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Sensing Holiness

Luke 2:8-20
David A. Davis
December 15, 2019
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The tendency is to rush to the song. The song usually overwhelms the reading, dominates the scene, steals the show. Like the signature song of the Broadway play. Or the familiar hymn tune that finally comes in the Bach chorale in the cantata. Or when Billy Joel plays “Piano Man” at the concert. In the faith tradition, it’s the song that gets all the attention. Mary’s Song. The Magnificat. The tradition and the preaching and even more than a bit of the scholarship rush in Luke to the song. John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb as the tradition so easily leaps from “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”  to “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

          To be fair, the account of Mary’s visit with Elizabeth is not Luke’s best storytelling. Zechariah’s visit from Gabriel has all kinds of details. Here in Luke, Gabriel is downright wordy for an angel in the visit with Mary. If there was an award for best pageant-like telling of the birth of Jesus in the gospels, Luke would win every time. But by Luke’s own standard, the account of Mary setting out and going with haste to visit her cousin is more than lacking in detail. It’s kind of frustrating for the reader. The reader has to work to figure out the time frame. The angel announced Elizabeth was in her sixth month of pregnancy. After the Magnificat, Luke reports that Mary remained about three months with Elizabeth. Other than that, Luke just drops his old “In those days” to establish a “when”. As to the setting, while Nazareth and Bethlehem have a place forever in history, Elizabeth’s home is in an unnamed Judean town in the hill country. The reader doesn’t know how long or how far the young pregnant woman walked to get there. While at the end of this gospel, after the resurrection, Luke tells the reader that Emmaus was about seven miles from Jerusalem. Luke is mum on the reason for Mary’s visit and leaves a preacher to only speculate the possibilities which could be many. None of them, of course, having any biblical support from Luke. Zechariah is not only speechless, he is now nowhere to be found. One commentator puts it this way. “Luke is not interested in answering [your questions]…Luke’s focus has already shifted from the mothers and fathers to the awaited babies.”

          When she arrived at the house, Mary greeted Elizabeth. At the sound of Mary’s voice, Luke tells that the child in Elizabeth’s womb “leaped”.  The same Holy Spirit that Gabriel promised would come upon Mary now filled Elizabeth. She exclaims, shouts, cries out in a loud voice. “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 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.”  You can’t skip over Elizabeth’s proclamation to get to Mary’s song. Maybe Luke disappoints as a storyteller here. Or maybe Luke just doesn’t want you to miss what Elizabeth said. Forget the details. Pay attention to this!  Luke’s focus, Luke’s emphasis just before Mary’s song is how Elizabeth and baby John knew they were in the presence of holiness. How they sensed holiness.

Now for anyone here in the room who has ever been pregnant, I would like you to do me a favor. If you ever hear a preacher like me, if you ever hear a preacher who cannot possibly have any idea of what they are talking about when it comes to being pregnant, when you hear one of those preachers try to describe what that leap felt like for Elizabeth, please shout out right then and there in the middle of the sermon, “No, no, no. Oh no, you don’t.” A male preacher should never participate in, and way too many do, the ageless, unending practice of men trying to control and define a woman’s body.

The Greek word for “leaped” here in the text is not very common in the Bible. I don’t know if it was a common term used in Greek beyond the scripture in antiquity for the kick of a baby inside a mother’s womb. So, I texted a New Testament scholar. To give you a glimpse into how unique it is to be the pastor of this church next to Princeton Seminary: I texted yesterday morning. This time the scholar is Shane Berg. Within a half-hour or so, I had Shane’s response. The word is not used for a baby kicking in the ancient language. It more commonly refers to an animal leaping. I discovered the only other time Luke uses the word is in chapter 6 in the Sermon on the Plain. “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is in heaven.” (6:22-23) Elizabeth told Mary that her baby leaped for joy within her at the sound of her voice. Not just a leap. A leap for joy. Luke doesn’t want you to miss what Elizabeth said to Mary. Pay attention to this!

“And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” My Lord. Elizabeth is the first one in Luke’s gospel to acknowledge the child’s authority. The first to express faith when it comes to the child, the first to make a confession of belief. A simple one; “My Lord”. But for Elizabeth, the holiness, being in the presence of holiness, was about more than the child. Luke’s focus might have shifted from the mothers and fathers to the awaited babies, but Elizabeth’s focus hasn’t. “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb… And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” Elizabeth still has a focus on Mary. Blessed. Blessed. Blessed is she who believed. Blessed is the fruit of your womb and Blessed are you who believed. Holiness comes as well in she who believed. Probably like everyone else, I have always assumed John’s leap was a kind of divinely inspired acknowledgment of the other baby. Of the child Jesus in Mary’s womb. A sort of high five from one womb to another. But the leap came in response to Mary’s voice. Maybe John was leaping for joy in Mary’s presence too, not just her child. Elizabeth and John’s mother-child fully embodied reaction and proclamation of joy in response to “My Lord” in Mary’s womb and to Mary herself; “she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Elizabeth and John sensing holiness. Elizabeth and John and the holy presence of God. Yes, in the child Jesus. Yes, in John’s leap of joy. Yes, in Mary’s extraordinary belief. Yes, in Elizabeth filled with the Holy Spirit. When it comes to the holiness of the presence of God you don’t always have to wait for the song, for the highlight, for the mountaintop, for the most memorable, for the most expected, for a moving Christmas Eve, for a joy-filled Easter morning. Many can give testimony to the presence of God in an extraordinary experience of life. Others have eyes to experience God’s presence in everyday encounters, unnamed places, and the beautifully ordinary belief of people like you.

