Luke 1, selected verses
Journey – What Brings You Here?: Elizabeth
Why? Why? That’s the question that I’ve heard and read and seen since Friday’s unfolding events, the tragic taking of lives in Connecticut this week, lives of children so young it makes our heads spin with confusion at the total senselessness, the total out-of-order-ness of it all. All anyone has to do is picture the child in their life closest to this age – your own child or grandchild, your niece or nephew or neighbor or godchild – experiencing a moment of the fear that these children in Connecticut did – to have your head swimming, your eyes filling, your mind asking: Why? Why has this happened? How can we make sense of something so awful?
I spent a lot of time yesterday reading people’s reactions to the tragedy online – in news articles, facebook posts, blog entries – some of the forums that people are using to try to make sense of something awful. I came across this prayer from Walter Brueggemann, written in a different circumstance, but perfect in the context of yesterday’s mid-Advent horror. It’s called Christmas…the Very Next Day:
Had we the chance, we would have rushed to Bethlehem to see this thing that had come to pass.
Had we been a day later, we would have found the manger empty and the family departed.
We would have learned that they fled to Egypt, warned that the baby was endangered, sought by the establishment of the day
that understood how his very life threatened the way things are.
We would have paused at the empty stall and pondered how this baby from the very beginning was under threat.
The powers understood that his grace threatened all our coercions;
they understood that his truth challenged all our lies;
they understood that his power to heal nullified our many pathologies;
they understood that his power to forgive vetoed the power of guilt
and the drama of debt among us.
From day one they pursued him, and schemed and conspired
until finally…on a gray Friday… they got him!
No wonder the family fled, in order to give him time for his life.
We could still pause at the empty barn—
and ponder that all our babies are under threat,
all the vulnerable who stand at risk before predators,
our babies who face the slow erosion of consumerism,
our babies who face the reach of sexual exploitation,
our babies who face the call to war, placed as we say, ‘in harm’s way,’
our babies, elsewhere in the world, who know of cold steel against soft arms
and distended bellies from lack of food;
our babies everywhere who are caught in the fearful display of ruthless adult power.
We ponder how peculiar this baby at Bethlehem is, summoned to save the world, and yet we know, how like every child, this one also was at risk.
The manger is empty a day later… the father warned in a dream.
Our world is so at risk, and yet we seek after and wait for this child named ‘Emmanuel.’
Come be with us, you who are called 'God with us.'
Our world is so at risk. And into this context, the Christ-child is born, yet again. Today, it seems fitting that our scripture focus brings us into the lives of two pregnant women, both in precarious, risky situations in different ways. Last week, I shared with you that Matthew’s gospel tells the story of Jesus’ birth from the perspective of Joseph and his dreams. This week, we turn our focus to the gospel of Luke, who tells the story from Mary’s perspective. But today, we particularly focus in on Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, and her role in the story.
To understand Elizabeth, we have to back up to the beginning of Luke 1. Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, is a priest in the temple. We read that both of them were “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.” This statement is important, because right after it, we read that Elizabeth was barren, and that both Elizabeth and Zechariah were “getting on in years.” In other words, both of them probably had reconciled themselves to the fact that there would be no children for them. Today, many people, many families, still have to struggle with infertility issues, not being physically able to have children when they are so wanted. We can sympathize with Elizabeth and Zechariah in this. But I’m not sure we can fully understand how linked having children was in the ancient world to fulfilling your duty, your destiny, your purpose. Children meant security and financial stability, in addition to being able to carry on a family line. But more, children were signs of God’s blessings, God’s promises being carried out, and so the inability to have children was seen as a cause for concern. Was God punishing sinful people, by making them barren? Many would have thought so. Today, still, many of us wonder “why,” when facing these struggles. But the scriptures spell it out for us, in multiple places: A couple’s childlessness was not equivalent to God’s judgment on them. I am not sure I can even convey what radical new thinking this was. So when we read that Elizabeth and Zechariah were righteous, blameless, following the commandments, we aren’t being told how impossibly perfect they were, we’re being told that they didn’t have children because they didn’t have children, not because they’d done something wrong that God was punishing them for. That’s important.
Zechariah is chosen for duty in temple. The priests draw lots for service, and Zechariah’s turn is up to offer the incense, an honor. Alone in that part of the temple, Zechariah is greeted by a messenger from God. He’s terrified, overwhelmed with fear. But the angel tells him not to be afraid. God has heard his prayers, Elizabeth’s prayers. She will bear a son, John. He’ll be full of the Holy Spirit even before he’s born, and his purpose will be to make the people ready for God. Zechariah asks one question: “How will I know this is so? Because Elizabeth and I are getting rather old.” Gabriel, the messenger, seems astonished at his doubt. Because of it, Gabriel says, he will not be able to speak until John is born. Zechariah exits the sanctuary, and it is clear he has had a vision of some kind. I wonder how he communicates to Elizabeth what is about to happen, what signs and gestures and notes he must resort to. But Elizabeth doesn’t seem surprised. She becomes pregnant, and Elizabeth notes it as a sign of God’s favor.
