Two Prophets at Christmas

A sermon based on Luke 1:39-56 (KJV)
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on December 8, 2019
by Rev. Scott Elliott

I am pretty sure that most of you know by now that I love Advent and the whole Christmas holiday season. I find it to be solid evidence that humankind can act caring and loving and aim itself collectively toward peace on earth good will to all. I find so much hope in that. I really do. The rest of the year may suggest it is not possible, but this time of year proves that it is. We are by and large our better selves as individuals and culturally.
Love – the desire and actions toward the well being of others– soaks the season. Seeking justice and loving kindness and walking humbly with our God is in the air most everywhere. It’s in our actions and words. It’s in the sights and sounds. All that love abounding makes a huge difference in our daily lives this time of year. And we like it, some of us even love it. I am one of them. Most of you know that.
Most of you also know that at this time of the year I try to spend at least one Sunday on Mary and her powerful song The Magnificat. A song about distributive justice, everyone getting what is due. And what is due is well being (Peace!) To act lovingly is not just to provide physical gifts or the material means to acquire gifts. To act lovingly includes seeking justice which means providing what is due. Mary’s song is about that. Jesus’ life and Way are all about that.
Working toward ending injustices shows we are on Jesus’ Way. At this time of year we especially give to those in need gifts of basic necessities. We even give those in jail prayers and hopes and desire for their well being. As I said, justice means getting what is due. And what is due is well being . . . Peace And love is the desire and actions toward well being which includes working to provide justice so that all might have that peace. That is the core of many faiths, it is certainly front and center on Jesus’ Way.
While there is no doubt that Advent and Christmas are soaked by love, there are some parts of the season that have over the years got misdirected away from well being of others. One example is that every year I hear about some folk trying to force the religious nature of the Holiday on others and insisting that government, private businesses and individuals must have “Merry Christmas” rolling off their tongues or the Christmas religious images displayed in the streets and store fronts, even on everyone’s coffee cups. That approach sets aside the well being of non-Christians who would rather just have a Happy Holiday or ignore the religious nature of Christmas because it is not a part of their faith. Justice does not seem to be sought in that way of foisting Christmas on others. Kindness is not loved either. Nor is that even close to humbly walking with God. Such an approach does not, of course, destroy the season, but it metaphorically puts ugly unloving and unjust little nicks on our Nativity displays. I suspect most of us here this morning and in many other mainline churches get the unjustness and unkindness of forcing Christmas on others. There is, I think, a lot of hope in that.
There is another misdirection and injustice in this season that I suspect many of us have not thought about. It is something that blared out at me when I was reading the Scripture lesson I chose for today The lesson features women as primary characters in the Christmas narrative. But what we tend to hear and see about the Christmas story are images mostly dominated by male figures. Mary of course is lifted up by tradition, but usually limited as the submissive miracle virgin chosen to conceive a male God’s son. We picture her at Christmas as submissive to a male God, male angel and men. We imagine her led by Joseph on a donkey, led by an innkeeper to a stable and surrounded there by men, Shepherds and Three Kings from afar. Although our lesson has Mary and Elizabeth featured, it is male adults who traditionally fill the Christmas story taking almost all the roles in the ways we are taught by tradition to imagine the story. Joseph, Herod and his henchmen, the Innkeeper, the shepherds and the so called Wise Men are the good and the bad guys. (I say “so called Wise Men” because they are actually called Magi in the Bible and Magi were a group of people that included women!). God and Gabriel are also given male status, which to me is not very logical since neither God nor angels have an existence suggesting a need for male physiology. Neither mates or procreates. The Christmas story we have in our head is dominated by male figures. Even the most famous secular Christmas stories are traditionally inundated with males Santa, Frosty, Ebenezer Scrooge, Rudolph and all the other sled reindeer, plus that guy in his kerchief trying to settle down for a long winter’s nap.
Men, men, men everywhere! It’s not that men are not wonderful, but seriously, they are not un-equally valued by God. More to the point, men do not actually dominate the Jesus story in the beginning . . . or for that matter in the end. Indeed an argument can be made that women dominate both the Easter and Christmas beginning moments! The miraculous end of Jesus’ life story on Easter and the miraculous beginning of Jesus’ life story on Christmas, both prominently feature females, doing what men did not and would not do. Women are chosen by God to deliver Jesus from the womb and from the tomb!
And here’s a cool fact, in the beginning and in the end at least one of the women is named Mary! “Mary” is the English way of saying ‘Miriam.” Miriam first appears in the Bible as the name given to the sister of Moses. Most of us know she rescued the infant Moses delivering him safely to another female, Pharaoh’s daughter. But Miriam also grew up to be a great prophet in her own right leading the Hebrews along side of Moses and Aaron in the Exodus story. A part of the first Miriam’s story may be one the oldest in the Bible, she leads the first worshipful service after the Red Sea in gratitude for the Divine delivery from oppression with the Red Sea crossing. Miriam is the first woman prophet. Her name means both bitter and rebellion. Bitterness over the oppression, and rebellion in the successful Exodus she co-led. 1.
