Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 19, 2021
Luke 1:39-45 (46-55) Commentary
Though the power of Mary’s song always draws my heart’s cry for justice and hope, this year I’m particularly drawn to what we learn about the way of God in the support that Elizabeth offers to Mary. After Mary gives her big “YES” to God’s plan for the salvation of the world, past, present and future, Elizabeth speaks of her blessedness.
Note: I’m choosing to not include the Magnificat (verses 46-55) in this cycle’s selection, but if you were hoping to preach from there this year, not to fear! My colleague Scott has offered commentaries in the recent past (2019 and 2018) to help spark your preaching imagination.
It is Elizabeth’s words and actions that are center focus in this section of the text. In the first verse (39), Mary is active in going to Elizabeth, but we don’t even hear her speak her greeting—immediately the text shifts our point of view from looking and watching Mary to taking the point of view of Mary, looking at and listening to Elizabeth.
Elizabeth and in-utero-baby-John have a positive visceral physical reaction to the sound of Mary’s voice. We’ve all seen the videos of surprise homecomings of family members: our bodies feel and respond to what we deeply love and long for, sometimes “betraying” us in public spaces; like Elizabeth we might uncontrollably respond by crying out in tears and yells and hugs, or even shocking stillness.
But adding another layer to the incident, we are told that Elizabeth’s response is an expression of the presence of the Holy Spirit, who fills her. Elizabeth and baby John receive knowledge from the Lord about what is true, but not yet able to be seen or proven, what will only be able to be held onto by faith: the Messiah is here in their home and the Messiah is in young Mary’s womb.
Part of the Holy Spirit’s filling of Elizabeth (verse 41) are the words she speaks. Notice that she isn’t offering a blessing to Mary, she is recognizing Mary’s state as “blessed.” Mary has already been blessed as part of the process of saying yes to God (what she went through with the angel Gabriel), and Jesus is blessed as God’s Son. Here in verse 42, Elizabeth is not offering her own words, but the words and opinion of the divine Holy Spirit on behalf of the whole Trinity, who has filled her with himself and given her these words. Like the Father and the Spirit do at Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3.21-22), what Elizabeth says as an agent of God is a statement of what is already true.
Here in verse 42, Elizabeth repeats the verbal form of blessed twice, and each time it is in the perfect passive participle. Without getting too bogged down in grammar rules about these things, we can note that each aspect, the prefect tense (a completed event that continues to have impact into the present), the passive mood (where action is done to the subject rather than by the subject), and the use of the participle form (it’s a periphrastic participle which emphasizes the continuous force of the verb) highlights the nature of the blessedness as coming from God—with lasting power and effect—upon Mary.
If Mary came to Elizabeth with any doubts or fears about what she has just said yes to, hopefully these words from God through Elizabeth, along with seeing that what Gabriel said God did for Elizabeth is true (Elizabeth being visibly pregnant in her old age) quelled them.
In verse 43, Elizabeth offers her personal response: Why me?!?! How wonderful and amazing that it would be me to meet the Saviour of the world! The late Thomas Gillespie called this the question of awe-filled incredulity. Elizabeth is an awe that the blessing of God continues to be showered upon her. For Elizabeth, becoming pregnant with John was already the best blessing she thought she could receive (Luke 1.24-25) and now she’s realizing that there are even greater things to come from God’s hand for her and for the whole world. If this were playing out today, Elizabeth might have simply said, “How did I get so lucky?”
Then, there’s the beautiful statement of faith that Elizabeth adds to the word of the Holy Spirit (verse 45). Taking in the whole scene, the filling and word of the Lord, the leaping child in her womb, the awe-filled response to getting to be part of the coming of the Kingdom of God, Elizabeth says, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” This time, “blessed” is the noun form makarios (the same word used in the Beatitudes). Blessed is the one who believes—words that Jesus will speak to Thomas over thirty years later…
Who is Elizabeth referring to? Who is the singular “she”? Is she still reflecting about herself, or is she thinking of Mary, who stands in front of her? It is likely that she is speaking of Mary, since she has just referenced how hearing Mary speak caused baby John to leap with joy in her own womb. But it seems to me that even if she is speaking about Mary, she is speaking out of her own personal experience of being blessed, of believing the impossible is possible with God, choosing to live by faith despite the circumstances, of being unable to prove that a miracle is just that: the work of God.
For Elizabeth’s words are not just true for Mary; they are true for herself. They are true for anyone who chooses to stand firm, with faith, on the promises of our God and turn their eyes to heaven to anxiously await their fulfillment.
Mary truly has come to the right place to be encouraged to walk in the obedience she has just submitted to, because Mary has sought out a fellow sojourner, one who also submits to the presence of God and is living with awe-filled eyes turned to the promise-giver to be the promise-keeper. May it be so for us. May we join in saying yes to the being part of God’s actions to bring his Kingdom on earth, and may we submit to the filling of the Holy Spirit to be agents of God’s good news, and may we encourage one another on the journey of faithfulness.
Verse 39 builds the momentum for the encounter by having Mary go “into” (the Greek preposition eis) three geographical locations that get more specific: into a Judean town, into the hill country there, into the house of Zechariah. Though we are not given the specific amount of time between this trip and her encounter with the angel (verses 26-38), we know it is only a few days because Gabriel tells her that Elizabeth is in her sixth month of pregnancy, and we know that Mary stayed three months, leaving before Elizabeth gives birth to baby John.
It makes total sense that Mary would seek out Elizabeth after saying yes to God’s initiative to make her the bearer of the Saviour. Elizabeth is a living member of the “cloud of witnesses;” someone who’s faithfulness can help steady the resolve of someone who has just made a huge, life-altering decision—bigger than she can even truly imagine.
In 2013, Sister Grace Remington from Our Lady of Mississippi Abbey shared a piece of her art with the world. You’ve probably seen it. It depicts a very pregnant Mary with Eve, the serpent wrapped around Eve’s ankles. Eve’s hand is on Mary’s belly and Mary is holding her hand with her own, the other cradling Eve’s face, consoling her; each are looking down at the womb where the Saviour grows. Here is an inspired piece from Scott Erickson on Instagram. You can purchase copies of this piece as cards, prints, and postcards here.
When I first started working with this text, I immediately thought of this piece, and wished that there was a similar one for Mary and Elizabeth’s shared moment. As Elizabeth speaks her humbled, awe-filled, gratitude, “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord,” I can see her holding her own pregnant womb, and similarly reaching out to Mary. It is a consolation of a different kind, but is not altogether different than what Mary is depicted as giving to Eve in this painting.
And in this, we see that Elizabeth’s blessing, for herself, for Mary, and for anyone—even Eve—who hears the promise of God and believes it will be fulfilled, who obeys with fear and trembling coupled with faith, is blessed. Yes, even Eve, and every person who succumbs to the temptations of sin, can be blessed in the turn to faith and waiting on the fulfillment of the Lord. This is the encouragement we can offer to one another as we seek to join Mary and Elizabeth in saying “yes” to God and living by faith.
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