The joyful visit of Mary to Elizabeth
Mary and Elizabeth are related and miraculous births are happening for both. They spend three months together. Mary's prophetic song is studied statement by statement.
Mary and Elizabeth are related and miraculous births are happening for both. They spend three months together. Mary's prophetic song is studied statement by statement.
Hello and welcome to Series 1, Episode 6: 'the joyful visit of Mary to Elizabeth'.
We are going to be in Luke 1: 39 - 56. We are in the middle of a very exciting story that Luke is telling us concerning the events surrounding Jesus' birth and it started two episodes ago, for those of you who have been following the story through, when the angel Gabriel, one of God's chosen messengers, appeared to a junior priest called Zechariah while he was serving in the Temple in Jerusalem and told him that his ageing wife, Elizabeth, who had never had children was going to bear a child in her old age. He was going to be called John and would be a special messenger and a prophet in the spirit and power of the Old Testament prophet Elijah. In other words, he was going to shake the nation and draw them back to the Living God.
That was an extraordinary story, in Series 1 Episode 4, from Luke 1: 5 onwards. We were hoping that that story would continue and we would hear about the birth of John, then Luke deliberately brings in at that point the parallel story of the birth of Jesus by telling us about Mary, a woman living in Nazareth who was engaged to a man called Joseph.They were due to get married sometime soon. They weren't living together; they had no sexual relationship because that was not the ethical code or moral practice of the Jews. Mary, too, experienced an angelic visitation. Just as Zechariah had done in the Temple, Mary did, in the humble and insignificant Galilean village of Nazareth where Gabriel appeared to her and revealed to her one of the most astonishing things you could ever imagine: that she (even before she was married or had a sexual relationship with anyone) would have a child, who would be conceived miraculously by God's supernatural power; that his name would be Jesus; that he was going to be known as the Son of God and the successor of King David; and he was going to be some kind of a Messiah and Redeemer in Israel. This is the story of the last episode.
We have two strands of the story: Elizabeth and Zechariah in their home in a village in the Judean Hills, in the centre of the country, and Mary. We haven't got much information about Joseph and where he fits into this yet. Revelation came to Mary first and uniquely. Mary in Nazareth is overwhelmed by the exciting news that she has heard about the baby that she is going to have but she also hears from the angel that her relative, Elizabeth, is going to have a child as well. In this episode, we see a very moving, wonderful, human event when Mary goes to visit Elizabeth before either of these children is born. It is a wonderful story. Let us read it together, in Luke 1: 39 - 56:
“39At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” 46And Mary said:“My soul glorifies the Lord 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. 50His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52He has brought down rulers from their thrones and has lifted up the humble. 53He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” 56Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.Luke 1:39-56, NIV
Mary and Elisabeth
There is something very wonderful about this story. Obviously, this is a story about women told in the context of a profound female communication between two relatives, Mary and Elizabeth. We don't know how close they were as relatives but family relationships were highly valued in ancient Israel and respected, so they were part of the same extended family group. They could have been cousins, as some people have suggested, but we are not specifically sure from the original account what their relationship was. There were strong family ties and those ties were very evident here.
As soon as Mary had heard this outstanding message from Gabriel, that appears in the previous passage, she immediately decided to go and be with Elizabeth. There was a sense of excitement. There was also a sense, no doubt, in Mary's mind that she needed someone to talk to and who else but Elizabeth who was part of the same miraculous process? It was the obvious thing to do. She wasn't yet married; Joseph, wasn't yet involved in the story; she didn't know how Joseph would respond. We will find out more about that from Matthew's Gospel in future episodes. At this point, the story is about Mary and Elizabeth. Off she rushes to the Judean hills. She travels, I would estimate, something in the region of about 80 km to another part of the country, and she goes to see Elizabeth purely on the basis of the revelation given to her by Gabriel - that Elizabeth is going to have a baby. She wouldn't necessarily have had any other way of knowing that for certain. When the two women meet, we have a very dramatic encounter because Elizabeth would not have known that Mary was coming and would not have known what had happened to Mary in Nazareth with the angel Gabriel. How could she possibly have known that? It was impossible. It has only just happened and Mary was coming to tell her that very story, and to share it with her - to ask for her support and to explore the future in conversation with her older relative, Elizabeth. Elizabeth couldn't have known what happened. She knew what was happening in her own body; she knew what had happened to her husband Zechariah in the Temple; she knew that something amazing was happening and Zechariah would have been communicating to her by writing things down - because you remember (Episode 4, Series 1) that Zechariah was not able to speak from the moment he left the Temple until, as we will find out here, his son is born. He would have communicated to Elizabeth the narrative; she would have known what had happened in the Temple but she did not know what had happened to Mary.
