12/12/2021 – The Holy Family: Elizabeth

Luke 1: 24-25, 39-45

After [Zechariah received his vision in the Temple] Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people…”

[After her own annunciation,] Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

Sermon Text

If I were someone who wanted to build suspense. We might have talked about Elizabeth before we talked about Mary. It seems that we are taking a step down from the miracle of the incarnation to the annunciation of a perfectly normal human pregnancy. While Elizabeth’s child, John the Baptist, would certainly go on to do a great deal in the history of God’s kingdom, he was not the Word made flesh. I’m not here for suspense though. Narrative arcs are for television, the pulpit is for the truth of God revealed through the scriptures and lived through our life.

We step back from Mary and her pregnancy, to look at Elizabeth and her own, to discuss another aspect of our life in Christ. Mary is a model of evangelism for us, she tells us how we can accept Christ into our being and then share Christ with the world. Elizabeth tells a different story through her life, one of the long suffering nature of faith, and of the difficulties that can come from living in a world that is not what we wish it was, not just yet at least.

Elizabeth is, like many of Jesus’s relatives, given little to tell us about who she is. She and Zechariah together are meant to be clear parallels to Abraham and Sarah, but outside of the general similarities we might see between a story in Genesis and a story in the Gospels, there is not much to glean about who they are. We know she is older than someone would usually be when they would become pregnant. It is hard to say how old this would be exactly. We know nowadays when menopause usually occurs, but it seems unlikely to me that that would not be impacted by environmental factors. Likewise, we know that Elizabeth was someone who struggled with fertility. We never know if that was because of something stemming from Zechariah or her own physiology. The ancient world always assumed women were somehow the deciding factor. Beyond these two truths, and her relation to Mary, not much is known about her.

We see in our scriptures, and we briefly discussed when we looked at Zechariah, that the ancient world often saw the ability for someone to have a child as a moral quality. Good people have kids, bad people do not. The impetus was placed on anyone struggling with fertility to invest a great deal into getting right with God. Sometimes this took the form of sacrifices or devotion, but whatever the form it took, the burden was on the couple, and especially the woman to somehow make the impossible come to pass.

As with anything, miracles are always possible, but the thing that defines a miraculous event is that it is not common. For many people who struggled with fertility in the ancient world, they were stigmatized as though they had done something wrong. Elizabeth, having realized that her dream of having a child was coming true, mentions this explicitly – pointing to the fact that she has suffered public ridicule because of her infertility. This mindset, unfortunately, was not ended with the fall of Jerusalem or the Reformation or any movement of the Church. Only recently have we begun to understand fertility for what it is – a complicated matter of genetics, physiology, and environment.

Much like Zechariah before her, Elizabeth asks us to consider the ways that we neglect to empathize with one another. With Zechariah we saw how accessibility is only something that comes to mind when we no longer have everything we are used to. Elizabeth asks us to think beyond our usual premises of how we define “fairness,” in the world. The fact that both she and Zechariah are presented as righteous in all ways a person can be, and yet as suffering what was considered one of the cruelest fates in the ancient world, proves to us that life is much more complicated than good things happening to good people and bad things happening to bad ones. Elizabeth, more than just being a story of a miracle, is a story of how we, the people of God, must be better than passive judges of all who suffer.

When Elizabeth is given the news that she is going to have a child, she is not able at first to enjoy what this child will add to her life. Her first thought is what the child has finally freed her from, the judgment of those around her. We are seldom better than the people who judged Elizabeth when we react to trouble in the world around us. While we can often be deeply sympathetic toward people we know and the problems they face, the further outside of our own sphere of influence a person is the less sympathy and the more skepticism we apply. Sometimes that skepticism is toward the person, “If they had done this that never would have happened!” or “Serves them right for getting wrapped up in what they were!”

If we cannot justify blaming an individual, we might look to a darker form of magical thinking. We start seeing malice in other people that somehow caused this event to take place. Rather than blaming an individual we look at those around them. We implicate certain people and things as bad influences or treat the difficulties a person faces like a puzzle to be solved. On grand scales these take the form of conspiracies, but on more personal scales they manifest in finger pointing that does anything but address the actual root of a problem.

This is not to say that there are not sometimes causes to a problem that exist within a person or within their surroundings. There are problems that are systemic and some that are personal. Yet, I would also say that some problems are just that, problems. They are things that emerge in the world around us. We can sit and try to explain the why and how of them, and if we can find something actionable to prevent or remedy them all the better. Yet, sometimes we come to a great wall, the wall of “the world as it is.” In this kind of situation, we do not do ourselves any favors by trying to explain what brought someone to the place they are in, it only matters that we support them and help them however we can through it.

Elizabeth was in a situation that only God could bring her out of, but that situation could have been made bearable if not for the callousness of her peers. It is hard enough in life to struggle without people accusing you of every possible reason why, if you only tried a little harder, you wouldn’t have that problem. Sickness and pain is written off, “You just need to try this supplement?” “Have you tried exercising?” “You should be eating at least three of these a day!” We wrap up our experience of the world so that there is always an answer to explain why someone suffers and we write off the continued suffering of others as a failure to adapt and adjust to those pressures.

