s094p99 Somerton Park Advent 3 12/12/99

"My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord" (Luke 1.47)

I want to speak today about Elizabeth - even though she is not mentioned in any of the readings. I do this because it is she who inspires Mary to praise God in the words of the Magnificat, the wonderful hymn of praise, which is set for the psalm portion today, (if we were to have actually used it). Luke in particular highlights the role of women in the events of Jesus' life and ministry, though he merely highlights what is quite plain in the other gospel accounts. It is curious, as I think about it, that Elizabeth, who is so central to the first chapter of Luke, and who, as I said, inspired in Mary these beloved words, has no feast day of her own. I suppose that she figures, but somewhat in the background, in the feast of the Visitation. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Saints, she shares a day with Zachary on November the 5th, but this fact seems to have been overlooked at least in my copy of the "English Missal". For most ordinary people November the 5th has always been about Guy Fawkes, especially in my early years, before fireworks were banned.

We all love the words of the Magnificat, as it has echoed down throughout the centuries and spoken of God's concern for the poor and down-trodden. But of course the words of Mary are themselves an echo of a much earlier hymn, that of Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, who rejoices at the birth as she brings her first born to the Temple to be lent to the Lord. "My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. ... He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honour. (1 Samuel 2:1,8). In fact I understand some manuscripts of Luke's gospel attribute the words of the Magnificat to Elizabeth herself rather than Mary - for Hannah and Elizabeth had rather more parallel life experiences than Hannah and Mary did.

Yet despite the very familiarity of the words, perhaps we may fail to see the significance of what brought the words into being. We sing the words lustily and wonder whether the GST (A goods and services tax to be introduced in Australia in July 2000) will bring a lessening of the gap between the rich and the poor as the words indicate. Perhaps we fail to see in them something for us to do.

You may recall that the pregnant Mary travels to the hill country of Judah to visit Elizabeth, who was living in self imposed seclusion after she had conceived. When the pregnant Elizabeth hears Mary speak, the baby leaps in her womb. In the olden days this would have been termed the quickening, for (I am lead to believe) it can become somewhat of a trial after a while - these active babies in the womb. Elizabeth sees in Mary, something rather more than a neighbourly visit by a youthful relative; she sees God in Mary - "the mother of my Lord", and she tells Mary so. "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." (Luke 1:42-45).

It reminds me of the children's tale: "What big eyes you've got grandma!" "All the better to see you with, Red Riding Hood!" :-)

I suppose Elizabeth, the elder of the women (though of course no more experienced in childbearing) - could rightly have questioned the wisdom of Mary travelling to the hill country to visit her. She could well have wondered whether Mary might have overdone the exercise. I mean she probably walked, or ridden a donkey. No busses or autobarns in those days.

Quite a while ago, when I began the preparation for this sermon, the "Advertiser" had an article entitled: "Modern fathers - more than just a walking wallet". One didn't even have to read any further. Men were going to be encouraged to express their emotions ... How full the world is of unbidden advise!

Or, as I say, Elizabeth could have welcomed Mary rejoicing that here was a relative coming, she had an occasion to break off her isolation from others, and they could share their dreams and plans for the future.

Actually of course, Elizabeth's pregnancy was rather more unexpected than Mary's. It would not be at all unusual for Mary, perhaps aged 16, to be bearing a child. However Elizabeth was, as was Zechariah her husband, we are told "both getting on in years" (Luke 1.8). So perhaps she was 50, and she had much to rejoice about and much to recount to her younger relative. How often are we encouraged to share our spiritual journey with others? How often are the younger supposed to defer to the stories of the elders?

As I go through life I hear people wanting to go back to the good old days when people respected their elders and obeyed the laws. I am reminded of the delightful monologue "Everybody's free (to wear Sunscreen)" written by Tim Cox and Nigel Swanston (performed by Quindon Tarver on the CD "Something for everybody" Bezmark Inc): "accept certain inalienable truths: prices will rise, politicians will philander, you too will get old and when you do you'll fantasise that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble and children respected their elders ..."

But no, Elizabeth the elder sees much more in her young relative Mary, and so she sets her personal experiences aside. She sees God at work, and she says as much to Mary. If there is any miracle in this story - it is this.

As I read the gospel stories, I see lots of things about blindness and sight, and little about sin and forgiveness. And I wonder why so much of the Church's ministry is still expressed in terms of sin and forgiveness. One of the things that so distresses me about the Church is our propensity to express our Christianity getting everyone else to live up to our expectations.

Elizabeth saw God at work in Mary and told her so. THIS is what WE are bidden to do - to look for God in those we meet.

How often do we see God at work? God at work in ourselves? And if we do, do we make a note of it and tell ourselves? How often do we see God at work in others? And if we do, do we make a note of it and tell those others?

For wonderful things happen when we see God at work and we tell the person so. Our own faith is lifted, and the response that our expressed perception might similarly echo down through the ages, as the words of Mary have to countless generations.

However the Church's mission (so the world believes) can be summed up by us trying to do two things. Firstly (it is supposed) we want people to change and come to church - to magnify the Lord with us, and secondly (it is supposed) we want to make sure that everyone expresses their intimate affections only with an appropriate partner after appropriate authorisation by the Church. Certainly if this isn't what we see our role is, it is what the world perceives us as trying to do.

Now while these things may indeed be nice, no amount of cajoling, threatening or bribery will in fact be of any use. However if we were to see God at work in other people, and tell them so, I have little doubt attitudes would change - and praise would be as spontaneous as it would be welcome.

When we see God at work in ourselves or in others we, by our seeing and saying, ordain that person (be it our self or another person) to bless. This is in fact what ordination is. The Church says, after careful testing and examination, (not quenching "the Spirit" .. but ...testing everything - 1 Thess 5.19,21) and with enquiry made, God is at work in this person - they are "called". In fact the ordination as such is perhaps independent of the laying on of hands, though I am hardly advocating the abolition of the rite. It is however a recognition of a present reality rather than a conferring of power or grace from one person to another to make up for what was not a reality beforehand in that other person. However that recognition of the present reality, certainly does confer power and authority.

The gift of the Spirit is the gift to see in others the work of God. The gift of the Spirit is given to the elderly, not to get the young ones to "toe the line" or to listen and appreciate the wisdom of the years, but for the elders to see in young people the possibility of the greater fulfilment of the plan of God. This is the vital message that the words of Elizabeth bring to us.

We neglect Elizabeth and her message at our peril, for the harsh reality of life is that skepticism on our part, or on the part of the Church, will only give us depressingly more of the same! If we neglect Elizabeth's message, if we see the continuance of the Church of God, only in how it replicates that which has gone before, then we will fail to see God at work! God is continuing to work, no doubt. It will be ourselves who loose sight of that which we proclaim to be so precious.


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