The Joy of the Gospel

Feast Day: The Fourth Sunday in Advent
Readings: Micah 5:2-5a; Hebrews 10:5-10; Psalm 80:1-7; Luke 1:39-55

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”

If you were tasked with assessing the health of a church—any church, this church—how might you go about doing so? One way might be based on bums in pews. At a diocesan level we call this ASA or Average Sunday Attendance. The oft unstated assumption seems to be that the higher your ASA the better off you are. Or, you might consider the financial picture. You could, for example, take a look at the budget, paying special attention to envelope and PAR giving. If you want to take another tack altogether you might want to look at the various ministries we’re involved with—what are we doing with all of the talents God has given us?

This is all well and good as far as it goes and these particular indicators may indeed tell us something about the health of a church but then again they might not. I’m not sure that there is a real air-tight formula for gaging the health of a church but I want to suggest one ingredient that I’m sure no healthy church is without. That is, joy. Specifically, the joy of knowing that we are on the receiving end of God’s abundant grace. The joy of the gospel that simply cannot be contained or suppressed. No matter how full, no matter how rich, no matter how busy a joyful church is a healthy church.

A few years back I was in a Bible study and one of the women present said that when she thought of the joy of the gospel she thought of that Ikea commercial. You know the one where the woman runs out of the shop yelling at her husband to start the car because she thinks the deal she just got was too good to be true. There is something of the Church in there, she said. A community full of the too-good-to-be-true joy of the gospel running out into the world as heralds of that joy.

Our gospel reading this morning is full of joy. God’s “good news of great joy for all people,” (2:10) which the angel Gabriel announces to Zechariah and Mary and the shepherds in the field. Our reading picks up after Gabriel has told Mary that she will conceive and bear a son who is the Son of God. This will be a miraculous work of the Holy Spirit. Then, after receiving this news Mary sets off on a long walk to see her relative Elizabeth. And as she travels on that dangerous road she literally bears in her body the Saviour of the world. Mary becomes the Ark of the Covenant, the place where the Lord truly dwells.[1]

As Mary arrives and greets Elizabeth the joy grows as the child in Elizabeth’s womb—that is, John the Baptist—leaps for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice. The point of the text, of course, is that this wasn’t simply a natural occurrence but rather that John’s sanctified summersaults and blessed bellyflops were prophetic. Already in the womb John is miraculously preparing the way for the Christ.

I love how what we know about prenatal development enlivens this already lively picture. For example, we know that from eight weeks gestation all major structures are already formed in the fetus though they will continue to grow and develop. A body—torso, head, limbs—totally separate from the mother’s body, with it’s own unique DNA, is there and recognizably human at eight weeks. By twenty-six weeks gestation the peripheral auditory system is fully formed. The sense of hearing is there and this human creature begins to acquire language already, in the womb. Interestingly, that is right around the six month mark when Mary is said to have visited Elizabeth. Mary greets Elizabeth and the child in her womb leaps for joy and our knowledge of fetal development confirms that everything that was needed in terms of physical and cognitive development for that prophetic act was already formed.

Suddenly Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, gave voice to her son’s uterine gymnastics: “Blessed are you amongst woman, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” Blessed is Mary because of the fruit of her womb. Blessed is Elizabeth whose barren womb was sanctified. Blessed is John who gets a visit from Jesus before he was born. And then Mary sings and what a song it is! Blessed are the week and the lowly. Blessed are the poor and the hungry. Blessed is Abraham and blessed are his descendants forever. Blessed are you, blessed am I, blessed are all those who trust in the fruit of Mary’s womb—He who restores the wreckage of Israel, he who rebuilds the ruins of our world, he who redeems and reforms our erring and callous hearts, he who is the light of the world shining upon us that we might be saved. Magnify the Lord, O my soul! Rejoice in God your Saviour!

Blessed is Mary, blessed is Elizabeth, blessed is John, blessed are you because of the fruit of Mary’s womb, Jesus Christ. I love this whole scene because it is just dripping with grace. In humility neither Mary nor Elizabeth presumed upon God’s grace, in fact, Luke tells us they were surprised. “Why has this happened to me?” wonders Elizabeth.

Mary’s embrace of Elizabeth as she greets her is sacramental, it is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” And here is the grace: that in and through this mother and her son God embraces us, enfolds us in his arms, draws us to himself. In other words, what this scene makes abundantly clear is that God takes the initiative. He has loved us first and therefore we, like Mary, can respond in love. He has come near to us, therefore, we can draw near to him.

C.S. Lewis put it this way: “God stoops to lift, he disappears under the load before he straightens and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders.” What a wonderful image. The writer of Hebrews tells us that a body was prepared for Christ. A body, so that he could do God’s will, so that he could make us holy by the offering of his body in loving obedience. That’s the gospel! That in the body of Jesus Christ God himself stoops down, puts us on his shoulders, and lifts us up with him.

“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.” Jesus has come to the lowly. To the weak, to the sick, to the elderly, to the poor, to the hopeless, to the lonely. And he has done so in the moral sphere as well, coming not to save the just but to save sinners. Jesus has come to the lowly that he might raise us up with him.

Mary’s is granted a vision of God’s glorious future. Of what God himself has done and will do in and through Jesus Christ. She didn’t plan this song, write it down on a napkin and rehearse it. Rather the curtain was pulled back and she saw the world charged with the grandeur of God, as the poet Hopkins put it. She is like the sail of a ship caught by the wind of God’s mercy and she sings for joy![2]

Joy. Joy and grace. In Greek, the language that the New Testament is written in, the two words derive from the same root. Joy and grace belong together. Joy, we might say, is the fruit of grace, a gift of the Holy Spirit. The encounter that we witness between these two holy women this morning, Mary and Elizabeth, is so full of joy because of the grace they experienced in Jesus Christ. A grace that they were granted a vision of.

I believe that even this morning Jesus wants to grant you such a vision. The vision of a God who is “greater than all our frail imaginings of him.”[3] A God who has taken the initiative—God the Lord, God the Saviour, God the Mighty One, God the Holy One, God the Merciful One, God the Faithful One. A God who is bringing his kingdom and his will to earth. A God who isn’t finished with us yet but who is forming us to be like his Son. Even now in this liturgy as we break open the Scriptures and break apart the bread of the Eucharist may we see through the realities of today to what the world will be by the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. And may we like those two holy women be set ablaze with the joy of the gospel!

[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, 28
[2] Fleming Rutledge, Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast.
[3] David Lyle Jeffrey, Luke, 33

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