Luke 1:39-45 “At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!’”
God the mighty Creator, the one true and living God, was present in the life of Christ from its unique beginning. Unlike anyone else he was born of a virgin. We depend on the testimony of his mother Mary alone for this information that a messenger from God had suddenly appeared to her and told her of his unique birth. There was no one else there to see the angel or to hear his words. Gabriel came from the presence of the Holy One and she was informed that she would soon have a son even though she’d never been with a man; “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God” (vv. 35-37).
1. THE UNUSUAL JOURNEY MARY IMMEDIATELY TOOK
So what did pregnant young Mary do next? She set out immediately for the home of Elizabeth. It is utterly unexpected. She took off on foot within hours of hearing the message from God on this hundred-mile journey. Young women at that time might go to the well for water unaccompanied, but they wouldn’t leave the village alone. This journey is as incredible as if one of you should go out from the church today, wave good-bye and walk to Chester over the next three or four days. Mary does this in order to see for herself this old and beloved relation of hers whom she’s been told by God is going to have a baby, in order to rejoice with her. “Can my dear aunt Elizabeth be really expecting a baby?” Mary thought, and she got ready immediately and off she went to see her – probably that very afternoon . . . or the next day at the latest. Where did she stay en route? Did she sleep under the stars? Did she have money to buy food? Her God supplied all her needs. The King’s business demanded haste.
Theophilus is reading these events over fifty years later in Greece. All his life he has heard tales of the gods coming down to earth and impregnating young women. Stories abounded in Greek mythology of this sort of activity, but Mary wasn’t a Greek; she was a Jew from a conservative little community in northern Judea, and that gives her story more gravitas. We may ask what is the alternative to the narrative as Luke records it? Is it that Mary has had a one night stand outside the bonds of her betrothal to Joseph? That she soon discovered she was pregnant? And then, this is what she did, that she made a hundred-miles journey to visit a righteous older relative of hers who was also the wife of a devout priest in order to give Elizabeth this story that the Holy Spirit has made her pregnant? All that this young woman did in order to cover her fall? Come on! You cannot believe that such a journey and story were all some elaborate deception to hide a casual sexual encounter? I suggest to you that such an action would be the last thing a godly teenager would think of doing. If your fifteen year old daughter came home to you and told you, “Daddy, the Holy Spirit has made me pregnant” you would be more disturbed by the nature of her deception than by her pregnancy. You’d suspect your beloved expectant daughter had also got religious mania.
What would a young woman do in her condition, betrothed to a god-fearing carpenter named Joseph? Arrangements for the new house that they were going to live in were well advanced, so what might a young woman who discovered that she was pregnant do? Surely she could do the equivalent of what David tried to get Uriah to do, to sleep with the betrothed one, and then a month later tell him she was pregnant. Then Joseph and Mary could bring forward the date of the wedding and so cover over Mary’s shame somewhat. However, there is nothing at all like that here. There is rather Mary’s incredible decision to take off immediately by herself on a long journey to the home of the most holy member of her extended family ready to give her this explanation for her pregnancy. The whole supernatural story as Luke records it has a ring of reality about it. It is uninventable.
Mary is going to visit Elizabeth for further confirmation of this remarkable message of Gabriel. “I am pregnant? But I don’t feel as if I’m pregnant and there are no evident signs of this yet. But he has told me that it is by the Holy Spirit, and he has reminded me very solemnly that with God everything is possible, and I believe that. He also told me that great Aunt Elizabeth is also six months pregnant? I must go immediately and share in that joyful news myself.” It was on a journey of assurance and joy that Mary sets out. She believed the message from God; she has said, “I am the Lord’s servant . . . may it be to me as you have said” (v.38). Remember that from the very start the priest Zechariah didn’t believe it about his wife Elizabeth; from the very start the carpenter Joseph didn’t believe it about his betrothed, but Mary believed the bare word that had come by God’s messenger.
Mary found herself in a hard spot, and we all find ourselves in some difficult places in life. It could hardly have been tougher for Mary, with all the gossip and innuendo that was going to fill the little homes of Nazareth from one end to another as news of her pregnancy leaked out. Godly Mary found herself in such a providence, one that is so difficult to handle, pregnant and unmarried, but Mary’s response is salutary, “Lord, whatever you will; whatever your plan for me and this child may be, whatever you are going to do for the future of my life, then let it be. From this moment on may it be to me according to your word.” What a woman of trust is Mary of Nazareth.
So the angel had done his work, presenting the word of the Lord so that the hearer believed the message, and Gabriel left her, and Mary didn’t hang around. She set out and hurried to the hill country of Judea.
