Sermon delivered December 21, 1996

by Pastor Jim Erwin

McDonald Road SDA Church, McDonald, TN

The Three Wise Women

You've heard many sermons around Christmas time. You've heard about the three wise men. And many, many times. But how many of you can give me the name of one of the wise men? Baltezar? Is that in the Bible? No, it's not in the Bible, but that is a name someone gave to one of the wise men. If you've read other stories outside of the Bible, you can probably come up with the names, but there are no names in the Bible for the three wise men.

I was talking to some people the other day. They asked me what I was going to preach about. I told them, "The Three Wise Women. By the way, do you happen to know any of their names?" One lady said, "Yes, me and my two daughters." I said, "You're probably wise but you are also very witty." Then I said, "What about the three wise women in the Bible?"

We've been so focused in Matthew on the three wise MEN and they remain nameless in the Bible, that we have overlooked the fact that Luke spends a great deal of time talking about three wise women, and he even names them.

Turn in your Bibles to Luke chapter one. Would any of you like to name one of the three wise women? Anna! Yes! Who else? Mary and Elizabeth. Yes! Let's focus our attention today on these three wise women.

First, we'll take a look at Elizabeth. Now Elizabeth's name means, a choice of three possibilities, one is "God has sworn." Another possibility is, "God gives abundance." A third possibility is, "God gives fullness." Elizabeth wanted fullness, but she didn't have complete fullness. In fact, she was quite empty.

Look in chapter 1 of Luke, beginning at verse 5. "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 descendant of Aaron." Now to get the picture, you have two preacher's kids who are still working as a pastoral family. But this isn't just first generation, second generation, third generation kind of preacher's kids. This goes back for hundreds of years. Still in the family. Now, they weren't only just preacher's kids, or children of a priestly families, Elizabeth's name is the Greek name of Aaron's wife's name. So here are some people who right off the surface you would say these are good people.

Look at verse 6. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly." Now they were righteous before God; the Pharisees were righteous before themselves, before men, before other people. But here we have two people who are described as being "righteous before God." And not only that, they observed all that God had asked them to do and before God they were blameless. Now as Adventist Christians most of us are looking for the day when maybe that might be said about us. You know, that's our prayer, that's the desires of our heart. Love the Lord Jesus with all our heart, mind and soul. But they were described that way. And so you'd think they were well respected in the community. Not so!

The next verse, "But they had no children because Elizabeth was barren." Today we would say, "Well, what's the big deal? Barren: don't have any children? Lot's of people don't have any children." In those days, though, it was looked at a little differently. They were not blameless and righteous before the people. Because, you see, if you were barren you were under a divine punishment for some great sin. You were reproached, you bore a stigma, you carried great shame. Can you imagine when they saw Zechariah and Elizabeth walking down the street, what they might be saying? "Why, do you think it was him?" "No. I believe it was her." Or "Maybe it was both of them!" "I wonder what great sin they have done?"

Perhaps you have tried to live for the Lord. And yet people have brought false accusation against you. Spread rumors behind your back. May have unfounded suspicions about what your character was really like. If you have, you begin to get an idea how Elizabeth and her husband felt.

And that's not all. Being barren was legal grounds for divorce. Or if the husband loved the wife, and didn't want to divorce her because he was still in love with her, he could marry another woman so he could have kids. It was a very serious predicament that Elizabeth and Zechariah were in. I'm pretty sure many times they prayed together for a son.

The last part of that verse, verse 7, says, "and they were both well along in years." In the King James version it says, "well stricken in years." What is "well stricken?" Abraham was ninety-nine and Sarah was eighty-nine when they were described as "well stricken." Joshua was ninety-two and David was seventy-one and they were considered as "well stricken in years." So "well stricken in years" seems to be somewhere between seventy-one and ninety-nine.

Zechariah in the temple doing the dream of his life, the dream, the hope every priest. They would be chosen by lot to go in and say the prayers before the altar of incense, and he's there, but he's given up hope about praying for a son, but he does pray for THE Son, because every time the priest went before the altar of incense they prayed for the Messiah, the Son of God. And so he prays, and an angel comes and tells him that he is going to ... He and his wife are going to have a son and he didn't believe it. And so Gabriel struck him dumb.

Now! Those of you who are well stricken in years, and those of you who know somebody, how many people between seventy-one and ninety-nine really want to get pregnant and have a baby? But Elizabeth was kind of excited. Look in verse 25. "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." She was excited. Now if you can imagine the Fifty-five Club meeting over at Collegedale for one of their programs or lunches, and in walks Elizabeth, somewhere between seventy-one and ninety-nine, and her face is glowing, and her feet are just gliding across the carpet. She looks all bright and beautiful, and somebody goes over to her and says, "Elizabeth, what happened to you?" And she says, "Oh, honey, you're not going to believe this. I'm pregnant." And the person looks around and says, "Is the counselor in his office today? Elizabeth needs some help. She's saying she's pregnant."

