Listen to the podcast by Bishop Michael Rinehart
Advent 4B – December 20, 2020
2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 – David’s house is built, and now he wants to move God from the tent (wilderness tabernacle) to a house (temple).
Luke 1:47-55 – The Magnificat. Mary’s song. My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… (ELW pp. 314-315, hymns 236, 251, 573, 723, 882, 723)
Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26 – I will establish David’s line forever.
Romans 16:25-27 – God will give you strength through the gospel… to bring about the obedience of faith.
Luke 1:26-38 – The Annunciation: Gabriel appears to Mary, betrothed to Joseph of the House of David. “Hail Mary! Be not afraid… You will bear a son and name him Jesus. Nothing is impossible with God.” Mary responds, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
Advent B Summary
- Advent 1B Mark 13:24-37: About that day or hour no one knows
- Advent 2B Mark 1:1-8 The Voice: Prepare the way of the Lord
- Advent 3B John 1:6-8, 19-28 John: The voice in the wilderness
- Advent 4B Luke 1:26-38 The Annunciation
Post on Mary, as Mother of God in Lutheran theology: https://bishopmike.com/2014/12/08/december-21-2014-is-advent-4b/
The Annunciation, well two, actually…
There are actually two annunciations in Luke 1, the announcement by the angel Gabriel to Zechariah that Elizabeth will give birth to John the Baptist, and then the announcement by Gabriel to Mary that she will give birth to Jesus. The one helps us understand the other, so I am going to take them together.
Mikeal Parsons in Luke (Paideia Series), says Luke 1:5–56 is organized into three parts:
- the annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist (1:5–25)
- the annunciation of the birth of Jesus (1:26–38)
- the visitation of Mary to Elizabeth (1:39–56)
Luke’s prologue (1:1-4) is short considering that this is a long gospel. Once he has laid out the purpose of his writing, Luke launches right into the first “annunciation.” Parsons tells us these two annunciations are a literary convention called a dream-vision narrative. They have a form:
- dream-vision terminology
- dream-vision proper (including a commissioning/invitation)
Parsons draws this from Philostratus, Plutarch, Dodson, et al (location 1405 in Luke).
The Annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist
- scene-setting (1:5-10)
- dream-vision terminology (1:11a) “Then there appeared to him an angel…”
- dream-vision proper (1:11b-20)
- reaction/response (1:21-25)
The Annunciation of the birth of Jesus
- scene-setting (1:26-27)
- dream-vision terminology
- dream-vision proper (1:28-38a)
- reaction/response (1:38b)
The annunciation of John
Luke 1:5 begins, Ἐγένετο ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις, “it happened in those days.” This phrase is common in the Old Testament and Apocrypha (Exodus 2:11, Judges 19:1; 13:2, Judith 1:1, Tobias 1:2). Whenever the gospel writers quote the Old Testament, they are using the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. As the prophets also say, “in the days of King Uzziah of Judah,” (Amos 1:1, Jeremiah 1:1), Luke begins, “in the days of King Herod of Judea.” Luke is immersed in the Hebrew scriptures and assumes his listeners are as well.
Zechariah and Elizabeth are both “righteous before God.” We are to understand that John the Baptist’s parents were observant and more. They were “blameless” as regards the commandments. They have not been able to have children and are both old (“getting on in years”).
Dream-visions take place in cultic settings, and this is no exception. Zechariah is a temple priest from the order of Abijah. His wife is from the house of Aaron. He is chosen by lot to offer the incense in the temple. None of this is explained by Luke. He assumes his listeners know. The incense offering took place before the twice-daily sacrifice, called the Tamid. Because there were so many priests, they had to draw lots. Jeremias suggests 24 divisions of priests with 750 per division: 18,000. This may be an exaggeration, but the temple was big business. The privilege of offering incense was done by lottery. Some say that, because of the huge number of priests, and individual priest would only get to do the incense in the temple once in a lifetime.