2. THE GODLY CONVERSATION IN WHICH MARY BECAME ENGAGED.
Then Mary arrives at Elizabeth’s home. Here is the older woman, pregnant at last after hope had almost disappeared, and the virgin teenager, pregnant far sooner than she’d expected. What a joyful meeting of these two takes place, both of them thankful to God and amazed at what the Lord has done in their lives. Of course, neither of them was to know that the end of the lives of both the boys they were then carrying would be their horrific murders, one for the cause of the kingdom and the other for the salvation of the cosmos. Yet the conception of their sons was rooted in spiritual conversations, and we are persuaded that similar conversations of hope and peace would also have characterized the deaths of those boys. I have often thought that there is a special vivacity which shy mothers seem to gain when they became pregnant, and that they talk freely with other pregnant women, sharing the wonder and joy of the new life within them. It is a world for ever closed to men. For every Christian there is this shared joy at pregnancy and also shared hopes in death.
I have pointed out to you that there are certain links between the last chapters of the Old Testament in the book of the prophet Malachi, and the beginning of the gospel in the New Testament. So it is again here. Malachi speaks of dark days in the future but of pools of light here and there which are noted by God. The prophet says, “Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard . . . ‘They will be mine,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Mal. 3:16&17).
How precious are the hours we can spend in Christian fellowship; how we need to encourage godly talk especially on the Lord’s Day. That is an important part of keeping it a holy day. It is essential, I believe, for Christians meeting other believers to talk with them about the kingdom of God. We are not loners; it is a sin to be a loner, or to pick and choose those whom we decide may be allowed into our circle, into the small clique of favourites whom we like. God puts the solitary in families, and while you may pick and choose your friends it is God who chooses who will be in the household of faith with you. Our God tells us that we are not to neglect meeting with one another as some men were then doing. In other words, there were those who avoided the means of grace in apostolic times just as some do today, but we are not to do that. We are to be deeply involved in the affections and fears and hopes of other people; we are to rejoice with other Christians in their joys and to weep with those of them who are weeping. That is one reason Mary went so quickly to her beloved older relative driven by great expectations.
This past month two more biographies have come out on the life of Albert Einstein who was the most famous scientist of the 20th century. He is the man who represents to the non-Christian the modern religion of ‘science.’ In other words you hear people saying, “I don’t believe in Christianity; I believe in ‘science.’” Einstein more than any other man has become ‘Mr. Science’ and yet his work is as inaccessible to the layman as Stephen Hawking’s writings. What are those two men talking about? Few brilliant men are able to explain it to us, and we’d like to know. We are not obscurantists. Yet we notice that the behaviour of both these men in their personal relationships has been unimpressive to say the least, and certainly Einstein’s personality was a chilly one. His biographer Walter Isaacson writes, “He was totally detached from his environment and the human beings in it.” He was so single-minded in his pursuit of science that he cut all emotional ties with people close to him. He had an illegitimate daughter called Liesert. He never mentioned her once. She was handed over for adoption and disappeared from his life. His younger son Eduard became schizophrenic and spent most of his life in psychiatric institutions. Einstein refused to have any contact with him at all. He said, “There is something blocking me.” He confessed, “I have not bestowed the same care to understanding people as to understanding science.” There is not much that is redemptive or inspiring in such men’s lives in spite of great scientific achievements is there? Would you want such men to be your Messiah? You turn from my Lord and who have you got? You say you believe in ‘science’ and I am asking you whether the behaviour of scientists is an example to you telling you how then you should live. Can Einstein tell you why you are here, and what is man’s chief end in life, and who is God and how you can be saved? Can any scientist? Not one amongst the scientists can do so, and you’re not going to find a Messiah amongst the politicians or the media stars are you? You have no one at all if you reject Jesus Christ.
Christians are people in relationships, and God defines that relationship. Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. By this shall all men know that you are Christ’s brothers and sisters by your love for one another. So in this dark world there are these pools of light; two or three are talking about the kingdom of God and the Lord’s dealings with them. This is a vital part of our own growth in grace. It is one of the means God employs of sanctifying his people, through the body, through the mysterious influence one Christian has over another. We give this activity the buzz words, ‘corporate sanctification;’ and we remind you of the frequent ‘one another’ passages in Scripture – ‘pray for one another’ and ‘comfort one another’ and ‘counsel one another,’ and so on. In other words we are not to rely solely on listening to the preacher. We put ourselves in places where Christians stand together and talk of their Saviour and the struggle of the Christian life. Teenagers like Mary must hurry to where middle aged women like Elizabeth can be found and talk and listen to one another. The old can learn from the young as the young from the old.
