ELIZABETH AND MARY REJOICING – Luke 1:39-56

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INTRODUCTION:

The scene opens.  Mary had just told the angel Gabriel, “I am the Lord’s servant . . . . May it be done to me as you have said” (NIV translation).  She has agreed to be the mother of the Messiah, and the angel Gabriel has just left her to return to the presence of God in heaven.  She is now alone, with her mind filled with thoughts and her heart filled with emotions.  “What do I do now?”  “Has the angel’s announcement already happened?”  “Am I already pregnant?”  “How will I know?”  “Who can I share all these amazing occurrences with?”

That’s where we begin our study of Luke 1:39-56.  The answers to those questions, and what happens next, are all found in this passage of Scripture.

I.  THE JOY OF ELIZABETH (verses 39-45)

Once Mary is able to gain some control over her thoughts and emotions, she remembers the angel’s words about Elizabeth.  “And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was barren is now in her sixth month.”  From the response that follows, Mary may have thought, “Elizabeth is having a supernatural pregnancy also!  We have that in common!  She’s the only person I can talk to about these things that the angel told me.  I can’t tell Joseph since I’m not sure it has happened yet or when it will happen.  Her home will be a place of safety for me, and I can be of service to her.”  Are you getting the picture of Mary’s dilemma?

Verse 39 says, “Now at this time Mary arose and went with haste to the hill country to a city of Judah”.  Mary probably grabbed a few necessities for the trip, and may have left a note for her parents and for Joseph explaining that she had gone to Elizabeth to help her in the final trimester of her pregnancy.  Then she took off “in haste” to avoid any conversations and questions from family, friends, and neighbors.  The home of Zacharias and Elizabeth was 80 miles away, a journey of four to five days on foot.  In her haste to get there, Mary may have arrived in four days or even less.  She had plenty to think about along the way!  But all the travelling is going to be worth the effort on her part.  Her visit with Elizabeth and Zacharias is going to be beyond her highest expectations!  The Spirit of God is going to do some amazing things!

As Mary reaches the hill country of Judah and the home of Zacharias and Elizabeth is in sight, she has been rehearsing in her mind what she is going to say to Elizabeth and how she is going to say it.  There is probably some uneasiness about how this information is going to be received and the responses she might get.  However, when she enters their house and greets Elizabeth, the Spirit of God takes it from there and performs a miracle to her amazement.  Verse 41 says, “And it came about that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.”  I’m not sure that Mary observed those two things happening to Elizabeth, but she certainly heard the results.  The Holy Spirit immediately informed Elizabeth that Mary was pregnant with the Messiah, and then the Spirit took control of her voice as she described what happened and why it happened.  Verse 42 says, “And she (Elizabeth) cried out with a loud voice, and said, ‘Blessed among women are you, and blessed is the fruit of your womb’.”  Her voice was ecstatic and loud.  Notice that Elizabeth says “blessed among women”, not blessed above women.  It is a place of unmerited privilege, not a place of veneration or worship.  Her words were a confirmation to Mary that she was already pregnant.  “But how could she have known that information?”, Mary wonders.  “I haven’t told anyone that information and the news couldn’t have travelled that fast.  God must have told her.”

The answer comes in Elizabeth’s next statement in verse 43:  “And how is it that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”  Elizabeth not only knows that Mary is pregnant, but also that she is pregnant with the Messiah.  This is a second confirmation of the angel Gabriel words to her.  In verse 44, Elizabeth describes to Mary what happened within her womb when she heard her voice.  “For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy.”

You mothers know what it looks like and feels like when your baby has moved around in your womb, especially when you are close to term.  Fathers and older brothers and sisters have watched wide-eyed. and with bursts of laughter, when the baby’s arm, elbow, or foot, protrudes in your belly.  It’s an amazing sight to watch and enjoy!

What Elizabeth described to Mary went well beyond the usual occurrence.  You might say that her experience was a miracle in itself.  It makes you wonder what it must have felt like when it happened!   I wonder whether the unborn John the Baptist was not only jumping for joy, but also assuming a position of worship before the Messiah in Mary’s womb.  Just a thought.

Finally, Elizabeth says in verse 45:  “And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.”  The Holy Spirit had even given Elizabeth insight into Mary’s heart, and Mary’s faith in God’s promise.  Because Elizabeth is saying these things under the control of the Spirit, this commendation of Mary comes not only from Elizabeth but also from God Himself.

II.  THE JOY OF MARY (verses 46-56)

After hearing these words from Elizabeth, Mary’s heart is overflowing with praise and thanksgiving to God.  She responds with one of the most beautiful and worshipful prayers or declarations of praise to God in the Scriptures.  It is often called the Magnificat.  The Latin Vulgate translation begins with the words “Magnificat anima mea Dominum” (“My soul magnifies the Lord”).  The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible states:  “Some of the greatest works of Christian art have been produced around the Magnificat themes.  Artists, poets and musicians have celebrated its theme of joy at the salvation now graciously offered mankind through the gift of the Messiah.”

Mary’s words are similar to the words of Hannah in I Samuel 2:1-10, where Hannah praises and thanks God for giving her a son (Samuel).  You might want to read that passage of Scripture and compare the two prayers.

This declaration of praise to God reveals much to us about Mary’s character, her knowledge of the Old Testament Scriptures, her concept of God, and her trust in Him.  Let’s take a closer look at her words as she declares the greatness of God’s character, and His wonderful deeds.  Before we study the individual verses of Mary’s declaration of praises, let’s look at all ten verses of the Magnificat so that you can see the whole prayer at once.

“My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.
For He has had regard for the humble estate of His bondslave;
For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed.
For the Mighty One has done great things for me.  And holy is His name.
And His mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear Him.

He has done mighty deeds with His arm.
He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones,
And has exalted those who were humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things; and sent away the rich empty-handed.
He has given help to Israel His servant, in remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his offspring forever”

That’s quite a statement, isn’t it?  With just a few modifications we could turn that into our own declaration of praise to God.  As we see, this young lady (Mary) must have spent a lot of time meditating on God’s Word.

Mary begins by expressing the source of her praise and joy.  In verse 46 she refers to God as Lord, and in verse 47 she calls Him my Savior.  She is echoing the words of Hannah in I Samuel 2, and the words of David in Psalm 35:9.  Like everyone else, Mary had to acknowledge Him as Lord, repent of her sins, and receive His salvation.

In verses 48 and 49, Mary rejoices in what God has done for her personally. Though she is the least of His servants, God has blessed her with the undeserved privilege of being the mother of the Messiah, who is now in her womb, and every generation will acknowledge this blessing of God upon her.  The focus of her attention is on God, and not on herself.  He is the one who has done these things.  As she says in verse 49:  “For the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is His name.”   I am impressed by Mary’s humility and her willing surrender to God’s will, as well as her concept of God’s power and holiness.

In the next section of her song, Mary includes those who are in the same socio-economic condition as herself (poor, humble and despised followers of Him).  Quoting from Psalms 103, 98, and 118, she praises God for His faithful mercies as He scatters the proud, feeds the hungry, and sends the rich away empty-handed.  Quoting from Job 5, Mary declares how God has exalted the humble and brought down rulers from their thrones.  Mary knows the Word of God, and her praise and confidence in Him is based upon God’s faithfulness to keep His Word.

Lastly, Mary gives praise to God for the things He has done for His people Israel.  In her prayer of praise she recalls to her mind Genesis 17:7 and 17:19, declaring God’s forever-promises to Abraham and his descendants: the land, the seed, and the blessing to all nations.  Many other passages in the book of Genesis are included in these promises.

After Mary finishes her hymn of praise, the Gospel writer Luke writes these words:  “And Mary stayed with her about three months, and then returned to her home” (verse 56).  “Three months” – so for three months Mary and Elizabeth were praising God together for what God was doing in their lives.  Zacharias was praising God also.  We just don’t have any word from him.  He was speechless until after his son was born.

HAVE YOU FOUND REASONS TO REJOICE?

I think my favorite definition of worship is the one written by William Temple.  He was an Anglican minister, an advocate for social reform, and served as an archbishop for many years.  We have a William Temple House and a William Temple Thrift Store here in Portland, Oregon.   He says:  “To worship is to quicken the conscience by the holiness of God, to feed the mind with the truth of God, to purge the imagination by the beauty of God, to open the heart to the love of God, and to devote the will to the purpose of God.”  As I look at Mary’s prayer again, I find that she employed all of those characteristics of worship.  Mary declares God’s holiness and quotes from God’s Word several times.  She focuses on God’s character (His mercy, power, sovereignty, provision, and faithfulness).  As she expresses these words you can tell that her heart is filled with love for Him, and she counts it a privilege to serve Him.

Beloved, do you find it hard at times, as I do, to express praise and worship to God?  Do frustrations and distractions put you out-of-focus sometimes and rob you of joy and thankfulness to God?  What has often helped to restore my focus on God and an attitude of worship and praise has been to read one or more of the Psalms and reflect upon the character of God and His concern for us.  As a result of this study, I’m also adding the prayer of Mary and the prayer of Hannah to my list of Scripture passages to read in order to prepare my heart for worship.   Many recording artists have recorded renditions of the psalms and other passages on YouTube.  Esther Mui, for example sings beautifully many of the psalms as well as other worshipful passages of Scripture.  You can read the lyrics as she sings and the photos are awesome.  She is one of many artists who have placed their songs on YouTube for everyone to enjoy.

I hope that you have found reasons to rejoice and worship God.  If not, let’s start finding resources today.  I’ve given you a place to start.  I hope you will carry your quest for an attitude of worship and praise beyond my suggestions, and give some suggestions to me as well.

An illustration I just read caused me to realize that we will know when we are truly worshipping and praising God in our hearts because we will feel the nearness of His presence and experience the joy of His presence.    Here is the illustration:  After attending church one Sunday morning, a little boy knelt at his bedside and prayed, “Dear God, we had a good time at church today – – but I wish you had been there!”

May you experience the nearness of God’s presence and the joy of His presence today as you take time to praise and worship Him.

 

QUESTIONS TO PRAY ABOUT – James 5:13-16a

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James begins this verse by asking, “Is any one of you in trouble?”  Do you think that James is expecting a “no” answer?  Is he using the laws of probability here? Let’s say that James expects at least 5000 people to read or hear this letter. Therefore there must be at least one person who has this “trouble”.  I don’t think so.  James is expecting a positive response.  If that’s true, then why is he asking the question?  Why doesn’t he just tell them to pray when they are troubled? James is asking a “rhetorical question” here, and he uses three of them in verses 13 and 14.

Sometimes a rhetorical question is used to give the recipient a moment to pause and think about it before receiving the answer.  It can be used as a teaching tool.   Since the reader or listener knows that the answer is “yes”, he may be more likely to listen and pay attention to what is said next.  The Lord Jesus used rhetorical questions.  In Mark 8 He used them repeatedly for the purpose of encouragement and application.

I.  ARE YOU TROUBLED? (verse 13a)

The Greek word translated “troubled” in the NIV, is the word kakopathei.  It can refer to suffering evil or hardship of any kind.  These Hebrew Christians and their families have been scattered all over Asia Minor because of the persecution, so they are struggling to find jobs, learn a new language and adjust to a different culture.  That can be very frustrating!  James knew that they needed some encouragement and some practical steps to take in order to ease their troubled minds.

Let me translate the Greek word into terms and expressions that we can all identify with.  “Are you feeling down?”  “Are you worried or distressed?”  “Are you having a bad day?”  “Are things just not going your way today?  “Do you feel like you got up on the wrong side of the bed?”  James’ response to his question is:  PRAY.  He doesn’t mean “say a prayer”.  He is encouraging them to go into the presence of God, praise and worship Him, get right with Him, give thanks to Him, and then bring their requests to Him.  By the time they get to their petition, they might find that they don’t have any urgent requests anymore.  They now feel refreshed and have a new perspective on their day.  The focus of attention has moved from their problems to their all-sufficient God.

II.  ARE YOU CHEERFUL?  (verse 13b)

The Greek word translated “cheerful” here means feeling good inside; a joyful spirit that is not dependent upon circumstances.  James says, “when you’re cheerful, sing about it, and don’t sing just any song, sing a psalm – a song of praise to God!”  Let the joy that’s inside come out – don’t keep it to yourself!   The apostle Paul and Silas were singing praises to God at midnight while they were in the Philippian jail (Acts 16:25)!