As Mary walked through the door, how could Elizabeth respond the way that is described here? She was filled with the Holy Spirit and divine revelation came to her; she suddenly knew that her relative was also carrying a child, who was going to be closely related to the child within her, not just through family ties but through spiritual destiny and purpose. We read these extraordinary words, it says she was “filled with the Holy Spirit” (verse 41). Verse 42, and this is very remarkable, “in a loud voice she exclaimed ‘blessed are you amongst women and blessed is the child you will bear.” This all came out of revelation. God had revealed to her that Mary was pregnant and the child was a special child in Mary's womb - even though Mary's conception was very recent. Elizabeth had also felt a tremendous stirring in her womb as her baby, John, stirred and moved in in her womb as soon as Mary arrived. There are certain things that cause babies in the womb to be stirred, and women who have experienced pregnancy know what those things are likely to be, but this was an extraordinary event because it was just the arrival of Mary that caused this excited agitation, this joyful agitation, of the unborn child.
This is a remarkable encounter. They spent three months together. Three months to talk. Three months to pray. Three months to think. Three months to discuss the experiences they have had. Three months to encourage each other: because both would have had an awareness that if their child is special and is called to some special mission that there would be risk involved, separation from family, and unusual things that happen. Their children, their sons, won't be just helping around the family home and running the family business. They would be out on a divine mission, the details of which the two mothers don't yet fully know but, intuitively, they know what the direction is and what sort of things could happen. So they spent those wonderful three months together. This is a very, very special time in a woman's life, just before her first child is born.
Mary's Song - The Magnificat
We don't just have Elizabeth's incredible exclamation and statement about Mary - her prophetic statement - Mary speaks out her own prophecy and her own praise. This song is traditionally known by the church as the Magnificat (this is a Latin title from the church in days gone by). This song, Mary's song, combines incredible praise with remarkable prophecy. She can see into the future some of the significance of these two children that are currently in the womb and, particularly, she speaks of her own situation and of the grace that God had given her.
“My soul glorifies the Lord 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. 50His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52He has brought down rulers from their thrones and has lifted up the humble. 53He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”Luke 1:46-55, NIV
Just a few thoughts on this remarkable prophetic prayer and song of praise. Salvation is promised: “His mercy extends to those who fear him from generation to generation.” What Mary is doing is she is able to see across the years and see God has been merciful to the Israelites who truly believed in him in the past - through difficult circumstances and good circumstances, and through the trials of national life. God's mercy has been there but that mercy is coming right into the present generation. Mary has received that mercy and grace, and she feels that prophetically others are going to experience God's mercy.
She prophesies mighty deeds: “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm.” She is both declaring what God has done in the past, but also predicting what God is going to do in the future. The prophetic element of this statement is predicting that through her son, who is currently in her womb. He is going to be performing mighty deeds. He is going to be a miracle worker. He is going to perform amazing wonders. Even his coming into the world is a miracle in the form of the Incarnation, the divine Son of God becoming the human Son of God - man and God together - the Incarnation of Jesus as we discussed in the last episode in more detail.
Pride vs Humility
“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm (and) scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.” There is an interesting theme here. The humble are lifted up - people who are seeking God, looking for him, vulnerable, needing help - call out to him and receive his mercy. The proud are going to be scattered. The coming of Jesus will cause difficulty for those who resist him - who are self-sufficient, who are independent, who are proud, who are unbelieving. The humble will be lifted up.
Confrontation with Rulers
In verse 52 she mentions rulers: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones. ”The story of Jesus is a story of a confrontation between Jesus and rulers. Even in the time of Jesus' birth we have King Herod the Great who tries to exterminate Jesus by killing off all the babies in Bethlehem. We will discuss that story very shortly when we look at Matthew's account of Jesus' birth. Herod the Great dies very shortly after that. We will see those in authority mentioned many times in the Gospels - the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees, who are the dominant religious group in Israel. We will see them being on the wrong side of the argument with Jesus. We will see Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, who is afflicted with terrible self-doubts when he is forced to make a decision: is he going to crucify Jesus or not? A few years after he crucified Jesus, he was relieved of his duty and exiled in Western Europe and died shortly afterwards. The rulers of the world will, ultimately, submit to Jesus as in these examples in the Gospel story.
Very significantly, and this is really the climax of what Mary speaks out, “He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” This is a very important statement. She mentions Abraham. If you are familiar with the Old Testament, you will know that Abraham is the key character of the book of Genesis. Abraham is the father of the Jewish nation. There were no Jewish people, as such, before Abraham. He was living in a country which we now call Iraq. He and his family were called to leave the area to travel a very long distance. God said to him that he would take him to a land that he would give to him, and that he would build a nation around him and that is the Jewish people. From the Jewish people, there would be blessing coming out to all the other ethnic groups in the world - all the other nations, including my nation and the nations of most of my readers, because most of you are not Jewish yourselves, like me. What is she referring to in this amazing song, in her statement here, in this prayer? Mary is thinking in her mind of many passages in the Old Testament, but the primary one that I want us to reflect on is in Genesis:12. This is a foundational text and prophetic promise of the whole Bible. The life of Jesus is a fulfilment of one of the key elements of this prophetic promise.
