Elizabeth’s Story

Pengkhotbah: Ev. Sophia McCrindle
Tema: Elizabeth’s Story
Nats: Lukas 1:5-80

[Khotbah disampaikan dalam bahasa Inggris]

Today is the first Sunday of Advent, and I bring you greetings from the first Sunday of Advent as we remember Jesus’ coming the first time and also He would come again. When I looked at the passage in Luke 1, I thought today we would do something different and I would like to tell you I started wandering what would be the testimony that the different people in this story would give to us if we could ask them? If we could sit down with Mary, or with Joseph, or with Zechariah, or with Elizabeth, and if we could ask them, “What God has done for you? What is God working in your life?” And so today I will bring you this story of Elizabeth. So I want to put this ornament/headband on and just imagine that I am Elizabeth speaking to you.

“I want to tell you my story about what God has done for me. You see that little boy over there? He  is my son, and He is a miracle. I know that every parent thinks their child is a miracle and I guess it’s true. Every gift of life is miraculous. But, my son is extra miraculous, and I’ll tell you why.

Zechariah, my husband, is a priest. Not everyone who is born to the house of Aaron is truly a priest. But Zechariah – he loves his Lord so dearly and he loves our people also. And it is his joy to serve both. Well, Zechariah told me one day that he had been chosen to burn incense inside the holy place. That was very special, a privilege. Although incense gets burned every day, there are so many priests for God to choose from, who should burn the incense today. But now that I think about it, the Lord must have wanted to speak with Zechariah privately so it was Zechariah’s name that fell out in the lots that morning. He was so delighted because he was getting close to retirement from the priesthood and he wasn’t sure he would get another chance to go into the Holy Place. To be close, so close, to the presence of the Lord.

I watched him go in with the incense burning and that sweet smelling smoke gathering around him and I waited in the court of women and I prayed. But he was there such a long time. Burning incense doesn’t usually very long. I was wondering what had happened and then I saw he came out. I could tell straight away something was wrong. He was white, and holding onto the columns of the temple for support as he walked like he was struggling to stay upright and opening and closing his mouth like he was gasping for air. I thought he was having a heart attack. And his eyes, I could tell he was terrified. He kept trying to tell us something, he was gesturing desperately, but I couldn’t understand. The other priests said to me “I think he’s seen a vision in the holy place. It happens sometimes. Take him home and let him rest.”

It’s always taken Zechariah a long time to tell me anything. Do you know how long it takes for a man to write down what happened? He wrote just one word on my kitchen slate that first day, “ANGEL.” That’s all he wrote there. And then the doctor came and ordered him to bed. I always wonder why the first thing that angel says when they appear to people is ‘don’t be afraid.’ But Zechariah was really and absolutely terrifying. At least the angel he saw, Gabriel, was terrifying. I thought Zechariah must have lost his voice because of the shock of seeing the angel and that it would come back after a few days. But when he woke up from his nap after the doctor left that first day, he wrote on his slate “We’re going to have a son. I won’t speak till after he is born.” I’m sure I looked just as shocked as he had coming out of the holy place.

We had tried for years and years to get pregnant. I’d been to all the best doctors. We both had. But there was nothing. I had tried to cling onto the stories of our ancestors. Sarah had Isaac as an elderly woman after a lifetime of infertility. Leah and Rachel had both struggled to get pregnant and their 12 sons were the fathers of our 12 tribes. Hannah had wept and pleaded with God for a son and baby Samuel was born to renew the whole priesthood. But it’s hard to keep asking and believing when month after month, years after year, when the answer to your prayers seems to be no.

I guess Zechariah struggled to keep the faith just as much as I did because he told me that he asked the angel “How can I be sure?” I can hear how wrong it sounds when I say it out loud. When did God ever send an angel to promise anything and it didn’t fulfil? Of course we believe God keeps His promises, but I think Zechariah’s words showed how we both felt. The angel said that Zechariah would be unable to speak until the baby was born. Nine months when he couldn’t talk about what had happened. Nine months for silence and reflection.

