Pictures in a Box

picture from here:


In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

We’ve been all over the place, back and forth, during this Advent. We’ve gone from the end of Jesus’ life and now we’re back at the beginning. It’s sort of like a proud mother who has a box of pictures, and no matter how many times you’ve been to her house, she pulls that box out and shows you the pictures and tells you the stories behind them: here, look at this one; do you remember that?; look how young we were. In this case, the mother is our mother the Church. We come and visit with here, and she pulls out that box and starts to show us the picture: here’s one of Jesus as He rides into Jerusalem on the donkey; here’s John in the wilderness preaching the coming Christ; here’s John in prison, and what Jesus said to him about how He was the fulfillment of all the promises. And, finally, today she pulls out this picture of two pregnant women and tells us the story.

These two women shouldn’t even be pregnant, by all rights. Elizabeth, who is way past her “childbearing years,” who was, more than that, barren up until this point. And Mary, who is a virgin. We know way too much about human biology, and how children are made, for that to be comprehensible. And today, as cold as our world has grown toward children, both of them would be encouraged to put an end to their pregnancies—which is an euphemism for “killing their children.” Thank God that His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. Both Elizabeth and Mary were pregnant, and both rejoiced in the blessing of the Lord.

This is a snapshot of that blessing, and of the faith that believes it. Mary greets Elizabeth and Elizabeth responds with a shout of happiness at the good things that will be spoken of Mary and, even more, of Jesus: “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” And then of the happiness of the believer, “Blessed is the one who believed that God would bring to fulfillment and completion everything He said to her.” And Mary did believe. Not just the word of God through Gabriel, that all this would happen to her, though she certainly believed that. But listen to her sing: God has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy; just as He said to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever. Mary’s confession is that every single thing that God has said, every promise, every covenant He made, is now wrapped up in the tiny being in her womb. And blessed is she who believes that God would bring it all to completion.

It is not too far from Jesus’ words to John in prison, which we heard last week: “Blessed is the one who is not scandalized by Me.” Blessed is the one who does not stumble or fall away because of My words or because of his circumstances. And then, when Jesus is on the way to the cross, some weeping women along the way say to Him, “Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed.” And Jesus says, “More than that! Blessed is the one who hears the word of God and guards and keeps it!” Mary not only guards and keeps the word made flesh, but she believes the Word she has heard.

And then there’s Elizabeth, blessed and crying out in faith: “And who am I, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” And then—perhaps strangest of all to us—there’s John, six months along inside his mother, leaping for joy at the greeting of Mary. Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, says, “When the sound of your greeting came to me, the infant in my womb leaped, full of joy.” This is faith that does not depend on intellectual capacity or ability; it is simply the faith that hears and believes and leaps for joy. All three of them—Mary, Elizabeth, and John—are filled with joy because they believe that they are in the presence of their Lord, as tiny and near-invisible as He might be. He is present, barely begun, there in Mary, and they all believe it. Their joy is in nothing else than that they are in His presence.

And what greater place could we be? Is there any other, better place to be than in the presence of our Lord? There is real blessing, and there is real faith, and there is real joy. Where else, today, should we be than where our Lord speaks to us? Not in the house of Zechariah with Elizabeth, but in the house of our heavenly Father with our mother, the Church. Not in a stable in a house in Bethlehem, but in the stable of the Scriptures. Not at a manger filled with straw, but at the manger of the altar, where He lies in bread and wine for us. How blessed are we that our Lord should come to us, so that we don’t have to go searching for Him? How blessed that our Lord should come to us? Blessed is the one who hears that Word of God and believes that God will do what He said He would do, that even here, He would deliver forgiveness to sinners. Blessed is the one who hears that Word of God and hangs on to it for dear life.

So don’t neglect your mother. Let her take out the box of the Scriptures and show you once again these photographs. You’re familiar with some of them. Some of them, maybe not as much. But whether you’ve visited with her one time or a thousand times, she has more to show you. This story, finished in Christ, is not yet over. Her story is nothing but the story of Jesus, which is given to you. Her life is nothing but the life of Jesus, which she hands over to you. Some of these pictures might seem foreign, like abstractions, like pictures of some other family that you barely know. But sit and visit for a while. The more you hear them, the more they become yours. And then you begin to show up in some of the pictures. Look, here you are, having water poured over your head and the very Name of God put upon you. And here, here you are, hearing the forgiving Word of God spoken to you. And again, here you are while Jesus gives you His Body and Blood in exchange for your old, sin-filled life. You’re part of the family now; these stories are your stories.

And they aren’t only for you. They’re for your family and friends as well. The more you see the pictures, the more you can show them to those who have never seen. And the more you can tell them the stories behind the pictures. And then you can bring them here as the Church keeps pulling out her box of photographs. And they might see and hear, and by the power of the same Holy Spirit who overshadowed Mary, they might believe. And the ones who believe might be washed with the same water and Word as you were, joined to the fellowship with the Father, Son, and Spirit, and with us; and those who are washed into the family then gather around the family table, where our Father again delivers Jesus’ crucified and risen Body and Blood for the one Body of Christ to eat and drink. And so it goes. This week, our mother is going to pull out the pictures of a baby, of shepherds, of angels. Sit and listen as she tells you the story; here, again, we see its beginning, but it goes on and on to the cross and resurrection, and into eternity.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/19/15

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