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.