Text: Luke 1:39-45 (46-55)
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Visitation. Technically it fell yesterday, July 2nd, but it’s within bounds to celebrate today. And, it’s fitting to do so, because it’s not a holiday we always get to talk about. In fact, our Gospel reading today doesn’t come up anywhere else in Lectionary. So, it’s possible that we might not remember it very well. Another reason why we don’t talk about the Visitation very much is because it does involve talking about Mary. I think the typical Lutheran response to hearing the name of Mary to shrivel back with a tendency to reject all things that smell Roman Catholic. But, historically, this has not always been the case for Lutherans. Our own Book of Concord says that Mary is worthy of the most plentiful honors. But, in no way is she to be made equal to Christ. We give thanks to God for His grace to her and see in her an example of the faith to follow.
That brings us to the Visitation. What is it all about? It’s not about Mary; It’s about Christ – hence the white paraments. The Visitation is about how God remembers and fulfills His promises. Throughout the Old Testament God promised to send a Savior who would die and rise for the forgiveness of sins. Now this promise is being fulfilled in Christ, before He was even born. Christ, in the womb – in His very conception by the Holy Spirit – is at work to fulfill His promises. The presence of God’s Savior caused John the Baptist to leap in his mother’s womb, Elizabeth to prophesy, and Mary to sing the Magnificat. In all these awesome images, there remains a central truth. The Visitation shows us that God makes good on His promises: to Elizabeth, to Mary, to all His people, and to us.
You might’ve noticed that our hymns today pull us back into Christmas. The things we remember and celebrate today are part of that context; they’re connected to the incarnation and birth of our Savior. Our text comes from St. Luke’s Gospel. Both he and St. Matthew give us the infancy narrative of Jesus, but in Luke’s Gospel the Holy Spirit gives us a little more of a backstory. And really, that’s how St. Luke does things. He says in his introduction that he has set out to write, “an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.” St. Luke wants to sit down and write an orderly account of things so that we can have a firm record and be confident in the hope that we have. So, the idea we’re operating with today is that Jesus doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Jesus has a context. The context of the Visitation is that Jesus comes as the fulfillment of God’s promises. Today we’ve got two big ones.
The first promise St. Luke covers is the birth of John the Baptist. We do get to talk about John on a few occasions, and his birth was promised as well. In fact, some 400 years earlier God promised through the prophet Malachi that He would send his messenger to serve in the office of Elijah and prepare the way of the Lord. At the time of our text there was an elderly couple named Zechariah and Elizabeth. Even in their advanced age they longed for a child, but Elizabeth was barren. Gabriel appeared to Zechariah while he was serving in the temple and told him that God had heard their prayers – Elizabeth will bear a son. The name of their son will be John. John, Gabriel said, will be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother’s womb and will go before the Lord in the power of Elijah to prepare His way. By giving this promise to Zechariah and Elizabeth, God is fulfilling His promise from before. This is the first promise we need to remember going into the Visitation.
The second promise is the one God made to Mary. When Elizabeth had been pregnant with John for sixth months, Gabriel was again sent by God – this time to Mary. Mary lived in Nazareth and was betrothed to Joseph. Gabriel appeared to her to tell her that she will conceive and bear a son, Jesus. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High…and of His kingdom there will be no end.” When Mary asked how this will be, since she was a virgin, Gabriel said that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and the power of God will overshadow her, so that the child she is to bear will be the Son of God. As a sign to her that this will happen, Gabriel told Mary that her relative Elizabeth has also conceived, in her old age. For, nothing is impossible with God. Having heard the Word of God, Mary responded in faith. “Let it be to me according to your word.” This is how the Lutheran Confessions speak about Mary – that, as she responded to God’s Word in faith, so we should pray that we do the same.
Now we get to the Visitation itself, Mary meeting Elizabeth and John meeting Jesus. Remember, the Visitation is about God fulfilling His promises: to Elizabeth, to Mary, to His people, and to us. St. Luke writes, “In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb.” So, as soon as Mary heard that Elizabeth was pregnant, she got up and went to Judah to see. If you had heard that the Lord had done some awesome thing, you’d probably go see, too. When she arrived in the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth she greeted them. This greeting was probably the typical Hebrew greeting, which would involve invoking the Lord’s blessing on the house and those who dwell in it.
Upon hearing Mary’s greeting, John the Baptist leaped in his mother’s womb. Though he had not yet been born, he heard the Lord’s Word spoken by Mary and leaped for joy at the presence of the incarnate Christ. This is one reason that we believe children are able to have faith. The Greek word means infant, but it also includes the unborn. At this point, Mary had just conceived, but even then, Christ was at work fulfilling His promises. Recognizing this fact, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed, literally “chanted,” “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” And, she’s right. Mary is blessed to carry for nine months the holy Son of God and redeemer of the world. But, the word here for blessed is in the passive voice. Mary is not blessed because she is actively holy, but because God is holy and has been gracious to her, forgiving her sins, and blessing her to bear Jesus. In a similar way, we are also blessed when we “bear” Jesus and carry in Him in us as we receive His body and blood in the Sacrament.
Remember, the Visitation is not about Mary. It’s not about Elizabeth or John the Baptist; it’s about Jesus. It’s about how God is fulfilling His Word by becoming incarnate to fulfill the Law and die on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. And that work is happening here, even before Christ has left the womb. But that brings us to the question of the proper place of Mary. As the Lutheran Confessions say, we honor Mary and give thanks to God that He choose her to bear the Christ, but then we leave it there. Mary is in heaven, as are all the saints, but we neither pray to them nor invoke them. Instead, we commend them into God’s care, giving thanks for their steadfast faith and work, and pray that God would stir us on to follow their example.
But, like we’ve said a few times: we’re celebrating the Visitation today as an event in Christ’s life and moment where we see God fulfilling His promises. He promised in Malachi to send a messenger before the Lord, and that is fulfilled in His promise to Elizabeth. He promised in Genesis that He would send a Messiah to crush the devil, to David that a descendent of his would sit on the throne forever, in Isaiah that a virgin will conceive and bear the Son of God, and now that promise has been fulfilled. That’s why Elizabeth exclaims that, in Mary’s womb, her Lord has come to visit her. It’s why John the Baptist leaps in the womb and why Mary is led by the Holy Spirit to sing words that have been repeated by the Church for the last two millennia. These words tells us what today means for us.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
In the Visitation, we celebrate God’s faithfulness to His promise. We magnify the Lord and rejoice in Him, for He has looked on us in our low estate. We have all sinned and deserve to lie in dust and ashes. Yet, the Lord has had mercy and remembered His promise to our fathers. He promised to show mercy to those who fear him, to scatter the proud and bring down the mighty, but fill the hungry with good things and help His servant, Israel. And so He has.
The feast we celebrate today isn’t about Mary; it’s not about John the Baptist or Elizabeth, but about Jesus. In the Visitation we see that God keeps His promises. He remembers His people and has mercy on them. He raises those of low estate, and sets our feet upon the rock of salvation in Christ. To Him be all glory. Amen.