More than half of the gospel of Luke consists of descriptions of Jesus visiting people, having meals with them, and then . . . something happens. You think of the Lord Jesus joining up with Cleopas and his friend as they walked so disconsolately to Emmaus and he speaks to them from all the Scriptures, talking of the Messiah and how essential it was for him to die the death of the cross. Wherever Jesus goes we find him talking with people, whether it is a man peering down from a tree, or a wild man in a graveyard, or a woman filling her water pot at a well, or a blind man begging at the side of a road, or the judge facing him at his trial, or the man dying alongside him. Jesus talked to people. He scandalized the Pharisees by eating at the homes of people who to them were untouchables. Whatever the future holds for the growth of the church it will include Christian men and women of all ages talking with others.
So here are Mary and Elizabeth, strong believers in God; they knew the Lord and something of his plan for them and their families. They had had dealings with him throughout their lives, and now at these special crises they were both passing through they came together, young Mary taking the initiative, and they talked and strengthened one another. Elizabeth was to rear a child who was to be, as it were, Elijah, who would prepare the way for the Lord. Mary was to rear a child who was to be the Lamb of God, who would take away the sin of the world. Shouldn’t two mothers to be meet and gather strength from one another and pray, the one younger leading the older in praise? We would all know something of this. This, I say, is one appointed way that God strengthens us in the faith. As J.C. Ryle once said, “First let us seek the face of God; then let us seek the face of God’s friends.” In Christian fellowship with God’s friends we become equipped for the task which God calls us to carry out in this life. Who in the church are you equipping by your conversations?
The whole recorded conversation of Mary and Elizabeth was shaped around and focused upon the person of the Lord Jesus, and that only comes if we have developed a growing relationship with the person of Christ. All of us have cluttered lives, and I am simply pleading with you not to let what is the most important thing be supplanted by less important things. Let’s make sure today and in the days to come that the focus of our faith is Jesus Christ. Let’s make sure that that’s always the case, that we’re able increasingly to talk and weave into the fabric of our conversations naturally words about the Lord Jesus Christ.
There was a wonderful way in which God used a number of Christian women talking together to play a crucial part in the conversion of John Bunyan. It was the first turning-point in Bunyan’s life months after being demobbed from the army at the end of the English civil war. He writes that ‘the good providence of God did cast me to Bedford, to work on my calling; and in one of the streets of that town I came where there were three or four poor women sitting at a door in the sun, and talking about the things of God. They spoke as if joy made them speak. They were to me as if they had found a new world. They were far above and out of my reach.’ But as Bunyan went about his job, ‘their talk and discourse went with me’, and he began to appreciate the superficiality of his own apparent godliness. He made a point of ‘going again and again into the company of these poor people, for I could not stay away.’ They softened Bunyan’s heart, and bent his mind to meditate on what they had said.
3. THE GODLY WORDS WHICH MARY HEARS.
Notice how Elizabeth speaks to Mary. She doesn’t allow her to break the news to her that she is pregnant. She silences her rehearsed speech. Elizabeth speaks immediately after Mary’s greeting. Look at her God-centred language, how spiritually minded she is. It is the language of those who know God. For instance, in verse 43 when Elizabeth speaks about “my Lord”, and in verse 45 she speaks of Mary being a “blessed” woman. She’s using words which indicate that she’s thinking spiritually. She has been transformed by the renewing of her mind. Her thoughts are increasingly controlled by God. Here are two women who don’t content themselves with a discussion of daily and mundane matters – the price of bread, and the latest scandals, but their first thoughts are the mighty living God. I’m sure Mary had a thousand questions to ask Elizabeth about her experience of pregnancy. Mary was going to be a very young mum indeed, and she would need some advice on being a ‘well woman.’ I’m sure they also talked about a thousand mundane matters – “No thanks I don’t need to wash my hands . . . Shall I help you prepare a meal? . . . Do you need me to pop down to the well and get you some water?” We don’t need to apologize for such innocent conversations. All that is simply an expression of our humanity. God made us with bodies, and we never cease being fully human beings as Christians. Paul never ceased to have a longing for his own kinsfolk to come to know the true Messiah for themselves; that was his heart’s desire and prayer to God. My point however is that these two women didn’t content themselves with simply discussing those daily mundane matters. They spoke about the kingdom of God and the King himself. That is the mark of Christian fellowship. Its content is focused on Christ and his word and it is suffused with thoughts of God.