Many of you have probably enjoyed listening to a large choir as they sang the great hymns of the faith.  But if you’ve ever sung in a choir yourself, you know that singing your heart out with the other choir members after all the hours of practice is an even greater experience of joy and praise to God.  And don’t forget the enjoyment that God is experiencing as He listens to your voices and the expressions of praise from your hearts.  It is a mutually gratifying experience!

Singing played a major role in the history of the people of Israel.  There are several times in the Old Testament when the whole nation of Israel sang together to the Lord.  These occasions probably came to the mind of James as he was writing these words, and also to the minds of his readers and listeners.  The first time was in Exodus 15, when Moses and the children of Israel passed through the Red Sea on dry ground, and the entire Egyptian army drowned when the waters returned to their place.  The first few words of that song are:  “I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously!  The horse and its rider He has thrown into the sea” (NKJV). Can you imagine what that must have sounded like?  Thousands of people singing it as loud as they could, their faces beaming with joy!  If you read the entire song, you will see that it was more than just a song.  It was a cheer to God, a vocal applause, shouting out to Him in song in response to the great things He has done. When was the last time you gave God a “round of applause” for the things He has done in your life and in the lives of others?  Don’t you think He deserves that kind of a response from our mouths?

When we’re happy we can be a source of cheer and encouragement to others also.  If you’ve been to a football, basketball, or soccer game, and the cheerleaders have you and the rest of the crowd cheering, your team usually plays harder and better.  Your cheers are urging them on and building their confidence. Statistics generally show that more games are won when the team is on its own “home field”, or has the “home court advantage.”

Once, when a great fire broke out at midnight and people thought that all the occupants of the building had been evacuated, way up on the fifth floor a little child was seen crying for help.  Up went a ladder, and soon a fireman was seen ascending to the spot.  As he neared the second story the flames burst in fury from the windows, and the multitude almost despaired of the rescue of the child.  The brave man faltered, and a comrade at the bottom cried out, “Cheer him!”  Cheer upon cheer arose from the crowd.  Up the ladder he went and saved the child, because they cheered him.  When we’re happy, let’s be “cheerleaders” to those around us.

There are several other occasions where the whole nation of Israel sang praises to God.  For example, there is I Chronicles 15 (the return of the Ark of God), and II Chronicles 5 (dedication of the temple).  In addition to these occasions, James remembers the final Passover meal that he and the other disciples celebrated with the Lord Jesus.  Since Jesus presided over the meal, after they had eaten the lamb and unleavened bread, it was Jesus who also led them in the customary singing of a hymn.  Jesus sang a hymn of praise and deliverance from the land of Egypt, knowing that the next day He was going to be that Lamb Who would be sacrificed to pay for the sins of the world.  Yet He was able to sing for joy!  I hope and pray that there is a song in your heart, and on your lips today!

III.  ARE YOU WITHOUT STRENGTH?  (verses 14-16)

Another time for specific prayer is when someone within the congregation is sick. I believe this is the only place in the New Testament where praying and anointing of the sick are mentioned in conjunction with each other.  Therefore we must be very careful to understand the context of James’ words, and especially to understand the meaning of the Greek words that are used in these verses. This is not a passage of Scripture that can be clearly understood by just reading it in several translations.  Rather, I think that this is a passage of Scripture that can be easily misunderstood and misapplied if it isn’t thoroughly examined.  Get ready for some hard work and attention to details!

After examining the context of verses 14 to 16, and in the process of studying the first significant Greek word in verse 14, I am getting an altogether different understanding of what is happening in these three verses.  Please join me in laying aside previous ideas and conclusions for a while, and let’s take a fresh look at this text and its applications to us today.

Here are some questions I’ve been asking myself as I look at the context.  James has been addressing emotional, social, and spiritual issues in this letter.  Why would he suddenly switch to physical healing in an unclear manner and then back away from it as suddenly as he brought it up?  What does anointing with oil, confession of sin, and forgiveness have to do with sickness?  What kind of “healing” is being spoken about here?

The first Greek word I am now studying is the word asthenei.  It is the word I have highlighted in the NASB translation of the first sentence in James 5:14:  “Is anyone among you sick?  It literally means, “without strength”.  In Mark 6:13 it is associated with the casting out of demons. The apostle Paul used this Greek word when referring to one’s conscience being weak (Romans 6:19; I Cor. 8:7), and the weakness of one’s flesh when it comes to giving into temptation and sin (Romans 8:3).

