Hespeler, 3 December, 2017 © Scott McAndless – Communion
Luke 1:13-27, 1 Samuel 1:9-18, Luke 1:41-55
his Christmas and Advent season, I wanted to help us get a new perspective on the same old Christmas story. And I figured that the best way to do that was by listening to the story through the voices of characters that we don’t usually get to hear and to see it through their eyes. So this morning, I want to tell the story of Christmas through Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist.
I realize, of course, that I am not necessarily the ideal person to tell her story. It might take a bit of suspension of disbelief, but I hope you just go with it. At least I am kind of dressed for the part this morning.
So here we are, in Elizabeth’s voice:
I used to dread it when my husband, Zechariah, went off to do his priestly duties, to serve in the great temple with the Levitical priests of his section. It wasn’t just that I missed him while he was gone, though I certainly did. I felt so alone when he wasn’t there. There were just the two of us. My only other living relative was my niece, my sister’s daughter, Mary, who lived far off in Galilee.
Zechariah and I had had no children. It had been ten years and, for all our trying, I had just not been able to conceive. And I knew that Zechariah’s heart was broken because of this – that he longed with all his heart to have a son to teach the prayers to and who could someday take his place in the brotherhood of the priests. That was hard for him but he had no way of knowing my pain.
For me, my failure to produce a son wasn’t just my disappointment. It was my death. It made me a nobody. No one would see me, speak to me or even acknowledge my existence. They would when Zechariah was around, of course, they had to respect him as a priest. But while he was gone, it was as if I had disappeared too. It is just the way that things are. A woman needs a man – whether it be a father, a husband or a son – to give her a place to stand in the community. I didn’t blame the others for their failure to see me. They just didn’t know what to do with me. I didn’t fit into their understanding of the world. I didn’t hate them, but over the years, I convinced myself that I didn’t care what they thought and I set about doing what I could to survive until my husband returned.
Just to make it through, sometimes, I would go and meet with others like me – the women in the area who had never carried a child. Every one of us had her own story. There were some, like me, who had just never managed to conceive, but there were others whose stories were even sadder, if that is possible.
There was one woman, for example, who first knew a man (much older than her) when she was very young. He promised her so much – that he would love her, that he would take her away from her father who, she tells us, would beat her often. She was so young, so naïve that she didn’t know that this man was just using her for his pleasure and had no intention of keeping any of his grandiose promises. Well, of course, they were eventually caught doing something that, well, they shouldn’t have been doing. He just accused her of seducing him. She was the foul temptress, the Delilah that had defeated another Samson, and so everyone agreed that he was not to blame. He walked away with no dishonour while she – she would carry the dishonour for the rest of her life. No one would ever marry her. Any child she might have in any sort of relationship would never be acceptable. So she was as barren as the rest of us, only for different reasons.
There was another sister who was raped by a man in her community. It was his crime and everyone knew it, but the way it was dealt with was according to the ancient law – the man could be stoned to death, or he could pay the penalty in silver… and marry her. It wasn’t much of a choice for him, of course he married her, his third wife. She was given no choice at all! And then he resented her for it after the marriage and decided to never touch her again, so of course she had so no chance of having children either.
They all had stories like that – so much sadness, so many tragedies. Our stories were all different but we had in common that we didn’t really belong anywhere. When my husband was away, the only time that I didn’t feel completely alone was when I was with them.
We would encourage each other with stories – our stories, the stories that had belonged to us long before they had come into the hands of men who wrote them in their scrolls, claiming them for themselves. They were stories that mother had passed down to daughter since before anything could be written down. And, though we all knew them, it brought us great comfort to share them with each other in this way.
There were stories about Sarah and how, even in her old age – when it was far too late for her to even dream about it – God had visited her that she might have a son. There were stories of Rebekah and how she strove mightily that she might bring her twin sons, Esau and Jacob, into the world. And, of course, there were Rachel and Leah, whose fierce competition with each other to bring children for their husband Jacob into the world created the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel. And there were some who loved the story of Tamar and how she tricked Judah (who had dishonoured her) into giving her children. All of our stories were stories of women who struggled to bear and then saved the life of the nation by doing so.
