Nov 20, 2011

Mary's Visit to Elizabeth

Luke 1:39–45

In the gospel of Luke, an unborn baby is the first person described as leaping for joy at the arrival of Jesus Christ. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in Luke to describe what happened when Mary visited her pregnant cousin Elizabeth.


We’re going to continue our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. I will be reading from chapter 1, verse 39 through verse 45.

Now Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Then she spoke out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.”

We’ve just heard part of Luke’s account of the life and ministry of Jesus. Luke gives us more information about the infancy of Jesus than any of the other Gospels. Mary’s visit to Elizabeth is a part of that account, and it is there for our instruction and edification. I pray that we will receive these words of the Lord in our minds and hearts. Let us pray.

Our Father, we ask that you stoop to our weakness, to the fragility of our understanding and the frailty of our consciences, so that we may have ears to hear your Word and hearts that are open to receive it and rejoice in it. Give us the same Spirit in our hearts that was made manifest here by your servant, Elizabeth. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Last time, we looked at Mary’s response to Gabriel, who had told her about the miraculous birth she was about to have due to the Son of God being conceived in her womb. We looked at the last part of her response where she said, “So let it be unto me, even according to thy word.” That was not so much an imperative that the angel was obligated to obey but an expression of Mary’s submission to Gabriel’s announcement. In that announcement, Gabriel told Mary that Elizabeth was in her sixth month of pregnancy with the child who had been conceived through the power of God in her womb. We pick up the narrative immediately after the angel had visited Mary, and we read, “Now Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste, to a city of Judah.”

It’s Like Going up to Denver

We recently visited the Holy Land, Ephesus, Rome, and other important points of church history. People have asked me what the highlight of the trip was. Was it preaching on the site of the Apostle John’s tomb in Ephesus? Certainly, that was one of the highlights. What about seeing the sights of Jerusalem, or Capernaum, or speaking while on the Sea of Galilee? They were all very meaningful to me, but the moment that I enjoyed the most was riding in the bus going up to Jerusalem.

When the Bible speaks of “going up” to Jerusalem, it’s speaking of going to a city of higher elevation. It’s like when people go up to Denver from the lower portions of the American Midwest. In Palestine, when one wanted to go to the capital city, he had to go up through the hill country. I recently preached through 1 and 2 Samuel. So much of the history in 1 and 2 Samuel took place in that hill country, and it felt like I was seeing ghosts everywhere I went. It’s a beautiful terrain in the hill country of Judea. Now, I read this text in Luke, and I’m back there in the hills of Judea, where Mary is hurrying as fast as she can to see her cousin Elizabeth.

If ever two women had something important to talk about, it was these two women. Mary couldn’t wait to speak to Elizabeth and tell her what she heard from the angel—the child she was going to conceive would be the Messiah. Mary knew already that part of this unfolding drama was happening in Elizabeth’s life. In the womb of Elizabeth, at that very moment, was a six-month-old unborn child who would be the herald of the King—John the Baptist. He, like the prophet Jeremiah, would be sanctified while he was in his mother’s womb.

A Blob of Undifferentiated Protoplasm?

I’m not going to turn this into a sermon on abortion, but I can’t pass over the reality of what happened when Mary visited Elizabeth. We have a response to Mary’s presence not only from Elizabeth but also from her unborn child. John the Baptist’s first testimony to Jesus, his first heralding of the King, takes place before he’s even born. One thing I’m sure of is that six months into Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the child in her womb was alive, was human, and was a person. Those three things are crucial as we consider what I believe to be the greatest ethical crisis that has ever visited the United States of America. This crisis far exceeds the moral travesty of slavery: the wanton destruction of unborn babies. One and a half million babies are aborted every year in this nation with hardly a peep out of the church.

We hear the rhetoric. We hear people say, “A woman has a right to her own body.” There are two things I want to observe in passing. First, a child in a woman’s womb is not part of the woman’s body. It may be in the woman’s body, but it is not the woman’s body. The clearest evidence of the distinction between individual human beings is DNA. The DNA code of an unborn baby is different from every DNA cell in the woman’s body. The fetus is in the woman’s womb, in her body, but it is not part of her body.

