December 23, 2012
William G. Carter
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “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 leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
We took our pillow and went to the birthing class. I was still a young man, thirty-one, curious about what kind of coaching I could provide my pregnant wife. Those were the last days of pregnancy and I was doing my best to be supportive. Frankly, it wasn’t my body that had been invaded by the gestation of a new life. I was merely the observer. The mother of our child was the participant. And until we walked into the room, I had not realized how much she had been in seclusion.
That changed in the twinkling of an eye. About twenty other pregnant ladies wobbled around the room, some holding their distended bellies, a couple of them groaning quietly, most all of them ready for the joyous event to come as quickly as possible so they can be over with it.
The miracle of that moment is that these pregnant women found each other. They met, they chatted. The chatter increased, as their clueless men-folk stood pitifully by. We were the pillow-holders, beginning to wonder what great mystery we had stumbled into.
Meanwhile the women spoke of significant matters. Did you get sick? Was there much vomiting? When did it stop? My ankles began to swell immediately. This isn’t our first, but it’s harder than the first three. I’m getting tired of these expandable waist slacks; I was a size four before he did this to me. Well, I have a little soccer player inside my womb and we can’t agree on when to settle down at night. Did you see that girl over there? Her baby goes out straight, while mine gave me these enormous hips.
Twenty confused men stood by helplessly, as women talked together about their pregnancies. There is a grand conspiracy of silence about birthing. As one young mother summed up so eloquently, “If my mama had told me what was coming, I would have thought twice about doing it.”
Yet this is the biological mystery of how the human race continues. This is how family lines proceed, how the genetic dice are tossed. Every baby comes as a gift, some long anticipated, some unexpected, some wanted, some sadly not. But each child is a gift that God offers for the future of the world.
Two pregnant women meet in our Bible story. They have a conversation with no men participating. One of them is very old, the other is very young. The young woman traveled some distance to initiate the conversation. She greets the old lady, and then the old lady does all the talking.
Her name is Elizabeth. She was the daughter of a Jewish priest. Her husband is a Jewish priest, and was the son of a Jewish priest. It was probably an arranged marriage, as many such marriages were. She supported her husband and his work, because it was the same family business, so to speak. She knew what it required, as her husband tended to the ministry of God.
But her life was marked by a great irony. As her husband served a generous God, God had withheld the blessing of a child from Elizabeth. In her fertile years, she had wanted a baby but the child never came. The door stayed shut, as relatives and neighbors birthed their babies and presented them for her husband’s blessing. Prayers for a child had gone unanswered, and Elizabeth had long settled down into advanced middle age. This was her life’s one disappointment. There is no evidence that she was resentful or bitter, just disappointed. She learned to smile while she stayed empty inside.
But then, about six months before, there was that day when Zechariah came home from the temple. His eyes were wild. His tongue was tied. Something had happened to him. What was it? He could not say.
It was clear from his pantomime that he was deeply affected by a holy moment in Jerusalem. But what? She had helped him prepare for a most significant event. Zechariah’s division had been scheduled to serve as priests in the temple. While he was there, he was chosen for the first and only time in his life to go into the holiest place on earth. Behind the curtains, deep into the heart of the temple, into the inner chamber – it was said that if God were to appear anywhere on earth, it would happen there.
And then it happened to Zechariah. The awesome angel appeared and said, “Don’t be afraid. God hears your prayer. Your wife will bear you a son.” In a moment of pure stupidity, the old Jewish priest said, “I don’t know how this could happen. We are as old as Abraham and Sarah . . .”
The angel said, “Oh, be quiet!” Zechariah stumbled out of there, his face sunburned by glory. He staggered home. Elizabeth caught him, held him close, asked, “Dear heart, are you OK?” Soon after that, she was astonished by his vigor. Repeatedly she was astonished. And when the morning sickness came, she was astonished again.
A child grew inside her, just as the angel had said. She pondered this deeply. The first time she ever speaks in scripture, she proclaims something profound: “God has replaced disgrace by grace.”
Now it’s six months later. As she sorts through the laundry, her distant relative’s daughter shows up in her doorframe. The child in her belly gave a kick. Then another one. She dropped the laundry basket and took a breath. As young Mary helped her scoop up the clothing, they began the conversation that has been recorded in today’s text. These two pregnant women speak of their mysteries. They find one another. Neither is hidden from the other. On a purely human level, did they speak of the same surprises that pregnant women share? Of course they did.
