Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 21, 2014
Luke 1:26-38 Commentary
Comments and Observations:
Biblical scholars call passages like Luke 1 “type scenes.” A modern kind of “type scene” might be something like this: one evening while channel-surfing, you run across a movie already in progress. It’s obviously a Western with two cowboys standing about thirty yards apart in the middle of a dusty street. Each man is glaring at the other, one hand slightly raised and angled toward his hip.
Now, even if you have no idea what movie this is—and even if it’s a film you’ve never before seen—just seeing that set-up immediately tells you that what is about to happen is an Old West-style shootout. You don’t need to know what the movie’s larger plot has been about: the boilerplate set-up of the scene conveys what you need to know–you even have a strong idea of what’s next.
There are a number of similar type scenes in the Bible. For instance, if you run across a scene where a man meets a woman at a well, it probably means they will soon be getting engaged and then married. If you encounter a story in which someone is driven into the wilderness or up onto a mountaintop, you can assume that some new revelation from God will happen there. And if an angel appears to a woman (especially a woman who has never before been a mother), what often comes next is the promise of a child.
Yet Luke 1 is different from other such stories in interesting, and also instructive, ways. Unlike all of the other women in the Bible for whom the announcement of a child is such incredible news, Mary has not been pining away for years to have a baby. She’s not even ready to have a baby yet! She’s still very young, having gained the physical ability to become pregnant in probably just the last year or so. Further, she’s not married yet–like most girls of that era, her marriage had been pre-arranged by her parents long ago, so there was no question that she would be wed one day. But it hadn’t happened yet.
So Gabriel’s announcement of an impending pregnancy was not the answer to Mary’s prayers. This not Hannah or Sarah or Rachel who have long lived with the bitter disappointment of infertility. Far from it! In fact, Gabriel’s words do not so much solve a problem for Mary as they create a problem. This simply was not the time for Mary to have a baby.
But that is at least partly the point of this story: it’s not about Mary’s time or plans but is simply and solely about God’s timing, God’s plans, and God’s work. God is intervening in this world, upsetting schedules and re-aligning lives because that’s what it takes to get God’s premiere work of redemption accomplished.
But in the wider biblical context, the things that make this scene different from the many other, similar scenes ought to give us pause. After all, go back to the analogy about the shoot-out: suppose you did run across a scene like that while zipping through your channels one evening. But then suppose that, just before you were going to click the remote for the next channel, you noticed that one of the two cowboys was dressed in pink and was reaching for not a gun but a daisy that he had tucked into his belt. My guess is that this would be enough to make you stop your channel-surfing long enough to see what in the world was going on here! There had to be a reason behind this change in an otherwise predictable set of cinematic circumstances.
Similarly in Luke 1: an angel visits someone to talk about having a baby. We’ve seen this before. But wait: she’s a virgin. Of course she hasn’t had a child yet, but accomplishing that hardly requires a miracle. Further, she’s not like Sarah who was in her 80s or even cousin Elizabeth who also appears to have been close to retirement age: Mary’s just entered puberty. Clearly, these changes in a traditional type scene signal that something quite new is taking place in Luke 1. Mary quite logically asks Gabriel, “How will this be since I am still a virgin?” But an equally good question to ask is, “Why will this be?” since Mary does not seem like a logical candidate for divine intervention on the fertility front (nor does she seem a likely candidate to be a big player in the drama of cosmic redemption).
In other words, savvy biblical readers will come to this part of Luke 1 and say, “Hmmm, this is a scene I’ve seen before, this is a story I’ve heard before.” But then the text tilts, the familiar gives way to the unfamiliar, and the reader gets the sense that something very new, very striking, and quite possibly very wonderful is about to happen.
And it is!
Questions to Ponder / Issues to Address:
What does Christmas mean? Well, to some folks in our world Christmas is all about bringing people together again, especially those who have maybe become estranged for some reason. Most of the better-known holiday movies climax when the mom and dad who had been fighting get back together again and so avoid divorce. Scrooge wakes up a changed man, the Grinch’s heart grows larger and more loving, the whole town comes together to save George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, and the next-door neighbor re-establishes contact with his estranged son at the end of Home Alone. Christmas is a time to focus on the other people around you.
So we start to think after a while that a “good Christmas” means being a little nicer than usual, maybe patching up broken relationships, digging a little deeper into our pockets to chip in to a charity or two, and just generally getting along with everyone so as not to spoil anyone’s holiday cheer. “Peace on earth” may or may not be achievable in any literal sense, so we’ll settle for the “peace” of not having Uncle Charlie and cousin Bernice argue about women’s rights at the Christmas dinner table like happened last year. We’re not really looking to change the world: we’ll just settle for getting along with reasonable happiness and tranquility until January 2 arrives and we can get back to normal again.
