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Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 20, 2015

Several days ago, the radio station I listen to ran a two-day radiothon for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. They raise more than $400,000 in that time, mostly from people who pledged $20 a month to become “partners in hope”. The telethon said that once only 20% of childhood cancers were curable and now the statistic was 80%. They told stories of children who had survived the dread disease and the blessings that being able to go to St. Jude’s free of charge had meant to them and their families. They also told stories of courageous children who had died, reminding the audience that though results were great, there was still work to be done. Donors were called “partners in hope” because the message was one of hope: the research at St. Jude’s had done so much already and it was going to keep on working until 100% of childhood cancers were cured.

The radiothon brought us a message of hope – the knowledge that something had been done along with the certainty that something new was being done each moment to fight this overwhelming disease. Today’s gospel is a gospel of hope. God has done something and God is going to do something new to keep God’s promise to God’s people Israel.

The bearers of the news are not DJs, but two insignificant women, both pregnant unexpectedly and only just finding out that they are the linchpins of the salvation God intends to bring about. Elizabeth was post-menopausal and had borne the stigma of having no children. An angel came to her husband, Zechariah the priest, and said that she would get pregnant and the child would be the messenger of the Lord who was coming. An angel appeared to Mary too, asking her if she would take on the responsibility of bearing the Christ Child into the world, the one from whom salvation was going to come. Mary thought about it for a while and then agreed to do God’s will. Luke tells us that she went immediately to see Elizabeth. The angel had told her Elizabeth’s story and she, who was now marginalized as Elizabeth had been for being pregnant out of wedlock, wanted to share her joy with her relative.

The meeting between the two women was one of great hopefulness. When Mary greeted Elizabeth, even John leapt in her womb, a sign from the unborn of hope for the future. As Mary had been filled with the Holy Spirit to bring the world its greatest hope, so Elizabeth was now filled with the Holy Spirit to confirm what the angel had said. She knew nothing about the events that had transpired for Mary until Mary came, but she blessed Mary and blessed Jesus. Mary’s actions were a sign of hope for the future. Mary had said yes to God and in doing so had become Jesus’ first disciple, willing to turn her future over to the one who loved her and wanted the best for her and for God’s world. She believed in what God said to her and that there would be a fulfillment of what had been told her. Mary was a sign that God was great, but also that God was good (Robert Redman). And of course, the baby in her womb who would be Jesus was a sign of hope for the Israelites and for the world, the one who would bring salvation, though neither woman knew how.

The women share their hope for the world, for a Savior, and Mary breaks out in song to praise God for this gift of hope. She focuses on three things – what God has done for her, what God will do for the marginalized and what God will do for all the people. All are messages of hope, the theme of our story.

Mary magnifies, that is praises the Lord. She is a joyful, hopeful young woman, brought up with the stories of the prophets and their promises that if Israel clung closely to God, God would send them a Savior. Mary’s people had hoped for this for centuries. Mary’s spirit rejoices in God because God has done great things for her. God has picked her out of all the people to bear the savior. Mary did nothing to earn this honor. God hoped too. God hoped that Mary would say yes to God’s outrageous proposal. God hoped that she would say yes even though it would leave her open to ridicule, gossip and perhaps worse when her condition was discovered. God hoped Mary would say yes when an angel appeared with a message that with God nothing was impossible. It was Mary’s choice to say yes or no and she agreed to the proposition. She believed what was told to her; she believed that Jesus would be born and save the world from its sins. She was humble because she knew that like Elizabeth, succeeding generations would call her blessed because God had acted so powerfully in her life. Mary believed that somehow her son would be made known by God and be his people’s hope for salvation.

Mary is so confident in what she hopes for from this action of God that the rest of her song is in present tense, even though the promise of God has not fully come true. Mary sings of what God will do for the lowly, the outcast, the poor, the people who did not have enough. God was going to cause a great reversal of fortune and bring the hopes of these peasants to fruition because God was a merciful God. God was going to scatter the proud, who thought they were better than others and had achieved greatness on their own, without the blessing of God on their endeavors. God’s strength had also reversed the political order by casting out the mighty from their thrones and elevating the lowly. God had done what no one else could do: equalizing the power of all the people who depended on God for their blessings and built a social structure that did not feature violence or oppression or degradation as the Roman Empire did. And God had also filled the hungry – physically, emotionally and spiritually. He had filled them with good food, good relationships and great hope, and had sent the rich away empty. It is important to note that God does not mean to prevent anyone from receiving salvation. God just intends to put the rich and powerful in right relationship with the poor, sharing with them and respecting their dignity instead of holding them of no account. As soon as they learned this, they were eligible for salvation too. (Stephen A. Cooper)

Finally Mary praises God for helping the lowly again, this time her people Israel, who had been waiting and hoping so long for God’s promise to be fulfilled. God is powerful and merciful and is doing a new thing in line with an old tradition. Elizabeth represents the old way – the promise hoped and prayed for and now Mary represents the new thing – a young mother giving birth to the Messiah – the promise fulfilled, made so long ago to Abraham.

Hope is our theme for Advent too. We hope for the promised Messiah to come in a manger, in our hearts and in glory at the last day. We hope for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, for the poor and needy to be filled, for those with resources to share, for violence to end, for a world that is truly representative of God’s kingdom. We are gifted with the Holy Spirit, as Mary was, to help God bring the kingdom about. We are gifted with the Holy Spirit, as Elizabeth was, to point out what is happening that is good in the world and supporting it with our actions and our prayers. And we are gifted with the Holy Spirit to praise God for all God has done in sending Jesus to be our Savior, to fulfill the promises God made.

Hope is a state of mind. The more we hope, the more hopeful about salvation we become. Not only salvation at the last day, but salvation here and now. As we work to end the social evils of the world, we are not depressed but hopeful that God will bring peace and freedom. As we live our lives and deal with difficult people, we live in hope that our relationships will be full of love. And as we bring hope to the world, we bring hope for salvation to others, generating more hope and bringing the kingdom ever nearer.

AMEN.

-        Rev Ann Barker

Works Cited:
Robert Redman, Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1, Pastoral Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 94
Stephen A. Cooper, Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 1, Exegetical Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009, p. 97