Luke 1:39-45 24/12/00 6 p.m. Holy Communion
39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!"
John Wesley's father, Samuel, was a dedicated pastor, but there were those in his parish who did not like him. On February 9, 1709, a fire broke out in the rectory at Epworth, possibly started by one of the rector's enemies. Young John, not yet six years old, was stranded on an upper floor of the building.
Two neighbours rescued the lad just seconds before the roof crashed in. One neighbour stood on the other's shoulders and pulled young John through the window. Samuel Wesley said, "Come, neighbours, let us kneel down. Let us give thanks to God. He has given me all my eight children. Let the house go. I am rich enough."
John Wesley often referred to himself as a "brand plucked out of the fire" (Zech 3:2; Amos 4:11). In later years he often noted February 9 in his journal and gave thanks to God for His mercy. Samuel Wesley laboured for 40 years at Epworth and saw very little fruit; but consider what his family accomplished!
In today's gospel we have two women who had sons who would transform the world.
Mary had just been told by the angel Gabriel that she would be pregnant with God's son, Jesus. She was also told that her relative Elizabeth was going to have a child, even though she was old. Prompted by this Mary travels about sixty miles to visit Elizabeth and stays with her until John in born.
Every baby is unique, a gift from God. But the conceptions of Mary and Elizabeth's children were miraculous. Elizabeth had been given a child after many years of being barren, with all the disgrace that this brought in this culture. It was believed that the gift of children, or the withholding of them, indicated God's approval or rejection of someone. Barrenness could lead to divorce as it was the primary duty of a wife to bear children, especially a male heir. This was the position Elizabeth was in. She and Zechariah were good, religious Jews. They would have prayed for a child for years. Wondering if God had heard, if he cared. They were both in old age and perhaps they had given up hope until the angel came to Zechariah.
Have you heard this letter to Dear Denise?
I feel like ending my life! What seemed like the ideal dream has become an unending nightmare. Only a few weeks ago everything seemed perfect. My girlfriend and I got engaged the same day my father made me a full partner in his construction business. I was so pumped and definitely in love. Life seemed complete. Even my faith was at an all-time high. It all started falling apart one Friday when my fiancee met me after work. She looked like something was wrong. . . but I couldn't get her to talk about it. So we out to a movie that evening, but my head wasn't in it. My imagination was running wild. Didn't she love me anymore? Did she want to call off the wedding? Did she have cancer? The questions kept coming. I was a nervous wreck. Afterward, we went out for a drink. She didn't say any thing for a long time. Finally, she whispered the words I hadn't even dared to think. "I'm pregnant." Then she burst into tears. I was stunned. "You? But we haven't even. . ." A wave of nausea hit me as I realized the horrible truth: Since it wasn't me, it had to be someone else. "Who was he?" I forced myself to ask. I couldn't decide if I really wanted to know.
She looked down. "I can't tell you," she said. "You wouldn't understand. I just want you to know I still love you and want to be your wife!" "If you loved me you wouldn't be in the condition you're in," I snapped. But I couldn't help seeing the love in that face I had come to cherish. Denise, I knew I still loved her with all my heart and that was why I hurt so much. But how could I continue to love someone who slept around? I was too shocked to say anything the rest of the evening. I paid the bill, took her home, and drove away. Although I've never been very emotional, I cried myself to sleep. I woke up early the next morning angry and full of questions. How could she do this to me? Didn't she love me? Hadn't we promised to save ourselves for each other? Who was he? How long had they been sleeping together? How could they manage to see each other without me even suspecting? Didn't she believe in the standard God had set for relationships? I went all week without seeing or calling her. I just couldn't. My heart ached. My stomach burned. My head pounded non-stop. Then she showed up today just as I was closing shop. "I've made arrangements to leave town for awhile," she said. "I think it's best for you and me and for our families. I'll be staying at my cousin's place which is a few hours away." I must have been frowning because she added, "Don't worry, my love, I'll be in good hands." She handed me a piece of paper with a phone number where I could reach her and then left. I haven't heard from her since, and that was three months ago.
Denise, what should I do now? I can't imagine going ahead with the engagement. My trust in her has been destroyed. Still, the thought of walking away leaves me even more confused. The shame and embarrassment of being pregnant and not married in our small town would make her the target of endless harassment. On the other hand, if I stand by her and pretend that the child is mine, I'd destroy my reputation. . . something I don't think I'm willing to risk to cover her selfish mistake. A close friend in whom I've confided says she should have an abortion. My gut feeling is to break off the engagement and try to forget what happened. But I care too much for her to make an ugly scene. Maybe I could tell our friends that it was my idea to break up and she had to get out of town to escape the pain of my decision.
