Two visits by one angel, five month apart. Two people, an old man and a young woman, both devout. Two angelic proclamations about two sons. Good news, miraculous, unbelievable—a child past child-bearing years and a child without a husband. Never happened before or since. Two opposite responses to the incredible news.

Two sons destined for greatness, one the greatest of the Old Covenant and the other the greatest of the New Covenant, both named by heaven, bypassing traditional names: John (“the Lord is gracious”) and Jesus (“the Lord saves”). Two regions, Judea and Galilee. The priest needed to live near the temple at Jerusalem. Galilee would light up in thirty years like never before: “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.” Jesus was born in the south and ministered in the north.

Two women, one barren, one a virgin. For the first, the news would lift the shame she felt her whole adult life. For the second, the shame would commence when she began carrying a child.

Two impossible pregnancies facilitated by the moving of the Holy Spirit on their bodies, both including prophetic words by the mothers when the sons met in Judea—still in the womb. Both sons who would change history, the one serving the other as a forerunner, yet knowing Jesus came before.

Joseph had himself heard from an angel, so he took Mary into his home. But now after her angelic visitation, she told Joseph she needed strength from a motherly figure who would understand, whom she found out was also carrying a miracle.

Mary could be stoned for what appeared like adultery. God’s miracles can masquerade behind what looks like mistakes. They also hide behind impossibilities. Both women were graced by heaven but disgraced on earth, one before the baby came, the other during and after.

Important truths:

  1. Suffering needs to be stewarded well. It will shape our character and release the gifts of the Spirit if we do not allow resentment to color our perception of God: Elizabeth said, “Why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” less than a centimeter long in Mary’s womb. Elizabeth’s remarkable recognition of Mary’s baby came out of the fires of affliction.
  1. Humility brings grace that releases the activity of the Spirit. Elizabeth recognized that her task was dwarfed by a far greater assignment of being the mother of the Messiah. Her humility gave her revelation of the purposes of God. She could have made the moment about herself. If you want to prophesy well, suffer well and stay low.
  1. God has charge of the womb. He works His divine will without checking probabilities. “Against all hope Abraham in hope believed…” With God, it is not as it appears.
  1. We give it all to Jesus. Mary said, “I am the Lord’s bondservant. Let it be to me according to your word,” another way of saying, “Jesus can use my body.
    A man who owned a donkey said, “Jesus can use my colt.” A woman said, “He can use my alabaster box.” Another said, “Jesus can use my grave.” What can we offer Jesus? Our car, our home, our gifting, our position?


We’ve heard about the mother, blessed among women.  How about the one chosen to raise Jesus, teach him a trade, and shape character?

We don’t know if Mary was beautiful. We know she was godly.  Whether or not men gave her a second look, God did—and so did Joseph. When we meet him, he has already made one wise decision—picking a woman God had singled out.


“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.  When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:18,19).

Joseph’s second wise choice was to walk in purity with the woman he was preparing to marry.  That explains why the news shocked him. He could have acted abruptly, adding harsh words to action.  He was more deliberate.


Panic throws off sound judgment. The phrase, “as he considered this” (20a), pictures a man who weighs actions. Joseph was open to change. Explain the pregnancy to friends: “Right, Joe—an angel came to you. With wings?”

“Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit’” (20).  Joseph could have thought, “Easy for you to say.  You don’t have to encounter people with shameful grins.” Joseph wasn’t looking for the easy way out but the right way through.

Joseph showed his son character, hard as silver and soft as an early morning dream. Joseph wasn’t alone in the plan—as he had felt moments ago.  Isaiah had been drawn into the cosmic drama seven centuries before.  “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:  ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (23).

What looked like default was design. We can trace the footprints in history. In God’s creativity there is continuity. And Joseph signed on.


It’s hard to be both.  Those strong on truth are often weak on grace. Mathew writes that when he “awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him. He took his wife…” (24).

Sometimes fathers need to say, “Do as you are told.”  Joseph did just that.  He didn’t second-guess (“What God really means…).  He obeyed. God found a servant, not only willing to fit into God’s strategy but who refrained from doing what he had every right to do as the husband: “He knew her not until she had born a son” (25).  That would mean a wait of two hundred or more days.

Joseph did what he could—teach his boy carpentry and character. And Jesus would have his father to thank—and His Father!


