Miracle on 34th, 35th, 36th, 37th, etc. etc.
I loved that commercial last Christmas where the father is riding with his sullen teen who is "whatever." The father drives to a clearing where an old man is feeding reindeer. They begin to trot and then lift into the air. The teen is stunned. He runs to his father who has turned away knowingly saying, "Did you see that? Did you see that?" Tis the season for miracles and not just on 34th street but on every street.
In our text, the Lord makes the voice of His mother a Means of Grace. That's a big miracle. We Lutherans don't throw around the label "Means of Grace" with abandoned. We don't say prayer is a Means of Grace. We don't count Marriage, Confirmation, Holy Orders, or Anointing of the Sick as Means of Grace as Catholics do. Neither is laying on of the hands, even though it's called the Baptism of the Holy Spirit by charismatics, a Means of Grace for us. But the voice of the Virgin Mary is here. It gave Elizabeth the Holy Spirit, and since it was promised that from the womb John would be filled with the Spirit the voice of Mary was also a Means of Grace for the 6-month old unborn child.
The Means of Grace are the ways the Spirit delivers to individuals the redeeming grace Christ won on the cross for all. Since we call them Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution, and Holy Communion you could call them Means of Holiness. They are the ways the Holy Spirit delivers the holy life and holy death of Jesus to individual sinners. I know that Palestine has been called the Holy Land for centuries, but you don't get holiness by going there. You can stand at the very spot Jesus was born, died, or rose and by standing there you wouldn't get any grace, any holiness, any forgiveness.
Several times over the decades a member has brought back water from the Jordan River that they wanted me to put in the font for the Baptism of their grandchild. This is wrong on so many levels; the least of which is the ancient saying, "'He who drinks Jordan drinks fever'" (Temple Dictionary of the Bible, 346). The worst error is that it attaches grace to a physical object independent of God's promise. It's the error of the relic. This hair, this tooth, this patch of cloth is holy because it belonged to a saint.
The power in a Means of Grace is God's Word. The promise of getting grace, holiness, forgiveness is attached to something. We only know of 3 things. After winning forgiveness for the sins of the world, God the Son says baptize in the name of the Triune God for forgiveness. On Easter evening, He instituted the pastoral office by saying, "Receive ye the Holy Spirit whosoever sins you forgive they are forgiven." On the night He was betrayed to the cross for our salvation, He said, "Eat this Body and drink this Blood for the remission of sins." It's a miracle that Water, Bread, Wine, and Words can forgive sins. If God had not told us this we would never dream they could. Baptism looks like simple water only; Communion looks like plain bread and wine; and absolution sounds like ordinary words.
Our voices are Means of Grace so long as we are speaking the Word of God. Mary's voice was a Means of Grace while carrying the Word made Flesh. She is no more than 7 days pregnant (Buls, ILCW, Gospel, C, 9). Yet, the incarnation is so powerful, so complete that the power of the Most High that overshadowed Mary and conceived in her God the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit is present even in her speech.
What I don't want you to hear me saying is that everything Mary said while carrying Jesus was a Means of Grace. I only know this is because of what the text says happened. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and the 6-month old, unborn John leapt for joy in the womb. It's a miracle alright. A virgin conceiving is one miracle. Elizabeth being filled with the Sprit by the sound of Mary's voice is yet another. And now John leaping.
This is not what used to be called vivification. Before 19th century doctors understood that the unborn were alive from conception, they called it vivification to endow with life when the mother first felt the baby move. The text says literally John "sprinted about the womb of her," and later we're told that John sprinted about not just in joy but extreme joy. Another translation is he "celebrated and praised." That's a miracle. This isn't a baby kicking because his mother ate something spicy. This isn't the hairy baby giving momma gas. This 6-month also is given grace to praise, faith to celebrate, and even a mouth to confess who Jesus is.
This is a subtle point. Mary doesn't praise Elizabeth in return for how she blessed her. No Mary praised God for what He is working. This is about Jesus not Mary, and John knew that. This is what church fathers took away from this miracle. The 2nd century Origen said, "Mary spoke the Word that the Son of God in the womb supplied and made His forerunner a prophet for the first time" (ACC, III, 20-21). Maximus of Turin, 5th century, said, "Before his eyes could see what the world looks like, he can recognize the Lord of the world with his spirit;" whether confined in a womb or a prison John preached Jesus (Ibid. 21).
Another miracle to take away is faith is not cognition or understanding but miracle. Faith isn't something we decide, conclude, or are convinced of. No, on our own we can't believe in Jesus or even come to Him. In fact, on our own we run the other way. Faith is a miracle that the Spirit works through the Means of Grace in the human heart. I don't wonder why so few believe. Unbelief is the natural state of us all. The wonder is not that so few believe but that anyone does. The miracle is that God has brought me to trust that His Laws I could never keep perfectly were kept by Jesus for me. The miracle is that God has caused me to trust that Jesus bore the punishment I deserve in time and eternity for my sins, and I am free! It's no less or more of a miracle for a 6 month old baby in the womb to believe this than it is for a 60 year old man in prison.
In the real Christmas, miracles happened not just on 34th street but every street and not just one season or day of the year but in all seasons everyday. And today we see a 7-day old Baby in the womb doing them. It reminds me of Tennessee Ernie Ford's Sixteen Tons. "I was born one mornin' when the sun didn't shine/ I picked up my shovel and I walked to the mine/ I loaded sixteen tons of number 9 coal/ And the straw boss said Well, a-bless my soul.'" Mary has the same reaction as the straw boss because she is carrying the Child that will do great things. "From now on all generations shall call me blessed" says she.
This Sunday is all about the miracle of Jesus. You might catch that if they hadn't changed the 1,300 year old Collect. This is one of only 4 of the 100 Collects appointed for use in the historic liturgy that is addressed to God the Son, not the Father. The original, which is still in your pew hymnal, prays that by the grace of the Lord through His mercy and satisfaction He would come and help us.
The Church prayed for Jesus to come and help them because they heard today the miraculous things Mary said a 7-day old Savior had already done. The first part of Mary's hymn is about what gracious, mighty things God did for her, a humble slave. The second part stands out from the first in that it contains 6 verbs all in the aorist which means they are all counted as a done deal.
Mary stands there soon to be an off cast of her family, in a country not threatened by terrorists but occupied by enemies, poor as a church mouse, who has yet to tell the man she is engaged to that she's pregnant with a Child by the Holy Spirit. She lives in a time when the institutional church is unfaithful; the gap between rich and poor was a chasm; where life was cheap and poor life worthless. But hear her sing. Actually she speaks, but quickly the church recognized this was singing.
Hear her sing of how her 7-day old son "has scattered the proud," "has brought down rulers," and "has sent the rich away empty." These are the miracles Jesus will do, and it's even more of a miracle that Mary confesses they've already been done. These miraculous works of power, deliverance, and judgment that Mary confesses her 7-day old Baby has done are backlit by the miraculous things He has done for His downtrodden people. He has "lifted up the humble." "He has filled the hungry with good things." "He has helped His servant Israel; He has remembered to be merciful."
Now if faith could and was to count all of these miracles as a done deal when God the Son was no more than a week old in the Virgin's womb what about 2,000 years into the reign of our King, and God, and Savior? Haven't you seen the proud fallen? How many proud celebrities, athletes, scientists, and more have fallen in your day? Some of you are old enough to have seen how Jesus brought down rulers like Hitler. Most of you can remember how he brought down Hussein. And how many of the world's wealthy have found themselves empty enough to kill themselves?
And have you not been lifted up? Have you not been invited not only to feast with King Jesus but feast on His Body and Blood? Has His Means of Grace ever failed to fill you with the good things of grace to carry on another day, with forgiveness for sins of past days, and with life that never ends no matter the length of your days? Has your Lord, Redeemer, Shepherd, Friend ever forgotten to be merciful towards you? Have you ever prayed "Lord have mercy" and received none? Has the Lord ever forgotten to be merciful even when you have forgotten His mercy?
This is the faith that Mary sung and it is a miracle. Faith doesn't make miracles, but faith sees them where God says they are, and He says for Jesus' sake there is not a street you will go down at any season of the year where He has not worked more miracles than anyone dare believe. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fourth Sunday in Advent (20151220); Luke 1:39-55