As many of you know, today after the 10:15 a.m. service, Amy and I are leaving for New Orleans in order to celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary on July 5. We are going to New Orleans because that is where we went on our honeymoon. After being married in Danville, IL, Amy and I boarded the Amtrak train, the City of New Orleans, in Champaign and traveled in a Pullman car.
Ironically, when we took that train we had no idea that the trip was taking us through a place that would become part of the area in which we would nine years later. The City of New Orleans stops in Carbondale. We did not know that beginning in 2006 we would see the Carbondale station all the time as we drive over there on S13 for the kids’ sports and for hospital calls.
A few of you may recall that we went to New Orleans ten years ago for our tenth anniversary. I was talking with Chuck and Wanda Cohoon about the upcoming trip when I visited Chuck this month. We made reference to that tenth anniversary trip, and as we were talking, Wanda asked: “Last time you went there, didn’t you come back with Michael?” Wanda doesn’t miss much.
For yes indeed, we went to New Orleans to celebrate our tenth anniversary and when we returned, Amy was pregnant. And believe me, no one was more surprised than we were because we didn’t believe it was even possible for her to get pregnant. It’s no secret that we have twins because Amy wasn’t able to become pregnant, and so we did those aspects of infertility treatment that we found morally acceptable as Christians. But after having the twins we certainly didn’t believe she could ever become pregnant again. Michael was a complete surprise.
In the Gospel lesson for the Feast of the Visitation we have not one, but two babies who were complete surprises. First we have Elizabeth. She was pregnant, in spite of the fact that she was an aged woman well beyond child bearing years. And yet, the angel Gabriel appeared to her husband Zechariah as he carried out his priestly duty in the temple and announced that Elizabeth would bear a son and they would call his name John.
This in itself was amazing. But then the angel went on to say, “And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb.” Sure there would be joy and gladness at the birth of baby to this aged, childless couple. But the big news was that he would be great before the Lord and would be “filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb.”
This was not your ordinary pregnancy, because this child would be a prophet. Gabriel told Zechariah: “And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
And then, in the other half of the Visitation, we have the pregnant virgin Mary. This is, of course, not how things normally work. The angel Gabriel had appeared to her too and told her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Mary learned that she was going to give birth to the Messiah. But the real surprise was still to come. A virgin who was betrothed but not married, Mary asked how this was going to happen. And Gabriel told her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy--the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Mary’s response to this news that was going to turn her world upside down was simple. She said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” She believed and trusted God’s word. And then in our text we also learn that she acted because of it. We hear: “In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah.” She believed God’s word that this seemingly impossible thing had happened and so she quickly went to see Elizabeth. She couldn’t call Elizabeth to ask if she was pregnant. She couldn’t check Elizabeth’s Facebook page to see if she had posted some clever and cute picture announcing that she and Zechariah were going to have a baby. Instead she quickly made the trip to see her because of the word from the Lord.
Mary entered the house and when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby John leaped in her womb. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.
And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and so she is able to understand what this sudden movement by the baby John means: he is already while still in the womb playing the prophetic role that Gabriel had described. And the Spirit gives Elizabeth the ability to identify the child in Mary’s womb as her Lord.
In a way, what we have today is “Christmas in July.” On this first Sunday in July our Gospel reading for the Visitation sets before us the incarnate Son of God in the womb of the virgin Mary. Paul tells us, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law,
to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” The Son has been sent forth – conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary. He has entered into the world in the incarnation in order to redeem us from the judgment against sin and to give us the status of sons and daughters of God.
In our Gospel lesson Jesus in the womb meets John the Baptist in the womb. It is not the last time they will meet in Luke’s Gospel. The next time, John the Baptist will be engaged in his ministry. He will be in the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus and John will meet again as Jesus comes to be baptized by John. After being baptized the heavens will be opened, the Holy Spirit will descend on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice will come from heaven saying, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Jesus will be anointed by the Spirit as the Christ. And in his baptism he will take up the role of being the suffering Servant for you. He is the One who has suffered and died for yours sins. While in the womb of the virgin Mary, this was already the course that had been prepared for him by the Father. He came to be numbered with the transgressors for you.
In our text, the incarnate Son of God is in the womb of Mary. He emerged from the womb at Christmas as he was born to begin his saving work for you. When he had offered himself for you on the cross, he was buried in a tomb. And then on the third day, he emerged from the tomb. He went forth as the One who has defeated death – the One who has begun the resurrection in which you will share when he returns on the Last Day.
When Elizabeth met Mary, she said, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” She heard the word of the Lord through Gabriel and she believed. She trusted in God and his ability to work everything out because as the angel said, “nothing will be impossible with God.”
The challenge for us is to believe and trust in this word from God that our sins are forgiven because of Jesus Christ; the challenge is to believe and trust that the circumstances of our present and future rest in God’s hands. There are times we fail. There are times when guilt plagues us. There are times when worry controls out thoughts.
When this happens what we must do is return and listen to that word of God again. The Lord speaks his comforting word of forgiveness and love in more than one way. He surrounds us with means by which he applies that word of the Gospel to us. In the word preached and read; in the water and Word of baptism; in word of absolution spoken in private confession we hear this Gospel word again – a word that the Spirit uses to strengthen faith and build us up.
And as we receive and believe that word it does something else. Mary heard the word of the Lord through the angel. She believed, and it set her in motion with haste to visit Elizabeth. That word of the Gospel does the same thing for us. The love received in Christ prompts us to love and care for others. Sometimes it sets us in motion to visit a person in need of care and support. Because Jesus has put our needs first in order to save us, now we too put the needs of others first.
In the Gospel lesson for the Feast of the Visitation we have two surprising pregnancies. The incarnate Son of God is in the world in order to bring salvation. John the Baptist is in the world to prepare the way for the Christ – a prophetic role that he begins to fulfill while still in the womb. They will meet again at Jesus’ baptism and our Lord will go on to fulfill his saving mission for us by his death and resurrection. Baptized into his saving work, we are forgiven now and will share in his resurrection. And so, blessed is he and she who believes that there will be a fulfillment of what has been spoken to us from the Lord.