2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


Preaching: Luke 1:26-38

I try always to be as positive as possible when evaluating sermons and sermon possibilities. Today, however, I begin with a warning. I have heard many non-helpful narrative sermons on this text (and other sermons that are not narrative in form but whose content moves similarly). Such sermons psychologize Mary to the point that the content of the sermon is not disciplined by exegesis of the text, but is little more than the preacher's projection. Indeed, preachers sometimes hang their own psychological laundry on the line while attributing it to Mary. The text itself does not provide a warrant for such speculation about Mary's inner life except to suggest that she was perplexed and afraid.

One possible sermon could focus on the purpose of Jesus. In Luke-Acts, that purpose is to demonstrate God's faithfulness to Israel and to the gentile world. The name Jesus is a common form of Joshua, which means "God saves"; the ministry of Jesus, especially as extended through the church, demonstrates that God is faithful to the whole human family.

In this passage, Luke describes Jesus as Son of the Most High, appointee to the throne of David, ruler of the house of Jacob, and Son of God. These terms all depict Jesus as an agent of God who exercises God's rule in history. However, Luke's descriptions of Jesus in this passage raise a question. In neither the gospel of Luke nor the book of Acts does Jesus actually sit on the throne of David or rule the house of Jacob.

In the larger context of Luke-Acts, we learn that Jesus' relationship to Israel is a part of Israel's larger mission in the world. In Genesis 12:1-3, God revealed that Abraham and Sarah are blessed so that they and their children can be a blessing to the nations. Jesus is a means by which God extends the divine blessing to the nations, i.e., to the gentiles.

In Luke's view God does not revoke God's promises to Israel. Quite the contrary. Through Jesus, God keeps God's promises to Abraham and Sarah to bless those who are outside of Israel. Hence, the sermon can probe the question, How does God bless us gentiles by means of the ministry of Jesus?

Another sermon might focus on this passage as paradigmatic of God's initiatives in the world and the proper human response. Scholars sometimes say that, in this scene, Mary is depicted as the model believer. Mary is vulnerable. God acts in grace toward her. She responds in trust. She does what God asks (even though it is perplexing), and she and those around her are blessed. This pattern continues throughout the ministry of Jesus and the early church. God comes to people in need (through the Holy Spirit, through Jesus, through the apostles, or the witnesses of the earliest Christian communities) with a word or act of grace. When they respond in trust, they (and their communities) are blessed.

This text would be an ideal candidate for a sermon in the form of running commentary. The preacher divides the text into sense units. In connection with each sense unit, the preacher first gives an exposition of the understanding of the scene in Lukan perspective, and then makes a hermeneutical connection between that scene and the world of the contemporary congregation. The sermon then unfolds with the same plot as the text.

The text opens in an out-of-the-way place, Nazareth in Galilee. Not only is Nazareth unimportant by typical social standards, but Galilee had a large gentile population with whom Jewish people had frequent, friendly contact. Where are the Nazareths for your congregation?

The main human character, Mary, is vulnerable. She is young, and still single. She has no worldly standing or achievement to commend her to God. She is a young woman in need. Who is Mary in your community? The angel comes to her as an act of pure grace. God used an angel to bring the word of grace to Mary: God is acting through you for your good and the good of the world. Mary is not called to redeem the world herself, but, by bearing Jesus, she is called to join the movement of God's grace toward the gentile world. How does God come to you and to the people in your flock?

However, the manifestation of God's grace left Mary perplexed and afraid. It complicates her life given the fact that she is betrothed to Joseph. How does divine grace sometimes complicate our situations? For instance, in our ethically relaxed culture, when we say yes to God's grace, a part of the response is to conduct ourselves ethically. That can confuse our relationships in the workplace if we have been joining out comrade workers in slacking, cheating, or otherwise not giving our best. "What's happened to her," some will say. "Does she think she's better than we are?" How might your listeners be compromised by trusting in God's graciousness?

How could Mary become pregnant? Virginal and unmarried, Mary's situation looks impossible. God provides the Holy Spirit as the means through whom the divine promise is fulfilled. In the gospel of Luke, and especially in the book of Acts, the Spirit becomes a medium through whom God accomplishes remarkable things. Can you help your listeners become sensitive to the presence of the Holy Spirit leading them into visions and realities larger than they thought possible?

The angel confirms that Elizabeth has also conceived. Mary and Elizabeth are part of a community of the powers of redemption. While divine revelation and grace are sometimes mediated individually, they are ultimately intended to build up community that is shaped for God's purposes. The communal element is sometimes muted, even lost, in today's preaching. Consequently, it is important for today's preacher to help the congregation recognize the significance of God's purposes for Christian community, and for the larger world community.

Ronald J. Allen