Yet the conversation we have is at a different level. As Luke tells it, it is a conversation prompted by the Holy Spirit. Luke loves to talk about the Holy Spirit. He says here, “Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” What does that mean? This is Luke’s way of saying that she is full of God. When somebody is “filled with the Holy Spirit,” it means God gets into them. The power of God fills up Elizabeth. The joy of God overflows out of her. The breath of God fills her lungs and she exhales blessings.
In the temple, her old man Zechariah had his holy moment. This is now hers. God infuses her body and soul. God gets into her, as much as God gets into anybody. Such moments can come to any of us. I believe they can come at any time. They have come for others, they have come to me. It’s an uncalculated event of pure grace, a moment when the Holy Force of the universe becomes deeply personal, and we are affected and changed.
I recall a couple of years ago. There was a person who was as angry a soul as any I have ever met. She stomped around, created wreckage wherever she went. But that Christmas Eve, her heart completely thawed, and she descended into a flood of tears. When she caught her breath, she explained, “I was singing Silent Night by candlelight, and I couldn’t help myself. I couldn’t help myself.” I think I know what it was. God got into her. Or as Luke says, “Filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Nobody manufactures these moments. They fall on us out of heaven. As Luke introduces us to the coming of Jesus into our world, he says the Spirit of God gets into all kinds of people: Elizabeth, Zechariah, their son John, mother Mary, old Simeon and ancient Anna. The Spirit prompts the birth of Jesus, and then falls on him completely when he is baptized thirty years later. As Jesus prays, preaches, heals, and feed, the Spirit spills out of him for the benefit of other people. Then the Spirit comes upon a frightened group of his friends and turns them into a bold and serving church.
In our text, the Spirit comes upon Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, and she is no longer the same person. She begins to speak while her husband the priest remains mute. Even if she were a woman of her times, instructed by the male-dominated culture to be quiet and stay out of sight, here she is, bubbling over with blessings, effusively honoring the future mother of Jesus. There is something new happening in the world, signals Luke: it’s time for the women to speak of God’s goodness. They are not to be swept away in the old world of Jewish tradition. Oh no, not when the Spirit of God comes upon them!
What we have here is a story about the turning of the ages. The old Elizabeth – barren like Sarah, barren like Rebekah, barren like Rachel, barren like Hannah – she is having a child because of the generosity of God. She stands for the women of every age who are disregarded and dismissed because they cannot produce for their men – and God provides what their men cannot provide for them.
It’s like the ancient vision of the prophet Isaiah:
Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor!
For the children of the desolate woman will be more numerous
than the children of her that is married.
Something is happening through Elizabeth – the barrenness of centuries of Jewish hopes is now being countered by the grace of God.
And something is happening in Mary, the young unmarried woman. Her child comes as a complete gift, unrequested, unexpected, without the initiation of any man. The Spirit comes upon Mary, and that’s all it takes to have a child. That’s all it takes. And this child of hers will grow to honor women and men as equal children of God. He will push aside the cultural restrictions of his day to speak to women, to heal them, to welcome their support of his work. He counters the world’s disgraceful assessment of women with God’s abundant grace. So it is the women who first sing of his birth, and women who first share the announcement of his resurrection.
How can this be? It’s because God gives God’s own self to the world. God breathes God’s Breath as a way of pushing open something new. Without the Holy Spirit – without God’s purpose or presence in our lives – we are left only to ourselves. All we have is our own words, our limited hopes, our restricted abilities. But when God comes into our midst, we find ourselves players in some larger plan.
“Blessed is she who believes that what God speaks will happen.” Elizabeth the old sings this to Mary the young. With this burst of Spirit, the ages turn and something new is announced.
This is the promise of Christmas, as we sing our carols, pray our prayers, and offer ourselves to the work of God. God has a mission to this world. It is announced by Elizabeth’s child on behalf of Mary’s son. God comes to say that every single one of us matters. If our lives are barren, God has the power to fill them. If our hopes have frozen, God comes to re-ignite them. If our work is hard and met with resistance, if faith is shaky and energy is depleted, God comes in the blessing of the Holy Spirit. This gift is not a birthright or a stockpiled asset. The Spirit comes and goes, as wild as the winter wind. But the Spirit does come – and that is God’s blessing – to Elizabeth, to Mary, and to us.
Watch for this, O beloved people of God, for all of you are pregnant. You have the seed of God’s future planted deep within you. Watch and prepare for the Spirit to fill you, to move you, to lift you, to empower you, to increase in you. Prepare for a great and benevolent force beyond your own to equip you to love strangers, to forgive enemies, to create new possibilities for life where there were once only death and dead-ends.
Trust the good news of God. And remember one thing more: belief is a muscle that needs exercise.