The verse before that says, "After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion." Maybe she was so excited that she was afraid she'd blurt it out to somebody or they'd ask and she couldn't keep from telling them and then she would be reproached and made fun of all over again, and so she goes to hide.

Another reason she goes to hide is that this baby was described as a special baby. If you look in verse 15, there is a description of what he would be like and what he would not drink. Then it says, "and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth." Now, this was not usual. In Old Testament days the Holy Spirit came and went. It did not particularly stay with somebody like it has since Jesus ascended to Heaven. That was His gift to Christians, that the Holy Spirit would be with us all the time. And so she's thinking, "How am I, well stricken in years, going to raise this special child, that will have the Holy Spirit even while I have him in my womb?" Maybe she was thinking, "I'll be over a hundred when this boy gets into academy. How is a hundred and something year old woman going to help a teen- age boy get through those teen-age years? That's hard enough for the thirty something or forty something mothers." And so she's meditating. "Lord, this is a great gift you've given to me. How will I take care of it?"

One thing that Elizabeth always kept through all those years of barrenness, she kept the faith. She was righteous before God even though people thought she was unrighteous. She maintained her faith in Jesus Christ. Regardless of the ridicule she went to church, she said her prayers.

And then Mary came. Now, Elizabeth had been barren all these many years and here comes a (most people say) fifteen year-old girl who is pregnant and not only that, Elizabeth is having a special son, but Mary is having THE special Son. Elizabeth's place in the spotlight is going to be short-lived, overshadowed by Mary's Son. You know, Elizabeth embraced Mary with joy. There was no jealousy. Many of you know full well that sometimes when you work for the church or you belong to a church jealousy takes over because somebody wants to seem better than somebody else. Somebody wants to play the bells, they didn't have room in the bell choir. Or somebody wants to preach instead of the pastors. But there was no hint of jealousy in Elizabeth's life. She rejoiced in whatever the Lord wanted to do with her life, and she rejoiced at what the Lord wanted to do with other people's lives. And so some of the wisdom that we can borrow from Elizabeth is to keep the faith regardless of what other people say about us. And when the Lord blesses somebody else rejoice with them instead of being jealous of them.

So Mary went to see Elizabeth after Gabriel talked to her. Mary's name goes all the way back to Miriam, and who is Miriam? She was Aaron's sister, and Moses' sister. So we have ties all the way back to the very beginning of the nation of Israel as they came out of Egypt. Her name has many possibilities. "bitterness", "star of the sea", "plump one", "the wish for a child", or "the one who loves the Lord", or "the one who is loved by the Lord", or just plain "beloved". I like the last one because (verse 28) "The angel went to Her and said, 'Greetings, you who are highly favored! (or you who are highly graced) The Lord is with you."

And Mary was troubled. Well, you might be troubled, too. How many times have you been walking down the hallway dimly lit, lost in your own thoughts, and somebody jumps out in front of you in the hall and goes "Boo?" You react with, "Ah! You scared me." Or it's a possibility that Mary was perplexed about what the angel said, "You're going to have great honor. You are highly honored." She didn't know why. Poor teen-age girl and poverty stricken circumstances. Or it could be most of the trouble and perplexity came from the fact that here she was talking to an angel. If you look through your concordance about angels you will find that the angel often says, "Fear not. Don't be afraid."

And then Gabriel went on to tell Mary what was going to happen. And Mary believed. Remember Gabriel closed up Zechariah's vocal abilities because he didn't believe. But he does not rebuke Mary. He explains something, and then Mary says, (verse 34) something to the effect: I do believe, but I don't understand. How is this all going to take place? It seems like there's something missing here. I'm not married. I'm a virgin. I've never had sex with any man. How can I have a son? And so the angel explains the Holy Spirit was going to create a special creation just like God created Adam: a special new creature. And Jesus was actually going to be the unique Son of God. God and Human. And so Mary says, (verse 38) "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said." She was willing to embrace the work of God when it was revealed to us.

For most of us, when God reveals His work to us, we have a crisis of belief because many times that isn't what we were thinking that God wanted us to do. We wanted to do something else. But Mary embraced it. Philip Yancy says that often the work of God comes with two edges, like a two edged sword. There is great joy and great pain. Mary embraced both: in fact she was the very first person to accept Jesus on His own terms regardless of the cost. She had embraced what God had asked her to do. Even though she might not understand everything God wanted or why.

Now think about this. A fifteen year-old girl living in a very small wide area in the wilderness so to speak. No big city, the most prominent feature of the town she lived in was a Roman army garrison. Now suppose this church were next to an army base and some folks who belonged to our church lived near the base and they were in very poor circumstances and this fifteen year old girl walks in and its obvious that she is pregnant. And so some people talk to her and they find out that some of the social services people have already been encouraging her to get an abortion because she can't take care of the kid, she's only fifteen, they don't have any money, but she didn't want to do that. So she come to church hoping to find some help. Well, some folks suggest that she go to a home for unwed mothers and bare the child and then adopt it out. Well, no, she doesn't want to adopt it out. Well, why not, you don't have the money to take care of it, you're just a child, you're just a kid yourself. And she says, This angel came and talked to me, this angel, Gabriel, said that I was going to have a child by the Holy Spirit. What would you say if that girl walked through the back door and told you that today? Some of you are smiling. We might recommend Moccasin Bend. If Mary lived today, some people believe the chances are that Jesus would never have been born.

