A blessing from two lowly women

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Sermon for the Feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Isaiah 11:1-5  +  Luke 1:39-56

Let’s begin with what you already know: Dates don’t matter—the dates on which the Church has chosen to celebrate certain Biblical events, not for the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary that we celebrate today, not for the Annunciation, not for Christmas itself. Still, we use these dates as a discipline, so as to not forget to review regularly the things we should never forget, and to remember that the events recorded in Scripture are actual, historical events that took place in time and that were recorded for our benefit, as God’s chosen means of communicating His truth to us and of bringing the benefits of Christ to us until the end of the world.

So today, July 2nd, it’s the Visitation. The timing of this festival coincides with the 9th day after John’s birth (John the Baptist) according to the same ecclesiastical calendar, June 24th. John’s circumcision on the 8th day of his birth would be on July 1st, and since we’re told that Elizabeth was about six months pregnant when Mary first came to her, and that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months, she almost certainly stayed until John was born, circumcised and named, so July 2nd marks the time when Mary might have ended her visitation with Elizabeth and returned to Nazareth.

But the Gospel for today’s feast tells us, not about the end, but about the very beginning of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, about her arrival at Zacharias’ and Elizabeth’s house, when baby John was still in his mother’s womb. This encounter between these two lowly, godly women, was something the Holy Spirit chose to have recorded for us, so that through their words of blessing, we, too, might receive a blessing.

“Blessed are you among women!” Those were the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary when he informed her that God had chosen her to bear His Son by the miracle of a virgin-birth. Now Elizabeth echoes those words verbatim, as she has been “filled with the Holy Spirit.” “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” calling her the “mother of my Lord.” We can certainly go overboard in honoring Mary, like the Romanists tend to do. But there’s no denying the words of Gabriel or the Spirit-inspired words of Elizabeth. Mary was blessed among women. The only one in history whose womb gave human life to Him who is the Life. Her womb and her descended-from-King-David genes were the Holy Spirit’s raw material for crafting a human body and soul that was taken up into the Son of God, so that there is now one Christ who is both true God and true Man, God incarnate as a man to save men from their sins. Mary was given a vital, intimate role in that incarnation.

Even Elizabeth’s unborn child perceived that and leaped for joy in the presence of God-with-us. That was a confession of faith on the part of John, not just that the Lord is present, but that it’s a good thing, something to jump for joy over.

Why? Not for any earthly reason. Jesus wouldn’t make anything better here on earth, especially for John the Baptist. But now the Lord was present. Not just present as He is omnipresent, but finally present in human flesh. Not God-out-there-somewhere, but God-right-here-in-the-midst, to reveal God to us, to carry our sorrows, to receive our stripes, and to die our death, to make atonement for the sins of all men, and to grant eternal life to all who believe.

That God-right-here-in-the-midst is no longer gestating in Mary’s womb, or lying in a manger, or walking around the land of Israel, or hanging on a cross, or lying in a tomb. He’s sitting at the right hand of God, which means He’s ruling everywhere, and still right here in the midst in the preaching of the Gospel, in the waters of Baptism, and in the giving out of His true body and blood in the Sacrament of the Altar.

Finally, Elizabeth said to Mary, Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord. Mary was blessed for believing the word of the Lord, unlike Elizabeth’s husband Zacharias who hadn’t believed Gabriel’s words. But Mary had believed, even though it was humanly impossible, and in that she was walking in the footsteps of her father Abraham, who believed the Lord, against hope, that he and Sarah would have a son in their old age. Abraham believed the Lord and it was credited to him as righteousness. Mary believed the Lord, and she, too, was blessed. These examples spur us on to faith, too, to trust in God’s amazing promises, to believe in the Word of God, even if no one around us believes, because He is faithful, and through faith in His promises, we will blessed, because faith is counted as righteousness in the sight of God.

Then we have the beautiful words of Mary, which have been sung in the Church ever since in the canticle called the Magnificat, “magnifies.” My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.

First, Mary gives thanks to God and rejoices in Him for what He has done specifically for her. For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, And holy is His name.