The spirit of Christmas captures folks. Not sure what it is, but one reading of the Christmas story in Luke tells me that the spirit on that first Christmas was the Holy Spirit.


The announcement came to Zechariah during his course of duty: “Your wife Elizabeth will bear a son…and many will rejoice at his birth…He will be great…and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb” (Lk. 1:13-15).

God had his eye on John before John had his eye on God. What would make this child great? His diet? Abstinence? Demeanor? No, his filling! It is the Spirit that makes people good—and great!

He would “turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord” (16). How? Persuasive preaching? No. “He will go before him [Messiah] in the spirit and power of Elijah” (17). The same Spirit empowers you and me. Incredible!


Mary received the shocking news that she would have a baby. When she asked about it, the angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you…For nothing will be impossible with God” (35,37). Matthew wrote that “she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit” (1:18).

It didn’t look that way. What appeared as an unholy moment of passion proved the quiet work of the Spirit. People looked at her getting bigger and wondered, while she looked at God, who grew bigger in her eyes. When Mary asked, “How?” the angel said, “The Holy Spirit,” the answer to every human impossibility, including yours.


Mary’s visit with an angel was followed by a visit to her relative. When Elizabeth heard her greeting, the Spirit moved upon her, the same Spirit that moved on John, still in her womb. He responded to the presence of Jesus, less than a month along. Elizabeth burst into prophecy. It was likely her first time ever. Nothing strange about a kick in the womb, but it was this time, because it was the Spirit moving, not just John. The Spirit does the same for us, turning a conversation into an encounter.

Meanwhile, Zechariah had a nine-month time-out. But when he opened his mouth after the naming of John, resisting tradition, he “was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied” (Lk. 1:64,67). Before he had doubted. Now he spoke powerfully and prophetically. The Spirit that shut him up now welled up—in his body. Trust the Spirit to do the same in you.


Simeon’s timing was right on. He came to the temple “moved by the Spirit” (Luke 2:27). How did that happen? ”The Holy Spirit was upon him” and it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (26).

Were these people superstars? No, just common folks who yielded to the divine Spirit. Do you need the Lord’s leading—toward the right job, the right mate, the right decision. Paul says we prove we’re in the family by the way the Spirit leads us (Rom. 8:14).

The spirit of Christmas is more than a party with good friends. It is the Holy Spirit, filling us to cooperate with God’s redemptive purpose, to speak His truth and recognize His Son! Have a Spirit-filled Christmas!


Evangelicals need not hesitate. We don’t worship Mary, but we call her blessed, as the Bible does. The greatest thing in the world is to find favor with God. Mary did. If earned, it’s not grace.

Yet we do things to invite it. God resists the proud but graces the humble. How did Mary welcome grace?


She chose virginity. You say, “All of them did back there.” Then you have not read the Old Testament. Purity is a decision—in any age. And she chose a pure husband. They lived together and travelled to Bethlehem, and she remained a virgin. Call it self-control.

When the angel told her she would bear the Messiah, she did not say, “Well, I had better get married quick.” She said, “I have no husband.” Simple—and holy. When God looks for a vessel through whom to bring His plan, He looks for a pure one. Mary was.


When greeted by the angel, she did not say, “About time someone recognized me.” Some think humility means ranking on yourself: “I can’t do that.” Oh, what a humble, self-effacing person. Wrong. Mary said, “All generations will call me blessed! Isn’t God wonderful?!” Humility puts God at the center, and let’s God be great—even in you.


She said yes—when it would cost. She was pregnant, without a husband. And the one who already proposed almost dropped her. Some would rather compromise than lose a man.

Mary called herself “the Lord’s bondservant.” Here I am, at your service. No footnotes like, “Please share this with my parents, and work it out with Joseph.” Having a baby without a husband is fairly easy in our culture, not in theirs. You will pay, and Mary did.

Some look for ways to get permission. People like Mary look for ways to please God. Her question was not out of doubt like Zechariah. She just needed clarification—to  surrender.



In the most moving meeting of two women ever, when Mary is being commended for believing the extraordinary, that she would have a child without a man, she deflected the applause toward heaven: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.”