So we decided to go home – not our home in Jerusalem, but our family home in the village. Somewhere quiet and restful. Somewhere away from all the prying eyes and even all the well meaning friends who kept dropping in. Zechariah wasn’t able to carry out a conversation with anybody. And do you know any woman who really wants to be trying to entertain all the time during the first trimester of a pregnancy? The village was perfect. We hadn’t lived there for years so it was just family and childhood friends that knew us. I spent the next five months sleeping and feeling unwell and crying and yelling at Zechariah and thinking and praying when my body and emotions would give me a moment of peace. Zechariah spent those months working quietly with his hands, studying his scrolls, thinking and praying and slowly telling me more about what had happened in the Holy Place that day.

One morning, we saw travellers coming into the village. All of them are distant relatives of ours. My young cousin Mary was with them. Mary’s mother is my cousin. We grew up together. But she left when she got married and moved to Nazareth of all places to join her new husband. Zechariah and I still saw her family every few years. They would stay with us when they came down to Jerusalem for the great feasts and they would stay in our home in Jerusalem. Mary was always my favourite of her children – she was so strong willed and clashed with her mother. But she was also fascinated by Zechariah’s work as a priest. She was shy with him, but her curiosity would get the better of her and she would find a way to ask him her questions. It wasn’t idle curiosity either. We could see she had a heart that was seeking for God. She reminded me of myself as a child, always seeking for God. Mary was a teenager now, and I’d heard on the family grapevine that she was engaged to be married in the summer. So I was surprised to see her walking up the path to our house. But really she couldn’t have come at a better time. I was 6 months pregnant by that time and starting to find a lot of the day-to-day housework tiring. Especially as a first time Mum in her old days. I couldn’t think of anything better than having an energetic teenager on hand to help.

Mary looked up and saw me, and she smiled and called out to me “Elizabeth. Shalom”. And my baby nearly jumped out of my belly when he heard her voice. I had never felt anything like it. It was as if he’d suddenly started dancing in there. You know how small children do that when they’re just so excited they can’t keep still. That was the feeling I got – he was doing a happy dance. But it was something more than that too. The angel told Zechariah that our baby would be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he was born. I wasn’t sure what that meant until I felt him move like that. And when he did I was just overwhelmed myself. I had never been filled with the spirit like that before. I don’t know if I can even describe the feeling. Love, joy, peace. It just burst inside me. I looked at Mary. And these words just burst out of my mouth. “Oh Mary. You are so blessed. Your Baby is so blessed. I am so blessed that you are both here.” I don’t know how I knew she was pregnant. I didn’t even know it until the words came out of my mouth. But I knew with all my heart that she was and that the Baby she carried was even more precious than my own. Zechariah and I had longed for and prayed for and wept for a child for so many years. But all our people had been longing for and praying for, crying out to God for the Messiah to be born. God’s promised King who would signal God’s forgiveness of our sins and bring the end to our oppression and unite the nation of Israel in worship and service of the Lord once again. And here He was, the Messiah, right in front of me. Cradled in the body of my little cousin.

Mary looked up at me and tears filled her eyes. Happy tears, I think. I’m sure she was glad that someone, finally, shared her secret and that someone was happy about it. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to carry that incredible joy in God’s promise and the fear about what it was going to mean for her. Such different emotions together in one heart. She looked at me with her heart in her eyes and out of her mouth poured this beautiful song of praise to God. It sounded like Hannah’s song in the Scriptures. But also different. Mary’s struggles were different to Hannah’s. All in a moment Mary had gone from being a simple village girl to the mother of a King. God has given her such great experience out of His love. And she showed her love back to Him with this song of praise.

So, Mary stayed with us for three months. And she was such a help. She carried water and chopped firewood and shared the cooking and rubbed my back and did all the things I had opened she would. But she did so much more. After months of thinking and praying alone I had someone to share my heart with. And she had someone to pour out her heart to. Poor thing. She still had to tell her parents and Joseph about the pregnancy and she needed someone to listen to her fears and to pray with her and to help her think how to go about telling them something like that.

