Going Toward The Love
How do you tell the story of God's salvation? That's the question that faced a man we know by the name of Luke. Tradition has it that Luke was a physician, a traveling companion of Paul the Apostle. All we know of Luke for sure is that he was a member of the early group of Christians and that he decided to write an account of what had happened to bring that first Christian community into being.
Luke's telling of the story about Jesus and those who followed him and believed he was God's messiah has much in common with the other Gospel accounts, especially Mark's and Matthew's. But Luke also has some unique features. One of them is Luke's acknowledgment that women played a prominent part in the story. Luke is the only gospel writer to give us an intimate glimpse into the friendship of Jesus with Mary and Martha, two sisters who lived in a town called Bethany. And Luke alone tells us about Elizabeth and Mary and their important part in the salvation story.
As you may know, two of the gospels are silent on the subject of Jesus' birth. Matthew, though, tells us that an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. The angel told him that his bride-to-be, Mary, would bear a son who, said the angel, "will save his people from their sins." But Matthew tells us nothing about Mary herself. She seems to be almost an afterthought in the story. Jesus obviously needed a mother in order to be born, so we are told her name, but we learn next to nothing about her.
Luke, however, tells the story much differently. In Luke's version, Joseph is the afterthought. All the attention is focused on Mary. She is the one who receives a visit from an angel. She is the one told that the son she will conceive by the Holy Spirit will be called "the Son of the Most High." And Mary has something to say about all this. She isn't a minor character in the unfolding drama; she plays a central role.
But I've jumped ahead of the story. Let's go back. Before Luke introduces us to Mary, he first tells us about two other people—Zechariah and Elizabeth. Zechariah, we are told, was a priest who served in the temple. One day, when he is on duty at the altar, an angel appears to him and tells him his wife Elizabeth will bear a son. When Zechariah expresses doubt because his childless wife is up in years, the angel says,
Because you did not believe my words…you will become mute, unable to speak, until the days these things occur.
Sure enough, Zechariah loses the power of speech.
That's Zechariah. About all we know of Elizabeth up to this point is that she has been unable to have children. Back in that time, childlessness was always regarded as a failure of the woman, never the man. Childless women were called "barren," and to be a barren woman was considered a great misfortune, even a disgrace. Zechariah and Elizabeth wanted children but they had given up hope because they were getting on in years.
You and I know what it is like to lose hope, don't we? Hope is based on at least a reasonable possibility that the hoped-for thing will happen. But when time drags on and what you hope for and pray for doesn't materialize, hope withers and finally dies. We are reduced, at last, to "hoping against hope." I've always thought that is a strange expression—hoping against hope—but it describes so well the desperation we sometimes face when the reasonable possibility we started out with has vanished, and we are left staring into a darkness of the death of our hopes.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were hoping against hope when the angel appeared to Zechariah. We can't blame the old man for having some doubts. Chances are Elizabeth had her doubts as well when her husband came home, unable to talk, and had to write out for her to read what had happened to him in the temple.
But, miracle of miracles, Elizabeth does conceive. The first song of praise in Luke's gospel comes from a woman, from a pregnant woman, who says, "This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people."
At this point in Luke's account, we come upon a most remarkable section in the narrative. From verse 24 through verse 60, the focus will be entirely on two women and their part in the story of God's salvation. For a time, at least, we leave behind the heavily male dominated culture of that time in which people believed, as some still do today, that all the really important things happen where men are involved. In this passage of scripture, the whole enterprise depends on what two women will say and do. It's almost as if the God of Israel, usually described in male
terms as Father or Lord, says: "well guys, the plan of salvation is out of our hands now; it's all up to the women."
So we read that the angel Gabriel is sent by God to visit a young virgin named Mary. Gabriel tells her what God has in mind: that she will bear a son who will be God's promised messiah. Mary wonders how this can be, since she has not been with a man. The angel explains that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and then says that if she thinks this is hard to believe, she ought to know that her relative Elizabeth in her old age is now six months pregnant. Which goes to prove that "nothing will be impossible with God."
Nothing will be impossible, that is, if Mary will give her consent. There are some miracles even God can't do without the willing participation of people. The Savior of the world cannot be born unless Mary says "yes." We've reached a critical point in the story. It's almost as if you can hear the universe holding its breath. What will Mary say?
Luke tells it this way:
Then Mary said, "Here am I, servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."
And the universe breaks into a joyous dance and song. God's plan of salvation can move forward. The story will go on.