Second, the woman has a right to her own body. Whatever rights I have end where yours begin, and your rights with me end where my rights begin. A mother may have the legal right in the United States of America to destroy that unborn child, but where did she ever get the moral right to do it? Where does the Lord God, who is the author, protector, and sustainer of life, grant any woman or man the right to destroy another person? How far we have come.

In the last two thousand years of theology, there were many debates between conservatives, liberals, and theologians of every different stripe. Up until the feminist movement of the twentieth century, however, if there was a consensus on any doctrine or moral issue in Christianity, it was on abortion. For example, the Didache unabashedly referred to abortion as “murder.”

If we can argue that what is growing in the womb is not a living person with its own distinct recognition, then we can say things like, “It’s just a blob of undifferentiated protoplasm.” Even worse, I once heard an elected official say, “The unborn child is just so much domestic sewage.” We cannot become more pagan than that. The primary reason that government exists is to protect, sustain, and maintain human life. When a government willfully fails to do that, it has not only become pagan; it has become demonic.

That’s my opinion. Yes, I am a trained theologian. I’ve spent my entire adult life studying the things of God, and I am by no means infallible. However, if I know anything about God, it’s that He hates abortion. If you have had one, it is a grave and heinous sin, but it is not unforgivable. If you’ve had an abortion and you’re a Christian, you know it’s a grave sin. It haunts you every hour. If you’ve assisted in it or encouraged it as a man, you are in profound need of God’s forgiving grace, which is available. Don’t try to excuse it, don’t try to rationalize it. Ask for forgiveness and stop this practice.

The main argument in Roe v. Wade was that there was no evidence that “life” was being destroyed in the womb. That happened before advances were made in DNA research, which makes it very clear that it is human life. However, we see in this text a living child, not yet born, whose heart was beating, whose brainwaves were circulating, and who recognized the presence of Christ while he was still in his mother’s womb. He leaped for joy in the womb. I can hear people say: “She’s six months pregnant. It’s just the baby kicking or a quickening.” However, the Word of God says that when Mary came to see her, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and that the response of the babe in her womb was a supernatural one.

A Stirring Influence on the Soul

We read, “And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” After she’s filled with the Holy Spirit, what does she do?

If you’re Roman Catholic, you may say that she sang part of the rosary. You may have seen the phrase Ave Maria, which simply means “Hello, Mary.” “Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee” was the greeting from Gabriel. Elizabeth continued it: “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Does that sound familiar to those of you who come from a Catholic background? The rosary borrowed these lines from this passage.

Elizabeth, though, is not praying. Rather, she’s singing. Her song is the first of five songs in Luke’s account of Jesus’ infancy. It sets the stage for perhaps the greatest song in this narrative, which will be the focal point of our next study. The five songs are these: this song of Elizabeth, the Magnificat (Mary’s song), the Benedictus (Zacharias’ song), the Gloria in Excelsis (the song of the angels on Christmas Eve), and the Nunc dimittis (Simeon’s song when the baby Jesus was presented at the temple). As we move along in the text, I want to be careful to note the content of these songs. These songs are glorious. They are majestic, and their content is so enriching that they can change our lives as we meditate on them.

In the past, I have challenged Christian women to memorize the Magnificat. If you do, you will never regret it. The words of that song will come to your mind over and over again. By the way, the Magnificat is wonderful for men to memorize too, but it has a particularly stirring influence on the souls of women who learn it.

I Did It My Way

Throughout sacred Scriptures, there are places where music is referenced. In particular, the Old Testament records many songs. The first song is recorded in the fourth chapter of Genesis, which contains Cain’s genealogy. This is the same Cain who killed his brother Abel. Beginning at Genesis 4:19, we read the history of Lamech, who was one of Cain’s descendants. It reads:

Then Lamech took for himself two wives: the name of one was Adah, and the name of the second was Zillah. And Adah bore Jabal. He was the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock. His brother’s name was Jubal. He was the father of all those who play the harp and flute. And as for Zillah, she also bore Tubal-Cain, an instructor of every craftsman in bronze and iron. And the sister of Tubal-Cain was Naamah. (Gen. 4:19–22)