Mary was with me when my baby was born. It wasn’t an easy labour but when he arrived he was perfect. Everyone said so. Everyone was so happy for us. Our house filled with family and friends who wanted to celebrate with us. My only sadness was that Zechariah still wasn’t speaking. The angel said he wouldn’t speak until the baby was born. So I thought his voice would return when I put the baby into his arms for the first time. But it didn’t. So we made the preparations for the baby’s circumcision the same way we’d prepare for his birth, with me asking questions and Zechariah scribbling answers on his slate. We called one of Zechariah’s priestly friends to come and perform the circumcision. For the ceremony, they needed to know what we were going to call him. Well, there was no choice. The angel had said he was to be called John which means “God has shown favour.” Well God had. John was such an incredible gift all by himself. But we knew from what the angel had told Zechariah that John was a sign pointing forward to an even greater gift, to the Messiah. Of course we were the only ones who knew the Messiah was actually with us right now. It was so hard to keep that secret. But I just told the priest “We’re going to call him John.” He thought it was a bit odd, and so did everyone else. John’s an old name and it’s not a family name. I guess they thought we would call him Zac Junior or something. So the priest checked with Zechariah. He got them to bring him a slate and his wrote in big letters “His name is John.” As soon as he did, his mouth opened and for the first time in nine months I heard his beautiful voice. All those words that had been stored up inside him all those months just burst out. He couldn’t stop praising God or delighting in the gift God had given us in John.

News like that spreads. Our story was told and retold to so many people. I’m pretty sure every household in every village in the hills country of Judea heard about our miracle baby, about the angel that had visited to tell us he would be born and about the promise the angel had given – that our son, our John, would grow up to be a prophet like Elijah. There hadn’t been a prophet in Israel since Malachi and Malachi died more than 400 years ago.

The Lord still gave prophetic words here and there. Zechariah and I had both been filled with the spirit and prophesied – me with Mary and Zechariah when John was born. But to think that there would be real prophet again, one who spoke God’s word all the time and it would be our son. But even more than that, John’s prophetic work will be to prepare the way for the Messiah. To tell everyone that their sins will be forgiven and the Messiah will come to save them. That was just overwhelming for me. It still is. These days I wonder sometimes if Zechariah’s true and most important ministry was just experiencing God’s grace himself and telling everyone what had happened. I don’t mean his work as a priest wasn’t important – it was and he served so faithfully. But you know now that he’s retired and we are at home in the village, he seems to spend more time than he ever did talking to people about our Lord and what he’s done for us. And it’s different somehow. It’s not just the old stories of how God has loved and redeemed our people. It’s the new stories of how God has loved and redeemed us. Our sin, even our sin of unbelief, has been forgiven.

You know there are days when I feel so keenly that we can’t wait any longer for the Messiah. I know He’s just a little boy still and who even knows where He is? Mary and Joseph took Him in Egypt and we haven’t heard from them for years. I wonder if He’s even alive, and if He is, I wonder what a little boy can do to right so many wrongs? And what that battle with the powers hold us all enslaved will cost Him? Rome still rules in Israel today. That horrible Herod sits on his throne in Jerusalem. I see the soldiers on the street and I see the crosses of people on top of the hills. But when I look at my son and I’m reminded that God keeps His promises. When I think of little Mary and I remember what it felt like to have the Holy Spirit fill both my baby and me when she arrived. I remember what Zechariah told me the angel said to him and what Mary said that same angel said to her. And I hold on to those promises that God will rescue us from our enemies and we will serve Him without fear. God will make us holy and righteous in His sight. We will walk in the path of peace. Those are the promises that God gave my husband. Every night when John is finally asleep, Zechariah and I go into his room. We put our hands on his warm, loveable little body. And Zechariah prays over him the prayer that God gave him at his circumcision.

“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because He has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of His servant David.
As He said through His holy prophets of long ago,
salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us,
to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember His holy covenant,
the oath He swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve Him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our lives.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for Him,
to give His people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
This is how we remember and hold onto God’s promises. We pray them over and over. We raise our son. And we wait in hope for the Messiah to be revealed. Amen.”