THE FIRST PROPHETIC VOICE OF THE NEW TESTAMENT | Advent Devotional Series: Luke 1:5-25, January 5, 2021
Introduction | With the 12 days of Christmas behind us and a new year before us, we offer you some bonus material for the last two weeks of this devotional series that began the season of Advent. Last week, we finished looking at the particular women who are highlighted in Jesus’ ancestry as presented in Matthew’s Gospel. Now we briefly will look at two other significant women who are a part of the Christmas story – noted specifically in Luke’s gospel account.
Reflection | Today we’re looking at a woman who is not explicitly named in Jesus’ family tree but nonetheless is a relative of Jesus: Elizabeth. In the Gospel of Luke, we are told Elizabeth is related to Jesus’ mother, Mary, by blood and marriage and therefore, shares a common, family ancestry. Both Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah, remain a central part of the Christmas story.
Both Zechariah and Elizabeth came from priestly lineages – meaning their families descended from the line of Aaron. Aaron was Israel’s first High Priest and the brother of Moses. Elizabeth is described as being “from the daughters of Aaron.” Interestingly she has the same name as Aaron’s wife (see Exodus 6:23). We are given a bit more specificity as to Zechariah’s pedigree as his ancestry is traced back through the priest, Abijah.
There are two Abijahs mentioned in the Old Testament – each from different contexts and time periods. The first Abijah mentioned is in reference to the time of King David. With the inauguration of the Temple in Jerusalem, David divides all of the priestly families into twenty-four groups in order to balance all of the work involved related to the Temple. One of these groups is headed by the priest, Abijah (see 1 Chronicles 24). The second reference to a priest named Abijah is many decades later during the days of Nehemiah. Abijah is listed as one of the priests who returned from Babylon after seventy years of exile from Jerusalem. This Abijah leads part of the effort to rebuild the Temple and restore the worship practices of Israel (See Nehemiah 12).
As a reminder, the role of the priesthood was central to the life and worship of ancient Israel. This important work, exclusively delegated to the tribe of Levi, the descendants of Aaron, is outlined in great detail from the end of the book of Exodus all the way through the book of Leviticus. The overall responsibility of the priesthood was to meditate the relationship between the community and the presence of God within the Temple.
Beyond its functional role of facilitating the praise and sacrifices of the people, the existence of the priesthood served as a daily reminder to Israel of the inseparability between human efforts and divine calling. Contrary to how we treat religion today, the priesthood reinforced how our relationship with God is connected to our relationship with each other. To wrong another person is an offense against the Lord. Likewise, refusing to walk in the way of the Lord – living as God intended for us to live – has inevitable, negative consequences, not just for oneself, but for the whole community. In other words, through rituals aimed at reconciliation and restoration, the role of the priesthood was to ensure the overall health of the individual and the community – spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and even physically.
Our formal introduction to Elizabeth comes by way of her husband’s priestly work. A momentous day on the job has arrived for Zechariah. He has been chosen by lot from within his clan to offer the evening sacrifice of incense. To perform this duty, Zechariah must enter the sanctuary of the Temple and stand before the veil concealing the Holy of Holies – the most inner chamber bearing the very presence of God. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to serve and occupy a most sacred space – the point of contact between heaven and earth.
The climactic moment of fulfilling this task arrives as Zechariah is immersed in the white smoke and sweet fragrance of the incense. And then, much to his surprise, Zechariah is visited by a messenger of the Lord – an angel named Gabriel. Gabriel delivers a word of divine blessing – the “good news” that Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, will conceive and bear a child – a son. And not just any son. After centuries of prophetic silence, Zechariah and Elizabeth are told they will give birth to the one who “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.”
The announcement of a pregnancy to expectant parents is typically joyous news. It is even more so for Zechariah, and later will be for Elizabeth, as Luke in his introduction of this couple has shared with us that “they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.” Then, as still today, infertility was a painful and often devastating reality to have to endure as a married couple – but particularly as a woman.
The humiliation of not being able to conceive a child was felt more acutely by women, especially in the ancient world. Tragically, the dignity and value of a women often was reduced back then to their ability to bear a child. As a result, the problem of infertility was primarily viewed to be a failure on the part of the wife and not the husband. In Elizabeth’s case, there also was a perceived spiritual stigma. Seemingly, the Torah was clear. Old Testament Law explicitly implied that faithfulness to the covenant relationship with the Lord would lead to fruitfulness rather than barrenness (See Deuteronomy 7:12-14). Therefore, Elizabeth’s peers would have presumed the cause of her being childless to be divine disfavor due to some unconfessed and unresolved sin in her life.
