully understand. When we look back into the Old Testament, we can gather some insight. We see that the Israelites in exile, after the destructive invasions of the Assyrians (in 722 BC) and the Babylonians (in 587 BC), have been brought low. Many have abandoned their faith in the face of these national crises, but others, the remnant, hold onto their faith even in the midst of occupation or exile. The Israelites cry out to God for deliverance, and the prophets who had been preaching judgment on Israel’s wickedness now start to speak of a day of restoration and of a suffering servant, a messiah, who will deliver the people of Israel from their oppressors. Visions, such as the one in Micah 5, describe a day when a new ruler will arise within Israel, one who will lead in the strength and the majesty of the Lord, one who will bring peace. Over the generations an expectation for deliverance grows; people start looking for a messiah. This hunger, this yearning lives within Elizabeth and Mary’s conversation. Mary is celebrating God’s answer to a longing that has been building for decades, for centuries. We today in our context cannot fully understand what Mary was feeling at this moment.
But we too can find joy in her words because we know that Jesus’ coming into the world initiates a movement that will branch beyond the Jewish fold. The apostles, particularly Paul, will carry the message about the Kingdom of God out into the rest of the world, and the message of hope, peace, joy, and love will reach us too. We will, as the genealogy of Jesus in Luke (which traces back to Adam, not just Abraham), learn to see the larger context, that Jesus is not just the Jewish messiah, but that he is the messiah for all of the world, that he is not just fulfilling promises made to Abraham, but that he also answers a hunger that came into the world after Adam and Eve sinned. Human beings will have a hunger, whether they fully realize it or not, for restoration, and Jesus will be the answer. As Hebrews 10 argues, Jesus will be the final sacrifice to atone for the legacy of sin. Jesus will bring humanity back into communion with God.
These truths begin to unfold in Mary’s time of expectation. These truths continue to expand and fill the world in our day, in our own time of expectation. We live in a time when Christians have preached the Gospel in the world for almost two thousand years, and yet there are still so many places and people who are caught in the snares of sin. There remains much need for deliverance in this world. We so often have gone our own ways and lost sight of what God wants for us. We often fall prey to the temptation of thinking that the only thing that is real is what is immediately in front of us; we become materialistic; we play power games, seeking only to accumulate more wealth and power for ourselves. We no longer live in expectation of something greater than ourselves. We live in tiny worlds; we do not see our own slavery.
But God is calling us out of such an empty life. God out of love has sent a Son into the world to call us back. We receive the most important wakeup call of our lives. Repent, and enter into God’s Kingdom, for the Messiah has come into the world. We find the answer to the hunger that has always been in us, but we have not always recognized. We learn to live again in expectation of the great plans and purposes that God has not only for the world as a whole but for each of us as individuals. God chose Mary for a crucial role. We do call her name blessed today; we do celebrate with her God’s blessings. Because of the work of Christ, we have been included in the covenant; we now are God’s children. We understand that Christ has given us the task of sharing those blessings with the world around us while we wait his return. We know that we live today in expectation of his second coming and of a time of judgment. We who humble ourselves before God also live in anticipation of a time of communion with God that we cannot begin to understand now–no eye has seen, no ear has heard, what wonders the Lord has prepared. The Lord will make all things right, lifting up the oppressed. God loves us, and that love will transform us. We will find fulfillment; we will find blessings; we will be with God. What a beautiful moment to anticipate! May we offer our own songs of praise and thanksgiving this morning. May we live and love in expectation of the coming of our messiah into the world and to the blessings of God’s Kingdom that he will bring.
About the writer: Dr. Brett Patterson is a South Carolina native, having grown up in the Lowcountry and pursued a B. A. in English at Furman University. After receiving an M. Div. from Duke University, an ordination from the Baptist Church of Beaufort, and a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia, he taught biblical studies, theology, ethics, and church history at Meredith College and Anderson University. In 2009, through encouragement from the CBF of SC, he entered into full-time church ministry. He and his wife Stephanie currently serve as pastors for First Baptist Church of Lake View, SC. He is particularly interested in ecumenical efforts and in theology and the arts.
Fourth Sunday of Advent – Year C
Scripture and Music
O Come, All Ye Faithful
Silent Night, Holy Night
It Came Upon the Midnight Clear
Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
The First Nowell the Angel Did Say
For Unto Us A Child Is Born (Handel)
Candlelight Carol (John Rutter)
Some Children See Him (Alfred Burt)
Angel s Carol (John Rutter)
Away in a Manger (Mack Wilberg)
Angels We Have Heard on High (Mack Wilberg)
Love Came Down at Christmas
The Birthday of a King (Neidlinger)
Gesu Bambino (Pietro Yon)
Silent Night, Holy Night