Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Second Pass at This Weekend's Bible Lesson: Luke 1:26-38

The New Interpreter's Bible (NIB) has become a favorite resource for my message preparations. I spent some time studying what it has to say about this week's Bible lesson, Luke 1:26-38.

Here's the lesson:

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ 29But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ 34Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ 35The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.’ 38Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

Below are my notes. My personal reactions to it are in brackets.

General Observations:
1. This scene appears initially to be a continuation of the narrative of the child to be born to Zechariah and Elizabeth, both older and the latter past child-bearing years. It refers to the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy. But v. 26 brings a shift of gears, conveying an even greater miracle than the story of a child born to barren parents.

[Of course, the miracle of children born to barren parents is a common Old Testament motif. Abraham and Sarah, the founding ancestors of God's people, the Hebrews, were advanced in years and Sarah was well past menopause, when they became the parents of Isaac.

[First Samuel tells how a woman named Hannah prayed for a son in spite of her advanced years and became the mother of a great prophet. (In fact, there are many allusions to Hannah and Samuel in the Bible lesson for this week.)

[Because childlessness was regarded by the ancient Hebrew people as a curse from God, denoting some flaws or sins in the couple unable to have children, the birth of a child to older folks was also seen as a vindication of their righteousness.

[It's interesting how often the Bible flouts these conventions and makes those who might be looked down upon into heroes and leaders of the faith. In addition to barren couples who are given children, we could also mention shepherds, younger sons, and foreigners.

[Shepherding was regarded the profession of dirty, lower-class, marginalized people. Yet Moses, the greatest leader of Israel, was a shepherd. So was Jacob, Abraham's son. So was David, Israel's greatest Old Testament king. And when God came into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, He called Himself the good shepherd. In the Old Testament, the most famous of its hymns, Psalm 23, declares, "The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want."

[In Old Testament and New Testament societies, oldest sons inherited the wealth of their fathers. The younger sons often spent extended years working for their older brothers or others to build up some sort of estate for themselves and their families. Yet, the second-born son, Jacob--through some machinations--becomes the prime heir of his father, Isaac, for example. And Joseph, the eleventh-born son, becomes the favorite of his father Jacob. Later, Jacob blesses the second-born of Joseph's sons.

[Israel was prohibited from intermarriage with Gentiles. Yet, Gentiles, particularly Gentile women, became heroes of the faith in Old Testament times. A Gentile prostitute, Rahab, collaborates with the Hebrews before they take over Jericho. Ruth, a woman from Moab, marries into the Hebrew faith, and becomes the ancestor of King David. During Jesus' earthly ministry, He expresses amazement of the faith in Him demonstrated by Romans.

[Clearly, in many ways, God isn't constrained by ordinary human conventions; He cares about all people and is unlimited by religious traditions. (This doesn't mean that God doesn't obey His own laws of righteousness. Jesus said that He hadn't come to alter a single "jot and tittle" of God's Old Testament law. It does mean that the fake righteousness of smug religious tradition has nothing to do with God.)]

2. The scene that unfolds in this passage is The Annunciation. Here, the angel Gabriel announce to Mary that she will give birth to the God-Man Jesus. But there are many annunciations in the Old Testament and in fact, there is one in the preceding chapter of Luke.

In the latter annunciation, Gabriel tells Zechariah that he and Elizabeth are to have a son, John the Baptizer.

NIB points out that there are similarities between the two annunciation stories in Luke. In both, the recipient:
  • is told not to be afraid
  • is called by name
  • receives assurances of God's favor
  • hears of the birth
  • is told the name they are to give to the child
  • hears the role to be played by the child, a role rooted in the Old Testament
  • questions the angel
  • receives a sign
  • sees the angel depart
3. But, there are differences between the two annunciations, NIB points out. Zechariah receives his annunciation visit after a time of deep, sustained prayer. Mary's angelic visit, by contrast, comes out of nowhere.

On top of that, there's the fact that John's parents are past normal child-bearing ages, while Mary is a virgin.

The biggest difference, of course, is that Jesus' role as Savior is much larger than that of John the Baptizer. The latter is to prepare people to welcome Jesus.

Specific verses:

God is the central figure here, not Gabriel or Mary.

The words in v.28 are like Hannah's in First Samuel 1:18. (Also look at Judges 6:12.)

The apocryphal Jewish book of Tobit, with which Mary may have been familiar, tells the story of "a jealous angel who appeared on a bride's wedding night each time she married and killed her bridegroom." This may be what underlies Mary's perplexity over the greeting offered by Gabriel. Did Mary fear something similar when she saw the angel?

[For this question to make sense, you have to understand the wedding customs of the time. As I pointed out last week, marriage happened in two phases in first-century Judea. First, there was the betrothal. This was more than an engagement. As NIB points out, if a bridegroom died at this point, although the wedding ceremony hadn't taken place, though the marriage had not been consummated, and the bride had not moved into her husband's home, she would be considered a widow. The betrothal, the agreement to marry, was considered binding.

[Second, there was the actual ceremony, followed by the bride moving in with her husband.

[The period of betrothal could last up to a year and the groom could show up with his friends at any time of day or night for the ceremony. This latter fact is what lay behind Jesus' parable of the Ten Wise and Foolish Virgins, which He tells about the end of the world and which I'll discuss, perhaps, another time.]

To assuage her fear, Gabriel assures Mary of Gods favor.

The role defined for Jesus, to be Son of God, sets His definitely apart from John the Baptist (Luke 1:16-17).

Mary's question is like the one posed by Zechariah during the annunciation in Luke 1.

Mary receives two announcements: (1) Her own pregnancy; (2) The pregnancy of Elizabeth.

Elizabeth's pregnancy is a sign to Mary of what God can do. He can make the barren give birth. He can do the same thing with a virgin.

Gabriel's words are like Sarah's in Genesis 18:14, one of the funniest passages in Scripture, and Jesus Himself in Luke 18:27.

Because of what God can do in these two women, Mary and Elizabeth, God can also bring about resurrection from a burial tomb and send the Holy Spirit to empower the Church to grow from a few unreliable people into a worldwide fellowship of believers in Christ.

Mary echoes Hannah (First Samuel 1:18), which she will do big-time in a few verses.

Mary is obedient! Jesus later says that His true family are those who are obedient to God (Luke 8:21).

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