The Fourth Sunday in Advent, 23 December 2018
A Sermon on Luke 1:39-55 by Samuel Zumwalt, STS
Luke 1:39-55 English Standard Version, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers]
39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
The Great Physician: Will Save!
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God, our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Even those who don’t know the biblical story of the Ark of the Covenant, the elaborate gold-covered wooden box in which the two tablets of the Ten Commandments were placed (Exodus 25), may know of its existence because of the old movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Or, you may have read recently about the story that the Ark was carried to Ethiopia where it now is guarded by a group of Ethiopian Orthodox monks.
Here in today’s gospel reading, St. Luke pictures the Virgin Mary as the new Ark of the Covenant who carries within her body the Incarnate Word of God, Jesus. The description of her coming to the hill country of Judea (1:39) closely matches that of the Ark in 2 Samuel 6. When Roman Catholics speak of Mary as the new Ark, they have a biblical basis for doing so.
The Ark of the Covenant was holy in that it was set apart to bear the Word of God on stone tablets. The same could be said of the Virgin Mary in that she was set apart from among all women to bear the New Covenant, Jesus, the Living Word of God. Neither the ark nor the Blessed Virgin Mary have any power or holiness apart from the Word of God. It is the Word of God in stone and Incarnate that makes both the old Ark and the new Ark what and who they are.
This beautiful encounter between Elizabeth bearing John the Baptist and Mary bearing Jesus is celebrated at the end of May as the Feast of the Visitation. Throughout Luke 1, we see, for the first time, why St. Luke is regarded as the creator of the liturgical year. He lifts up the infancy narratives of John the Baptist and finally of Jesus as rising action in the story of salvation. When God’s Word acts with power to accomplish God’s purpose in Zechariah, Elizabeth, and the Virgin Mary, there is a joyous response of praise and thanksgiving for God’s grace and mercy.
The songs of Zechariah and of the Virgin Mary continue to be sung throughout the years in Morning and Evening Prayer liturgies. Elizabeth’s greeting to the Virgin Mary is included in the Hail Mary in Roman Catholic popular piety. But, most notably, Elizabeth addresses Mary as “the mother of my Lord,” which every Jew knew meant, “The mother of God.” And that is indeed who the Virgin Mary is called not only in the original Greek and Latin of the Nicene Creed but by Blessed Martin Luther and all those who confess Jesus as truly God and truly Man.
The Word of God has power to accomplish exactly what God intends. We hear that in the days of creation in Genesis 1. God says, “Let there be,” and creation comes into being. The prophet Isaiah tells us in Isaiah 55 that the Word of God is like the rain and snow that fall: a new creation comes into being by the command of the Lord God. When the Virgin Mary asks the angel how it can be so that she would become pregnant without the agency of any man, the angel tells her the Holy Spirit will overshadow her. With God, nothing is impossible.
And so, the advent, the coming of the Savior of the world to the Virgin Mary’s womb and now to the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were beyond the years of fathering and bearing a child, brings great joy. God has not only done great things for them in the gift of the forerunner of the Lord, the preparer of the Way. At the sound of the voice of the God-bearer (theotokos in Greek), the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist leaps with joy in Elizabeth’s womb. The Messiah has come. The Savior of the world has come. The Great Physician, Jesus, will save! God fulfills His promises always – the promise to Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:15, the promise to Abram and Sarai in Genesis 12:1-3, the promise to King David in 2 Samuel 7:1-14, and the promise to the Virgin Mary in Luke 1:31 and to Joseph in Matthew 1:21.
I doubt that you will disagree that the world we live in still needs saving. And the father of lies, the old enemy, keeps offering alternative stories of salvation. Those who refuse to learn the lessons of world history still think salvation will come from centralized power and socialistic policies of from decentralized power and capitalistic policies. Those who refuse to learn the lessons of world history still think salvation will come by political victories, right or left. Those who refuse to learn the lessons of world history still think salvation will come by personal wealth, eternal youth, or worldly fame. I readily confess that I am, as a Christian, quite cynical about all the alternative stories of salvation. First, the world goes to hell on earth, and, then, a lot of useful idiots may actually go to hell by their own choosing. If you don’t want Jesus to save the world and you, then He won’t save those who stop their ears to the Word of God and its saving power! The Word of God has power to accomplish God’s purposes but refusing to listen is to pray, “my will be done.” Sadly, there is far too much of that going on.
If you despair of your own goodness or power, if you despair of the devil’s empty promises, that is a most blessed thing, dear ones. For the Word of God, scatters the proud, brings down the mighty, and sends away those who are full of something else, those who have gorged themselves at the world’s feeding trough.
