Monthly Archives: December 2008

Luke 2:1-20

Luke 2: Shepherds and Angels

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast January 4, 2008.

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church on this first Sunday of the new year. I hope that you had a blessed Christmas and New Year’s celebration. It is traditional for Moravians to gather on December 31 to welcome the New Year with prayer and song. 2008 was a very difficult year for many people in America and around the world. I think we are all praying that our hopes for 2009 will be realized. Normally we have a live broadcast from the chapel of Home Church, but the lesson this week was pre-recorded. I am at the annual meeting of the American Society of Church History in New York City. I was a little tempted to arrive a couple of days early and join the throngs in Times Square, but I decided that our small family gathering in front of the TV would be more enjoyable.

I had hoped to finish Luke’s narrative of the birth of Jesus on the fourth Sunday of Advent, but I rambled a bit too long, and we did not get to the shepherds. I know many of you have already put away your Christmas decorations and have nativity fatigue, but Christmas began on Dec. 25; it didn’t end then. We have twelve days for the season of Christmas, and so we will explore the remainder of Luke chapter 2 today.

Resolutions                        But first, it has become a tradition to greet the New Year with resolutions for the people we have been reading about in the past year. Years ago I decided that it is much more fun to write resolutions for other people rather than for myself. If you have been following these broadcasts, you know that we spent several months discussing the book of I Samuel, so most of the resolutions come from there.

Hannah:            Don’t pray so loud that people think you are drunk.

Eli:                        Spend more time with your children.

Eli’s sons:            Worship is not the place to meet women.

Israelites:            Don’t think a king will solve all your problems.

Samuel:            Show up on time for sacrifices.

Samuel:            Be more careful when pouring oil on people.

Nahash:            Don’t be so literal. Just have people should “aye” not give you an eye.

Saul:                        Try Prosac.

Saul:                        When angry, count to ten before hurling your spear.

Saul:                        Get a book with suggestions for wedding presents.

Jonathan:            Honey is nice, but too many sweets can get you in trouble with Dad.

Goliath:            Don’t get stoned.

Goliath:            Don’t get so angry that you lose your head.

David:                        Rock on!

David:                        Don’t play the liar to your boss.

David:                        Remember you are not a tailor.

Nabal:                        Don’t be a fool.

Abigail:            Be more gentle in breaking bad news.

Achish:            Do a background check before making someone your bodyguard.

Saul:                        Don’t hang out with witches.

Saul:                        Stop with the necromancy.

David:                        Be a better king than Saul.

 

Luke’s Shepherds                        We left the Gospel of Luke with the birth of Jesus in the town of Bethlehem. It is likely that when writing this chapter Luke had in mind the words of the prophet Micah that refer to a leader coming from Bethlehem. Micah speaks of the daughter of Jerusalem being in travail, like a woman giving birth. Luke does not need to describe the birth pangs of Mary for us to recognize that God’s redemption often comes through pain and labor. Micah spoke of great things happening in Jerusalem, which is also called Zion, but Luke says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a few miles from Jerusalem. Luke that Bethlehem was the city of David, but everywhere else in the Bible Jerusalem is called the city of David. Bethlehem was no more than a village. It might have been tempting for Luke to say that Jesus was born in Jerusalem, the city of David, but he kept to the tradition that he inherited that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem.

It is only in Luke’s Gospel that we have an account of shepherds being involved in the birth of Jesus. Incidentally, Luke’s statement that the shepherds were in the fields keeping watch has led scholars since the 3rd century to propose that Jesus was born in the summer rather than the winter. We celebrate his birth in the winter primarily for theological and liturgical reasons, not because there is any evidence to support a December birthday. Scholars have puzzled over these shepherds for centuries. Many have speculated that this is evidence that Luke was well read in the Greek classics where shepherds often figure in the old myths. Others have seen a reference to King David here since David had been a shepherd as a boy. Raymond Brown points out that the Micah prophecy mentions “a Tower of the Flock”, which is Migdal Eder in Hebrew (Brown, 421). This was a mountain near Jerusalem where the flocks were kept for the Temple sacrifices.

So, Luke’s shepherd may have been a reference to biblical prophecy or Greek mythology, but we should remember that shepherds in the time of Jesus were lower class people and virtually outcasts. They were one step away from being outlaws, and some probably thieves in the off-season. Real shepherds in the time of Luke were viewed kind of the way modern Americans view carnival workers or seasonal laborers. In other words, these were not A-list people to invite to a major celebration. We romanticize the shepherds in our Christmas carols and pageants, but Luke’s original readers were probably scandalized at the thought that shepherds came to welcome the Christ child. This is far different than Matthew’s wise men coming from distant empires. The fragrance these laborers brought to the manger was not myrrh, that’s for sure.

Angels                        After introducing the shepherds, Luke provides us with one of the most beloved and beautiful scenes in Scripture. An angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds watching their flocks by night. If you grew up on the King James version of this story, you may have mistakenly thought that the angel’s name was “Lo,” but Lo is the translation of one of Luke’s favorite words: Behold or See. We aren’t told anything about the physical appearance of the angel, only that the glory of God was unveiled. This is a common motif in biblical theophanies. People who have visions of God are nearly blinded by the light surrounding God. We have already discussed the fact that the normal response to such a revelation of God is fear. For the third time in Luke’s Gospel, we hear the words “Fear not.” The Gospel is glad tidings. I do not know why so many preachers want to turn this into bad news.

The angel tells the shepherds that a Savior has been born, and then he goes on to name the Savior as both Lord and Messiah. These are three exalted titles for Jesus. During his lifetime, some of Jesus’ followers thought he might be the Messiah, which is Christ in Greek. A question that runs throughout all of the gospels is whether Jesus really was the expected Messiah. Luke says that an angel declared that Jesus was the Messiah on the day of his birth, but the word was only given to shepherds. It was proclaimed in glory, and yet it remained hidden, just like the resurrection.

Messiah and Savior:            Though the word “Christ” is Greek, the idea of a Messiah is thoroughly Jewish. The kings of Israel were anointed by a priest or prophet, symbolizing their adoption as the sons of God. After the Davidic monarchy was destroyed by the Babylonians in the 6th century BC, people began to hope for a new king who would be anointed by God. The Lord’s Anointed, or Messiah, would save the Jews from their enemies and restore the kingdom of Zion. History records many men who claimed to be the expected Messiah, but none of them were able to establish a new monarchy. Jesus was the only one who did not try to be king, and he was the only one raised from the dead. Luke was writing his Gospel after the resurrection and he has no doubt who the true Messiah was, and so he begins the story with this proclamation.