Mary had a great deal of pain, so she goes to Elizabeth. She knows she can't tell Joseph, she has to let Gabriel take care of Joseph. She goes to Elizabeth.

Luke 2:4-7. Joseph has had his talk with Gabriel and he's on the way to Bethlehem because he has to go register. Normally only the men had to go, but Mary went along with him and they got to Bethlehem, they were both strangers there, new to the area. They were unrecognized, unheard of, homeless, unhonored, and they can't find a house to stay in. All the houses are full. The inn was not like going down to the Holiday Inn today. The inns sometimes were just stone towers where maybe shepherds watched over their sheep. The inn might have rooms, and it might not. If it did have rooms, there was no furniture in it. But many of the caravansaries had some shelters where you could lay down in, but a lot of the men just slept out in the open under the stars. Remember it wasn't Collegedale, it didn't have the rain like we do. And so Mary and Joseph were on there way and they get there and there was no room for them in the inn.

Where would a woman go to find privacy to have a baby in that situation? No hospitals. And so the innkeeper suggests that they try the barn. Joseph was poor. There were no physicians, probably, in that area. Midwives would probably want to get paid, and Joseph couldn't be with Mary because men were forbidden to be with women when they gave birth; a Jewish custom. Well, look at what it says in verse 6. "/While they were there, the time for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a Son. And she (not a midwife) wrapped him in cloths and placed Him in a manger."

Many people, and I am one of them, believe that Mary was all by herself when she gave birth. She didn't have a bed, either. No hospital bed, no special delivery room bed: she did in the ancient fashion, she just squatted down and gave birth to her baby all by herself.

I've sometimes wondered how Mary felt, if she maybe she didn't feel a bit of a crunch of unbelief. She was supposed to have this very special baby, and she was all alone. And I am sure that many of you have felt at times all alone. Nobody there to help you. Wondering where God is. But if you ever feel all alone again, remember Mary was all by herself. God came to her and performed the greatest miracle of all times. The greatest thing that God ever did for us. She bore Jesus the Son of God, our Savior.

In those moments of loneliness when we feel all alone, like Mary, let's believe in what God has told us. Like Elizabeth, keep the faith, believe in our hearts and embrace Jesus. And bring to our hearts not only the joy but be willing to accept the pain that sometimes come to us as Christians.

Luke said the most about Elizabeth and Mary. He doesn't say a whole lot about Anna. Anna goes back to Hannah, who prayed for Samuel. Their names mean "Grace." Anna, in chapter 2:36, was a prophetess, the daughter of a man whose name meant "Face of God" . She was of great age. Very old. Some people say that she lived to be 84 years old. But there is another way of looking at that. That is that she was widowed at 84 years. If she was 84 years old at this time she was not really of great age because this was the age of "well stricken". Now, given the customary time of marriage arrangements, Anna was about 15 when the marriage was arranged, she was married for 7 years and her husband died. That would be 22, Then if she had been a widow for 84 years, how old would she be? 106. Now I think that's of great age. It would be great to live that long and be in the physical condition she was in. So, for 84 years, a woman without any social security, a woman that lived in the time when there was no shared retirement plans, a woman who lived in a time when her husband... there wasn't a stock market to invest in. Besides, her husband would never have a chance to save up enough money to keep her in good living conditions for 84 years. It was one of the worst situations. Widows had very little clout, very little influence and usually had almost no money. You remember the woman with the 2 mites. Jesus pointed her out. Almost nothing, but she gave it all to the Lord. And so she had gone through years and years of struggle but now she was at the temple. Some people think that officials at the temple had given her one of the rooms along the side and that they had requested in return for that she teach the young women. Now if you're a hundred and six, who do you consider to be a young woman? I can imagine her walking out into the women's court in the temple area, putting her arm around a 70 something year old and says, "Well, young lady, it's so nice to see you today. What's on your heart, what can we talk about?" But after years and years of struggle, we find no hint of bitterness in Anna's life. What do we find about her? She never left the temple, but worshiped day and night, fasting and praying, (38) "Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem." Here was a lady, who prayed for other people, she praised God, gave thanks, and encouraged other people. So she cultivated an attitude of gratitude.

Now maybe we can learn something and borrow from these wise women some of their wisdom. I believe part of that wisdom is: Elizabeth kept the faith regardless of what other people said. She rejoiced when the Lord blessed others. Never jealous. Mary believed with all her heart what God told her. She embraced Jesus regardless of the personal cost. To follow it up with Anna, cultivating an attitude of gratitude, of thanks giving no matter what happened. My wish for you and myself is that this Christmas season, we might be able to tap into that kind of wisdom and make our lives fuller and more full of grace.

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