On this second Sunday in Advent, we are continuing to consider the Christmas story through the lens of the experience of the virgin Mary. It is a fascinating and, I think, important fact to notice that both at the beginning of the story of Jesus’ first coming and at its conclusion, both at the incarnation and at the resurrection, the first witnesses are women. At a time when the news is filled with accounts of the abuse and misuse of women, mistreatment of women by powerful men, isn’t it helpful to see in the Gospel accounts how the good news about Jesus dignifies and celebrates the role and the contribution of women. Interestingly, we saw last time in the opening verses of Luke’s gospel chapter 1, a major concern of Luke is to provide reliable testimony in an orderly account to that Theophilus, for whom he was originally writing, may have certainty. Luke is concerned about the facts.
You may know that in the days in which Luke was writing, the testimony of women was largely inadmissible in court. And so it is an evidence of the reliability of Luke’s gospel, that you can really trust what we read here, that Luke is acting as an historian rather than a writer of fiction. If he were writing fiction, trying to come up with a tale about Jesus that was in some way persuasive and compelling, he would not use as the first witnesses and the last witnesses to the miraculous birth and the miraculous resurrection of Jesus Christ the testimony of women. He simply would not do it. But because he is writing history and not fiction, that is precisely what we find here. We are going to be considering the accounts of Mary’s visit to her cousin, her older cousin, Elizabeth, which you will find in Luke’s gospel chapter 1, verses 39 through 45. Just one more account of eye-witness testimony recorded by Luke as he sets in order the witness and the record of the witnesses to the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus.
Before we read it together, let me, first of all, invite you to bow your heads with me as we pray. Let's pray together.
O Lord, before us now is Your holy Word. Please, will You open our hearts to receive it with meekness and joy, and by it, would You lead us to Jesus, to see something more of His glory and grace and resting on Him to enter into the blessed life, the life of self-forgetful joy that we see displayed in our passage this morning. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.
Luke’s gospel, chapter 1 at the thirty-ninth verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:
“In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.’”
Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy and authoritative Word. Many of us will have family visiting over the Christmas period; some of you have children home or coming home from university or cousins, relatives, dear friends, neighbors, heading in from out of town. Others of us will be traveling to be with loved ones elsewhere. Perhaps you haven’t had an opportunity to see them in many months and this is your opportunity to be reunited. And a large part of the sweetness and the joy of the season has to do with those opportunities for reunion. It turns out, traveling to be with family goes all the way back to the very first Christmas. Doesn’t it? You see that in verse 39, if you’ll look there with me. "In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah," and entered Zechariah's house and greeted cousin Elizabeth. She is on her way to visit her much-older cousin. Gabriel had told her that Elizabeth was miraculously pregnant after all these years, presumably, she and Zechariah had given up hope of ever having children. But now, at last, God was providing for them a son in their old age. And in God's plan, Elizabeth's pregnancy was designed to be a sign to encourage and strengthen Mary's faith that God's promise to Mary could really be trusted. And it seems Mary really needs no more encouragement than this. And as soon as Gabriel leaves her home that day, she seems to have packed her bags and headed for the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth.
Notice, Luke says that she made her way “with haste.” Now from Nazareth to the hill country of Judah, south of Jerusalem, that’s about a hundred miles; probably a three or four-day journey through pretty tough terrain. And so this is not a journey one would take lightly. So why does Mary make it? Why does she make the long journey? Some have argued, perhaps, it is because of her embarrassment and shame. She is not yet married to Joseph and yet, here she is pregnant. Perhaps she leaves her hometown to avoid shame and avoid scandal. If that were the case, why would Luke tell us in verse 56 that Mary returned home at the end of the first trimester? If she wanted to avoid scandal, she would have stayed away from her neighbors and friends who knew her so well a lot longer than that. More likely, I think, Mary simply wants to be with Elizabeth to find comfort in the fellowship of another woman facing circumstances not dissimilar to her own. Elizabeth, remember, is six months further along than Mary and her older cousin, no doubt, would have had wisdom to share and guidance and support that would have been an enormous encouragement for the teenage Mary at a very difficult and challenging season of her life.