Can we, for a moment, put ourselves in her shoes? Elizabeth comes from a notable ancestry. She is a pastor’s daughter who married the son of a preacher man. No doubt when Elizabeth married Zechariah, she envisioned having a family like most young wives do. How long did it take for her hopefulness to become hopelessness as months turned to years and years became decades and she did not conceive a child? How hard must it have been to repeatedly hear and offer congratulations to other women as they shared news of their pregnancies?
Luke makes it clear that Elizabeth and Zechariah were devout followers of the Lord. They lived their lives faithfully – humbling waking together before God. Can we imagine Elizabeth’s frustration and agony in not only being childless but also bearing the speculation and the shame for something she could not control or fix – for wrongs she never committed? And as her monthly cycle began to cease, as Elizabeth realized she was going through menopause, how could she not have believed her dream of having a child – the very future of her family line – was slipping away forever?
And yet, despite all this, Elizabeth’s response to this word from the Lord is markedly different from her husband, Zechariah’s. Zechariah has his doubts. His questions overshadow his acceptance of this divine promise. As a result, Zechariah is subjected to a season of enforced silence. Unable to speak, Zechariah’s only means of communicating this incredible announcement to his wife, Elizabeth, is by making signs with his hands and/or writing on a wax tablet. Luke, however, gives no indication that when Elizabeth received this shocking news, she shares his disbelief – or even his surprise.
As unbelievable as word of her being with child may sound, Elizabeth retains the unwavering faith that not only this message but also her pregnancy is thanks to God. We may question how she managed to maintain such a posture after nearly a lifetime of disappointment and facing the unkind scrutiny of others. Perhaps the answer is that Elizabeth’s was an informed and abiding faith in God that went beyond focusing on her particular circumstances.
It is likely that in the midst of her grief Elizabeth continued to remember how her experience echoed the circumstances of several prominent women in Israel’s history. Like her, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Manoah’s wife, and Hannah also had endured the pain and disgrace of infertility. And yet, God had remembered each of them and granted them the miracle of a child – a child who became an important leader in the story of Israel.
So, when Zechariah relayed the message he was given at the Temple, Elizabeth recognized rather than questioned the Lord’s grace touching her life. Elizabeth’s name means “oath of my God.” This woman whose very name proclaims her long-enduring faith in a God who keeps His promises, understood the Lord, as He had done many times before, was working through her barrenness not only to lift up her and her husband but more broadly to accomplish His plan of salvation for all. This is clearly indicated her expression of joyful gratefulness offered to God: “This is the Lord’s doing. He has shown his favor to me by removing my disgrace among other people” (Compare her words here with Rachel’s words in Genesis 30:23).
Just as Gabriel forthtold, Elizabeth became pregnant. Luke tells us Elizabeth then went into seclusion and stayed that way for five months. It is unclear why she did this. Perhaps, given her age, it was to carefully monitor and nurture the life growing inside of her. Whatever the reason, when Elizabeth publicly reemerged there were no doubts in anyone’s mind about her being with child.
Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Elizabeth, the angel Gabriel was continuing to make the rounds. Roughly some one hundred miles to the northwest, by the Sea of Galilee, another divine announcement was being delivered to her much younger kinswoman, Mary. Whereas Elizabeth was carrying the forerunner, the one who would prepare the way of the Lord, Mary was consenting to be the mother of the Messiah – God in the flesh. Elizabeth’s seemingly impossible and yet miraculous pregnancy is offered to the teenage Mary as an encouragement that nothing is impossible with the Lord.
In the aftermath of her own divine visitation, Mary journeys to the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah. She travels about 70 miles from Nazareth to the Judean highlands. Mary eagerly seeks to witness the sign of her cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Added to this, of anyone else in her family, Elizabeth and Zechariah, thanks to their own encounter with the angel Gabriel, are two people who will readily believe her own story.
