The encouragement of Elizabeth

One of the things I love about being the Vicar here, is how encouraging you all are to me. There isn’t a week goes by without someone in our congregation saying something that encourages me.

Transcript of sermon notes

The impact of your encouragement is that I feel bold in doing what I do. When I speak to people in the street, or in cafes, or on the telephone, or from the bottom of their garden, I do it knowing that there are people in our churches who are pleased I’m doing this, like the way I do it and that helps me to feel confident and strong enough to do it.

Of course, the Church of England gave me authority to do this. When the PCCs appointed me, they gave me authority to do this… but even now, two years later, I still feel I’m doing the right thing because I get so much encouragement.

Of course, there are people within the villages who say derogatory things, or who give me a hard time about God and about Jesus. There are plenty of people who don’t want me to talk about God – and when I say that my unofficial title is “Oh God it’s the Vicar” I’m not joking. But I’m not here to meet the expectations of those who consider themselves enemies of God. I’m here to encourage you in your faith, to help you to get to know God better and to work with you to share the good news of Jesus with the villages of Slaithwaite and Marsden. If I wait for encouragement and permission from those who want me to shut up about God, then we will all be waiting a long time.

I read somewhere: Don’t accept criticism from someone you wouldn’t go to for advice. This is good advice and it makes me wonder, who would you go to for advice or encouragement? I’m specifically thinking of spiritual encouragement.

On the fourth Sunday of Advent we remember Mary, the mother of Jesus, and we read the story of her visit to Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.

I love this story of Elizabeth and Mary. Mary knows her cousin is pregnant, and that her own pregnancy is super-naturally ‘God conceived’. We know that Joseph is a source of encouragement for Mary because he believed too and did not abandon or divorce her; but instead loved her and cared for her.

But imagine being in the community, in the village, of people who don’t believe. A community of people who think that Mary’s story of God’s gift is ‘untrue’. Can you imagine how draining and wearing down that would feel, to be constantly told that your faith in God is misguided and wrong. Do we really need to imagine? Isn’t that what we are surrounded by all the time? The ridicule of those who don’t believe. So Mary goes to visit Elizabeth, and in her womb, John the soon-to-be-Baptist leaps for joy. Elizabeth feels the movement of her baby, and is encouraged. No words, just a feeling. A physical kick, or jump, or joyfulness in another human moves and Elizabeth is filled with gladness: filled with the Holy Spirit. An unborn baby encourages an adult woman, who is then filled with the Holy Spirit.

Reproduced with permission. Image by Caitlin Thomson 2021: original on Cate’s website

Then this joy spreads: Elizabeth doesn’t keep this encouragement to herself, she shares the joy, “Mary! Why should this great thing happen to me; you come to visit, my unborn baby is filled with joy and I am so happy to see you.”
The joy spreads. Imagine being Mary at this time, after being surrounded by all those in the village who don’t believe; who whisper behind their hands that she is deluded, or worse. After the lies talked about her behind her back, or maybe even in front of her face, Elizabeth’s greeting and joy are a magnificent encouragement to Mary, they open the floodgates of Mary’s emotions and she says:

‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
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 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 for ever.’

We have come to call this the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord.”

Mary’s soul is so happy and joyful that her love for God is magnified. And because her words are said again and again by Christians throughout history: this love for God is magnified over and over. “My spirit rejoices in God my saviour!”

Are you not filled with joy at the way Mary has been lifted up, encouraged and supported by her friend? The Holy Spirit is at work in the encouragement shared. In the same way, the encouragement you give me fills me with joy and strength, and the blessing of the Holy Spirit fills my soul, helping me to carry on sharing the good news of Jesus in our villages.

So, if Elizabeth encourages Mary. And if you encourage me. Who encourages you? Who is the Elizabeth in your life? Again, don’t accept criticism from someone you wouldn’t go to for advice. Mary went to find Elizabeth, a person she trusted in time of need. If you were to feel downcast about your faith, crushed by a world that doesn’t believe, who would you go to visit? Who is your Elizabeth? Who would say to you, “How happy you must be to know that God loves you”. Think back to the smiles of joy and gladness on the faces of those who were confirmed: as the Bishop said to each in turn, “God loves you and has called you for his own”. The Bishop prayed for the Holy Spirit to rest upon them, and to encourage them. This was personal, intimate, and emotional: Like a baby kicking in the womb or the hug of a loved one so glad to see you.

As wonderful as it is to be encouraged. It is amazing to be the source of encouragement to others. The Holy Spirit equips us, gives us the words to say when we need them. What this means is that as you encourage someone in their faith, as you say something, God fills you with the Holy Spirit, God blesses you as you become a blessing on those around you.

If someone came to you for spiritual encouragement, what would you say?
• God be with you.
• God loves you.
• Jesus loves you.

However, if these seem like platitudes, then remember that the Bible is a fabulous source of words of spiritual encouragement:
• There is nowhere you can be lost from God’s love, even darkness is not dark to Him.
• Jesus said that where two or three gather in his name, there he will be with them – let’s meet in Jesus name.
• Lift your eyes to the hills… your help comes from the maker of heaven and earth.
• Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death – we don’t need to fear evil.
• The fourth of the ten commandments was, “rest”, and Jesus said he would offer rest to those who struggle carrying the weight of heavy burdens.

Finally, it doesn’t always have to be words, sometimes there are no words, we simply “Weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice”.

I know from personal experience that, as we share our faith, our faith grows. That God gives us the words to say and fills us with the Holy Spirit, that we become blessed to be a blessing on those around us. As you encourage others, and see their spirit lift. Then the words, “My soul magnifies the Lord” become true: your soul magnifies the Lord as you encourage each other in faith. That magnification happens in you and in the person you encourage, and it spreads. Then we will become a community of people who, filled with the Holy Spirit, encourage one another. That is an essential element of church life: being a group of people, filled with the Holy Spirit, encouraging one another in faith.

A church in which those who feel like Mary, looking for a friend to be with in times of worry and distress, will find hope and encouragement.

A church in of people like Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, encouraging one another.

This is the sort of church that will grow: because day by day, God will add to our number those who are being encouraged and our souls will magnify the Lord.