Second Advent: Two Women – Two Responses to the Miracle

December 5, 2021

Luke 1:24-56

Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist and Mary, the mother of Jesus

I find Elizabeth and Mary so relatable and not just to women!  The women’s responses to God’s miracles transcend gender and age.

As we go through the self-emptying of Advent in preparation for Christmas, I believe they have much to teach us about ourselves if we are willing to pause ‘on our way to Bethlehem’ and reflect as the Spirit leads.

First, Elizabeth.  

That lady had a great pedigree.  She was from the priestly house of Aaron, (Luke 1:5) that elder brother of Moses  who lived so long ago; Aaron had the privilege of serving as Moses’ mouthpiece to the people. Yet he also was disgraced as the one responsible for the ‘golden calf’ debacle in the wilderness. Aaron ultimately became the one God redeemed as the first in a centuries’ long line of priests; such was the ancestry of Elizabeth’s son, John the Baptist. 

Elizabeth was what we in the 21st century would refer to as a PK (preacher’s kid). She ‘grew up’ enveloped in the ‘faith of her fathers,’ saturated in worship, imprinted with God’s word for God’s people in a day women and girls were isolated from the men and boys in synagogue. Still, her ‘growing up’ apparently gave her a strong faith difference in her life that would carried her through a challenging and disappointing adulthood.

True, she was married to another PK – Zechariah. It promised to be a doubly blessed union, except it wasn’t….Elizabeth and Zechariah had no children.

Not having children back then was viewed much differently than it is today. 

To be barren in the 1st century was a disgrace; a woman’s whole function was to bear children. With no children, she had no identity, no purpose, no status.

To be barren in the 1st century was to be vulnerable; childless widows would typically be abandoned by the community and left to die alone. There was no life insurance to fall back on, no 401Ks. 

Elizabeth’s barrenness and advancing age were a stark and fearful reality.

If we were to translate Elizabeth’s situation into the 21st century:

How would we feel in our era of ageism and programmed human obsolescence?

  • stuck in a career that offered little satisfaction, little advancement, and a rapidly approaching prospect of retirement into oblivion as a fearful reality.  
    • Have we saved enough?
    • Will we still remain relevant to friends and family? 
    • What about health concerns?  Who will care about us; indeed who will care for us?

So, imagine how Elizabeth must have felt when she became pregnant!  Talk about a seismic shift!

God was offering her a new lease on life, new hope for her future, joy to replace her previous disgrace!

Incredible!  

For those who are older among us, it would be as though in retirement you’re offered a golden parachute, a position as a mentor, unexpected opportunities to use your wisdom and experience in new and glorious ways; moving from apparent obsolescence to renewed viability in a community you had presupposed would shut you out!

For a younger individual, it would be as if you were perhaps let go from your employment during COVID and isolated from your community. You feel abandoned. There is nothing left for you. No one seems to notice your situation, much less care. Then the call comes. The job opens up – perhaps even a better job. You are offered a new and unexpected path in a field you had never thought possible!

Wouldn’t you be overflowing with wild, unimagined joy?

As long as we have life and breath – God has plans for us – plans beyond our wildest, most joyful imaginings! And I believe that is how Elizabeth must have felt.

But…if she was wildly joyful…why did she remain in seclusion for 5 months? 

Perhaps she felt her ‘condition’ to be just a biological aberration. She had wanted a child for so long and, just when she had given up, her body started playing tricks on her! Remember Zechariah was silent – how adequately did he convey the angel’s visitation to her? Elizabeth had experienced enough disgrace and disappointment in her life – she would just check out for a while until things settled.

Perhaps, as well, she wanted the first months of her pregnancy for herself as new life, new hope, new possibilities grew inside her.  This was a particularly holy time for this old woman – a time to savor without the distraction of the curious folks around her.

Perhaps she now understood what was meant by God’s timing.  She was part of a larger miracle; it was only when God had everything in place, all situations and people, ‘on stage,’ ready for the unfolding of this eternal drama, that her child would be born. 

So many ‘perhaps’-es – so many nexuses where we can relate to this woman!

It all makes me wonder – 

  • When have I given up hope about something I was sure was God’s purpose for my life? 
    • I mean when have I given up hope about something I just KNEW God had planned for me?  
    • Do I trust in God’s timing?  
    • Do I participate in the coming together of God’s plan?  Or do I sit in despondency and feel embarrassed and disgraced?
  • When I perceive God’s activity in my life, am I able to sit with it for a while and allow it to settle before sharing with others?
    • Oftentimes if we are too quick ‘to share,’ folks will try to dissuade us from the unfolding plan, or deny the miracle as impossible.  (you know the words: you’re too old/too young/too poor/too rich/too busy/ to over or under educated, the wrong gender…….)

