As Christians we talk a lot about ‘faith.’ But do we think and talk about faith in a way that truly reflects a Biblical understanding? How well does our understanding of faith stack up against the kind of faith we see in the Bible?
When we talk about faith do we see it as ‘blind faith’. A kind of leap in the dark, a trust that can have no evidential support?
When we talk about faith is it a way of making ourselves feel superior to others? ‘My faith’ enables me to live a good life.
And when we talk about faith is it a serious matter, that produces no sense of joy or excitement?
Today’s Gospel reading is a short passage, but it is pivotal in the birth narratives in Luke’s gospel. These opening chapters are all about faith. In particular, whether people will believe God’s messenger, the angel Gabriel.
Luke starts by telling us of Zechariah and Elizabeth. They are very old and their deep sadness is that they have not been able to have children. Yet, they are good faithful Israelites. Zechariah serves in the temple as a Priest and one day he is confronted by the Angel Gabriel. Gabriel tells him that the impossible will happen, he is going to have a baby boy, who he should call, John, someone who will play a key role in God’s plans. Zechariah, however, does not believe Gabriel – he thinks he and his wife are too old. So Gabriel strikes him dumb. Yet, when Zechariah goes home the impossible does happen and his wife Elizabeth becomes pregnant.
Then Luke tells us that the angel Gabriel comes again, but this time to a young girl, Mary, a virgin, who is engaged to a man called Joseph. This time the angel tells her she will conceive a boy by the Holy Spirit, who will be called Son of God and have an eternal kingdom. Although, again this seems impossible, Mary does believe Gabriel.
Then we have our passage, where these two stories, one about unbelief and the other about belief come together: Mary visits Elizabeth. These short verses actually teach us a lot about faith. Perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising as the last verse has a kind of beatitude:
“Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!” (Luke 1:46).
In other words here is an assertion, that faith brings blessing. Mary has a unique role in that she became the mother of the Son of God. Yet, she is also an example for us all to follow. True blessing comes from believing what God tells us. True faith really matters, so we should be concerned to check that our faith is shaped by the faith of these Biblical characters.
So, what kind of faith does this meeting between Mary and Elizabeth show us?
- Faith seeks certainty
Firstly, it shows us that faith is not simply blind faith. Rather it seeks out stronger confirmation of what has already been believed.
Luke tells us that Mary hurries to go and see Elizabeth. In fact we know from Gabriel that Elizabeth was 6 months pregnant at the time he spoke to her. Luke also tells us that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months, before telling us of the birth of John the Baptist. The implication is then, that Mary goes to Elizabeth almost as soon as Gabriel has spoken to her.
But why? Why does Mary, a young woman who would probably be expected to stay in her parents home and not go travelling by herself, travel the 70 miles or so to Elizabeth?
Well when Mary asks how she can become pregnant, since she is a virgin, Gabriel mentions the miracle of how Elizabeth was pregnant despite being very old. It may be that Mary had not heard about this and so she goes to Elizabeth to see if what the angel said was true. Or perhaps she did know, but what the angel says suggests that Elizabeth is the best person to help her understand what is going on.
Mary believes the angel’s words, but she wants a deeper certainty and a deeper clarity. This is not simply blind faith.
Luke tells us that he writes his gospel so that:
” so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:4).
God certainly seems to respect this desire on Mary’s part. When Gabriel tells Zechariah about his new son he says that he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born and will go before the Lord to make a people prepared for the Lord.
When Mary arrives, John leaps in Elizabeth’s womb and Elizabeth herself is filled with the Holy Spirit. The implications are that her words are inspired – and what words: “Blessed are you and blessed is the child you will bear!”
Immediately, Elizabeth independently confirms everything that the angel Gabriel has said to Mary. She becomes a second witness to the great truth and there is a principle in the Bible that you need two witnesses to prove anything.
Mary’s faith is not simple blind faith. It immediately drives her to seek greater certainty and God gives her that.
We see a similar thing with the shepherds. When the angels give them the message about the birth of Jesus, they go and check out whether it is true – can there really be a baby in Bethlehem in a manger?
We are not called to a blind faith. True faith takes God’s words seriously and checks them out in order to gain a deeper certainty and confidence.
- Faith needs humility
So, faith seeks certainty, but it also needs humility.
After our scripture Mary, says a wonderful poem that is based on Hannah’s song of praise at the beginning of 1 Samuel. Mary’s poem is called the Magnificat and is traditionally said or sung in the Church of England evening prayer. The hymn, Tell out my soul is based on it.
It is a song about the fact that God blesses the humble. It talks about how God has:
“been mindful of the humble state of his servant.” (Luke 1:48)
“he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.” (Luke 1:51b)
Even when Mary accepted Gabriel’s message she said,
“I am the Lord’s servant.” (Luke 1:38)
But if you think Mary acts with humility what about the example of Elizabeth. Here she is the much older woman, but when her teenage relative turns up at the door she gives a greeting that you would expect a servant to give to a master.
What is more she doesn’t just treat Mary as having a higher status than her she calls the baby in her womb, ‘my Lord!’
God scatters the proud, but lifts up the humble. True faith comes humbly before God and before Jesus. Like Elizabeth it is not concerned to hold on to status or prestige, but to submit to God and his purposes and ways. True faith needs humility.
- Faith breeds joy
So, firstly, faith seeks certainty, secondly faith needs humility, but thirdly this passage shows us that faith breeds joy!
Elizabeth’s whole attitude her shouts of blessing at seeing Mary and expressing what God is up to all show a great delight about what God is up to. There is a real feeling of joy in the whole incident.
She tells us that the baby in her womb leapt with joy when he heard Mary’s greeting.
Mary goes on at the start of the Magnificat to say,
“My soul glorifies in the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour!” (Luke 1:46-47)
True faith brings great joy, because it trusts that through everything God is acting to bring about the salvation of those who trust in him and love him.
That’s why Paul says,
“Rejoice in the Lord always! I will say it again, rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4)
Christmas time is meant to be a time of joy and celebration. For the second year running it looks like Covid is going to make that difficult! But as Christians, Covid can never take away our joy in Christ. As long as the heart of our Christmas is about Christ, then we will always have reason to rejoice and celebrate.
That does not mean we will never feel sad or low, but it does mean that we can keep returning to the deeper reality of joy that only faith in Christ can bring, faith breeds joy.
How do you see faith?
So how do you see faith? Is it a blind leap in the dark, linked with a kind of religious arrogance and sombre seriousness? Or is it a joyful and humble seeking after certainty focussed on Jesus as the Christ, the one who truly is our Saviour and God with us.