Genesis 12:1 - 3:
“The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father's household to the land I will show you.”(Which turned out to be the land of Israel. And then, verse 2 and 3)“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
In this passage, God promises three things to Abraham. He promises him a name (number one), a nation (number two) and to be a blessing (number three). What is the name? What he means by a name is a family and he, therefore, is promising him indirectly, a son. It is interesting at this point Abraham did not have any children and as the story goes on he was not able to have children - his wife, Sarah, was unable to have children for a long period of time. Yet God said “I will give you a name”, and he gave him a son. Subsequently, his name was Isaac, son of the promise, who carried the name of the family forward. Second promise - a nation. Through Isaac, God is saying there would be a nation, an ethnic group, developed through Abraham's son Isaac and his successors. His son, Jacob, had twelve sons and these formed the foundational people for the Israelite nation. God promised him a name, a nation (and a nation, of course, is people living in a land). He promised him both people and a land. That land was Israel, as we find out subsequently in Genesis. Thirdly, and this is the point I want to emphasise now because it's the main thing that we need to think about here: he promised him that he would be a blessing in the world. “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” That is interesting. Every ethnic group in the world will be blessed because Abraham had a son, which formed a tribal group, which formed a nation which lived in a land and had faith in the Living God of Israel. From those people, would come a blessing to the whole world. Now how did that happen? That happened through the coming of Jesus within that nation. The message that Jesus brought was a message for the whole world: the Gospel message - the good news of Jesus Christ. At the end of his life, he says to his Jewish disciples, “Go to all the nations of the world, preach the gospel, teach them, baptise them, let them become my disciples.” We will see more details about that in Matthew 28: 16 - 20, much later in our studies. Mary anticipates that through her son, Jesus, God is remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever - just as he promised to her ancestors. This promise in Genesis 12 is one of those foundational promises. There are others that we could add in as well.
Here are some reflections, some thoughts on this remarkable passage. First of all, as in the last episode, I do need to emphasise Mary's outstanding faith. She simply obeyed God; she trusted him; she put God before Joseph; she didn't know whether Joseph would accept her as his wife, given this unusual pregnancy. (The obvious interpretation of this to the community in general would have been that she had had a sexual relationship with another man while she was engaged to Joseph, which was a horrendous sin - very shameful - and would have led to Joseph separating from her in a form of formal divorce even before they got married.) That was the risk. But she showed faith. She trusted God, she was servant-hearted; she was willing to give up human freedoms, to be economically vulnerable; she was willing to travel and she was willing to accept the social risk of engaging with and embracing this unlikely miraculous pregnancy.
Second reflection is this: this is an outstanding prophetic encounter between these two women, and indeed Elizabeth's child, John, in the womb. The baby John leapt in Elizabeth's womb, Elizabeth was filled with the Spirit, Elizabeth greeted Mary prophetically as if she already knew that there was a child within her womb and Mary uttered this amazing song of praise that we have been commenting on. There is a huge prophetic anticipation of the significance of the coming of Jesus in this passage and of course, as we open the pages of the Gospel subsequently, we will see how remarkably this is fulfilled.
Some concluding comments would be to say that this passage honours and emphasises the importance of women, the dignity of women and their role as mothers. The Bible consistently shows high respect for the role of women, in general, and for the role of women as mothers, in particular. They are given real honour: they are nurturing life and nurturing faith. If you are a mother reading this, can I encourage you in your role as a parent and as a mother of your children, whatever age they are, whether you're pregnant with a child yet to be born. God sees your work, he honours it and he has called you to nurture life and to nurture faith. Another interesting point is that this passage, incidentally, shows the significance and worth of unborn children whose value in many modern societies has been greatly reduced by the practice of abortion. The unborn child, John, was able to respond to the presence of Mary coming into the home of his mother, Elizabeth, and his father, Zechariah. The Christian Church, as it follows the Scriptures, will always go down the path of honouring, protecting, serving and preserving unborn children, wherever it has the opportunity to do so.
The final note that I want to leave you with is a note of praise and worship. Why not use Mary's song as a devotional song in your own devotions? It is one of several similar prophetic songs that appear in the Gospels and particularly in these early chapters. I want to encourage you to take it to heart and use it to stir up your own devotion to Jesus Christ and to God's great mission of salvation which has been launched in the world through these events that we are describing in this part of our teaching in series 1.
Thanks for joining us.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- Mary was asked to take a risk for God. Are you prepared to take risks for God?
- The importance given to the unborn child is central to this passage. What groups are working to protect the unborn child in your culture - particularly Christian groups? Pray for them and consider how you can support them.
- What evidence in the story supports the 'life' of the unborn child?
- Read Mary's prophecy again and think about the meaning of each phrase. The Magnificat has praise and prophecy. How have many of these things been fulfilled already and which are yet to happen?
- What does this scripture say about the role and importance of women?