2017 December Issue
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Commentary: Luke 1:26-38 Part 2

The church has traditionally called this passage from Luke "the Annunciation of the birth of Jesus." A careful reader instantly notices Luke's penchant for naming specific people and geographical locations to give a quasi-historical feel to the narrative (see also: Lk 2:1-4; 3:1-2). In verses 26-27 Luke specifically names these characters: Gabriel, God, Joseph, David, and Mary. The decisive name Luke discloses in today's text is Jesus, the child that Mary is to bear. The name Jesus is a derivative of the Hebrew name Joshua which means "Yahweh is salvation." Luke imparts a curious and artistic detail for his understanding of the Hebrew Bible. Joshua succeeds Moses at Moses' death, and Jesus assumes John's ministry at John's death. Thus, Luke connects several weighty prophetic characters. This linkage provides continuity between the old and new stories of faith.

The context of Luke's "good news" about Jesus is the account of "the things that have been accomplished among us" which Luke shares with Theophilus (Lk 1:1). Theophilus may have been Luke's benefactor who financed Luke's creative literary work as an early Christian historian. Another possibility is that "Theophilus" may not be a specific individual's name. Rather "Theophilus" may indicate what the name means literally—"lover of God." If this second use is a legitimate understanding, then Luke aims his story at all those who love God. Preceding today's lesson the Lord's angel tells the priest Zechariah about the coming birth of John the Baptizer (Lk 1:8-17). John becomes a forerunner for Jesus.

Our text for this fourth Sunday in Advent begins with Gabriel appearing to Mary with the announcement: "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." In Judges 6:12 an angel gives a similar greeting to Gideon: "The Lord is with you." Gabriel's message has divine import. Luke alerts the reader that Mary "was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be." Given Mary's social status as a young and poor woman, her confused status should not surprise readers.

Luke provides few clues why God chooses Mary for extraordinary maternal duty. The outward circumstances only suggest that God chooses her not on the basis of any merit. The text also notes that she is a "virgin," but Luke provides this detail more to underscore Mary's youth than for her sexual proclivities. The church's interest in her sexuality (or lack of) emerges centuries later. Luke's narrative then sketches the contours of Gabriel's communication. This angelic message assures Mary of God's favor and announces the birth of her son she is to name Jesus. Luke then outlines Jesus' Messianic attributes.

At this point in the story, however, Mary desires further detail—the whole circumstance sounds too bizarre to accept at face value. She asks, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" Her question is not only logical, it is practical too. Ready for such a question, as experienced angelic messengers must be, Gabriel explains how the Holy Spirit functions in Mary's particular predicament. Further, Luke ties John the Baptizer's and Jesus' destinies together even before birth. Gabriel foretells of Mary's near relative Elizabeth who also receives God's miraculously potent and generative powers. Gabriel concludes the encounter with Mary using a familiar excerpt from the biblical narrative: "For nothing will be impossible with God." These words, biblical philosophy in a nutshell, God spoke to both Abraham and Zechariah. Mary, for the context of this announcement by Gabriel, is in lofty theological company indeed!

Mary's response recalls other faith responses by God's people. Mary's faithful answer, "Here am I," places her in company with Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah. Each of these faithful characters answered God in a way similar to Mary. After Mary's acquiescence, the angel Gabriel departs.

Luke's account of the annunciation is one of the church's best known and beloved stories. Rare are people who have never heard it. Yet, preaching this story holds inherent risks for the preacher. Is the story too familiar? Is it difficult for preachers to convey any new meaning from it for people who already think they understand its significance? Perhaps, however, the familiarity that looms as an obstacle may provide an opportunity to relate a meaningful story for people that do not know the entire Bible well—or at all. This text might provide a link to other biblical stories of promise and response for God's people. It may also function as a faithful reminder that God's earlier promises still operate today.

The phrase, "For nothing will be impossible with God," is a paraphrase of what God said to his servant Abraham. The precise phrase by which God addressed Abraham was "Is anything too wonderful [hard, difficult] for the Lord?" (Gen 18:14). The preacher might relate the miraculous birth of Isaac and Jesus. Jesus' name signifies salvation, just as Isaac's name means "laughter." Biblical names express God's fulfillment of divine promises. If God can help a ninety-nine year old man and his ninety year old wife conceive, could not God create life from a teen-age girl by the agency of the Holy Spirit? Abraham and Sarah's childless dilemma is also replicated in the characters of Zechariah and Elizabeth.

One way to preach this text is to offer contemporary congregations a sense of the hope God provides. This divine promise contradicts our confining modern and sophisticated logic. Christmas and Advent faith proffers a hope that rescinds every human notion that life consists of nothing but the misery we experience in an endless cycle. The new word God offers in Christ is an old word that God has offered to countless faithful generations. God gives an ultimate and decisive promise in the birth of Jesus. If God can give an elderly childless couple an infant and if God's Holy Sprit can overshadow and conceive from the womb of a virgin, then there is no restriction to what God can do—even today. As Luke's Gospel continues to remind us, "Nothing will be impossible with God."

David Mosser