“Slow Down for Reflection”
Luke 1:39-45, 56
December 2, 2001
Take some time apart to recognize the wonder of the season.
I. A change of scenery (Luke 1:40)
II. A reminder of wonder (Luke 1:41-44)
III. A renewal of faith (Luke 1:45)
IV. An investment of time (Luke 1:56)
MessageThe merchant caravan is winding its way through the hill country south of Jerusalem, accompanied by the creak of saddle leather, and the occasional snorting of a camel. Walking wearily beside the lead cart, the young woman surveys the countryside. She marvels at the way the suns lingering light transforms the drab terrain. Just moments ago the barren hills were a dismal sun bleached brown and dusty gray. Now they have a rustic beauty, a delicate shading of sunlight and shadow.
With her destination almost in sight, Mary is assailed with doubts. What does she really hope to accomplish? What makes her think Elizabeth will understand? Once more she reminds herself of the angels words, taking comfort in them: Elizabeth, your relative, is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. If that is true, Mary reasons, then maybe, just maybe, she will believe me when I tell her I am going to be the mother of our messiah.
The shout of the lead camel driver interrupts her thoughts. She sees the village laid out below and realizes they have finally arrived, just as the last light is fading. Though exhausted she cannot help but feel a certain satisfaction. Shes made it, and tonight she will sleep in a bed again. Being fourteen, and a woman, this is her first journey alone. When she first mentioned it, her mothers response was No daughter of mine is going to join a caravan, and What would Joseph think? But Mary waited until her father came home and appealed to him. In the end they gave in. If they hadnt, she didnt know what she wouldve done. She desperately needed a kind of reassurance she couldnt find at home. Elizabeth was her only hope.
Seeking out the head merchant, Mary thanks him for his kindness in allowing her to travel with his caravan, then takes her leave. Shouldering her small bundle, she hurries through the nearly dark streets. A vaguely familiar path emerges from the deepening dusk. She ascends it toward the modest dwelling that is her destination.
Nearing the house, her steps slow until she is almost standing still. She tries to think of a reasonable explanation for her sudden appearance, but her mind seems to have forsaken her. At last, she musters her courage and manages a tentative knock. While waiting for someone to answer the door, she rings her hands nervously, half hoping no one is at home. But finally the door opens, and Zechariah stands before her, a candle in one hand. He squints into the darkness and studies her face. He doesnt recognize me, Mary thinks, The last time he saw me I was just a child. Im Mary, from Nazareth, she says, the tremble in her voice betraying her nervousness. Zechariah still doesnt say anything. Finally Mary press a letter toward him. Its from my father, she explains.
Zechariah studies the letter briefly before motioning for her to come in. Without a word he latches the door and Mary follows him as he moves toward a lighted room. As they enter, Mary catches sight of Elizabeth bending over the fire. In that instant her fears vanish. Elizabeth is obviously pregnant, just as the angel said. Though her hair is gray with age, being with child has in many ways restored her youth. Her eyes sparkle and her face is full of color. She has an aura of joyful peace that now floods Marys soul as well. Elizabeth, she cries, rushing forward to embrace her.
But before Mary can reach her, the Spirit of the Lord comes on Elizabeth and she begins to prophesy: blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leapt for joy.
Overcome by emotion, Mary falls to her knees and covers her face. Elizabeths prophetic words have confirmed Gabriels message, erasing her lingering doubts. Joyously she thinks, Elizabeth knows! She understands what is happening to me. I was right to come here. Now I know beyond all doubt that this is the Lords doing. With his help Ill give birth to the Savior.
Ive again used a fictionalized account to illustrate an event in the life of Mary. This comes from a book by Richard Exley called The Indescribable Gift. Its insightful words are matched with good illustrations, a few of which Ive scanned onto our web site.
Our text is Luke 1:39 to 45, and 56. Our goal, as I mentioned last week, is to find life principles for the Christmas season by looking at Mary, the mother of Jesus. This weeks event teaches us to take time out to recapture the wonder of the season. We can do that if we follow the principles implied by these verses. For the Christmas youve always longed for, youve got to take time out to recognize the wonder.
I. A change of scenery (Luke 1:40)
Lets begin by looking at the first two verses. Luke 1:39-40. At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth.
