Preached at Christ Church, New Haven
We come to a dramatic moment in salvation history. In the twilight just before dawn, the day and night of the old covenant almost spent, the new sun of righteousness not yet risen, God is already up and working. Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, like a withered fig tree, God’s covenant with Israel had exhausted its fruitfulness. Prophecy had long since ceased. National ambitions were again smashed by foreign domination. Old Israel had all but lost hope. But the merciful goodness of the Lord Our God, who refuses defeat and delights to bring life from the dead, just as God was about to do something surprising and new, miraculously raised up from remnant Israel a link of continuity, a prophet to prepare again the way of the Lord. And that new Virgin Daughter of Zion, Mother-to-be of Israel reformed, expectant Mother of God, runs to old Mother Israel for nurture and comfort. Today’s is the moment, when they recognize each other, they acknowledge the work of God in each other: “Blessed are you, blessed your fruit!” “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord!”
Luke tells this story about Elizabeth and Mary, because, collective figures as they are, they are our foremothers. From them we learn about the vocation and the fruitfulness that comes from God.
The first point is that Kingdom fruit is always miraculous; it is beyond our power to make it happen. Zechariah and Elizabeth were too old to have children; Mary had never “known a man.” Before them, Gideon’s army had been too tiny, Moses was poor at public speaking, David’s sling shot was scarcely state of the defensive arts. God does things this way to advertise that God is doing something far beyond created competence and human ken. Even with two young parents, there is no way human biology, or human activity of any kind could suffice to produce IMMANUEL, GOD WITH US!!! No, God takes our self-offerings, all that we have and all that we are, and lifts them up on heaven’s altar. God sanctifies us with Divine presence, making us partners, co-workers, collaborators with God.
Second, we learn from Elizabeth and Mary that courage to follow our vocations comes from mutual recognition. Precisely because God’s ways are higher than our ways, we cannot fully grasp how our role fits into Divine plans. Mary said “yes” to the angel, but she did not always “get it.” The disciples left everything to follow Jesus, but they were stunned by His death on the cross. What seemed right, even idealistic, can appear stupid, even irresponsible or blasphemous in the cold light of day–like consenting to a pre-marital pregnancy; or leaving the family business to seek integrity in an uncertain future; or renouncing the advantages of middle class America to work in developing countries or with the homeless poor; or worshiping a human being who claims to be God. Moreover, because we have no distance from ourselves, because we know our secret faults, unworthy motives, unruly feelings, it can be hardest of all to recognize the work of God in ourselves. And so we need community, others to say, “Look there, I see the work of God in you!” as we reply, “But see here, the Spirit of God is moving in you!”
Third, the meeting of Elizabeth and Mary teaches us to resolve the tension between old and new with continuity through change. For on the one hand, our best clue to what God is doing in the present are God’s mighty acts in the past. Expectant Mother Church ran back to Mother Synagogue, to Abraham, to Moses, the Psalmist, and the prophets to be taught who Our Lord Jesus really is. And we in our day need not only to read the Bible, but to drop our reserve with each other, even across generational lines. The young and middle-aged need to hear senior citizens tell the mighty acts of God in their time. Likewise, Grandma and Grandpa can find joy in watching their children trace the Spirit’s wind in the present day. For one thing is sure: Our God does not change character; God’s miracles did not begin, nor will they end in our time!
Finally, we learn from Mother Elizabeth, that to be happy in our vocations, we need to believe. We know from the Bible as from our elders, that Our God is no magician, no follower of Pollyanna’s script. God permits earthquakes and winds, fires and floods to destroy homes. God permits people to fight fear with selfishness and hate. God has allowed us so to organize our city that hundreds live on our streets, wandering around town hustling quarters, with no place to lay their heads. God has allowed the AIDS virus and cancer to attack even the young among us, and given us bodies that wear out with arthritis, strokes, and heart disease. Our God who sent Jesus allowed Him to die on a cross. Beginning vocations are full of promise. But we can be happy in shadowed valleys, only if we refuse the lie that God is out to get us…only if we believe that God is faithful to be with us always, and strong to succeed where our powers fail!
The truth is we are too near-sighted to get more than a fuzzy picture of our fruitfulness in God’s Realm. But Jesus will tell us all about it on that Last Great Day. For when we stand, all robed in white before the great judgment seat of Christ, Our God will render the Divine verdict with Elizabeth’s greeting: “Blessed are you, blessed your fruit…Your fruit is Jesus!” And we’ll be Mary and say, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord.”