Once inside, to the right of the altar, near the door to the holy of holies, amidst the clouds of smoke, the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah, and he was absolutely terrified. “Fear not!” Gabriel says (Genesis 15:1, 21:7, 26:24; Numbers 21:34; Isaiah 41:10, 13, 43:5, 44:8; Daniel 10:12, 19; Luke 2:10).
Gabriel is important in the period between the Old and New Testaments. Gabriel appears in Daniel, the only Old Testament book written in the 400-year period before the New Testament. David Lyle: (Luke: Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible) points out that Gabriel appears to Daniel (9:20-21) during the evening offering. Gabriel also appears in 1 Enoch 40:9, 2 Enoch 24:1 and in 1QM 9:15-16. In the Talmud, Gabriel stands before the throne of God (Numbers Rabbah 2:10). He is often assumed to be the angel who wrestled with Jacob in the dream (Genesis Rabbah 78:3 and Zohar 2:41b).
Gabriel tells Zechariah not to be afraid. His prayers have been heard. His wife Elizabeth will give birth to a child, and they shall name him John. He must not drink wine or strong drink (a Nazirite vow?). Before he is born he will be filled with the Holy Spirit (perhaps a reference to Jeremiah 1:5: “Before you were in the womb I knew you, and set you apart…”). He will turn many people to God (Parsons: a ministry of conversion). “With the spirit and the power of Elijah…” He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, clearly a play on Malachi 4:5-6:
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord. And he shall turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to their fathers; lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.
As the incense billows, Zechariah objects, responding with doubt, as do most recipients of angelic commissions. Keep in mind, we don’t know what kind of incense was used. David Lyle: Even righteous, blameless Zechariah “flinches with disbelief.” “How can this be, for I am an old man…?” Recall Abraham and Sarah laughing at God’s promise of a child in their old age? Recall Moses’ reluctance? Jonah? Jeremiah (I am too young…)? Gideon (my tribe is too small)? As a result the angel renders him unable to speak until John is born. Bede: Gabriel “gives him the sign he asks for, that he who spoke in unbelief might now by silence learn to believe” (Homilies on the Gospels 2:20).
Zechariah staggers out of the temple before the crowd, coughing, let us say, eyes wide open, unable to speak. They realize he has seen a vision.
The annunciation of Jesus
Now we arrive at our text. It is a parallel text, but with some differences. Those differences are important.
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Gabriel is sent again, but this time he is sent not to Jerusalem, but to a tiny town in Galilee so insignificant that it is never mentioned in the Old Testament: Nazareth. This time Gabriel is not sent to a cultic setting like the temple, but to a private home. This is no incense-induced vision. This time he is not sent to a man, but to a woman, a virgin, who is engaged to Joseph, from the house of David. Special births in scripture are always announced to the man. For this most important of births, it is announced to a woman.
The angel appears and says, “Greetings favored one. The Lord is with you.” Zechariah was terrified, but Mary is perplexed. Puzzled. This virgin who has probably not seen many men outside her family, does not throw herself to the floor, but rather ponders what sort of message this might be. This is character development.
“Greetings favored one,” is unusual. It is only used in Daniel 10, where the angel Gabriel is also assumed to be the speaker.
“The Lord is with you,” is also an uncommon phrase. It is only found one other place, in Gideon’s dream-vision of Judges 6.
Again, Gabriel says, “Do not be afraid.” What will be her assignment? She will become pregnant and give birth to a child. He will be named Jesus. He will be called the Son of God most high, a title reserved only for Caesar. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever.
Mary objects, as did Zechariah and so many others: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel’s answer is that the Holy Spirit will descend upon her. Look, the angel says, Elizabeth was barren, and now is with child. And then, “For nothing will be impossible with God.”
Mary’s response is stunning: ecce ancilla Domini. “Here am I, servant of the Lord…” And then, “Let it be done to me according to your word.”
