Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2022 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

(Isaiah 54:1-8)+Psalm 113+Hebrews 11:8-13+Luke 1:5-17, 24-25

After those days, Elizabeth his wife conceived, and she hid herself for five months. (Luke 1:24)

What an odd little detail for Luke to include here. We know Elizabeth’s story, at least the part that describes her as barren. Given that the inability to have children was always seen as a problem for the woman rather than the man, women with no children were looked upon with suspicion, perhaps cursed by God. It is a common trope throughout scripture – Sarah who was practically dead if the writer of Hebrews is to be believed. Rachel was beloved of Jacob yet did not have children for years as her sister kept producing male heirs in abundance. And there was Hannah the mother of the prophet Samuel, loved best by her husband yet unable to conceive. God continued to bring blessing into the sorrow of women who were unable to perform the one duty expected of them – to bear children.

These stories can be hard to hear for women who have struggled with infertility. Does God not smile on them even after years of trying? Are they not to be blessed, too?

And what of women who choose not to have children at all? Are they somehow deficient? This is not something that we can impose retroactively onto scripture, however. Women did not get to choose about such things. They were made for childbearing. Period.

So, yes, it is difficult for many of us to hear these stories of the blessing of pregnancy after years of disappointment.

I wonder if that is why Elizabeth hid herself? Was she afraid that it might not really happen? That she might not be able to carry to term? That people would look at her as if something was wrong – I mean, a gray-haired old lady…pregnant?

I only recently learned of the difficulties experienced by a young friend of my son’s. It took years of treatments for her and her husband to have their first child, a boy, and she dreamed of a second. Miscarriages and failed in-vitro had just about convinced her to stop trying when she discovered she was pregnant with her little girl. Through it all, she kept all of these things to herself. She could not bear the sympathetic looks, the stories of success after so many failures. She did not want to talk about the heartbreak of losing pregnancy after pregnancy.

She hid herself away, just like Elizabeth.

We have not yet reached the annunciation scene where Mary discovers her pregnancy. Luke’s story of old Elizabeth and Zechariah is setting that up for us, just as it is setting up the near-in-age cousins, John and Jesus. And the most extraordinary message that these stories convey is that incarnation needs our help.

Sure, maybe God could have pulled Jesus from the sea like the goddess Venus. But that’s not how it happened. We have an old priest named Zechariah who, the text tells us, is descended from “the lineage of Abijah” (1:5), and his wife, “a descendant of Aaron” (1:5). It’s kind of funny, this part, because Abijah was a descendant of Eleazar, Aaron’s son, but of the priestly line. So, they both have the right genes. In fact, they have the same ancestors. And from those ancient founders of the people of Israel comes the forerunner, the one we know as John the Baptist. And it is to her pregnant cousin Elizabeth that Mary will travel when she discovers that she, too, is carrying a miraculous child.

God promised Abraham that, through Sarah, he would have descendants “as the multitude of the stars of heaven and as the innumerable grains of sand by the shore of the sea” (11:12). They didn’t see any of that happen. They had their children and their grandchildren, and their line carried on long after. God may have flung the stars into the heavens, but it took the laboring efforts of women to bring the promise into being.

Incarnation takes human help. Maybe it didn’t have to be that way, but that’s the way it is.

And for those of you whose stories are filled with loss and sorrow and pain and loneliness, know that God sees you. Even if you guard your experiences closely or hide yourself like Elizabeth, these old stories tell you that you are not alone. I can tell you that you are not alone, and I am sure that there are many others sitting here who share that sorrow and that longing and that loss.

And you are still part of making incarnation happen, just as we all are. We bring Jesus to life every time we serve in his name. Every crushed spirit we soothe, every hungry belly we fill, every cold body we clothe, every word of peace we speak – we are living out the incarnation of God on earth. The 14th century German mystic and philosopher Meister Eckhart wrote

We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to his Son if I do not also give birth to him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.[1]

One of the familiar carols that rings out from this place during the Christmas season speaks to this longing and this part we play in incarnation. I particularly like one stanza that does not appear in our hymnal, and I will follow it here with one that does:

And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
    Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
    With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
    Come swiftly on the wing; – 
Oh, rest beside the weary road
    And hear the angels sing!

For lo! the days are hastening on
    By prophets seen of old,
When, with the ever-circling years
    Shall come the time foretold;
When Peace shall over all the earth,
    Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song,
    Which now the angels sing.[2]


[1] Meister Eckhart, Dum Medium Silentium, Sermon on Wisdom 18:14. See The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart, trans. and ed., Maurice O’C. Walshe (Crossroad: 2009), 29. 

[2] https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/it_came_upon_the_midnight_clear.htm

ASEPSermon for the Second Sunday of Advent, December 4, 2022 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas