The sermon text below on the joy of expecting mothers, especially Elizabeth and Mary, is largely as preached today at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York. I mentioned in the audio version that you might want to compare and contrast the two women mentioned in the introduction with Leah and Rachel. The introduction to this sermon on the joyous first trimester of Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus and Elizabeth’s third trimester with John is based on 1 Sam 1:1ff. The text of Genesis that I would especially compare to 1 Sam 1 is Genesis 29:31-30:24. The audio of today’s message is available here. Next Sunday we will be exploring Luke 1:57-2:21 for the Fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve. Other passages that it might help to be familiar with before next Sunday are Psalm 106:9-10 (concerning the Exodus), Exodus 4:23 and the story of Exodus in general, and Numbers 24:17.
There was a man who had two wives. The name of one was Hannah and the other Peninnah. Peninnah had children, but Hannah was barren. And this man would go up from his city to worship and sacrifice to YHWH of Hosts at Shiloh. And when he divided up the portions of the sacrificed meat for his family to eat he would give portions to Peninnah and all of her sons and daughters but he would give a double portion to Hannah because he loved her even though YHWH had closed her womb. Peninnah never missed an opportunity to rub Hannah’s barrenness in her face. The taunting was so bad that Hannah would weep and not be able to eat. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat beside the doorpost of the temple of YHWH. And Hannah, deeply distressed and weeping bitterly was praying to YHWH and made a vow to YHWH that if He remembered her—that is, if He gave her a son—then she would give that son to YHWH for life. She was saying all of this in her heart—her lips were moving but she was not speaking out loud. So Eli the priest assumed that she was drunk and rebuked her for being drunk. But she explained what she was doing and the priest blessed her. And Hannah said, “Let your servant find favor in your eyes.” The family got up early in the morning and worshiped in YHWH’s presence and then went home. And the man, whose name was Elkanah, knew his wife and YHWH remembered her and she conceived and bore a son and she called his name Samuel. The rest of the house went up for the yearly sacrifice but Hannah waited until the child was weaned and when she had weaned him she joyfully joined them and they brought the child to Eli the priest and explained that the child is there to serve YHWH all his life. Then we read:
1 Samuel 2:1-10
Hannah probably wrote this joyful prophetic and poetic prayer during or shortly after the nine months of her pregnancy. Remember that she said, “Let your servant find favor in your eyes” (1 Sam 1:18). Then Hannah—the barren wife—conceived and carried a child to term. She knew that she had found favor in the eyes of the Lord. And she wrote this joyful prophetic and poetic prayer about the humble being exalted and the oppressors being humbled. She knew that her son would be a special child and indeed he was a great prophet. Hannah’s son was the prophet Samuel who one day would anoint David to be the King of Israel. Fast-forward to the New Testament and we heard the angel Gabriel startle the young virgin Mary saying, “Greetings O favored one, the Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). And the angel told her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” It was an announcement that Mary would conceive and carry our Lord and Savior. And at the end of the scene we heard Mary say, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Unlike Hannah, Mary had not asked the Lord to give her a child. But like Hannah (and Abraham in the Genesis passage last Sunday), Mary was the servant of the Lord who found favor in God’s eyes. Thus it is not surprising that Mary’s magnificat, as it is often called, is about the same thing as Hannah’s joyful prophetic and poetic prayer – the humble being exalted and the oppressors being humbled. Indeed, Hannah’s prayer must have been Mary’s inspiration for writing the magnificat during her first trimester of her pregnancy with Jesus. Mary spent that first trimester with her relative Elizabeth who was in her third trimester with John the Baptist. I hadn’t really stopped to think about the timing much before, but consider that the angel Gabriel went to the virgin Mary when Elizabeth was six months pregnant with John and that the text tells us that Mary went in those days to see her and stayed with her for about three months before returning home and then Luke tells us about the birth of John. So again the setting of the passage we are about to read from Luke is Elizabeth’s third trimester with John and Mary’s first trimester with Jesus. Hear the word of the Lord:
Elizabeth and Mary are right to be even more joyful than most expecting mothers.
Expecting mothers are right to rejoice for the life growing within their wombs. Most of these glowing mothers are happy to know that their baby has developed ears in the womb and can even hear their voice in the womb. Many expecting mothers smile when their baby has developed legs to kick them in the womb. Children in the womb can leap for joy like John the Baptist did when the unborn Jesus arrived and kick and fight with each other like Esau and Jacob did. Children in the womb can hear and be instructed in the word of God. The apostle Paul told Timothy, “Continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from ‘infancy’ you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:14-17). That word infancy–from infancy you have been acquainted with the sacred writings–is the same Greek word Luke used for the baby John in the womb of Elizabeth and the baby Jesus in the womb of Mary. Children begin to hear and be instructed in the word of God in the womb. Children in the womb can be filled with the Holy Spirit. The angel had told Zechariah that John would “be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15). All of these things bring joy to a mother. She can even enjoy being around other pregnant women—which if you think about it there are good reasons why a barren woman might not want to be around pregnant women—but pregnant women can be happy with other happy pregnant women. Some might even be inspired by their joy to sing songs of praise and write poetry like Hannah and Mary. (But Elizabeth and Mary have even more reason to rejoice than most expecting mothers.)
