“When (Zechariah’s) time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. ‘The Lord has done this for me,’ she said. ‘In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.’” Luke 1:23-25, NIV
Elizabeth was from a family of priests. She married a priest. Earlier in the story, Luke told us that she was, “righteous,” and, “blameless.” Here was a woman who seemed to have lived well her whole life. And yet, to this point she had never experienced what her culture defined as proof of that rightness – offspring to continue her family. Her response to her pregnancy tells us that she had suffered disgrace, reproach, or shame among the people in her life and community. We don’t know exactly how those people expressed it, but I imagine in that way they were not very different from the people you and I will see today, in our workplaces, in our kitchens, or in our mirrors.
As I thought about it just now, it occurred to me that Elizabeth’s situation, like ours, is one small re-telling of the story of humans from the beginning. In the first book of the Bible, Genesis, God told people how to live a good life and gave them what they needed to live it. They looked around and decided that there was another way, that they could determine what was good. That didn’t work out. Shortly thereafter, they experienced the first shame (Genesis 3:7). That story has played out in every life and every culture since then. In Elizabeth’s culture, perhaps it was nice to be righteous, but a “good life” meant plenty of children, or at least one child. Elizabeth and Zechariah didn’t fit the mold. So they experienced shame.
One rather amazing thing about them is that they apparently kept on being righteous in the midst of that shame from other people. What would make someone do that? In that way, they are the exact opposite of the Genesis account: when God’s definition of “good” didn’t line up with the culture’s definition, and when they suffered because of it, they still turned to God as the source of goodness. I suspect that, in all those years, they had experienced the goodness of God, and they somehow knew that all other substitutes were no longer options.
I wonder where we have experienced shame or reproach from other people, or from ourselves. Where have we done everything, “right,” only to receive none of what we or others expected that would bring?
For me, that kind of reproach or shame has often shown up in how I think about being single. I bought into the lie of the American Christian sub-culture in the 1990’s and early 2000’s as it idolized marriage. The thinking seemed to go that if one followed Jesus, and behaved oneself sexually, one was promised – even owed – a loving spouse and cute children. I exaggerate, but not much. Perhaps it would have been good for us to examine whether God ever owes humans anything. In any case, I really did love Jesus and try to follow Him. I really did, outwardly, behave myself sexually. And no husband appeared. In the condescending comments of well-meaning others, in the gradual disappearance of a “plus one” listed on wedding invitations, and in what I sometimes believed about myself, I experienced the shame of believing all of that was because I wasn’t doing life right, or maybe because I was just too pathetic. The story is a lot more complicated than that, of course, but the feeling of shame, based on those lies, was real and often present.
Do you see how something like that might have gone for Elizabeth? Or maybe how it has gone for you, in some area of your life?
Both Elizabeth’s years of “rightness” and her response to her pregnancy offer a beautiful way through, and out of, the shame we may have experienced. Elizabeth, over decades, chose the goodness of God, and the good life God offered, over what she and her culture had defined as “good” results. She kept on practicing righteousness, without the tangible result for which she hoped. She doesn’t seem to have thought that God owed her anything. When she became pregnant, after all hope was lost, she attributed that gift to the kindness of God. It wasn’t the delivery of something she had earned. “How kind the Lord is!” she exclaimed. “He has taken away my disgrace of having no children” (Luke 1:25, NLT). In the cosmic story being played out inside of her and around her, with the birth of John, she could see the goodness of God for her. God did not have take away her reproach among people. But He did.
In what sphere of life can you and I turn away from our culture’s, or our own, preconceived notions of what “good” is? What would that look like today?
Whatever it looks like, may God, in His kindness, make us like Elizabeth.