Today a lot of people still face scrutiny for their struggles with fertility. We refuse to acknowledge their pain, pushing it far away from public view not for the sake of their privacy, but because we cannot stomach grappling with that kind of pain publicly. It is a common problem, that only recently has made its way from behind closed doors and into communities willing to support people as they face it. Like so many things that we as a culture decided was nobody’s business but our own, stigmatizing anyone who sought help or support and who disrupted our vision of a just world because of it, the plight of Elizabeth has seldom truly been heard when others cry out with it today.

But it is not just fertility. Chronic pain, lasting bouts of disease, chronic and congenital illnesses, sexism, racism, and all manner of bigotry – these are ailments to individuals and to society that we either make so broad we can do nothing about them, or so personal we write them off as someone else’s problem. If there is a trouble in this sin-sick world, then there are people tracing red threads through every aspect of a person’s life to explain why they have come to the place that they have come. Shutting up the doors of God’s mercy and opening up the floodgates of human judgment.

I’m not going to claim I’m not at fault for this either. There have been plenty of times in life where I see someone, obviously struggling, and I take time to justify why that might be. The mother with more kids than it seems she can handle, the panhandler who has given you a different story every time you have talked to them, the rough looking guy in a gas station that seems just a little off to our critical eyes. There is an essential and flawed part of us that wants to organize people into boxes. Those boxes make it easy for us to not feel responsible for their livelihood, maybe even to feel the troubles they face are appropriate given some imagined sin they may have committed.

The Arbinger Institute, in their book The Anatomy of Peace separates the kind of judgments we make in these circumstances in four categories.[1] The judgments we make are to preserve our feeling of superiority, of worthiness, of public perception, and even of our own insecurity. We look at the person who suffers and say, “I am too good to help them.” Or “They do not deserve my help, they can fix it themselves!” Likewise, we might say, “If I help them, people might start associating me with that kind of person.” or “I am in no place to help them, surely it is someone else’s job.”

The difficulty with any of these hypotheticals is that they are necessarily hyperbolic. I have never walked up to someone and thought, “I am too good to help them.” But I might think that the appointment I’m going to is too important to miss. The solution to all of this speculating about people, is to remove people from the category of item in our mind, to that of person.

It might seem strange, to say that people are people and then pretend some grand statement has been made. However, we very often do not think of other people as existing in the same way we do. While we can acknowledge the rich world of thought and nuance and emotion that encompasses our own heart and soul, we only see other people as things we interact with. Background characters in our life’s own narrative.

This has manifested in a bizarre way in certain groups online where people they run into in their daily life are called NPCs. Anyone know what that means? An NPC is a Non-Player Character, a term originating in role-playing games and most widely used in video games for anyone the player does not control. I love a good video game, but the moment I refer to the cashier at Kroger as an NPC is the moment, I have made myself so central to the story of life, I am no longer grappling with the reality that we are all of us here, equal in dignity and importance. Using NPC online is mostly a joke, but I think it has a kernel of truth about how people generally, not just the occasional OP, see the world around us.

When you meet someone, you meet an image bearer of God. That person bears the same imprint of the divine that you do. That means their soul, their inner-life is just as complex and beautiful. The troubles they face hurt them as much as anything that has ever hurt us. There is never a moment where we are not talking to someone just as complicated, as worthy of love, or as unfittingly suffering as ourselves. If we see the world, not in terms of who deserves what, but in terms of all people deserving the same goodness then we will come a long way toward a better world. Elizabeth suffered because other people were unable to see her as anything but the barren woman up the street, but if they had let themselves really get to know her, they would be pleasantly surprised.

They would know the devoted wife of a temple priest. A faithful woman who trusted that God would deliver her someway or another. She was a woman who, when she heard that her cousin was suddenly pregnant with her own miraculous child, she quickly called for her to come and take shelter away from the judgmental eyes of her neighbors in her own home. She cared for the expectant Mary and kept her safe in those first few, treacherous months of pregnancy. Elizabeth confirmed the message God had given Mary, she let her know that she really was going to be the one to bring salvation into the world. Elizabeth let Mary know that just because people say all manner of evil against you, it doesn’t mean that you are not deeply blessed by God.

Elizabeth teaches us about how God keeps a promise. God promised Elizabeth a child and she got one. Yet, I think that it would be a shame if we only looked to that part of her story. Like all of Advent, God asks us to look at the world in a different way. The Kingdom is breaking out all around us, and it is breaking out among the people we would least expect. The mute priest, the scandalous unmarried pregnant girl, and the old childless woman down the street. In our own life, we must accept that the kingdom will only grow if we can accept others as readily as we accept these figures we have lifted up the past few Sundays. The Kingdom of God is at hand, and it is to be a kingdom of misfits and weirdos, of people on the fringe of respectability, and those who have made their fair share of mistakes. The kingdom is a place we are all transformed, so let us be transformed into more loving, welcoming people.

The rumbling of a New World is upon us. Our third week of waiting is drawing to a close. Where does our salvation come? With loud trumpet and the cries of an army? No, but in the distant sound of labor just beginning, and the advent of a child, not yet born. – Amen.

[1] The Arbinger Institute. The Anatomy of Peace. (Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler. 2020)

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