Sermon for Sunday, December 19, 2021 – “Welcomed, Seen, Blessed”

Fourth Sunday of Advent – Good Shepherd Lutheran Church – Decorah, Iowa – Rev. Amy Zalk Larson

Click here to read scripture passages for the day.

Beloved of God, grace to you and peace in the name of Jesus.

There’s something we often miss about this encounter between Mary and Elizabeth. It’s the very first Christian worship service. Their time together involves call and response, the first liturgy.

There is greeting, blessing, proclamation, and praise of the God made known in Jesus.

During this encounter, Mary becomes the first evangelist, the first to share the good news of what God is up to in Jesus. She sings a courageous song of hope and trust, justice and joy that we now call the Magnificat. Her song shapes all of Jesus’ ministry. He learns, at his mother’s knee from her song, that he has come to lift up the lowly and humble the proud, to turn the world upside down.  

Yet before Mary can sing and practice such courage and faith, she needs the time of worship with her cousin Elizabeth. She needs to be welcomed, seen and blessed.

What happens for Mary in worship with Elizabeth is what we each need for lives of courage and trust. Mary shows up at Elizabeth’s home desperate for an embrace. She has just received terribly unsettling news. A strange angel has announced that she will give birth to God’s son. She asks the angel, “How can this be?” Yet there must be so many other questions as well. Mary is now an un- wed, teenage mother. What will people say? Will her family disown her? Will she be ostracized? 

Will she be stoned, as the law demands? Will she survive the birth? Will her fiancé Joseph stick around? After the angel departs, Mary runs with haste to her cousin Elizabeth. I picture her fall- ing into Elizabeth’s arms, weeping with confusion and fear.

Elizabeth receives everything Mary carries, embracing all of her. Elizabeth doesn’t expect her to have things figured out, tidied up, scrubbed clean before she shows up. This is how God welcomes us, welcomes you to worship as well. All of who you are, all of what you carry is embraced and honored. Grief, frustrations about COVID, family tensions, fears about school safety, financial con- cerns, worries about climate change and strange weather events – God gathers all of it and all of you. Worship isn’t about entering a sanitized space removed from the mess and muck of our lives. It’s about experiencing a haven, a sanctuary, a resting place amidst the struggles, as Mary finds with Elizabeth. This is what God gives to you in worship.

In their encounter, Elizabeth also sees something more in Mary, something more than meets the eye. Before Mary can even tell her what has happened, Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, recognizes that Mary carries the son of God within her. Elizabeth sees the fullness of who Mary is now. Elizabeth sees a young, unwed mother but she sees much more than that. She sees how God is present in Mary and in Mary’s life in this most strange and mysterious way. This helps Mary to know she is seen by God. Mary then sings that God has looked with favor upon her, that God has seen her lowliness and still honored her. In worship, God gazes upon you with love, honoring you.

God sees all the pain and struggle of your love and sees something deeper and truer – that you are God’s beloved and beautiful to behold.

Elizabeth then speaks a blessing upon Mary. This blessing frees Mary from fear and shame. It sets her free to sing and oh, how she sings. She sings not only about what this all means for her, but what it means for the whole world. Mary sings and as she does, she gathers the strength to partic-  ipate in what God is doing for the world. The act of blessing frees Mary, frees you, to enter God’s song. Elizabeth welcomes, sees, and blesses Mary, providing her with the sanctuary she needs for a life of courage and faith.

These same gifts are given to you each week in worship. There is a place for you here.

You are beloved of God.

You are forgiven, set free from fear and shame.

You have a safe haven amidst the pain of this world.

With these gifts, you can live with courage and faith as Mary did.

With these gifts, you can extend welcome and blessing to others as Elizabeth did.

For just as God longs to welcome and bless us, God longs for us to welcome others, and especially to welcome the stranger. This is a near constant refrain in scripture – that we are called to wel- come the stranger and the things that seem strange to us. And powerful things happen when we do.

When Mary welcomes the strange messenger and his strange news, God’s world changing work is unleashed. When Elizabeth welcomes and blesses the strange thing she sees in Mary, she frees Mary’s song. When we welcome strangers, or even welcome what seems strange in people we think we know, we get the chance to see beyond the surface. We get to glimpse the fullness of who they are – beloved, precious children of God and beautiful to behold.  We get to see how God works in strange and mysterious and often hidden ways. We may even get to help God in setting people free from fear and shame.

This time of year, there are lots of opportunities to welcome strangers and to welcome strange things in the people we know best. There is also a lot that is really strange and troubling in our culture right now. But when we’re tempted to feel annoyed or disturbed this week, or this new year, we could instead see it as an opportunity to practice kindness to those who make us uncom- fortable. When your relative won’t stop talking about his favorite politician, when another keeps interrupting, when a stranger comes to worship, when you encounter someone who makes you uncomfortable as you travel, let that remind you to take a closer look at that precious child of God. 

This is what they need, it is what we need to practice – seeing God at work. It is what our world needs because being seen and welcomed can help reduce people’s fear and shame. And, God knows, our world needs less of the fear and shame that drive hatred and violence.

Of course, It can be frightening to welcome strangers, but another core theme of scripture is “do not be afraid.” We do not need to fear. 

God has come to welcome, to see, and to bless us and all people. 

God is at work in strange and mysterious ways even when everything seems frightening.

God gives us all that we need to join in the work of welcoming, seeing and blessing others.

Let’s take a moment for silent prayer.