Rev. Caroline Barnett
The Gospel According to Elizabeth
Luke 1:11-25, 39-54
Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”
The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “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.” --
In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.
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."
And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to You, O Christ.
Elizabeth has not been sleeping well for a while now.
Each night, it seems that instead of floating off into a deep sleep, she tosses and turns and stares at the ceiling above her until all hours.
Elizabeth is worried, and worry has a way of feeling manageable by day and insurmountable by night. When the sun is out, she pushes her worry and anxiety to the back of her mind. She has other things to distract herself with, but once it’s “lights out,” her tasks done for the day, and she is faced with only her thoughts— and they refuse to let her sleep.
Elizabeth is worried, because five months ago, the impossible happened to her and she still doesn’t quite believe it. She learned she was pregnant.
Perhaps for someone else, this doesn’t sound impossible, like something you have to believe in. People become pregnant all the time, or so it seems.
But Elizabeth, she knows that she is getting older and women her age don’t have babies.
And what’s more, she knows that even if she were younger, it wouldn’t matter. Because for all her years of expecting, hoping, and praying to become pregnant, to become a mother, it never happened for her and Zechariah.
When she and Zechariah were first married she just assumed they would become parents quickly and easily. But it never happened for them. And month after month turned into year after year and eventually Elizabeth stopped expecting something to happen. The disappointment was too much.
Friends and neighbors tried to support Elizabeth and Zechariah. Many offered Elizabeth advice: they told her what to eat, what to do, and how to pray. While these suggestions were meant to be helpful, a hurtful message came through. These suggestions also said: You, Elizabeth, are not doing things right. If you did something different, if you were different, if you were a better person, a healthier person, maybe this would happen for you.
Elizabeth heard these messages loud and clear: Her infertility was her fault.
But Elizabeth was a smart woman, and though the double-edged help wounded her, she knew better. She knew she wasn’t to blame, she knew her infertility was not a punishment for sin, she knew that could do everything right and still end up disappointed.
Elizabeth knew she and Zechariah were righteous people, but righteousness never saved anyone from heartbreak.
Even with her disappointment, Elizabeth didn’t stop living. And her life was full of joy and love and peace. Her days were filled with good things— and she found other ways to nurture and care for those around her.
It was as simple as a meal dropped off at her older neighbor’s house. A weekly chat with the widow who lives down the street.
She was the life of the party, always planning the festivities around the holy days.
Elizabeth was a true friend to many, full of compassion for those who struggled in their own ways, full of love for anyone and everyone who needed it.
And her arms were open to holding others’ babies. She would scoop them up, smile at their tired parents, and let know it was okay for them to take a break.
At family reunions, she was always willing to lend a hand— to hold the little ones, like Mary, her cousin young enough to be her own daughter. She held her while she slept, sang her lullabies until Mary was too big to fit into her arms, so they switched to playing games and taught her how to bake bread.
Elizabeth was always Mary’s favorite cousin.
No, Elizabeth’s life may not have turned out the way she expected it to, but she was happy with it. It was — and is— a beautiful, fulfilling life.
But now, now that the thing Elizabeth had once hoped for is happening, she is overcome by worry. Life has already taught her: Don’t have too much hope. This might not work out.
Despite the life growing inside of her, Elizabeth has never felt more alone. Zechariah is also affected by the pregnancy, but he cannot speak about what happened to him that day in the temple. After years of sharing their life together, they cannot reassure each other everything is going to be okay.
She’s not up for seeing her neighbors— she doesn’t want to hear their comments about how miraculous it is, or if she’s thought about how dangerous this is. She already knows it’s a miracle and all she thinks about is the risks. She doesn’t feel lucky. She just feels scared and tired.
So, Elizabeth spends her days alone and her worries keep her company at night. And she waits. She waits for her child to be born, but a part of her also waits for something to go wrong.
One day her cousin Mary shows up at her door. Mary, her favorite cousin, Mary, who she held as a baby, Mary, now a woman engaged to a man named Joseph. Mary shows up unannounced, and Elizabeth has to wonder— does Mary know? Does Mary know how much her cousin needs support right now? Does Mary have any idea how lonely Elizabeth has felt for the past five months? Does Mary know what the unexpected gift of her presence means to Elizabeth?
Mary does know, and as she reaches in to hug her cousin, Elizabeth feels something rise in her stomach, a movement she’s not in control of, something else entirely. The feeling of something that is both inside her and not of her reminds Elizabeth that she is not alone. She has never been alone. Not throughout this pregnancy, not throughout her whole beautiful, messy life filled with disappointment and joy, love and loss. God has always been with her — even if she did not feel the Spirit fluttering inside of her.
As Elizabeth feels the movement in her womb, her child demanding to be recognized, the Holy Spirit at work within her, and she wonders:
Is this fluttering what hope feels like?
And Elizabeth believes. Not just she and Zechariah will have a child, not just that Mary has also experienced something profoundly mysterious and holy, but she believes in all the untold blessings God has promised her people.
Elizabeth has hope not only that she will have this child and he will grow up to serve God, but that her son will live to bring about a different kind of world.
Not a world where pain is absent, not one where disappointment and longing are foreign feelings, but a world where that despair is not the end of the story. A world where the status quo is overturned for a world that is a little more just, a little more merciful. A world where the fluttering of hope can be felt by anyone.
Elizabeth stares at her young cousin and she believes and she hopes for the first time in a long time.
The two women make their way inside Elizabeth’s home, their chatter banishing the worries that once kept Elizabeth company. Mary’s presence brightens up the room and Elizabeth feels a little less alone. Another person’s presence has never felt more holy to Elizabeth.
And then, Mary begins to sing. She sings an old tune Elizabeth sang to baby Mary as she held her in her arms all those years ago. She sings of the promises that she and Elizabeth are both the recipients of and the bearers of. Of the world their children will help create. She sings of her hope in a God who has done great things. She sings a lullaby she’ll sing for her son Jesus when he is born.
And it is with this lullaby surrounding her, Elizabeth, finally, at long last, drifts off into a deep, peaceful sleep— her cousin by her side, and the fluttering of hope still within her.
Thanks be to God. Amen.