Mary and Elizabeth

“I knew I had this picture!”  I was so excited when I found this a few weeks ago.Mary & Elizabeth

So I’ll admit it’s not a great picture.  It was taken with my Canon Sure Shot in 1994.  Real film – imagine that! Unfortunately, after many searches online, I haven’t been able to find a better complete picture of it so this is the best I have.

Have you ever had one of those moments where you see something or experience something that strikes you deep in your soul in a way you never forget?  That’s what happened when I saw these statues in the back of St. Vitus Cathedral at Prague Castle.  That’s why I was so excited to find this picture.

The artwork is two women running towards one another – one of them is very pregnant.  You can tell they are running from the way their head coverings are moving behind them and the position of their feet.  The piece communicates a joyful reunion between women who care about each other – Mary and Elizabeth.

I’m not really sure why this image resonated so deeply with me on that day in 1994 and has stuck with me all these years.  Maybe it was that it put a more personal face on a Bible story I had read at least 100 times.  I had never really taken the time to imagine what that actual encounter between the two women was like.  Maybe it was how it communicated joy – the joy of Jesus coming.  Joy I should have every day.

A few years after I saw this, the image came back to mind when doing the Bible study Falling in Love with Jesus by Dee Brestin and Kathy Troccoli.  In Week 2, they point out some things about this story in Luke 1:26-56 that I’d never thought about before.  One was that as the angel Gabriel answers Mary’s question, “How can this be since I’m a virgin?” he mentions her cousin, Elizabeth, and her ability to conceive in her old age.  From verse 37, we know that part of why he mentions Elizabeth is to illustrate that nothing is impossible with God – including miraculous pregnancies which both of them were.  But the authors of the Bible study also think Gabriel was hinting to Mary to go see Elizabeth.  Which she does “with haste” after the angel leaves her.

Why would the angel hint to go see Elizabeth?  I think there are at least a few reasons.  One is that Elizabeth’s baby leaping in her womb at the sound of Mary’s voice and then the words she said as she was filled with the Holy Spirit had to be an incredible encouragement to Mary.  Here she has been given an amazing promise by an angel that she would carry the Messiah and then Elizabeth confirms what he said when she says, “And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”  Elizabeth had to have erased any possible doubts Mary might have had about God’s promise and call.  Plus Elizabeth’s words that she will be blessed because of her trust in the Lord would be another strong encouragement as Mary embarked on a daunting assignment.  Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s words is praise to God.

We know from verse 56, that Mary ended up staying with Elizabeth for 3 months which, given the timetable in verse 36, would mean she stayed until John the Baptist was born.  I think another way Elizabeth would have encouraged Mary was simply as another woman who was also pregnant but a few months ahead of her to let her know what was normal and what to expect.

Finally, for Mary to have said “Yes” to God in this meant that she would have been thought to have had sex before marriage – something that could have been penalized with being stoned to death in that time.  Thankfully Joseph listened to the Lord and took Mary as his wife.  But surely there were many times when Mary had to endure being looked down upon, ridiculed, criticized, and insulted.  Nice Jewish girls just didn’t get pregnant before marriage.  What a blessing it must have been to spend those first 3 months with Elizabeth – possibly the only person besides Joseph who believed her, a woman who completely understood her situation and supported her in it, and someone who praised her faith in and surrender to God.

As the questions in the Bible study led me to ponder the time that Mary and Elizabeth had together and their relationship, I was overwhelmed by the kindness of the Lord to provide Elizabeth for Mary.  That He would look out for Mary out of His love and care for her as He was calling her to something amazing and yet also challenging.  It encouraged me to remember the times He had shown such kindness to me and to trust Him to continue to do so.

So look at Mary and Elizabeth running to each other.  Such joy!  Such kindness!  Thank you, Father, for giving us the same.

You are . . . a Vessel

This is what I see every morning as I go to start my day with two cups of coffee.  Yes, it’s an addiction, but we’re not talking about that right now. coffee mugs

It may seem silly, but it always makes me happy to look at this shelf.  Because each of my coffee mugs has a story or a person or a memory attached to it that is important to me.   There is the Modra pottery one that I got during my first visit to Slovakia in 1993.  And then one that says “I (heart) Slovensko” that I got on another summer there because I truly fell in love with the country.  There is the one that friends brought me from their trip to Israel.  It has a copy of a mosaic of the four loaves and two fishes on it, and it reminds me to trust God.  My college roommate gave me the one that has hand drawn pictures of things in North Carolina around the top of it.  The Chinese mug I got in Hong Kong for a dollar, and it represents my many trips to that country over the years.  The one from Texas is just a couple of years old and reminds me of a fun trip to Fort Worth and Austin.  The newest cup is from the Barry Manilow concert I went to this summer.  Yes, I am a big Barry Manilow fan, but we’re not talking about that right now.

We call these “cups” or “mugs”, but they are also vessels.  My coffee vessels.

I was reminded recently while studying 2 Timothy that you and I are vessels, too.  It’s actually an image that is used to describe us several times in Scripture.  I love taking the Lord’s analogies and pondering their meaning.  Here are just a few thoughts to scratch the surface of the depth of the imagery.

  1. A vessel is created for a purpose.  Several times in Scripture, God compares Himself to a potter and says that we are the clay.  (For example, see Isaiah 45:9 and 64:8.)  Just as a potter creates a vessel for a specific purpose, so God creates each of us for His purposes for us.  Ephesians 2:10 expresses this perfectly when Paul says that we are His workmanship and were created for good works that He has already prepared for us.

    At the same time, we need to embrace and be content with how God has made us and the purpose He has for us.  Part of the point the Lord makes with the potter and clay analogy is to remind us that the clay doesn’t question the potter or argue with him about how it was made.  Instead, the vessel trusts the potter and his wisdom.

  1. A vessel is made to carry something. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:7, “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing greatness of the power may be of God and not from ourselves”.  As God’s vessels, we carry the gospel – that is the treasure!  What an incredible thing to be entrusted to carry!

    We also carry the Holy Spirit who comes to live inside us as soon as we receive Christ (Ephesians 1:13).  When Paul talks about the power being of God and not from ourselves that is where the power comes from.  God sent Him to enable us to be His witnesses (Acts 1:8) and to have character that reflects Christ (Galatians 5:22-23) among other things.

    I also love how this verse reminds us that we are “earthen” vessels – that idea of “clay” again.  Paul’s point is that we are weak and have to depend on Christ to empower us to do anything for His glory.  Earlier in 2 Corinthians 3:5, he communicates this same idea by saying that we aren’t “adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God”.

  1. A vessel’s job is not to draw attention to itself, but be of use or service for the owner. It would be ridiculous for my coffee cups one morning to start telling me what to do for them and how to serve them.  But if we aren’t careful, we can do that with God.  We can begin to think that He is there to serve us when really we are here to serve Him.  He is the Master, and we are the vessels.
  1. A vessel has to be clean to be used. I imagine that, like me, when you pick up a coffee cup at work, you look in it first.  Because at work there is always a chance that the cup didn’t really get clean.  And no one wants to use a dirty coffee cup!

    Similarly, God needs clean vessels to use.  Paul tells Timothy is 2 Timothy 2:21, “Therefore, if a man cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work.”  As we saw in Ephesians 2:10, God has good works He has prepared for us, but we have to be prepared for the good works, too.  And that comes through pursuing holiness and purity.  It’s a great warning for me to take sin seriously.  I don’t want to miss out on being used by the Lord as His vessel because I wasn’t clean enough.

So be a clean vessel.  Be an available vessel.  Be a filled vessel.  Be a content vessel.