I want us to think today about Elizabeth and about friendship and about welcome.
Earlier in this opening chapter of Luke, we’re told that Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah are getting on in years and are childless. And childless because Elizabeth is barren. There don’t seem to be many infertile men in the Bible do there – but that immediately ties us into stories from the Hebrew Scriptures about strong women like Sarah and Hannah who later, miraculously, became pregnant. And, so, we might guess what will happen next for Elizabeth.
We’re also told that both Elizabeth and Zechariah came from a priestly line. In today’s speak that means that they both had generations of clergy in their families – but despite that inauspicious start…they both led blameless lives and were counted as righteous before God. You may recall that Abraham was ‘credited as righteous’ for believing God when he told him he would have as many descendants as stars in the sky. But then Job was also ‘blameless and upright’ too and look what happened there. So might this story about Elizabeth and Zechariah twist in a different direction?
Twice a year Zechariah would pack a small bag, get kissed goodbye by Elizabeth and leave the little hill town in Judea to go to the Temple in Jerusalem to serve there as priest for a week.
Hoping against hope
You can imagine Elizabeth, month by month hoping against hope that she was pregnant. And month by month discovering that she wasn’t. The years go by and she gradually loses that hope. Perhaps she asks Zechariah each time he goes to the Temple to say a special prayer. But she’s blameless and righteous and priestly and throws herself into the community. They are all children of God and she can mother them even if she can’t mother her own.
And she’s getting on now – and despite any reasonable expectation of anything happening, something does. Zechariah is back from his latest stint in the Temple. This time he’d got the big one – he’d got to serve in the Sanctuary itself. And this time he comes back different.
Unlike the way he normally returns, full of news and how much he’s missed her, this time he comes into the house not saying a word. She doesn’t really look up at first but asks him what’s the matter? But no reply. She asks again and this time she looks at him closely. Is that terror in his face? Shame? Joy? All 3? Does she then, in return, have panic on her face?
He takes a pen and a writing tablet and scribes: ‘angel’, ‘you’, ‘son’, ‘John’. And then Elizabeth is struck dumb, just for a moment, as the penny drops (or should that be as the shekel drops) and she’s overcome with amazement. She’s going to have a child!
Then Zechariah writes ‘synagogue’ – and together they go and he pulls out the scrolls and Elizabeth reads out the passages that he points to that the angel had quoted to him. Numbers, Isaiah and Malachi. And her voice echoes the words of scripture in the empty building. Their son will be a Nazirite, specially dedicated to God. He’ll abstain from wine and strong drink. That’s probably why he asked the questions that he did, in later life, about the tales of Jesus’ eating and drinking. John’s voice will cry in the wilderness as he prepares the way for God’s coming. He would be an Elijah paving the path for the Messiah.
But if John was Elijah, then who was the Messiah, Elizabeth asks? Zechariah just shrugs. The angel hadn’t told him that one. He didn’t know.
Obvious to everyone
And Elizabeth does indeed become pregnant. She doesn’t want to tell anyone at first in case something happens. She is careful, for risk of miscarrying, and stays home more. Eventually her shape gives her away and it’s obvious to everyone. And she can feel her son move within her.
6 months in and Elizabeth gets a visitor. A vaguely familiar woman’s voice calls her name – and John leaps within her. Young Mary is at the door. Weary, frightened, dusty from travel – and somehow Elizabeth knows that Mary is pregnant too.
And she knows that Mary would be in disgrace. For so long Elizabeth had carried the disgrace and shame of not being pregnant. Now Mary was disgraced for the opposite reason. And both Elizabeth and the prophet inside her know something else – that the embryo that Mary is carrying is the Messiah.
And Elizabeth blesses Mary. She shouts the blessing. As truly as her son would in the future, Elizabeth prophecies and points to the Messiah. And Mary cries from relief and happiness and words bubble out that she’s not shared with anyone. Words which are a mosaic of allusions from the Hebrew Scriptures. Words used by Hannah in 1 Samuel and from Exodus and the Psalms. She took the word of God and made it her truth for her own situation. She read the scriptures in the context of her reality and found in them a message for her today.
And perhaps Zechariah came into the room just as Mary was pouring all this out. And Elizabeth sees that he too understands, though he could not say so. Elizabeth looks at Zechariah with an unspoken question. Zechariah nods in reply. They offer Mary a place to stay for as long as she needs.
