2017 December Issue
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Commentary: Luke 1:26-38

In this passage from the Gospel According to Luke for the Fourth Sunday in Advent, the birth of Jesus is foretold. As was true with the previous passage, however, we are no longer left with the task of trying to identify with an elusive personality such as that of the witness John. Rather, in Luke 1:26-38 the writer (hereafter known as "Luke") shows that God works both through ordinary people and within the ordinary course of human life. Here Luke introduces us to Mary, a woman who is touched by God, and through the most inconceivable of circumstances, invited to participate in God's plan for the redemption of humankind. In so doing, he readies us for God's glorious coming to earth, as well as the flesh and blood reality of Jesus' birth. Because there is much to be gleaned from the context in which Luke places his story, as well as the characters through which God's plan is brought to fulfillment, context and characters will be the focus of this discussion.

Context

Unique to Luke's gospel is his emphasis on God's work within the realm of history as set forth through his use of places, dates, and names. According to Luke, theology and history cannot be neatly separated, for God's involvement in human life ensures that no person is beyond the reach of God's grace. It comes as no surprise, then, that Jesus will be born not to a person of privilege, but to a peasant woman of lowly estate. By placing Jesus' birth in this context, Luke makes some important points about God's relationship to humankind. He reminds us that Jesus' birth came about at a time when the people of Israel were oppressed and in need of a liberator. While Israel's political status is verifiable, it is not limited to its first-century setting. Sadly, there has never been a time in human history when individuals or nations were not in need of freedom from spiritual, political, or economic bondage.

Luke's intentional use of context does not stop with the social-historical setting. He also places his gospel firmly within the context of all Scripture. Through direct quotation or thinly veiled references to the Old Testament, Luke demonstrates how the salvation story is brought to completion through Jesus. This transition from the Old Testament teachings to the earthly ministry of Jesus is readily apparent upon examination of the immediate context of our passage.

Prior to the foretelling of Jesus' birth, the birth of John the Baptist is foretold in Luke 1:5-25. While Luke does not quote Scripture, allusions to the birth of Samuel in 1 Samuel 1:1-20 are evident. Direct reference is made to Elijah, whom John would emulate through his call to repentance in preparation for Jesus' coming. By preceding the annunciation of Jesus' birth with a passage which is so formulated, Luke both places it in the logical sequence for its historical context, and connects it with the purposes of God for all time. All the more reason, then, that in the passage following our text Mary and Elizabeth meet, and celebrate the impending birth of their sons and their joy at the prospect of motherhood. Clearly, Jesus' coming is not an isolated event. As Luke places it within the realm of salvation history, so he places it within the context of ordinary human experience.

Characters

God, Mary and the angel Gabriel are the characters in this passage. Since as the intermediary for God, Gabriel speaks on God's behalf, he will not be considered. Rather, attention will be given to what we can learn about the relationship between God and humankind from the conversation between the angel and Mary, through which God's work among ordinary people is evident.

Luke demonstrates in a number of ways that God is the subject of all that happens in this passage, and so the central character. First, God initiates the encounter, whereas in the previous passage Gabriel refers to a prayer of Zechariah's which has been answered (1:13). The naming of Jesus is also worth considering in light of the great weight that a name carried for the Hebrew people. Here it is God who bestows the name, rather than Mary. So, Jesus' fate in terms of all that his name implies is taken out of Mary's hands and kept in God's. Last, but by no means least, is the angel's response to Mary's understandable doubt: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you..." (v.35). This leaves no question that it was the power of God alone by which the birth of Jesus ultimately came to pass, and not Mary's physical, spiritual, or social status.

Because Mary's virginity has been an issue throughout the ages, it cannot be ignored. For the purposes of this endeavor, keep in mind that Mary's virginity is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament other than our text and Matthew 1:23, wherein Matthew actually quotes Isaiah. To fully understand Matthew's use of the term "virgin," one would need to investigate what it meant in Isaiah's time. In addition, one must not overlook the fact that Mary's virginity does not appear to be a faith issue for the first disciples, and it is never mentioned in the preaching of the early church in Acts.

Mary's role does reveal a great deal about God's relationship with humankind, however. Key here is the fact that we are told that Mary is troubled at the angel's visit (v.29), and that she went so far as to question his pronouncement, saying, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" (v.34). This is a normal human response, which is precisely the point. Not only does Mary have no idea why God favored her, but she questions how this event will come to pass. Rather than silencing her (as happened to Zechariah), the angel explains that, "Nothing will be impossible with God" (v.37). Mary then offers herself to the Lord, not because she comprehends everything that is happening and will come to pass, but because she has confidence in God's word to her through Gabriel.

Mary's questions and doubts become the means by which she enters into a deeper relationship with God, and is inspired to obey. Through her, we learn that even though God might not be deterred by human objection, God graciously wills that humankind participate in God's work. God chooses Mary and invites her to take a part in an event which makes little sense, but will change the course of human history. God encounters us in unexpected ways as well. Here Mary becomes a model worth upholding as we walk the path of discipleship.

Holly D. Hayes

SOURCES

Raymond E. Brown. The Birth of the Messiah (New York: Doubleday, 1977). Fred B. Craddock. Luke, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1990). Leander Keck, ed. The New Interpreter's Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995). Luke, R. Alan Culpepper