Sermon Series: Taking the Training Wheels off of our Faith
39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”
46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is his name. 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.” 56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.
How do you respond to God? When we read God’s word, hear the Lord’s message proclaimed to us, or sense and perceive God’s presence in our midst, what is your reaction? Do we react like Zechariah with mock skepticism after hearing what God declares He wants to do for us? Do we react like Mary with shock that God would consider using us to fulfill His plan and purposes? Or, do we respond like Elizabeth who offered spontaneous praise after an encounter with the Holy Spirit? How do we respond to God? As we have seen thus far throughout the birth narratives, our response to God is predicated on what we know and believe about God and God’s ability to fulfill His word in our lives.
Zechariah wanted to believe, but he needed more evidence. Mary believed in the absence of evidence, and Elizabeth gave thanks after God provided the evidence. One of the differences between a master’s degree and a doctorate is that a master’s degree indicates you have mastered your field and a doctorate suggests that you are an expert in your field. Clearly, Zechariah, Mary, and Elizabeth did not possess a master’s or doctorate in faith. One of the burning questions that faith asks is, what do you do until the evidence comes? Even though Mary accepted the angel’s report and Elizabeth initially gave thanks, there was an in-between period for both of them. There was a period in-between the promise God made to them and the fulfillment of God’s promise. This is the place I believe we most often find ourselves. After we have heard God’s promises proclaimed to us there is a period of time that passes before the promise comes to fruition. This is called the in-betweens. The question is how can we respond to God in faith when we are in the in-betweens. For forty years the Nation of Israel lived in the in-betweens. For forty years they were in-between the promise God made to them and realizing its fulfillment. For forty years all they heard was God has a land flowing with milk and honey and will give it to us as an inheritance because we are God’s people. Of the over two to three million people that left Egypt only twelve ever saw the land and two of them actually made it to the promise land. The in-betweens can be a tough place to be sometimes. In-between college and your career, you finished college but there are no career opportunities in your field. In-between your credential and your promotion, you don’t have your credential so you cannot get the promotion they promised you. In-between where you are and where you want to be, you have done everything you are supposed to do to get to where you want to go but the decision making power rests in the hands of someone else. One of the things that made the in-betweens so challenging for both Mary and Elizabeth is that after Gabriel spoke to Mary he left her alone. After Elizabeth got pregnant she was in seclusion for six months.
Faith cannot grow or develop in a vacuum. Biology teaches us that any living thing that is not nurtured, nourished and cultivated will eventually die of deprivation. Living things need contact with other living things and when they are deprived of that contact they will eventually die of starvation. The Bible says that after Gabriel left, Mary went to the home of Elizabeth. These two expectant mothers got together and formed a community. One of the ways you deal with life in the in-betweens is by cultivating your faith. Mary’s visit to Elizabeth helped to encourage Elizabeth and inform Mary. Faith is a living, breathing organism that needs to be nurtured, nourished and cultivated. Even though they dared to believe the impossible, they still had questions. Whatever questions regarding faith that you and I have we cannot answer them in solitude, but we can find answers, encouragement, nurturing and nourishment in community. When the people of God come together in community the seeds of faith that are sown into us through our hearing receive the necessary nutrients to help them grow and develop. As Mary saw for herself what God had done for Elizabeth and Elizabeth perceived the presence of God in Mary they both received confirmation that yes, God is a keeper of His word. Their faith was being cultivated. When we come together in community we can see for ourselves what God is doing, hear how God is doing it, and gain the courage to believe that God can and will do it for us too. A faith that is fed in community will grow and develop, but a faith that is neglected will eventually wither and die. Who is God using to feed your faith? Who is your Mary and who is your Elizabeth?