Mary knows the source of her happiness. It’s the Lord, God her Savior. We often point to this verse as inconsistent with Rome’s strange teaching of the Immaculate Conception. Mary doesn’t need a Savior if she wasn’t conceived in sin, like the rest of us. But we don’t need to rely on this verse alone. The teaching of original sin is very simple. Everyone born in the natural way, of man and woman, inherits the innate corruption of our nature. Mary, too. She was righteous in the eyes of God only by faith, and from that faith came a righteousness of life, obedience and love. But still, she was only righteous by faith, because God, her Savior, had pronounced her righteous through faith in Him and the promised Christ, who was now growing in her womb.

What “great things” had the Mighty One done for her? She hadn’t suddenly been made rich, nor would she ever be. Her life hadn’t gotten easier with this conception; it had gotten a good deal harder. The great things were all wrapped up in Christ. Through Him, Mary’s sins were forgiven. Through Him, Mary received grace upon grace. Through Him, Mary knew her God personally, and she knew that He cared for her and would never abandon her. And because of her Son, she also knew that she would be remembered fondly and blessed by all generations, not because she deserves our honor because of how great she ever was, but only because of Jesus, her Son.

Then Mary goes on to bless the Lord for how He treats all people. And His mercy is on those who fear Him From generation to generation. Mercy on those who fear Him, always and forever. What a promise! This is the special, personal, fatherly mercy for those whom God has brought to faith and who continue now in faith and the fear of God, who fear, not just any god, but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who sent His Son into the womb of the blessed virgin. It’s not enough to believe in the Old Testament God without the New, or in the New Testament God as if He were different from the Old.

This is why we Christians cry out in our liturgy, Lord, have mercy! Because Mary was right. His mercy is on those who fear Him. We pray, Lord, have mercy! And He will! Always! From generation to generation, even when we don’t understand how His mercy works.

But His mercy, His tender care and His forgiveness are for those who fear Him, not for those who stubbornly resist Him. Mary goes on to show the great contrast in God’s treatment of the lowly who fear Him vs. the mighty who don’t.

He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, And exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, And the rich He has sent away empty.

How has He “scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts”? How has He “put down the mighty and sent the rich away empty”? By telling them the truth: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. You want to take pride in yourself? No human being has the right to do that. This is what got Jesus in such trouble with the Pharisees later. He didn’t let anyone be good in his own eyes. The tax collectors and sinners weren’t good, but they knew that, and so when Jesus told them that, they could only agree, and then thank Him for coming to save the ungodly. But the Pharisees, who thought they were good and better than the rest, the mighty, the rulers, the rich—the Word of God scattered them, it wouldn’t let them go on thinking so highly of themselves. God wouldn’t let any of them trust in their own works, in their own strength, or in their own riches. You’re all sinners, He said, and neither your works nor your strength nor your riches can help you. You’re lost!

God’s Law addresses us, too, when pride creeps in. You have no right to think so highly of yourself, no matter who you are! You have no right to compare yourself with other sinners. You will surely die, unless mercy steps in to save you who don’t deserve saving.

But mercy did step in, wrapped up in Christ Jesus. Despair of yourselves and trust in Him. He has mercy on those who fear Him. He has exalted the lowly and the poor and the despised. He has filled the hungry with good things. That’s what He does.

And He does it, as Mary confessed, out of faithfulness to His own promises—promises which He first made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—the fathers of the Israelite people—and to their seed forever. He promised those patriarchs that, through their Seed, all nations on earth would be blessed. That seed was Christ Himself, the Rod from the stem of Jesse, as Isaiah called Him, the Branch from Jesse’s roots, from the house of David, through David’s daughter Mary. This is why the nation of Israel has ever mattered in the world, and the only reason it should still matter, that God, in His faithfulness, gave His Son into the world through that chosen nation, according to His promises made to them long ago.

Of course, the same Isaiah to whose prophecies Mary had been alluding in her Magnificat prophesied about how God’s kingdom would extend through the virgin’s Son way beyond Israel, a light to lighten the Gentiles, to the creation of one great Church to fill the world, the New Israel that proclaims the God of the Old and New Testaments, the Church made up of sinners only, who recognize their need for mercy, and God’s merciful gift of the Savior who visited Elizabeth long ago, still in his mother’s womb, and in whose presence John the unborn child leapt for joy.

The same joy is for all the humble and lowly who look to Him for salvation. Learn that from Elizabeth’s words and from Mary’s, and receive the same blessing that those lowly women received. Amen.

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