One of my delights in Scottish communion seasons is after a meeting is over back in the manse or in the home of an elder sitting around the dinner table, or in the largest room in the house eating from plates on our knees which we have heaped from a buffet, and talking for two or three hours. We’d talk about the sermon, and we’d talk about theology, and we would raise a question, and young and old would make a contribution. There would be some smiles and laughter coming out of the conversations, but this would be a time for seriousness. Are we afraid of seriousness? I think that some are. Yet the thing that I treasure most is the way that they are enabled to weave spiritual conversation into mundane conversation, but they never walked away thinking that they were really spiritual people because they had talked about Christian things. I go away thinking of what I could or should have said, or wish I hadn’t said. Communion times in Scotland are just appropriate times to talk about things that are the most real and important things in life. They are times of reality after the months in shadowlands and we have a responsibility to ensure we do talk much of our Lord. Imagine going through life and never talking about the brightest realities of all! So we hear Elizabeth speaking to Mary and she says three things to her.
i] Elizabeth confirmed the holy pregnancy of Mary. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” (v.42). Elizabeth didn’t mumble those words. She was filled with the Holy Spirit as she said them, and she spoke loudly. In other words, she was given the spirit of prophecy, and that gave her great assurance to speak these words loudly. Mary had first greeted her, “Peace be to you Elizabeth – Shalom!” and the first word Mary heard from Elizabeth in reply was the word ‘Blessed!” Not, “Shameless hussy! What have you done? Don’t expect me to defend you. What tall tales have you brought here?” Nothing like that at all. “Blessed are you among women.” ‘Blessed’ means more than ‘Happy!’ ‘Happy’ often describes a person’s feelings, and it would be unreal to say that Mary felt ‘happy’ at this time. ‘Blessed’ isn’t what a person feels; it is what a person is. We are blessed when God’s favour rests upon us, when the Lord delights in us, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, declares this to be Mary’s state. Among all the women on earth – those who live in Caesar’s palace in Rome, the wife of the richest businessman in the world – it is Mary who is the most blessed of all. She has been given the honour of being the mother according to the flesh of Jesus the Messiah. But Elizabeth hasn’t ended; she goes on, “Blessed is the child you will bear!” Here is the first confirmation that what Gabriel said to Mary was absolutely true. Mary was pregnant! Mary and also the child she bears are the objects of God’s delight. “You and your unborn baby are blessed people!” And the long journey on foot through uncharted territory of 100 miles, through many dangers, toils and cares, has all been worthwhile.
We join with Elizabeth in the reverence and regard we have for Mary. Even if there are denominations within the professing church which pay Mary excess homage and erect statues for her in their churches and pray to her and burn candles to her and call her the Queen of heaven we refuse to react against such practices by weakening our esteem for her. Though in Rome there are about 400 church buildings of which 120 are dedicated to Mary and only 15 to Christ we will still not fail in our duty to call her a blessed woman, for God blessed Mary above all other women. When we look at the statues and paintings of the Virgin we confess that they do nothing at all for us, but when we see the little portraits which the four evangelists give us in the New Testament we feel at times we are looking right into Mary’s heart. In the Bible she is certainly not a lifeless plaster saint. She is a person who lives and moves; we sympathize with her and thank God for her.
However, to say that Mary is entitled to the homage of statues and paintings and candles and prayers because here Elizabeth says, “Blessed are you among women” is hardly worth refuting. There is another woman in the Old Testament called Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. She drove a nail in the head of sleeping Sisera and killed him, and Deborah sang her praises in Judges chapter five, “Her hand reached for the tent peg, her right hand for the workman’s hammer. She struck Sisera, she crushed his head, she shattered and pierced his temple. At her feet he sank, he fell; there he lay. At her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell—dead” (Judges 5:26&27). And in what extravagant language does Deborah praise here? “Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite” (Judges 5:24). That is no encouragement for all the world to be blessing Jael. What Elizabeth says to Mary is a statement of her vindication as a holy woman who has done her duty under the blessing of God. “Blessed are you amongst women!”
ii] Elizabeth identified the unborn child as the Son of God. “But why am I so favoured, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy” (v.43). Elizabeth thinks of all their extended family, the aunts and cousins and grandparents, some of them no doubt influential and prosperous, but out of them all Mary the mother of her Lord has chosen first to come to her. It seems incredible; “What distinguishing grace has been shown to me that it is into my home, after leaving his home above, that my Lord has come in the womb of his mother.” Elizabeth calls the tiniest of unborn children (probably just a few days old) in Mary’s womb, her ‘Lord.’ There are four great ideas in this word ‘lord.’ There is ownership; there is teaching; there is authority – one day her son will go before Mary’s son and will proclaim that the Kingdom of God is at hand. It is imminent if not indeed already present because in Christ the King is already there. His mighty acts, his extraordinary teaching, his impeccable life fill men with wonder. What manner of man is this? It is the Lord who has all authority in heaven and on earth. So there is ownership, teaching and authority, but there is one thing more implied in this word ‘lord’ and it is deity. Here is the first Christian confession that the boy-child whom Mary is carrying is Lord. She is going to give birth before a year passes to Jehovah Jesus. What honour for Jesus that he should be Lord, but we can also add, what enrichment for the Lord that he should have added to himself Jesus through the virgin Mary, that he should take our nature, share our experiences and bear our sins, what a monumental new appreciation of who is Jehovah the mighty God. “And when I think that God his Son not sparing sent him to die, I scarce can take it in. That on the cross my burden gladly bearing he bled and died to take away my sin, then sings my soul my Saviour God to me, how great thou art.”