Why did Mary make the long journey to see Elizabeth? It was about 80 to 100 miles, four or five days on foot, depending on where this town was located. A long journey for a young girl. We could speculate that Mary went to Judea to get away from the realities of being unmarried and pregnant in Nazareth, or to strengthen herself for those realities. But she wasnt obviously pregnant yet: if Elizabeth was in her sixth month, Mary didnt have the time to wait long enough to show before she went. The text implies that Mary waited only a very short time before going to visit her relative. She got ready and hurried to the hill country.
The real reason Mary went is that the angel Gabriel had mentioned Elizabeths pregnancy and had more or less invited Mary to check it out. It was a sign that what the Lord had said to her would also come to pass because nothing is impossible with God. Mary went to Elizabeth to reassure herself about what was happening. She took this time, at the beginning of her pregnancy to go and seek reassurance from Elizabeths circumstances about what God was doing and reassurance from God about the promises she had received. In doing so, she models something immensely practical for us and yet not always natural to us - she sought a change of scenery, a place where she could think and worship and wonder and find reassurance.
How can we get a change of scenery in the Christmas season and the Christmas rush? Where do we find a place to slow down for reflection? It would be nice if we could all go to Colorado and sit in a beautifully decorated ski lodge with a crackling fire and two-story-tall picture windows looking out at the mountains shrouded in falling snow. Maybe those Clydesdales that we always see on TV would jingle by.
That would be a great change of scenery - but is it likely? No. So what else can we do? A change of scenery can be as simple as a walk in the neighborhood. If you have a little more time, a change of scenery could be sitting on the beach at Galveston. This is the time to go: I like the Gulf after it has been touched with a little gray chill. One year about this time the Casselberrys bought Gail and I a night at a bed and breakfast in Kemah. That was great, a very refreshing change of scenery.
But maybe a change of scenery needs to be simply the right use of whats already there. Five days a week for eight weeks former baseball pitcher, Dave Dravecky, drove ninety minutes each way for cancer treatment in Cleveland. At first the trip seemed unbearably long. Then he began to make the drives an opportunity to grow in faith. He consciously drank in the beauty of the fall foliage along the way. He used the time to think, pray and listen to his favorite Bible teachers. Sometimes he would listen to worship tapes and sing along. His voice isn't exactly the sound of music, Dave says, "but the hills did seem to come alive!" Those eight weeks driving to and from Cleveland Clinic saved Dave's life his spiritual life, that is. He desperately needed that time alone with the Lord, he says, maybe even more than the radiation.
II. A reminder of wonder (Luke 1:41-44)
A change of scenery. Thats important - and it may take a little creativity for you to find it. But its not worth anything without a reminder of wonder - thats what we need in this holiday season. Dave Dravecky found it in the Ohio countryside and in worship and prayer. Mary finds it in the Spirits use of Elizabeth. Verses 41 to 44: When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leapt in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42In a loud voice she exclaimed: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leapt for joy.
Elizabeths response is a reminder that there is more going on here than eyes can see, and someone bigger involved than just these two women. God is at work and He makes himself known through a babys kick and the Spirits testimony.
Only a mother can relate to the unborn babys leap in the womb. Fathers have felt a child wiggle and squirm, have felt a knee or elbow or head pressed against a mothers skin. But only you who have carried babies can know firsthand the sensation when your baby rolls and stretches. And the movement described here is even more memorable than that. The unborn baby responded to Marys greeting with a leap, a jump, an upward vault like the leaping of sheep or calves in a field.
Elizabeth is startled and delighted by this rambunctious movement of her unborn child. More than that, she knows through the Holy Spirit why he did it. She tells Mary as soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears the baby in my womb leapt for joy. Why did Elizabeths baby soar? He was filled with delight and wonder. What an amazing thing! Only about a pound and a half, only nine inches long, yet he could already move and stretch, open and close his eyes, suck on his thumb, and, at least under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he was already an emotional being. He was a real person - not tissue. In fact he was already a prophet, and this was his first prophecy. John the Baptists ministry began three months before his birth.
This baby leap must have been a source of wonder and reassurance to Mary. In it she would recognize that God was at work. She would remember the wonder that had taken hold of her life and of Elizabeths. And if that was not enough, the Holy Spirit also gave Elizabeth the prophetic words that would touch Marys soul. She cried out Blessed are you among women. The word blessed recognizes Gods hand at work in Marys life. Just as Gabriels greeting to Mary in the last section was not a recognition of her intrinsic righteousness but of Gods work in her life, so too Elizabeths greeting recognizes that it is God who has blessed her, not that she is intrinsically more worthy than anyone else.