Like the Virgin Mary, you and I can be lifted up from our lowliness. We can be exalted by the Word of God who calls us beloved children at our Baptism into the Lord Jesus’ saving death and glorious resurrection. And when we bring these sin-sick, world-sick, empty hands to the altar, lifting them up as a throne for the Savior of the world, He fills us with good things – His true Body and His most precious Blood – for the forgiveness of our sins, eternal life, and salvation.
Yes, dear ones, God always keeps His promises. And tomorrow night, when we hear the angel’s good tidings to the shepherds, we will be filled with great joy and heavenly peace. For Christ our Savior, the Great Physician, has promised to save us from our sins. He does, and He will! O, come, O come, Emmanuel!
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
©The Rev. Dr. Samuel David Zumwalt, STS
St. Matthew’s Ev. Lutheran Church
Wilmington, North Carolina USA
The Great Physician: Will Save
Stir up, we beseech you, O Lord, your power and come; and with great might succor us, so that our deliverance, impeded by our sins, may be hastened by your gracious mercy; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen” (The Daily Prayer of the Church, 92).
Luke 1:39 “In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah”
Origen [Late 2nd – early 3rd century Bible scholar and theologian from Alexandria, Egypt]: “Better men go to weaker men to give them some advantage by their visits. Thus the Savior came to John to sanctify John’s baptism…Jesus was in her womb, and he hastened to sanctify John, who was still in his own mother’s womb. Before Mary came and greeted Elizabeth, the infant did not rejoice in her womb. But as soon as Mary spoke the word that the Son of God, in his mother’s womb, had supplied, ‘the infant [John] leaped in joy.’ At that moment Jesus made his forerunner a prophet for the first time” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Luke, 20-21).
Luke 1:41 “And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit…”
Origen of Alexandria: “Elizabeth who was filled with the Holy Spirit at that moment, received the Spirit on account of her son. The mother did not inherit the Holy Spirit first. First, John, still enclosed in her womb, received the Holy Spirit. Then she too, after her son was sanctified, was filled with the Holy Spirit. You will be able to believe this if you also learn something similar about the Savior…Mary also was filled with the Holy Spirit when she began to carry the Savior in her womb. As soon as she received the Holy Spirit, who was the creator of the Lord’s body, and the Son of God began to exist in her womb, she too was filled with the Holy Spirit” (22).
Luke 1:42 “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!”
St. Ambrose [3rd century Bishop of Milan]: “You see that Mary did not doubt but believed and therefore obtained the fruit of faith…But you also are blessed who have heard and believed. For a soul that has believed has both conceived and bears the Word of God and declares his works. Let the soul of Mary be in each of you, so that it magnifies the Lord. Let the spirit of Mary be in each of you, so that it rejoices in God. She is the one mother of Christ according to the flesh, yet Christ is the Fruit of all according to faith. Every soul receives the Word of God, provided that, undefiled and unstained by vices, it guards its purity with inviolate modesty” (22).
Luke 1:47 “And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”
Origen of Alexandria: “Before the birth of the Lord and Savior, Mary prophesies. Sin began from the woman and then spread to the man. In the same way, salvation had its first beginnings from women” (24).
1. Do I wish, like Mary, to bear the Savior of the world wherever I go that others may know Him?
The Lord’s Prayer (from Luther’s Small Catechism)
As the head of the family should teach it in a simple way to his household.
Our Father who art in heaven.
What does this mean?
With these words God tenderly invites us to believe that He is our true Father and that we are His true children, so that with all boldness and confidence we may ask Him as dear children ask their dear father.
1. Pray for every unbaptized child you know and for the child’s parents, too.
2. Pray for your unchurched loved ones and friends. Invite one or more of them to worship.
3. Discuss with your spouse, your family, or a friend how God is the perfect Father by whom all earthly fathers are measured and even, at best, found wanting. Any unhappy experiences with earthly fathers ought never to be projected onto God in a vain attempt to remain in control.
4. Join with our new Mission Team to serve neighbors whose property has been damaged by Hurricane Florence. Sign up in the Commons to provide a meal for an incoming mission team from another congregation or to join in recovery efforts.
5. Listen to the wider culture’s continuous wrestling with what to do about God and what to think about Him. As you hear complaints, even understandable complaints, about earthly fathers, ask the complainers to be open to the perfect Father who tenderly cares for His children especially in their hurts and losses. Invite the complainer to Christmas Eve worship at St. Matthew’s as perhaps the beginning of the healing of some of their deepest wounds and hurts.
For Husbands and Wives
Repeat daily: “I (name) take you (name) to be my wedded wife (husband), to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I pledge you my faith.”