Elizabeth, Mother of John (December 23, 2018)
Luke 1: 39-55
Elizabeth, Mother of John
This week we’re going to be talking about these two women and the impact that they had through what we can learn from this story, and the stories later in the gospel we’ve looked at the last few weeks.
What we have here are two women. Elizabeth is six months pregnant. Six months earlier, she was visited by the angel Gabriel, and her husband was visited by the angel Gabriel; and both were told that Elizabeth was going to have a baby even though she was considered to be too old to have a baby in society. She was going to have a baby, and that baby was going to be male, and they were to name him John. Further, her son would be the one to announce the Messiah was coming. Elizabeth accepts this; Zachariah doesn’t think it’s possible, and Zachariah is awarded a prolonged forced period of silent reflection as a result of his disbelief: he’s made to be mute until the baby is born. This is the situation here.
Now Mary is a girl who is engaged to be married but not yet married, and has not yet engaged in marital relations. She has just recently been visited by the same angel Gabriel, who has informed her that she also is going to be pregnant, that she also is going to give birth to a son, and that her son would be the Messiah, and she is to name him Jesus. This is our situation.
I think that important because I don’t know very many women who are six months pregnant and are overly eager to accept company. And I don’t know how many six months pregnant women are overly eager to have someone show up on their door with bags ready to stay for a prolonged period of time. Now, presumably Mary is going to help Elizabeth during her stay, but still I think this shows us something about Elizabeth. Part of that is the culture of the time, and being hospitable is expected; but I think another part of it is that this is what a person of God does: they take in that the person needing help that comes to them, even if it costs greatly to the person. A person of God helps those in need.
Inside Elizabeth‘s womb is John. And John hears Mary speak and leaps for joy. Another translation read dances with joy in Elizabeth’s womb, which cannot have been comfortable. Certainly Elizabeth felt that, and she listens to her child; she listens to the Spirit which is active within her. She knows that Mary has something very important that is going on with her. The Spirit informs her of everything that is going on: that Mary is pregnant, even though Mary isn’t showing, and that Mary is pregnant with “my Lord,” Elizabeth says. So Elizabeth understands a little bit of what is going on. What does she do with it?
For starters, she congratulates Mary. That might not stand out to you because, of course she congratulates Mary: Mary is pregnant. We hear an announcement of a pregnancy, the first this we say is congratulations. But that’s probably not a reaction that Mary was used to. Mary has traveled over a week’s journey, by foot, to get to Elizabeth. To go from Nazareth to Elizabeth is a long, long journey through the desert. And yet here she is. Why?
I think, and this is me reading into it a little bit, but I think Mary was not getting very good reactions from the town. She was pregnant before marriage, and even though Joseph was still going through with the marriage, I think Mary is still getting side glances, she is still getting cold shoulders, conversations ending the minute she walks in the room. I think that she might be feeling a little uncomfortable; so she packs up and she travels the week‘s journey to get to her cousin. I believe it to be her cousin, that’s what is traditionally said. And she stays there for three months, we’re told, before heading back to Nazareth. Plenty of time for time to heal a little bit, for Joseph to work on a few peoples’ attitudes.
But here, Elizabeth congratulates her. How much of a blessing do you think Elizabeth was to Mary, simply by being hospitable and simply by being kind? Simply by believing her crazy story of an angelic visit, and miraculous conception. How much of a blessing do you think they were to each other; these are two women have been visited by the angel Gabriel, as far as we know the only two women in the world at the time who is been visited by the angel Gabriel. The only other person who is been visited by the angel Gabriel (Joseph was visited by an angel, but we don’t know for sure that was Gabriel) is Zachariah, but he is mute. How much of a blessing was it to these two women just simply to be able to relate to each other, to find someone who knew what they were going through? I know that the Spirit is it some sense dictating her words in this moment, but doesn’t the phrase, “Blessed is she who believed there would be up fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” sound like a comment from someone who is frustrated that no one believes there will be fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord, and a woman frustrated that her husband didn’t believe it? Elizabeth blesses Mary simply by being kind, and hospitable, and herself.
Now, how does Elizabeth respond to “the mother of my Lord” coming into her home? How does she respond to Jesus, in a way, coming into her home? That can tell us a lot about Elizabeth. And we can see here a couple of things. First off, she seems to understand the importance of Jesus, not only in her declaration of, “And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?,” but just simply the fact that she is giving honor to Mary. She is the older of the two of them. If anyone should be giving honor, it should be Mary giving honor to her elder. And yeah Elizabeth willingly reverses that and gives the praise to Mary, and to her baby who is even younger. In the fact that she readily and willingly reverses that, and in her own home no less, I think she was an understanding of the importance of Jesus, and understanding just who Jesus was.