But, for me, the greatest heroine of all was Hannah. I saw myself so much in her story. She, too, suffered for so long without a child. She, like me, had a husband who loved her – who knew the scorn and the rejection that she faced but who also felt powerless to help her. But most of all, I loved her because she seemed able to find a way to express her hopes and fears and frustrations to God – did it without even speaking aloud – and she found a way to be heard by God in the anguish of her unspoken words.
Hannah gave me hope that things could be different – oh, not for me. It seemed far too late for that and I dared not hope for it. But her story made me hope that maybe something could change for others someday.
The thing that made me believe that was the song of praise that she sang when God finally gave her the answer to the prayer of her heart – when her son the Prophet Samuel was born. She prayed and gave thanks to God, but not like some might. She didn’t just thank God for giving her what she wanted. She knew that God had done so much more – had overturned the very order of the world. “The Lord kills and brings to life;” she proclaimed, “he brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honour.” That was the hope that I held onto in my hours of greatest despair.
One of the few bright spots in my life all of those years when I longed for a child was my niece, Mary. I would take care of her for weeks at a time because my sister was often sickly and later died. My favorite story – the story of Hannah – quickly became hers as well. And we would sing Hannah’s song together – our little secret and our shared hope for a different kind of world.
I don’t think I ever really understood Hannah’s story or her song until that time when Zechariah came home from his time of service in the temple. Something was so different about him. But he would explain nothing to me – in fact he couldn’t speak at all! It didn’t really matter though because I could read so much just in the look on his face. He was so excited and he took me by the hand and led me to the bedroom and, well, there are some parts of the story that you don’t really have to hear in detail, do you? Let me just say that something went right that night that hadn’t gone right before.
Before long I could finally believe it when I felt the flutter of new life growing strong within me. I knew my child would be no ordinary child – that he would be like Hannah’s child, Samuel, and would change the course of the history of my people. That was when I decided that I would make the same vow that Hannah did and that my son would drink no wine or strong drink his whole life long. He, like Samuel, would be devoted to God his whole life long. Later, to my wonder, when Zechariah could speak, it turned out that he had made the same vow as well, but for his own strange reasons.
But the best part of all came when my beloved niece, Mary, came to visit. She was still so young – still only a girl in my eyes – but she brought her own story of an impossible pregnancy that amazed and frightened me at the same time. It frightened me for her, most of all, because it was so hard to believe and I knew that people have a hard time believing girls to begin with – especially when it comes to any story at all related to sex and childbearing. Somehow people are always only interested in what a man has to say on the subject.
But I knew that my job was merely to believe her – to take her and her word as it was. Sometimes that is the most important thing that God asks us to do for anyone. And when I did believe her (which I did with my whole heart) I felt my child jump inside me – the biggest movement that had yet come from him – and I knew that he believed her too.
It was only natural for us to fall back on the story that had always been that shared secret between us. We talked into the night of mother Hannah and how she alone could understand what we had both gone through – the scorn and rejection, the disappointment and frustration. And, because of that, she was also the only one who could feel our relief, hope and new joy. It was like she had stepped out of the history of our people and joined directly in our circle and we could not have been more happy to welcome her.
It was then that Mary opened her mouth to sing the song that was on both of our minds. And it was Hannah’s song that she sang, but it was more truly hers now, and mine too. The words had changed somewhat but I could still hear Hannah’s voice in all she sang; ““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.”
And we knew that the hope of Hannah and the hope of all forgotten women down through the history of our people was finally going to be fulfilled and that God’s messiah would indeed draw near. He would be present when vulnerable girls with troubling stories were believed. He would be present when abused and rejected survivors were given a place and a voice. He would be present when the despised like me were beloved again. And then God’s kingdom would be at hand.