It is months after this when we encounter Elizabeth again. Gabriel has visited Mary and announced to her that she would bear a son, Jesus, the Savior. And Gabriel also tells Mary that Elizabeth is now six months pregnant, and that her pregnancy is a sign of this: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” Upon hearing this news, we read that Mary goes “with haste” to visit her cousin. We don’t know why she does this, but we can speculate that Mary would enjoy the privacy this would give her, there in the hill country, with her pregnancy that could be the cause of a community scandal, that she could be of aid to her older cousin, who undoubtedly will experience a more physically stressful pregnancy than young Mary, and that Elizabeth could be a comfort and source of knowledge and wisdom for Mary, especially given their parallel journeys.
We don’t know if Elizabeth knew of Mary’s pregnancy before her arrival or not. But immediately when Mary enters, the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps, and Elizabeth herself is “filled with the Holy Spirit,” the first person in the New Testament to earn this description. Elizabeth says to Mary, “‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’” I think her words describe both Mary’s response and her own to what God has shared with them. After this scene, we see Elizabeth give birth to her child, and with a now-vocal Zechariah, name him John. And then, Elizabeth is never mentioned again. We next see John, her son, as an adult, in the wilderness, preaching repentance, just before he baptizes his cousin, Jesus. But this is the only snippet we have of Elizabeth’s life.
Today, our gospel lesson brings us an encounter between two women who might have asked a lot of questions, might have asked a lot of “Whys” in response to what has happening to them. We have Elizabeth, who the Bible describes as “getting on in years,” and barren, conditions that make her husband even doubt the angel Gabriel when he tells him Elizabeth will bear a son, and she is here several months pregnant with a child we know will be John the Baptist. And we have Mary – probably a young teen, who is engaged, but not yet married, also suddenly found to be with child – the child Jesus. These two women could have, might have, wondered about God’s timing in their lives. Why couldn’t Elizabeth have become pregnant 20 years earlier? Would it have made a difference if John were 20 years instead of a few months older than Jesus? Why couldn’t Mary have become pregnant after marrying Joseph? For a young unwed woman in Mary’s day to be found pregnant could carry the penalty of death by stoning. Why put Mary at such a risk?
But Mary and Elizabeth gave birth to children who, in the very act of fulfilling God’s promises spent virtually their whole lives being at risk. John grows to be a man known for being odd, eccentric in his lifestyle, and one who speaks the truths that no one wants to hear. He loses his life when he won’t stop saying things that make other uncomfortable. More than uncomfortable: John’s words make them dangerous, violent. And of course, Jesus – he is pursued throughout his entire ministry. Constantly, religious authorities tried to trap him, corner him, trip him up. Ultimately, they arrested, beat, and executed Jesus. Oh, we know the story of life from death. We are Easter people. But Jesus, infant so tender-and-mild, was at risk, always.
A few weeks ago, I got to give the message at LIFE, during the worship time of our youth program. We’ve been focusing on the themes of our Advent candles, and I was talking about peace. The Bible talks a lot about peace. We call Jesus the Prince of Peace. Indeed, Jesus speaks of the peace he gives to us. But as we were talking about the dividing walls we build up between ourselves and others, both literally and figuratively, we talked about the difference between peace and safety. I think, so often, we mistake the two, think they are the same thing, peace and safety. We build walls of all kinds, thinking we will find peace, but safety is the best we can hope for with our methods. Jesus never promises us safety. He calls us to follow him by taking up crosses – not pretty crosses, decorative, gilded, or glittering – crosses that were symbols of giving up your life. Seeking peace is risky and costly.
I keep returning to Elizabeth’s words to Mary: "And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." Elizabeth and Mary’s pregnancies were risky, and yet God was working through them, to fulfill God’s promises. John was at risk, and yet he prepared the way, fulfilling God’s promise. Jesus was at risk from day one, and yet he drank the cup that was place before him, humbling himself in death on a cross for us, fulfilling God’s promise. Our world is at risk – and yet God-is-with-us. Our children live in a world where we cannot promise safety. But we can promise Jesus. We can promise God-with-us, even when God must weep with us. We are at risk, and yet it is only in risky, costly discipleship that we walk the path of peace, the path of Jesus. Christians are always called to walk this strange, tenuous line. At risk – yet God is with us. It only takes one candle to cancel the power of darkness – and we are preparing again and always for the birth of the light of the world, God’s promise in the flesh.
“Our world is so at risk, and yet we seek after and wait for this child named ‘Emmanuel.’
Come be with us, you who are called 'God with us.'” Amen.