That understanding is influenced a little bit by the Spirit, but I think it is also influenced by her simply being open to the possibility of God working in unexpected and new ways. Maybe such as working through a woman who is thought to be barren, or working through a woman who is not yet married and had not had relations yet. And I think that has helped her also to believe the message she received from Gabriel, not only that she would have a baby, but that baby would be the one who would call forth the Messiah. And so Elizabeth also understands that maybe the Messiah is coming soon too, and maybe even in the same way: as a baby born to the unexpected.
And we see that part of why Zachariah did not believe the angel was that he was a priest, part of the established tradition of the religion, and was less open to the idea of God working in this way. I think that’s part of why Elizabeth believed and Zachariah didn’t; Elizabeth was more open to the idea that God might change the things we “know,” but which weren’t really true. And I wonder what truths, what things we know, what traditions we hold onto, that really are more human understanding and that maybe God wants to speak into in our moment; as God has spoken into moments for 2000 years in refining us as a species and a faith. If you think that type of thing doesn’t ever happen, I think you missed a lot of church history, and you’re missing the point of this passage.
The second thing that we see in Elizabeth’s response to Jesus is that she believes herself not worthy of being visited. Not only does she understand the importance of who Jesus is, she believes herself unworthy of even being visited. She is amazed that God would look upon her with such favor as to be able to meet the mother of the Messiah. She is awestruck. This is who she is; this is her faith in action in relation to Jesus.
Now let’s look at how John reacts to Jesus. Because Scripture also gives us a chance to see this same interaction being played out again through the children when Jesus comes to John to be baptized in the Jordan River. How does John react to an unexpected visit by Jesus? Well for starters he thinks it is extremely important that people understand the importance of Jesus, and understand what all he’s about, who he is, and view him in the correct light. That was kind of the entire point of his ministry: to make straight the paths for Jesus. But he gets very upset when people don’t take Jesus with enough urgency. This is why he’s upset with the Pharisees and the Saudesees last week: because they don’t seem to be reacting to the news of Jesus with the necessary urgency. He understands the immense importance of Jesus.
Secondly, when Jesus actually comes to see John, we see John react very similar to his mother. He states that he should not be baptizing Jesus, but Jesus should be baptizing him; expressing this role reversal of what you would expect. He states that he is unworthy to even tie the sandals of Jesus. That “who am I that my Lord comes and visits me?” feeling continues to be there, yet he follows Jesus’ instructions and he goes through with the baptism that Jesus says is needed. And perhaps most importantly, in the Gospel of John we find out that he takes two of his followers aside and he says “go, follow him. Don’t follow me, follow him. If you do, then you get it, you get what I was talking about the whole time.” And so he lowers himself to raise Jesus up.
That sounds a lot like Elizabeth to me. As John’s mother, Elizabeth is very influential in the raising of John and in the beliefs that John is going to have. I think that God chose these two women very specifically because God understood that they’re going to have influence in the raising of the sons; and Mary is going to have some ability to keep Jesus on track in those key, formative moments of his human life. As parents, our beliefs are often passed on to our children in one way or another. And so I wonder what beliefs are you passing on to your children and your grandchildren?
I think Elizabeth had a lot of influence in Mary’s upbringing too. After all, when Mary gets in trouble she decides to travel over a week’s journey away to go and visit Elizabeth, so I have a feeling that Elizabeth was key and important to her. She is someone Mary can count on, someone she can trust, someone who is comforting to her. So Elizabeth was important in raising not only John, but also a little bit in raising Jesus because she influences Mary. Elizabeth is a pretty important person in the story!
As parents we understand that in 20 years time, when the kids look back on 2018, on the teens in general, they won’t remember all the toys, they won’t remember every meal at a restaurant, they won’t remember those times where you spent a little bit of extra money to get a specific thing; but they will remember you showed up, they will remember what you did or didn’t do, they will remember what you believed. They will remember you, and the experiences that they have together. For instance, they won’t remember what menu item they ordered at Dairy Queen after baseball practice, but they remember that mom took me to dairy queen and we laughed together.
Think about what beliefs you want them to remember from you. And that’s not just with words, but with actions as well. Many of my generation are leaving the church. And for many of my generation that I’ve spoken to, they’re leaving the church because they just think it’s not that important. Their parents told him it’s important, they read them all the stories that talked about Jesus, maybe they prayed over the dinner table. They told them of the importance of their faith with words. But their actions said something different. Their actions showed that church and faith in Jesus can be placed on the back burner, that we don’t have to worry about that now, there’s more important things to be focused on. And my generation took that to heart.
Think intentionally about what you want to leave behind for your children. Because what Elizabeth teaches us is that there is immense importance in raising children, and in raising the children that we have within our orbit if we don’t have any blood children at the moment. Importance in living our desired instruction too. My mission for you for a day, or for the next week till New Year’s, is to examine: what is the life you want to live? What is the life you want to display? How do you get there? And then resolve, as New Year’s rolls around, to go and do that and be the person you want to be. Amen.