Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Across America, genealogy has become big business. CRIGenetics, Ancestry. Com and 23 and Me, can all give you good reasons for scouring the past. People want to know about their family history. Mind you, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to spend time with their family or relatives. Genealogists tend to be more interested in what happened in 1823 than 2023. They joke among themselves that they are the only ones truly excited to read obituaries. Genealogists are found in every family, primed to disturb the dead and irritate the living. Fortunately, for me, my ancestors are so hard to find, that they must have been a part of an early witness protection program.
Over the past few years, however, I have been working on my own family tree, and in October, Janna and I travelled to Norway, to visit a remote place where an ancestor served as a pastor. The stave church at Kvernes is one of the 28 wooden stave churches still standing in Norway. There once were more than 1000. Unfortunately, like countless others, the old stave church burned in a fire, and was rebuilt to fit the footprint of the old, so historians aren’t sure what remains of the original building. They do agree that the altar is the oldest fragment dating from the 1400’s. It actually is a glimpse into the genealogy of Jesus. To the left you see a statue of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child and behind both of them, Mary’s mother St. Anne. On the right side you see the statue of the Virgin Mary again holding the Christ child.
Ancestry and genealogy were import in Biblical times, which can be attested in the genealogy list in St. Matthew and St. Luke’s gospels. So when we read of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, we should be a little startled. Where was Mary’s family? How could Elizabeth, living 3 days journey away from Mary’s home town of Nazareth, be her next of kin? Why didn’t she run to her own mother? That is the story of faith that I would like to share with you this morning.
The oldest reference to the Virgin Mary is found in a writing called the Protoevangelium of James, or what is referred to by theologians as the Infancy Narratives. According to the author, Joachim and Anne, Mary’s father and mother had been married 50 years and were barren. Joachim was exceedingly grieved, and retreated to the desert, where he pitched his tent, and fasted forty days and forty nights, saying to himself: “I will not go down either for food or for drink until the Lord my God shall look upon me.” Similarly, Anne mourned and lamented, saying, “I shall bewail my widowhood; I shall bewail my childlessness.” Then Anne saw a laurel tree which was significant in ancient times for prophecy. She sat under it, and prayed, saying, “O God of our fathers, as You blessed the womb of Sarah, and gave her a son Isaac, bless me and hear my prayer.”
In the midst of her prayers an angel appeared and said, “The Lord has heard your prayer, and you shall conceive, and shall bring forth; and your seed shall be spoken of in all the world.” At the same time an angel appeared to Joachim, saying, “Joachim, Joachim, the Lord God has heard your prayer. Go down hence; for, behold, your wife Anne shall conceive.” The two conceived a child shortly thereafter and then according to the story named the girl Mary. At the age of three, the two brought the girl to the Temple to be dedicated to the service of the Lord.
From there, the stories of Mary’s childhood vary. In some accounts, Anne and Joachim visited Mary often at the Temple until they died, leaving her an orphan at the age of ten. In other writings, they were still alive when she was promised to Joseph, an older man who was a carpenter in Nazareth. One detail seems to be certain from legend and scripture. It was in Nazareth, that the angel appeared to Mary and told her that she would conceive and give birth to God’s son. Mary was offered no proof, but she was told that her elderly relative Elizabeth was expecting a child, “For nothing will be impossible to with God.” And so with haste she went to see Elizabeth.
According to Middle Eastern tradition, Mary travelled to the village of Ein Karem, an ancient village southwest of Jerusalem where John the Baptist was born. Mary stayed in Ein Karem with Elizabeth and Zechariah for three months until John was born, and only then did she return home. Mary had certainly been an encouragement to Elizabeth and Zechariah, and good company, after all Elizabeth had been living in solitude with a silent husband, but I think God had planned this holy visit for Mary’s own benefit and strength as well. When she returned home to Nazareth, her pregnancy would be obvious subject to cruel taunts and slander. Her betrothed fiancée Joseph could choose to leave her. In Ein Karem, Mary was safe. Home in Nazareth, she like Elizabeth, would have to stand on her own spiritual two feet, lonely, misunderstood, and rejected.
Now you may be wondering, so why does St. Luke spend so much time describing Mary’s three month stay with Elizabeth, and so little time figuring out Mary’s family tree? Perhaps that is the real message of this gospel. Faith is not hereditary: nor do you inherit the characteristics of a faithful person by being a descendent of an earlier generation. Genealogy cannot tell you whether you will have faith, nor can it tell you how to believe. Instead, Mary’s three month stay is a reminder that in the journey of life, we all need spiritual mentors to encourage us to keep us strong- even God’s most highly favored Mary.
In Nazareth, the Virgin Mary had made her first step in her faith journey by the questioning the angel Gabriel, “How can this be?” and then boldly accepting God’s call with the words, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord.” When she arrived in the village of Ein Karem, Elizabeth immediately saw the holiness of God in Mary, and said, “Why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” But still, Mary needed a mentor to keep her growing stronger in her faith. For Mary that mentor was Elizabeth. It is true for everyone of us.
My friends, perhaps this Christmas you are struggling to make your faithful way in this world. There have been challenges and sorrows that have caused you to question and doubt God’s ways. Don’t be ashamed or afraid. God has someone who can help and guide you. Hopefully, it is within the community of the church. After all, it’s here where God-loving and mature believers are called to gather. Let me assure you, be patient. God will provide you with an Elizabeth to encourage you.
Or perhaps you are a more mature Christian that God is preparing to be an Elizabeth to some Mary out there. You’ve been through your own share of pain and struggle. You can understand and you can sympathize. You have grown to walk with the Lord, and how to call upon him in need, and you have the power of prayer in your life. There’s a Mary out there who needs you. Oh, yes, you will have your struggles, to be sure, but those young Marys need to watch you meet them with the Lord’s help.
These special, nurturing, spiritual relationships don’t always last for decades. Sometimes they last for only a season. And then they end, sometimes awkwardly or unexpectedly, but most often because the work is done. The younger ones have received what they needed and must move on to try out their wings on their her own. Yes, things change. Faith grows. Commitments and energy diverge. Relationships cannot stay the same. Elizabeth was now a mother — for her glorious first time — and it was time for Mary to return home to Nazareth filled with courage, wonder, expectancy and strength to await the birth of the Son of God.
My friends, as you celebrate this Christmas, may you remember with fondness those nurturing Elizabeths and Marys in your life, those who first shared with you the good news of Jesus’ birth and those with whom you shared the witness of his presence in your life. Perhaps, they were your ancestors, perhaps strangers. Hopefully, not as distant as the statues of the Virgin Mary and St. Anne on the altar in the old stave church in Kvernes, Norway.
The true wonder of Christmas written in scripture and proclaimed by the angels, that the Savior of the world has come, is only one generation from being forgotten. Why, you may ask. Simply said, because faith is not a characteristic that is inherited, nor it is passed on through your DNA. Faith is a character that must be taught and practiced and nurtured and experience with others-even among God’s most faithful, hand-picked, and favored servants- like you and me. Amen
May the peace of Christ which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.