Friday, December 11, 2009

The Visitation

"Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" ~ Elizabeth

Many artists have faithfully tried to paint the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth as they carry Jesus and John in their wombs. Some paintings have cherubim and seraphim hovering above the women, with dazzling wings, trumpets and musical instruments. Other representations have Mary and Elizabeth in colorful, flowing magnificent dresses with golden halos - surrounded by angels praying over them. The meeting of Mary and Elizabeth in the Judean hill country is expressed as a dreamlike fantasy – that overwhelms the senses.

The 17th century Dutch painter Rembrandt however, paints for us a very different picture of this biblical scene. Mary the mother of our Lord and Elizabeth are not dressed like royalty. Instead of wearing colorful robes and royal dress they have on simple cloaks. They meet outside of a dwelling in the hill country, in the town of Judah. They are not surrounded by cherubs and seraphim – no angels. Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, in his old age, leans upon the shoulders of a boy, to support his steps. This visitation looks like a rather ordinary scene.

In this painting, a common dog is walking by Mary and Elizabeth, paying them no mind. Rembrandt paints a golden beam upon the two women to shine light upon their interaction. Elizabeth, in a flash of recognition, joyfully grabs the shoulders of Mary to hug her, exclaiming “blessed are you Mary, Why is this given to me that you, the Mother of my Lord, should come to me!” With Elizabeth - her facial expression, body language, and intense gaze into Mary’s eyes suggest an awareness that they stand at the beginning of a new world – as Jesus lies in the womb of young Mary. Mary in an upright posture lets a servant remove her common cloak. A man behind her holds a bridled mule, indicating the distance of her travel.

So alarmed is Elizabeth that she cries out in great surprise, “why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” This simple plea of Elizabeth is an act of worship, a divine hymn, “Who am I Lord! Who are we that the Lord should come near to us?”

Now who is this Elizabeth? Well she is a pious and devout older woman, married to Zechariah an old priest. In most respects, they are ordinary folks. Before the announcement of John’s birth, we know that Elizabeth had been a barren woman, unable to become pregnant with a child. At this time, barrenness was often accompanied by shame and embarrassment. Yet, we know that Elizabeth was righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statues of the Lord.

The Lord grants Elizabeth a child, to be John the Baptist – to prepare the way for the coming Christ. This child fills Elizabeth with such joy that it bubbles over as she sings.  The joy of Elizabeth grows even greater at the surprise visit of her cousin Mary. What is most clear about Elizabeth is that Elizabeth gets it. She knows what is going on here. “Blessed are you Mary and the fruit of your womb!” As Mary comes near bearing the Lord, John the Baptist leaps in the womb of Elizabeth. Here we see that Elizabeth and the infant John may as well be considered the very first Christian worshipers. They are singing and leaping – quaking with joy at the coming of the Son of God. In this everyday scene between two ordinary faithful women, the extraordinary has made Himself known.

And here God is not making Himself known in a burning bush, or a fantastic pillar of fire. No, God has put all of his power and glory into a mother’s womb. The extraordinary has become ordinary – God has entered His creation as a man.

There is of course nothing ordinary about this child. This child that Mary bears in her womb is sent to destroy the power of sin, death, and the devil. This infant child in the watery womb of Mary is God himself – who comes to do battle against hell for us – by suffering for us and rising victorious. The fruit of the womb is the Lion of Judah. The king of heaven and suffering servant to be crushed in the winepress of the wooden cross – that he may sprinkle on our tongues his very blood. Behold the Lamb of God – He is among us – for us – doing our fighting for us – repairing that which is broken – and interceding before the Father for us. He is healing us and making all things new in the watery womb of baptism.

This is why the faith of John causes him to leap in the womb of mother Elizabeth. We share this same faith, as we continually ask the same question, who are we that our Lord should come near to us? Like John, God’s presence for us, is the source for our leaping – those leaping in the wombs of this congregation – the leaping of our teenagers and youth. God coming near us comforts the aged and faithful women like Elizabeth and the older men like Zechariah. He comforts us all.

Who are we that the Lord should come near to us? We are so ordinary and simple like Mary and Elizabeth. God approaches us taking human form because he is so moved by love that He desires nothing more than to come near. Our insignificance and our need for him is what brings God in – mobilizing him to act. He brings himself closer and closer. Who you are, as his very own, delights God. He finds immeasurable joy in you, as you continually turn away from sin and turn toward him in your ordinary, yet truly great faith.

Like Rembrandt’s painting of the Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth, it is the ordinariness of our lives that God finds to be so extraordinary – our tedious work and boring every-day tasks. Who are we that the Lord should come to us? We are His own, whom he created, redeemed, and sanctified. He comes not because any worthiness or personal spirituality in and of ourselves. Rather, He has found us as we are – and has desired to make a manger and home for Himself where we lay.

It is the normal everyday scenes that God loves to be near. The living God loves your ordinary, everyday life. Our sometimes seemingly uninteresting lives to Him are supremely interesting to him. He not only visits us in our normal everyday places but physically joins himself to them – by taking up a residence for himself in our homes and places of work. By being crucified in a common Roman execution, and nailed to an ordinary cross He does God’s extraordinary work – reconciling the world to Himself.

Around our common visitations here – our worship, our midweek services, and coffee hour God will send his angels to be with us. He shall paint our ordinary lives with his presence and dress us up like royalty for his heavenly visitation that has no end. Our ordinariness at our Lord’s coming will be accented and adorned with all the magnificent details necessary to enter His presence.

Who am I that the Lord should come to me? The Lord keeps your households in peace because He has visited you – visited by being your guest and then your host and your server – presiding at the head of your table. God joins himself to ordinary bread and wine and feeds us food and drink of heaven, the fruit of the womb, and the very liquid of life.

He has visited your home and found you worthy not because any worthiness of your own but because of His worthiness that He brings to you. This is why Jesus comes to you again and again- and will never stop. Leap and sing and shout for joy. Soon, the Christ will be born. Unworthy people will be declared worthy. And we ordinary people will be made extraordinary saints when our Lord visits us. And He visits today. Amen.

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