Monday, December 8, 2014

A Mentor: Preparing the Way

Many of us know well the straight-line plot of the Christmas story.  Angel Gabriel visits Mary with the news that she is with child, though yet a virgin.  She immediately runs to her cousin, Elizabeth, who is miraculously pregnant despite her age, and when she returns three months later, Mary tells her fiance Joseph who obviously does not believe her since he plans to privately put her away versus having her publicly stoned.  

Then, the angel appears to Joseph in a dream, confirming Mary's words so that when he awakens, he immediately takes Mary as his wife, even going so far as to protectively take her along with him to Bethlehem to be counted in the census.  There, amidst the least of humanity is born the greatest of all, Immanuel, God made flesh, dwelling among us.

But what about that little side trip to Elizabeth's?  In those days with no Wal-Mart or Dollar General on every corner, trade caravans frequently traveled between cities.  If anything, being under Roman rule only increased traffic along the trade routes.  So, although it sounds insane for a young girl like Mary to just take off to her cousin's house in a nearby town, it probably wasn't as crazy as it sounds.  Also, the fact that the angel named Elizabeth as a relative, or cousin, implies she and Mary may have already had a relationship as family would have, especially in those days.

When Mary asks the angel "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" the angel explains about the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, then without pause adds, "'And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. For nothing will be impossible with God'” (Lk. 1:34, 36-7).

God needn't have given Mary further "proof" than the angel's presence that His Word would come true.  In other places in Scripture, He chastens those who ask such questions.  And yet, perhaps because Mary was so young or perhaps because God knew her question wasn't so much a lack of faith but a lack of comprehension of the nuts and bolts of the process,  He did give Mary a kind of Gideon-like fleece in this verse about Elizabeth, not only providing proof that could be confirmed but also a place touched by God's miraculous hand where Mary could go to for encouragement and mentoring.

Mary's response to the angel shows obedience and belief, and in this faith of a young girl, Scripture says, "Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth" (Lk. 1:39-40)..

 She hurried.  I imagine Mary hurried because she was excited to know her relative who had been barren all her life was suddenly six months into her pregnancy even though she was past typical child bearing age. Perhaps Mary, herself, had even prayed diligently for years for Elizabeth to be with child and to remove the curse from her household. 

I imagine she hurried because as much as she believed by faith, she wanted to believe by sight as well.  

I imagine she hurried because she wanted desperately to share what was happening to her with someone who would truly understand the miracle of God.

And Mary wasn't disappointed.  

As soon as Mary's foot passed over the threshold of her cousin's home, Elizabeth was speaking words of affirmation and comfort to Mary's soul.  Scripture reads, 
"When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. And she cried out with a loud voice and said, 'Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.'" (Lk. 1:41-45).

Luke records that Mary stayed with Elizabeth "about three months, and then returned to her home" (v. 56).  It is likely Mary was there when Elizabeth gave birth to John who would become known as John the Baptist, the one whom Scripture says, "came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, saying, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.' For this is the one referred to by Isaiah the prophet when he said, 'The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make ready the way of the Lord, Make His paths straight!’'" (Matt. 3:1-3).

Just as John the Baptist came to prepare the way of the Lord, to prepare hearts for Jesus and the baptism by the Holy Spirit, so, too, Elizabeth helped prepare the way for Mary to be the mother of the Savior.

Those three months with Elizabeth were a divinely appointed preparation time for Mary to be mentored both spiritually and physically for what was to come in the days ahead.

And that's it.  Story over.  Scripture never records what happens to Elizabeth.  Did she die before King Herod served up John then Baptist's head on a platter?  Or did Elizabeth live long enough to suffer through the loss of her one and only son?  I'm not sure the answer really matters.  

Whether or not God required Elizabeth to suffer in this way, the death of John the Baptist must have been a way to prepare Mary for what was to come with her Jesus, whether through continued mentoring as she watched Elizabeth grieve the loss of her flesh or through the grieving she felt as she mourned, herself, due to the spiritual connection she must have felt with John since he was an infant.

These side-stories in Scripture, those names included in the larger story but whose sub-plots we dismiss or too easily pass over--these are where we should see ourselves.

Are we the Elizabeth, mentoring a young Mary as she prepares to begin a life devoted to supporting the Savior?

Or are we the Mary, seeking out that Godly mentor to show us how to live Godly lives both during the good and the bad we know must come on our journey?

For me, I am both, and in a way, that's how I believe it should be for us all.  At this time of year, may you and I earnestly seek to be an Elizabeth in someone's life.  Likewise, may our hearts be sufficiently tender (no matter how old and wise we think we are) to seek our our own Elizabeth to prepare the way of the Lord in our hearts.

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