One wonders where Luke got these stories. Matthew, Mark and John do not seem to know them. The “lost years” of Jesus represented in the apocryphal gospels are rejected by the early church. David Lyle would have us believe that Luke gets them from Mary. Indeed, Lyle points out that in Botticelli’s Magnificat, Mary is writing, and Luke is holding the ink well.
These two annunciation stories are similar, but Parsons points out that Jesus’ story is superior in every way. John’s miraculous birth is to aging parents, but Jesus is born of a virgin. John is conceived by intercourse. Jesus is not. Virginity was the highest religious vocation in Greco-Roman culture. This would have meant something in Luke’s milieu. John is prophet of the most high, but Jesus is Son of God most high. Both are great, but John’s role is to make ready for Jesus.
As the prophets of old, God has revealed through a vision to an old man and a young woman.
David Lyle likes several other pieces of art. In Petrus Christus, pictured here, Mary has the Bible (Isaiah?) in hand, standing on a church porch, like a bride waiting for her groom. Married to God. This is mostly a theological statement, but of course historically implausible. It is doubtful she would have been allowed to learn how to read at all, and even if she could, it is unlikely that she could afford a scroll (or a codex, as pictured).
In some artwork Mary is juxtaposed with Eve. Mary is the reversal of Eve. Her obedience to God is in stark contrast to Eve’s disobedience.
Bonaventure, echoing Bernard of Clairvaux and Bede, emphasizes Mary’s free will. Let it be done to me according to your word. “It is at the precise moment of the Virgin’s consent, for Bonaventure, that ‘the Son of God was conceived’” (Lyle).
Parsons prefers Pontormo’s Visitation, painted shortly before the posting of the 95 Theses. In this piece of art, Joseph is to the right of Mary and Elizabeth, is looking at Zechariah. With his right hand he points to Mary and Elizabeth. With his left he points above, to the Sacrifice of Isaac, depicted atop the colonnade. Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac is compared to God’s (and Mary’s) sacrifice of Jesus. Both are atop a hill. The thorns of the thicket where the ram is found are the thorns of Jesus’ crown.
It is fascinating for students of Scripture to delve into the texts, seeking to understand its intricacies. But what is here for the person in the pew, who will go to work Monday morning, seeking the hope and strength to live life? What do your people need to hear? What will they hear as this story is read?
As a parish pastor, I was always amazed at how many people had experienced a mystical experience of one kind or another. How does God come to us? How does God speak to us? Is the way forward clear sometimes? What do we do when, so many times, the way is not so clear? How do we discern the will of God? How have you, preacher, discerned God’s will in your life? Have you had angelic visitations? Any clear senses of direction? How have you navigated things when the way was not clear?
Debie Thomas in Journey with Jesus has questions:
- When did you tell your parents you were pregnant?
- Did you tell Joseph yourself, or did the gossipmongers of Nazareth take care of that for you?
- Did anyone in the village believe your story?
- After Gabriel departed, did you doubt his visitation?
- Question your sanity? Fear for your life?
Can we pull out the feelings the story evokes in a young woman with child? Mary was “much perplexed.” She asks, “How can this be?” Perhaps we are asking the same questions.
Another direction may be to focus on Mary’s response: “Here I am, servant of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word.” I think Luke wants us to respect Mary’s faith, her trust of God, and willingness to put her life completely into God’s hands. I think Luke might want us to imitate her. Have there been times when the way seemed clear but you were unwilling to take it (like Jonah maybe)? Have here been times when you have said, like Mary, “Here am I, servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your will.”? In that phrase there is a submission to the will of God. What would it mean for you to utter those words? To what is God calling you? What would it look like to turn yourself completely over to the will of God, in perfect trust? What would God have you do? What would God have you be? I invite you: Let go. Let God.
Can you say these things with me now?
Here am I.
Servant of the Lord.
Let it be done to me according to your will.