One Saturday morning, I was at home wearing my fabulous Saturday-morning housecleaning ensemble -- scarf, old tee-shirt, the one with stains on it -- and suddenly the dog started barking like crazy as if an intruder was coming right into the house. As I looked down the stairs, I could see someone peeking in the window. Even though it was the middle of the morning at a window in front of the house, I was just as terrified and confused as those dogs. Still I edged my way down the stairs; and as I got closer to the window, I could make out the image. It was one of the associate ministers from our church. He had been trying to contact me and had been unsuccessful, so he got so concerned that he came to my house to check on me. Seeing an unknown image at the door was frightening. Trying to understand it was confusing, but realizing the who and the why was comforting and loving. Overall, the event was a mysterious visit.
Our text today is a combination of a series of mysterious visits beginning with the story of an angel visiting men to tell them of mysterious events that would occur. One was told that his wife, who was relatively up in age for the life expectancy of her time, would finally become pregnant after years of trying. That's followed closely with a message to Joseph saying, "Your fiancÃ©e is going to be pregnant, and by the way, you're not the baby's daddy." Then Mary has her meeting with Gabriel, the culmination of a string of mysterious visits. Gabriel had a very strange and unlikely message informing Mary of a mysterious birth.
The text says Gabriel approached Mary and said,
Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you. You are going to conceive a son, he will be great, and he will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.
That sounds pretty good--to have a child that God says will be royalty. The joy of motherhood must have been magnified in that moment.
Most mothers are overjoyed when it's confirmed that they're pregnant. They often start to imagine what life will be like with a child. They start to drop by trendy baby clothes stores. They believe that life will be wonderful.
For many women, getting the news of a new pregnancy is joyous; for others, it's frightening, and for some it's both. For first-time mothers like Mary and Elizabeth, it's a moment of mixed emotion.
In the book "Misconception," Naomi Wolf describes the paradoxical nature of motherhood, particularly the impact on first-time mothers. She suggests that in pregnancy "a woman is in the grip of one of the most primal, joyful, lonely, sensual, psychologically challenging, and physically painful experiences she can face. She's often overwhelmed by messages that infantilize who she's supposed to be and mystify what's happening to her." In those moments we need to connect with someone with experiential knowledge rather than theoretical knowledge.
When everything changes and life gets strange, we need to connect with someone who can empathize, someone who knows what we feel. We need someone who will not judge us when we admit thoughts like:
I wish someone would have told me and my partner about the extreme emotional shift.
I wish I could have been better prepared for the pain.
I feel like there's an intruder in the house and in my body who's never going to go away.
Yes, motherhood is a blessing, and life is a gift. But very often blessings are camouflaged by pain. In life there are often times when we just want to know there's somebody who understands. In times of loss, we need to connect with someone who survived that pain. In times of illness, it helps to know that someone was healed from the same malady.
In our text, Mary was in this strange space of bodily changes, in addition to being subjected to people of her town who would be talking, accusing, gossiping, adding stress to the basic issues of pregnancy. Mary needed someone who could understand.
Elizabeth was also pregnant for the first time. She would also face ridicule. The source of Elizabeth's social torment would be age--the "Isn't she too old to have a baby?" comment. What both women needed was compassion. They needed a safe space of unconditional acceptance. What they needed was what we often seek in Christ and in each other. They needed care.
Henri Nouwen reminds us that in times of loss, pain, and confusion those who mean the most to us are "those who instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share in our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not-knowing, not-curing, not-healing, and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that's the friend who cares."
The healing power of intimacy was needed. Intimacy is a mutual vulnerability, and Mary and Elizabeth found that safe space to be vulnerable with each other. Perhaps that's why the angel gave Mary a clue about her cousin's pregnancy. God was with Mary, but sometimes we need human hands and human hearts that care. I can imagine the excitement shared between Mary and her cousin Elizabeth as they shared the journey of motherhood together. This was a mysterious visitation. There was no jealousy, no hate, only unconditional acceptance. These women came together sharing gifts of love, acceptance, and compassion. Elizabeth celebrated the moment with a blessing.
"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."
Not all of us can or will bear children. But all of us have been impregnated with a purpose, a dream, a destiny. The pursuit of that purpose will take us through stages of life similar to what women go through giving birth, including moments of joy and anticipation. There will also be moments when we don't know what's going on. There will be moments in which we don't even know ourselves. Like women who are pregnant for the first time, we experience anticipation and joy along with conflicting feelings of inadequacy, frailty, and even anger. Our lives feel foreign to us. We don't even know ourselves anymore. Sometimes life gets so tough, frightening, or confusing that we feel like we've been overtaken by a mysterious visitation. We visit the place of paradox where one minute we're saying, "Thank you, Jesus!" and the next minute, we're pleading, "Give me strength."
There is a blessing awaiting each of us, a destiny that's been prepared just for us, but as James Cleveland reminds us, "Nobody told me the road would be easy."
Now back to our text. Elizabeth did have a child in her old age. God did what God said. But that child also ended up being persecuted and, ultimately, beheaded.
Care can often lead to and through pain. For some parent today, there's the pain of the reality that their child is in jail. Another person's child is on crack today. Someone else doesn't even know where their child is. Children are away at war. Some child will never return home. These parents are in need of care. They are in need of someone who can be with them in their pain.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, endured the pains of motherhood. The Scriptures speak of Mary being there for Jesus even though some members of his own family thought he was crazy. We also find Mary at the cross as Jesus, her gift from God, was crucified. Still, through pain, through confusion, Mary had faith in what God was doing. And along the journey, God continued to provide someone to care. Even at the cross, the Scriptures tell us that Mary's own son saw to it that someone would provide care for his mother.
Over 2000 years ago, Mary believed, and even today, lives are being transformed through the teachings and love of Jesus.
What God promised was true, but it wasn't easy.
What God has for us is wonderful, but there will be adjustments and bumps along the way.
The good news is that it's true for us as it was true for Mary. God has dispatched persons along our journey to provide care. Not only that, someone's waiting for your visitation to bring them a gift of hope.
In closing, I call on African-American Christian mystic Howard Thurmon, who reminds us of future and past visitations:
"It is our great and blessed fortune that our lives are never left to themselves alone. We are visited in ways that we can understand and in ways that are beyond our understanding, by highlights, great moments of inspiration, quiet reassurances of grace, simple manifestations of gratuitous expressions of the goodness of life. These quiet things enrich the common life and give to the ordinary experiences of our daily grind significance and a strength that steadies and inspires. We are also surrounded by the witness of those others whose strivings have made possible so much upon which we draw from the common reservoir of our heritage, those who have persevered when to persevere seemed idiotic and suicidal, those who have forgotten themselves in the full and creative response to something that calls them beyond the furthest reaches of their dreams and their hopes."
It's our turn to carry the light and to persevere even against the odds. It's our turn to make our visitations, to deliver our gift of care to persons along the journey. It's our responsibility to respond to the issues that yield to pain that we and all endure. As we go into this destiny, we believe like Elizabeth affirmed:
"Blessed is the one that believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to you by the Lord."
Will you join me as we approach God in prayer?
Loving God, we thank you for our companions along our journey, those who visit us with gifts of hope, those who visit us with gifts of endurance to be able to walk with us even during the difficult times. For your presence with us along our journey, we give you thanks as we continue walking into our destiny. In the name of the Christ, we pray. Amen.