Monday, December 22, 2008

Faith-filled Women (Luke 1.39-56)

December 21, 2008
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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When was the last time you had a meaningful conversation with someone? Maybe I’m off-track here, but my guess is that for most of us, those are few and far between.

There’s a lot of, “Hi, how ya doing?” and “Fine, just fine; how ‘bout you?”

There’s some, “Good to see you, hope you and your family are well” and “Yep, yep, same to you.”

There might even be that sticking the toe in the deep end and waiting for a warmer day line, “We need to get together sometime” and “Yeah, let’s do that.” Even if we dare to do it, though, sometimes that getting together is just more of the shallow same.

If this seems to be a strange topic to pick up from this text, let me explain why it’s on my mind. I realize this is the mother of our Lord and her cousin, both of whom are miraculously pregnant and have heard angels speak. I also realize this is holy Scripture, which doesn’t tend to record trivial banter at the water cooler. Nonetheless, I was struck and convicted by the depth and character of the conversation recorded in this text.

I want to look with you at the content of what Elizabeth had to say and then what Mary had to say, then challenge ourselves to step it up a notch… to risk a move towards spiritual depth in our conversations and relationships. Christmas is the perfect time to take this on, as it is natural to think and speak of Jesus and God’s involvement in our lives. Let’s look first at Elizabeth…

Elizabeth: “You are Blessed!”

When Mary first came to visit, Elizabeth exclaimed, “You are blessed!” We are given more of the details surrounding that exclamation. Elizabeth’s baby “leaped” inside her; Elizabeth was filled with God’s Holy Spirit; and she recognized the miraculous work God was doing in Mary’s life, preparing to bring Jesus into the world.

Elizabeth’s baby with Zacharias was a miracle. They were old and she had never been able to get pregnant. Mary’s baby was a miracle, conceived without a man by the will of God. An angel had spoken to both couples, describing great things that God was doing. Elizabeth’s baby was promised to be the last great prophet of the Messiah, and Mary’s baby was to be that Messiah. Both couples received those promises and believed.

It might be easy to think, these two women were so full of faith and in the middle of what God was doing that of course they said deep and holy things. Plus, this was to be recorded and passed on to future generations.

But, consider this: God is still at work in the lives of human beings. No, Jesus is not being born into the world again. But, as we talk about often, God is not hiding in Heaven, but is active here and now, seeking and saving the lost, broken-hearted, lonely, and afraid. And God’s promise, just as sure as to those women, is to use people like you and me, who will listen and obey His Word, to accomplish that mission.

We have just as much reason as Elizabeth to speak of what God is doing, particularly as we see it in another person’s life. That person might be a Christian friend who may or may not feel close to God. Sometimes we serve as “eyes and ears” for each other, when the other is struggling to hear God. Rather than, “How’s it going?” and “Fine, fine; how ‘bout you?” (never actually answering that question), this text challenges us to speak deeply into one another’s life. “Hey, what can I pray about in your life?” “How ARE you doing? … and looking for, asking for more than, “Fine, fine.”

And if that other person is a friend who doesn’t know Christ, you may well be the one God would use to speak of life and hope and truth. Several friends came to the play last weekend and saw something unfamiliar in the faith depicted there. They want to know more. You may have a friend who needs faith and hope. Will you be an Elizabeth to them and speak of what God is doing in their life?

And it’s not just about struggles. Elizabeth affirmed Mary’s own trusting faith. She encouraged her. When was the last time you encouraged someone’s faith? It doesn’t come naturally. Yet this week I tried to do this (working on the sermon usually prompts good behavior!). Someone did something for me that reminded me of Jesus, and a day or two after the fact, I decided to tell them and thank them for that. Will you look for opportunities to be an Elizabeth and encourage faithful decisions others make? The Lord knows we need that kind of encouragement!

Mary: “God is good!”

Let’s look at Mary. Her response to Elizabeth is famous. Many songs and hymns have been written about this, and we’ve heard one today. Whether Elizabeth’s greeting elicited this response or whether Mary was prone to outbursts of praising God, she chose in this case to worship and praise God in the presence of her cousin and friend. In essence, she exclaimed, “God is good!” She described God’s great deeds and kind regard for her; she described God’s promises and faithfulness; and she held up God’s goodness.”

Mary is talking to God, but she is doing so in the presence of another. In terms of application for us, if being like Elizabeth means speaking of what God is doing in another person’s life; being like Mary means speaking of what God is doing in our own life, though Mary goes on to speak far more broadly about what God is doing for the whole world.

This reminds me of the “TEA evangelism” we talked about on Wednesday nights several years ago. Evangelism isn’t about conversion or changing someone’s mind; it’s about telling the story of God… what God is doing. It is hearing the other person’s story, sharing my story, and pointing to God’s story. Mary and Elizabeth were not in need of conversion – they were both women of strong faith. But they were practicing real evangelism – declaring what God was up to in both their lives and in the world. It was an act of worship, and it’s the kind of conversation that should happen frequently with Christians.

In short, Elizabeth said, “Mary – God is surely doing something in your life right now… it’s plain to see!” And Mary responded, “Yes, He is… and it’s even bigger than me… let me tell you and praise God for it!”

Time and Depth

Many of us will be with family in the next few days. Many of us will see friends this week and next for New Year’s. All year long, we interact with friends and loved ones, both Christian and not. In every case, it is such an easy route to put off substantial conversation until a later time, or never dip beneath the surface or near the deep end at all.

Hear the challenge of God’s Word: you are part of God’s story, and that story is Good News in a time when we all need some good news. It doesn’t really take training or skill to go deeper; it takes time and intention. But taking time and choosing such conversation shows love and compassion. It is a reflection of faith and it is an act of obedience as well as love.

Be an Elizabeth – ask what God is doing or affirm what God is doing in another’s life.

Be a Mary – share what God is doing and look for the connections between your own story and God’s greater story.

Faith isn’t a private, internal thing to be hoarded or hidden away. Like love, it is meant to be talked about, shared, and used to build up the faith of others that God is alive and well and active right here and now.

Let’s start talking! Amen.

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