What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever heard someone do for love?
Or a better question is… what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done for love?
I literally could fill days of sermon time with crazy love stories like…
Helen and Les Brown, both born on December 31st 1918, in the same hospital. In high school they fall madly in love, eloped at a young age, and were married for 75 years. Helen would die on July 16th, 2013. Les died the very next day. They were 94 years old.
Or David Hurd who lived in New York City and Avril Cato who lived in the Caribbean and became pen pals. After a year of writing they had fallen in love and David proposed via letter. Avril accepted and they met for the first time… on their wedding day.
But love stories aren’t just about romance.
Take for instance Jamie Hansard who needed a kidney transplant from a healthy, living donor. Her entire family and seven extremely close friends all went through the arduous process to see if they could be a donor. Among them one match was found—Jamie’s best friend Sarah Gragg, who more than willingly saved her friend’s life.
Do yourself a favor on a tough day, and Google stories of love and friendship, and your day can’t help but get better.
Even animals can demonstrate love and devotion—just look at Sully, the service dog who faithfully sat at the foot of the casket for President Bush earlier this month.
It all helps us to think about what we would do for the ones we love, or even, what wouldn’t we do for the ones we love.
It’s important to ask such questions because there comes a time when it’s not enough to simply declare love; words can seem empty without convincing actions to back them up.
A constant theme in love songs is the celebration of tangible, visible devotion on display for all to see.
Love is Marvin Gaye vowing there’s no mountain too high, no river too wide or any valley too low to keep him away from his beloved.
And we see love in action throughout the Christmas season, especially in the movies—George Bailey wants to live again when he sees life without his family; Ebenezer Scrooge keeps Christmas and saves Tiny Tim when he learns to love again; the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes when he learns there’s more to Christmas than just presents.
This is what love looks like when we choose love. And this is what love looks like when we choose to act from love.
But all of these are sequels and follow-up stories to the crazy, scandalous, unlikely and unexpected choice of love that comes to life at Christmas.
Our text for today is a love story—one part of a larger love story as there are multiple love stories interwoven than just the obvious mother-son love story. There is also…
Love of family—Mary went to her cousin Elizabeth because she knew it would be safe.
Love between women who became like sisters.
Love for God, shown through faithfulness to God.
Love for God’s plan, shown through a willingness to partner in that plan.
Love of spouse in the midst of chaos and uncertainty, as Joseph had legal rights to break off the engagement but he remained loyal to Mary and God’s plan.
Verse thirty nine tells us, “In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.”
Note…“Went with haste…” means a scandal had broken.
Mary’s pregnancy during her engagement period sets off a scandal, which incites Mary to travel away from home, and judgmental neighbors, for a while.
Fortunately for Mary, she has somewhere to go; a place where she is assured a warm welcome because her cousin Elizabeth loves her and is also expecting—meaning she literally understands what Mary is going through. Whatever Mary’s neighbors in Nazareth may be whispering about her “crazy scandal”, she knows Elizabeth will receive her and tend to her needs with love.
And she’s right.
Elizabeth receives Mary with the warmest possible greeting: “Blessed are you among women…” which is not the sort of thing people typically say to an unmarried teenage mother.
Elizabeth, however, has no such judgments. She welcomes her kinswoman with open arms. She blesses her. She speaks and shows the love Mary needs, and deserves.
More than that, Elizabeth treats Mary as her superior, despite their difference in age: “And why has this happened to me that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” The very fact that Elizabeth’s own unborn child leaps in her womb is an early sign of what the adult John the Baptist will one day say of his cousin Jesus: “He must increase, and I must decrease.”
Mary’s not the only one who can sense the blessing in this “scandalous” situation. Elizabeth does too. Between them, they have more than enough faith to see this unlikely, unexpected, fear inducing, chaotic event through, giving life to both Jesus and John: two people who will change the world.
It couldn’t have happened, though, without the faithful vision of Mary and Elizabeth to choose to love when many would see as a crazy, chaotic, unlovable situation.
Crazy, chaotic, unlovable situations…
We find a lot of those these days, don’t we?
We are polarized in our political views, and we find the other side crazy and unlovable.
We are torn between safety and tending to the refugee—conflicted by the chaos of it all.
We grow frustrated with folks of differing generations—pointing fingers at those we believe just don’t get it.
We work with people who frustrate us, and who we want to just go away.
We can even find the Christmas season—the most wonderful time of the year—a scandalous time when judgment and anxiety can overshadow this time of hope, peace, joy, and love.