It is not hard to complain in the face of suffering and disappointment. The first Christmas looked like anything but Christmas—no family, friends, warmth, or even a home. Yet this teenage woman lived full of praise: “He that is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” Great people know they aren’t—but God is!  I want to be like Mary. And I want to be like Mary’s Son, Mary’s Lord!


Joseph had waited nine painful months.  The child’s real Father had been waiting since before creation.  The fullness of time had come. That is what makes it hard.  We expect God to do things differently.

You’ve heard of chili con carne, chili with flesh, with meat. Here is God con carne. He had been with his Father in creation, then he became a part of it. He came as a baby, not super-God. The Mighty One showed up–incognito.

He took on flesh.  The untouchable could now be touched.  Look at the vulnerability of our eighteen-inch God.


To say that Jesus became flesh says that he entered this frail human race.  He was “found in human form” (Phil. 2:8). To enter a virgin’s womb was a step down for divinity. Every religion attempts to make man spiritual; Christianity makes God physical. The destiny of the human race was implanted in the uterine wall of a virgin girl.

“He emptied himself…” He went from everything to nothing.  Paul says that “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor” (2 Cor. 8:9). He had his earthly beginning in back of an overcrowded motel.


–that man with flesh on was and is God:  “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col. 1:19).  God the Father packed undiminished deity into that six-foot frame.

Here’s our problem–the God/Man. Putting both in the same person stretches us.  Sects do weird things with the concept. At the center of Christianity is this five-word proclamation: “And the Word became flesh.”

The person on the throne next to the Father is Jesus–and he is a man.  When we get to heaven, we will see scars to prove it. Bethlehem says a mighty “Amen” to the promise of Immanuel, and a resounding “no” to every teaching that makes Jesus either less than God or more than man.


What’s the big deal? Only the eternal salvation of humanity.  We sinned. We carry the death penalty. God had no penalty to pay, so he could die as our substitute, but only as a part of our race. Because he was God, he could defeat the devil who was stronger than us.  Because he was man, he could step into the race and begin a new destiny as the second Adam.

A Sunday school teacher asked her class to draw a picture from the Gospels.  When she asked one boy what he was drawing, he said, “God.”  So she explained, “But no one has seen Him.  We don’t know what God looks like.”  To which the boy replied without looking up, “They will when I get done.”

Jesus came to us and identified with us.  Do you suffer?  So did Jesus.  You feel cramped.  So did he, especially on the cross.  Do you ever feel lonely?  Jesus did too, and forsaken. He lived among us, suffered and died.  He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows.  He said to Philip, “He that has seen me has seen the Father” (John l4:9). When he got done, we knew what God looked like—the man Jesus!


It’s possible to be marred by the past but not marked. Take Rahab. Scripture introduces her as “the prostitute Rahab.” Heaven calls her a heroine, not a harlot.

Scouts went on two occasions to survey the land. On the first expedition, ten of twelve gave a negative report, and a desert became a graveyard. Forty years later two were told by General Joshua, one of the original spies, “Go, look over the land, especially Jericho” (Joshua 2:1).

We don’t know their names, but we know the woman who received them into her hole-in-the-wall home. Rahab resided in the wall they were sent to investigate, and now the spies were inside it. They probably chose this home to reduce suspicion. Good idea, but the king found out.

Rahab could have turned them in. Instead, she hid them and gave an unexpected testimony. She somehow knew these men came with loftier business. Saying, “Come in,” she invited the God of Israel into her future and renounced her city, about to be destroyed by a bizarre military strategy, her vocation, and her gods.

No other woman is singled out in the Hebrews Hall of Faith: “By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient” (Hebrews 11:31).

James also highlights her. Of all the faith heroes to choose from along with Abraham, James picks Rahab. Why? “In the same way, was not even Rahab the prostitute considered righteous for what she did when she gave lodging to the spies and sent them off in a different direction?” (2:25). Neither writer hid her vocation while extolling her incredible faith.

“Before the spies lay down for the night, she went up on the roof and said to them, ‘I know…” She didn’t start out, “It seems to me…” Faith had been born in her heart. “I know that the LORD…”  Rahab uses the name of the God of Israel. “I know that the LORD has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you” (Joshua 2:9). She reversed what ten spies reported.

Rahab went on, “We have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt,” summarizing her report by adding, “For the LORD your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (v. 11). This pagan Canaanite was in the family—by faith!

