Sometimes I think that if Elizabeth’s story had happened back in the Old Testament, we’d spend much more time on it than we do and be much more amazed by it than we are. Instead, we kind of tend to regard her as a footnote in the Christmas story, overshadowed by the story of Jesus’ incarnation.
And I’m sure Elizabeth is totally fine with that. Like her own son said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
But Elizabeth’s story is a rich gift to Christ’s birth narrative, adding wonder and awe to the divine beauty of the tale. It is also God’s gift to us as Christian women, giving us a sister in Christ to look up to and learn from.
In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.Luke 1:5-7
Elizabeth was righteous before God. She walked blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. Like you and me, she wasn’t perfect. She still fell into sin. But because she loved the Lord, she repented, and strove to live her life to please Him.
But Elizabeth also knew sorrow. She and Zechariah had no child. She had been barren for all of her childbearing years, and now she was elderly – some scholars estimate at least 60 years old – and long past menopause.
If you or someone you know has ever experienced the heartbreak of infertility, you know just how painful that is. And in biblical times, culture added insult to injury in a lot of ways. It was assumed any infertility was a problem with the woman, when today we know that men can also be infertile.
Because children are a blessing from the Lord and the fruit of the womb is a reward, and because God sometimes closed the wombs of certain women in Scripture as a result of sin – it was often assumed that if you weren’t having children you were cursed by God, or your barrenness was some sort of punishment for sin.
And in addition to all of that, in that day and time, women were “low man on the totem pole” so to speak. They were regarded as less than men in practically every way- intelligence, abilities, worth, and so on. They couldn’t testify in court because their testimony wasn’t considered credible. And, maybe you’ve even heard of the daily prayer that Jewish men still say today, thanking God for not creating them a gentile…a slave…or a woman.
So, practically the only way women of that time could achieve a modicum of respect and status in society was by marrying well and by having sons. And, though she did marry well, Elizabeth didn’t have any children.
Try to imagine being a woman of Elizabeth’s time, having all of that on your shoulders, and having virtually no power to do anything about it.
Do you think you might be a little bitter toward God?
“Lord, my husband’s a priest! We can’t go around having people think you’ve cursed us.”
“We’ve been serving You all these years, and all we’ve asked for is a baby. You owe us.”
“You’re not going to give me the one thing I want most in life? Forget it – there are plenty of other gods to worship. I’ll go serve one of them.”
But not Elizabeth. Elizabeth just kept getting up day after day, trusting the Lord, serving the Lord, obeying the Lord.
And let’s not forget, we know the rest of the story. We know God is going to miraculously open Elizabeth’s womb and she’ll be the mother of John the Baptist. We know she’s going to be one of the first people to learn the good news of the Messiah. We know she’s going to be celebrated and famous across the world once her story gets into Scripture.
Elizabeth didn’t know that. For all those years faithfully following and trusting the Lord, she didn’t know any of that. For all she knew, she was going to die childless and in obscurity, quickly to be forgotten even by those who knew her. And yet she still chose to walk faithfully with the Lord.
Elizabeth was faithful to God because of who God is, not for what she could get out of Him. She served God to get more of God, not to get the goodies.
But look what happens next…
Now while [Zechariah] was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense…And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense…the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.Luke 1:8-9,11,13
Zechariah has the great honor of entering the temple and burning incense. Suddenly – a miracle! Gabriel, who stands in the very presence of God Himself, has brought the amazing news that Elizabeth – barren and past her time – is going to give birth to the forerunner of the Messiah.
And Zechariah doesn’t believe it.
But Elizabeth does…
Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.Luke 1:25
Elizabeth believed 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.”Luke 1:39-45
The newly pregnant Mary comes for a visit. The Holy Spirit reveals to and through Elizabeth that the baby Mary is carrying is the Messiah. And, once again, in great humility, Elizabeth believes Him: “Who am I, that my Lord should come to me?” Elizabeth wondered.
Indeed – who are any of us, that our Lord should come to us?
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.”Luke 1:57-60
It’s a boy! What a joy-filled day it must have been. This wasn’t just any birth. It was God’s promise fulfilled. It was God’s mercy to Elizabeth, His blameless – yet not sinless – and undeserving child. It was God’s blessing to Elizabeth, His faithful servant. The same kind of mercy and blessings He shows us, His faithful, yet undeserving sons and daughters. The same way He fulfills His promises to us.
The time quickly came to circumcise and officially name the baby. Tradition dictated that he be named after Dad: Zechariah. But Elizabeth believed all that God had revealed about this baby to the point that she put her foot down, broke with tradition and insisted, along with her husband, that the baby be named John. It wasn’t about what she wanted. It wasn’t about what others thought was best. It was all about God, and what He wanted.
All of these unbelievable things happening to Elizabeth, yet Elizabeth believes God. Obeys God. Trusts God. She trusted and obeyed God all of those years when He said no, and she believed and obeyed Him after He said yes.
May we, as godly women, be daughters of Elizabeth: Believing God through the unbelievable. Trusting Him in times of uncertainty. Obeying Him in the face of opposition.
What a legacy this dear sister has left us.
What a gift.