Denise, I want to do the right thing. But I just can't decide. Should I stay with her regardless of what others think? Or should I quietly break off the engagement and try to get on with my life?
Signed, A Devastated Boyfriend
And then came the reply:
Dear Devastated Boyfriend,
Don't be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For what is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. Christ is in her. You'll see. Just open the door of your heart to Mary, and you'll begin to experience the wonder of Christ's presence firsthand
Mary would endure disgrace because of her conception. She was engaged to Joseph. This would normally last a year and was considered more binding than an engagement today. A divorce was needed to terminate the engagement and, if her fiancee died, a woman would be considered a widow. If she had sex this was considered adulterous and she could be stoned to death.
Mary's pregnancy was a threat to her honour in the local community and to her relationship with Joseph. Perhaps one of the reasons Mary wanted to visit Elizabeth was to avoid this situation while she thought things through. Another reason could be that she wanted to be able to talk to someone she knew who would be able to understand her situation.
As well as sharing in supernatural pregnancies the two women also had other similarities.
Both were humble.
Mary was humble in the way that she accepted the news of her conception. Verse 38"I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said."
God had graciously chosen Mary to bear his son, and she responded with thanksgiving and joy in her song in verses 46-55. This song also shows that Mary knew her Old Testament, for it has echoes of the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2 when she dedicated Samuel to God.
Elizabeth was also humble. She had become pregnant through God's grace after years of barrenness. She realised that her baby was going to have a special role in God's plans. But, at the same time her younger relative was going to give birth to a son who would play an even more important role in God's plans. She could have been jealous and resentful.
Verse 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb...
John was to prepare the way for Jesus, the Saviour. We see a foretaste of this whilst John is still in the womb. Perhaps this helped Elizabeth to express her wonder and gratitude in verses 42f. "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?"
The word "blessed" refers to earthly bliss, God's favour to humans shown in different types of gifts to them. The word is also used by humans to "bless" God in the sense of praising him for bestowing those gifts. Elizabeth uses this word twice in this verse and in verse 45. In verse 42 she is referring at this point to the " worldly claim to fame" that will be Mary's.
In verse 43 she calls Jesus 'My Lord': "Lord" is an expression used by Luke for the divine nature of Jesus. Its use here shows that Elizabeth recognized Mary's child as the Messiah and so did John. Elizabeth shows her humility by acknowledging the worth, even the superiority of an unborn baby. A contrast with today where some unborn babies are considered as things to experiment upon, as we have just seen this week after the House of Commons gave permission for experimentation on embryos. Others, of course, are considered an inconvenience and aborted.
Both women were examples of true faith. This is linked to their humility. A true faith has to be humble enough to accept from, and rely upon, God.
It has been said that there are three kinds of faith in Christ:
1. Struggling faith, like a man in deep water desperately swimming.
2. Clinging faith, like a man hanging to the side of a boat.
3. Resting faith, like a man safely within the boat (and able to reach out with a hand to help someone else get in).
These two women had a resting faith. They believed in the truth of God's word for them and they acted upon these words. Relying upon them.
We have to bear in mind that, in this culture, women were regarded as things, second class citizens. The faith of these women contrasted with that of their partners. Zechariah was, of course, dumb at this time because he had doubted the words of the angel Gabriel ( 1:20 ). We know from Matthew's gospel ( 1:19ff ) that when Joseph first knew of the pregnancy he decided to divorce Mary.
Later on both men showed their faith. Joseph had a dream that convinced him he should marry Mary. Once John was born and Zechariah had his speech back, he sang praises that mirrored those of Mary.
Earlier this year, when a test by a pharmacist confirmed our suspicions that Melanie was pregnant, we were delighted. Before he gave us the result the pharmacist was very diplomatic, and asked if we wanted the result to be positive. This reflects the fact that, for many people a pregnancy is not good news. I remember being delighted and welling up with tears of joy as we walked hand in hand down the street.
Joy is something that Mary and Elizabeth exuded, it poured out of them. That joy came from God the Holy Spirit working within them. The Holy Spirit had, of course, conceived Jesus, and also worked within Elizabeth to enable her to conceive. This reminds us that new life, both physical and spiritual, comes from God. It is not created by our own efforts. We read in verse 41 that Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Following this she uttered the words of joy, humility and adoration in verses 42-45.
We mentioned Mary's song of praise earlier which, I am sure, was a result of God the Holy Spirit. Later on we read in verse 67 that Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit, and that his song was a prophecy. Words given by God.
Tonight we have looked at two women who are examples of humility, faith, and joy inspired by the Holy Spirit. This Christmas and into 2001 let us ask that God's Holy Spirit would give us the humility, faith and joy that we need to bring glory to him.