A Scandalous Advent
12/17/2017 3:22:53 PM
Luke 1:26-45, 56
December 10, 2017
Rev. David Williams
Scripture: Luke 1:26-45, 56
I want you to imagine that your teenage daughter came to you and told you she was pregnant! Imagine how you would feel! The shock. The fear. The confusion.
The Donaldsons went through that experience many years ago. Dave and Diane, our missionaries in Kenya, became grandparents much earlier than they ever expected. Their daughter, Laurel, was a good girl. She went to church, attended youth group, got good grades. But she made one big mistake. It cost her almost all of her friends at school and at church. Her parents were shocked and dismayed. They wrote a book about their family’s experience. Laurel chose to keep her daughter and, with her parents’ help, went to university and raised her beautiful daughter Hannah. Today, 15 years later, Laurel is happily married and has 2 little girls. Today, they are very happy, but it was a long road to get there.
In our culture, teenage pregnancy is still scandalous. Although much of the stigma around it is fading, it is still shocking and troublesome. In more conservative cultures, though, it is more scandalous and risky. The more conservative the culture, the more outrage the young mother faces. She faces more shame and is ostracized more quickly and thoroughly the more conservative her culture.
Although teenage pregnancy is not usually a Christmas topic, it really probably should be. First century Palestine was very conservative. First century Galilee, and the small town of Nazareth were very conservative. Being an unwed mother in that town would have been very risky indeed! The Old Testament laws meant that a young woman caught in such a situation could face stoning or execution!
Bearing that in mind, please turn to our text, Luke 1:26-45, 56. As we read our passage, let me point out by way of cultural context, that for them, engagement or betrothal was far more serious and binding than engagement is today. Because the dowry and bride price had already been exchanged in order for the husband to set up a house for the couple to live in, a formal divorce to determine blame and to settle financial matters was necessary to dissolve a betrothal!
What It Says
This passage is familiar to those of us who grew up in Christian circles. We’ve probably heard it countless times at Christmas. But what does the passage say? Can we take a fresh look at a familiar text?
Luke gives us a number of markers in the text. First, he says “in the 6th month…” This is the 6th month after Elizabeth conceived John the Baptist in her old age. Just a few verses before, we are told that after conceiving, Elizabeth went into seclusion for 5 months. In the 6th month, the angel Gabriel visited Mary.
Gabriel is the same angel that visited Zechariah in the temple when he went to offer the incense as part of the day’s sacrifice. We looked at this last week. As you may recall, this was the highlight of Zechariah’s career! And he didn’t believe the words of the angel, so he was struck deaf and mute until the baby was born.
We are also told, in our text today, that Mary lived in Nazareth, in the region of Galilee. She was engaged or betrothed to Joseph. We are told that Mary was a descendant of David. We are also told that she was a virgin. In its original meaning, this word refers to a “young girl” but in those days that was synonymous with being a virgin sexually too.
How does Gabriel greet Mary? He says, “Greetings, highly favoured one. The Lord is with you.” Another, more famous way to translate this greeting is, “Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with you.” Does that sound familiar?
Grammatically, these words mean that Mary was the recipient of God’s grace, not that she was a source of God’s grace. She is not a “reservoir” of God’s grace, able to dole out grace to people. Not at all. She was highly favoured by God, she was the recipient of God’s grace. Just as we might say a person is “filled with the Holy Spirit” that means the Spirit is at work in them, but it does not mean they can give the Spirit to another, that they
are somehow the source of the Spirit for others. This is one thing that our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters have misunderstood and gotten wrong. “Full of grace” is a poor translation, and either way, Mary is not a source of grace or favour for others.
It is worth noting that Mary was troubled and confused by these words. She was humble. She didn’t think these words were applicable to her! There was nothing “special” about her, so why this greeting? I think it is also interesting that she wasn’t terrified by the angel’s appearance. She was troubled by his words. Is this a subtle marker that Gabriel was not shining in glory, but looked like an ordinary man? You see, “angel” means messenger. In Greek, it is the normal word for a messenger, there is no supernatural aspect to the word. So it is possible that Gabriel, God’s messenger, did not appear the part in this instance!
