2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall


Preaching: Luke 1:26-38 Part 2

The preacher could develop a sermon that regards Mary and the gracious coming of God to her, as paradigmatic of God's relationship with the congregation. As the text begins, Mary is a young woman engaged to Joseph in Nazareth. Nazareth is a relatively poor and out-of-the-way village in Galilee, an area noted for its large gentile population and in which Jewish and gentile people were very friendly with one another on a day to day basis. Mary is vulnerable: she is poor, unmarried, living under patriarchy and under Roman domination, in a remote region with many gentiles, and has no special gifts. The preacher can help members of the community identify ways in which we are like Mary. Vulnerable? At risk? Oppressed? Unremarkable but in need?

Although Mary has nothing that would especially commend her to God, God comes to her as an act of unmerited favor. Although I speak figuratively of God's grace "coming" to Mary, God is omnipresent and always at work for our good. The preacher can help the congregation recognize the grace already in our midst and at work for us. How do we experience God's grace during Advent?

God's grace brings a call to respond. Mary will give birth to Jesus, agent who will initiate the final phase of the manifestation of the divine rule. Of course, we are not asked to bear the savior. But the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts stress that those who recognize the renewal of the world that comes through Jesus Christ are called to witness to that restoration. The preacher can help us recognize particular acts of witness through whom we express the call and claim of God.

Mary is perplexed. The fact that the angel says, "Do not be afraid," indicates that Mary is fearful. She questions. "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" How grateful I am for Mary's honesty. The preacher needs to help the congregation name and deal with our own fears and doubts.

When the angel explains how the Holy Spirit will move through her for her benefit and the benefit of the world, Mary responds with trust (Lk 1:38). The rest of the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts assures the reader that God is faithful to all who respond in trust. The same Holy Spirit that brings about the conception of Jesus operates throughout these two books to preserve and empower those who follow Jesus toward the renewed world. The preacher can help the community want to respond with trust in God like that of the honest Mary. The preacher can help the congregation recognize ways that the Holy Spirit goes with us.

Another sermon could move in a similar conceptual world but with a different focus. I join some other scholars in thinking that the community to which Luke wrote suffered from economic disparity, and tension among upper, middle, and lower social classes of Christians. Mary represents those who are poor, oppressed, marginalized. The text invites the Lukan church to recognize and embrace God's liberating presence among such persons and communities.

The preacher could invite the typical middle class congregation in the long established denomination to use the socio-economic condition of Mary as a clue to locating an aspect of God's gracious movement today. Where is God's liberating power at work among the poor, the oppressed, the women today of our world? How can we, like the audience of Luke-Acts, join God in these gracious movements?

A different message could focus on the restoration of women to the place God intended at the time of creation. According to Genesis 1:26-27, God created women and men each to bear the image of God and to be partners in exercising dominion, i.e., in helping relationships in the world demonstrate mutuality and support. Only after the fall did God curse women and subject them to the authority of males (Gen 3:14-19).

According to Luke and other early Christian thinkers, however, God intends to restore the world to its original purposes and qualities. The restoration will not be complete until the eschatological consummation. This theme is especially apropos for Advent. For Advent anticipates the eschatological manifestation of the divine rule. This restoration is already underway through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

Mary is one of a number of women whose life and mission are restored, and whom God uses for witness in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. For further examples, see Lk 1:5-25; 1:46-55 (Mary is the first preacher to interpret the significance of Jesus Christ); 4:25-26; 7:36-50; 8:1-3; 10:38-42; 13:10-17; 23:26-31, 48-49, 54-55; 24:11 (women are the first preachers of the resurrection—the definitive demonstration of the restoration); Acts 1:12-14; 2:28-32; 6:1-6; 8:3; 9:2; 16:11-15, 16-40; 18:1-4, 24-28; 21:7-9; 22:4.

The preacher could help the congregation reflect on ways in which God is restoring the role and place of women in the church and the world today. Can the preacher point to specific situations in the church that demonstrate the movement of the Spirit that encourages women to exercise dominion in the pattern of Genesis 1:26-27?

When I was growing up (I was born in 1949), the "virgin birth" was a hot topic of conversation in our congregation. As a point of clarification, though both Luke and Matthew record a virginal conception, neither reports a virgin birth. Be that as it may, this matter still surfaces in Christian conversation, though not with the frequency or intensity of a generation ago. A sermon could explore the functions of the motif of virginal conception in ancient literature. How does the story of the virginal conception of Jesus enhance our understanding of Jesus Christ in Luke-Acts? This sermon could easily morph into a doctrinal sermon on christology.

Ronald J. Allen