Marginalized Women, Bold Prophetic Speech: an Advent sermon on Elizabeth & Mary

I guess I’ve thought for a little while now that Luke 1:39-45 is a pretty awesome Bible passage. I wrote about it a little bit last December, in this post, toward the end of “25 Days of John the Baptist.”

This is the text (in the NRSV):

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40 where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42 and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43 And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44 For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Last Sunday I had the opportunity to preach on this passage at Inglewood Presbyterian Church in Kirkland, WA, as part of a series called “Christmas from the Margins.” It was great to have an excuse to dig into the text a lot more. I feel like good things came out of it for me, and I share the sermon here in case good things come out of it for you too! I’d love to hear your thoughts or reactions in the Comments section.

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I understand that this Advent season you all are exploring the idea of “Christmas from the Margins.” I love that―both in general, and because I think all of the challenges of 2020 have impacted and maybe changed how a lot of us think about marginalization. 

Some of us may have experienced being on the margins ourselves in new ways―a sense of being pushed to the edge of a kind of stable center we used to have―whether that’s through disrupted plans, or isolation, or fear and anxiety, or sickness, or the sickness of loved ones, or the loss of loved ones, or through job loss and unemployment. 

The last few months have also brought movements toward racial justice and against white supremacy to the forefront of national attention. We’ve seen―highlighted, and made more visible for more people―some of what it’s like to be racially marginalized as a person of color in the US.

This is 2020. This is where we’re at. And these are the kinds of things I hope we can keep in mind as we think about our story this morning, and as we begin this Advent season.

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By the time we get to our passage this morning, a lot has happened already. 

An angel appears to Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah, while he’s serving as a priest in the temple. The angel says, you and Elizabeth are going to have a son, and you should name him John. Zechariah says, wha? No way, man, we’re both way too old! (Which, to be fair, is totally true. Some scholars think they must have been in their sixties.) But the angel says, this is going to happen, and, because you didn’t believe it, you won’t get to speak again until the baby is born. And Zechariah says…well, nothing. Because he can’t.

Then, about six months later, the same angel appears to Mary―not to Mary’s fiancé, or father, or any other male authority figure in her world, but to Mary―and says, you are going to have a son, and you should name him Jesus. Mary says, how, since I am a virgin? The angel says, that’s the power of the Holy Spirit! And Mary says, okay. Let it be as you say

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Can you imagine being Mary, here? An angel just appears to you, out of nowhere, just about gives you a heart attack…and then tells you, don’t be afraid. The angel says that you―you, in your small town in the middle of nowhere; in your youth, as a teenager; in your vulnerability and insignificance as a young woman who is not yet married or a mother, which would have given you a little more status in your world―you are going to miraculously give birth to a king, to the holy one who will be called the Son of God.

Talk about a disruption of the normal, humble life you planned on living―making life work, alongside your husband-to-be, in the midst of poverty; surviving together under the thumb of the Roman Empire; living faithfully to God, as well as you can, in your own quiet way. 

What do you do with this kind of life-disrupting news? Who do you talk to, about the angel and the miraculous pregnancy, and everything? Who do you go to, there in your small hometown, full of people who tend to expect things like pregnancy to work in the usual way?

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Mary remembers that the angel told her that her older relative Elizabeth is also pregnant. So, Mary sets off to visit Elizabeth. This is where we find ourselves in the story this morning. 

Mary grabs a water bottle and a granola bar, types in “Judean hill country” in Google Maps on her iPhone, hops in her parents’ trusty old Subaru, and heads off toward Elizabeth’s place. 

Just kidding. In reality her journey to the hill country of Judea was a slow one. It likely lasted around three to five days, depending on where exactly Elizabeth lived. The roads were known to be dangerous, full of robbers. My hope is that she found a caravan she could travel with that would help keep her safe. Regardless, it took courage to go off on her own like that, apart from her family and fiancé and hometown community. 

She must have felt it was necessary. I imagine her thinking, this is all so wild, and unexpected, and incredible, and awesome, and terrifying, and good, and very complicated. I don’t know if anyone will understand. But if anyone could, maybe it’s Elizabeth, in the midst of her own miraculous pregnancy. 

It was the only thing to do.

People on the margins are often people on the move. Taking risks, seeking safe places to stay, seeking compassionate communities who will welcome them. And God is with them as they do so. God is with those who, like Mary, find themselves desperate enough to make dangerous journeys― not quite sure what they will find on the other side, but knowing that they have to go.

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So Mary arrives, enters the house, and greets Elizabeth with the usual type of greeting. 

Elizabeth does not give a usual greeting back. There’s no what’s up?? So good to see you! Long time no see! Or whatever they said in those days.

Instead, Elizabeth cries out loudly: you are blessed among women! And the fruit of your womb is blessed too! And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the child in my womb leaped for joy. You are blessed because you believed that what the Lord said would happen.

