Fourth Sunday in Advent
December 20, 2015
“Spirit-Given Faith Greets the Savior” (Luke 1:39-56)
We’re coming near the end of Advent, and it’s time to greet the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ–not only at Christmas, but also when he comes again. Are you ready? Are you prepared? How will you greet him? Our Gospel reading today shows us how to greet him when he comes. In faith. What does that mean, “in faith”? And where does that faith come from? We’ll find that out, too, as the word of the Lord comes to us today, under the theme, “Spirit-Given Faith Greets the Savior.”
In the Holy Gospel from Luke chapter 1, we see three persons greeting the coming of the Savior, and they all greet him the same way: in faith and joy, with a faith generated by the Holy Spirit. And that is how we will greet Jesus, too: in faith and joy, with a faith generated by the Holy Spirit. The three persons we find in our text doing so are Elizabeth, John, and Mary. And the Holy Spirit will give us the same faith and joy he gave them.
First, let’s look at Elizabeth. Who was she? I guess that’s the first question to ask. What do we know about her? Well, we read earlier in Luke 1 that Elizabeth was the wife of a man named Zechariah. They were an older couple and well past childbearing years anyway. Even so, the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah and told him that he and Elizabeth would finally have a child after all these years. This would be a special child. He would go before the Lord to prepare his way. Gabriel told Zechariah: “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. . . . And he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.” So that’s who Elizabeth is. She will be the mother of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ. And Elizabeth received this news and this pregnancy in faith, saying, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me.”
Meanwhile, the angel Gabriel has made another appearance to announce the birth of another special child. It’s when Gabriel appeared to a young woman named Mary and told her that she too would give birth to a son in a miraculous way. This child would be even greater than John: “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary doesn’t know how this can be, since she was still a virgin. Gabriel tells her: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy–the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Mary remarkably receives all this startling news in faith and says, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
So now we have these two women, Elizabeth and Mary, both carrying a special child in their womb: Elizabeth, bearing John, and Mary, bearing Jesus. Elizabeth and Mary each have been given the gift of faith by the Holy Spirit to receive the word of the Lord in humility and joy. And now the stories intersect: Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, who is about six months along.
“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. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.’”
Here is Spirit-given faith all around! Notice, Elizabeth hears the greeting from Mary, and Elizabeth is “filled with the Holy Spirit.” She is given the gift of faith to recognize what the Lord was doing through Mary. She calls Mary the most blessed of women, because of the child she is carrying: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” The fruit of Mary’s womb, of course, is Jesus, and the Spirit reveals to Elizabeth that this child is, in fact, the Lord–Elizabeth’s Lord, as she says: “Why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
So by the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth is given the faith to recognize and receive and rejoice in the presence of her Lord and Savior, little Jesus, still in Mary’s womb. But it’s not just Elizabeth who has this Spirit-given faith. It’s even the little baby in her womb, John. He too rejoices in faith at the coming of the Christ. Elizabeth tells Mary: “For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” Remarkable, isn’t it? Here is John, preborn, greeting Jesus in joy! He leaps in the womb when the sound of Mary’s greeting comes to Elizabeth. In this case, even a little baby still in the womb is given the gift of faith to acknowledge the presence of Christ.
But should this surprise us? Remember, the angel Gabriel had told Zechariah that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And here is the evidence of that: John leaps for joy, even in Elizabeth’s womb.
By the way, friends, this passage tells us a couple of things that are relevant for our day. One is that what woman carries in her womb is, in fact, a baby, even from conception. Yes, it’s a baby in there, a human baby, a distinct human life that has been begun, not just a blob of tissue that can be disposed of by abortion. This passage serves as a powerful pro-life text.
The other thing is that God can give the Holy Spirit, and thus faith, even to infants. You don’t have to wait until someone comes to some man-invented “age of accountability” before a child can believe in the Savior. God can give this miracle of faith even to an infant. The Holy Spirit works through the word, connected to Holy Baptism, to give faith, yes, to little children.
So John has been given the Holy Spirit, and he leaps for joy when Jesus comes into the room. So there is Elizabeth, and there is John, both greeting the Savior with Spirit-given faith.
But there’s something about Mary, also. She too has been given the gift of faith–perhaps she, more than anyone. After all, she was given the most amazing news, that she, of all people, would be the mother of the Messiah himself. About Mary and about the gift of faith she has been given, Elizabeth says: “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
Luther thought this was an even greater miracle than the virgin Mary becoming pregnant. It was that Mary was given the gift of faith to believe all this! And so it is for us. Like Mary, like Elizabeth, like John, we have had a miracle take place in our lives. The Holy Spirit has worked through the word to give us the gift of the faith in our Savior. Think of it. You have never seen Jesus. Yet you believe. You are trusting in him for your salvation. This is truly a miracle. It is a gift of God that you have this faith, this Spirit-given faith in Christ your Savior.
And thank God you do! For this is the only way to be saved, namely, through faith in Christ. The good news of who Jesus is and what he has done for us–this gospel word comes to us in preaching and teaching, in Holy Baptism and in the Sacrament of the Altar, and we hear and we receive and we believe. It’s a miracle! It’s a gift! Romans 10:17: “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Ephesians 2:8: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” The Holy Spirit works through the living, active word of God to bring us to faith and to keep us in the faith. As you learned in the Catechism, under the Third Article: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”
It is the true faith, and it is the only faith that saves, because it is faith in the only Savior there is. There is no other. No one else can save you, except your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He is God coming in the flesh to do the rescue mission only God can do: to save us from our sins. We could not save ourselves from our guilt and the judgment it deserves. We could never do enough. But Jesus has done the saving job for us: coming as our brother, living the sinless life we have not lived, the Son of God then carrying our guilt and our shame and our sins to the cross, there to suffer and die in our place. And then he rises from the dead, to show that the victory has been won! Here is the Savior you need! Here is the Savior you have!
And here he is today, present in our midst, and we greet him in faith and humility and in joy! Jesus is speaking to us today, and the Holy Spirit is confirming that word in our hearts. And Jesus is coming again, on the Last Day, to gather his church and to take us home. On that day, we will once again rejoice and even leap to greet our Savior! On that day, faith will give way to sight, and we will join with Elizabeth and John and with Mary in her song of praise and joy: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!”