The angel tells the shepherds that a Savior has been born. In the context of the story so far, we would expect a Savior to be someone who would throw off the yoke of Rome, but Luke knows that is not what is going to happen. Still, Luke puts the angel’s message in the context of the Roman Empire, as we saw earlier. In his imperial propaganda, Augustus often described himself as a Savior of the people rather than their conqueror. In his birth narrative, Luke contrasts Augustus and Jesus. The true Savior does not need legions of soldiers and an enrollment of the people to prove his power. The shepherds will not find the Savior resting in a cradle in Jerusalem; they will find him wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger. The paradox of salvation has never been so vividly portrayed.

Heaven on Earth:                        One of Luke’s favorite phrases is “this day,” which may be a literary quirk. I’ve known preachers who use a catch phrase like this so often that members of the congregation start counting how many times they say. However, it is more likely that this was Luke’s way of saying that the kingdom of God has come. Salvation is not just for a distant future or for the realm after death; salvation is here and now. At this point, Luke says that suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel. Luke paints a scene similar to the vision of Isaiah when he saw the heavenly host singing “holy, holy, holy,” but this vision was not given to a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem. It was common shepherds who caught a glimpse of the heavenly host. Heavenly glory has burst into mundane existence. The shepherds may not have known fully what the glad tidings of the angel meant, but they felt the joy of heaven. Luke implies that we can experience the joy of salvation today.

According to Jewish writings available in the time of Luke, the angels had sung for each act of creation. Here they are singing because God has begun the work of re-creation or redemption of the world. This vision of the armies of heaven singing the praises of the creator is Luke’s version of the prologue to John’s gospel. The child in Bethlehem will be more than just a Jewish Messiah; his birth has cosmic significance. He will shake the thrones of the powerful precisely because it will be shepherds and slaves, prostitutes and sinners who glimpse his glory and experience his salvation. The angels praise God in the highest heaven because his redemption will reach to all people.

The song the angels sing has vexed translators for centuries, in part because there are several variations in the ancient Greek manuscripts. There are basically two ways of rendering the angel’s song: either “on earth peace and among men divine favor” or “on earth peace among men favored” (Brown, 404-405). A slight difference in grammar makes for a big difference in meaning. Are the angels proclaiming that there will be peace on earth because of the birth of the Messiah or is this a prayer that there be peace among those chosen by God? We have here the difference between a doctrine of divine election for some and the expectation that the kingdom of God is for all. In the context of Luke’s Gospel, I think the older King James version of “peace on earth, goodwill to men” is the preferable reading. The whole tenor of Luke’s gospel is that Jesus is the prince of peace who is the Savior of the whole world.

Finding the Child:                        After this glorious song, the angels departed as suddenly as they appeared. That is the nature of religious experience or mystical rapture. It rarely lasts for more than a few moments according to the clock, but it can change the rest of your life. Who knows what those poor, uneducated, unsophisticated shepherds thought of this blinding vision of beauty? Did they ponder this momentary glimpse of divinity years later during the dull routine of daily living? Were their lives different? What is important for the story, and for our lives as Christians, is that angelic visitors may proclaim good news but shepherds still have to take action in the real world. They could have ignored this five-minute interruption of their normal lives, but they chose to seek out the Savior. It was only after the angels left that the shepherds could go to Bethlehem.

There they found Mary and Joseph, and they saw the baby lying in a feeding trough. Historians raise many questions about this story, but let’s leave aside our modern skepticism for a moment and ponder the sublime beauty of the tableaux. Rather than removing the shepherds as a literary invention of the evangelist, let us paint ourselves into the scene. Luke is not writing about an event in the past, he is inviting us to adore our Savior. Imagine the story of the Messiah as Luke imagined it. It is not just shepherds who crowd around the prince of peace, but poor people of every kind. Picture yourself elbow to elbow with all of the outcasts, sinners, and lepers to whom angels sing words of hope and love today. Let the song of peace flood your heart and soul. “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.”

Pondering:                        Luke does not end the story with the shepherds coming to see the promised child. He tells us that the family of Jesus was amazed by the shepherds’ story of angelic messengers. The shepherds the leave, and we never hear from them again. Many people are skeptical of this tale because when Jesus begins his ministry, no one knows who he is. Even his family seems surprised when he starts preaching and doing miracles. You would think that if Jesus’ birth had been heralded by angels, he would grow up with great expectations, but Luke removes the shepherds and angels quickly. The visitation is almost like a dream, and it will be many years before hopes are fulfilled. He tells us, though, that Mary kept all these things in her heart.

This is a very interesting phrase, which seems to be related to the wisdom literature of ancient Israel. We all know things in our heads, such as what our mortgage rate is or what is on our to-do list for tomorrow, but that is mere knowledge. Israelite sages spoke of the need to learn things in the heart, not just the head. There are important truths that we can only understand when we have pondered them for years in the depths of our being. These are the truths that change the way we live. I know people who are still pondering the truth that God is not racist and that being patriotic is not the same as being faithful to God. Some of us have only begun to learn the truth that the love of money is the root of evil or that the tongue can be more deadly than spears. Many of us continue to ponder who we are and what our lives should be.

Mary had a lot to ponder as she nursed her son. She pondered Gabriel’s words to her and the mystery of her own pregnancy. No doubt she pondered the depths of Joseph’s love and faithfulness to her. And then there was the shepherd’s story of heavenly music about her child. If she knew her Bible, she may have pondered Hannah’s story and wondered if she would have to give up her first born the way Hannah did. Luke tells us that Mary kept these things in her heart, perhaps not understanding them until thirty years later when a sword pierced her heart.

Circumcision:            This is where we usually end the story of Jesus’ birth, but there is more. Luke tells us that Jesus was circumcised when he was eight days old, according to the law of the covenant. This is a feast day in the Christian calendar, but few churches observe it any longer. We’re become too refined and dignified to talk about such things in church. We save such subjects for television and magazines. There are three things to note about the circumcision of Jesus that are important for the life of faith. One of them is that Luke removes any doubt that Jesus was a man like any man. This may sound obvious to you, but you would be surprised at how difficult it has been for Christians to accept that the Son of God was completely human. For too many centuries, Christians have been ashamed of their own bodies instead of celebrating the fact that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine. For most of his life, he bore the scar of his circumcision, just like all Jewish men.

That leads us to the second point, there is no doubt that Jesus was Jewish. With all of the culture wars about Christmas and religious inclusiveness, we should keep in mind that Jesus was Jewish. Luke emphasizes the fact that Jesus and his family were observant Jews. He was circumcised, which marked him as a foreigner in the Roman Empire. His parents took him to the Temple when he was a child, and he will begin his ministry in a synagogue reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. The final point to note is that Jesus was circumcised as an infant. Too many parents think that they do not have to be concerned about the spiritual life of their children, but Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple when he was an infant. People sometimes ask me why Moravians and other Christians baptize people as infants instead of letting them choose to be baptized. I think Luke 2:21 gives us an excellent example of our Lord entering the covenant before he could speak.