But whatever the reason for her visit, when she arrives there is a remarkable outpouring of joy. And Elizabeth pronounces a three-fold benediction. Do you see that in verses 42 to 45? A three-fold word of blessing upon Mary and her child. And what I want to do in the time we have remaining to us, is to think about what it means to live the blessed life. Here in these words of benediction from Elizabeth to Mary and to her child, we are taught about the blessed life. In particular, I want us to think about the source of blessing and then the character of a blessed life and then the means by which we may receive this blessing for ourselves. So the source and the character and the means of blessing.
Source of Blessing
First of all, let’s think about the source of blessing. Notice these first two words of benediction in verse 42 – a word for Mary and a word for Mary’s child. Do you see them in verse 42? “Blessed are you among women,” Elizabeth says to Mary, “and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” meaning her child. Now if you were with us last time, you will have seen in the words of the angel, Gabriel, announcing the pregnancy to Mary, that Mary has indeed been highly favored. She has been chosen to bear the Christ, to be the mother of the Messiah. Mary is blessed, but notice why she is blessed. She is blessed because the fruit of her womb, the Lord Jesus, is the blessed one. Her blessing is derivative of His. The source of blessing – we are blessed in the Lord Jesus Christ, the blessed one.
We recently, apparently, we had a super moon. I don't know if you were aware of that. I certainly wasn't till after the fact, but apparently, it wowed stargazers everywhere – a big, unusually beautiful and bright full moon. But however bright and beautiful the moon may be, it's light is derivative light. Isn't that so? It's still the light of the sun; it's simply reflected light. It's not the moon's light that we see but the sun's light, shining from the moon. Mary's blessedness that Elizabeth remarks upon here is a reflected light that shines from her because of the brighter light of the Son, her child that lights up her life. That is always the nature of blessedness. A blessed life, if you want to live a blessed life, you will only ever be able to live it in relation to Mary's child, the Lord Jesus, the blessed one. If a mirror is going to reflect the light, it needs to be angled to capture the light. It needs to be oriented toward the light. A blessed life and a Christian whose life is a blessing to others, is a blessing precisely because their life is oriented toward the Lord Jesus Christ. They're turned toward Him.
Let me ask you, believers in the Lord Jesus here in First Presbyterian Church, “Is your life turned constantly, resolutely toward Jesus? Does He have your attention? Has He captured your heart? Are you always facing Him, seeking Him? Is whatever blessedness there is about you, a blessedness that is merely the reflection of the character and likeness of Jesus Christ shining from your life toward others?” And so the source of blessedness is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. The blessed life, the happy life, is a life that is bound up with knowing and seeing, being oriented always toward the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.
Character of Blessed Life
And then I want you to think with me about the character of this blessed life. If that’s where you get blessing from, what does that blessedness do in a person’s life. What does it look like? Notice how when Elizabeth pronounces this word of benediction, she does it with extraordinary humility and with great joy. There is a self-forgetfulness and an extraordinary joyfulness in this scene.
Look at verse 43. “Why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” She is extraordinarily humble here. By most normal measures, the spotlight really ought to fall on Elizabeth’s pregnancy. She’s the one that ought to claim our attention. You may know that in her culture, having a child to carry on the family name and to maintain the family inheritance was enormously important. But she and Zechariah have had to come to terms with what they consider to be the conclusion that they will be childless. In fact, when the angel told Zechariah earlier in the chapter that Elizabeth would have a child in her old age, Zechariah sort of laughs out loud. He just simply cannot bring himself to credit it. But old age and years of fruitless attempts notwithstanding, now it seems cousin Elizabeth is pregnant after all.
And so here she is, Elizabeth, and she takes her place in a line of heroines in the Old Testament scriptures who found themselves in precisely her circumstances. And it is a remarkable and select group – Sarah and Rebekah and Hannah. In each case, what happened to them signaled that God was bringing a child into the world who would be the agent of divine revelation, some new phase of God’s self-disclosure to the world, and the instrument by which His saving plan for His people would be advanced in the world. And so Sarah bore Isaac to Abraham who would be the heir of the covenant promise. Rebekah bore Jacob to Isaac who would be given the new name Israel and father twelve sons who would become the patriarchs of the nation that would bear his name. And Hannah bore Samuel, the great prophet through whom God called a shepherd boy, David, to kingship, and would become the greatest king of Israel.
