Luke 1: 26-38, 2 Samuel 7:1-11,16, Luke 1:47-55, Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.' But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 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. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.' Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?' 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. 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. For nothing will be impossible with God.' 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.
It's not about the baby- it's about the Christ. We will do well to remember this. If we only look at the joy of a baby, we are sentimentalising Christmas. Don't just look at the baby, look at who the baby is. "He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High." This was the name for the Roman Emperor Augustus, son of the Divine Julius Caesar. Luke is claiming that Jesus is more important; of his kingdom there will be no end. "Luke sets the story amid the cries of the Jewish people for liberation from Rome's oppression, Rome's forced ‘peace.'" (Bill Loader)
The story is rich in promise because it takes up an old theme and hope from the history of Israel, which is that David's kingdom will have no end. This is not about nationalism; there is enough later in the gospel to scotch any notions of that. This is about the faithfulness of God. What is happening here is the final fulfilment of a promise made long ago- the promise of a righteous and just kingdom. It is beginning again as God shows favour to the small and helpless, beginning with Mary. And it is, in a sense, ending; it is complete. Partners in Urban Tranformation put it succinctly: The angel
presents Jesus as the actualization of Yahweh's promise to David to create an everlasting dynasty. In this announcement, Yahweh has completed the promise made to Abraham, the deliverance of Israel from Egyptian slavery, the shaping of Israel into a nation of Godly justice, equitable distribution of wealth and the building of a relational culture, the securing of that nation in the person of David, and the preservation of the Davidic dynasty down a thousand years to this point where it reaches fulfillment in the birth of the King of kings!
The story of the birth reminds the reader of the history of Israel and God's remembering those righteous people who have suffered through no fault of their own and waited long for justice. We are reminded of Sarah who was childless, and of Hannah the mother of Samuel, and meet Elizabeth... all people who seemed to have been deserted by God even to their old age. They were shown favour by God, given a child... who was more than just a baby... in each case. Here God is doing even more, with a young woman and child who will be a greater person again. Nothing will be impossible with God. (This is an echo of the story of Sarah and the announcement of Isaac's conception by three messengers of Yahweh Gen 18:14)
The story is subversive. Not only is it a challenge to Roman power, it is a challenge to male exclusivity. The key actors here are women, and the weakest of women at that, old and childless, and young and yet to be married.
In many ways this is a story we've heard too often, and sentimentalised, stitching it together with Matthew's story, adding sheep, cows and shepherd boys, and wise men. "Familiarity breeds contempt," and closes our eyes to that which is wonderful. We pour contempt upon the story by reading it as a literal event. Of course the story operates as a "skilful means" for little children, who will read it literally. But surely we are sophisticated enough to see through this to the deeper meanings I have outlined above. Children often do.
But we are so impoverished in our scientistic world view that we have often lost the ability to see past factoids flayed bare of their subtlety and meaning. We seem to be losing our ability to hear stories more complicated than vengeance laden action thrillers, or shallow romance.
When we Christians are sucked into literalist arguments by anti Christian or anti church ridicule, we betray our poverty and lack of insight into our own tradition. We show that we have not yet risen above the skilfulness of little children. We have even lost that, for we so busily focus on defending the foolish, we do not see the wonder of the story that the children see.
Here in the beginning of the Gospel we are told that God has chosen a poor person, not one of the ruling elite, to turn the world upside down. It has begun.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Bill Loader: "Modern minds, schooled in the mechanisms of reproduction, must suspend their disbelief and enter the fantasy of the story. A virgin girl conceives, is overshadowed by an angel. The miracle begins. In this life God is to be found. She will receive the seed and bear the child. Undiluted divinity will flow through his life. We are light years away from talk of chromosomes and genetics, but we are celebrating the immanence of the God whom we, too, may meet in our moments of intimacy."
For reflection on the whole doctrine of virgin birth see Progressive Involvement this week.
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