Conclusion:                        I had every intention of completing chapter 2 this morning, but I see that clock remains a cruel master. Next week we’ll look at the story of Jesus’ circumcision and why that was a feast day in the church for many centuries. And we’ll talk about two elderly people, Simeon and Anna, who greet the baby with songs and prophecies, some of which were painful.

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Luke 2 – Birth

Luke 1:57-2:7 – The Births of John and Jesus

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Dec. 21, 2008

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class on this fourth Sunday of Advent. Today is the shortest day of the year, but we light our candles as beacons of hope in the midst of darkness. I hope that these final days before Christmas are a blessed time for you and those God has given to you to love. We’ve finished our decorations at home, which include a wooden partridge in our pear tree in the front yard. We have no chimney so the stockings are hung on the stairs with care. I want to thank all of the people who made donations in our name to local charities. That is a wonderful way to remember people during this season of giving. The demands on food banks and homeless shelters are much greater than they have been in years. If we truly love our neighbors, we will share what we have so that they will have food and shelter. We had a great time on Friday night here at the church as we made garlands and hung them in the sanctuary. Each year I love how young and old, men and women, come together in this common project. I hope you will join us at one of the lovefeasts on Christmas Eve. They tend to be full, so come early, and remember that we have apple cider at the 11:00 a.m. children’s service.

During this season of Advent, we have been studying the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke. Every year we watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, in part so I can hear Linus recite Luke 2 in answer to Charlie’s plea: can someone tell me what Christmas is all about. But we have seen in our study that Luke tells the story of the birth of John the Baptist alongside the story of Jesus’ birth.

The Birth of John the Baptist                        At the end of chapter one, we read that the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and all of neighbors and relatives rejoiced that a woman thought to be barren now had a son. Celebrations were probably even more joyous in ancient days than they are now because childbirth was much more dangerous for mothers and babies then. The birth of the first-born is especially a time of rejoicing. Years ago when my oldest daughter was a toddler she ran toward the street. I raced after her to catch her before she went into traffic. A friend of mine from Africa saw my concern and said solemnly, “Yes, indeed. The child who opens the womb is very precious.” In the case of Elizabeth, the birth of the first-born was even more significant because she had lived for decades with the shame and heartbreak of being barren. Now she had helped bring new life into the family and into the world. It was a time for dancing, singing, and feasting.

But the father was silent during the celebration. Zechariah had been struck dumb nine months before. During the whole time his wife was pregnant, he was unable to express his joy, hopes, and fears, or his love for her. Eight days after the birth it was time for the ceremony of circumcision. The boy still had no name because it was the father’s right to name the child. Finally, the family decided to just name the baby Zechariah after his father, but Elizabeth protested. She insisted that the baby’s name was John, just as the angel had instructed.

Naming John                        Was this a confirmation of prophecy or was Elizabeth following her husband’s commands? Luke does not tell us. The family objected to Elizabeth’s name for the child, even though John was a common name in priestly families. She does not relent, and so they asked the father what name he wanted. The text says that they had to communicate by signs, which may indicate that Zechariah was deaf as well as mute. They eventually bring him a writing tablet so he could write the name. We are so accustomed to writing in place of speech that we are not surprised at this, but the ability to write was rare in the 1st century. The written word was almost magical, and Zechariah had that special ability.

Zechariah wrote that the boy’s name was to be John, just as the angel commanded, and as soon as he named the child he was able to speak again. There is something powerful in this image of a father who rediscovers his power to communicate once he bestows the right name on his child. I wonder how many fathers in this world have metaphorically lost their ability to communicate because they have never known the true identity of their sons. Zechariah resisted the pressure to make his son a copy of himself: a priest named Zechariah. Instead he gave him the identity chosen by God. The boy would be John. “The Baptist” got added later.

Rather than rejoicing with Zechariah, the people were afraid. Fear is the natural human response to unusual events. We think we want to see a miracle, but real miracles frighten us. We are disoriented when the mute speak, the deaf hear, the blind see, and the evil repent. We think it would be nice to know someone truly exceptional, but it usually makes us uncomfortable to be near those filled with the Spirit. Perhaps the reason John left his father’s home and lived in the desert was because of the lingering suspicion that he wasn’t normal.

Zechariah’s Song                        Last week we discussed the Magnificat, and I mentioned that there are several such hymns in the first two chapters of Luke. One of them is placed on the lips of Zechariah at the end of chapter 1. It is more plausible that a priest would sing a hymn of joy on the spur of the moment than a young woman like Mary, but scholars generally agree that it was Luke who chose this song for Zechariah. Like the Magnificat, Zechariah’s song sounds like it could have come from the Old Testament. In fact, scholars have shown that many of the verses closely parallel verses throughout the OT, especially the Psalms and prophets. This should not surprise us. Though it is less common today to borrow language from Scripture, this used to be a common practice. Many of the sentences in our Moravian liturgies are taken directly from Scripture.

Read: Luke 1:67-79

A Jewish Hymn of Salvation?            Like the Magnificat, Zechariah’s song is about God saving Israel, but Zechariah’s song focuses on Israel being rescued from the hands of her enemies. It specifically mentions the prophets of old who promised that God would redeem his people and remember the covenant with Abraham. Once again, Luke is connecting the story of Jesus to the old covenant with the children of Abraham, but the song introduces a new and important theme: the house of David. Zechariah sings of a “horn of salvation in the House of David.” The image of the horn is used several times in the Old Testament, usually as a symbol of potency and authority.

It is not clear if Zechariah is singing about John as the horn of salvation who will deliver the people. We discussed earlier that John the Baptist is depicted like Samson the Nazarite, and it is possible that this hymn of praise was originally about John the Baptist as a savior. But Luke has adapted it for his gospel by adding a line about John being a prophet who would prepare the way. Verses 76 and 77 are more clearly Christian than the rest of the poem since they speak of forgiveness of sins and the knowledge of salvation, important themes in Luke’s gospel.

One of the most beautiful parts of Zechariah’s song is the end, which speaks of a light rising in the darkness to guide our feet in the way of peace. It is not clear if this was part of the original Jewish hymn or is a Lucan reference to the appearance of Jesus. Either way, it is a beautiful image of salvation as release from fear and death. The Greek word anatole in this stanza can refer either to the stars rising at night or to the rising sun. We Moravians draw on this idea when we sing about Jesus as the Morning Star. As we sing that hymn, we should keep in mind Zechariah’s prayer that the Messiah will guide our feet in the way of peace.