What was the message that this messenger brought Mary? He tells this young, unmarried woman that she is going to give birth to a son and that he is to be named “Jesus.” Gabriel goes on to tell Mary that her son is going to be very special. He is going to be “great.” He will hold a high position, being the “son of God,” the “son of the Most High,” and a “ruler.” He will hold high authority: he will sit on Israel’s throne forever, he will be the ruler of a kingdom that will never end. And he will have divine ties. He will be conceived when the Spirit of God comes upon Mary, when the power of the Most High overshadows her. [Darrell L. Bock, Luke, p. 41]
Mary is now very confused! Mary knows “the birds and the bees.” She knows where babies come from and she knows she has not had the experience necessary to become pregnant. She doesn’t just say that she hasn’t yet been with her fiancée, Joseph, but that she has been with no man whatsoever. How can she be pregnant then? Mary knows this is impossible.
In the previous narrative, Zechariah didn’t believe Gabriel because what he said was improbably. Zechariah and Elizabeth were old. But there are numerous examples in the OT of God granting children to couples in their old age, to women who were thought to be barren. That was improbable. Here, though, Mary knows this is impossible.
Gabriel explains that the Holy Spirit will come upon Mary and that the power of the Most High will overshadow her. This is a very delicate description of how this will happen. It also draws from OT images. In Genesis 1:2, the Spirit hovers over the deep before creation. In the desert, God’s presence overshadows the tabernacle in a cloud. [Ex 40:34; Nu 9:15] [Norval Geldenhuys, Luke, p. 76]
After this profound explanation, Mary responds in obedience. Here, again, we see her humility! Then she runs to her cousin Elizabeth. When she arrives, the Holy Spirit fills Elizabeth, just as the baby, John, kicks in her womb. Elizabeth prophesies about Mary and the baby Mary is already carrying! (Note this indicates that Mary’s conception happened either immediately or shortly after Gabriel’s visit.)
Mary stays with Elizabeth for 3 months, until just before John is born. Elizabeth would have been a great encouragement to Mary. Elizabeth and her priestly husband were both righteous. They could understand Mary’s situation to a degree in that both were experiencing miraculous, divinely foretold pregnancies. Mary leaves just before John is born, probably because John’s birth would have attracted a crowd and Mary didn’t want undue attention. [Geldenhuys, p. 86]
What It Means
So what does all this mean? What’s happening in this passage? Let’s begin by taking a look at what Gabriel says about this boy Mary will have. We are told that he will be great. Zechariah was told his son, John, would be great too. But Jesus will be even greater! We are told that he will sit on the throne of David. This is a sign of great power, status and authority. Jesus’ kingdom will have no end. Remember, in the Bible, “kingdom” means the authority to rule, not a region to rule. So Jesus’ authority will know no end.
The people of Israel were expecting a Messiah king. They were expecting and hoping for a man to take David’s throne back. But Jesus’ authority would turn out to be even greater than a king’s! Jesus’ authority and role as Messiah would be very different than anybody expected.
In Jesus’ birth announcement we see hints already of the incarnation, the details of which will unfold throughout the Gospel of Luke. Some signs of the incarnation is that Jesus will be “the holy one.” This means he will be sinless and only God is sinless! He will be born “of a woman” because as our Saviour he needs to be human as well as divine. He will be conceived through the Holy Spirit, not a man, in a unique new act of creation.
What this means unfolds through the rest of Luke’s book. The incarnation, that Jesus is fully human and fully divine, is a difficult thing to wrap our heads around. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke all begin with Jesus’ full humanity as their starting point and then go on to demonstrate his divine nature. John, in contrast, starts by establishing Jesus’ divine nature, and then goes on to show his complete humanity. But we must remember that this is tough to wrap our heads around. It is no easy thing to grasp, its nuances are easily missed or misunderstood.
I want to talk a bit about the virgin birth. The incarnation is difficult to wrap our heads around so it makes sense that its origin is something we also struggle to grasp. Sadly, many people, including many Christians, find the doctrine of the virgin birth hard to swallow. We have a wide range of backgrounds represented here at Priory. I will not presume to know where all of you stand on the issue of the virgin birth. But many Christians find the doctrine of the virgin birth scandalous. They find it a stumbling block. It’s sad that this is so.