Then the text says, “Lamech said to his wives,” but he was actually singing to them. This is the first song recorded in Scripture. Listen to this song:

Adah and Zillah, hear my voice;
Wives of Lamech, listen to my speech!
For I have killed a man for wounding me,
Even a young man for hurting me.
If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold,
Then Lamech seventy-sevenfold. (Gen. 4:23–24)

This is called “Lamech’s Sword Song,” in which he celebrates his own violence and vengefulness toward someone who had insulted him, whom he killed. I mention that for this reason: not all songs recorded in sacred Scripture are good songs. Some of them are bad songs. They’re arrogant and destructive songs. Had Lamech written his song in the twentieth century, it wouldn’t have been called “A Sword Song.” He would have recorded it under the title, “My Way.” It would go something like “I did it my way; I slaughtered those devils that insulted me.”

“God Must Be Something”

Songs communicate so much. So many bad ideas, so many arrogant ideas, and yet God also uses songs to elevate the human soul to the highest levels possible. Even Plato understood that in ancient Greece, one had to pay attention to what music the youth were listening because it had a powerful impact. If you listen to the music of our age, you will learn about the behavior of our age. We need to have music that praises, blesses, thanks, and responds to God.

Exodus 15 contains one of the lengthier songs in the Old Testament. The people of Israel had been released from bondage and rescued from the chariots of Pharaoh. Moses and the children of Israel were caught between Migdol and the sea, with the sea in front of them and Pharaoh’s chariots behind them. They were completely helpless, like lambs ready to be slaughtered. So, Moses raised his arms and called upon God to deliver His people, and God caused a great wind to blow. The Red Sea parted, and the children of Israel walked across dry ground while the ferocious wind held back the sea. As soon as they reached the other side, Pharaoh and his armies entered the vacant portion of the sea, and when they reached the middle of the Red Sea, the wall of water collapsed and drowned them.

It reminds me of the story of the little boy who came home from Sunday school. His dad said, “What did you learn about in Sunday school?”

“My Sunday school teacher said that the Red Sea wasn’t a sea. It was the Reed Sea, and it was only six inches deep.”


“Yes, that’s what the critical scholars are saying.”

“What do you think of that?”

“Boy, dad. God must be something.”

“Why is that?”

“He drowned the whole Egyptian army in six inches of water.”

This was the biggest moment of salvation in the Old Testament, celebrated in song. Moses sang:

I will sing to the LORD,
For He has triumphed gloriously!
The horse and its rider
He has thrown into the sea!
The LORD is my strength and song,
And He has become my salvation;
He is my God, and I will praise Him;
My father’s God, and I will exalt Him.
The LORD is a man of war;
The LORD is His name.
Pharaoh’s chariots and his army He has cast into the sea;
His chosen captains also are drowned in the Red Sea.
The depths have covered them;
They sank to the bottom like a stone. (Ex. 15:1–5)

This song was adapted into a great hymn. The Old Testament has many songs like this. Miriam echoes the sentiment of the Exodus. During the period of the Judges was the song of Deborah: “The stars in their courses fought against Sisera.” There is David’s lamentation over the deaths of Jonathan and Saul: “Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in Ashkelon.” There is the song of Hannah concerning the promised birth of Samuel. You see songs all the way to the book of Revelation, which tells us that when the kingdom of Christ is consummated, He will give His people a new song.

Now, there are five songs at the breakthrough of the New Testament, at the advent of Jesus. His birth was announced by a choral from heaven and celebrated by human agents under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. They begin with this simple couplet in metrical style: “Blessed Mary are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” It’s as if Elizabeth was saying: “Who am I? I can’t believe that you’re visiting me.” Elizabeth is the elder cousin, but she’s saying: “What are you doing here? I can’t believe that you’re gracing my house, that the mother of my Lord should come to me.” As the Spirit moved Elizabeth to say those things, He also came upon Mary, and she responded with one of the greatest songs ever sung. You would do well to learn it. Let’s pray.

Our Father and our God, we thank you for music. We thank you for all the good that it does, and we ask for your forgiveness for all the bad that it does. Give us a taste for good music and an inclination for music that praises you, thanks you, and adores you. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.