Caesar Augustus                        It may be significant that Luke inserted a song that refers to the enemies who hate Israel just before beginning his narration of the birth of Jesus. He moves quickly from the birth of John the Baptist to a statement that an edict went out from the Roman Emperor. Luke wrote his gospel just a few years after the first Jewish War when the Judeans rebelled against the Empire and were brutally crushed. Jerusalem was besieged for more than a year, and the residents were starving. After they surrendered in 70 AD, the Roman general Titus destroyed the Temple. Titus’ triumph was well-known throughout the Empire, especially in the cities where there were large Jewish communities. The original readers of Luke’s gospel would have had no difficulty identifying the enemies of Israel as the Romans.

We miss all of this context when we start the Christmas story with the first verse of chapter 2. That is one of the most famous sentences in the Bible, and it sounds best in King James English: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus.” Luke was providing a date for the birth of Jesus; he was placing the birth of the Messiah in the context of both world history and Jewish history. Augustus was the first and in many ways the greatest Roman emperor. All subsequent emperors were called either Caesar or Augustus. As late as the 20th century, European emperors called themselves Kaiser or Czar in imitation of Augustus. Long before Luke wrote his gospel, Augustus called himself the son of God, and after his death he was deified by the Roman Senate. Luke’s gospel addresses the question of who is the true Son of God: Jesus Christ or the emperor? Which is preferable the Pax Romana or the Peace of Christ? Luke begins the story of Christianity with a decree of Caesar, and he ends his account with Paul arriving in Rome, symbolizing the victory of Christ over Augustus. Those of you who think religion has nothing to do with politics should ponder this.

Read Luke: 2-1-7 (KJV)            And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

Quirinius                        Luke says that Jesus was born during the time when Quirinius, the Roman governor of Syria, called a census in order to tax the people of Judea. That would seem to be conclusive evidence for dating the birth of Jesus since we know from Roman records that Quirinius was appointed the legate of Syria after Herod Archelaus, who had succeeded his father, Herod the Great. In 6 AD the Romans removed Archelaus and appointed a governor named Quirinius. He had been a successful general in Asia Minor, and the emperor gave him the task of disposing of Archelaus’ property and restoring order.

Luke’s statement that Augustus decreed that “all the world” should be enrolled does not mean that one day the emperor launched a world-wide census. The “whole world” meant only the Roman world, and even then there was no general census recorded in Roman history. What Luke probably meant was that it was the policy of the Empire to account for the property of all subject people. Such censuses were handled on an ad hoc basis as governors asserted authority over subject people, thus Quirinius conducted the first census of Judea under Roman authority.

The trouble with Luke’s statement about the census is that disagrees with an earlier statement that John the Baptist was born during the reign of King Herod, who died in 4 BC, ten years before Quirinius’s census. Matthew agrees that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod. Though there have been many ingenuous attempts to harmonize the data about the birth of Jesus, none of them work. Either Jesus was born around 4 BC during the reign of Herod the Great or during the reign of Quirinius in 6 AD. This discrepancy shouldn’t bother us too much. We have to remember that Luke did not have access to the archives of the Roman Empire nor could he check back issues of the Jerusalem News and Record on-line. Written three quarters of a century after the events, it is not surprising that Luke’s chronology was a little fuzzy. He knew there was a controversial census around the time Jesus was born, and so he wrote that into his account. What was important to Luke was not the precise year of Jesus’ birth, but the fact that Mary and Joseph were two ordinary Jews who were subject to Roman authority. They were pushed around by the Romans like everyone else.

The goal of the census was taxation, which people don’t usually like. When Quirinius started listing property taxes, a man named Judas the Galilean led a revolt against the Roman, which was brutally suppressed. The survivors formed a group of resistance fighters called the Zealots who were still active in the time of Jesus. The Zealots helped launch the great rebellion in 66 AD that led to the destruction of the Temple. Luke specifically mentions Judas the Galilean in Acts 5, calling him a false messiah. By linking the birth of Jesus to the census of Quirinius, Luke draws a vivid contrast between the violent uprising of Judas the Galilean and the appearance of the true Messiah, Jesus the Galilean.

Bethlehem                        There is another problem with Luke’s claim that Joseph took his wife to Bethlehem before of the census. There is almost no historical evidence to support the idea that people had to travel to their ancestral home to be taxed the way Luke has presented it. It is possible, though, that people had to assert their property rights in person. Is possible that Joseph went to Bethlehem in order to verify that he owned property there, probably a piece of land. Scholars are skeptical of this claim since Luke says that Mary had no place to stay in Bethlehem, but owning property does not mean that they had a house. Personally, I see nothing surprising in the idea that a resident of Galilee had to return to Judea to account for family property during the first Roman census of the province. It is even possible that they were actually on their way to register with the authorities in Jerusalem and simply stopped in Bethlehem out of necessity.

Since he took his pregnant wife with him, Joseph was probably planning to be there for several months, which may indicate that there was a dispute about the property. Even if Luke’s account is not historically accurate, Bethlehem plays an important role in the story. You may remember that Bethlehem was the town where Ruth the Moabite settled with her mother-in-law. She was the ancestor of King David. By highlighting Bethlehem, Luke is placing the birth of Jesus in the story of Ruth, David, and the kings of Judah. However, most modern scholars doubt that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Matthew assumes that Joseph was living in Bethlehem when Mary got pregnant and then moved to Galilee after the death of Herod the Great, but Luke claims that Joseph was living in Nazareth and had to travel to Bethlehem for the census.

Scholars assume that this interest in Bethlehem in the gospels is primarily because of a prophecy in Malachi that identifies Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah, but that alone would hardly account for Luke and Matthew both going to lengths to place the birth in Bethlehem. There is no indication outside of the New Testament that people placed much weight on this prophecy. There is simply not enough historical evidence to answer the question of Jesus’ birthplace definitively, keep in mind that our faith in Jesus does not rest on minor historical details.

Manger                        Many of us have nativity scenes or crèches in our homes, and there are countless Christmas pageants in churches around the world. It was St. Francis of Assisi who started the practice of re-enacting the Christmas story in the 13th century, but pictures of the nativity go back to earliest Christianity. Typically you see the Holy Family, the shepherds, magi, donkeys, cows, sheep, and camels. Frequently the setting is a cave outside of town. Oddly enough, the NT does not mention animals or a cave. Those details come from non-canonical gospels, especially the protoevangelium of James. Though rightly excluded from the NT, this gospel provides a third independent tradition that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but it claims that Mary delivered her baby in a cave where they were forced to take shelter. By the fourth century, the tradition of Jesus being born in a cave was so well-established that pilgrims regularly visited a particular cave to pay homage to the Christ-child. The Christian scholar Jerome established his monastery in adjacent caves, and today there is a beautiful church built over the cave, but there is nothing about a cave in Luke or Matthew.

