December 20, 2015
(you might like t0 read this while the activity is cooking)
Ow, Ow, OW!! If you have ever been pregnant, you will know how much it hurts when junior decides to play football with your innards. Leaping is not a sensation I’d associate with joy – it’s hardly surprising that Elizabeth ‘exclaimed with a loud cry’!
Today’s passage contains one of the most-quoted parts of the Bible, but we are going to be looking at the other, often overlooked, part of our text, just before Mary’s song.
Elizabeth is six months pregnant and her relative, Mary, comes to help around the house (Elizabeth being quite old) and stay for the birth. So far, so normal. But when they get to swapping stories over a cup of tea, it is anything but normal. Let’s have a listen in:
“Mary, I’m so glad you’re here. Everyone else thinks I’m nuts when I tell them how this happened, but I know you’ll understand.”
“I heard it was something to do with an angel?”
“Yes, my Zech was on the incense rota at the temple when he saw an angel who said I’d have this baby. And the baby’s got to be called John, Zech said. Well, he didn’t say, because he can’t talk since, but he wrote it. I don’t know what my sister’s going to think of that, we don’t have any Johns in our family.”
“Wait Elizabeth, you mean Uncle Zech can’t talk?”
“No. Like an idiot he questioned what the angel had said; didn’t believe that God was able to do it. So the angel gave him proof! Ha! Serves him right, the daft old goat! Makes meal times a bit more peaceful I can tell you – no more listening to endless fishing stories!”
Elizabeth’s story bears many resemblances to Mary’s: both births announced by an angel, both babies given names by God, both pregnancies physically unlikely, both announcements questioned … but at that point the stories diverge.
After Zechariah’s duty stint, he returns home to Elizabeth, and she becomes pregnant in the, ahem, usual manner. Mary, on the other hand, becomes pregnant by God’s divine suspension of normal biology. (Incidentally, if you have a problem believing this could even happen, it’s called parthenogenesis, and is a well-documented scientific mechanism. Google it.) Click on this link to read about why it was important that Jesus was born as the son of Mary but not (physically) of Joseph.
But the much more important difference comes earlier. It comes at the questioning. Look carefully. Zechariah said, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years.” Mary said, “How will this be … since I am a virgin?”
How can I be sure? In other words, I don’t see how God could do that, I don’t believe you. It was not the first time anyone had said that – Gideon and Thomas spring to mind – but it is very different from Mary’s question: How will this be? In other words, I know that God will do this, I’m just curious as to how.
Zechariah doubts God’s ability to do what he had said. It’s understandable, they are past child-bearing age and have given up on receiving that blessing. But did not the story of Abraham and Sarah ring a bell? “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” Gen 18:14.
Mary’s question differs by only one word, but what a difference that makes. Not ‘Will this be?’, but ‘How will this be?’ As Elizabeth so correctly put it, “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord”.
Very different questions. And very different results. Zechariah is stuck dumb for the best part of a year; Mary writes probably the most famous song in the world. And yet …
And yet – this is vitally important – both children are born.
Zechariah’s initial doubt did not stop God’s purpose. God did what he said he would, and it did not matter that Zechariah could not see how. God’s promise cannot ever be stopped. Full Stop.
Now, that does not mean that the promise was seen right away, not even for believing Mary. I bet she had plenty of times in the weeks following her meeting with the angel when she wondered if she had just imagined the whole thing. She would probably only just be showing a baby bump when she came home from Elizabeth’s. There was a long time of waiting between the call and the action.
And that’s what Advent is all about. In Advent was are living in the between times, like Mary in today’s reading. She knows it is going to happen, but it has not yet. This is a time of waiting and looking forward and preparation. Mary was waiting for Christ’s first coming, we wait for his second.
Just like a pregnancy, there is plenty of normal living to do alongside the preparing. You cannot spend all your time knitting ridiculously tiny socks and neglect washing your own. But neither should you arrive at B-day and not have any ridiculously tiny socks. Similarly, we need to make sure we are living our present lives with one eye on our eternal lives.
Also like pregnancy, the waiting can be a bit of a drag. As centuries have passed, we may feel like heavily-pregnant Elizabeth. We are waiting, waiting, waiting. Will this baby ever come? OK, being a Christian does not usually cause people to throw up in the morning, but are we ever tempted to leave the preparations for meeting our Lord until later because, face it, it’s really not happening any time soon, is it?
Perhaps we are waiting for other promises too. You might resonate with Zechariah and Elizabeth’s long years of waiting for a child. Perhaps you are waiting for that right person, or your life ministry, or a healing. There are many things we wait for and the waiting can be very hard. At least Elizabeth had a due date. One of the hardest parts of waiting is the not knowing how long.
But be assured, the waiting has a purpose. It may not be obvious, it may seem completely pointless and a waste of time, but I am firmly convinced that God know what he’s doing.
John was the son of the promise. Zechariah and Elizabeth had given up waiting but that did not stop God. He was just waiting for the right time so that John could prepare the way for Jesus. Jesus was the son of the promise. An impossible promise, until it happened. God’s promise will be accomplished even if we have given up waiting, even if we cannot see how that could possibly be. All we need to do is wait
If you look just before and just after our passage today, you will see verses 37 and 57: “For no word from God will ever fail.” … “When it was time …”
This is a recipe called ‘Promise Pudding’. It’s a great demonstration that God keeps his promises, even when it does not look likely, and the cooking time is short enough that you can fit it into a meeting or class. You will need a microwave oven (conventional works too, but the cooking time is longer) plus mixing bowl and oven-proof dish. Quantities are American / Imperial / Metric.
You will need:
Lemon – Juice and grated rind of 1 lemon
Butter – 1/2 stick / 2 oz / 50 g
Granulated sugar – 1/2 cup / 4 oz / 100 g
Eggs – 2, separated (You can whisk the egg whites in advance if you want)
Milk – 1 1/4 cup / 10 floz / 300 ml
Flour (self-raising) – 1/3 cup / 2 oz / 50 g
Apparently this makes a delicious fluffy sponge pudding with lemon custard sauce – all from one mixture! I’ll believe that when I see it!
Cream the butter and sugar.
Beat in the egg yolks.
Fold in the flour.
So far this looks like a normal cake mix. What’s so special about this? And where’s the custard you promised me?
Now mix the lemon juice and rind with the milk and add that to the bowl.
Hold on – won’t that make it curdle? Now I have a sloppy, gloppy mixture. It looks like it’s gone a bit wrong
Beat the egg white until they are in stiff peaks and fold them in.
The mixture has gone all lumpy and strange. It doesn’t look like any cake mix my mother made. And I certainly can’t see the layer of lemon custard you promised. This does not look like it has worked. Oh well, better bake it anyway
Pour the mixture into a greased oven-proof dish and place that in a shallow tray of water. Microwave at medium-high (70%) for 10 – 12 mins or until sponge is firm. Alternatively, bake in a conventional oven at 350°F / 180°C / Gas Mark 4 for 35 – 45 mins.
Your Promise Pudding will have separated out into a fluffy sponge topping with a delicious lemon custard sauce underneath. Enjoy!
Thank you that your promises are always Yes and Amen in Jesus.
Thank you that we can be sure that you always keep your promises, both when we can see how that could be and when we cannot see.
Help us please to keep our eyes fixed on you as we remember your first coming and wait fr your second.
Click here for a printable children’s activity PDF
Print the pages back-to-back for a mini booklet.
Print out these bookmarks and colour. Fold in half and laminate for a lasting reminder.
In those days 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 leapt 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 leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’
And Mary said,
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.