And Elizabeth’s experience stands in direct continuity with theirs. In fact, she already knows from the angel’s words to her husband, back in verses 13 through 17, that her son is going to be great before the Lord, filled with the Spirit from his mother’s womb, and he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God and go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah. In Old Testament terms, Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy signals that a spiritual magnitude five earthquake is about to happen. Something earth-shaking. Every eye really ought to rest on her and on the child she is carrying. Clearly, God is doing something amazing, something in the order of what He did for Sarah and Rebekah and Hannah; what He did for His people through them and their children. But Elizabeth knows that with this young girl standing in her doorway that day, something was happening of an order altogether greater than anything ever seen before. She saw that in the child that Mary carried, an entirely new day was dawning for which there was no precedent. Mary's experience has no precursors. There never has been a virginal conception before. And so her place in this long line of these Old Testament matriarchs notwithstanding, Elizabeth, do you see, now gladly takes the supporting role before the new thing that God is doing in the womb of the virgin.
Philip Ryken, I think, helps us here. He says, “John was the greatest prophet of the old covenant. He is the one called to announce the coming of the Christ. Jesus was the Christ, the Lord of the new covenant. So when Mary met Elizabeth, the covenants connected. Both sons were joined under one roof and like electrical contact between two power stations, the results were explosive. There was a spontaneous outburst of exultant joy.” Exultant joy. There’s self-forgetfulness. Elizabeth takes the backseat. Elizabeth steps out of the limelight that the spotlight might fall on Mary’s child and Mary’s boy. And she does it, notice, with great joy. She’s filled with joy and exclaims out loud, John, in her womb, she says, is so full of joy he leaps. And Mary is also filled with joy. In fact, so filled with joy as we’ll see next week, God willing, she bursts into song. There’s joy everywhere. The blessed life is a life of self-forgetfulness and a life of explosive joy.
Notice in verse 43 the language that Elizabeth uses to express her gratitude at being so close to the mother of her Lord. In verse 45 she uses the same vocabulary to speak about the Lord God, whose promises the virgin Mary believed. But here in verse 43, she uses the same term to speak not of God but of the baby Mary carries. He is her Lord. That’s interesting, that juxtaposition. The same vocabulary used for the Lord God and for Mary’s child, it’s reminiscent of passages like Psalm 110 where David, speaking of the Messiah, says, “The Lord,” the Lord God, “said to my lord, “Messiah,” the King, “sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” The Lord God, God the Father, addresses David’s Lord, the Messiah, the eternal Son. And similarly here, Elizabeth speaks of the Lord her God and uses the same vocabulary to speak of the Lord her Christ. That's why the early Church often used a Greek word to describe Mary. They said that she was the “theotokos” – the mother of God; the God-bearer.
Now no doubt, Elizabeth did not fully understand all that her own words communicated, but that is actually precisely the implications of her statement here. Here, standing in her doorway – think of this – perhaps still dusty from days of hard travel across rugged terrain down from Nazareth, is the woman who bears the God-Man, united to human nature as fetal cells multiply in the womb of the virgin. The Lord God Almighty Himself has come to redeem the world. No wonder, no wonder that before the child of Mary, Elizabeth happily takes a supportive role with great joy. With joy, she steps out of the limelight that all the attention might fall on Mary's boy and not on hers; on the child she carries and not the child, however great John was meant to be, Mary’s child is so much the greater. Actually, that is the character not just of Elizabeth here but the character of John the Baptist’s ministry whom Elizabeth would bear into the world. In John 3:30, speaking about the Lord Jesus and His ministry, John the Baptist would say, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
Joy through Self-forgetfulness
You see, over and again in the life of every disciple, every follower of Jesus, not just Elizabeth and not just John but me and you, when we come to understand who Jesus is and why He came and that the source of true blessing, the happy life, the blessed life comes from knowing Him, it has an effect in our lives where we become self-forgetful. And in our self-forgetfulness we find joy at last. Joy at last. Because Jesus Christ gets the spotlight and we've found Him to be so infinitely precious, we would gladly let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also, that we may have Him, that we may delight ourselves in Him.