All Luke says is that there was no room in the inn and so Mary laid the baby in a manger. This has been the subject of countless Christmas plays and sermons, often with a heartless innkeeper sending an expectant mother out into the cold, but the reality was probably quite different. The word we translate as “inn” does not mean the kind of lodgings we’re familiar with. It was much more like a very cheap youth hostel where people slept in a big room, often on the floor. It is quite likely that Luke meant that there was no room in such a place for a woman to deliver a baby, and we can presume that a more suitable place was found. Luke’s statement that Jesus was laid in a manger probably reflects the fact that animals were often kept in houses in the winter.

When the baby was born, the family used the most suitable cradle available. A manger is simply a feeding trough, which was probably filled with fresh hay to lay the baby in. Luke tells us that Mary swaddled the baby with cloths, which is Luke’s way of assuring us that Jesus was loved and cared for properly. In other words, the Messiah entered this world, much like other babies. This is a good place to end on this Sunday before Christmas. During Advent we have looked at hymns and prophecies about the births of John and Jesus. We have traveled with Mary to Bethlehem where she gave birth to the child that would shake the thrones of the mighty and bring salvation to the world. Let us leave with this image of a young mother, exhausted from her labor, as she lovingly swaddles her son and lays him in a manger. It is tableaux that needs no scholarly exegesis, but is a fit subject for songs: “Not Jerusalem, lowly Bethlehem, twas that gave us, Christ to save us. Not Jerusalem.”  

Magnificat

Luke 1:39-80: Magnificat

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church; originally broadcast Dec. 14, 2008.

Introduction:                       Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church on this third Sunday in the season of Advent. Home Church members have been working very hard this December, and I want to give a shout out to all of the Candle Tea volunteers. Sometimes you get unusual questions at Candle Tea. A young boy asked one of the interpreters in the Candle Room a question that weighed heavy on his mind. “What was the name of the Moravian who jumped over the Candlestick.” She let him know that his name was Jack B. Nimble. I never knew Jack was one of the Single Brothers, but that is how legends grow. I want to give a shout out to Meyers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte. They had their first lovefeast and candlelight service on Wednesday, and it was a beautiful service. It is so good to see these Moravian traditions enriching the ecumenical church.

A stalwart group of Home Church members went out yesterday and gathered cedar boughs to decorate the church. This Friday dozens of people will be working in the Fellowship Hall, making beautiful garlands of real cedar that will be hung in the Sanctuary. This is a tradition that goes back at least 150 years at Home Church. The practice of bringing evergreens into the sanctuary is much older than the garlands, and has its roots in pre-Christian Germany. I am often bemused at the perpetual debates over Christmas trees in towns and colleges around the country. I read in the paper that UNC Chapel Hill will no longer put up decorated trees in the library since the University represents many “belief systems” and is not a Christian school. The funny thing is that yuletide trees are not part of any single belief system. In fact, many Christian churches object to Christmas trees, especially in the sanctuary, precisely because evergreens had been part of pagan religion during the winter solstice. I am concerned that supposedly well-educated people think that Christmas trees or stars in December are specifically Christian just because they are used by Christians during this season. It would be like arguing that since most churches use flowers in church on Sunday mornings we should ban flowers in schools and government buildings. I think it is time that government officials and academics lighten up about winter decorations and focus on genuine problems, such as the anticipated cuts in financial aid to poor students.

Personally, I am glad that Home Church uses evergreen decorations as part of our celebration of the birth of Jesus. The evergreens remind us that there is life in the midst of winter’s death, and they kindle hope that spring and rebirth will come. We call Advent a season of Hope because we are anticipating the day when the light of Christ will shine in the darkest recesses of our hearts; when the warmth of Christ will melt the ice of hatred; and when the Prince of Peace will reign over all earthly governments. So, hang your festive garlands, put lights on your trees, light candles, sing carols of love and good cheer, and drink a cup of wassail this Advent, but may we also do what we can to live into the hope of a new age.

I Sing of Women and Salvation:               Last week we discussed the story of the annunciations to Zechariah and Mary, and we had a lively conversation about the importance of Mary in the church historically and for today. This week we are discussing a meeting between the mother of John the Baptist and the mother of Jesus. It is only in Luke’s Gospel that we read of a visit between these women, and historians doubt that the Mary and Elizabeth really knew each other. Many scholars view this scene in Luke like one of those books or movies where two historical figures have a dramatic meeting even though they probably never met in real life. The main reason biblical scholars question the historicity of this story later on John does not seem to know who Jesus is when he comes to be baptized in the Jordan. In fact, in none of the gospels does John the Baptist recognize Jesus until the Holy Spirit reveals his true identity, but Luke brings Mary and Elizabeth together to make a theological point. Jesus and John were never rivals. God was working through both men for the salvation of Israel and the redemption of the world, even before their births.

Though there are doubts about the historicity of this story, it makes sense in context. Luke doesn’t tell us why Mary went to her cousin Elizabeth, but it is easy to guess. Perhaps she went to confirm the angel’s words that Elizabeth had also conceived. If the angel was right about that, she could rest assured that what he said to her was true. Or it could be that she went simply because she did not know what else to do. It is quite likely that she was confused and frightened by her pregnancy. It is hard enough for an unmarried teen-ager to be pregnant in our society, imagine what it would have been like in ancient Israel. Who would believe Mary’s story of angelic intervention? It is hard enough for people to believe it today even though we worship her child as the Son of God. We can picture Mary as a frightened young woman seeking refuge with one woman who might understand. We don’t know where Mary’s mother was, but it appears that Elizabeth served as a surrogate mother to her for three months.

We should also note the important fact that Luke begins his gospel with two women. Unlike Virgil, Luke is not singing “of arms and a man” whose fate is decided by the gods. Luke is singing about an old priest, his wife, a teen-age girl, and a bunch of shepherds. According to the standards of classical literature, Luke should be writing a comedy, but he chooses the most beautiful language he knows to celebrate God’s salvation. In the first two chapters of Luke, there are at least five hymns, perhaps more since Gabriel’s prophecies sound like hymns. This is the highest concentration of songs in any portion of the New Testament, and I think it tells us something about the birth narrative in Luke. This is not a story that can be confined to prose; it requires poetry and music. We need to avoid the temptation of turning the Gospel writers into Joe Friday on Dragnet who just wanted the facts, ma’am. Luke wants to impress upon us the magic and wonder of the birth of Messiah. The story of Christmas should lift us from the mundane and invite us to sing songs of hope and joy. Luke tells us that Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit when Mary approached her. Incidentally, this is further evidence that the early church believed that women could be prophets that proclaim the Word of God. Elizabeth declares a blessing on Mary, saying that she is blessed among women, saying:

Read: Luke 1:42, 45

Blessed Among Women:                 This blessing in Luke is similar to other blessings in Jewish literature, most notably Deborah’s statement that Jael was blessed among women for killing Sisera (Judges 5:24). In the Apocrypha, we read of Uzziah’s blessing of Judith among all women of earth after she killed Holofernes (Judith 13:18). We do not know if Luke knew these stories, but it appears that he was well read in Jewish literature, especially the Old Testament. It is possible that Luke simply used familiar language to express Elizabeth’s blessing of Mary, but it is possible that Luke expected the reader to know these earlier stories.

