This is a sermon for the fourth Sunday of Advent, given in the “church next door.” The Scripture it references is Luke 1:39-45.
“Why has this happened to me?” Elizabeth asked. On one level, it’s a surprising question; Elizabeth was heavily pregnant, and it makes sense that some of her female relatives would gather around her and support her.
But on another level, I wonder whether it tells us something very profound about how Elizabeth saw herself. “Why has this happened to me? I’m nobody special; not noble, not educated, not particularly wealthy, not a matriarch of a great family; old, worn out with a lifetime of hard physical work, and used to my neighbours sneering at my barrenness. Why should anyone significant come to spend time with me?”
How ironic, then, that Elizabeth has been remembered as a saint in Christianity, with some of her words becoming incorporated into traditional daily prayers; and as an exemplar of a faithful and wise woman in Islam; two of the world’s great religions holding her life and words in high honour. Perhaps that, too, would have had her asking, “Why has this happened to me?”
Of course, Elizabeth was caught up in events which were much bigger than she probably understood. The two unborn babies whom she and Mary were carrying were going to turn the whole known world upside down, and two millennia on the events they set in motion are still working themselves out.
But there’s something else worth noticing about this small part of the story. Luke writes that Elizabeth was “filled with the Holy Spirit.” And when the Holy Spirit gets involved in the story, that’s when very ordinary people find themselves doing and saying things which carry much more significance than they might realise. There are plenty of other examples; think of David facing Goliath, or Paul on the road to Damascus; moments when very ordinary people found something greater than them at work in their lives, and they were never quite the same again.
But here’s the thing. None of us is going to have a story exactly like Elizabeth’s, or David’s, or Paul’s. In my last parish, there was a lovely lady – very elderly now, and not very well – I used to spend a lot of time visiting her on her various trips into hospital. And I always enjoyed those visits because this lady took the time to really listen to me, about things that were happening in the parish, and her conversation was always deeply wise and encouraging. So I was very surprised, towards the end of my time there, when she talked to my one day about how she felt so useless, as if she had nothing to give, and she was being such a nuisance by being sick again and needing people to care for her, and how she felt she was bothering me unfairly by having me come to visit. She didn’t recognise, at all, how very much what felt to her like very ordinary conversation meant to me.
The lady I’m remembering had gifts of wisdom and discernment and encouragement; she needed help to see them, but they were part of the Holy Spirit’s gift to her. And each of us, through our baptism, is filled with the Holy Spirit. We may not always know it or feel like it, but the same spirit who inspired Elizabeth’s words and David’s courage and Paul’s sheer dynamism and my parishioner’s wisdom is at work in each of us in different ways.
And what that means is that there is no one – not one person in this building this morning – who doesn’t have something valuable to contribute. It doesn’t matter if, like Elizabeth, or like my former parishioner, you feel as if you’re nobody special. If you worry that you’re not well off, or particularly educated, or energetic. If you make who you are, for yourself, available to God, the Holy Spirit can and will work with that to help you do more than you might ever realise.
You see, a healthy church – and certainly a growing church – isn’t a game of superstars and spectators. God doesn’t have some people who are specially gifted and holy – or even just active – who make it all happen while everyone else is sidelined. Each of us has different gifts, different passions, different experiences, different personalities, and we need them all – not just mine, not just the vicar’s and maybe the wardens and musicians and so on – but all of us, for this parish to be what it’s meant to be.
You see, some of you are much wiser than me. Some have more faith. Some are much better at recognising other people’s struggles and caring for them. Some will be better at teaching and explaining things. Some will be much more encouraging or generous. And a theological degree and an ordination ceremony don’t change that.
And this is true, not because there’s something wrong with me, but because this is how the church works; we all have different strengths, and together, when we each play our part, the whole community is strengthened and built up.
Of course, not all of these gifts are going to be the ones which get lots of attention. But even Paul said that “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable.” Indispensable. It’s often the quiet contributions which go unseen and unrecognised a lot of the time which have the biggest impact on the life and the health of the church.
So how can we become more aware of what we each bring to this God-given ecology of gifts? It’s going to sound stupidly obvious, but one of the most important things is feedback from others. It’s when others around you tell you how much what you did meant, and you start to see a pattern of such feedback, that you start to recognise your own unique contribution. So the corollary of that is that it’s important that we be willing to give appreciative feedback as well; that we be on the look out for the things we value in one another and quick to express that appreciation.
But the other side of that coin is that we need to be willing to give things a go. Not sure whether you can pray in a way which will help others connect with God? Give it a go. There’s nothing lost if you try it and find that actually, it’s not really your thing. Similarly, if you can see a need in the church, by all means speak up and talk about it; make suggestions for how things could be different or even just say, “I don’t know what the solution is, but I think this is a problem.” I mean, for example, the other day someone told me that these pews are really uncomfortable. I wouldn’t know; I never sit in them! Even if you’ve only got one piece of the puzzle, it’s encouraging to those in leadership to know that other people are concerned and actively thinking about our life together and how to make it better. And don’t be afraid to think outside the square or be creative!
Elizabeth’s words which we read this morning have echoed down the centuries in prayers and songs and liturgies. She has been remembered as a woman of extraordinary faith. But she saw herself as a very ordinary person with not much to give, who wondered why any honour was being given to her.
But within her, hidden even from herself, the Holy Spirit was at work bringing about the things that God held in trust for the world.
It can be the same for us. God’s loving concern for the world and desire to reach out to it in compassion is no less now than it was in Elizabeth’s day. All he needs is people who are willing and open to being part of that work, to open their mouths even when they don’t know the significance of what they’re about to say, and to trust that he will be with them in all that they do. There’s no one who’s not good enough, not worthy enough, to be part of that. It belongs to us all.
The Lord be with you.