It is important that we see faith as an organism and not an ideal. Ideals are things we strive for and if we do not reach them we can be content with coming close. When we view faith as an organism we learn to treat it like a living being and as something that is a part of our make up. Seeds that are not anchored into the soil they are sown can be easily uprooted. Likewise, if we want our faith to grow and develop it must be anchored in the reality of who God is and the awareness of God’s activity in and around us. We will know that our faith is anchored in the reality of God when we are able to see God’s activity in and around us. Remember, Gabriel only told Mary what God planned to do, and Mary prior to visiting with Elizabeth had not seen any evidence, she was still in the in-betweens. To be honest, there are times when it is difficult to grasp a solid understanding of who God is and identify exactly what God is doing in our lives and in our environment. One of the questions that faith asks is, can we see how God’s grace and mercy has been and is being applied to us and those around us? The good news is that our text provides us with some things we can and should look for in verses 42-44. When we are trying to identify God’s presence and activity in our lives one of the first things we should look for are special people. “In a loud voice she (Elizabeth) exclaimed: Blessed are you among women.” God, who is Spirit, works in the spirit realm, but God also works through people. God will send and bring us together with people whose sole mission is to encourage, empower, educate, inform, and challenge us. Sometimes the same people we do not want to deal with are the people we need to deal with because God wants to work through them to help us get to where we need to go. Another thing we should look for is unusual activity. Elizabeth said, “Blessed is the child you will bear.” There will be opportunities, situations and circumstances that only God can create and doors that only God can open. We need to be sensitive to the fact that God works on an entirely different level then we are able to comprehend. When we encounter or experience the incomprehensible check to see if God orchestrated it. We also need to embrace the idea that what we consider bad situations are really divine opportunities. While God was going to use Mary to be the vehicle through which Christ would be presented to us, Mary still had to explain it to her family and husband to be Joseph. I’m sure that was uncomfortable for her but the discomfort Mary felt was overshadowed by the blessing the entire world received. Tomorrow’s blessing is waiting behind today’s discomfort. Elizabeth then makes a curious statement she refers to Mary as “The Mother of my Lord.” When we are looking for God and God’s activity it is helpful to see others as God sees them. While we see each other as Joe, John, Susie, and Ann, God see us as brothers, sisters, vessels, and blessings. When we make an effort to see each other through the eyes of God we will also see God in others. As we see God in others we begin to realize that God is not up there or over there, but God is right here living and dwelling in and among us. One of the most important things we need to look for is confirmation. Elizabeth said, “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” If we want a deeper understanding of God, then we have to pay attention to God and what God is doing in and around us. When we start paying more attention to God and what God is doing our faith will become rooted and anchored in the reality and knowledge of whom God is.
Deep roots produce mature fruit. Roots that grow deep are able to draw and extract the necessary nutrients from the soil where they are planted thereby feeding the fruit. In the same way the testimony and witness of God’s activity in and around us feed a faith that grows deep in God. Let us consider the mere sight of Mary coupled with the sound of her voice and what Elizabeth felt inside her prompted Elizabeth to conclude that God is a keeper of His word. Elizabeth declared, “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.” The realization and awareness that God had stepped into the everyday affairs of people caused Elizabeth to respond to the reality of God in the form of praise. Praise is not only an expression of faith, but it also the fruit of a faith whose roots are anchored in the belief and reality that God is at work in and around us. While Elizabeth’s expression is the result of what God is doing (twice she says, blessed is and once blessed are – both present tense terms), Mary on the other hand also bursts out in praise. Mary expresses a deep awareness of who God is, what God has done, and what God will do not only for her but also for all people who call God Lord. Mary’s praise does not come from her lips, but rather it comes from her soul. Mary’s heart is overwhelmed by the thought of what God has done and will do for her and others even though she personally does not deserve or has done anything to earn it.
As we examine both Elizabeth and Mary’s response to God this much is clear something profound happened to them that day in Elizabeth’s home. Both of them were relatively docile and reserved women who adhered to the cultural norms of their day. There are some who are uncomfortable with the idea of verbal expression in church outside of singing and other portions of the service where we are prompted to speak. I was one of them. However, we cannot ignore the witness of Scripture. When our soul becomes full with the reality of whom God is, the awareness of what God has done, is doing, and will do, out of our heart will flow the praises of God as we express our belief and gratitude to Him. The reality is that no two people will praise God or express their faith the same way. Elizabeth offered blessings and Mary offered a song. The point is that praise, an expression of what we believe, think and feel about God transcends culture, tradition, space and time and will eventually come out.
Elizabeth and Mary had no trouble expressing to God how they felt about God. What about you and I? Can we or do we express to God how we feel about Him? If you find it difficult or challenging, start by thinking about who God is and then think about what God has done, is doing, or promises to do for you. If that does not work, plug into a community of believers where the seeds of faith can be sown into you, cultivated, anchored, and ultimately bear fruit in the form of praise, an expression of faith.