Perhaps Luke used this ancient blessing to identify Mary as a heroine that would save her people the way Jael and Judith did. Jael and Judith both used their femininity to slay powerful men who were attempting to destroy Israel. Could it be that Luke is telling us that Mary used her power as a woman to defeat Satan and his kingdom? It should also be noted, especially in light of last week’s discussion, that Jael and Judith both risked their reputations when rescuing their people. Both were alone in a tent with a foreign man, and there were rumors about what they did before killing their enemies. Mary was also risking her reputation (and her life) by being pregnant before getting married. Luke wants to remove any doubts her. The blessing indicates that she did the right thing and would be remembered for all generations. Just like Jael and Judith, Mary trusted in God and was a participant in God’s work.

Prenatal Spirituality:                     One of the more curious things in this conversation between Elizabeth and Mary is that the older woman reported that her unborn son leaped in the womb when Mary approached. Before modern science, the first movement of a fetus was often called the Quickening because it was believed that this was the moment when the developing infant came to life. Even though we can now see the movement of a fetus on an ultra sound, that first discernable kick of the child remains a significant for parents. It may be that Elizabeth was telling Mary that her presence brought life to the child in her womb. This would be a foreshadowing of Christ bringing life and new birth to the world.

Elizabeth says that the babe leaped for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice, and this is a major theme of Luke’s gospel. Joy is the proper response to the good news of Jesus. 250 years ago, this story of John the Baptist leaping for joy was important in Moravian worship and theology. Zinzendorf often made the point that John the Baptist leaped for joy even though he could not see, hear, or have any physical contact with Jesus. He leaped for joy because he could not express himself in any other way. Zinzendorf was one of the few theologians to argue that people with physical or mental impairment can still have faith and experience the love of God. Children can know their Savior in ways that adults have forgotten.

This was the essence of religion of the heart, for Zinzendorf, and it was proof that faith does not depend on intellect or any human ability. Faith is a living, spiritual connection with Christ, which includes the joyful experience of saving grace. Zinzendorf used this story of John the Baptist in the womb to justify the practice of infant baptism, by the way. Who are we to decide that God’s grace does not include children? Not surprisingly, Zinzendorf, like Comenius before him, encouraged mothers to sing hymns while pregnant so the child that is developing in the womb can know the same joy John knew when he heard Mary’s voice.

Respect for Women:           Some folks in church get uncomfortable with all this talk about wombs, and I can understand that, but sometimes Christians are more pious and prudish than the Bible. Luke put this story of Jesus’ conception into song and praises Mary for being the one who brought the Savior of the nations into the world. He’s not embarrassed to sing of the fruit of Mary’s womb, so why are we? Luke celebrates the fact that Jesus developed like all humans and that he was dependent on his mother like all of us were.

I apologize for bringing up good old Count Zinzendorf again, but he also taught that men should treat all women with respect because of Mary. This story in Luke is proof that there is nothing shameful about the female body or pregnancy. Perhaps during this season of Advent, we should think about how we as individuals and as a society treat women, especially women who are expecting children. What would happen if we remembered the way the elderly Elizabeth greeted young Mary with words of joy and blessing? What would happen if we treated every women, especially poor women, with the same respect that Elizabeth and Luke showed Mary?

It is only after Elizabeth prophesies that Mary speaks. She had little to say to the angel, but once Elizabeth confirms that she is blessed among women and that her child will be special, Mary lifts up her voice in song. The canticle she sings is called the Magnificat because that is the first word of the song in Latin. There are many beauty musical settings for this song, which are often used during Advent. One of my seminary classmates was a professional singer. He named his cat Toby the Magnificat.  Unfortunately, those who know me know that I could not sing the Magnificat without divine intervention. So I’ll just read the words, but keep in mind that this was always sung in the church.

Read Luke: 1-46-55

Magnificat                The first thing to note about the Magnificat is that it is very unlikely that Mary composed this hymn on the spot. We have to remember that no one had a tape recorder in the first century, and Luke had not even been born when this meeting with Elizabeth took place. It is possible that Mary sang a song that was familiar to her, much as some of us today spontaneously break into song, but it is more likely that it was Luke who put the Magnificat on Mary’s lips. You could think of this like a Broadway musical. My wife and daughters love musicals, but it strikes me as odd when all of the cowboys start singing the same song and dancing in a musical. I also usually wonder who’s playing the music when the Jets and Sharks are doing their number, but they tell me you have to leave such skepticism aside when watching a musical. John Adams didn’t really burst into song when it came time to write the Declaration of Independence, but the songs he sings in 1776 communicate important things about the founding of the country.

The canticles in the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel are like the songs in a Broadway show. Luke has Mary sing the Magnificat as a way to communicate something for which prose is inadequate. The question among biblical scholars is whether Luke composed this great hymn or whether it was a hymn already known to him. There are also several passages in the NT that appear to have been hymns sung in the early Church. Some were probably Jewish hymns adapted for Christian use; others were composed by Christians. The Magnificat may have been written during the days of the Maccabean Revolt. If so, it is doubly appropriate that we sing it during December since Hanukah commemorates a miracle during that Revolt.

Why do scholars like Raymond Brown think that the Magnicat was originally Jewish? Aside from the fact that it is sung by a Jewish woman, the main reason is that the hymn is about the salvation of Israel. No one would think it odd if this hymn were included in the book of Psalms or had been part of the worship of the Temple. It could have been sung at almost any time in Israel’s history. There is nothing in the hymn that is specific to the situation of Mary, other than verse 48, which refers to the Lord’s handmaid that all generations will call blessed. There are some clear parallels to the song of Hannah in I Samuel. Both are songs by women who have just found out that they are unexpectedly pregnant and will give birth to special children. Both rejoice in God’s ability to overturn the normal social order. Those who are strong, proud, and arrogant have been scattered, like the men of Babel, but the lowly have been exalted.