Immediately after Elizabeth says all this, Mary launches into a beautiful, prophetic poem that we might know as the Magnificat. It’s all about God lifting up the humble―those on the margins―and bringing down powerful people who are proud. It’s about God being full of mercy, from generation to generation, doing mighty things, filling up the hungry, being faithful, keeping promises.

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When I read this story, and I think about the idea of Christmas from the margins, I think about the very patriarchal, very male-dominated world that Mary and Elizabeth lived in. 

Because she is a woman, Elizabeth is not a priest like her husband Zechariah―even though she is the daughter of a priest. She’s descended from the line of Aaron (Luke tells us this, earlier in the story, in v. 5). If Elizabeth had been around the temple area when Zechariah was chosen by lot among the priests to be the one to go inside, she would have had to stay outside, in a court called the Court of Women, which was where women could go to pray. It was outside the Court of Israel, where the men could go to pray. The worshipping women were physically distanced from the temple because of their gender―very literally pushed to the margins of the place that was considered holy.

We also see, earlier in the story, that Elizabeth was the one who was blamed for her and Zechariah’s childlessness. When Elizabeth becomes pregnant, she says, The Lord has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people (that’s in v. 25). For her, infertility was not only a source of sadness, and disappointment, and vulnerability in old age, but also a social disgrace. It was a source of unending shame that followed her around throughout her adult life, even into her sixties. 

Many people likely assumed that her infertility was caused by some sort of sin in her life. What was wrong with her, that she had never been able to have a baby? What awful thing had she done? People must have given her the side-eye and whispered behind her back. Maybe in her darker moments Elizabeth whispered these things to herself, too. What is wrong with me? Maybe she internalized the blame and shame that others kept placing on her.

We also see evidence of women being pushed to the margins in their world within this passage itself. Verse 40 tells us that Mary entered the house of Zechariah. The house was considered Zechariah’s property only, even though both he and Elizabeth lived there. 

Lest we think this world is so far removed from our own, remember that it wasn’t until the mid 1970s in the US that women were allowed to have our own credit cards, and to buy our own houses without facing blatant and totally legal discrimination because of our gender.

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In the midst of this male-dominated world, this scene, where Mary and Elizabeth greet one another, is incredible. It’s a man’s world, but there are no men to be found here. Zechariah is who knows where. The baby boys John and Jesus have not been born yet. It’s just a raw, unfiltered, real, beautiful, human interaction between two female relatives, one older, one younger.

In a world where women are supposed to disappear into the background, Mary and Elizabeth take up space. They take up space in Luke’s narrative. They take up space in the story of Jesus, in the story of God’s love and redemption in the world. 

They are an important part of the story―not just because of the sons they will give birth to, but in their own right too. They are examples of faithfulness, of believing God, of working with God, of participating in the joy of what God is doing. 

And they must have found so much comfort in their time together. Mary ended up staying for three months, until Elizabeth’s son John was born. 

When we talk about Christmas, we often talk about Jesus as “Immanuel,” as God with us. Sometimes “God with us” can look like another person coming into our life and being a source of comfort and encouragement. Someone who has walked or is walking some of the same roads that we are. Someone who understands. Someone who can, just by being there, remind us of God’s presence with us.

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When the sound of Mary’s greeting reaches Elizabeth’s ears, little John the Baptist does a little jump inside Elizabeth’s tummy. Elizabeth interprets this as a jump for joy, or in exultation.

Elizabeth, then, is filled with the Holy Spirit. This exact language―being “filled with the Holy Spirit”―is only used a few other times in the New Testament. It’s used when the angel tells Zechariah that John the Baptist will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb. Zechariah is then filled with the Holy Spirit himself, later on in this chapter, and he speaks his own prophetic poem, a few verses after Mary’s. Later on, the group of believers at Pentecost in the book of Acts are filled with the Holy Spirit, and they speak in other languages as the Spirit enables them. Peter and Paul are each described as being filled with the Holy Spirit in some parts of Acts, particularly when they have something especially bold and risky to say.

Elizabeth, here, joins the ranks of people―of men―like John the Baptist, and Zechariah, and Peter, and Paul. She is filled with the same Spirit. And she, too, speaks boldly. She speaks in a loud and confident voice. 

The Greek actually uses three different words here to express how intense her voice is as she speaks: she “exclaims”―meaning that she spoke out, or cried aloud. Her voice is “loud”―or, literally, “great.” 

And it sounds like a “cry.” This is a word that can also be translated as outcry, or clamor. This word is actually used by Paul when he writes to the Ephesian Christians that they should try to stay away from anger, and malice, and brawling, and clamor, and that sort of thing (that’s in Ephesians 4:31). 