Some sceptics have made comparisons between the virgin birth and Greek accounts of Greek gods mating with young women, “virgins,” and producing children. This comparison really breaks down quickly. First, the delicate description of Jesus’ conception rules out any sort of intercourse or sexual relationship. Second, when early Christians were taking the gospel to the Greek speaking world, they did not make this connection. This was not a “point of contact” for Greek seekers. In fact, the early Christians probably found the virgin birth to be a bit embarrassing! This is not something they would have wanted to “promote” in terms of defending the faith, just as the fact that it was women who discovered the empty tomb on Easter was not something they highlighted because it didn’t “help their case.” It was embarrassing.
Other people object on the grounds that virgins don’t give birth. They object on the grounds that God does not do miracles. But this is the very reason why Mary was puzzled and confused. She knew, too, that virgins don’t give birth. This is why she wondered how this could happen, because she knew that the conception Gabriel was talking about was going to take place imminently, before not after her marriage to Joseph. That it was not the normal way a girl gets pregnant was exactly Luke’s point in the text! This is the point!
Jesus’ conception was a new act of creation by the Holy Spirit. In Genesis 1:2 we are told about the Spirit’s presence at creation. This is an act of new creation. Remember, Jesus was the new Adam. At the resurrection, the Spirit did something unprecedented with a dead man being resurrected. Here, at the beginning, the Spirit does something unprecedented too- a woman becomes pregnant without sexual relations.
It turns out that most people who challenge the virgin birth do so based on prior worldview commitments they already have about the existence of God and his willingness to be active in the world. But the far more important question is whether or not God could or would act in the world for the resurrection. The resurrection was a divine act in the world that was far greater than the virgin birth. If you hold to the resurrection, there is no automatic objection to God working in the world for Jesus’ conception.
Now, putting aside the theological questions surrounding the incarnation and the virgin birth, notice Mary’s response. Her response was obedience. Take note of Mary’s obedience in a risky situation. She was betrothed and she was about to become pregnant by means other than her husband. She could face divorce from Joseph. We don’t know if she told Joseph about her visit from Gabriel, but it’s not likely he would have believed her. Similarly, she would have faced rejection from her family and her community.
Teenage, unwed pregnancy was scandalous! And pregnancy, in religious circles, is often the unforgiveable sin because it can’t be hidden for long. So Mary was taking a big risk in obeying God. She didn’t ask for this. God has just stepped into her life. And her response is courageous obedience and trust. Her response to who God is and what God has said is to live in faith that what he said he will do, he will do. Her response to God was to trust him and live in light of that trust.
This is, actually, the true source of happiness. To be blessed means to be happy that God has touched your life. To take part in the benefits of God’s blessing, one must believe his words are true and live in light of that belief. This was true of Theophilus, the early Christian Luke was writing to, as well as for all Christians since then. Blessing comes when we trust God that he will do what he says he will do and when we live in light of that trust. [Bock, p. 44]
After Gabriel leaves, Mary goes to see Elizabeth. In Elizabeth’s pregnancy in her old age, we see proof of God’s faithfulness. Elizabeth would have been one of the few people to believe Mary’s story, especially because it was Gabriel who told Mary and it was Gabriel who visited Zechariah. Mary would have needed help
processing what she was experiencing and she would have needed encouragement.
That encouragement began right away. Just as the baby John in Elizabeth kicked in response to Jesus, the baby already growing in Mary, Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit herself and testified to the nature of Jesus. This was before Mary had a chance to tell Elizabeth what had happened! John, who leapt when Jesus got near, has already begun his role as forerunner of the Messiah!
So how do we put this to use? First, there is the apologetic for the virgin birth. We have a wide diversity of Christian backgrounds represented at Priory. As I said, I cannot pretend to know where everybody stands. But the virgin birth is an important and reasonable doctrine in the Christian faith. We see some of the evidence for it here in Luke. I know many outside the church are hostile to this doctrine, including many at the university. So I want to encourage all of you not to be scandalized by the work of God in the world, including his work in the virgin birth. Luke has carefully researched his Gospel. Mary was puzzled as to how she could conceive without a man. This was not a doctrine that “helped” the early church’s credibility and so it is not likely one to be made up after the fact. Ultimately, one’s worldview, in particular what one’s worldview says about the potential for God’s direct action in the world, does more to shape one’s view on the virgin birth than anything else.