In the early Jesus Following it was remembered that at the end, in the Easter narrative another woman named Miriam (Mary in English), led the first encounter of the risen Jesus and led the first dissemination of the good news of the Christ’s resurrection. Men did not have the first encounter with the risen Christ. Men did not speak the news first. The men’s first encounters with the risen Christ depended upon women to delivered the news. The women at the start of the resurrection narratives are the ones who speak on behalf of God to God’s people. That is literally the definition of a prophet. Forgive the pun but out of the pregnant pause of the tomb women were chosen by God to deliver the Good News. They midwife the heavenly news of Easter, of Jesus’ new beginning, alive out of the tomb . . . forever.
That’s Easter. At the beginning of Christmas narrative in Luke we have this other bookend to the Jesus story which begins with Women mid-wife-ing the heavenly news that Christmas is coming, Jesus is arriving. Obviously the Christmas story has a Miriam too, a Mary, who first encounters Jesus at His birth, but also in the heavenly news she would conceive . . . and in the actual heavenly conception.
In Luke Mary is joined in first knowing the news of the pregnancy by another woman, Elizabeth. The name Elizabeth also appears in the Exodus story it is the name of Miriam and Moses’ sister-in-law who is married to their brother Aaron. It is no accident that our New Testament Elizabeth is said to be from the priestly line of Aaron.
Names mean much in the Bible. In the Christmas narrative we have two of the most powerful family names from the Exodus story represented in these women, Elizabeth and Mary. Luke later traces Jesus’ step-dad, Joseph to other famous Bible characters, but it is the women who are linked to Moses, Miriam and Aaron.
And at this point in the story Elizabeth and Mary alone know that Jesus is coming . . . in Luke not even Joseph is said to know that Good News. The only biological male that seems to know is in embryonic form in Elizabeth’s womb, the unborn- someday-a-prophet-to-be. But that tiny leaping-in-the-womb John the Baptist is not a prophet in the Christmas story. There are, however, two actual prophets. Two people whom we unjustly rarely if ever think of as prophets. But Luke clearly meant for them to be known as prophets and remembered as prophets . . . that God chose them to be prophets! If you have not guessed yet, it is Mary and Elizabeth.
All the imagery of males in the Christmas scenes that we have had put in our heads, leave out that two women prophets speak for God to God’s people to start Luke’s Christmas narrative off. God is remembered in the Bible as choosing and trusting women to have powerful prophetic earth altering roles. They are not submissive. They speak in our lesson for God to all God’s people with courage, strength, and enthusiasm. Elizabeth loudly proclaimed to Mary
Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.
Elizabeth speaks blessings toward Mary– and when Jesus is blessed it is notably as the fruit of Mary’s womb. Just like John the Baptist later prophetically announces Jesus’ arrival and blesses him with a baptism, his mom Elizabeth announced Jesus’ mom’s arrival and blessed her first! And it is because Mary believed and that her belief set in motion the hope and the promise of Jesus’ birth and life and all that followed.
The hope is detailed by Mary in her powerful prophetic song, The Magnificat. Mary herself is so powerful that her soul is said to literally magnify the Lord. She is so important that she is to be called blessed by all generations, an honor reserved for very few in the Bible.
And Mary offers the hopeful description of God not just seeking justice but providing it, not just loving kindness but giving it. As we heard, Mary notes that God is mighty, has done great things, is holy and merciful. But Mary also notes that God will show strength scattering the proud, and even things up by bringing down the mighty and lifting up the lowly, feeding the hungry and dealing with the rich who have not shared their blessings by helping their neighbors.
Mary’s song is a prophetic overview of the promise of Jesus’ life which we now know is a promise fulfilled and being full-filled. The fruit of her womb, Jesus, teaches and lives out what Mary portends in her song. He is the promised one and the promise of peace on earth good will to all is so Hope-Full. The hope is love, justice and peace, summarized by Luke in the angelic proclamation of peace on earth good will to all. That hope is for the world and for us as church and as individuals. It is why we are here every Sunday, but also why we are especially full of hope during Advent and Christmas.
That hope began with two women chosen by God. Both deliver prophetic sons, but first Elizabeth and Mary deliver Christmas prophesies in a time pregnant with possibilities of conceiving a new ruler, Jesus the Christ. And Jesus Christ’s reign requires us in our own turn to conceive and deliver the same Good News those two amazing women did ages ago. The Good News is the promise and hope of Peace on Earth good will to all. And that it is achievable through love and justice and kindness aimed at the well being of everyone. That is Jesus and God’s call to us – to actively work to achieve. And it is their hope we achieve it. Every year during Advent and Christmas we show promise that we can. Then we ourselves become hopeful, and vehicles of hope . . . like Elizabeth, Mary and . . . Jesus. AMEN.

1.Weisberg, Chana,“Miriam’s Tambourines of Rebellion”