A sermon preached for the Fourth Sunday of Advent on Luke 1:39-55 on December 23, 2018 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas
I still vividly remember December 21st of 2005. I had a terrible case of the Christmas crazies, trying to deliver gifts to all of my three children’s teachers and the administrative staff at their different schools, get gifts for the mail carrier, the UPS delivery man, our extended family—all of which needed to be mailed—my brother’s birthday gift, as well as Hanukah gifts for our former neighbors.
I had already put ten boxes in the mail, and that morning, my plan was to pick up one more gift, wrap it up at the post office, mail the last three packages and still get to a ten am appointment on time. Needless to say, I had a lot of gift-giving anxiety.
Perhaps your family was like mine when I was growing up—we did not openly express our feelings very often. I once heard Garrison Keillor on A Prairie Home Companion say that we Scandinavians don’t talk about the things that are most precious to us—our faith and our feelings.
This meant that gifts carried a lot of meaning because they expressed feelings for you. They were not tokens; they were it. Love was expressed not just in the gift itself but also in how it was beautifully wrapped with lovely bows. We even had a bow-maker and my sister, Pam, who was very artistic, could make beautiful bows and wrap presents with sharp corners. I was not talented at either.
If the gifts I gave needed to communicate all the love and appreciation, gratitude, affection, and thoughtfulness I felt toward people, my gifts—with their mushy corners and lame-looking bows—were always coming up short.
Thus, gift anxiety—Have I remembered everyone? Have I given them enough? Will they feel loved and appreciated by this gift?
On that Dec. 21st, I stood at the bathroom mirror, rushing to put on my make-up so I could get out the door, and finish the holiday shopping, wrap, and mail three packages before that morning appointment. I turned on National Public Radio and listened to the morning news. They were interviewing Santa Claus on his experience of listening to children tell him what they wanted for Christmas. Santa talked about how much he loved talking to children at this time of year. He remembered one boy in particular: as he sat on his lap, the boy leaned up and whispered in Santa’s ear, and then Santa whispered back. The boy jumped down and ran to his mother in absolute glee shouting, “Santa loves me!”
I burst into tears, mascara running down my face, laying bear the anxiety I couldn’t quite name, nor resolve on my own. I thought I had outgrown my “present anxiety,” but the gift-frenzy of the morning told another story. As I heard those three words, “Santa loves me,” God’s love washed over me. Of course, my family and friends knew I loved them; of course the teachers and neighbors knew I appreciated them because I told them; I also knew they all loved me whether I gave them a gift or not.
More importantly, God loved me, and it was a story on the radio that proclaimed the gospel to me, reminding me that God’s presence and action in my life were more real than any gift I gave or received.
We cannot announce God’s love to ourselves, can we? We need other messengers—people, events, nature, the radio—God can use anything really—to catch our attention and help us experience God’s love anew. These “God-sightings” can come in unpredictable ways and at unexpected times to nudge us and remind us of God’s loving presence and action in our lives. We can’t preach it to ourselves, and much of the time, we can’t even see God at work in ourselves even when it may be so clear to someone else.
Elizabeth and Mary in our Gospel reading are also caught up in the frenzy of life—not the Christmas crazies, because of course, Christmas had not happened yet. But I imagine each of them were harried none-the-less. Elizabeth was unexpectedly pregnant in her advanced age—somewhat similar to Sarah and Abraham. Can you imagine what she was doing? At her age she never expected to have a baby, so she must have been scrambling to prepare—nothing was ready—no supplies, no plan, no cradle. Her husband, Zechariah, a busy priest, had lost his voice because he didn’t believe the nudge God gave him when the angel Gabriel revealed that Elizabeth would conceive and bear him a son, who would become John, the Baptist. Unexpectedly pregnant with a husband who could not speak, Elizabeth must have been just as racked with anxiety and busy-ness as we can be this time of year.
But God knew she needed a reminder of his love for her, of God’s presence and action in her life. It didn’t come from NPR, but from the kick of the baby inside her. When she saw Mary, John—still growing in her womb—nudged her to pause and notice God’s presence and love for her made real in Mary.
Elizabeth could not proclaim God’s love to herself—she needed something or someone else to nudge her out of her busy-ness and worry—and say, “Look! Listen! Notice! God’s love and presence is right here for you. God’s purpose is being fulfilled for you in this moment.”
At John’s kick in her womb, God’s love washed over Elizabeth and she was filled with the Holy Spirit as she spoke to Mary, “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Elizabeth experiences God’s nudge that Mary carries her awaited Messiah.
Mary must have been in even more of frenzy than Elizabeth. She was engaged and planning a wedding—working with her family to gather the dowry, make the guest list, plan the menu, talk with the priest. But then she unexpectedly became pregnant when she should not have—this was not according to the plan at all and could ruin everything. No wonder she went out of town and stayed with Elizabeth for three months. She had to get away from the shame, the gossip, the judgment, and those saying that she should be stoned to death for getting pregnant before marriage. Talk about being racked with anxiety.
Mary could not announce to herself God’s love either. Oh sure, the angel Gabriel came and spoke to her, but as time passed, can you imagine her wondering if that was real? Was that a figment of her imagination? Was she losing it? Was God really in this or should she really be shunned, shamed and stoned? Mary could not raise herself out of anxiety; she needed Elizabeth to give her nudge and say—"I understand it may seem like all is lost—but I know right down to this baby kicking in my womb, that God is at work in you and in your life.”
Elizabeth continued her revelation to Mary, responding to the nudge from the Holy Spirit: “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."
Mary needed Elizabeth to confirm God’s presence and action in her life. The angel visitation was real. When Elizabeth confirmed that God loved her and was with her, Mary sings her song of praise, which we just chanted as our Psalm today.
“Santa loves me,” three simple words that nudged me back into grace, washed me with God’s love in a way I could not do for myself. God loves Elizabeth, God loves Mary, and God loves you.
I don’t know how, when, or where your nudge of God’s love will come this season: it may be from the radio, the kick of a baby, or the words of a friend; it may be from an unexpected Christmas card, singing your favorite carol, a conversation with a stranger in line at the store, a cardinal outside your window, or a lady bug inside your car. I had a ladybug sit on my window this week as I went from the hospital to my dad's house, back to the hospital, then to the grocery store and finally home. As I opened the door each time to give the lady bug an opportunity to fly away, she stayed right there and accompanied me the whole afternoon. Some may see it as just a ladybug, but I saw God-sighting reminding of God's constant presence no matter what.
So, I encourage you to listen, to watch, and to notice God-sightings—how God nudges you, how God reaches out to you in the midst of your anxiety, loneliness, grief or whatever it is that can prevent you from experiencing how much God treasures you.
God is patiently and politely nudging you and showing up in all kinds of ways, hoping you will notice the God that leans into your ear and whispers, “I love you.”