It’s a fighting kind of cry―a loud, great, clamour. And, in Elizabeth’s case, it’s holy. It’s full of the Holy Spirit. It’s bold and prophetic and true and important…and very, very unladylike. 

While Zechariah, the priest, is at this point still unable to speak, Elizabeth, not allowed to be priest because of her gender, speaks loudly.

Women, as well as others on the margins, are often socialized to just get along. We’re told, in a million different ways, don’t make waves, don’t be too loud, don’t draw attention to yourself, don’t stir up trouble, don’t make anyone upset. Hold your tongue, speak gently and quietly, defer to others, defer to men.

Add to all this the shame Elizabeth’s community has burdened her with. People use shame to push people to the margins, and to keep them there. To make them feel like their marginalization is somehow their fault. To keep them from speaking up. 

When the Holy Spirit fills Elizabeth, Elizabeth breaks out of all of these confines of what is considered respectable behavior. She has something important to say. She has prophecy to speak. She has inexpressible joy to try to express. And she doesn’t have time to take a step back and make sure her voice is gentle enough and her words are inoffensive enough and nothing she says is threatening to anyone.

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Maybe it’s jarring to think about Elizabeth in this way. Or, maybe, if you’re someone who feels marginalized in some of the same ways she was, maybe it’s freeing and healing. Maybe it’s a bit of both. 

Maybe for some of us, we’re thinking, yes! Speak up! Speak your truth! Embrace your empowerment by the Holy Spirit! You’re awesome! 

And yet, is that how we see voices from the margins today, who speak boldly as Elizabeth did, full of truth and fire and a longing for justice? How open are we to hearing from the marginalized prophets and prophetesses of our time? 

Do we expect them to conform to some sort of respectable standard before we’re willing to listen? Do we bristle and get defensive because some of them are too loud, or too angry, for our taste?

Elizabeth’s bold speech invites us to pay attention to who might be filled with the Holy Spirit, to who might be speaking prophetic words, around us in our world today. 

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And, the words that Elizabeth speaks, so loudly, after being filled by the Holy Spirit―these words are a series of blessings. You have been blessed, Mary, among women. The fruit of your womb has been blessed. Blessed is the one who believed.

Elizabeth, who wasn’t allowed to be a priest, embodies the priestly role of pronouncing blessing, of calling Mary blessed. She recognizes God’s incredible work in Mary’s life and names it as such.

Who do we tend to imagine, or assume, are the people who get to proclaim blessings? Who gets to be in that powerful and joyful position of saying with confidence: God is with you, God blesses you? 

Pastors? Powerful people? Influential people? Respectable people? 

Do we hope and expect to hear blessings from the mouths of people on the margins? Can we receive those blessings? 

Do we expect that people on the margins have something to offer us―that there are ways we can learn from them, even as we might also see their needs and try to serve them? Are we open to the wisdom they have, the things they can teach us? 

And, in the ways in which we might experience marginalization―whether from gender, or race, or ethnicity, or unemployment, or disability, or sexual orientation, or anything else―do we see ourselves as empowered to be a blessing, to bless others? Do we see ourselves as people who can speak boldly and call forth the best in others? 

As Kathy Khang writes in her book Raise Your Voice, “Elizabeth is unafraid and generous in her word of blessing and exhortation. I imagine that’s because she knows what I often have to remind myself: finding and using our voice isn’t a zero-sum game where we compete with others. Elizabeth isn’t competing. She knows this is a journey for both of them, and she sets the stage for Mary to speak out words we now call the Magnificat. Elizabeth isn’t there just to provide an audience or to be a foil or competitor. She’s the one whose presence and words remind Mary who she is and what is to come.”

Isn’t it beautiful, when we can do this for one another? 

Blessing people isn’t just for some subset of extra holy or powerful people. It’s something all of us can do.

And, blessing one another isn’t just for the times when everything is easy, and things are going well. It’s for the difficult times too. 

Elizabeth and Mary did not live easy, comfortable, happy ever after kinds of lives. Living in poverty as a religious minority in the Roman empire was no easy thing. Add to that the task of raising children who will both end up being killed as revolutionaries. Elizabeth and Mary lived difficult lives in difficult times.

Many of us in 2020 have not had a particularly easy, comfortable, happy ever after kind of year either. And yet, even in these times―maybe especially in these times―we can bless one another. We can call forth the best in one another. We can be present with and be a comfort to one another, as Mary and Elizabeth were. We can remind each other, this Advent season, of God’s presence with us.

And, we can seek out and listen to the prophetic voices from the margins. God is still speaking through them. We can hear their challenging, blessing, life-giving, world-altering, disruptive, uncomfortable words. We can receive and respond to the ways they are inviting us toward justice and goodness and wholeness, as people, as the church, and as a society. We can echo and amplify their voices to people we know who might not listen to them, but might listen to us.

May we receive the gifts and the challenges of Christmas from the margins this Advent season.

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