Living with Luke (4): Luke 1:26-55

            Luke the Evangelist is traditionally symbolized by a winged ox or bull –
             a figure of sacrifice, service and strength.                                                                                                        The ox signifies that Christians should be prepared to sacrifice themselves in following Christ.

1:26-55:  The Annunciation and Mary’s Magnificat
26 When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, 27 to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” 29 She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. 31 Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. 33 He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”
34 Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”
35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. 36 Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. 37 Nothing is impossible for God.”
38 Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
39 Mary got up and hurried to a city in the Judean highlands. 40 She entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 With a loud voice she blurted out, “God has blessed you above all women, and he has blessed the child you carry. 43 Why do I have this honor, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb jumped for joy. 45 Happy is she who believed that the Lord would fulfill the promises he made to her.”
46 Mary said,
“With all my heart I glorify the Lord!
47     In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior.
48 He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant.
    Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored
49         because the mighty one has done great things for me.
Holy is his name.
50     He shows mercy to everyone,
        from one generation to the next,
        who honors him as God.
51 He has shown strength with his arm.
    He has scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations.
52     He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones
        and lifted up the lowly.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty-handed.
54 He has come to the aid of his servant Israel,
        remembering his mercy,
55     just as he promised to our ancestors,
        to Abraham and to Abraham’s descendants forever.”

In earlier posts in this series we have noted that Luke’s account of Jesus is framed as “apologetic history.”  He writes to justify the ways of God with and through his people so that Gentile Christians may be assured that their inclusion among God’s new people does not mean God has turned his back on the Jews and made his promises to them null avoid.  If he has, how can they be confident that God might not someday do the same to them?

          The great angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah as he was serving in the temple to announce to him that both his and Elizabeth’s personal disgrace of barrenness and the nation’s disgrace of barrenness were going to be resolved by the birth of a son to the couple.  Personal and national identities and prospects are bound together here.

          Mary, a humble peasant girl, is also visited by Gabriel (.26).  He gives her even greater news:  He will be “the Son of the Most High,” the one who will assume David’s throne and rule from their forever (vv.32-33).  The Messiah of long-standing Jewish expectation is coming – through her! 

          At this point, Mary questions the angel is a similar way that Zechariah had earlier.  Only Zechariah suffered muteness while Mary receives a blessing!  What’s the difference?  Zechariah does not believe the angel (v.20); Mary does.  How do we see that?  I suggest it lies in Zechariah’s desire for certainty (“How can I be sure,”v.18) juxtaposed with Mary’s openness to surprise (“How will this happen”).  Certainty encloses God within the bounds of human understanding, for how could we be certain of what we do not understand?   Surprise opens us to the new and unexpected.  Madeleine L’Engle captures this nicely in her poem “After Annunciation”:
This is the irrational season
when love blooms bright and wild.
Had Mary been filled with reason
there’d have been no room for the child.
          Mary’s openness in spite of uncertainty or perplexity enables her to open her mouth and voice the classic statement of faith, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.”

            The Holy Spirit, according to Luke is the Holy Spirit who is the agent of this dual blessing of both Elizabeth and Mary with special children who will remove the disgrace of barrenness from both their families and the people of God.  Luke Timothy Johnson finds even more significance in the Spirit’s “coming over” Mary. 

“I believe that it is also legitimate to see in the Holy Spirit’s “overshadowing” of Mary her prophetic investment.  Two developments support this suggestion:  first, in the Acts narrative, Luke deliberately places Mary at the center of those ‘male and female servants’ who receive the Spirit and prophecy at Pentecost (see Acts 1:13-14; 2:1-13) – notice here that she terms herself ‘servant of the Lord’ (Luke 1:38); second, in the presence of her prophetic relative Elizabeth, Mary utters the prophetic canticle that anticipates the ministry of her son (Luke 1:46:55).” (Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church, 55)

          Thus we arrive at Mary’s “Magnificat” (vv.46-55).  We have room here to note only three related items of this very rich prophetic utterance.  First, we continue to see the intermingling of the personal and national blessing God is working out here.  “He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant” surely bears reference both to Mary and to Israel (both “servants”) of the Lord.

          Second, God’s lifting up of his “servant” entails a reversal of fortunes in the world.  This child will upset the power arrangements of this fallen world and reestablish relations that reflect his divine intentions for us (vv.52-53). 

          Finally, all this is God’s work to fulfill the promises made long before to Abraham and his descendants (v.55).  This long story of God with humanity particularized in Israel as the people he would bless and through whom share his blessings with the rest of the world (Gen.12:1-3) reaches its climax and consummation here in the birth of this child.  God’s faithfulness, now, is on full display in and through the life of this baby.  The remainder of Luke’s narrative is that full display of how God faithfully fulfills his promises to Abraham and through him to the rest of the world.


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