We ought not to breeze past the courage that Elizabeth undertakes in opening the doors of her home to Mary. Mary has left behind her husband-to-be, Joseph – likely right after informing him of becoming pregnant by the Holy Spirit. No doubt Mary also has shared this news with her parents before departing Nazareth. Thanks to Matthew’s Gospel, we know Joseph’s initial reaction to this announcement was. And news – especially scandalous news of a pending child being born out of wedlock and not belonging to one’s fiancé – travels fast. Mary will likely become the talk of the town or at least within her own family even as far away as she is from Nazareth.
Elizabeth, with her social stature– her husband is a priest – as well as the sting of her own controversial reputation – her former barrenness and now mysterious pregnancy – takes a risk in extending hospitality to Mary and her perceived “illegitimate” child. Despite this, she welcomes her careworn relative without hesitation. Elizabeth extends great love and advocacy to Mary, ignoring the judgment and condescension expressed by others.
When the two pregnant women meet, “the baby leaped in her [Elizabeth’s] womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” More than six months into term, Elizabeth no doubt would have been feeling the movement of her baby. Notice however, she recognizes this is something entirely different as she associates her son’s response with the sound of Mary’s voice. The angel Gabriel had told Zechariah that his son would be filled with the Holy Spirit “even before his birth.” As mother and child, Elizabeth and John, are together are overcome with the Spirit, this moment is a confirmation of that divine promise.
Elizabeth is primarily known for being the mother of John the Baptist – the Spirit-filled prophet like Elijah who prepares the way for the coming of the Messiah, Jesus. However, Elizabeth is more than this. She is the first prophetic, earthly voice in the gospels. While her priestly husband is silenced, Elizabeth is blessed to be the first to acknowledge the child, the long-promised Savior, that Mary is carrying in her womb.
Let us remember, Mary had only just received the news of her pregnancy. Therefore, Mary would not yet have presented any visible signs or indications of being with child. How else then could Elizabeth have known of her pregnancy unless the Spirit revealed this to her? Elizabeth’s prophetic voice confirms and encourages the truth of Gabriel’s words and God’s promises to Mary.
But let’s not stop here. Elizabeth also prophetically gains another insight and confesses something extraordinary. “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Elizabeth is the first one to recognize Mary’s unborn child – Jesus – as her Lord. The confession of “Jesus is Lord” is the first and foundational proclamation of the Christian faith. In the early days of the Church, this declaration was how Christians first greeted one another and thus identified whom they followed with their lives. In advance of a heavenly host of angels heralded this under a midnight sky in Bethlehem and long before it was ever recorded in a communal creed, Elizabeth declares the heart of the Gospel.
The prophetic movement of the Spirit that initiates with Elizabeth continues through Mary. Elizabeth’s initial word of blessing: “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” becomes Mary’s wonderful chorus of praise known as the Magnificat. It is a song with origins that go way back to another infertile but hopeful mother named Hannah. Its words triumphantly foretell of the promise and power of God to raise up the lowly and to make the barren fruitful.
These lyrics celebrate God’s past faithfulness as well as the immediacy of what the Lord is doing through two overlooked and underestimated women. Two women who were not allowed to serve in the Temple, who were not even permitted to approach the space where the presence of the Living God dwells, have now together become the Spirit’s dwelling place.
But this is no chance happening – a blessing reserved for two individuals. No, Mary’s song, to which Elizabeth’s voice is joined, also acknowledges how their personal vindication is but the beginning of the greater fulfillment of the Lord’s agenda for all creation.
The Spirit that leads two women to offer praise is the same Spirit that will move from the Temple into the desert of our lives, empowering the voice that cries in the wilderness calling us back to the Lord. The Spirit that brings life out of barrenness – nothingness – is the same Spirit that comes out of the womb, in the flesh, to mediate healing, reconciliation, the forgiveness of sins, and ultimately, words of resurrection, raising us from death itself.
The narrative of divine salvation for all the world always begins within the story of the Lord’s movement and work within the life of a community – where two or more are gathered in His name. Mary needed Elizabeth and Elizabeth needed Mary. The Lord unveiled His presence and His promises through their relationship and not apart from it. Elizabeth’s validation of Mary’s faith encourages and enables Mary to go beyond her humble acceptance of the Lord’s call upon her life to embrace and proclaim it with unrelenting joy.
