Luke 1:26-56 - The Coming of Jesus
Luke 1:26) In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27) to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28) And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29) But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30) The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31) And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32) He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33) He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34) Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35) The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36) And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37) For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38) Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.39In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.” 46And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” 56And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
Luke’s Birth Narrative: The most familiar of the stories of Jesus’ birth is found in Luke’s Gospel. It is here that we find angel choruses, shepherds in the fields and an emphasis on Mary and her role in salvation history. The story begins with the annunciation of two miraculous births. The first is the birth of John the Baptist. The second, of course, is this morning’s announcement to Mary of the coming birth of Jesus. In many ways this is a traditional call story in which Mary is called upon to participate with God in the fulfilling of her destiny and the fulfilling of history in the birth of Jesus.
What was the danger? To understand the significance of Mary’s ‘yes’ to God, we need to understand two factors. First, during Mary’s time there was a popular folk tradition,
preserved in the apocryphal book of Tobit, about an angel that visited a young woman on her wedding night killing the groom. This same thing happens each time the woman marries. With the angel’s visitation, Mary may have feared that a similar fate lay in store for her. More importantly, however, were the marriage customs of her day. Marriage began with betrothal or what we would call engagement. This followed the selecting of a bride by the bridegroom and the negotiating of a contract between an agent of the groom and the bride’s father. The betrothal was confirmed by oaths and was accompanied by presents to the bride and her family. Then the bride lived at home for another year before the marriage was consummated and the bride and groom set up their own household. The woman was usually 12-14 years of age. A girl became marriage with her first menses. At the end of the year the groom came to take her to his house where the marriage was consummated and a marriage feast lasting up to a week ensued. A woman was considered married from the time of betrothal. If the groom died during the betrothal year, the bride was considered a widow. To break this binding agreement was a very serious matter and subject to fines. If Mary’s pregnancy was discovered and deemed to be adulterous she would have faced public disgrace for a lifetime, at best, and death by stoning at worst. When a woman was stoned for such an offense, she was taken to a public place, surround by the elders, stripped to the waist and crushed by boulders. To say ‘yes’ to God’s call for Mary meant to risk her security, her way of life and her life itself.
Angels: Angels did not appear in the theology of Judaism until latter, possibly after Persian influence. Christianity, growing out of later Judaism, presupposes angels from the beginning. Angels are not the spirits of those who have departed. Angels are created beings, just as human beings are, simply of another order. Angels have free will. They can choose to serve or oppose God. Most angels in Scripture are special messengers of God sent to communicate God’s will or desires to human beings in specific ways. Some angels were intermediaries, or go-betweens. Others’ sole purpose was worshipping God. It is much later in Christian theology that angels are sometimes seen as guardians of human beings. Even then they are really the hand of God’s providence.
For whom were the Jews preparing? In the early Old Testament tradition, the notion of “the anointed one” carried many levels of meaning. Most of these had to do with being installed to office in such a way that one was regarded as “accredited” by God. Sometimes the word was used to refer to God’s special representatives within the chosen covenant people. Prophets such as Elisha, kings such as David, and (after the Exile) priests were often called anointed or messiah. Being anointed was associated with God’s Spirit coming upon a person and setting him or her apart for the task. After the Exile, the notion of messiah became more specific. Beginning with Ezekiel’s vision (46:1-8), messiah came to be understood as a specific person who would come and combine the best qualities of royalty and priestly dignity. This one would lead Israel in victory over her enemies and restore her to righteousness before God.
In the Old Testament, messiah was ALWAYS conceived of as a mere human being. The radical monotheism of Israel had no room for any other idea. And furthermore, messiah would come for a specific task, i.e. to secure peace, equity, freedom and justice. This was in essence the fulfillment of God’s promise of blessing and prosperity made to Abraham and was, in the Hebrew mind, the essence of salvation. Much time and energy in Israel was spent on deciding how they would recognize messiah. In Mark there are many tests that the Pharisees tried to put to Jesus in order to make that determination. The bottom line was this. They would know messiah by his results. Messiah would bring about lasting, decisive change in the plight of people. War would end. Peace and plenty would be restored. Israel and Judah would be reunited. Exiles would be returned to the land. Salvation would extend to the whole world. Messiah was a political as well as a religious figure. Indeed, that separation would be difficult for Israel to even understand. The intensity of her longing for messiah was the intensity of her longing for redemption, radical and definitive change.