What the story says happened next is that Mary "went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth." Now, for several months, the incredible secret of God's coming messiah will be hidden in the minds and hearts of these extraordinary women, Elizabeth and Mary.
Why did Mary go to be with Elizabeth? The scripture doesn't say, but we can surmise some reasons.
Mary went because she needed someone to help her comprehend what had happened to her. Mary needed someone who would understand, just as you and I need someone who will understand when life gives us more than we can handle. It helps if that someone can identify with what we are facing at least a little bit.
Mary went to be with Elizabeth because she needed encouragement. Elizabeth would be able to cheer her up when she got down; in fact, maybe they could do that for each other. It wouldn't be one-sided. Mary could be a shoulder for Elizabeth to lean on. Mary could help Elizabeth with the housework that would get harder as the time of delivery neared.
Mary went to be with Elizabeth because she trusted her relative. Mary knew that Elizabeth was a good woman. Mary believed Elizabeth would not be judgmental of this pregnancy before marriage, that she would not act superior, that she would not even be envious that her own promised child would play a subordinate role to Mary's son in God's salvation plan.
Mary went to be with Elizabeth. The Bible doesn't tell us why she went, but surely she went with some anxiety. Would Elizabeth be understanding, would she offer encouragement, could she be trusted? Imagine with what trembling Mary stood in the doorway of Elizabeth's home, exhausted from her travel, hoping, praying that Elizabeth would open her arms in welcome.
Here's what the scripture says happened.
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.
I know tradition has it that Luke wrote those words. I know Luke was a man, not a woman. But I think Luke had some help from a woman for this part of the story. As a man myself, I can't imagine writing something like that. The particular experience of pregnant women—the anticipation, the waiting, the change in their bodies, the mood swings, the joy mixed with fear— all of that and more is forever closed off from us men. We can hear women talk about it, but we really don't know what they mean.
So maybe Mary went to be with Elizabeth mostly because she needed to be with another woman. Elizabeth was a woman, she was older, and she too was carrying in her body a holy promise.
What a blessed relief it must have been for Mary to have Elizabeth greet her with open arms, to welcome her in and tell her: Mary, this is your home. Interestingly enough, Mary's parents are never even mentioned in the scripture story. Perhaps they were dead. Perhaps they wouldn't have understood. Mary went to the one place she felt she could go. And she found love there.
That's where you and I go too when crunch time comes. We go toward the love. Sometimes it's misguided or even abusive love, and then, of course, the result can be tragic. But mostly, I think, people are drawn to the places where real love is. Strong love, accepting love, good love. Not perfect love, of course. But love that welcomes, that says "we're glad you're here."
Sometimes that love can be found in our families, sometimes with friends, sometimes in the church. If there is one standard by which we are to be judged, as families, as friends, and yes, as a church, it is by the standard of love. Are we willing to open our arms in love to those who hurt, who feel rejected, who need encouragement? Can we be Elizabeth for the Marys who come to our doors?
Mary stayed with Elizabeth until the older woman's son was born. What happened between the two during that time? A woman named Renita Weems has written what she thinks happened.
What the two women talked about we can only imagine.
No doubt they shared stories about the changes their bodies were undergoing. They probably touched one another's protruding bellies and massaged one another's swollen feet. They certainly laughed…and cried…and reminisced…and dreamed. And they most likely imagined the kinds of men their sons would grow up to be.
The two women shared with one another things they could never share with the men in their lives. They held on to one another for dear life. They were women trying to grapple with the hand of God in their lives, sharing with each other the blessedness and the burdensomeness of being blessed.1
Maybe something like that is what happened between Mary and Elizabeth. But whatever happened, it was surely a blessing to them both.
Then Elizabeth gave birth to a son. They named him John. When he grew up, he became known as John the Baptist.
Elizabeth's son and Mary's son knew and loved each other. Together they brought to the world the gospel—the good news that God stands with us to forgive, to renew, to empower.
It is that good news we anticipate celebrating at Christmas, which is all about a woman locked out of an inn giving birth to the Savior of the world. And I think that though there was some fear and pain Mary felt that night, she was sustained by what she and Elizabeth had shared.
Love does that, you know. It sees us through the darkest, coldest and most fearful of nights. It's God, of course, who does it for us. Does it with us.
God loves us. Why? Because, as the Bible says, God is love.
Kenneth L. Gibble
1. Renita J. Weems, Just a Sister Away (San Diego: LuraMedia, 1988), p. 122.