In 2005 SACC had a restart year in which we asked our purpose for existing. The thought came clear to me from the title of a book that was popular years earlier. I believe this is as true today as it was then: what are people's greatest needs? Love, Acceptance and Forgiveness.
God thinks you are amazing! Make it easy on God and allow yourself be loved.
In today's scripture, Mary visits her friend and relative, Elizabeth. Luke 1:39 says Mary hurried to see Elizabeth READ. Elizabeth plays a significant role in the birth stories of Jesus. Elizabeth, like Mary, is unexpectedly pregnant; the incredible thing about Elizabeth is that she is well past the child bearing age; Mary is young and supernaturally pregnant. There is a reason Mary went to Elizabeth: She wanted to be loved. She wanted to be accepted. She wanted to know she had done nothing wrong! When a storm is brewing, often what you need above all else is a reassuring voice. In the Clothesline, for some, the most important thing is a hug . Elizabeth provided Mary comfort, understanding. Mary needed a friend. Mary made it easy on God and on Elizabeth to be loved. Of all the lessons to be learned from Mary, perhaps this is one of the greatest: accept the blessings of God, allow yourself to be loved.
Mary's need of affirmation is similar to a story I read of a little girl that went on a “date” with her father. The story, “Longer, Daddy, Longer” is told by the grandmother:
"My son has two daughters, one who's five and one who is in the 'terrible twos'....For several years, my son has taken the oldest girl out for a 'date' time, but he had never taken the two-year-old until recently. On his first 'date' with the younger one, he took her out to breakfast at a local fast food restaurant. They had just gotten their pancakes and my son decided it would be a good time to tell this child how much he loved and appreciated her.
‘Jenny, I want you to know how much I love you, and how special you are to Mom and me. We prayed for you for years, and now that you're here and growing up to be such a wonderful girl, we couldn't be more proud of you.’
Once he said all this, he stopped talking and reached over for his fork to begin eating...but he never got the fork to his mouth. His daughter reached out her little hand and laid it on her father's hand. His eyes went to hers, and in a soft, pleading voice she said, ‘Longer, Daddy...longer.’
He put down his fork and proceeded to tell her some more reasons and ways they loved and appreciated her, and then he again reached for his fork. A second time...and a third...and a fourth time he heard the words, ‘Longer, Daddy...longer.’
This father never did get much to eat that morning, but his daughter got the emotional nourishment she needed so much. In fact, a few days later, she spontaneously ran up to her mother and said, ‘I'm a really special daughter, Mommy. Daddy told me so.’ (John Trent, Stories For The Heart by Alice Gray).
Undoubtedly, Mary was feeling alone when the news came to her through the angel Gabriel that she was pregnant through the Holy Spirit. With whom can she share the news? ~“Hey, Mom and Dad....” ~She may be reluctant to go talk to her fiancée Joseph… It can be hard to know who to turn to when you need emotional support, an appropriate person, a trusted friend, somebody who will listen…. I read an insightful article this week about why men often don't share feelings with their wives ~ because the wives do not know how to respond ~ “I'm having problems with pornography,” for example... the problem: everybody needs somebody. Who can Mary turn to comfort? Understanding? to be loved, accepted, to know she is a forgiven person who is living in God's will? Everybody needs somebody to love them, accept them and affirm that God loves them too!
God provided Elizabeth. Elizabeth provides a hug for a friend in crisis. Elizabeth has the wisdom of years, experience, a graduate of the School of Hard Knocks. Elizabeth already knew Mary, her personality, character. Do you need an Elizabeth? There are times guys need guys because only guys can understand other guys. Women need women because only women can understand women. Youth need understanding adult, safe peers. Sometimes the affirming person is a peer like Elizabeth who is herself miraculously pregnant. Sometimes the affirming person is older and wiser, like Elizabeth who is well advanced in years. As a pastor, I have the honored role of carrying within me a thousand secret thoughts because an unbelievable number of people find a measure of comfort if even one other person knows their situation!
When Mary arrived at the home of Elizabeth, who was in her sixth month of pregnancy (Luke 1:36), no words were needed, no explanation from Mary, Elizabeth simply knew the situation and the need. We all need friends who understand us.
God made sure Elizabeth understood Mary. READ Luke 1:41. Elizabeth's own baby did an in-the-womb somersault when Mary walked into the room, and the Holy Spirit impressed upon Elizabeth the goodness and rightness of Mary's pregnancy. God engaged Elizabeth's heart and head: it was a leap of joy from her baby (Luke 1:44) and it was a word of knowledge...READ Luke 1:45. Elizabeth is saying to Mary: it's going to work out. It's going to all make sense. Your world is going to be all right. Isn't that the best we can do for others?