Vs. 26 – sixth month – of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. This detail is a sign that what is coming will be fulfilled because what was previously prophesied is already coming to be.
Gabriel – the name means “hero of God”.
Nazareth – a tiny, nondescript town in Galilee
Vs. 27 – virgin – a word used of young women or men. It can simply indicate inexperience but usually means lacking sexual experience.
Joseph – parenthood in the ancient world was not so concerned with biology as with naming. Claiming a child made that child legitimate. For Joseph to claim Jesus gave Jesus his legal claim to the house of David.
Vs. 28 – these words remind us of the angelic greeting to Hannah and the judges.
Favored one – God’s favor does not mean ease, prosperity or the absence of human struggle. It means the capacity to enjoy a deep and special intimacy with God.
Vs. 29 – perplexed – greatly disturbed, frightened, anxious.
Vs. 30 – Do not be afraid – the angel attempts to quiet Mary’s fear by reminding her that she has been chosen for a special relationship with God and that is all that matters.
Vs. 31 – here the angel lays out God’s calling on Mary.
Jesus – Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, meaning, “The Lord is Salvation”
Vs. 32 – Son of the Most High God – a name that can only be bestowed by God.
Vs. 35 – overshadow – same word used of the great cloud at the transfiguration. It symbolizes God’s glorious and holy presence. There is no attempt to work out the biology here. Nor is Mary called upon to be the consort of God like the pagan myths where God couples with a human to produce a child. This is pure miracle.
Son of God – this conveys both physical and metaphysical identity.
Vs. 36 – This is offered as proof.
Vs. 37 – This verse has been called the creed of all creeds. It reminds us of God’s majesty in bringing life from hopelessness all the way back to Abraham and Sarah.
Vs. 38 – Here I am – this was the traditional answer of obedience.
Servant – the Greek word for slave.
Vs. 39 – In those days – This refers to the days immediately following the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary.
Vs. 40 – Elizabeth – she was Mary’s kinswoman who was miraculously pregnant with John the Baptist.
Vs. 41 – Mary’s greeting – this was not a mere ‘hello.’ Rather it was a ceremonial greeting that triggered a spiritual realization between the two women. Elizabeth sees this as a confirmation that God is doing something mighty in both of their lives.
Vs. 42 – among women – this phrase indicates that Mary stands alone as uniquely blessed by God for a purpose no one else could fulfill.
Vs. 46-56 – These verses make up what is called The Magnificat from the Latin version of the text. There are many close parallels in this song to the song of Hannah after the birth of Samuel is announced to her. The theme in both of those exultant hymns is God’s reversal of the oppressive status quo and God’s moving with might to defend and uphold the lowly and the poor.
Vs, 46- My soul magnifies the Lord – Mary is saying that her inward being is so exultant that it makes God look magnificent.
Vs. 48 – blessed – this Greek word means to be declared indwelt by God and thoroughly satisfied.
Vs. 50-54 – Here Mary gives a wonderful list of God’s characteristics. She makes 8 powerful claims about what God has done and is doing. They are powerfully counter cultural. Can you identify them?
Vs. 51 – proud – this word means haughty and refers to those who think they are better than others.
Vs. 56 – remained 3 months – she stays until John the Baptist is born.
Questions for Personal Reflection
1. As soon as she realizes that God has a special plan for her life, Mary realizes that she needs community and support and goes to see Elizabeth. How do you seek community and support when you are about to do something new?
2. Have you ever been asked to risk anything for your faith? How did you respond? What do you think is God’s calling on your life? If you are not sure, ask God for insight.
3. Mary realizes that with the coming of Jesus God is doing something radical to change the fortunes of those who are oppressed. How do you see the church continuing that work? Do you ever see the church as hampering the process of liberation and justice?
4. How can you be a more effective bearer of Christ to your world?