In other words, we make Christmas about us, about solving our problems, about finding ways to handle this or that difficulty in our family’s dynamics. At least some such concerns are not bad things to think about, they’re just nowhere near the core of Advent. Christmas isn’t first of all about our agenda. As with Mary, so with us: God brings us what he knows we need whether we thought we needed it or not. God intervenes in our lives to remind us that what Advent is about is the defeat of sin, evil, and death. The advent of God’s Christ into this world—as Gabriel’s speech to Mary made so abundantly clear—is ultimately about so much more than the pedestrian things we bring to the table each December.
Church traditions vary but in the Reformed branch of the church in which I grew up and where I now do my work, most people would find it merely odd to celebrate the Lord’s Supper / Eucharist on Christmas Day or at a Candlelight Service of Lessons and Carols. Whatever else Advent and Christmas are all about in people’s minds, being reminded of the death of the baby at the center of our Christmas reflections is not typically among the more prominent thoughts people have in December. Curiously, however, nowhere in the Bible does Jesus ask us to celebrate his birthday. Two of the four gospels don’t even mention Jesus’ birth. But everywhere Jesus and the apostles command us to celebrate Jesus’ death–to eat this bread and drink that cup . . . until he comes.
But in the wider world and even to many in the church, Advent/Christmas does not seem like it’s the time to ponder the deathly demise of that wee baby in the manger. We don’t need talk of death just now–indeed, we pity those whose Christmastime is clouded by death. On an episode of the TV show M*A*S*H, Dr. Hawkeye Pierce falsified the date on a death certificate by moving a man’s last breath forward fifteen minutes from 11:50 PM on December 25 to 12:05 AM on December 26. Why? Because, Hawkeye reasoned, this man’s family shouldn’t in future years have to recall Christmas as the day their loved one died. We don’t need death at the holidays. It just makes things more complicated.
But if that is how we find ourselves thinking as Christians, maybe our problem is having gone along with the world too much in making Christmas much, much too simple.
There is a curious clustering of grace-related words here. Gabriel’s initial word to Mary is chaire, which was a standard way to say “Hail” or “Hello” back then but is a direct cognate of charis, the New Testament word for “grace.” What’s more, this same word could also mean “Rejoice!” So it’s an open question whether the angel was merely saying, “Hello” or telling Mary she should rejoice. (Or could it somehow be both?)
Then, the word for “highly favored” is likewise a cognate on this stem. Charitoo means to endow with favor or, as could perhaps be better said, to grace, to have grace/favor bestowed upon one. Being the target of grace is always a cause to rejoice. And indeed, in verse 30, the direct New Testament word for grace (charis) is used when Gabriel tells Mary she has “found favor/grace” with God. Perhaps there is not much to all of this and yet in a sense it is instructive to see all of this talk about grace and favor clustering around the Lord’s call of Mary. After all, it will be Mary’s son who will bring “grace and truth” to the entire world, opening up a gracious way of salvation through his own sacrificial death.
When children are small and are just learning how to eat from a spoon, parents involuntarily open their mouths even as the baby opens his or her mouth. It’s quite comical to see. Pastors who get to sit up front in church each week often get to see a similar spectacle whenever young children participate in a church service or Christmas program. When a son or daughter is up front speaking various lines, it’s not uncommon to be able to look out into the congregation only to see the tyke’s mom or dad on the edge of a pew, mouthing the words right along with the child! As a parent, you can’t help it!
I suspect that seen the right way, something similar happens in Luke 1. The whole cosmos, all the hosts of heaven from the archangel Gabriel on down, are holding their collective breath and sitting on the edges of their seats. All eyes and ears are trained on one little girl, perhaps no more than twelve or thirteen years of age. She’s about to get the shock of a lifetime, but what will she say in response? What will her answer be? Will she get it right? As Frederick Buechner once put it, Mary was probably too dazzled to notice, but maybe just beneath his wings and bright garments even Gabriel was trembling a little in nervous anticipation at how this encounter was going to go.
In the end, as we all know, it went just fine, and the hosts of heaven must surely have heaved a collective sigh of relief! The long-awaited plan of salvaging this fallen creation was now really moving forward! After ages of waiting, a mother had been chosen to become the bearer of the very Son of God himself. Within a year that little baby would be born in Bethlehem, and the salvation of the galaxies would be off and running (or at least off and crawling initially!).
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