“Praise… with Elizabeth” – Luke 1:39-45
Introduction: A long, dark hallway
“Daddy?” A little child touched his father’s forehead. The dad opened his eyes, fixed on the digital clock by his bed. It read 1:45. That would be a.m. “Yeah, son.” “I need to go to the bathroom.” “Fine, Pal. Thanks for the update!” The child was four years old. Builders had just remodeled their home and a bathroom was now down a long hallway. When you’re four years old and wandering around the house at night, a new hallway looks five kilometers long with multiple side rooms, where giants and boogey-men are waiting to jump out and gobble up little kids for late-night snacks.
“Daddy?” the child asked. “Yeah son,” the father groaned. “Please come with me.” “Thanks for the invitation, son, but for some reason I’m tired. You go ahead.” Shuffle. Shuffle. Stop. Turn around. Shuffle. Shuffle. Back. “Daddy?” “Yes, son.” “Please come with me?” “Okay.” The father crawled out of bed and walked with his son. “Thanks, daddy.” He was grateful for his dad’s presence on the dark journey. The child had never been this way before.
1. Hallways for Elizabeth and Mary (and us)
Neither had Elizabeth – an older woman. Neither had Mary – a young woman.
Luke writes. “In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.” Let me remind you how the stories began for those two women:
We heard about Elizabeth and Zechariah last Sunday – that “well along in years” devout and upright couple that had longed for a child, but were still childless with little hope of that changing. We heard how that did change the day Zechariah was in the temple praying and offering incense. An angel – Gabriel – appeared to him to tell him that he and Elizabeth would soon become parents of a son – John – a son who would prepare the way of the Lord. When Zechariah went back home after his temple service was completed, sure enough Elizabeth became pregnant.
Mary… well, she was childless, too, but for a good reason – she was young, and not yet married to her fiancé, Joseph. God sent an angel to her, too – the same angel, Gabriel. Gabriel announced that the Holy Spirit – the very power of the Most High God – will come upon the virgin Mary and that she will bear a son, God’s Son – Jesus. Gabriel’s last words, in response to Mary’s obvious question of how, were, “Nothing is impossible with God.”
Mary knew she had never been this way before. Her hallway looked five kilometers long with multiple side rooms, where giants and boogey-men were waiting to jump out and gobble her up for a late-night snack. How was Mary going to explain all of this to her parents? To Joseph? To her friends?
Elizabeth had never been this way before – at least, not for herself. She probably went down this hallway lots of times before with various friends and family members. But she had never been down this hallway before, not for herself. How was she going to explain all of this to her friends? That’s why the Bible says she went into seclusion, self-isolation, quarantine – not for 14 days, but for 5 whole months. Although she acknowledged that God had removed from her the disgrace of being childless, there would be a certain embarrassment about becoming pregnant at her age. She and Zechariah would have to get the nursery ready, and she might wonder if she still remembered how to change diapers. No, Elizabeth had never been this way before.
You know the same sinking feeling. So do I. Maybe you’re terrified at the thought of bringing a new child home, or watching your last child leave home. Maybe you’re faced with a family situation that has your stomach tied up in knots. Maybe you’re not sure now was the right time to quit your job and begin your own business. Or maybe the loss of your job or reduction of hours during Covid-19 has made your financial future frightening at the worst and uncertain at the best. Maybe that recent medical diagnosis is just the first step into that long, unwelcome hallway. Some of us are facing a future that only God knows, and it is potentially painful, and definitely anxiety creating. Whatever our long, dark hallway, we know we’ve never been this way before.
2. Hallway temptations
When we take the first step into that hallway, temptations are at least three-fold. The first thing we can do is… do nothing. That’s what Elizabeth seems to have done – seclusion, stay hidden. Close the curtains. Shut the doors. Stay put in the hill country of Judea. Block all calls. Ignore text messages and social media posts. Not seek out anyone’s friendship or compassion. When we’re thrust into a difficult situation, it’s tempting to isolate ourselves, curl up into a fetal position and hope to die. Do nothing.
The second temptation is to make excuses. If anyone had a list of valid excuses, it had to be… Mary. “I’m too young. I’m engaged to Joseph – I can’t have a baby with someone else, not even God! We weren’t planning on starting a family so soon!” And the most obvious excuse, “I’m a virgin! I may be young, but I’m not ignorant of human biology. How can I have a baby?”
On the internet, I recently found this list of excuses for not going to work.
It’s a secret. If I tell you, you’ll be in grave danger.
My psychic told me not to come in to work today.
I climbed a tree to rescue a cat and now I’m stuck in that tree.
I slept funny on my arms and now they’re asleep.
We all have a list of excuses as to why we won’t follow God’s leading down long, dark hallways or even down shorter, lightened hallways.
“I don’t have the right skills and experience. Someone else must be better qualified.”
“I don’t understand the whole assignment, I can’t see the entire road. I’m not going.”
“I’m too busy, too tired and too old.”
“I can’t be sure that you’re going with me… after all, God, you are invisible, you know!”