Notice also in verse 14, it says, “is any one among you sick, let him call for the elders . . . “.  Whatever this “sickness”  or “lack of strength” is, it isn’t incapacitating and it doesn’t appear to be physically contagious.  Also, since he is the one calling upon the elders, his specific purpose for doing so is so that they might pray for him, anointing him with oil as they pray.    This person has come to the point where he wants to make it known that he is ready and willing to do this, and wants the elders of the church to be in charge of it.  If it seems that I am belaboring the point, there is a reason for it.

I like the way the Greek Interlinear New Testament literally translates what the elders are doing:  “let them pray over him, having anointed with oil . . . “.  The  word “anointed” here means “to rub”.  It is a different word from the one used to anoint people or vessels for service to God.  Here is my interpretation based on the context of what James dealt with before it, and what proceeds afterward. As we all may know from experience, many of the issues that James has been addressing (e.g. anger, jealousy, bitterness, guilt, and anxiety) can have overpowering effects on us mentally, emotionally, spiritually, socially, and also physically.  They can draw us inward and control our personalities much like the effects of a harmful addictive drug.  Therefore I personally wonder if the elders were giving this man something similar to massage therapy and aroma therapy to soothe and comfort him in his anguish.   At the same time they were praying over him, so that he might get some things that have been bothering him “off his chest” so to speak.  The penetrating oil, the soothing aroma, the faces of these elders above him, and the sound of their prayers are preparing him to release the troubles and sins that have been eating away at his soul.  It is done in the name of the Lord, because God deserves the glory and praise for what only He can do.

In verse 15, James says, “and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick” (NASB).  The word translated “prayer” is a different Greek word for prayer.  It is the Greek word euche, which means “intense prayer“.  It is intense because it is offered in faith – grounded in the assurance of God’s will in this matter, and trusting in His enabling.  It may also be “intense” because these elders are praying together for a common purpose.  The following devotional article in Our Daily Bread is a true example of intense faith and intense prayer.

Louis Banks relates a story of a veteran missionary who returned to China after a long absence.  On the day of his return, he was met by a former convert and six other Chinese nationals.  These six, as the missionary later learned, had received Christ while living in the dark shadows of opium addiction.  Amazed by their good health, the missionary asked his former convert what remedy he had used in their deliverance.  The man answered by pointing to his knees.  He had prayed for them, and when they came to him for help he encouraged them to pray for themselves.  When they came back saying that it did them no good, the man of faith sent them back to their knees.  He said he did this again and again until they stood before him clean, sound in body and mind.  Through prayer, their cruel chains had been broken, and they had new songs of joy and praise on their lips.

Dr. M.R. DeHaan II, ends his devotional with these words:  “This doesn’t imply that we shouldn’t use other means of help.  But it says that whatever help we seek, nothing must replace the role of prayer.”

As James says in verse 15, “the prayer of faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.”  (NASB)  God has given each of us a body, soul, and spirit, and when one of these aspects of our being is weak and hurting, it affects the other two.  From this verse and verse 16, it appears that the source of the weakness is spiritual, but it has weakened the body and emotions as well.  When God “raises him up”, He is restoring vitality to every part of his being.

So James exhorts them in verse 16 to “Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed” (NIV).  He is emphasizing that the sins they have been committing against each other are the source of their problems, and gives the remedy.  As Jews, his readers would tend to associate suffering with sin, and in this case they are correct.  The remedy is not only to confess their sins to God, but also to confess their sins to those whom they have wronged, praying for each other as well.  Only then can our relationships be healed.  As Jesus said in His Sermon on the Mount, “. , , first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering” (Matthew 5:24).

Confession isn’t easy, but it’s the right thing to do in God’s sight.  God will always give us the strength to do what is right if we ask it of Him.  Is there someone you should talk to today, confessing your sin and asking for forgiveness?  The first stanza of the hymn entitled “The Evening Prayer” contains these words:

If I have wounded any soul today,

If I have caused one foot to go astray,

If I have walked in my own willful way,

Dear Lord, forgive

by Maude Battersby

 

May you experience the joy of our Lord’s presence and closeness today, and may He shine out on your countenances as He did on the face of Moses!  BE SHINY!  (Matthew 5:16 – a child’s paraphrase).