Sometimes personal backstories shed a lot of light on important events in human history. Take, for instance the familiar narrative of Zechariah and Elizabeth in Luke’s Gospel about the birth of Jesus. It may help if you take the time to read it right now.

Elizabeth is described as a relative of Mary (the mother of Jesus). She herself had a son a few months before Mary gave birth, and he became the prophet John the Baptist. But her rejoicing over her new baby came after long, hard years of disappointment.

Both Elizabeth and her husband Zechariah were from the priestly line. They were, therefore, well born, and they lived up to their social status, being described as “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.” But in spite of their faithfulness, God had not blessed them with a child. Now they were old, and they had to accept the fact that their family line would end with them.

This was hard for Zechariah, but it was tragic for Elizabeth. Think of the burden of expectation placed on her in her time and culture. The narrative says, “They had no children, because Elizabeth was barren.” She was automatically presumed to be at fault. Society did not consider that the problem might have been with Zechariah’s sperm; Elizabeth was barren.

The backstory is the emerging of Elizabeth’s self-awareness as a young girl coming of age, learning from her family and friends that her personal fulfillment — the very meaning of her existence — would be in motherhood. She married well, and her husband loved her and shared her values. Each month she anticipated that it would happen, but the disappointments began to add up. Month after month, year after year. Friends around her rejoiced in their newborns; she cried in her pillow. Then her child-bearing time was over. Later, looking back, she describes this as “the disgrace I have endured among my people” (verse 25). Elizabeth saw herself as a failure.

This backstory about Elizabeth’s journey of utter disappointment adds poignancy to the familiar words describing her meeting with Mary when both were pregnant:

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’ (Luke 1:41-45).

Remember your first faith encounter with Jesus? Did you have that inexpressible leap-for-joy feeling? Your own personal backstory helped lead you to that moment. All the failures, frustrations and downers in your life can be seen as preparation for your saving encounter with him. Only failures need a Redeemer.

— Pastor George Van Alstine