Blessed too, Elizabeth adds, is the child you bear Dont miss the fact that Mary had not yet told Elizabeth she was pregnant - there were no telegrams, no e-mails, no long distance phone calls. Instead, by the power of the Spirit Elizabeth is able to know the past and see what is hidden: she knows what has happened to Mary.
She goes on: But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, and probably forty years Marys elder , recognizes it as a tremendous privilege to be visited by Mary. More significantly, she recognizes that Mary is the mother of my Lord. The Greek is as clear as the English, and there is only one way to understand this: Elizabeth has been shown that the child Mary bears will not only be the Messiah but will be God incarnate.
Remember that both in Hebrew and in Greek the term Lord can simply mean sir or master. But in Hebrew the term Lord was also substituted for Yahweh in respectful speech about God. Thus the Lord came to be another and perhaps the most significant name for God himself. In the Gospel of Luke Lord often has this meaning. Gabriel, for example, is an angel of the Lord. He said that John the Baptist would be great in the sight of the Lord. and bring the people of Israel back to the Lord their God. If you understand Lord as God in 1:15, 1:25, 1:28 and 1:32, that is how you must understand it in 1:43. Mary is to be the mother of my Lord - the mother, in a very real sense, of God. Shes tremendously blessed.
Elizabeths words, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit remind Mary of the wonder she already felt in her submission to the Lords will. The evidence of that wonder is Marys song in verses 46 to 55, which well study next week. The significance for us is that we can imitate Mary in her experience of taking time to renew wonder.
Now how do we do that? For me, and for many people, I think, the sense of wonder in this season comes from a blend of tradition and innovation in celebration. We can remember wonder when we do what we have always done at Christmas and we can experience wonder when we find a new way to look at or celebrate the season.
Our family has lots of traditions by which we try to wrap ourselves in the wonder of the season. We have decorations that bring back memories and manger scenes we put around the house and we have the tradition of going out on the roof to string lights. Actually we stopped stringing lights on the roof about three years ago, but we still go out because it is a tradition. We have the tradition of a birthday cake for Jesus. I have the tradition I talked about with the kids - the tradition of capturing the wonder of the season in the eyes of my children as they look up at the tree.
But you also need to have something fresh and new to spark wonder. What might that be? Three suggestions, and you can probably predict them. First, find some music that communicates wonder to your soul. Im forever looking for new Christmas music. Its not that I dont like Joy to the World, but when someone tells the old story in a new way, I like that even better. So far this year Ive been relying on music from past years - but if you want to share something really new with me, Id love it.
The second suggestion is like the first, and thats to find new words. Im always buying Chirstmas stories to capture in new words the old wonder. I bought one recently called Away With the Manger - a story about fight over a politically correct town square display. That doesnt sound like it would lead to wonder - but the way the story went, it actually did. Another source of new words is the Advent Calendar that goes with this preaching series. You can use that to bring just a little bit of wonder into every day of this hectic month.
The third suggestion is to find a Christmas program that awakens wonder. We have our Christmas Eve and Family Christmas celebrations you can attend. We dont have Kemper Crabb this year, but you can catch him elsewhere. You can see Two From Galillee at Gloria Dei. You can Walk through Bethlehem at Clear Lake Methodist or attend any number of special events. In our family we try to fit one new extra-curricular event into our season. All these can be part of remembering wonder.
III. A renewal of faith (Luke 1:45)
Having created this wonder, the next step is to respond to it in faith. In our text today it is not Mary who expresses her own faith - thats next week - but it is Elizabeth who the Holy Spirit allows to see and encourage Marys faith. Verse 45: Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!"
Again, we could translate the first word may God bless or even God has blessed. And why is Mary blessed? Because she has believed. Mary is a model of faith. Elizabeth is not necessarily a great model of wifely tact. Remember Zechariah is probably there, listening to the conversation. But he cant say a word. He was made mute by his encounter with Gabriel because he didnt believe that what the angel said to him would be accomplished. Luke 1:20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time. Mary believed. Zechariah didnt. And Elizabeth may be reminding him of that, even as she applauds Marys faith.