Where do you get joy from, real joy? Not from festal gatherings of family that you haven’t seen for a while, though what a blessing that is. Not from carefully chosen Christmas gifts that express love, though we rejoice in those things. Not in the laughter and the feasting and the memories of this season that I pray the Lord richly blesses you with. But true joy, lasting joy, isn’t to be found there. Sure, there’s joy for a season and things like that. But not joy that will last. When the tree comes down and the lights are put away, that kind of joy is a memory. There’s a lasting joy found elsewhere. You know the world is constantly telling you that “we have joy for you,” and if you drink there, you may find yourself satisfied for a season but it does not last. Some of us are drinking from plastic bottles of water and we find our thirst quenched but only for a little while and soon you drink it dry, not realizing that there’s an artesian spring open that bubbles up with joy that will never fail and that will always satisfy. It is the Lord Jesus Christ, the fountainhead of joy.
And so in Isaiah chapter 11 where there’s a remarkable prophecy of the coming of the Lord Jesus, in chapter 12, which we read a part of for our Call to Worship, we are told that “with joy you shall draw water from the well of salvation.” You see, the Lord Jesus is the well of salvation and when you come to drink from Him and you begin to enjoy the blessed life He gives, you discover real joy that lasts, not the empty water bottles of promises that can never really deliver. You know, I suspect that around our feet many of us are lots and lots of empty bottles. What a metaphor for our lives as we run this way and that trying to find satisfaction and joy in all the broken promises of the world. But there is a well whose living water never runs dry, from which you may draw water and drink to the satisfaction of your soul – the Lord Jesus Christ. Where are you drinking? Do you know anything of the joy that never fails? Won’t you come to the well, the fountain of salvation that has been opened for you in the Lord Jesus Christ? He can satisfy and there is true joy in Him. You’ll find yourself becoming self-forgetful and you’ll find your deepest joy found not in being made much of but in making much of Him.
That’s precisely where Elizabeth found it. It’s even where John the Baptist found it. He’s already fulfilling the role for which he was sent. He was sent to be the forerunner of the Lord Jesus. And so when, with joy he leaps in the womb of the virgin, he is already preaching to us. Philip Ryken, again, says that “John the Baptist is the only child ever to use a womb for a pulpit.” That’s what he’s doing. When he leaps for joy he’s telling us, he’s preaching a sermon. He’s saying, “Here’s where you find joy! Here’s where you’ll find it! In the child of the virgin, in the Man of Calvary, in the Lord of glory.” You find it in Christ alone.
Means of Joy
The source of blessing – the Lord Jesus. The character of the blessed life – self-forgetful joy. Then finally, the means of joy. Where do you get joy like this? How do you get joy like this? How do you get your hands on it? Well, look at the third word of blessing that Elizabeth pronounces over Mary. You see it in verse 45. She uses a different word here for blessing than she's used back in 42. Here she says the truly happy life, the ultimately blessed life, the life of right-standing and the fullness of favor in the sight of God, here's where it comes from – "Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord." Mary had the promise that she would conceive and have a son and that His name would be Jesus, the Messiah, the Lord's Christ, the Savior of sinners. And she believes that promise. And believing the promise she enters the blessed life.
How do you receive the blessedness that comes from the Lord Jesus, the truly blessed One? Where do you get this life of self-forgetful joy? You get it precisely the same way Mary did. You get it by believing the promise of God, by believing the Gospel, by believing the good news that Jesus Christ is all your heart needs. The one who has made full atonement for your sin and guilt, the one who makes you a new creature by grace through faith; the one who brings you into a new family, makes you a child of God, who washes you clean. The one in whom every conceivable spiritual blessing is ours in heavenly places. You get it by trusting in Him. It really is very simple. Isn’t it? Not at all complex. The hand that takes hold of the blessed life is mere faith. You need do nothing else but trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. Will you come and trust in Him? Forget the broken promises of the world that offers this or that product without which your life never can be satisfied. They are so much water bottles that you will drink dry and still find yourself thirsty at the end. Jesus Christ is an inexhaustible fountain and you can come and drink from Him.
There is water welling up unto eternal life that He can give you. If you will drink from the water that He will give, you will never thirst again. And so let me ask you, from which source do you seek to satisfy and quench your thirst? You never will satisfy it till you come and drink of Christ. Let’s pray together.
Our Father, we do confess that very often around our feet there are all sorts of empty, empty water bottles. We’ve drunk and drunk and drunk from them and still found ourselves thirsty. Help us, please, to come to the well of salvation, opened for us – the Lord Jesus Christ, the child of the virgin, the Man of Calvary and the Lord of glory – and drinking of Him, to find true satisfaction at last. For we ask it in His name, amen.
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