Elizabeth: Strong in Faith and Character (Luke 1:5-25, 39-45)
Well, we have just witnessed the wedding of the Century, or at least one of them. When I meet a couple planning to get married, the first thing I have to do is ensure there are no legal impediments to them getting married. I am required to ask them a series of questions. How old are you? Where do you live? Have you been married before?
Are you related to one another? In the reading of the banns and at the very beginning of the marriage service we ask publicly if anyone knows of any reason why these persons may not lawfully marry, to declare it now. You will be relieved to know that I don’t ask the lady about her foundation, mascara, lipstick, cosmetic surgery or hair colouring. But in 1770 things were very different. In that year Parliament passed an Act which specified additional impediments to marriage. These applied not only here but throughout the British Colonies including among our cousins in North America:
“All women, of whatever age, rank, profession or degree, whether virgins, maids or widows, that shall, from and after such Act impose upon, seduce or betray into matrimony, any of his Majesty’s subjects by virtue of scents, paints or cosmetics, artificial teeth, false hair, Spanish wool, iron-stays, bolstered hips or high-heeled shoes, shall incur the penalty of the law now in force against witchcraft… and that the marriage upon conviction shall be null and void.”
I am confident the Act was repealed long before the era of women’s liberation, but so far my searches have not brought any assurances.
So where did these derogatory and demeaning ideas about women come from? The controversies surrounding what hairstyles, clothing and makeup are acceptable, merely typify prejudices regarding gender roles and distinctions that are not only universal but go back centuries, indeed millennia. In Europe at least, we can race them to the cultural norms and prejudices of pre-Christian Roman, Greek and Jewish society. Kenneth Bailey observes that it is true,
“the Old Testament offers some high points regarding the place of women. The Books of Ruth and Esther along with the story of Deborah the prophetess and Jael, the wife of Heber, are prime examples (Judges 4-5). To this list must be added the remarkable description of a good woman by the Arab sage Lemmuel, king of Massa, recorded in Proverbs 31. However a deterioration seems to have taken place in the intertestamental period, as seen in the writings of Ben Sirach the aristocratic scholar of Jerusalem who lived and wrote in the early second century B.C. For Ben Sirach women could be good wives and mothers and are to be respected. But if you don’t like your wife, don’t trust her (Sir 7:26)… Deed no property to her during your lifetime and do not let her support you (Sir 33:20; 25:22-26). Women (he said) are responsible for sin coming into the world and their spite is unbearable (Sir 25:3-26). Daughters are a disaster. Indeed to Ben Sirach, a daughter was a total loss and a constant potential source of shame (Sir 7:24-29; 22:3-5; 26:9-12; 42:9-11)… A low point is reached where Ben Sirach writes, “Do not sit down with a woman for moth comes out of clothes… a man’s spite is preferable to a woman’s kindness…”[i]
It is not hard to see parallels between these ancient prejudices and the way women are treated in many cultures today. Bailey observes,
“On the positive side, the intertestamental literature incudes the book of Judith that champions a courageous, daring, brave woman who saves her city and people. Yet, with the passage of time and rise of rabbinic movement, the position of women by New Testament times was, on all levels, inferior to men. The question is, Did Jesus reinforce the attitudes toward women that were widespread in his time, or did he seek to reform them?”
That is what we are going to find out this Summer. Today we begin our new series entitled, ‘Jesus and Women: The Transforming Power of Redemptive Love.’ We are going to observe how Jesus encountered women. We are going to discover that Jesus never disgraced, abused, belittled, reproached, or stereotyped a woman. Just the opposite. Jesus raised women to the status God had always intended, fully equal with men. For God created both male and female in his image. While we may nod in agreement, we need to recognise that read Scripture we are invariably coloured by our own upbringing, cultural norms and stereotypes. For example, when we think of the disciples what image comes to mind? Twelve male Apostles? Yet the Scriptures show that Jesus drew both women and men to be his disciples. They became one extended holy family of sisters and brothers who followed Jesus and ministered to people. In this Jesus was very radical. He invited both women and men to share in his ministry, without shame or embarrassment. We will see that Jesus even depended on women financially.