The third temptation when stepping into that long hallway is to become overwhelmed with fear. We couldn’t blame Elizabeth if she had become paralyzed with fear as she listened to voices like, “Don’t you know what the statistics say about giving birth at YOUR AGE? Say no to courage and yes to caution. How are you going to handle him when he’s a teenager? Expect the worst. Triple-lock all doors. Protect yourself in a tight radius of won’ts, don’ts, can’ts and quits. Think about every possible peril. Worry yourself sick with ‘What if?’”
We all know these voices. Overwhelmed with fear, we become angry, short-fused and a bear to live with. And we refuse with all our might to take step number 2 down that unknown hallway.
3. Praise for the real presence of God
Yet when God calls us, as one of our worship prayers says, to “go into ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown” He doesn’t call us to go alone. God knows that long, dark hallways aren’t conquered by promising, “I’ll be with you in spirit.” A mystical, abstract, vague presence does no one any good. Just ask a four-year old. No. Dark hallways need real presence – the real presence of a dad who holds your hand as you walk down that hallway. And real presence is exactly what God delivers.
“When Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?’” Note the joy! Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and rejoices and praises God. Oh, that’s our theme verb for today – praise! It sounds like she is honouring and praising Mary: “Blessed are you among women… Blessed is she who has believed.”
For you see, often in the Old Testament, and especially in the Psalms, the word “blessed” is virtually a synonym for “praise.” Maybe you’ve heard some of those verses: “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name.” OR “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting.” OR what about this one from Job, after he had lost EVERYTHING: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” On each of those occasions and on many more the word “bless” was used to give praise and honour to God.
“Blessed are you among women… Blessed is she who has believed.” Yes, it sounds like Elizabeth is honouring and praising Mary. But wait… Even Elizabeth’s baby – John the Baptist – leaps in his mother’s womb. From one womb to another, John recognizes Jesus, the Saviour. Imagine what this does for Mary! It lifts her spirit. It gives her courage. It puts resolve in her heart and confidence in her future as she anticipates walking down her long, dark hallway – maybe alone, potentially with no Joseph, and no parental support.
Elizabeth had earlier praised God – “The Lord has done this for me… taken away my disgrace of being childless.”
4. Praise for MY LORD!
There is more praise here. Did you catch what Elizabeth says? She calls Mary “the mother of MY LORD!” Jesus is Lord! Earlier in Luke 1, Gabriel calls Jesus “Son of the Most High.” The one who will sit on “the throne of his father David.” “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” These are great names for and descriptions of Jesus, but there is no name higher than Lord. And that’s what Elizabeth affirms – the mother of MY LORD!!
Jesus isn’t an assistant to God the Father or a junior-partner of the religious law firm. Jesus isn’t the vice-president of the universe. Jesus is a full-fledged member of the Godhead, equal with the Father and the Holy Spirit, in every way – from eternity past, all the way through eternity future. John says, “Through him all things were made.” Paul proclaims, “He is the image of the invisible God.” And the writer of Hebrews says Jesus is, “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” Jesus is Lord – that is… God in the flesh, God that we can see, God really present!
Jesus our Lord took on flesh and blood so that he could take us into his arms, heal our hurts, forgive our sin and destroy our darkness. Jesus our Lord “came down and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit.” He did it to be Emmanuel – God with us through life’s dark and difficult journeys and hallways. Jesus never stopped going down. He went so low as to humble himself to death – even death on a cross… to save us. Although He is the source of truth, He was found guilty of an apparent lie. Although He is the source of light, for three hours He hangs in the darkness. Although He is the source of life, He was crucified, dead… and buried. This is no sentimental or syrupy love. But a fierce love for us. Driven by nails. Marked with scars. Crowned with thorns. And risen from the dead to reign and rule our lives with deep compassion and transforming grace.
What did Mary say when Elizabeth called her, “the mother of my Lord?” Luke tells us in the very next verse: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Mary walked down her long, dark hallway. And she did it with great joy because she was encouraged by Elizabeth’s words! Mary, too, praised God!
This is our song and response as well! During this Advent, we prepare with John the Baptizer, we pray with Zechariah, and we praise with Elizabeth (and Mary). Here is what our praise sounds like during the Christmas season as we recognize Jesus as Lord:
“O come to us, abide with us, Our LORD Immanuel!”
“Joy to the world, the LORD is come!”
“Jesus, LORD, at Thy birth.”
“Be near me, LORD Jesus, I ask Thee to stay.”
“Come, adore on bended knee Christ the LORD, the newborn King.”
“O come, let us adore Him, Christ the LORD!”
Jesus our Lord guides us by his real presence – His Gospel proclaimed; the baptismal deliverance remembered; the body and blood of Holy Communion celebrated. And with joy we await our final journey – the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come!
Because of Christ’s cleansing blood, his resurrection joy and the power of Pentecost, many believers are bold to march straight ahead into long, dark hallways. Paul tells us why in 2 Corinthians 2:14: “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ.”
Whatever your long, dark hallway looks like, listen – God is calling. God is calling you to “Go.” But God guarantees you will never, ever, EVER go it alone. Christ is leading you in triumphal procession. That’s why, with the joy of Elizabeth, we take our step with these words from Philippians 4: “Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I will say, rejoice.” Amen.