“In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah. His wife, Elizabeth, was also a descendent of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decress blamelessly. But they were childless, because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.” (Luke 1:5-7, NIV)
Have you ever noticed that Elizabeth is described as “righteous,” “blameless,” and “barren?” Sometimes the righteous are barren, and I am comforted by the fact that this point is driven home so strongly in Luke’s Gospel.
Some people might equate barrenness with God’s judgment for sin. Even if they don’t articulate that as their theology, when things go wrong in their lives, they will ask, “What did I do wrong?” A friend of mine experienced a miscarriage, and she grappled with the question, “What did I do to deserve this?” But the truth is, it’s not about that. We do not operate on karma; God causes the rain to fall on the good and the bad alike. From this passage, we see that sometimes, a person can do everything “right” and still suffer.
Elizabeth and her husband were “both very old,” and Elizabeth was not able to conceive. For a woman in that day – and in fact, for women in some places today still – an inability to produce a child is the ultimate shame. Of course, barrenness is not relegated to child-bearing. Barrenness can take many forms. I have had seasons of spiritual barrenness, where God seemed silent and my spiritual tree was not bearing much spiritual fruit. I have found that this time of year can be one of the most barren seasons. Disappointment is intensified at Christmastime. As a single woman, for example, Christmas has always been the hardest time of the year. For another friend, whose son died unexpectedly a few years ago, Christmas is a hard time. She feels his absence; the fruit of her womb, the son of her right hand, gone. Her heart is barren at Christmas, as she misses him so.
Elizabeth was barren… but she was not bitter. Even in her disappointment, her “hope deferred,” she continued to honor and worship God. She continued to hope in the coming Messiah, and when God answered her prayers for a child, she was overjoyed that his role would be to prepare the way for Christ.
The thing that is so profound to me is that Elizabeth shows no hint of bitterness at God for waiting so long to bring her a son. Instead, she exhibits only joy. As I have wondered at her steadfastness and faith, in the face of such disappointment through the years, I think the secret to her ability to stand firm in her faith lies in her words to Mary: “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” (Luke 1:45).
Elizabeth believed God’s promise, but I wonder what promise she is referring to? Yes, an angel of the Lord promised her a child, and it could be that she was referring to that. But I don’t think that is the whole story.
I think the the promise Elizabeth is referring to, the one that she “believed,” the one that gave her such joy, was the promise God made generations before, of a coming Messiah. I believe that Elizabeth’s faith and joy after she was pregnant was based on her years of trusting God and believing his word. Her hope was not in her son, John; her hope was in the coming anointed one, whom she recognized in her relatives womb. “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy!” she said. Of course she was delighted to be having a child. But the thing about Elizabeth is that she was delighted in God even before she had a child. It seems, at least to me, that Elizabeth was content when she was barren, and she was content when she was not.
If you are struggling with barrenness this Christmas, in any form, please be encouraged that sometimes righteous people are barren. Do not bear the weight of condemnation that can often accompany barrenness. Do not let yourself even think, “What did I do to deserve this?” Instead, follow Elizabeth’s example and continue to trust God, even when you cannot see what God is doing behind the scenes in your life. We often can’t see at all how God is working all things together for good, but we can know – beyond a shadow of a doubt – that he is.
“Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” The Lord has promised us things that can bring us great joy, regardless of our present sufferings or circumstances. As Elizabeth hoped in the coming of the Messiah, we can hope in Christ’s second coming. We can hope in his promise to never leave or forsake us. We can hope in his promise that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. And we can hope in Christ’s declaration that he came to give us life, and life to the fullest.
Christmas will be hard for a lot of people, but it does not have to be a time of despair. Dare to hope in God. While you may be disappointed for a time, you will not be disappointed forever. Guaranteed.