Elizabeth, like Sarah, Rachel and Hannah in the Hebrew Scriptures, is right to be even more joyful than most expecting mothers because she became pregnant even though she was barren, and Mary is right to be even more joyful than other expecting mothers because she became pregnant even though she was a virgin. Indeed, Elizabeth, like Sarah in Genesis, became pregnant even though she was past menopause. She had much reason to rejoice. These barren women had long experienced ridicule from others and felt shame. They had not experienced the enjoyment and blessing that a mother does. As Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” (Gen 18:12). Children bring pleasure into our lives. Indeed, one of the best things you can do for residents of a nursing home is to bring some children for them to see. Yes, children are a blessing from the Lord—the fruit of the womb a reward (cf. Psalm 127:3). But, as the psalmist says, “He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Hallelujah!” (Psalm 113:9). Thus if expecting mothers in general are blessed and have reason to rejoice, then women like Elizabeth and Hannah are especially blessed with even more reason to rejoice. Elizabeth decided to keep her pregnancy private for the first five months, perhaps because she wanted to praise God in private, but I think primarily because God had waited for so many years to bless her with a child that she felt that she could wait to publicize her pregnancy (Luke 1:24-25). She was deliberately imitating God in doing so. And then there is the virgin Mary who says that every generation will call her blessed. The conception of Christ in her womb, while she was a young virgin, marks her as even more blessed than other expecting mothers. (Indeed, it isn’t simply the miraculous nature of their conceiving sons that make Elizabeth and Mary more joyful than the next expecting mother, but the roles of those sons in the salvation of many.)
The joy of expecting mothers is surpassed by the joy of the coming salvation.
Elizabeth and Mary are right to be even more joyful than most expecting mothers because they are rejoicing in the coming of the Lord God Himself to save His people. In fact, the reason that the barren women we’ve mentioned—like Sarah, Hannah, and Elizabeth—waited so long for such a miraculous conception was the special role God had for their sons. Elizabeth had even more reason to rejoice than the mothers of any of the prophets before her for she had conceived John the Baptist who would go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah to prepare the way for the Lord God Himself. Expectant Elizabeth’s exciting third trimester with John the Baptist became even more joyful when Christ Jesus arrived in the womb of the virgin Mary. John the Baptist, even in the womb, does not point to himself but to Christ. In Genesis, Jacob and Esau fought over who would be more important within the womb of their mother. But John the Baptist within the womb of Elizabeth leaps for joy because the unborn baby Jesus is there. He does not hesitate to start pointing to Christ as the more important unborn child. Already he is saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord” (Luke 3:4). Already he is saying, “I must become lesser, he must become greater.” Elizabeth knew she did not deserve to be honored by such a visit from her Lord in the womb of Mary. She was humbled just to be in the same room. Her humility leads her to ask Mary, “Why is it granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” In the words of the two verses before the one from Psalms I quoted earlier, which sound a lot like Hannah and Mary, “He [God] raises up the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes, with the princes of His people” (Psalm 113:7-8). (Thus Elizabeth and Mary had more reason to rejoice than other pregnant women not just because they were expecting mothers when it was humanly impossible for them to conceive but because they rejoiced in the coming salvation in their midst.)
You too can know a greater joy than being an expecting mother or even than being an expecting mother when it was humanly impossible to become one. For you can celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ in the womb of the virgin Mary to be your Savior and Lord. Satan wants to steal your joy. He wants to steal the joy of expecting mothers by convincing pregnant women that their children are a curse and not a blessing. This is not to deny that there are many reasons that women may have for seeing their children as a burden that they cannot handle at this time. Becoming pregnant for many women today creates a great mix of emotions including fear. And the church should be helping women through these tough times. But Satan seeks to steal our joy through promoting a culture of death including abortion on demand. He’s always been in the baby slaughtering business from working through Pharaoh to try and destroy the infant Moses to working through Herod to try and destroy the infant Jesus. So just be aware that Satan will be looking to steal the joy of expecting mothers by pointing to all of the challenges and by asking, “Did God really say?” There are few passages that are more clear that the child in the womb is a child than our reading in Luke. And children are always seen as a blessing in Scripture no matter what the circumstances of their conception. But Satan likes to steal our joy. And he wants to steal your joy that is a greater joy than becoming an expecting mother, even a greater joy than being an expecting mother when it was humanly impossible to become one, the joy of your salvation in Jesus Christ. Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, prophetically praised Mary for her faith. And Mary’s faith led her to praise God. When we believe in Jesus this brings us a far greater joy than anything else we can imagine. And that joy leads us to share the good news about Jesus with others. That joy leads us to protect babies in the womb—that is part of sharing the goods news about Jesus through our actions. Indeed, we can be mothers in faith to those who do not know Jesus. And we can be mothers to babies through foster care and adoption—whose children will be raised to know that they belong to God—that He rescued them. Then we will know not only the joy of our own salvation but also the joy of being a mother in the faith to another. Satan will try and steal this joy. But it belongs to us in Christ Jesus. Hallelujah! Amen!