Liberation:                The Magnificat, like the Beatitudes in Luke, offer a radical critique of human society from the perspective of God. The powerful and mighty will be cast out of the chairs of power, but those of low estate will be lifted up. The hungry will be fed and the rich sent away empty. For many centuries, the Magnificat has been sung in Latin in Catholic churches, but the radical message of this song was generally buried under elaborate musical ornamentation. Monks and nuns chanting in the chancel identified themselves with the poor that Mary sings of, even though they were well cared for by endowments. During the 20th century, some Catholic leaders highlighted the meaning of the words in the text.

One of these Liberation Theologians, Don Helder Camara, noted years ago: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” Liberation theologians reclaimed the Virgin Mary from the powerful who constructed golden altars to her memory. They proclaimed the Good News revealed in the Magnificat. Advent is a season of hope, but the Magnificat reminds us that it remains a season for repentance. According to Luke, the rich and powerful may have less reason for singing in the kingdom of heaven than the humble and downtrodden.

Luke 1: Annunciations

Annuciations: Luke 1:11-38

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast on Dec. 7, 2008.

Introduction:                       Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church on this second Sunday in Advent. I hope it was a good week for you. It was the last week of classes at Wake, and so it was quite a challenging few days for me as well as for the students. Plus, it is the season for special events. We had our Advent Lessons and Carols at the Divinity School, and I attended Salem College’s Christmas Candlelight Service. Today is Wake’s annual Christmas Lovefeast and I’ve got another lovefeast in Charlotte on Wednesday. I’m afraid I missed the Baptist Hospital Star Lighting this year. The divinity students had their ncarnation Celebration Friday night. Each year I do a dramatic reading of one of the classics of Christian theology: How the Grinch Stole Christmas. In the midst of all that, there was much grading of papers and now students are in exams. Here at the church we will have our family Christmas party on Wednesday night, and Candle Tea is in full swing. Whew!

Last week in worship the pastor talked about the change of the liturgical color for Advent from the traditional purple to the modern blue. Purple remains the official color in Catholic churches, but Episcopalians and Lutherans began adopting blue in the 20th century as a way to distinguish Advent from Lent. I think we can put to rest the rumors that this was a plot by Tarheels to get Carolina blue in sanctuaries across the country. Most of the Carolina fans I know would not be content with having blue paraments only four Sundays of the year. Several sources claim that the blue of Advent is to remind us of the blue heaven above us. Of course, the Dean Dome is also called Blue Heaven, so maybe there is something to the rumors after all. The important thing is that Duke blue is always inappropriate in church. Seriously, though, the blue of Advent is most likely a reference to the Virgin Mary who is traditionally depicted in a blue robe. Many Protestant churches neglect Mary, in part as a reaction to the Catholic elevation of Mary. Moravians may be surprised to know that for at least four hundred years, Mary played a prominent role in Moravian devotions and worship. It is especially important that we remember Mary during the holy season of Advent.

Gabriel and Zechariah                   Last week we began our discussion of the story of Jesus’ birth in Luke. We read about the angel Gabriel appearing to a priest named Zechariah while he was offering incense in the Temple. Gabriel announced that Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth was soon going to become pregnant and that her child would be filled with the Holy Spirit. We can easily see parallels between this story and the account in Genesis when God tells Abraham that Sarah is going to give birth to a son even though she was past menopause. There is a motif in the Old Testament that children conceived late in life by supposedly barren women are the bearers God’s covenant with Israel. In his preaching, John the Baptist called on the descendents of Abraham to live according the covenant.

Incidentally, the only book in the Old Testament that mentions the angel Gabriel is Daniel, which is an apocalyptic book that was popular among the Essenes. The Essenes were a radical Jewish group in the time of Jesus who established religious communes in the Dead Sea area. By giving the angel’s name as Gabriel, Luke is letting us know that the Gospel he is writing is about the coming kingdom of God under the true Messiah.

John the Nazarite?              Gabriel tells Zechariah that his son should be raised without wine or other intoxicating beverages. It appears that John was to be set apart as a Nazarite even before his birth. We do not know a lot about the Nazarites, but it appears that Israelite parents sometimes dedicated their sons to the Lord by making special vows, which included abstinence from alcohol and barbers. They may have been the forerunners of Christian asceticism, but Christian monks tended to abstain from sex rather than alcohol, and monks cut their hair instead of letting it grow. It is possible that the Islamic prohibition of alcoholic beverages has its roots in the Nazarites, by the way.

The most famous Nazarite was Samson, the strongman who was destroyed by Delilah. You may remember that Delilah seduced Samson and had someone cut off his hair, robbing him of his strength. It is quite likely that Luke is foreshadowing the fact that John the Baptist will have his head cut off at the request of an evil Queen. Luke is lifting up John the Baptist as a great prophet by comparing him to Samson. It is not clear in the original text if Gabriel is saying that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit while in the womb or from his birth. Translators deal with this issue in Luke in different ways, but we should probably not place too much weight on this passage since it is ambiguous.

Malachi:                    Gabriel also announces that John will play a role in the redemption of Israel. It appears that Luke used words from the prophet Malachi in crafted the angel’s proclamation. Malachi said that a messenger would appear in the Temple, and that God would send “the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.” (Malachi 4:5-6) Luke believed that John the Baptist was Elijah who had come to prepare for the day of the Lord.

Raymond Brown points out that Luke changed the prophecy slightly. Malachi said that the hearts of the father would turn to the children and the hearts of children to their fathers, but Luke only quotes the first part. Instead of saying that children will turn to their fathers, he says that the disobedient will turn toward the righteous. We probably should not make too much of a change in poetic imagery, but it is intriguing that Luke does not say for children to turn toward their parents. throughout Luke’s gospel there is a theme that children understand the truth better than their parents. In the new age of the Messiah, it will be parents who have to listen to the wisdom of a younger generation that willingly embraces the good news.

Zechariah questions the angel, asking how this could come to pass. That is actually the normal human response to a theophany. In virtually every story in Scripture when a revelation is given by God, the initial reaction is rejection. Abraham did not believe that he would have a son. Isaiah protested that he had unclean lips. We will see that even Mary protested at first. But when Zechariah asks how his wife could have a son at her age, the angel strikes him dumb. There have been a lot of sermons on this passage with the theme of not talking back to God or to your parents (or pastor). This passage has often been used to silence people in churches, but may be a misreading. It is not clear in the text whether this was a punishment for Zechariah’s lack of faith or merely a sign to confirm the testimony of the angel.

The only proof the people have that the priest had a vision in the Temple is that he could not speak when he came out to give the ritual blessing. He was supposed to hold his hands over the crowd and say “The Lord bless you and keep you,” but he could not speak. Rather than a punishment for being inquisitive, Zechariah being dumbstruck is a classic response to an encounter with the Holy One. Truly awesome experiences leave us speechless. Ironically, by not speaking, the priest communicated things that might not have been heard had he said them. The people had to figure out for themselves what Zechariah had experienced.

