How much world history do you know? Do you know who was the Roman emperor around 4BC? Neither do I. But we could look it up in the bible. It comes at the beginning of Luke’s story about the birth of Jesus. Was the emperor at that time someone worth remembering? I don’t know. He was the most important man in the world at the time. But now he’s all but forgotten.
Even less would we remember two ordinary women who lived at that time in a tiny backwater of the Roman Empire called Palestine. Yet their stories have been told all over the world ever since. These two women, who were apparently nobodies, are now world-famous. Mary and Elizabeth, two pregnant mothers, related to each other as cousins.
The difference between the Roman emperor and Mary and Elizabeth? The women were part of God’s plan from eternity, God’s plan to restore all of creation in his Son. And one day Mary visited Elizabeth, and they embraced. And God through Luke showed that even the smallest event in someone’s life can be extremely significant when it reflects the love of God. It can be an event in the coming of kingdom of God.
Have you ever noticed how some people have a way of always being positive about life? We usually call them optimists, and reckon it is just something they have been born with. Yet positive people may have cultivated the personal habit of praise and thankfulness for what they have. So they have room in their hearts for others, and show that by their ability to be open to others. They listen well. Elizabeth and Mary were both people of openness.
The gospel of Luke is full of praise and thanksgiving towards God. It is full of people being expanded through praise. Through Luke God also invites us to expand our souls through praise and thanksgiving. He is telling us that what began with Jesus and will never end.
God’s kingdom, as Jesus taught it, will grow until it fills everything everywhere with the goodness of God. And then Jesus will return. Our souls grow towards the future, and in the promise of good hope for daily life.
Every character in Luke’s gospel is being filled with joy and sings about it, like so many football fans. When Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, she exclaims that her spirit rejoices in God her Saviour; Elizabeth exclaims, ‘Why is God so kind to me? ’On the birth of John the Baptist, Zechariah his father exclaims ‘Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel.’ The angels break into song when they announce the birth of Jesus. And the old man Simeon, who meets the holy family in the temple, declares, ‘Lord now let your servant depart in peace’ when he holds the baby Jesus. All these are songs of praise and thanksgiving, some of them still sung in churches today.
All of these people were listening for God and practicing praise and thanksgiving. Joy and happiness were the result for them. Their souls grew as they were open to the Eternal. In the process they had become open to other people; they had become people who could listen to others, because they had already learned to take the spiritual journey towards God.
Mary went the furthest along this journey. Hearing the divine message went so far in Mary’s case that she conceived in her womb the Word of God in person. Elizabeth said to Mary, ‘God’s blessing is upon you above all women….Happy is she who has had faith that the Lord’s word to her would be fulfilled.’ Luke portrays Mary as one who listens to other human beings. After the shepherds have related all that they had heard from the angels, Mary, we are told, ‘treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.’ She listened to them deeply.
So what makes for praise and thanksgiving in your life and mine? We may be moving so fast in life that we are always looking for something impossibly bigger and better before we will be moved to offer praise for it. We chase the perfect dream offered us through advertising, especially the dream of a perfect Christmas. Moving so far and fast, we have no idea of giving thanks for the things we are passing on the road today.
We need to slow down and simplify to notice the blessings of God, or our thanksgiving will be short and forced. No wonder we have no time for anyone else; we don’t even have time for the cultivation of our true selves, our inner self. We are driven by musts and oughts, and hand out the same to other people.
Joy is possible in this life. Joy is contained in the promises of God. The angel proclaimed to the shepherds that there was good news of great joy. Mary sang, ‘My spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.’ Luke was a part of that first Christian community, which included Mary the mother of Jesus. As they gathered together after the resurrection, forming the first Christian home-groups, their predominant experience was one of joy. Joy in the one who had come into the world. Joy in the one whose birthday we so look forward to this week. Joy that is held out for us as well.