I have probably told you before about the year my first congregation entered a “float” in the town’s Fireman’s Christmas Parade. That’s the parade where I said an opening prayer at the firehouse using a megaphone. The church youth group wanted to make a float with a live nativity on it. A church member had a flatbed trailer he was going to pull behind his big old pick up truck. We had a great time putting it all together on the Friday night before in the church parking lot. Great fellowship. All ages. Hot apple cider. Singing carols while we worked. Lots of joy and laughter to go around.  Sharing the story. Sharing the faith. A sign was made for the grill on the front of the truck that said, “A Blessed Christmas from the First Presbyterian Church”. An artificial tree was decorated in the bed of the truck with lights running off a small generator. The float on the flatbed was covered in some type of material intended to look like snow (which of course is so geographically accurate to Bethlehem). A cardboard barn that had been used as the set in a prior year’s children’s Christmas chancel drama was placed on the float. The expected characters were outfitted in costumes and practiced where they would stand or sit, piously arranged around a manger with a small baby doll Jesus asleep on the hay.

On Saturday night we all met in the IGA parking lot on the other side of town where the parade was to begin. It felt like 15 degrees outside and the wind was gusting. Our truck and float were all cued up and parents all arrived with animals, angels, the magi, and Mary and Joseph. In hindsight, it was not my best example of congregational risk management. Though there was an undecorated minivan with a few more adults from the church right in line traveling the parade route behind the Nativity. The parade launched and the rest of us made our way back to the church, as the bible says, by another way so we could wait and celebrate the floats arrival near the end of the parade.

About 30 minutes later when I first saw the First Presbyterian Church Float coming, I noticed that sign on the grill had fallen off. Then I could see that the Christmas Tree had blown down and was lying down still lit. At it all came closer, we could see that the cardboard barn was nowhere to found and the little baby doll Jesus lay in the manger all alone.  The entire cast of costumed children was in the minivan and in the cab of the truck. They were just too cold. The truck driver had this great big smile as he shared his cab with what looked like a great multitude of angels in there having a great time and happy to be warming up.

All of the parents tried not to laugh too hard. The scene looked far from holy. Someone said to me, “But Last night was great, wasn’t it?” Or in other words, the real live nativity of holiness and the presence of God was the night before in the church parking lot. Blessed. Blessed. Blessed. Great fellowship. All ages. Hot apple cider. Singing carols while we worked. Lots of joy and laughter and belief to go around. Sharing the story. Sharing the faith. God’s presence in everyday encounters, unnamed places, and the beautifully ordinary belief of people like you.

Over the last few weeks, I have visited three of our church members who were each in a hospital bed at home in hospice care.  I looked in our database and added up the number of years they have been a part of this congregation’s life. 3 people. 195 years in this church. The three all sat on this side of the sanctuary.195 years of fellowship, discipleship, servanthood, worship, belief. Blessed. Blessed. Blessed. At one point, I said the same thing to each one. “Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you. The Lord lift his countenance upon you and give you peace.”  Blessed. Blessed. Blessed. As Jesus said to Thomas in the Gospel of John, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” God’s presence in ordinary experiences, the ordinary unnamed places, and the beautifully ordinary belief of people like you.

Almost every Sunday when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper here in the sanctuary, when we pray with the servers in my office prior to the service, I say “Holy God, in the power of your Holy Spirit and by Your grace, help us to know ourselves to be the hands and feet of Christ looking in the face of Christ in the face of those we serve.”  On the first Sunday of Advent, under the leadership of Lauren McFeaters and our deacons, we launched our new home communion ministry. Deacons and elders sent out to serve folks at home, in care facilities.  “Holy God, in the power of your Holy Spirit and by Your grace, help us to know ourselves to be the hands and feet of Christ looking in the face of Christ in the face of those we serve.” Last Tuesday, Nassau took communion to Stonebridge. This week to the Windrows. The hands and feet of Christ looking in the face of Christ in the face of those served.” Blessed. Blessed. Blessed.

Many can give testimony to the presence of God in an extraordinary experience of life. Others have eyes to experience God’s presence in everyday encounters, unnamed places, and the beautifully ordinary belief of people like you.

In the power of the Holy Spirit and by God’s grace, it is the gift of sensing holiness. The extraordinary presence of God in the ordinary places of our lives. Elizabeth and Mary and those two babies. You can’t skip over it.

You can’t skip over when it comes to sensing holiness.