It’s been an exciting week here at UBBC! The children are busy with extra
practices for their Christmas play this Sunday. The bell choir and adult
choir are getting ready for Christmas Eve. The staff are plugging away at
all the loose ends of holiday plans and extra services, and there is some
extra hustle and bustle all around.
In the meantime I’m just now getting to the final editing of last Sunday’s
sermon. Where did the week go? So here it is, hopefully an encouraging
word as you read it.
In this last week before Christmas I hope that you find some time to hear
angels singing, greet unexpected guests, and open your hearts to God’s love
being born around you.
Peace and prayers,
Rerouted to Bethlehem: Can you give encouragement? Luke 1:39-56
German writer, artist, musician, philosopher, and scientist, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “Correction does much, but encouragement does more.”
How many of you believe that? [repeat]
Do you believe it because that has been your experience? You’ve blossomed, grown, and achieved far more because of encouragement than correction? Or you’ve seen others do the same when you’ve encouraged them?
I think I’m one of those people who does far better with encouragement, or at least correction with encouragement. When I work with my trainer at the Y she often corrects my posture or position when I’m doing an exercise or lifting weights. She does it gently without hammering me with criticism. But I find her most helpful when she offers words of encouragement that challenge me to finish the set of exercises, to try the heavier weight, or to go just a bit longer and harder. There is something about her confidence in me that helps me push myself in ways that I couldn’t do alone.
As a parent I’ve had to learn what works best with each of my children. And usually it’s encouragement. Too often my correction feels like criticism and I witness the effects of my words and actions rather quickly. Spirits begin to droop, my children pull away or get defensive. But when I’m encouraging I find myself being quoted and I see much better results.
Here in our town the students and faculty are facing finals week at Penn State. Papers and projects are due and those dreaded final exams are about to begin. It’s a week where criticism and correction might help but encouragement might do a whole lot more. Encouragement found in study groups, through classmates, friends and faculty. Perhaps just a few words may be helpful. Something as simple as, “You’ll get through, you’ll get through this.”
At one time or another all of us have benefitted from the encouragement of another person. There were people in our lives – family, friends, teachers, neighbors, and others – who came into our lives to offer the support and encouragement that was needed to get us through a difficult stage or situation.
Mary was no different. Having just learned she’s pregnant with none other than the Messiah, Mary is not sure to whom she can turn or where she might go to find the support she needs. So she makes the long journey to her cousin Elizabeth and Zechariah’s home. They live outside of Jerusalem about 80 miles from Mary’s home in Nazareth. By foot the journey took nine days. Mary probably didn’t travel alone but went with others who were traveling to Jerusalem. She may have told her parents that she was volunteering to help Elizabeth through the last month’s of her unexpected pregnancy, even though she hope that Elizabeth might help her with the same.
After nine days of difficult travel, Mary arrives at the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah. The couple are older. Zechariah is a priest in the temple and in many ways they are the New Testament’s version of Abraham and Sarah. They had longed to have children but the years passed and they had given up hope of ever being parents.
All of that changed one day when Zechariah was serving in the Temple. One of God’s messengers appeared to him telling him that God had heard his prayers and Elizabeth was going to have a child. Shocked and voicing his disbelief aloud, the messenger tells Zechariah that because he didn’t believe this good news he will be unable to speak throughout the pregnancy. Zechariah leaves the Temple speechless and Elizabeth soon learns she is pregnant.
Its about six months into the pregnancy when Mary arrives at Elizabeth’s door. She enters, announces herself, and upon hearing Mary’s greeting Luke tells us that Elizabeth’s child leaped in her womb. That means a lot of movement! Not a flutter, or a small kick, but something big and undeniable!
And then Luke says that Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.
Now that’s something important in this story. In the Old Testament prophets were filled with the Holy Spirit and on rare occasions kings. But in today’s story it is Elizabeth who joins their ranks to become one of God’s spokeswomen, speaking prophetic words to Mary. “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.”
Now take just a moment to picture this scene. It’s peculiar to say the least. There’s teenage Mary, dusty and dirty from nine days on the road. Picture a tired teenager after a week and half wilderness camp. And then there’s Elizabeth and older woman, obviously pregnant but shouldn’t be at her age. The sight of these two women leaves you scratching your head, saying something’s wrong with this picture! It just shouldn’t be.