We don’t need to be embarrassed by the virgin birth. Luke doesn’t say it is normal or expected. No! He says it’s a big deal, it is a unique act of new creation by the Spirit. This is not something we should expect or say, “oh, yes, I saw that coming.”
Although we don’t need to be embarrassed by the virgin birth, Mary would have been embarrassed by it! Elizabeth praised God that when she became pregnant with John the Baptist God removed her disgrace. For Mary, however, becoming pregnant began her disgrace! For Mary, obeying God was costly. She didn’t know how Joseph would react. We are not sure when she told him about the angel, but he was not likely to believe her. (Would you?) She knew this pregnancy could cost her marriage, her family, her reputation, and potentially her life! Her family could disown her and her town could stone her.
Sometimes God calls us to radical obedience at great risk to our reputation and even our safety! Are we willing to follow God if it’s risky? Mary was highly favoured by God, but she was asked to risk much for God. Ultimately, she was greatly blessed by being obedient, but it would have been a long, dark road!
Another application I think we need to see is that Mary goes to see Elizabeth. This is not trivial! Elizabeth would have been a great encouragement to Mary. When God calls us to acts of faith, mutual encouragement is necessary. Elizabeth’s pregnancy would have encouraged Mary that God is faithful to do what he says he will do. Elizabeth’s prophetic words would have encouraged Mary too, before Mary could have told Elizabeth what had happened. Even baby John’s reaction would have encouraged Mary that she had heard correctly from Gabriel. Elizabeth would have been able to help Mary process what was happening and prepare for difficult years ahead.
On a related theme, take note that Elizabeth was not jealous. Have you ever seen a mother be protective of her child? Have you ever seen a woman go into “mamma bear” mode? Elizabeth had been told her son would be great, but here comes Mary with Jesus, who would be even greater than John! And how does Elizabeth respond? She says Mary is the most blessed woman ever! She’s not jealous or protective of her own status or that of her son John. This shows that Elizabeth had the fruit of the Spirit, not just gifts of the Spirit. She and Zechariah were both “righteous” before their pregnancy. The Spirit was working the fruit of the Spirit in them for a long time. And that lack of jealousy, that love and peace in Elizabeth, allowed her to be a blessing and encouragement to Mary.
This is a challenge to all of us! How do we handle it when God blesses others? What if God blesses others in a way we wish he would bless us? What if God blesses others more extravagantly than us? Are we jealous? Or can we celebrate with the others and praise God for what he has done for them? This is especially important at a time of year when God’s material blessings are so apparent!
Christmas is about celebrating the Holy Spirit’s unique act of new creation in the conception of Jesus. God is doing a new thing in the world! This is tremendous! And this new thing will ultimately lead to a renewal of all creation when Christ returns. This new thing leads to the Atonement and to salvation. It is wonderful and deserves to be celebrated. If we remember that is what Christmas is about. Because there are all sorts of other messages in our secular culture about other things Christmas could be about. Can we celebrate Christmas as
Christians and not as pagans?
What are you willing to risk for Jesus? Mary was willing to risk a lot to be obedient to God. She risked her marriage, her reputation and her life. Are you willing to risk talking about Jesus at work during Christmas time?
What are you willing to risk to obey God? God is often willing to bless richly those who obey him, but in the short run obeying God can be costly and risky. Are you willing to take risks to obey God? Maybe this Christmas you will have opportunities to speak with your Reach One person about Jesus. Are you willing to be obedient in those moments?
Who can you encourage in their faith like Elizabeth encouraged Mary? Who can you share your experience with, be a blessing to, and seek to understand this Christmas? Who will you encourage out of obedience to God?
This week we lit the candle of peace. Mary and Elizabeth, in different ways, both exhibited peace that passes understanding. Obeying God bring peace with God. It does not bring ease, and sometimes it actually brings risk, but peace is more than the absence of trouble. When we are at peace with God, the rest of life will ultimately fit into place. Amen.
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