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Horizons — Elizabeth’s sacred encounter

Rosalind Banbury's first reflection on the 2023-2024 Presbyterian Women/Horizons Bible Study.

Sacred Encounters: The Power and Presence of Jesus Christ in Luke-Acts
Lesson 1: Luke 1:1-24, 39-45, “Elizabeth’s Sacred Encounter”

We begin decorations in Advent. We put out crèches with angels, Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. We entirely skip the first part of the Gospel of Luke, so we totally miss the integral story of Elizabeth and Zechariah and of the birth of John the Baptist.

Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah, are important in their own right. They represent the faithful people of Israel and the continuity between Judaism and the birth of Jesus. Both Elizabeth and Zechariah are described as “righteous” (in right relationship with God), “blameless in their observance of all the Lord’s commandments and regulations” (Luke 1:6).

We have difficulty imagining anyone living blamelessly before God. However, righteousness, biblically understood, does not mean living without fault. Rather, it means that we stay in relationship with God through following the way of life that God prescribed in the commandments, which includes confessing our transgressions as individuals and in groups. Elizabeth and Zechariah are ethical people who love and put God first in their lives, making sure to do what God commands. When they mess up, they admit it and trust in God’s forgiveness.

Zechariah and Elizabeth are old and childless. Childlessness can be heartbreaking. We pin so much hope on having children. In ancient times, having a child was crucial, because children provided for their parents in old age, in a society with no social safety net.

While Zechariah is serving as a priest in the Temple, an angel appears and terrifies him. The angel proclaims that old Zechariah and Elizabeth are going to have a baby — and not just any baby, but one who will be great in the eyes of God. Zechariah responds with something like, “Holy Moly, you’ve got to be kidding!” The angel is less than pleased with Zechariah’s skepticism, so he renders Zechariah mute until his son, John, is born.

The angel Gabriel has a busy schedule. After his startling message to Zechariah, he visits Mary with some stunning news: “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father” (Luke 1:31-32).

Maybe the bit about her son being a king like David is what wins Mary over. Mary astonishingly says, more or less, “Right you are. I am fine with God’s plan.”

Learning that her elderly kinswoman, Elizabeth, is pregnant, Mary hightails it to Elizabeth’s home. Elizabeth is the first person to joyfully anticipate the birth of Jesus. This older cousin has a spiritual and physical encounter with God when her own child leaps in her womb. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth exclaims to Mary, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry” (Luke 1:42).

It is jaw-droppingly amazing that a woman, Elizabeth, is the first person in Scripture to proclaim that Jesus is Lord, as she does when she asks, “Why do I have this honor that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:43). From a culture dominated by men, God chooses a woman’s voice to make the declaration. As Olive Mahabir comments in Sacred Encounters, Luke “dismantles the notion that God only reveals God’s self to male figures and the idea of the male as the specific agent of human action and history must retire into the background.”

It is jaw-droppingly amazing that a woman, Elizabeth, is the first person in Scripture to proclaim that Jesus is Lord.

Mary also is swept up in the Holy Spirit, and she bursts into a song of praise to God. She sings of the grand reversal when the powerful are pulled down, the lowly lifted up, the hungry fed and the rich sent away empty. But during Advent, Mary’s song is also not high on our list with its message of an upended status quo.

Luke presents two women, Mary and Elizabeth, to begin recounting the story of our salvation in Jesus. Unlike the other Gospels, the Gospel of Luke, as well as Acts of the Apostles, pays particular attention to women. In addition to the accounts of Mary and Elizabeth, we are also graced with the unique stories of, among others;

  • The prophetess, Anna.
  • Jesus’ friend Mary, sitting at his feet as a disciple.
  • The women who followed Jesus on the road and provided for him out of their own means.
  • The conversion of the wealthy Gentile merchant, Lydia.

When I was a teenager, no ordained women served in any church office. The Gospel of Luke opened a future for me to become a pastor. How might God, through Scripture, open a new future for you?

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