Considering Elizabeth’s seclusion, It’s easy to be uncomfortable with that position and rebut that ‘it takes a village’ to get anything done in life….indeed, it does.  I imagine those neighbor women helped raised John – after all, Elizabeth was older; a toddler – and a teenager – can really wear a young parent out, never mind, an older parent!  But ‘in the beginning,’ during gestation and growth taking place in the silence of her womb, God works within and through Elizabeth. 

God does the same in and through us in the silent spaces of our hearts – if we are willing to wait – if we are willing to allow the only voice we hear to be God’s as the divine plans for our lives – at every stage of our lives gestates within us.

+ + +

Now, on to Mary.  

A young, innocent girl, but Mary is pregnant out of wedlock.

How was she seen within the community?  Talk about fodder for gossip!

What did her parents say when they found out she was pregnant?  Did they second guess their parenting?  Her friends?  We hear nothing about those reactions but we can speculate:

  • How would you react if you had been part of those difficult conversations?
    • Mary, I have known you your whole life, what makes you think you’re so blessed?
      • An angel told you what?  
      • The Holy Spirit will bring life to your womb?  Seriously?  
      • And the child will be the Son of God?  That’s a new one, Mary!  Think you might want to think up a more believable story!

We tend to think it was easy for folks to believe such amazing stories 2000+ years ago – but nothing could be further from the truth. Sometime look at the passages in Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and the laws involving sexual behavior and its consequences.  

Mary was in for a rough time.  

Unlike, Elizabeth, whose pregnancy was a new beginning even in the waning years of her life, Mary’s pregnancy would have cut the young girl’s life short and impacted the life of her child as well. She would be have been stoned to death or shunned by the community at the very least.  

The miracle God offered Mary came at a price.  

It was only with the teachings of her Son that the harshness of the law would be interpreted through the lens of God’s law of limitless love and forgiveness. 

  • When have we chosen not to believe the experience of another because it is beyond our frame of knowledge?
  • When have we abandoned those most in need of our compassionate care just because they don’t fit the mold of societal standards?  
  • When they apparently don’t go along with ‘our’ guidelines for living, how do we react?
  • When does the implausible become impossible in our mind just because it ‘could surely never happen to us’?
  • How open are we to hearing about the experiences of others with an ear toward understanding rather than knee-jerk judgment?

I believe Mary probably – undoubtedly – had a hard time navigating the emotions of her parents and fiancé – and perhaps that is why she sought out her cousin, Elizabeth.  

The angel had given the girl that glimmer of hope: ‘elderly’ Elizabeth was pregnant, too!  Mary went to check it out!  The journey apparently helped the young girl catch her breath and renew her strength as she stayed with Elizabeth for 3 months. (Luke 1:56)

  • This was not a case of misery loves company, rather a case of strength drawing on strength.  
    • Neither knew the exact way the other was feeling – such sympatico is truly impossible, yet they both knew they were recipients of a miracle; a miracle of life and hope that could only come from God.
    • They both realized that what happened to them at the hand of God’s miraculous, life-giving power, was not about them, but rather was about the blessing that would flow through them into the world, and they praised God together!
  • The blessings the women received were not without their personal burdens: 
    • Elizabeth would undoubtedly not live to see her son grow up and be used by God. Yet, she would not have to endure his tragic end either.
    • Mary would indeed live to see her Son grow up but would endure the heartbreak of His rejection by the world He came to save and the tragedy of His death. Yet, she would be brought to a place of overwhelming joy at His resurrection. 

There is so much to learn from these women; so much that is relevant to me, and perhaps you.  

As long as we live, God has a plan for our lives within the divine planning that surpasses our own agendas. What seems long in coming, is but a setting of the stage for God’s plans. What seems miraculous to us is but a sign of God’s activity in the world is all around us, bringing us new hope, new life, new possibilities beyond our wildest imaginings.  The blessings we receive, thought they might take shape within us, are never solely for us – but to come through us into the world for the glory of God.

The questions are:  

  • Are we able to be patient and wait on God’s timing?
  • Are we willing to live into God’s plans for our own lives without limiting our potential to what we feel is reasonable?
  • Are we able to risk it all for the sake of something greater than ourselves?
  • Are we able to be still even as we participate in God’s plan, yet at the same time, seek out and/or affirm God’s work in the lives of others?
  • Are we able to see that the blessings we receive, the miracles we experience, the new life and hope that are given us are not for us – but for the glory of God and the offer of new life and new hope to all that God has made?

Advent is a time for such reflection – such new growth within our own lives – such renewed hope born at just the right time – until we are overcome with wild joyfulness at what we realize is God’s plan and that this plan includes – in spite of who we think we are, and regardless of what we see as our limitations!  That’s truly one of the  miraculous gifts of Christmas!

And to God be the glory! AMEN.

Published by Pastor Catharine

Retired ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I have a Master's of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry (with an emphasis on Spiritual Transformation of Community) from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

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