Last Sunday we met the very first member of Christ’s New Testament Church, Mary Magdalene. On Easter Sunday while the men were still sleeping, she and the women were the first to discover the tomb empty (John 20:1), the first to meet the risen Lord Jesus (John 20:15-16) and the first to be sent to tell the disciples Jesus was alive.
Did they doubt her because she was a woman? (John 20:18). Perhaps because in those days a women’s testimony was not admissible in court. In stark contrast, we are going to see how Jesus treated women very differently. So, today, as we begin this important series, Jesus and Women, we meet the first woman to appear in the gospel. Elizabeth was the wife of Zechariah and cousin to Mary, the mother of the Lord Jesus. Significantly, she is the first person in the New Testament to be filled with the Spirit and the first to bless the Lord Jesus Christ – even before he is born. In Elizabeth’s brief appearance in the gospel, I want to make three simple observations about her. Elizabeth was blameless, she was barren but she was also blessed.
1. Elizabeth was Blameless
“In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly.” (Luke 1:5-6)
Elizabeth was the wife of a priest. She was also a descendent of Aaron, the brother of Moses and the first High Priest. Her name was even derived from the same root as that of Aaron’s wife, Elisheba. More important than her pedigree however, was her personal faith. Both Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah, we are told, were righteous in the sight of God, indeed blameless. What does this mean? What does ‘righteous’ mean? It is a legal term and simply means ‘in the right’. In a law court, the accused is either declared innocent or guilty. There are no grades. But what about ‘blameless’? What does that mean? Does it mean ‘sinless’? No. Does it mean ‘perfect’? No. Luke defines blameless in terms of observing the Lord’s commands. And remember the Lord’s commands include what to do when we stray and when his Spirit convicts us of sin.
“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:8-9)
Blamelessness simply means without blame. Elizabeth was blameless and you can be too,
“if you if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” (1 John 1:7).
So if you wish to be blameless keep close accounts with sin and stay close to Jesus. Elizabeth was blameless. But sadly,
2. Elizabeth was also Barren
“But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.” (Luke 1:7)
Like every other Jewish woman Elizabeth would have prayed that she might become the mother of the Messiah, but it was not to be. Today we know there are medical reasons for being unable to bear children. And more often than not it has to do with the husband rather than the wife. But in those days, children were seen as a sign of God’s blessing. Elizabeth therefore not only experienced the sadness of being childless but the criticism of her peers who would believe it must be her own fault. In verse 25 she describes her condition as a ‘disgrace’. It is indeed a double burden when people blame you for your own suffering.
Gien Karssen[ii] had been married only six weeks when the Nazi’s interned her husband in a concentration camp where he later died. She channelled her grief into something constructive. After meeting Dawson Trotman, she founded the Navigators in Holland. Having suffered herself, in her moving book “Her name is Woman”, she speculates, perhaps autobiographically, how often Elizabeth might have asked herself, “What have I done wrong?” “Why is God not merciful to me?” Why has God not answered my prayer? Maybe you can identify with Elizabeth. You have prayed and prayed, and it seems like Elizabeth, your prayers remain answered, to the point where it seems too late.
Darrell Bock[iii] observes,
“Our pain may not be the absence of a child, but there are a myriad of things that can bring disappointment in life. Yet one thing neither Zechariah nor Elizabeth succumbed to was bitterness… sometimes the answer to … disappointment is not clear. Whether it be the loss of a child to premature death, a financial collapse, dealing with a child who falls… or an unfortunate accident, the hard times are not always self-explanatory. God never guarantees that life will come without pain and disappointment. The central issue is how we handle it. Bitterness will yield the fruit of anger and frustration, sapping the joy from life. Trust and dependence will cause us to find fulfilment in ways we would not even have considered otherwise… Sometimes a roadblock is not a dead end but a fresh turn in the road.”
If you can identify with Elizabeth, then don’t give up. Instead, emulate the faith of the saints who have gone before us in Scripture. Karssen goes on to ask,
“Did [Elizabeth] … draw courage from the lives of Sarah, Rebekah and Hannah, women who also had been without children for a long time? Life was full of surprises…”
While Zechariah was serving in the Temple, the angel Gabriel brought a message that would change not only their lives but the course of history.
“Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth” (Luke 1:13-14)
The long wait was over. The shame was ended. But Gabriel had even more good news.