Ive often talked about key Biblical words that stand out in neon lights. Faith is one of these. Whenever I see the Greek word believe or the Hebrew equivalent, usually translated trust, my antennae go up, and I say to myself, here is another example of faith. As you accumulate examples like this throughout Scripture you more and more conclude that it is dependance on God that is blessed. It is faith that leads to salvation. This is what he desires from all of us: trusting dependance. Belief. Faith.
As R. Kent Hughes says: Ponder for a moment Marys faith. To grasp it, we must understand that faith is more than just intellectual belief. Faith is belief plus trust. This is what we see in Mary. First, she believed intellectually what Gabriel said - that the virgin birth was possible and would happen. Second, she trusted her whole life to Gods promise. Third, she rested in God, submitting completely to His will. Finally, out of that rest came action, as she obeyed the angels implied command and went to Elizabeth. Here is the pattern of faith for each of us: saving faith is belief plus trust which rests totally on Christ and becomes action, a life of service.
Hughes is right. Our wonder and awe at what God did at Christmas - and even more what the Incarnate One did on the cross - must be met with faith. If our experience of wonder does not build faith and if faith does not translate into life, then this whole Christmas thing Im pushing is useless. If you dont respond in renewed faith then the experiences I want you to have are just emotional excess and self gratification.
IV. An investment of time (Luke 1:56)
There is no doubt that feelings like wonder and joy are appropriate responses when you attempt to think about what Christmas really means. But they have to lead to the kind of faith Mary displays, faith that believes that what the Lord has promised will be accomplished. And finding and taking hold of such faith may take time. This last point is extremely practical. You need to take time for reflection, time to capture wonder. Thats what Mary did. Verse 56: Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.
If you do the math you will notice that Elizabeth was either about to give birth to John or had just given birth to John when Mary left. Luke doesnt tell us which, but I am inclined to think she stayed through the birth of the baby. I think the birth of the baby would be the final bit of wonder and assurance in Marys heart. She needed to wait that long to get the full assurance of her faith.
Three months. None of us here has three months to devote to capturing Christmas wonder. But we do have a little time. I know youll deny that. Im tempted to deny it too. This is the busiest season of the year. There is so much to do that to have somebody ask you to set apart more time is painful. But its also imperative. If you want to capture even a little of the wonder of the season, you have to invest this time.
What kind of time do I mean? Well, weve talked about attending church services and special events, and thats fine - that can be good. Weve also talked about family time, about this advent calendar and the continuance of tradition - those things are great. But probably the key kind of time you need is solitude, or conceivably for married folk, couple time. It is in solitude and in quiet that you as a believer are are most likely to come into contact with God.
In his sermon "Finding God in a Busy World," John Killinger concludes his message on prayer and solitude with this story: "I was in Brooklyn Heights some months ago to speak at a church. In the evening, I walked along the promenade that overlooks Manhattan with my hostess. She talked about her life when she had arrived there several years before. Her husband had left her, and she was having difficulties with her only child, a daughter. She had come to this place at night thinking she could not go on. She hadn't wanted to take her life, but she didn't know how she could go on in the pain and the agony she was feeling.
"She said she sat on one of the benches and looked across the bay at the city. She stared out at Liberty Island in the distance, and she watched the tugboats as they moved in and out of the bay. She sat, and she sat. The longer she sat, she said, the more her life seemed to be invested with a kind of quietness that came over her like a spirit. Down deep she began to feel peaceful again. She said she felt somehow that God was very near, as if she could almost reach out and touch Him. Better yet, she didn't need to reach out. God was touching her.
It became a turning point. 'Since then, whenever I feel under pressure at my job or from any personal problems, I come down here and sit on this very bench. I'm quiet; I feel it all over again.'
Notice the elements of that account: a change of scenery, an opportunity for solitude, a sense of wonder and a recaptured faith. Thats what we all need this Christmas. So do something practical to make it happen. How about sitting up after everyone else is in bed in a quiet room, maybe with the Christmas, tree and reading one of those Christmas books we talked about, or closing your eyes and listening to some Christmas music that might recapture the wonder for you. How about taking a walk on the green way and spending some time in prayer - or take that walk at night, and still your soul while you look at some Christmas decorations. Is it worth ten minutes a day to recapture wonder? Sure it is. Is it worth another hour a week in one consciously chosen change of scenery where you can really focus on the incarnation? Thats probably worth it too. But well never know until we try, will we. You and I both need to set aside time to recognize the wonder of the season. Time out for reflection.