At some point, Mary leaves Elizabeth’s company. Luke’s gospel is unclear as to whether she departed before or after the birth of Elizabeth’s son. All that we know is when the child was born, the expectation within the family was that he would be named after his father, Zechariah. The naming of a Jewish child, particularly a boy, took place on the eighth day – on the occasion of his circumcision. Once again, we might miss Elizabeth’s boldness in the midst of this male-dominated ceremony.
Her son is about to be circumcised and formally named. Zechariah still is unable to speak. The operating assumption of the men in the room is they know what to name this child. Given the advanced age and prestige of his father, the miracle of this son should be commemorated by naming him after his dad. Elizabeth, however, dares to speak up – which back then, as a woman amongst a group of males would have been an obvious social faux pas. She declares the name of her son should be “John.”
Elizabeth persists despite breaking with tradition, despite being questioned and likely being pressured to conform. And even though Elizabeth speaks with authority, no one takes her word for what her son should be called. Instead, everyone turns to her husband looking for his input. It is, at that moment, in the unrelenting expression of Elizabeth’s faith, that Zechariah regains his ability to speak. As he does, Zechariah does not contradict or chide his wife. Rather, within a renewed voice and faith he echoes the witness of Elizabeth. Filled with the Spirit, Zechariah joins the chorus first begun by Mary and Elizabeth as he proceeds to sing a prophetic song of his own.
Elizabeth is not mentioned further beyond the confines of the first chapter of Luke’s gospel. Some scholars speculate Zechariah was killed when he wouldn’t turn over the location of his son, John, during Herod’s rage-filled infanticide in the aftermath of the birth of Jesus (see Matthew 2: 1-18). Holding to this view, they believe Elizabeth ended up fleeing with her son into the deserts of Judea, finding protection with a community of separatist Jews known as the Essenes. After Elizabeth died quietly of old age, John was brought up by this community that is today associated with the Dead Sea Scrolls and a location known as Qumran. But again, this is merely historical speculation and is not documented anywhere biblically.
From the testimony of the scriptures, we have the example of a woman of deep and abiding faith despite not receiving the life she probably wanted or for which she had hoped. In the face of repeated disappointment and even perceived disgrace, Elizabeth did not let her life become bitter. She refused to believe her life was over. Instead she persisted in living blamelessly – not perfectly – but seeking to continue to love God by being willing to love and even to forgive others. And even when she may have perceived the best years were behind her, the Lord revealed He was just getting started in working in and through her life.
This same God is still here working and moving in our lives despite whatever barrenness we are facing, despite how others may condemn or dismiss us. The Spirit of the Lord continues to be on the move – prompting and filling those who never imagined but always hoped they’d be a part of His story. The Lord is with and for us – seeking fathers of faith and mothers of salvation. Like Elizabeth, like Mary, blessed is he or she who believes in Christ and trusts that Jesus will do exactly as He has promised!
Consider & Discuss | What do you do when your prayers go unanswered? What is a promise of God that you are struggling with trusting in because is taking so long for God to fulfill it? How have you been tempted in the past to throw in the towel and walk away from God because He is seemingly silent, uninterested, uninvolved, and not revealing Himself? Where do you need to continue your longing – your wailing – your waiting – your praying? Where is God calling you to not give up hope?
Filled with the Spirit, Elizabeth affirmed and encouraged Mary in the answering of her call from the Lord. Listening to the same Holy Spirit within you, who in your life are you being prompted to encourage and empower in their service to the Lord by naming their gifts and contributions to the Kingdom? Whom are you being led to mentor and to disciple?
Prayer Focus | Holy and Faithful God, teach us to wait upon You in all things – especially in the fulfillment of Your promises to us. Forgive us for the times that we have let discouragement and impatience overshadow our trust in You. We believe that You are at work in our lives even when we feel like nothing is happening and all we appear to be doing is just marking time. Cultivate in us the patience and persistence of Elizabeth who kept waiting upon You even when the fulfillment of Your promises was doubted by others. And like Elizabeth, when we witness Your plans beginning to unfold in our lives, may Your Spirit spur us to rejoice in Your name and to proclaim Your goodness to others. May such awareness and gratitude lead us to generously open the doors of our lives to others in need. Turn our words and actions into expressions of Your Gospel. Lead us in encouraging the next generation of believers and through Your gracious prompting to prophesy over them as to how You are working and moving in their lives. Amen.