Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Luke 1:26-56

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you."
29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."
34 "How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"
35 The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail."
38 "I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me according to your word." Then the angel left her.
39 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, 40 where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!"
46 And Mary said:
"My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
55 to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors."
56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home.

Points of Interest:

• ‘a town in Galilee’—Judea and Galilee were the two Jewish regions in Roman Palestine. Judeans thought of Galilee the same way people on the East Coast think of anywhere in the middle of the country: Galilee was considered backward, provincial, and far away from anything important. The prophet Isaiah—writing hundreds of years earlier—predicted that despised Galilee would become a place of honor (Isaiah 9:1). Gabriel is about to put the fulfillment of that prophecy in motion.

• ‘a descendant of David’—David was the Jewish national hero, famous as a warrior, a king, and a worshipper of God. David’s reign was Israel’s golden age. David’s family had not been in power for a very long time: the Jews had been under foreign domination for 600 years, except for a brief period of independence when the high priests ruled. But one could imagine David’s family still retained some respect, both out of reverence for the glorious past and out of the hope (supported by many prophecies) that David’s kingdom would one day be restored.

• ‘You will conceive and give birth to a son’—another of Isaiah’s prophecies says, ‘Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel [which means, ‘God with us’]’ (Isaiah 7:14). On a certain level, this prophecy was fulfilled during Isaiah’s own time: Isaiah is simply saying that something he has predicted will happen in the length of time it takes for a young woman to become pregnant, have a child, and wean the child. But there’s another layer to this prophecy; it looks forward to a time when, through the birth of a child, God who seems far away will draw very near—he will be with us. Gabriel is saying that that deeper layer of the prophecy would now be fulfilled. This humble, young Galilean woman would play a part in, not just a miraculous birth, but in God himself living among his people.

• ‘The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David’—yet another of Isaiah’s prophecies is referenced here. In fact, it’s the same prophecy that mentions Galilee’s rise in status. It might be worth quoting a couple of verses (you might recognize them from Handel’s ‘Messiah’):
For to us a child is born
To us a son is given,
And the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and peace
There will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
And over his kingdom,
Establishing and upholding it
With justice and righteousness
From that time on and forever (Isaiah 9: 6-7)
Mary’s child, because of Mary’s marriage to Joseph, will be an adoptive descendant of David, and he will be the one who finally does bring back the glory days of David. Even better, while David’s kingdom disintegrated shortly after his death—and even ended with something of a whimper toward the end of David’s own reign—Jesus’ reign will never end and his kingdom will never fall.

You might have noticed that we’ve mentioned ancient Jewish history and prophecy quite a bit in today’s and yesterday’s passages. At the beginning of his story, Luke is strongly painting a picture for us of a people who have been waiting for a very long time for God to come and intervene in their circumstances. The central story of the Old Testament (the part of the Bible written before Jesus’ arrival) is the story of the exodus: when the people of Israel were slaves in Egypt, God heard their prayers and through his mighty acts rescued them and eventually brought them safely to their own land. Toward the end of Old Testament history, the people of Israel are once again in captivity, but the biblical prophets predict that God will return once again to rescue them. By the time of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary, the people have been waiting around 600 years for this second rescue attempt. Our story begins at the indescribably exciting moment when God finally begins to put his new rescue plan into action. Luke’s story—and the rest of the New Testament (the part of the Bible written after Jesus’ coming)—is a description of this new dramatic rescue attempt: who is being rescued? from what are they being rescued? and how are they going to be rescued? The Old Testament prophets give us some hints as to what to expect, but God has some surprises in store for us as well. One of the first things we learn—predicted by Isaiah, but still surprising—is that the instrument of God’s plan will be the baby of this young, Galilean woman.

• ‘the house of Jacob’—another name for the Jews. The forefather of the Jews was Jacob, also know as Israel. The Israelites came to be called Jews when most of the tribes of Israel were conquered and dispersed, leaving Judah (the ancestral lands of two of the original twelve tribes) as the only remaining Israelite homeland.

• ‘How will this be?’—just like Zechariah, Mary responds to Gabriel with a question, but her question is quite different. Zechariah asks for further assurance that the angel’s words will happen; Mary simply wants to know how they will come about. Amazingly, she doesn’t express any doubt at all that her child will be the promised son of David, and will reign forever; she merely wonders how God will overcome the practical barrier of her virginity to bring it about.

• ‘So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God’—Jesus is not only the adoptive heir of David, but also a miraculous son of God. Jesus is given life by the Spirit (or ‘breath’) of God, just like Adam, the first human being God created, was (Genesis 2:7).

• ‘Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit’—the Holy Spirit is the essence of God, sent to interact with human beings, conferring on them supernatural powers or abilities. Our word ‘inspired’ comes from this idea that we’ve been breathed on or somehow empowered by another spirit. Here, the Holy Spirit inspires Elizabeth with supernatural knowledge about Mary’s child and with words of blessing and praise.

• ‘and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior’—Mary models her song of praise after Hannah’s song after the birth of her son Samuel (1 Samuel 1:1-10). The theme of both songs is that God sees, remembers, and promotes those who look small and forgotten.

Taking it home:

For you and your family: When the angel calls Mary ‘highly favored,’ she’s initially confused. She doesn’t think of herself as special, and she’s surprised that God would take such notice of her. It seems possible that Mary’s an example for all of us: maybe we’re all highly favored by God. Of course, Mary inhabits a privileged place in history: she’s the one and only mother of Jesus. But the whole point of Mary’s story is that God is willing and able to do astounding things for and through humble, ordinary people. Today, with your family or household or friends, try on for size the idea that God notices you, likes you, and has big plans for you. Imitate Elizabeth by proclaiming God’s favor over one another, maybe just by saying something like, ‘You know what, God really likes you,’ to someone else in your house at least once today.

For your friends: Mary’s and Elizabeth’s recent experiences are made all the more meaningful by the fact that they are able to share them with one another. Pray for the friendships of these friends. Ask God to give them good company as they go through life. Pray particularly that God will provide them with friends with whom they can talk about their spiritual experiences. You might even want to pray that God will help you to be good spiritual friends for your friends. Ask God to make you a source of support and encouragement in the lives of your friends, just like Elizabeth is for Mary.

For our city: In this passage, God inaugurates a new era of great things for the people of Israel. God is going to be at work among them in ways they haven’t seen for hundreds of years. Pray the same thing for our city of New Haven: ask God to be at work in our city in ways none of us have ever seen, even in ways that it’s hard for us to believe he would still act.