There is a poignant aspect to this silence. Luke’s Gospel begins with the story of a priest who can no longer pronounce a blessing on those gathered. The old ways are passing away and a new age is dawning. Luke ends his Gospel with Jesus blessing the disciples as he sends them into to world.

Virgin Mary:             Now we come to the more familiar part of the story, which is read in worship services across the world each December. Six months after Elizabeth conceived, the angel Gabriel made another appearance. This time he came to a woman with an even more extraordinary message. Luke describes her as a virgin and clarifies that even though she is betrothed, she has not had relations with a man. For the past 150 years or so, the virginity of Mary has been the subject of much controversy, and a lot of scholarly ink has been spilled on the subject. The fact that Luke and Matthew both discuss the virginity of Mary indicates that this was already part of the Christian tradition before they wrote their gospels, but that does not mean that this was the most important idea in Christianity.

We need to acknowledge the fact that the virginity of Mary is not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament. Paul, John, and the other NT writers say nothing about Jesus’ mother having been a virgin, and it is never offered as proof that Jesus was the Savior or the Son of God. Mary’s virginity was not a major issue for the early church. By the time the Apostles Creed was written, it had become tradition to refer to Jesus’ mother as the Virgin Mary to distinguish her from all other Marys. Virgin Mary was almost like a proper name. The Apostles Creed says that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, but it does not focus on her virginity as an object of faith. The emphasis is on Jesus’ birth, life, sufferings, death, and resurrection.

Ever Virgin?              Over the centuries, Catholic and Orthodox churches placed increasing weight on Mary’s virginity. Through the centuries, Catholic theologians expanded on simple statements about Jesus’ miraculous conception in Luke and Matthew to argue that Mary not only was a virgin when Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, remained a virgin even after the birth of Jesus. It became Catholic dogma that Jesus was not born through natural means, and legends arose about doctors verifying that Mary’s body was unchanged. This is why nativity scenes show Mary looking almost surprised that she’s just had a baby rather than lying exhausted from her labor.

One of the reasons why Mary’s perpetual virginity became a dogma of the Catholic Church was because the church identified celibacy as a mark of sanctity. The more the church used celibate monks and nuns as living exemplars of Christian perfection, the more theologians considered it unseemly that the mother of Jesus could have ever been tainted by sex, even after his birth. By the time of Augustine, Catholic scholars asserted that Joseph had been an aged widower who was too old to consummate his marriage to Mary. They also claimed that Jesus’ brothers and sisters mentioned in the gospels were Joseph’s children from his first marriage. Some theologians even claimed that Mary had taken a vow of celibacy before her marriage and had made Joseph respect this, just the way some Catholic saints had done. This view of Mary as ever virgin was closely connected to the Catholic Church’s overall negative attitude toward sex even within marriage.

Protestant views of the Virgin:                 Protestant theologians generally had a more positive view of sexuality and rejected the teaching that Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus. For the most part Protestant biblical scholars had no trouble acknowledging that James and the other siblings of Jesus were indeed the children of Mary and Joseph. For the most part, Protestants reject the idea of a Virgin Birth as well and have no trouble believing that Jesus was born naturally. Until the 19th century, though, most Protestant theologians and biblical scholar did not doubt Luke’s claim that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived. She was still a Virgin Mother in Protestant teaching, but Protestants saw no need to multiply miracles beyond those recorded in Scripture. A supernatural conception was miraculous enough!

Confidence in the virginal conception gradually eroded in the 19th and 20th centuries as scientists learned much more about biology. Religious skeptics seized on the Luke chapter 1 as evidence that the Bible is mythology rather than history. It is perhaps ironic that modern people find it hard to believe in the miracle of Jesus’ conception when we live in an age when it is technically possible for a virgin to conceive through scientific means. Skepticism about the virginity of Mary helped fuel the fundamentalist movement in the early 20th century as conservatives responded to skeptics by making the virginal conception one of the “five fundamentals.” Some fundamentalists even referred to a Virgin Birth, which is not scriptural. It is curious that Mary’s virginity became so important to fundamentalists who were opposed to so many other aspects of Catholic teaching.

Mythology or History?        Modern scholars have suggested that Luke’s story of a virginal conception may have roots in mythology rather than history. The ancient world had many stories of heroes or emperors who were sired by gods, but scholars have yet to find a story in mythology that corresponds to the conception of Jesus. There are stories of gods impregnating women, but they usually include some form of coitus. Some biblical scholars have argued that the Bible does not really teach that Mary was a virgin, but their arguments are not compelling. The conversation between Mary and Gabriel hinges on the impossibility of her conceiving since she is a virgin.

It is interesting that Luke included the virginal conception even though it appears to contradict a key part of his argument that Jesus was the Messiah. Luke and Matthew both give genealogies of Jesus that claim he was a descendent of King David through the line of his father Joseph. If Joseph was not his father, David would not be Jesus’ ancestor. The most logical reason why Luke would include the tradition that Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father is that it was such a widely held belief he could not ignore it.

There are those who think that the virginal conception was invented to explain away embarrassing facts about Jesus’ parentage. Some member of the Jesus Seminar agree with anti-Christian authors of the 3rd century that Mary had been raped by a Roman soldier before she was married. Some writers have spun elaborate psychological webs around the idea that Jesus grew up as an outcast because of his illegitimacy. There is not a shred of historical evidence to support such an idea, but it appeals to people who reject miracles. Ironically, at the time that Luke was writing his gospel, the church was struggling with people who wanted to deny the human aspects of Jesus. By including a birth narrative, Luke affirmed that Jesus was indeed “born of a woman” rather than having come down from heaven fully formed.

Conclusion:               You must decide for yourself whether to believe in Luke’s claim that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived, but I think the debates over this issue have distracted us from the meaning of the story. I think it is a beautiful story that communicates profound truths. I don’t think we need to multiply the miracle of Mary, the way some Catholics do, but I also see no need to rob the story of its magic and wonder. The focus of the annunciation in Luke is not the miraculous aspect of Jesus’ conception; it is on the faith of Mary and the significance of her child.

Luke is the only New Testament writer to call attention to Mary. She is hardly mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament, but here she is honored by a visit from the angel Gabriel. Mary would have been in her teens when she was betrothed to Joseph, and she lived in a time when women had no public voice. But here we see her conversing with an angel and being overshadowed by God’s own spirit. Mary joins the ranks of other women who played critical roles in the Bible: Hagar, Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail. She was just a child by our standards, but she had a choice as well as a voice. We’ll continue the story of Mary next week, but for now simply ponder her profound words of faith “let it happen to me according to your word.” May all people of faith answer so willingly when chosen by God.