“For he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” (Luke 1:15-17)
Zechariah was overwhelmed. He asked for a sign and God gave him one. For nine full months he would remain silent. Elizabeth, on the other hand had no problems believing the fantastic promise, even if Zechariah could only communicate it to her in writing. And when the pressure came from relatives to name her son after his father Zechariah, she remains loyal to her husband and resolute to the divine vision. “No, he is to be called John.” She insists.
Elizabeth’s patience had been tested and her faith rewarded. Elizabeth was blameless. Elizabeth was barren but beloved by God. Therefore,
3. Elizabeth was Blessed
While Zechariah doubted, and asked for a sign (1:18), Elizabeth simply delighted (I:25). “The Lord has done this for me,” she said.
“In these days he has shown his favour and taken away my disgrace among the people.” (Luke 1:25).
Elizabeth regarded herself as truly blessed by God. What does blessing look like? Besides thankfulness, how did Elizabeth respond when Mary visits her unexpectedly?
“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 the Lord would fulfil his promises to her!” (Luke 1:39-45)
Instead of boasting of her own good news, Elizabeth is humbled that Mary should favour her. She longs to bless Mary and share in her own good news. Filled with the Holy Spirit, her thoughts are entirely for Mary. Notice in Elizabeth’s greeting, there is not a hint of criticism of Mary, for being pregnant and unmarried. Instead Elizabeth befriends Mary providing her with a home for three months. Elizabeth was a real friend when possibly Mary had no other friend in the world. Misunderstood and perhaps disowned by her own family, Mary turns to Elizabeth and is not turned away.
Nor is there any rivalry or jealousy in Elizabeth that Mary carries the Messiah and Elizabeth only the Messenger. Instead Elizabeth displays the fruit of God’s Spirit. Indeed she speaks with the wisdom of God’s Spirit. She acknowledges with love, joy, kindness, humility, as well as divine foresight, that Mary is actually carrying her Lord and Saviour.
How did she know? We do not know, except that Isaiah tells us He is “the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might.” (Isaiah 11:2), and filled with the Spirit, Elizabeth proves it.
“This was the work of the Holy Spirit in her… Elizabeth saw – so to speak – the unborn Child and worshipped Him as her Lord. The other unborn child, – the one in her – leapt with joy, as if he too wanted to welcome His Master, the One he would humbly serve later on.”
And at that moment, filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth speaks prophetically, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfil his promises to her!” (Luke 1:45). Elizabeth wants to share God’s blessing, totally absorbed with Mary’s good news and with the Holy One, Mary is carrying. In so doing, Elizabeth becomes the first person in Scripture to bless Jesus, even before he is born.
When blessing comes to us, how do we share it? When blessing comes to someone else, how do we respond? With jealousy or with joy? The best cure for jealousy is to rejoice with the one so blessed. And the way to be filled with the Spirit? Confess our sins and aspire like Elizabeth to be blameless. Elizabeth was blameless before the Law, she was beloved of Mary and truly blessed by God.
What was special about Elizabeth? She was simply willing to be a vessel for God to use, to do his will, in his time, in his way, to accomplish His purposes. And that is why Elizabeth is an example for us. The apostle Paul wrote,
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” (2 Corinthians 4:7-10)
Isn’t that what we have seen in Elizabeth? A jar of clay, an earthen vessel. An elderly, barren woman, in the eyes of the world, despised and disgraced, who was nevertheless blameless before God. Not only blameless but blessed by God to bring into the world a son who would announce the coming of the Messiah. Blessed indeed.
And if you can in any way identify with Elizabeth this morning, take heart from the way God used her to accomplish his purposes. The adventure of the gospel is unfinished. There are more chapters to write. Until Christ returns, God is still looking for people like Elizabeth who are blameless, to bless and bring a blessing to others. Lets pray.
For additional resources on Jesus and women see [iv]
[i] Kenneth Bailey, Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes (SPCK), p.189-190.
[ii] Gien Karssen, Her Name is Woman (Navpress)
[iii] Darrell Bock, The NIV Application Commentary (Zondervan)
[iv] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesus%27_interactions_with_women and Dorothy Pape, God’s Ideal Woman (IVP)