If we were preparing to go on a road trip together, we’d need to make some preparations. We might need to make a list of things to pack, perhaps we would have an itinerary of things we wanted to accomplish along the way and once we got where we were going. We’d have to make sure our car had recently been serviced and the tire pressure was where it needed to be. If we were going to take a road trip together, we couldn’t just leave at a moment’s notice. It takes some planning and preparation. It also takes a great deal of snacks, usually snacks that I like to make up ahead of time. I guess you could say that I’m a little bit uptight about traveling. If we were going to go on a road trip together, I’d probably drive you crazy with all my little questions and wonderings. Did we bring everything we needed? Did we forget to do something at home? Are you sure we shut the garage door?
Jeff’s the one calmly reminding me that we’ve packed everything we absolutely needed. And, even though we quite often forget at least one little thing at home, he’s usually right. Whatever we’ve left at home can be easily picked up at a store along the way. All the essentials are with us in the car, and we’ve planned the best we could.
Nearly every road trip I’ve taken has been to go see family. When we lived in Iowa, we would road-trip to Colorado to see my family. We’d take shorter trips to see Jeff’s family. Now that we’re in Nebraska, our road trips will be headed the opposite direction as we go to Illinois to see Jeff’s family. A couple of years ago, though, Jeff heard about an outdoor conference in North Carolina where you would go camping and attend conference sessions in the open air. He heard about it with very little time to spare, and somehow he convinced me to throw caution to the wind, pack our four-door car as full as we could make it, and head from Iowa to North Carolina with both kids in tow. I’m not sure how he persuaded me to go, but it was an experience none of us will soon forget. We made friendships there that have endured, we got rained on every single day and learned how to deal with being a bit soggy, and we learned amazing things at each of the sessions we attended. We also learned that kids will eat pretty much anything – including red cabbage and cilantro – if they’re hungry enough.
But, regardless of where we’re going or what we learn along the way, I’ve learned that a good road trip takes us out of our comfort zones, involves a lot of singing, and always includes something we didn’t expect when we first set out.
The thing about road trips is that they change our perspective on things. There’s something about the journey itself that is important. The interruptions along the way either end up being part of the silly stories we reminisce about, or they end up being some of our very favorite things we take away from the trip. We remember the flat tire that set our schedule back, or the conversation with a stranger at a landmark that changed our perspective, or the hospitality that someone showed to you that both humbled you and brought you joy.
Trips stick with us. Perhaps because all of life is a journey. But, whatever the reason, it seems that going away from what’s familiar and experiencing life outside of our ordinary routines can have a lasting impact.
The section of Luke 1 that we’re looking at today tells the story of what happened when Mary arrived at her destination after taking a trip to see Elizabeth. Elizabeth – the wife of Zechariah – had been barren and was “getting on in years,” as the Bible gently puts the problem. An angel appeared to Zechariah and told him that he and Elizabeth would have a son, finally, after so many years of waiting and longing. Later on, Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel and told that she would have a son. Mary’s situation was quite different from Elizabeth’s. Elizabeth had been waiting and longing and was losing hope. Mary was young and not yet married and would face public scrutiny and danger for having a child.
At Christmas time, we often focus on the angel’s visit to Mary and on the birth of Jesus, but we don’t often talk about the Feast of the Visitation – the journey that Mary took to see Elizabeth, the journey of an older mother and a younger mother coming together as they both contemplated their role in the story that God was unfolding before their eyes. The Feast of the Visitation was observed on May 31 – just this past week – but so many times it is a day that goes by without our notice. And, I think that’s a shame. There’s something about this journey – something about this meeting – that was important enough to the story Luke was telling that he included it.
And, there’s something about this journey that helps us to better understand the importance of including in the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.”
This journey – this simple visit of one woman to her relative – points to the truth that the good news is not something confined to one time and one place. It’s for all of us.
As we look at the Apostles’ Creed, specifically the line about Jesus being conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary – we might find it hard to understand how this applies to the church. What is so important about these claims that we recite them, memorize them, and hold them close to our hearts? There are many ways this question could be answered, but for today I want us to consider that we recite this part of the creed for two reasons: 1) because Jesus uniquely fulfills this claim, and 2) because, in some strange way, we’re in on all this, too.
The first is the most straight-forward, like taking the quickest route to someplace instead of a more scenic one. It is important for us in the church to recite this part of the creed because it tells us something about who Jesus is. Jesus – conceived of the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary – is both God and flesh. He has the ability to reconcile us to God because of who he is, but is also “not unable to sympathize with us in our weaknesses,” as it says in Hebrews. Jesus uniquely in who he was (and is!) was able to bridge the gap so that we might be able to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8).
Jesus uniquely fulfills this part of the Apostles’ Creed, and that is good news for all of us. But, this claim in the Apostles’ Creed is something that we are in on, too. Even though we cannot directly apply this bit of the creed to ourselves, we can affirm that God is with us on each of our journeys – from the very beginning of them to our end. The road trip each of us is taking in our lives is one that God has helped us prepare for and has promised not to leave us alone on. The same Holy Spirit that Jesus promised to the disciples is present and active in each of our journeys, leading us and guiding us every step of the way.
I find it interesting that this simple visit of Mary to Elizabeth has a whole day in the church year set aside for us to remember that it happened. On the surface, it seems like a simple trip where one family member visits another. And yet, this visit culminates in women prophesying – Elizabeth prophesying who Jesus would be, and Mary prophesying what Jesus would do. In this simple moment, heaven and earth met up, and the Spirit filled both women to tell the truth of God’s movement in the world. Mary sang:
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Mary’s words sound eerily close to the words of Isaiah, and the words that Jesus would later read and say he fulfilled: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
In this simple moment, on this simple road trip, Mary and Elizabeth bear witness to the movement of God in the world. They promise the day when justice would prevail. And, even though their words seem to point a finger at all the injustice around them, they also point a finger at each of us and ask us how we might be entering into the miracle that God is spreading across the world.
We enter into the miracle, most often in the small ways that might seem unimportant to us. We enter in by being faithful wherever it is we find ourselves. I love how Jane Zwart put this in her commencement address at Calvin College this year:
“And, chances are that God will call you, too—not always, but often—to do tasks without any glamor attached to them. So that your way of being in on the miracle might be to research careful position papers that no one credits with changing their mind. Or to clean up after the alcoholic who lurches into the ER. Or to check the equations that someone smarter than you has already worked. Or to practice the concerto again. Or to forgive the tactlessness of a classroom of middle-school students. Or to… well, you can fill in the blank.
Chances are, in other words, that if you follow Christ, you will spend some time—maybe even most of your time—in the kingdom of boredom or, at least, of routine, taking part in the miracles that don’t narrate well but that, nonetheless, usher in the kingdom of God.
Maybe that sounds dismal, but I hope not.”
These journeys we take – and even the frustrating detours – are opportunities for us to respond with faithfulness – in the small things, and in the big ones. May we join in with Mary as travelers along the road, with Elizabeth in showing hospitality to all those who cross our paths, and with Jesus as God spread the miracle across the world. May we encourage each other along the way, and may we find nourishment in the company of each other, and as we feast around the Lord’s table.
**This sermon is part three in a series on the Apostles’ Creed. Part three looks at “who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.”
Part one of this series – “Clear as Mud” – a Trinity Sunday sermon