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First Impressions: Luke 1:26-38

December 17, 2011

This week, I will turn to the compelling story of young Mary, a woman who is not mistress of her own fate, yet who is still able to say yes to the gracious, powerful action of God.  Luke’s Mary is a figure tailor made for the wonder and mystery we associate with Christmas.  She is as wide-eyed as any child who awaits the promise of the season.  There is also a side of her that is mature beyond her years and station.

Luke 1:26-27  Six months after Elizabeth conceived, God turned from the old barren couple to the young unmarried woman.  God’s grace spans the spectrum of human life—young and old, rich and poor, proud and humble.  In this week’s text, God sent the angel to a backwater village to an anonymous woman.  Nazareth, as Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock point out, is never named in the Old Testament, nor is it mentioned in any other ancient sources (The People’s New Testament Commentary).  Nazareth was the Trona of ancient Palestine.

This is a preachable element, God’s dramatic action through the most undramatic of worldly players—Nazareth and Mary.  Sometimes I feel as if I overdo that image at Christmas, but given Luke’s remarkable attention to that very subject, perhaps it is fitting.  God acts with and through the nobodies of this world.  Or to put a spin on it—in God’s eyes, there are no nobodies.

1:28-30  The angel uses the term “favored one” to greet Mary and then repeats it at verse 30.  Mary pondered this greeting.  Is she wondering how she could be considered favored?  What has she done?  Could the angel have come to the wrong person?

Of course, if Mary paid attention to scripture, she would know that to be a favored one of God is a mixed blessing.  Those favored in scripture have a hard road.  Those whom God calls face every difficulty, from within and from without.  Mary should be afraid at this news.  It is a fearful thing to enter into service of this God.

1:31-33  The word “will” appears six times in these three verses (with more to come!).  To me, that word carries the weight of divine certainty.  Some of the action belongs to God, some to Mary and some to the son.  Yet, as much as I believe in the divine permissiveness, that God grants us great freedom—including the freedom to accept or reject God and God’s purposes—there seems to be no room here for argument or discussion.  Mary does not seem to have the option of saying “no.”  That is disturbing to me, but remains the prerogative of God.  Clearly, it is God who is acting here.

1:34-37  Mary here does not argue, but does raise a point of order.  “How in Creation is this thing possible, since I am a virgin?”  The answer is, of course, by the power of God which is not limited to the regular order of things.  God will do what God will do, with or without Mary’s assent.  This is a troubling idea for those of us who believe God gives us the freedom to say “no.”  It is a potential way in to the text, but as of yet, I’m not sure how to find the way out.

I am hoping my colleagues who have more of a background in Greek will help me with the word “overshadow” in verse 35.  It seems like a significant word.

1:38  Mary’s response is a rather calm acceptance.  Her world has been turned upside down in an instance, and all she can say is “Okay, that’s cool.  Let it be as you have said.”  I wonder if Luke hasn’t compressed the story.  Mary’s response seems more reasonable if she had some time to reflect on things.

I am considering preaching about what might have happened between verse 37 and verse 38.  How did Mary wrestle with the message before she came to the point of acceptance.  The reason this is critical, is it connects more with our experience of life.  When we suspect we hear the call of God, most of us to not immediately respond with, “Here I am.  Let it be with me according to your word.”  Mary’s faithful response is only a possible model for us if we are allowed to doubt, question and be afraid before we say “yes.”

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