Rahab hadn’t said to her mom at age eight, “When I grow up, I want to be a prostitute.” Harlots have hearts, broken ones. And God kindly and powerfully revealed Himself to her.

Rahab continued, “Please swear to me by the LORD that you will show kindness to my family, because I have shown kindness to you” (v. 12). Two conditions: The scarlet rope  hanging, and her family inside. When the wall fell, the “red chord district” stood! Credit Rahab with saving her extended family, physically and spiritually! Credit God with orchestrating the whole event!

Those who have crossed the line find hope in knowing that God is in the salvage business. Marred—not marked. Let the scarlet cord name you as it transformed our friend—Saint Rahab.

Another woman is named in Matthew’s genealogy, born fifteen centuries later, a Jew and a virgin. Mary was visited not by spies but by an angel. She, too, was asked to believe a mystery. “Blessed is she who believed…”


The world of sports offers some great finishes. Kentucky, behind by 31 with 15:30 to go, beat LSU (1994). Indianapolis trailed 28-7 going into the fourth quarter some years back. Peyton Manning put on a show and the Colts edged Tampa Bay 38-35.

Zechariah needed a comeback. We hear each year what he did during the Christmas season. He must have rehearsed his less than stellar performance a hundred times over during his silent retreat. One of the worst things about failure is regret, leading to self-condemnation: “How could I be so stupid?”

Zechariah recovered—some never do.  Failure gives way to despair. The cross deals with sin, but it doesn’t cover regret, looking in rather than up, viewing our folly rather than the foolishness of the cross.

Zechariah had time to think through his poor response.  When the day to name his boy came, he wrote “John” on a tablet.  Unbelief had closed his mouth—obedience opened it.  And what came out was what was inside—praise and prophecy. What a comeback!

The divine discipline for unbelief turned out in Zechariah’s favor.  We are urged by Scripture neither to “make light of the Lord’s discipline” nor to “lose heart when he rebukes” us (Hebrews 12:5,6).

Zechariah’s once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to burn incense in the temple turned out to be a life-transforming occasion. This news would alter his senior citizen days and bring him into the center of God’s prophetic activity.

Zechariah couldn’t talk during those nine silent months, but he could listen.  When Mary visited their home in the Judean hills, Elizabeth prophesied “in a loud voice” (Lk.1:42).  No doubt Zechariah heard this holy commotion.

The Old Testament ends with a curse.  Then follows four centuries of silence. It had been a long wait.  Some had given up hope, while holy people like Simeon and Anna, Zechariah and Elizabeth were still waiting, believing.

Zechariah pondered the possibilities of his son’s activity during his disability leave.  He marveled that he and Elizabeth had been chosen to raise this key player in God’s plan. He was so filled with thoughts of God’s moving that he literally burst forth into prophecy when his moment came.

The miracle birth turned the tide, which started with an angelic visitation and ended in the priest’s home with the arrival and naming of what would be a locust-eating prophet.  He was destined to be the greatest one, standing at the door and ushering in a new age, pointing people to their salvation, now being carried in the womb of Elizabeth’s teenage relative.

It was time for Zechariah to once again speak after three-fourths of a year. What will the neighbors hear first:  “Wow!  I’m glad that’s over.”  Nothing of the kind. “Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God” (Lk.1:64).

Gabriel had shared with him the destiny of his son. How thrilling for Zechariah, who thought perhaps that he had been overlooked, to now see that they were right on track with the divine plan and that they would raise Messiah’s forerunner.

Each Advent we hear more about Zechariah’s crash than his comeback. Let’s be fair to the old priest. From Gabriel’s announcement to eight days after John’s birth, God dealt with him, and he responded well. Let’s remember him through our setbacks, so they become springboards for God’s fresh movement in our lives.


A couple is getting married, expecting a family. They won’t have one—for about fifty years. Would you tell them? Heaven didn’t. For an all-powerful God, He sure is quiet.

God graced Zechariah and Elizabeth for special blessings. People interpreted no baby as  dis-grace. “Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.” The next word is “but.” Having children is a good thing. Childlessness was regarded as divine displeasure. Just two of them–a quiet household.

But the neighbors weren’t. Liz was assigned the “B” word, “barren”—unfruitful, sterile, as in “barren land.” And what did God do?  Zechariah had prayed for years. It’s not what God did—it’s what He didn’t—answer their prayers or tell them what was happening.  The silence of heaven is hard.

