In addition to writing a Gospel, St. Luke was also a physician by trade. Not surprisingly, the Holy Spirit uses his former profession throughout Luke’s Gospel.
One such way is in the account of Mary going to see Elizabeth upon hearing that she will be with child. Elizabeth, who along with her husband Zechariah is well past the years of childbearing, has suddenly found herself to also be with child. While not the long-promised Messiah, the child Elizabeth now carries is going to have a very special role in preparing the way for the coming Christ.
Today, any woman who is with child, and particularly one who is the age of Elizabeth, would have an ultrasound to see if the child is healthy, to make sure the child is developing as one would expect, and to ensure that the mother also is healthy and not in any danger.
We tend to think of ultrasounds as being a new technology, and, indeed, the 4D imaging and high-tech pictures we see today are a much more recent development. But that does not mean that they did not exist long before today; in fact, ultrasound technology has been around since the mid-1950s.
Yet, long before the invention of the modern-day ultrasound, one can actually see the very first recorded “ultrasound” in St. Luke 1:41. While the precise images were not available in the moment for Elizabeth to show Zechariah or to include in a baby book, St. Luke does record for us the details so that we might peer in and see this most amazing occurrence when Mary enters the home of Elizabeth and calls out to her, and the child suddenly leaps in her womb. At six months, John the Baptist shows himself to be a very healthy baby indeed!
This “ultrasound” shows us many things which will be very important later on. First and foremost, we see John leap, an indication that this is no mere blob of cells that is floating around the womb of Elizabeth, but that this is a fully formed human being who is not only agile, but who is able to do things that a person outside the womb is able to do.
This is a most important trait to have for one who is going to spend his days not in palaces or in a 9-5 office job, but who will live in the rough terrain of the wilderness. How many days would John leap first into and then out of the waters of the Jordan River as he went down to baptize the multitudes, including tax collectors, soldiers, and even Jesus Himself?
But there’s more! Already at six months in the womb, John is using his senses, for the leap comes after the hearing. Elizabeth hears the greeting of Mary, so, of course, John also hears the greeting. The leap is in response to hearing the voice of Mary and knowing that this woman is the mother of the Christ child.
How often will the cries of John be heard far and wide as word spread throughout the countryside of Judah about this strange man in the wilderness. The ears of Herod will be both intrigued and perplexed by what the Baptizer says regarding his own lifestyle. John will most certainly hear the warnings of the Pharisees and teachers of the Law who come to him and advise him to relax, but, of course, John will not.
For those senses trigger not just the leap but the emotion as well. John, at six months in the womb, experiences the full range of emotions that any person outside the womb would experience. This day, he leaps for joy at the coming of the still-developing Christ child, and one can only imagine that when Mary went home, there was a sense of sadness that came over John.
How much joy will soon fill the heart of John when he sees Jesus and declares that this is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (only to later be overcome by confusion when Jesus does not meet the images of his fiery sermons, along with the distress of spending his final days in prison)?
But all of these—the leap, the hearing, and the joy—are all results of faith. Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit—and so too is the child in her womb.
The Holy Spirit will not only cause John to leap at hearing the voice of Mary, but the Holy Spirit will give John the words to speak as he stands on the banks of the Jordan. This same Holy Spirit will draw many out to see this man dressed in camel skins and a leather belt and will reveal to John 30 years later who Jesus is when he sees Him coming to be baptized. The Holy Spirit will assure not just John but all people that this is the Savior of the world, the one who John pointed to first in the womb and then on the banks of the Jordan.
All of that reveals itself this day in this first “ultrasound.” As we peer into the womb of Elizabeth, we see not just a healthy baby boy who causes quite the stir inside of his mother, but we see the beginning of the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation. For the child who leaps in the womb today does so to point us for the first time to another child in the womb—Jesus.
What does Mary’s “ultrasound” reveal? To the naked eye, not much. Jesus is at most the size of a grain of rice right now and even when Mary gets her 12-week “ultrasound” upon returning to Nazareth, Jesus will only be three inches and two ounces.
But John reveals what no ultrasound can—that Mary carries the Lamb of God, who will take away the sin of the world. John sees what the best 4D imaging could never pick up—that the child Mary carries will redeem the world from sin and death and bring about the salvation of all who believe.
What do we see this day? The “ultrasound” reveals two healthy baby boys—one ready to burst out at the mere presence of the other.
But the Holy Spirit reveals much more. John the Baptist develops in the womb of Elizabeth so that he may prepare the way for the child who now develops in the womb of Mary—the Savior of the world.
Rev. Michael J. Schmidt is pastor at Peace Lutheran Church, Natoma, Kansas, and First Lutheran Church, Plainville, Kansas. He is also author of the brochure, “Three Inches, Two Ounces – Reflections on Jesus in the womb based on Luke 1:56.”