Can you understand that when Mary enters Elizabeth’s house and greets this pregnant woman with her respectful “Shalom!” that Elizabeth’s own unborn son John should leap in the womb? He is there in his sixth month. He already has well-defined facial features. He’s developed finger-prints and footprints. His skin is red and wrinkled and covered with fine, soft hair. He can hear loud noises and they startle him. John’s eyelids are beginning to part and his eyes to open. All the vital organs are being fine-tuned, heart and brain, and some of them are already functioning, while others are maturing so that they will be ready on the big day. This tiny John leaps as his Lord still in his mother’s womb comes near. Elizabeth tells Mary not only that she is pregnant but that she is carrying Elizabeth’s Lord “the mother of my Lord has come to me.” He is also David’s Lord, and the Lord of every one of us. Even her unborn baby has made his own acknowledgment of this incredible fact. Have you believed in your heart that he is Lord and confessed him as your Lord with your lips?
iii] Elizabeth praised the faith of Mary. “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!” In other words she says, “Mary, God is going to accomplish all that Gabriel told you.” In other words, this child “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; his kingdom will never end” (Lk 1:32&33). If Mary was sometimes shaking her head with wonder and asking herself if all that she had seen and heard had been a dream, Elizabeth confirms to her that it will all be accomplished.
More than that, “How blessed are you for believing it.” The devil is saying, “It was a dream,” and your own mind is saying that it’s too good to be true, but, Mary I know that you are trusting God; “May it be to me as you have said,” and Elizabeth rejoices in the faith of her niece or cousin (we are not sure of the exact relationship).
In other words, Elizabeth saw this young girl whom she had known since she was a baby, whom she had watched grow in grace and faith, who was now confronted by a tremendous task, but yet was not haggard and fearful. Mary had a serenity and peace about her and Elizabeth was moved, and she said to her, “Mary I just want to tell you that your faith in God and in what he has promised in his word has deeply moved me. May you be blessed by God for this faith you are showing.” Elizabeth saw teenage trust in the extraordinary promises of God and Elizabeth paused to encourage that faith. There are people who never thank or praise another Christian because they think it will make them proud. What nonsense it is. The Lord Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the light of the world . . . I won’t call you servants; I will call you my friends.” And that’s what Christian fellowship is designed to do, to strengthen us, to comfort us in the full sense of that word, to encourage us for the work to which we’ve been called. Christians should be heartening and encouraging one another in faith. You have spoken to a dear Christian friend and you have said, “How wonderfully you coped with that loss. What a trial it was – the greatest loss for our whole church but especially for you, and yet what an example you have been of the upholding power of God. I thank God for your faith. I’ve been watching you; I’ve seen how you trusted in the Lord throughout this whole time. It’s been such an encouragement to me. Maybe even I might be able to cope if God asks me to walk that way.” Are you able to encourage fellow Christians in that way? Do you even think about your responsibility to do so? Do you have an eye to look for it and do you have a heart to encourage in those spiritual ways?
Here is Elizabeth, and she says just one more thing in the entire Bible, “No! He is to be called John” (v.60), and then she disappears from the pages of Scripture, but how she used that one opportunity God gave her. There is not a trace of envy here. She was an old experienced godly woman who with her husband has been serving the Lord blamelessly for years through many trials, bearing much reproach, but God passes her by. She is not the one through whom the Seed of the woman will come. Rather it is this little girl, someone in her family, someone whom she has known and loved for years. Mary hasn’t had the trials Elizabeth has had; she is unproven and untested. Here again we see the principle of grace at work, and Elizabeth knows it.All she is is by the grace of God, and the moment Mary knocks on the door and comes into her house she rejoices with total sincerity at the favour showed to her by the Lord. Elizabeth is simply conscious of her own unworthiness. Love does not envy. Loves believes all things
15th July 2007 GEOFF THOMAS