You know what my secret is as I talk with people about the stress in their world? I don't try to solve people's problems. The only thing Elizabeth does for Mary is to affirm her. Three times she uses the word “blessed” twice of Mary and once of Jesus. One blessing is for Mary's character: “blessed are you among women” and the other for her actions: “blessed are you for believing.” You are a wonderful person who is doing an amazing thing. Any of you need to hear that? //// we all do.
Imagine what it meant to Mary when Elizabeth immediately knew Mary's situation! Mary didn’t have to say a word. Elizabeth affirmed that what Mary had experienced was true! Elizabeth saw with the eyes of faith – and affirmed the work of God in Mary.
In Luke 1:42 there is an instructive detail: “In a loud voice” Elizabeth blesses Mary. Why a loud voice? To convince her; so more people can hear it. Elizabeth is not ashamed to be Mary's friend. Elizabeth wants everyone to know Mary is an amazing person. You cannot encourage somebody and be ashamed of them at the same time. I have seen more than one person in this community get tears when one of you has said to them, “come to church and sit by me.”…. The greatest gift, through Christ, we as a church can give the world is to stand beside hurting people, people who feel rejected, to welcome them, to proclaim in a loud voice: “you are lovable, you are acceptable, God is on your side! And I’ll sit by you in church!” Our greatest needs: love, acceptance and forgiveness!
Elizabeth speaks for all of us when she asks, READ Luke 1:45. Why am I so favored? It's a good question. Many folks never get to the why question. They dwell on the prior question: “who am I?” The answer of who I am is frustrating but easy: I am a sinner who doesn’t deserve grace. We are all imperfect. We all make bad decisions. Nobody deserves the love of God. Elizabeth goes to the why question. How do you begin to find love, acceptance and forgiveness? Get as fast as you can from the “who am I” question and go to the why part of it. Accept that you do not deserve grace. Accept that there is no good intellectual reason for God to be good to you. Accept that God sends his one and only son to love the world not because I deserve the son of God but simply because God loves me even as a sinner. If Elizabeth, herself experiencing an amazing miracle, feels incredibly favored because of the visitation of her friend and relative Mary, imagine how much more awed is Mary over carrying within her the Lord.
“Why am I so favored?” is a good question because it moves the answer from my character, to the character and motivation of the one who is blessing me. When I am kicking myself for the dumb things that I have done, for messing up the umpteenth time, how easy it is to dwell on asking questions about me, my motives, my character... I had a roommate in college that every morning he'd spend half an hour looking at himself in the mirror and rehearsing what he perceived to be every dumb thing he said or did the day before. I have never seen anyone so hard on themselves as Ron. We could all do that. But switch the question to God, “Why are you extending your love to me?” What is it about you that you would do such a thing?
Why do good things happen to me? Does that thought ever overwhelm you?...take a break from dwelling on everything that is wrong and count your blessings instead. Mary could have sat down with Elizabeth and listed all her worries, but instead they are amazed by the miraculous blessings. Elizabeth does not allow a pity party. The most common type of party I get invited to is the pity party! People call me up to complain, to whine, to tell me everything that is wrong. I'm going to do my best and as often as possible change the conversation and ask Why do good things happen? Why does God love me? The fact that God loves you and sent his son, born of the virgin Mary, tells us a lot about what God values ~ God thinks you are AMAZING. Why? Not because I am perfect! God thinks I am amazing because it is God's nature.
Elizabeth is the agent of affirming and loving Mary, just as God has done for all of us. God has given us the capacity to love others even when the love is not deserved, to accept others even when there are reasons to reject, to forgive even when in our human nature it makes more sense to hold a grudge.
Mary, the mother of Jesus, could so easily have found herself in panic mode when she was given the news of her supernatural pregnancy. Instead, God provided Elizabeth to Mary, a friend, a wise woman, to listen, to affirm. We all need people who will do the same thing for us: convince us that we are loved, accepted and forgiven. People to hug us when we are discouraged. Friends who are not ashamed of us. “Longer, Daddy, longer… tell me again why I am loved.” God loves you not because of who you are, but he loves you because it is his nature. Learn to accept the love of other people, and the unconditional love of God. God thinks you are Amazing! Amen.