October 4, 2020: Aged Sages of Biblical Renown – Elizabeth – Humility in Elizabeth and the Lifting of Mary
World Communion Sunday
Aged Sages of Biblical Renown – Elizabeth – Humility in Elizabeth and the Lifting of Mary
Scripture: Luke 1:39-45
- Prelude – “Let Us Break Bread Together” with “We Remember You,” arr. Carol Tornquist; Pauline Olsen, organist
- Welcome – Pastor Brad Beeman
- Hymn 545 – “The Church’s One Foundation,” by Samuel J. Stone; Hymn Leaders: Stacey Fradkin, Barbara Hughes, Randy Grubbs, Ken Lillagore; Donna Grubbs, pianist
- Special Music – “The Primerose,” by Martin Peerson; Terry Reitz, Virginal keyboard instrument
- Scripture – Luke 1:39-45; Deacon Kathleen Charters
- Sermon – “Aged Sages of Biblical Renown – Mary and Elizabeth – All About Opposites,” Pastor Brad Beeman
- Hymn 2224 – “Make Us One,” by Carol Cymbala; Hymn Leaders: Stacey Fradkin, Barbara Hughes, Randy Grubbs, Ken Lillagore; Donna Grubbs, pianist
- Postlude – “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace,” by Sebastian Temple and Douglas E. Wagner; Pauline Olsen, organist
I love Christmas. I even love Advent. Both are times filled with pageantry and promise, of spectacle and wonderment. It’s also a time that is often so focused on what it took for Mary and Joseph, shepherds and angels, and the Wise Men to get to Bethlehem, that sometimes we may miss other important elements. This series of Aged Sages opens up some opportunities to engage at least one of those often-overlooked pieces. No, it’s not Christmas, but like the story of Joseph of Arimathea and his role with the family of Jesus; and Abraham and Sarah and how her laughter and denial allowed her to make up for a mistake, here is another opportunity to go deeper into a sage who helps us come closer to understanding the changes God was seeking to make in the world.
Our sage for this week is Luke, and it’s Luke who begins his Gospel with a focus on two women. They are meeting for the first time. They may have known of each other, although I would seriously doubt it. And, to some extent, for Luke, this needs to be their first meeting. The reason will become more obvious as I walk through it. The two women are Mary and Elizabeth.
Like so many of the other stories I’ve shared with you, this one has so much more than meets the eye. So, let’s take a look and see why this story made the cut for this series and becomes a defining story of God; God’s grace, God’s beginning redefinition, God’s acceptance, God’s wonder, and ultimately who God chooses to change the world.
There is all of that and more, and it’s the genius of Luke who utilizes these two women as opening examples. But before getting to the meeting, the leaping baby, and the song of Mary, we have to go back a bit and look at what lay beneath the story.
I’m not sure we’ll ever find two more opposite women in scripture, and therein lays the point of the story. But before getting to the meeting, let’s look at the two. First, we need to look at where these women live. Mary is from Nazareth while the other, Elizabeth is from the hill country above Jerusalem. Nazareth sits in Galilee in the north. Jerusalem and its suburbs sit in Judea to the south. Galilee is the country, and the kind of agricultural center of the region. Mostly it has small towns that are dependent on each other for survival. Think about the Palouse of Washington and all the small towns there. Judea is the urban and religious center. Think Seattle, New York City, or Rome.
Elizabeth is the wife of a recognized Temple authority with great notoriety. Mary is from a family with absolutely no notoriety. If there was a category below no notoriety, she would occupy that. Elizabeth couldn’t be a more pure Jew. She is the wife of a High Priest. Mary is what many would consider a kind of sub-Jew; a kind of artificial Jew. Galileans didn’t practice all of the Laws of Moses. They were a kind of hybrid Jew. They incorporated other religious elements from a few other cultures. According to the Jews in Jerusalem, it was questioned whether Galilean Jews were Jews at all. Oh, but wait, there’s more.
Elizabeth is old, beyond child-bearing age; where Mary is young, barely has entered the child-rearing age. And how about their husbands? One is married to an elevated official who has decision-making capabilities, possesses political and religious allies, holds and wields power, is very wealthy, and acts with authority. He is recognized and respected, and chosen to do what only one priest a year can do. The other, Mary isn’t yet married, but potentially will be married to a carpenter who has no authority, no power, and works in a town no one has ever heard of.
