If we are looking for models of ministry in our modern times, Mary and Elizabeth should come to mind. On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, with Christmas only two days away, the meaning of Advent has the potential to slip away. Waiting for a birth that will turn the world upside-down demands preemptive action — that is what is at the heart of the Advent season. Anticipating what is to come, you live as if it is already here. Expecting this event, you embody here and now what it will usher into the world. More than just characters in the story leading up to Christmas, Mary and Elizabeth show us what it looks like when you realize that your life is about to change.
You can’t put off the implications of Christmas. You can’t defer its significances. You can’t postpone how it will affect your life. You simply must live as if it is true now. This is what we witness in Mary and Elizabeth. They realize the blessings that are about to arrive alter everything about now. They believe that when God fulfills God’s promises, no matter when that fulfillment happens, that truth makes a difference now.
Mary and Elizabeth, in whom God has found favor, return that favor. Even though they do not yet grasp the fullness of that favor, even though they do not yet realize the magnitude of God’s regard for them, they know enough to act on it — and they can hardly wait to do so.
“This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people” (Luke 1:25) and so Elizabeth welcomes her relative, Mary, who finds herself disgraced as an unmarried pregnant woman. “Nothing will be impossible with God” and so Mary testifies that because she has been favored, one whom the world would overlook, God will favor the lowly, lift up the marginalized, and do great things for those society casts aside.
The Advent difference means even before that for which we wait arrives we don’t wait to live out its truth. Advent helps us recognize that our response to Christmas cannot wait. Advent reminds us that when Christmas is “over” our work is just getting started — and should have already started.
As a result, Advent reminds us of a critical component of faith — that faith is as much anticipation as it is response. That faith is not just looking forward to fruition and fulfillment, but finds ways to manifest the culmination of God’s promises in the present. That faith trusts in God’s future while at the same time insists on making God’s future present for all people.
On this last Sunday of Advent, we can’t let this go. There’s too much at stake. There’s too much that has been lost. There’s too much that has been forgotten about the heart of the Christian faith.
What has been forgotten? Or conveniently left out of Christian living? Much, I suspect, given a cursory glance at what passes for Christianity today. But what Mary and Elizabeth tell us is that the birth of Jesus, the Word made flesh, is never, and never can be, celebrated without our participation in and manifestation of its promises.
And yet our world has decided that Christmas can come and go without turning the world upside down once again. Mary and Elizabeth know the truth, however. That the birth of Jesus, every single year, upends the world as we know it, especially when the world needs it the most and specifically when the world persists in pretending that the status quo can continue, business as usual.
And the world, especially the so-called “Christian” world, has become very good at convincing itself that Mary’s Magnificat are simply long ago words that don’t have any bearing on how we live today. But when we dismiss Mary’s words, we ourselves dismiss the very meaning of Christmas itself.
Mary and Elizabeth know better. They know what it feels like to be lifted up when you are the lowly. They know what it feels like to be free of shame and finally distanced from disgrace. They know what it feels like to be regarded when you’ve only been the recipient of the world’s practiced disregard. And they see that the promises of Christmas have already come true in their own lives.
Preaching the Fourth Sunday of Advent will preach in a way that the people in your pews start to believe the world will indeed be turned upside down two days later — and can hardly wait to tell about it and to show it to others. Who can hardly wait live it out and to love it out. Who can hardly wait to see even in their own lives the promises of Christmas.