Which is why this love story of Mary and Elizabeth; Jesus and John; Zechariah and Joseph becomes so critical—because throughout it all we see again and again how they choose love.
The other day I went into an area store whose name we dare not speak because we all hate to go there, but yet we still do, and upon walking by the depleted corral of carts an employee of the store and a patron were exchanging pleasantries as the employee offered a cart to the patron.
In a less than enthusiastic tone, the patron said, “Thanks, but I think I’m going to need two of these.”
The implied exasperation opened the door for the employee to say, “I can’t wait for December 26th.”
Talk about unlovable situations
But we all get it, right? By this point in December we’re all fried and tired.
The Christmas music has been playing since mid-November, and the songs are starting to annoy us because dang-it all, this Christmas has yet to look or sound or feel like any of those songs.
The tree has been up for weeks, but there seems to be more needles on the floor than the tree, and/or keeping the cat and dog away from it is getting old.
There are presents still to wrap. Groceries to shop for. The cooking will have to be done. Please don’t tell me Uncle Harold is coming. And oh God, how long will the Christmas Eve sermon be because there are things going on tomorrow night.
For some of us, December 26th is looking pretty good.
But if that’s the case for us then we need to hear again this story of love to help us wake up to the fact that longing for December 26th is the real scandal of Christmas, and we are missing the God given chance to choose love.
The love stories I shared…the love stories I could share…the love stories we know and have lived are all part of the greatest love story that comes to us on Christmas.
We all can look back and recall the crazy things we did for love—to declare love, to express love, to show love, to give love—be it in traditional and expected ways, or even in scandalous ways like Elizabeth to Mary. Be it to a spouse, a child, a family member (even Uncle Harold) a friend, or even a stranger.
And they are all love stories that have brought forth new life—because this is what love does.
Christ coming at Christmas is a reminder to us all that even when there seems no hope for love to come, even when there are a million reasons not to love, when we choose love—like Mary, Elizabeth, Jesus, John, Zechariah, Joseph and God, the world receives not only a great story, but it receives a life changing, world changing gift.
Fear and scandal compel Mary to go “with haste” to her cousin Elizabeth. And she finds comfort when Elizabeth is moved to say to Mary, “Blessed is she who believed.”
Mary’s fear and worries give way to hope. Her hope causes her to sing a song of faith and love that begins, “My soul magnifies the Lord.”
She sings because she chose love over fear.
Each of us, in whom Christ has been born through faith, has a song of hope and love in our souls.
That song often gets drowned out by the commercial jingles that flood the air this time of year, and all the demands we demand of this time of year. All of it would have us hear, and tell, a different story, that hope and love lie outside of us, and can only be purchased.
The truth is, just as fear lies deep with us, so does fear’s antidote:
Choosing love instead of fear. Choosing love instead of judgement. Choosing love instead of having to make everything perfect. Choosing love amidst the crazy, the scandalous, the unlovable.
Choosing love, even when there are a million reasons not to, is what Christmas can do.
So this Christmas, let us choose love. Amen.
Pastoral Prayer, December 23, 2018
Holy God, we can’t quite imagine what it must have been like for Mary, to hear your request and to respond, unconditionally, with “Yes!”
It’s hard for us to imagine especially since we have a tendency to put conditions on requests made to us. We want to know what we have to do, how long it will take, what’s in it for us, what are the projected outcomes.
Forgive us for our faithlessness, Lord. It’s not that we don’t want to, it’s that we are often fearful, overwhelmed, confused—and we don’t always get it right when it comes to faithfulness and fearfulness.
But we know your love can help us get it right.
So we pray you slow us down, and cause us to take time to really consider the wonderful ways you have always worked in our lives.
Remind us that your presence is with us and your healing love comforts and restores us, showing us how to love even the unlovable.
As we hear Mary say “Yes!” to your Good News, help us to remember you continually call us to be those who bear the Good News to those in need.
Open then our hearts and our ears to the cries of those in need.
Empower us, like you did Mary, to use our talents and resources to show the world what faithfulness in you can create.
Give us courage, energy, and enthusiasm as we work for you in this world—showing the world that love is stronger than fear.
Love is the final piece to our Advent preparations.
We have done the best we can to prepare him room.
So we implore you to again send your Son, the Christ child, at Christmas, to be the embodiment of your love, and to tell us again your love is the greatest gift we will ever receive.
Hear now, we ask, the prayers in our hearts, shared in this time of Holy Silence.
All this we pray in the name of the one who is love is pure light, Jesus the Christ, who taught us to pray, saying, “Our…”