That’s right, Nazareth is a nothing town that sits behind a hill. Elizabeth lives in an elite mansion or villa on a hill overlooking Jerusalem. Mary, as I said, lives behind a hill in a tiny town that doesn’t even have a road. She lives in a very simple, small, probably one-room home. Elizabeth has multiple servants at her beck and call.
Mary no doubt serves her own household as a young daughter. She takes on the menial chores assigned to her. Elizabeth has what is supposed to be an intimate relationship with and access to God simply because she’s the wife of a Temple priest and has immediate access to the Temple. Mary probably doesn’t even go to a synagogue, and has little if any relationship with God. Many, particularly in Jerusalem, believed that God’s spirit may permeate the Temple but doesn’t reach as far as Northern Galilee. The one thing; the only thing they have in common is that they are good women, both of whom believe in God as a power greater than themselves albeit with very different understandings of that.
Now, I’m pretty sure that most of us potentially haven’t recognized or noticed those differences when we hear this story, but in order to more fully understand, not only this story, but the whole story of Christmas, we have to know who and what the key participants are, particularly at the beginning of the journey toward what’s coming. It’s in that knowledge that the whole event of Christmas begins to make deeper sense. These are details any early church participant would readily understand. There would be the assumption by the writers that those hearing the story would readily understand the overwhelming differences between these two women. But Luke doesn’t stop there. We find something similar in the two sons born to these women.
Like the story of these two women, the sons that will be born of these two only meet once. But they carry on the storyline of what we see in Mary and Elizabeth. Here’s what I mean. One is baptized by the other, the older baptizes the younger; only to have the one baptized become the baptizer – but in a much different way. John baptizes Jesus, and Jesus in turn becomes the saving, cleansing, loving, recognized Son of God.
The Galilean takes over for the Judean and becomes the chosen one. The differences don’t stop there.
John is an angry, judgmental, outspoken, word-oriented prophet; while Jesus becomes a healer, teacher, and rabbi. They both confront the authorities but from very different perspectives, and in very different ways. John never attends a synagogue and certainly never goes to the Temple. He believes the Temple to be deeply and inherently evil; filled with darkness. Jesus, however, is constantly in the synagogues and seeks to work, as much as possible within the Laws of Judaism, including spending time in the Temple seeking to redefine the Law. Both are killed, one on a whim, because of a sexually taunting young girl with inordinate power. The other because of a detailed plan by religious authorities.
Something new is birthed as these two women meet. It creates energy, recognition, joy, and affirms their faithfulness – in spite of the fact that they are as opposite as it gets. That time of birth becomes even greater as the two sons emerge onto the scene. This is designed by Luke to be a story of hope, acceptance, peace, and overwhelming joy. It is a story that seeks to unite even the most diverse populations, and goes even farther when it includes shepherds and kings. But back to the women; we have two women; one rich and powerful, the other with no power coming together to bring something new to faith and a fresh understanding of just how God works.
Within their wombs are two who will change the world. The one, John, the older, will be the precursor to that change. The other, Jesus, will bring it fully to fruition. And what is it that will change? It is to bring down the mountains of separation (think Mary and Elizabeth; heal the chasm between rich and poor), lift up the valleys (what the Temple authorities are causing as a darkness for the common people), crooked roads to be made straight (confusions about God will be replaced by a much clearer understanding of God’s love for all people), and the rough places to be made smooth including relationships, communications, expectations, differences, so many things that could — could — could change the world if we were willing to overcome perceived obstacles and come together for a greater purpose. God’s hope is that anyone and everyone; rich or poor, farmer or business person, unmarried yet pregnant, older and married and childless, from the county or city, recognized and known or unknown, religious authority or religious rookie; this whole story is to help us form a different way to see, find, access, and love a God who loves each of us…no matter what. Did you hear me…anyone and everyone? And if God can use these two opposite women, God can use those who are on opposite sides of anything for a greater good.
And just to add even more meaning, this coming Sunday is World Communion Sunday; a Sunday set aside to remember that we’re all one Body in Christ, and it’s this communion table that unites us. It doesn’t divide us, it unites us. Christmas is also to be a celebration of that uniting spirit, the same uniting spirit we see in the story of Mary and Elizabeth. It should bring us joy; a joy that comes when we realize that even when we’re not the same we are each loved; that we can disagree yet love one another, that we come from different places with different histories yet love simply because we are loved by the God who created it all. So, friends, let’s love one another, now more than ever. Amen!