A sermon at the congregation of the Good Shepherd, Kingston, Ontario, Canada, May 12, 2002

by Robert Brow     (

Many of you had a wonderful mother, and on this Mothers' Day you are thanking God for sweet memories of her unconditional love for you. A year ago I preached on Mothers' Day, and pointed out that although our mother might have been imperfect, fussy, domineering, even unfaithful, we received half our genes from her. Her genes were spliced in to the genes given to us by our father. We may not like the way she raised us, but from our mother we received our life, and country and language and education, and much else of what we are. That is why we are told to "Honor your father and your mother, so that your days may be long in the land" that God has given us to live in (Exodus 20:12). People who cannot honor their parents have a tough time throughout life. Those who can honor their roots, in spite of their parents' faults, have very great advantages in life.

Today I would like to think with you about how that worked out in the very unusual situations of the mother of John the Baptist, and Jesus' mother. They were cousins (Luke 1:36). Elizabeth was "getting on in years" and she was already well past being able to have a child. Then suddenly (like Abraham's wife Sarah at the age of 90, Genesis 17:17) she found herself pregnant, but kept it secret for five months (Luke 1:24). You can imagine her embarrassment. And she can't have had an easy time going through childbirth at her age. Her baby was named John, and he was "talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea" (Luke 1:65).

We don't know how long the aged Elizabeth was able to look after her son. He must have been orphaned when he was very young. We read that "the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel" (Luke 1:80). The word "child" is important. John the Baptist was on his own. Unlike Jesus, he was not raised at home for thirty years (Luke 2:51). I think it is likely that he was sent to board among the monks of the Qumran monastery, which was at the eastern end of the Judean wilderness near the Dead Sea.

How could John the Baptist honor his mother? Obviously he must have been told that his parents were "righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord" (Luke 1:6). He may have found her severe and perfectionist, but that was the mother he was given by God. He may have felt guilty for not living up to her standards, or the rules taught by the monks of Qumran. But he discovered from the Old Testament that there is forgiveness for any who turn to God. That is why he preached "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Mark 1:4).

Now consider Mary as a mother. At Christmas we often imagine the gossip in Nazareth when Joseph announced that Mary had become pregnant before their marriage. (Today joyful services were held in the Basilica of the Nativity after a long siege). But when Mary came back from Bethlehem with her baby the cold stares and gossip would have been unbearable.

It seems to me that Joseph may have been married and had children before Mary was betrothed to him (Matthew 1:18-21). People said about Jesus "Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters with us" (Mark 6:3). If they were step brothers and sisters, Mary would have been a young second wife, not much older than Jesus' older step brother (James the Just, Matthew 13:55, Acts 15:13, 1 Corinthians 15:7). If that was the case, Mary would have experienced lot of hostility as the new mother in the house. And a very hard time raising the four sons and three daughters of a previous wife. On the other hand if she had these children herself after the birth of Jesus, raising eight children is not a luxury cruise.

Whichever way you look at it, both Elizabeth and Mary had a very rough road as mothers. My mother was a Belgian first war bride, who fell in love with a British army officer after Armistice Day, 1918. When her parents refused to let her get married to him, she had to elope and get married in England. And the job he got as an engineer took them to the heat and dirt of the Sindh desert (Pakistan). She had to send me away to school with my grandparents in Belgium, and only saw me for a six week holiday every other year. Similarly each one of you could tell a quite different story of what your mothers had to put up with. So today we honor our mothers, as each of them faced tough times in their own way. Oh, I forgot to mention that mothers also have to survive the odd deficiencies in fathers. (Please don't ask Mollie about mine!)

Finally we should add the fact that Elizabeth and Mary were both able to draw on the power of the Spirit to do all that they had to do. When Mary came to visit her cousin, "Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit" (Luke 1:41). In the KJV the translators wrote that John the Baptist would be filled with the Holy Spirit from his mother's womb. (This is left out in our NRSV, but the Greek text reads that he would be filled with the Holy Spirit "out of his mother" (Luke 1:15). That means that John the Baptist experienced the influence of the Holy Spirit even before his birth. In his case, not only was his mother empowered by the Holy Spirit, but his father was also inspired to prophesy what is now called the Benedictus (Luke 1:67). Parents filled with the Holy Spirit gave a great start for a very great man.

When Elizabeth's cousin Mary was given the news that she was chosen to bear "the Son of the Most High," she was told "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you" (Luke 1:32 and 1:35). We therefore know that both these mothers were able to perform their superhuman tasks by the infilling of the Holy Spirit for every situation. Many of your mothers, and countless other mothers throughout the world, may not have known about God as Trinity and the work of the Holy Spirit, but when they cried out for help in childbirth, and many other desperate situations, we cannot imagine the Spirit said "I am sorry, you have the wrong number; I can't help you."

Finally we note that John the Baptist and Jesus, not only had mothers who were given the strength they needed for mothering by the power of the Holy Spirit, but they themselves did all that they had to do by the Holy Spirit working in them. John the Baptist was the greatest of all the prophets. And Jesus preached, and healed, and died, and received a resurrection body, not in his own strength but by the Spirit.

So you and I can honor our own mothers, and look for wisdom and help to the same Holy Spirit who so powerfully worked in Elizabeth and Mary, and in their sons. On this Mothers' Day that same Holy Spirit is ready and at hand to help you right now in whatever desperate situation you are facing.

Introduction to the Confession of sin May 12, 2002 Many people feel guilty that they behaved badly towards their mothers. And many mothers (and fathers) feel guilty about the bad mistakes they made in raising their kids. That is why in this confession of sin, I would like you to accept the fact that you are forgiven. The Holy Spirit says "I can take care of what went wrong. Leave it to me. You are forgiven, and all is well."

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