Preaching Notes for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (December 20, 2015)
If you read my notes regularly, you know that one of the things I bring to this work is the distinctive voice of a woman. I am not the only woman writing about preaching, but my voice and my perspective is unique to me. As such, I hope to bring insight to this particular Scripture in a very personal and intimate way.
One reason I can speak about it in a very personal way is because I have been pregnant. I have carried a baby in my womb on two occasions. I have felt the first stirrings of a life growing inside me. So I know personally just what Elizabeth is talking about when the Scripture tells us that she, upon hearing Mary’s greeting, felt her unborn child leap in her womb. I know how amazing that feels, how it fills your heart with the most incredible sense of joy and wonder. I know how it sends tingles through your body from the top of your head to the tips of your toes. I know how you are absolutely overwhelmed by feelings of tenderness and protectiveness and amazement and gratitude for the life that is growing within your womb.
When I was pregnant with my first child, I bought the book, What to Expect When You Are Expecting. This bestselling book was originally published in 1984, so it had been around only a few years when I was carrying my son Gill in 1990. I read the book obsessively the nine months that I was pregnant. I made a countdown calendar on the inside of the back cover. My original, now very frayed copy of the book still sits on my bookshelf as a reminder of the joy and anticipation, as well as anxiety, that I felt being pregnant the first time. I remember when I first felt an odd flutter inside my belly. It was a feeling I’d never experienced before, so I went to the book and read about what it was like to feel the baby’s movement so I could identify if that was what was happening inside me. It was an amazing moment.
What expectant mother has not eagerly waited for and anticipated the first stirrings of the child growing inside her, or felt the goodness of God’s blessing in the fullness of her womb as Elizabeth did? Who is not reminded anew of the absolute wonder of God’s love and grace whenever a child is born into the world—any child, anywhere, from any woman? So the joy that Mary and Elizabeth feel is in some sense the joy of all who look forward with wonder and thankfulness to the birth of a child.
The joining together of the wonder of childbirth with the wonder of God’s saving work in this Scripture passage invites us to consider how the experience of “expecting” teaches us something about the ways of God’s gracious work in human experience, because joy is enhanced by waiting.
Isn’t that true? Psychologists call it “delayed gratification.” They try to help people understand that it is a good thing to have to wait a little bit for the things that really matter.
This might be hard to understand in this age of instant messaging and Instagram and high-speed Internet and instant credit approval and airplanes that can take us from one side of the country to the other in only a few hours. We are not a culture that likes to wait.
But joy is enhanced by waiting.
Just think about Christmas: Isn’t the best part of Christmas the night before—Christmas Eve—when we are finally ready, everything is completely prepared, and people can relax and just wait for it to happen? The family has gathered, the groceries are bought, the toys are assembled, and the presents are wrapped and carefully placed under the tree. And people go to church and sit down and rest for an hour, finally getting to enjoy some quiet and basking in the warmth and love of a moment that they have been looking forward to for weeks.
Afterward, families gather with friends or go home, and the children are so excited they can’t go to sleep because it is finally time. Santa Claus is coming, and the whole world is ripe with a feeling of holiness and goodness and joy and peace and love. Don’t we just wish we could stay in this moment a little longer?
Because joy is enhanced by waiting.
And love is shown to us in hope and promise as we experience the overwhelming presence of the joy of Christ in those most tender last days of waiting and anticipation of a birth, when the promise of the new life is getting closer and closer, and the nursery is ready, the diapers are neatly stacked, the baby showers are over, and all that is left to do is wait.
We wait with great hope and expectancy for what is to come.
Every birth is a sign of salvation, of finding favor with God, of being blessed, of living with promise, and of realizing its fulfillment. I said earlier that I, as a woman who has personally borne children, am perhaps better able to understand what Elizabeth was feeling when she says that, upon hearing Mary’s greeting, the child in her womb leaped for joy. But as I think about it a little more, I want to say that this feeling—this feeling of joy and hope and promise and being ripe with expectancy —is not something that only women feel.
It is a universally felt human experience.
It is something each one of us feels when the Holy Spirit comes into the hearts of both women and men and we feel ourselves overwhelmed with gratitude and joy and a feeling of deep assurance and love.
When have you felt the presence of Christ so deeply that you felt your heart leap for joy inside of you?
I’ve felt it on a few occasions in my life. And I can tell you, it is a feeling that is strangely similar to the feeling I had when I was pregnant with Gill and Christopher.
I have had that amazing feeling that filled my heart with the most incredible sense of joy and wonder and that sent tingles through my body from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. I’ve had Holy Spirit moments when I have found myself absolutely overwhelmed by feelings of amazement and gratitude and assurance that God loves me, even me.
Most people have felt that way, or they wouldn’t be in church on the fourth Sunday of Advent. Maybe they felt that way on an Emmaus Walk weekend, or at a revival, or in a study group or a Sunday school class, or in worship, perhaps during the singing of a particularly poignant song.
What is that feeling? It is that sense of knowing that you are in the presence of God.
It is feeling the presence of the Holy Spirit deep within your heart.
Some have felt it at the moment when someone they loved was passing from this life into the next. Others have known God’s presence during a particularly difficult time in their life, and they felt the prayers of their church family lifting them up. It can happen when we bear witness to the incredible grandeur of God’s creation— when we come upon a magnificent mountain, or hear the sound of waves gently caressing a sandy beach, or see a spectacular sunset. It can happen each morning when we wake up and find ourselves just grateful to be alive. It happens when we feel surrounded and held by people who truly love us.
It’s different for everybody. The Holy Spirit comes to us in many different ways. God always meets each of us in just the right place for us personally. But we get it. We can understand what Elizabeth is saying when she says that she was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry,
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. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord (Luke 1:42-45, NRSV).
Elizabeth is not talking just about the baby growing in her womb. She is talking about the experience of being filled with the Holy Spirit. She is talking about the joy of being in God’s holy presence. She is talking about assurance of faith. She is talking about the miraculous uplifting we know when we consider the gift of Christ to this world and to each of us.
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist Church, wrote about one of his own experiences of this sort one evening after a prayer meeting on Aldersgate Road in south London, at the age of 34. He described his own life-changing experience in this way:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther's preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death. (Journal of John Wesley)
It is a moment when we feel our hearts leap for joy because we know that we are in the presence of Christ. What a wondrous thing is the love of God shown to us in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The time for celebration is drawing very near. The waiting is almost over.
Both of these texts support the Gospel reading in that they both point to the hope for salvation that was born into the world through Jesus Christ.
There can be little doubt that the world we live in today is just as corrupt and unfaithful as Judah during the time of the prophet Micah. Micah was worried about the great discrepancies between people of means in the city and people without, the poor shepherds and farmers who lived in the hill country surrounding Jerusalem in his day. Even though doom and destruction is about to come upon them, the prophet sees a future with hope. But this restoration will come from God alone. The people cannot bring it themselves, because their rituals and offerings have become empty of meaning, and their practice of religious life disconnected from the way they live. They are morally and spiritually bankrupt. They can’t save themselves. Only an act of radical compassion, security, and peace given by God will be able save them.
Similarly, the author of Hebrews points to the emptiness of ritual practices prescribed in the Old Testament when compared to what God offers in Christ: a close, personal relationship and direct access to God. According to the author what God desires is not sacrifices on the altar, but sacrificial living from believers. God wants God’s people to offer their lives in sacrificial service for the healing of the world. Our Communion liturgy reflects this sentiment when we pray, “We offer ourselves in praise and thanksgiving, as a holy and living sacrifice in union with Christ’s offering for us.”
DOWNLOAD Preaching Notes [.docx]