Luke 1:5-18, 57-80
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 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.”
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
A colleague of mine recently had her very first baby. She was so excited. She and her husband had waiting for years for the right time in their lives, in their careers, to welcome a child. All through the pregnancy, she was beaming. Excited for her life as a mother. Scared for how it might change her life. But mostly, excited.
She and her husband were healthy, the baby was healthy, the pregnancy went about as you would expect. No worries, right? And this September, she gave birth to her beautiful, perfect baby boy, Jack.
Forty-five minutes later, she learned from the doctor on staff that Jack has Downs Syndrome.
Moments like these mark us. When what we have grown to expect based on our experience of the world is replaced by the surprise that life so often throws our way. My friend—she was overwhelmed. With love for this baby, this perfect, baby boy. With grief for the future she expected, but also concern for this child whose life would be harder than it had to be. With fear for herself, and her husband—how would they do this? Could they do this?
But they didn’t have time to wonder. Jack was healthy, mom was healthy. There wasn’t much more to be done than to take Jack home, love him, and figure it out together.
There are so many things in this world that we cannot possibly prepare ourselves for. We can imagine what they will look like, but we cannot guarantee a thing. All we can do is get on the ride and buckle our seatbelts. All we can do is make a choice: to enjoy the life we have been given, or see it as something to suffer through.
In our scripture this morning, Zechariah and Elizabeth’s lives are dealt a surprise twist worthy of the movies. A cloud of angels and incense accompany the dumbstruck moment in which these righteous and good people learn that they will be parents. That the child they have hoped for is coming. He’s just coming a little late.
Funny side story about age—when my mother became pregnant with me, she was 34 years old, which at the time was still considered, well, old. Her doctor made the mistake one day of referring to her as an elderly primigravida, and let’s just say that was the last time he said that in front of her.
Anyhow, back to the story. It is easy to imagine how happy, how joyful, Elizabeth and Zechariah must have been, but the truth was probably more complicated. In Jesus’ day, childbirth was downright dangerous. It wasn’t for the faint of heart, or the old, or the frail. Consider that today, in this modern age, 830 women die every day from childbirth related complications like bleeding, infection, high blood pressure, and delivery complications. And the WHO has found that the risks only increase as women get older.
Elizabeth almost certainly knew this. She may not have had a child herself, but surely she had helped her aunts, her cousins, her nieces through pregnancy. And she almost certainly buried a love one who didn’t make it through. She may desperately want a child, but she may very well also be terrified.
We don’t often acknowledge this reality in our reading of Scripture. We prefer to skip over the practical considerations of pregnancy and childbirth, and go straight for the pink-cheeked babies. We prefer to ponder Zechariah’s muteness and pass Elizabeth by. I guess a dumbstruck husband is more interesting than a elderly pregnant woman. But it isn’t entirely honest. When we do this, we forget that Elizabeth was a real person who endured real risks in bearing John. That she may well have risked her own life to be faithful to God.
I also suspect it is no accident that Elizabeth happens to be related to Mary. It is no accident that these two faithful women find within themselves the chutzpah to bear the enormous risk of bearing John and Jesus. Their gift is that they do not have to do so alone. Scripture tells us that they spend much of their pregnancy together, and I wonder whether they do not draw strength from one another, and encouragement to receive God’s will for them with joy in that time.
And indeed, when the child does come safely, there is plenty of joy, and love to go around. Zechariah, finally able to speak, utters his first words, and they are a love song to the God who has safely delivered John and Elizabeth from the perils of pregnancy:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably upon his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,
As he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant,
The oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies,
Might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
The amazing and life-changing Good News of the Gospel is this: the same God who watches out for elderly pregnant women and vulnerable babies watches out for all of God’s people. God’s redemptive story continues, in you, in me, as we wait and watch for Christ to reveal himself in this time, and in this place.
What will Christmas look like this year? Probably not so much like a baby in a manger. Or maybe he will. Perhaps he will look like my friend, who this week, after months of complicated feelings of love mixed with fear, took her precious child Jack to church for the pageant practice. She laid Jack in the manger and was called away for a moment. When she returned, her heart caught in her chest at what she saw: the children, crowded around the manger, in awe of a beautiful, perfect, precious child, a gift from God himself.
Love was born on Christmas day. May it be so for us.