This Advent, as we prepare for Christmas, I am going to be preaching on some of the lesser-known characters in the Christmas story. These aren’t the ones who are in every Christmas play or most of the Christmas cards, but the ones who are at the edges of the story, the ones who briefly appear only to disappear again a few verses later.
This week I will be preaching on Elizabeth, who was the mother of John the Baptist and Mary’s cousin. Our Scripture for this week is a bit hodgepodge, because Elizabeth appears a few times on the edges of other people’s stories.
Luke begins his gospel with the miracles leading up to both John the Baptist and Jesus’ births. At first we hear of Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah, who is a priest at the Temple in Jerusalem. They are both righteous people, Luke tells us. But they have no children. When Zechariah goes to serve at the Temple, an angel appears to him and tells him that he and his wife are going to have a child who will be a part of a new thing that God is doing. When he returns home, Elizabeth does indeed conceive a child.
Then the story jumps to Mary, who has been engaged to Joseph. An angel comes to her as well, telling her that she too will have a child–but this will not just be a long-awaited child conceived by a married couple; no, this will be a miraculous birth, before Mary has been married, and this child will be the Son of God.
The angel mentioned Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy, and so Mary rushes to Elizabeth, and when the two women meet Elizabeth knows immediately what has happened, for the child in her womb leaps with joy, and Elizabeth blesses Mary and rejoices with her. Later, both women safely give birth to their promised sons.
Anyone who has been touched by infertility will know that Elizabeth’s child, after so long without one is a miracle, and a source of great joy. Infertility is a painful, devastating thing. That was even more true then, when a woman’s entire societal function was to bear and raise children. Elizabeth has very publicly failed at the one thing she is supposed to do in life, and everyone would have blamed her and her alone. Even our Scripture introduces the couple by pointing out that Elizabeth was barren–there was no conception of the idea that the husband could also contribute to infertility. No, this was Elizabeth’s problem and Elizabeth’s fault, people would have said.
Women were divorced for being barren, at a time when divorce was a virtual guarantee of poverty and ostracism. Sometimes men took other wives, so that they could have an heir. Zechariah did neither of these things, which speaks well to his character, but still it shows how serious this issue was to everyone involved. Elizabeth herself calls her barrenness “a disgrace”.
That’s why this miracle, this child for Elizabeth and Zechariah in their old age, is such a miracle and such a source of joy. Of course they rejoice! The one thing that was missing, this source of shame and pain and disgrace for both of them, has been banished from their life!
Here we have an instance of God coming into someone’s life and from their barrenness making life. It wasn’t anything they did; it was all God. This new life is exactly what the prophets promised over and over again. Isaiah, for instance, wrote: “For the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.” (Isaiah 51:3) That’s exactly what we see in Elizabeth’s story! Out of the most barren, dry, lifeless places, God will bring life that is as lush and overflowing and beautiful as the Garden of Eden was. Out of their sorrow, God brings them to a place of praise and song and joy.
This is God’s promise, not just to Elizabeth, not just to Israel, but to all of us through Jesus Christ. This miracle of Elizabeth’s is a hint of what is to come. Out of our most barren, dry, lifeless places, God will bring life that is as lush and overflowing and beautiful as the Garden of Eden was. Out of our sorrow, God brings us to a place of praise and song and joy. That is the promise of Christmas, of Jesus.
And, just as with Elizabeth, this joy in our lives is not just about us. Elizabeth’s joy was part of God’s wider story, the story of Jesus, of John the Baptist, and most of all of God’s continuing work to redeem the world. Elizabeth may not know the full picture or exactly what it is that her son will do, but she knows that God is working in the world. God is moving. God is making the world new.
This promise doesn’t just apply to Elizabeth. God is still working in the world, still moving, still making the world new all around us. We see that in our own lives, when God takes all of our most painful, difficult spaces and remakes them into places of beauty. We see it in the world around us, when hungry people are fed, when just laws are passed or enforced, when someone is lifted out of poverty. God is still working in the world, still moving, still breathing new life into the most dead and barren of places.
As we move through Advent–and as we move through our lives, long after the Christmas tree has been put away–may we remember that God is working around us. More than that, may we see and sense and taste the goodness of God moving all around us. May we see dry, rocky ground being covered in lush plants; may we see miracles. And may we rejoice.