Mary stays for 3 months. Which would take Elizabeth to full term. You wonder what they shared together in that time. The older woman and the younger as their bodies grew. The blessing that they must have been to each other. The friendship that was made. Did the child in Mary’s womb bring a peace to the house? Was John leaping inside Elizabeth all this time as he did when Mary first arrived?
And Elizabeth and Zechariah were taking huge risks. To be pregnant and unmarried wasn’t just disapproved of – it carried a possible death sentence – and certainly the risk of being shunned by the community. But the blameless, righteous, priestly couple took Mary into their home, no questions asked, no judgement made – and in so doing risked the condemnation of others themselves.
In what looked like an awful situation from the perspective of everyone else, Elizabeth accepted Mary for who she was. She literally saw the goodness inside her. She gave her sanctuary.
And then according to Luke, Mary returns home just before the birth of John, which always strikes me as strange. You’d think she would have been there to assist in the delivery. But perhaps the house would have been full with family and friends and she didn’t want to put the couple in an awkward position by being there. Or maybe, just maybe, she had the confidence and strength now to get back out there and be the person who she needed to be. Strength to be a sanctuary for someone very special.
To all the Elizabeths
So, I want to say thank you to all the Elizabeths here today, female and male. For the Elizabeths who accept as a friend those who contravene the norms. Acceptance of those who dress differently or talk differently. To give thanks for all the Elizabeths who don’t notice the differences. Because acceptance for Elizabeth wasn’t tolerance – it was vision, it was prophecy. Elizabeth’s acceptance allowed Mary to be the Mary that she was supposed to be. It allowed Mary to sing those words that needed singing. Words not just about what God will do but what God has already done. So, thank you to all you visionaries and prophets. Only God knows the potential inside those Marys that you are helping.
Welcome, hospitality, acceptance isn’t compromise – it stretches our own horizons. It brings its own reward. It allows you and me to hold the weary, the frightened and those dusty from travel. They might be family, or neighbours or people from far away seeking refuge. As Elizabeth with Mary, acceptance is a blessing which allows us to participate with God in his work of redemption – in this time, in this place, in this Advent season.
This is for the Marys, it’s a Blessing Called Sanctuary by Jan Richardson
You hardly knew
how hungry you were
to be gathered in,
to receive the welcome
that invited you to enter
nothing of you
found foreign or strange,
nothing of your life
that you were asked
to leave behind
or to carry in silence
or in shame.
became settling in,
leaning into the blessing
that enfolded you,
taking your place
in the circle
that stunned you
with its unimagined grace.
You began to breathe again,
to move without fear,
to speak with abandon
the words you carried
in your bones,
that echoed in your being.
You learned to sing.
But the deal with this blessing
is that it will not leave you alone,
will not let you linger
The time will come
when this blessing
will ask you to leave,
not because it has tired of you
but because it desires for you
to become the sanctuary
that you have found—
to speak your word
into the world,
to tell what you have heard
with your own ears,
seen with your own eyes,
known in your own heart:
that you are beloved,
precious child of God,
beautiful to behold,
and you are welcome
and more than welcome
“Sanctuary” was delivered by Ian Banks at St Stephen’s, Elton on Sunday 19th December 2021. It was based on Luke 1:39-55.
- Chittister, J. (2006). The friendship of women. New York: BlueBridge.
- Hebblethwaite, M. (1994). Six new Gospels. London: Geoffrey Chapman.
Wow! that has just made me realise that I didn’t make mistakes by helping people who needed a bed to sleep in rather than being on the streets!
I was criticized by many people for lowering the tone of the neighborhood and it hurts!
Not everyone is perfect and I think everyone deserves a chance.
It doesn’t always go according to plan and sometimes your kindness can have a negative outcome, unfortunately!
Thank you very much for your message, Wendy. It can be hard to take when a kindness seems to come back to bite you. Sometimes we can see the consequences of things that we say or do, but often we don’t. And I think that’s something to hold onto – that the kindness that you’ve shown may change someone’s life, in some small or large way, perhaps months or years after it happened. And who knows, maybe that’s true of the people that criticised you too… Your reply has been a great encouragement to me and you might also find that this poem resonates with you: https://stjohnstmarkchurchbury.com/jigsaw-by-lawrence-kushner/