But it is. Once again God has chosen to work through two unlikely, relatively unknown, ordinary characters – a teenager from Nazareth, and her elder kinswoman.
Elizabeth continues speaking to Mary, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” In essence Elizabeth is saying to Mary, “Listen child. You don’t have to be afraid. You’ve been blessed. Blessed! Don’t you see it? You’ve been chosen to be the mother of the Messiah. Such good things will come of this! You are so blessed! And the child you are carrying is blessed as well.”
Imagine what Mary felt upon hearing these words from her older relative Elizabeth. “She had spent the last nine days traveling with her secret, uncertain, afraid, and wondering if any of this could be true. But then before she could even tell Elizabeth what had happened, Elizabeth showed that she knew Mary’s secret, and Elizabeth was filled with joy on Mary’s behalf.”
It was just what Mary needed, “…someone who could help her gain perspective on what she was facing, someone who would listen to and believe in her, someone who would encourage her. She found all that and more in her kinswoman Elizabeth.”
In this most unusual scene we hear Elizabeth exclaiming how blessed Mary is and how blessed her child will be as well. Three times she uses the word. But how blessed can an unwed teenage mother be? Elizabeth sees what Mary and most of us cannot. That being blessed is not our usual thoughts of food and shelter, a job and security. Being blessed isn’t about material things, security, physical or mental well-being. Blessedness comes from being a part of God’s plan, from finding your place in the unfolding ways and works of God.
Adam Hamilton in his book, The Journey: Walking to Bethlehem writes,
This blessedness was not to be confused with ease or comfort or well-being that came from possessions. The the contrary, Mary would face the whispers of those who would know she conceived out of wedlock. Sthe still faced the task of telling Joseph….She would face the difficulties that came from being the mother of Jesus – fleeing Egypt when Herod sought to kill the child, watching as others sought to destroy him when he began his ministry, and finally standing by as he was crucified. This was what blessedness looked like for Mary.
‘The piercing truth, [Barclay, Commentary on Luke] is that God does not choose a person for ease and comfort and selfish joy but for a task that will take all the head and heart and hand can bring to it.’”
And with Elizabeth’s encouragement Mary finally sees how God is at work in her. Mary’s fears and uncertainty give way to joy! And she bursts into song praising God, and proclaiming good news to the poor and hungry. Mary will give birth to the Messiah, but she also gives hope to the downtrodden and lowly of the world through her powerful song!
I imagine she sings what’s known as the Magnificat with a voice that is strong and true. She sings with an integrity and confidence that is born out of her own experience. God is doing the unthinkable in her life just as God will do the unthinkable in the lives of the poor and hungry.
God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts….God has brought down the powerful…and lifted up the lowly. God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. These are the words of Mary’s song. Had Mary never heard the encouraging words of Elizabeth we would never have heard Mary’s powerful song.
Think now for just a moment. Who are the Elizabeth’s in your life? Who are the encouragers, the ones who bless you, and inspire confidence in you? Who are those persons who sometimes see in you what you cannot see yourself?
People can be wonderful sources of encouragement and so can congregations. I’m told that when this congregation was deciding to become a welcoming church that Central Baptist in Wayne, PA was a congregation that encouraged us in our journey. Recently we have done the same for the Stone Church of the Brethren in Huntingdon as they move through a discernment process.
I’m also aware that just as people and congregations be sources of encouragement so can art. I attended yesterday’s unveiling of a downtown mural dedicated to survivors of sexual abuse on Heister and Calder Way. In the center of this mural is the face of a lion with a blue ribbon wrapped around its neck. And on this ribbon is painted “Speak out, we will listen.” These are words of encouragement inviting survivors to speak out, to share their pain and fear, and others will listen.
In this Advent season perhaps you have been an encourager for someone else. Or maybe this is the season when you need some encouragement. We’ve seen what Elizabeth’s encouragement did for Mary.
With a little encouragement what powerful song might you sing? With a little encouragement what powerful action might your life reveal?
May God reveal the encouragers in our lives for these days, these times. Amen.
Sermon by Bonnie Kline Smeltzer
University Baptist and Brethren Church
3rd Sunday of Advent – December 11, 2011