December 18th: “Hoping for the Impossible”

I. Establish the text

A. Select the Pericope: Luke 1:26-38

B. Establish translation: Review NIV, NRSV, TEV, BHS/NA26, …

C. Other texts for Year B for 4th Sunday in Advent

D. Brainstorm: What questions/thoughts come to mind?

26 Sixth month of Elizabeth’s seclusion.

27 What nuances did the word “virgin” carry in the first century? Was the betrothal period designed to validate the virginity of a wife?

28 Considering only the hardships Mary was destined to endure, would we want to be similarly “favored”?

29 At this point, Mary would be unaware of the “favor” that had been bestowed upon her, yet fully aware of the hardships of living in Nazareth. Do we consider ourselves “favored”?

31 Hence the name: “Son of Mary” and not the “Son of Joseph”. Referring to a child by his mother inferred the mother had not passed the betrothal test.

32 What experiences would Mary have to trust/believe a son born to her out of wedlock would be called the “Son of the Most High”? What experiences have we received to trust future revelations?

33 Would first century readers have expected a series of ancestral rulers to continually reign? Is the papacy a human attempt to provide a continual physical/personal presence (c.f. Saul in 1 Samuel)?

34-37 The technical questions bothered 1st century people as much as 21st century people.

38 Would we as readily accede to such a request? How had Mary been prepared to accede to such a vision? Would she have heard of Zachariah’s vision in the temple and accede rather than risk retribution for expressing doubt?

E. Reconsider where the text begins and ends: What got chopped out?

  • Verse 26 provides a change of focus from Elizabeth to Mary.
  • Verses 39-45 show Mary validating the proof the angel offered. 46-56 the readers hears of Mary’s belief, perhaps hidden by her haste to see Elizabeth and validate the vision.

II. Literary Study.

B. What parallel passages exist? How do they differ? How does this author’s intent differ from other authors? Is the text used elsewhere?

  • Matthew compacts the entire annunciation to Mary into one verse: 1:18 “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” He presents the incarnation from Joseph’s point of view, who also received a vision (1:19-25) instructing him to accept the pregnancy and the child.

C. Review syntax/meanings of critical words, phrases, idioms

  • /ParQevnos/: virgin (female and male), also used for maiden and sweetheart in other 1st Century literature.

III. Question the text.

C. What is the center of gravity of the text? Where was the author heading? What question did the author intend to answer? What is the emotional center of the text? What music would it call for?

  • Center of Gravity: Jesus was the Son of God at his birth.
  • Emotional Center:
  • Music: “Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise”

D. Look for conflict: stated or implied.

  • Luke fails to comment on Mary’s change of heart from perplexed by the Gabriel’s initial words to humbly acceding to his request. This shows Mary as completely pliable to divine revelation.

F. How will this text be heard by individuals in the congregation, including the preacher?

  • This is so well known, many will have a hard time hearing the nuances and scandal.

IV. What do the commentaries have to say about the text?

Fred B Craddock (Interpretation:Luke, John Knox Press, 1990.) immediately notes the parallel of Mary’s pregnancy with Elizabeth’s: both events demonstrate God’s grace toward the world and power to work in the unable, and that they have sons for our sake. He observes that God’s reasons for choosing Mary are not disclosed. [Perhaps following God’s pattern for selecting David as king.] He links the annunciation to Mary with the annunciation to Sara with the phrase: “For nothing is impossible with God.”

R. Alan Culpepper (“The Gospel of Luke”, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Abingdon, 1995.) highlights nuances which show Mary’s son as greater than Elizabeth’s son. Gabriel’s greeting parallels the assurances given in Judges 6:12. He cites Tobit as rising Mary’s fear. Tobit tells of a jealous angel who successively appeared on a bride’s wedding night and killed her bridegrooms. He reflects: “Today many assume that those whom God favors will enjoy the things we equate with a good life: social standing, wealth, and good health. Yet Mary, God’s favored one, was blessed with having a child out of wedlock who would later be executed as a criminal [and a heretic].” “The ultimate scandal is that God would enter human life with all its depravity, violence, and corruption. Therefore, the annunciation ultimately is an announcement of hope for humankind.”

Rosalind Banbury-Hamm (“Celebrating the good news,” The Presbyterian Outlook, November 7, 2005, p. 25): “Yet, the ways that we celebrate Christmas may water down the gospel from a heady, full-bodied wine to a weak drink that no punch.”

James J. H. Price (“Called to Be a Vessel!” The Presbyterian Outlook, November 26, 2007, p. 16) asserts: “Luke’s aim is not to report a biological miracle, but to confess the divine origin of Jesus as Messiah, Son of God.” He notes: “The Spirit is associated with creation, not primarily procreation (see Ezekiel 37:1-14; Job 32:8; 33:4). It is worth noting that in Hebrew “Spirit” is a feminine word and in Greek a neuter word, thus not associates with a male figure.”

V. With respect to the hearers (including the preacher), What does this text want to say and do?

Those times when my sermons were best received,
when parishioners came up and said: “I felt you were preaching directly to me,”
were those times when I was preaching to myself. — Rabbi Chet Diamond

A. What is the theological meaning of the verses?

Through the faith of a powerless maiden, the power of the Most High manifested grace to the world through Jesus.

B. Focus Statement: Central, controlling, unifying theme.

Finding favor with God.

C. Function Statement: What change in the hearer?

Appreciate the scandalous risks that God imposed choosing Mary and thereby see God in our lives.

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