Most likely Zechariah regretted his inappropriate question. He asked for a sign—and got it. Liz went on a silent retreat herself:  “After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion” (Luke 1:24). She said, “The Lord has done this for me. In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people”(25). Elizabeth was discredited, but that was changing. The hide-away produced evidence that quieted brutal tongues.

Then Gabriel was sent eighty miles north to a young girl instead of an old man.  What Elizabeth deduced by virtue of pregnancy, the favor of God, Gabriel spoke to Mary:  “Greetings, you who are highly favored!” (28). Gabriel announced what Mary didn’t know: “Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age…For nothing is impossible with God” (36,37).

God is orchestrating this event.  “In the sixth month God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth” (1:26).  Right on schedule. Elizabeth is coming out of seclusion. A month earlier Mary would have missed her. Now she travels south.

“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed:  ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!  But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?  As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.  Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!’” (41-45).

In place of disgrace–incredible revelation; she received God’s plan for her young relative.  Rather than concentrating on herself, she now blessed the life in Mary’s womb and the mother of that Child.  She counted herself privileged to be in the company of One to whom she would bow, though that Child was only two centimeters.  She dares to call Him “my Lord.” God revealed it in a moment—as quick as a kick. This is the most remarkable encounter of two women to ever.

What can Elizabeth teach us?

  • We trust God’s unwavering character when we don’t see His plans.
  • We look for miracles masquerading behind impossibilities.
  • The level of our shame is matched by the level of God’s grace—in the very place of our humiliation.


What if…

…you thanked God when tested—and He turned it into a testimony?

…you thanked parents for what they gave and forgave them for what they didn’t?

…couples tossed expectations and chose gratitude?

…you changed your environment with gratitude and started an epidemic?

…you shed your whining, developed gratitude—and found it fun?


“Now on his way to Jerusalem…” (Luke 17:11).  Jesus had set His face for the showdown. What could slow Him down? Ten lepers. His last miracle in this region. Those who said, “Next time,” lost their chance.

Outcasts in every way, they didn’t dare get close. They knew the rules and cried out: “Jesus, Master, have pity on us.”

One command changed their lives: “Go show yourselves to the priests.” “And as they went, they were cleansed.” Priests were the Department of Health. They needed to act in faith for God to act. It often works that way. They went—it happened. One returned, while nine kept going: “That’s what He said to do.”

“I know, but don’t you want to say, ‘Thank you?’”

That guy was a Samaritan, the least likely to return to a Jew. Jesus asked three questions: “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Jesus expected people touched by love to show gratitude.  Saying, “But He told me to go to the priest” doesn’t settle the issue. Who is Jesus waiting for you to thank—parents, a teacher, coach, neighbor, relative, policeman, Holy Spirit?


It doesn’t go unnoticed in heaven. It disconnects us from Jesus. While gratitude sets us up for a miracle, ingratitude closes us off. It suggests entitlement. The elder brother said, “You never gave me a kid so that I might make merry with my friends” (Luke 15:29).  The last days will highlight ingratitude (2 Tim. 3:2). Don’t you!

Ingratitude sets you on a path toward perversion: “Although they knew God they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:21).

On the other hand…


Thankful people are fun. They exude a radiant countenance. Gratitude allows you to receive grace from heaven, because you don’t feel like you deserve it. Think prodigal. Gratitude connects you to the people for whom you express appreciation. If you want to grow relationships, develop gratitude. Works every time.

Far better to join the Samaritan who returned than the presumptuous group who just kept walking.

You are most likely a grateful person. As you read, you may think of areas where you can walk in greater gratitude. Suggestion: try “thank-you” in difficult times and wait for miracles—when you’re being tested, when temptation presses in, when irritation is rising, when pressures at work escalate, when tension at home mounts, when conflict in relationships bring extra tension. Thanksgiving shows that your God overturns evil with good. Hardship either discourages us or forces us to upgrade our confidence in the sovereignty of God.


…your prayers sometime don’t get beyond thanksgiving.

…you often reflect on those who have impacted your life.

…you manage to give thanks in the midst of pain.

…you can only stand in awe of a God who has been so kind and faithful to you.