The Smallest Things
Text: Luke 1:39-45
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When it comes to Mary, mother of our Lord, we can only begin to put ourselves in her sandals. Yes, we’ve all had surprises, but can you really even start to imagine the shock of an angel appearing and hearing that you’ll become mother to the Son of the Most High, while remaining a virgin? We’ve all had unexpected good news about loved ones, but can we imagine hearing that one of our elderly relatives has finally had her prayers for a child granted—that she who has been barren her whole life is now pregnant? I expect that’s hard to fully imagine. But one thing we can see ourselves doing: when we hear such unexpected and surprising news, we want to hear it from someone’s own mouth. We want to make sure that it’s true. We can easily see ourselves going with Mary to the hill country to visit her aged cousin Elizabeth, to see the great news for herself, that she who is barren is now in her sixth month of pregnancy. We can see ourselves going with Mary to share her own good news about her own miraculous pregnancy with her family.
But it’s at this point—and this point only perhaps—that someone steals Mary’s thunder. It’s usually considered good etiquette to allow a woman to announce her own pregnancy, but here in Elizabeth’s home we see a slight social faux pas as someone lets it slip that Mary is pregnant, before the virgin mother can say it herself. Mary’s thunder is stolen by…an unborn baby. John the Baptizer, still in his mother’s womb, a mere six months old, beats Mary to the punch and announces that she is bearing the Savior of the world in her womb. “And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And 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.’”
We can learn a lot about our Lord from this visitation between cousins and unborn cousins. First, we learn about human life. The unborn John recognizes the unborn Jesus. This tells us that human life begins with conception. While still in the womb, the forerunner of Christ knows the One he is running before. While still an embryo, at the earliest stages, mere days into the pregnancy, the unborn Jesus is already who He is—the Messiah, the Savior, the Lord recognized by John the Baptist and his mother Elizabeth. The first one to acknowledge that Jesus is God in the flesh is an unborn baby, John. These two unborn cousins are already living and fully human, already who they are meant to be, even while still in the womb.
This is important because it shows us that Jesus is Lord from the time He is miraculously conceived. This heightens the mystery that we celebrate at Advent and Christmas. It means that the infinite—God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, the Lord whom heaven and earth cannot contain—is fully contained in what we would call a zygote, an embryo, an unborn baby. He is still fully God, even then, at such an early stage. He is still fully man, having taken on human nature and being carried in his mother’s womb, as we all have been.
Furthermore, the fact that the unborn John recognizes his Lord, even as an unborn infant, teaches us something too. It teaches us about faith. Faith is not simply having the right information. There is, of course, that element to it, when our intellectual capacities have developed enough to know truth from falsehood. But when it comes to faith, there’s more. There’s trust. Faith knows that this person is for you. So, even unborn, John knows that this unborn Jesus is for him, on John’s side, his Protector. This teaches us about the faith of infants, or those with lower intellectual capacities, or those who are unconscious, or who have dementia, or who are even sleeping. Faith is not simply checking the right boxes of things you hold to be true. Faith is knowing that this One is yours, this One will provide for you, this One loves you more than anyone else. The phrase “faith like a child” reaches a new wondrous dimension when we see it expressed by the unborn child John the Baptist here.
John’s faith, expressed as a simple leap in his mother Elizabeth’s womb, helps her faith too. He gives her a cue that this is the One they’ve all been waiting for. That was John’s life’s work, after all. He was the forerunner of the Christ, pointing people to the Messiah who had come, and he began doing that work before he was even born. He is the voice crying out in the wilderness, even when his voice isn’t physically heard. But Elizabeth still gets the message and she believes. “Why is it granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
That’s how faith works. God leads us to belief through others, even those we thought improbable. We can all point to someone who helped us in our faith—someone who spoke the right word from God at the right time, who taught us to believe, who led us back to the Lord’s paths. And chances are it wasn’t someone powerful or impressive to the world’s eyes. It was likely a parent, a godparent, an aunt, uncle, friend, pastor, neighbor, or teacher. But if we learn anything from this visitation of Mary and Elizabeth, it’s that God uses the improbable, the unlikely, the weak, the tiny, to shame and confound the things that seem the most certain, the strong, the great. Jesus did this at the visitation of Mary and Elizabeth. Even so tiny in His mother’s womb, He still brought the great good news that the fulfillment of all that God’s people had hoped for was finally coming. He continued to do that His entire life. He was born in Bethlehem Ephrathah, even though it was too little to be counted among the clans of Judah. Although He was of no grand status among the world—indeed, He was mocked and rejected by the powerful and elite—He still accomplished the greatest things, bringing the blessings of the kingdom of God to earth. And in His death He completed this work. He used the seeming impossibility of the resurrection to defeat what had seemed like the certainty of death. He used the weakness of His suffering and crucifixion to overcome the strength of death, hell, and sin.
And this is all received by faith, a thing that is invisible, and at times, tiny and seemingly weak. Mary received the blessings of God when she believed the words of the angel messenger Gabriel. “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Elizabeth believed the message of her unborn son John as she exclaimed, “And blessed is she who believed there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” So we, through faith, even if it’s as tiny as a mustard seed, even if it’s struggling and fighting, even if it all it can do is leap for joy at good news, so our faith receives all the great things promised to us. Faith receives the forgiveness of sins, life, resurrection, healing, and joy. Faith receives eternity itself.
So take some time to ponder these mysteries this week. The infinite has come and is contained in the womb of Mary. The all-powerful God is wrapped in swaddling cloths. Your faith holds on to eternal life. Give thought to these things in this our last week to prepare. Come to our Advent service on Wednesday and examine what a life with Christ is. Come to our children’s Christmas program this afternoon and rejoice in the simplicity of children’s voices strengthening your faith, as John strengthened his mother Elizabeth’s faith. Come to the manger on Christmas Eve, on Christmas Day, next Sunday morning. I know it’s a busy time, but what could be more important than giving your heart and mind over to the Lord who has come to you?
Christ is coming. He has come as an infant, lowly and humble, to make you great. He is coming again. Faith holds on to that. So hear the words of the Lord, hear the joyful exclamations of God’s little ones, hear and believe. And blessed is the one who believed that there will be a fulfillment of what was spoken to you from the Lord. In the name of Jesus, who has become the least for us, Amen.