We will read today about a young girl named Mary who sings a song. She has encountered God’s angel and heard about the wonderful gift of the Messiah who was coming into her life. She was the first one to experience the outpouring of grace of the coming age of the new covenant. She would become the mother of Jesus. When she found out about the baby Jesus, she sang a special song. And, inside her song was a very special message about God. In fact she proclaims that God encourages the downtrodden and brings down the proud-hearted. Indeed, God keeps his promises to his people to bring forth the Messiah, the Savior of the world.
When we look to our own heritage and peer into our hymnal, we can see the message beyond the sounds of the music. It’s almost like a package that has to be unwrapped. A person who is very special to us, Charles Wesley, wrote two songs that we sing every Christmas – Hark! The Herald Angels Sing written in 1739 (UMH, 240) and Come, Thou Long Expectant Jesus written in 1744 (UMH, 196). When we look to our hymnal for guidance on how to unwrap the musical message, we can find the directions for singing (UMH, vii). When the songs were created, many of them came from bar tunes that were given a new message. The same applies to us today. We need to look for the message beyond the tunes we sing, and find Jesus.
Do you have a special song that you sing at Christmas? What kind of message does it bring to us? What kind of message does Mary’s song teach us? It teaches us about God’s character.
When we hear the words of Mary’s song, we catch a glimpse of her love for God and her belief that he was a promise keeper. This is very important to Mary. Mary has just been told that she would supernaturally experience a conception of the Son of God. Mary’s belief in God were in some ways tested to stretch her beyond what anyone on earth would every experience – the mystery of the Incarnation of Jesus within her womb.
At the heart of our Wesleyan heritage is the Incarnation of Jesus, a mystery to the uttermost. In our passage today there is a sudden turn of events. After 400 years of silence from God, the Angel Gabriel makes his way to the nation of Israel to visit two families – an aging priestly couple named Zechariah and Elizabeth and a young girl name Mary betrothed to a carpenter named Joseph. Suddenly the encounter of all encounters! Uninvited, unannounced, but certainly not unwelcomed! With this sudden turn of events the eyes of the world open up anew and afresh with hope for salvation of all humankind. But let us try to hear the message beyond the excitement. After 400 years of silence, the still small voice of God is heard among the common folk and the message is clear – the proud will be made low, the humble lifted up, and the promises of God kept forever.
Truly, these turn of events were mysterious to all those who encountered the story. But perhaps even more so to us today as we wrestle with the understanding of prophetic fulfillment of the Messianic promises of the old covenant in this new way. It’s easy for us to feel disconnected from the ancient texts, even curious about the outlandish stories. Mystery is defined as something puzzling, unknown, secret, difficult or impossible to understand or explain.
As we begin our descent into remembering the Incarnation of Christ it is important to reflect across the Gospel stories to see the width and breadth of God’s intentionality as reported in Scripture. Each Gospel story handles the nativity of Jesus a little differently drawing attention to what each one experienced as a vital component of his own salvation history as well as what they desired for others to hear about Jesus. In many ways the Gospels are scripted by the their nature of their own testimonial experience of Jesus as well as those whom they knew and whom Jesus impacted while upon this earth. To be sure God transformed these men – Matthew, Mark, John, and Luke – and they have shared their experience with the world about the God-Man Jesus in their very own unique way. There is nothing wrong with mixing the nativity stories. But when we put these stories together, we need to first pull the stories apart from one another so that we can value each unique Gospel. To be sure Luke shares a totally different story than Matthew, Mark or John.
Matthew’s story points to the fulfillment of the Messianic promise through the lineage of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and through the continuation of the Davidic lineage to have a ruler always on the throne of David. His story of the nativity is from Joseph’s perspective and perhaps is aimed at recognizing the lineage of Joseph as the fulfillment of the Messianic promise to Abraham’s descendents.
Mark’s story aims at telling the story of the coming Kingdom of God that began with the baptism of Jesus at the hands of John the Baptist. Mark focuses on the three years of Jesus’ ministry and moves forward to the resurrection of Christ Jesus. The only reference that Mark makes to Jesus’ family is his reference to Jesus as the son of Mary, and leaves out Joseph all together (Mark 6.3). Mark loves to tell about the power of God working among the people to heal and delivery them from personal struggles.
John’s story focuses on the God-Man himself pointing to the Incarnation itself. His aim in his storytelling appears to be both an explanation and invitation into this incarnational experience of salvation (John 1.12-13) as a supernatural birth experience for us all. John seems to draw parallels from the Incarnation to the incarnational experience of new believers in Christ Jesus.
Luke’s story points to the redemption of societal relationships that came as a result of the fulfilled promise of the in-breaking Kingdom of God that comes into every willing heart as a supernatural birth experience. And, perhaps the opening chapters with the birth narratives points to the natural of the societal relationships that would find redemption.
There are so many narratives in our lives that vie for our attention bringing chaos and confusion to God’s story. How do you make sense of God in your everyday life? Is God your constant companion? Whether we understand it or not, God is with us every step of the way. God is no stranger to our struggles with illness, disappointment in family, friends, or co-workers, and disgruntledness in the economic and political climate of our days.
We turn now to a closer look at Luke’s Gospel. Luke’s Gospel is the story of the Good News of Salvation. When we think about Gospel it is truly about the message of God, and not necessarily aimed at conveying the socio-economical climate of the day nor the spiritual culture. Gospel is not aimed at conveying details of the corrupt political power, religious idolatry or economic woes in Israel in the Mediterranean Basin. Gospel is the story of God Himself entering into time-space history to point to the need for our corrupted nature to be healed and our relationship with God restored. Gospel points to the working of the Holy Spirit in and among the people to accomplish God’s purposes of restoration through his grace and mercy. Gospel is the retelling of the Good News of Jesus the Messiah who we most often call the Christ. It is the retelling of God choosing to come to the aid of humanity and bring himself to them for the purpose of relationship. The Good News of the Gospels was originally communicated through relationships via word of mouth, and that style of sharing the Good News is employed in worship every Sunday morning around the world.
Our author today is historically reportedly to be a physician. How appropriate for us to hear the Word of God from a physician particularly in the season of history that we live in that is so dominated by medical science! Historically speaking, we believe that Luke, the physician and friend of the Apostle Paul, is our composer.
Luke tells us in his opening statement that the story he is about to convey is to a “lover of God” (Theophilus). Luke’s composition is from eyewitnesses and servants of the word. He wants us to know that he is not recounting his own made up or fictional version of Jesus’ life. The story Luke weaves together is different than what our contemporary biographies would address. The stories we call Gospels are one of a kind in that they convey a theological message within the context of a narrative. God is the main player on the stage of this drama. The people in the story are secondary to the author’s purpose of pointing to God in history in and through Jesus Christ.
As wonderfully intriguing as Luke’s writings are with a smattering of colorful characters and events, there is nothing like the person of Jesus Christ the Incarnate babe in man as portrayed in this Gospel. The first two chapters of Luke’s writings may easily stand alone on their own apart from chapters 3-24. To be sure the story of the Annunciation of John the Baptizer and Jesus the Messiah are uniquely told and point to an authentic remembrance of the story.
Perhaps it was Mary or one of Jesus’ brothers who shared the intimate details of the lives of two couples – one aging couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth, and one betrothed couple, Mary and Joseph. The characteristics in the narration of these two chapters points to an emotional response to God that is truly unique across the New Testament. The recipients of God’s grace received the conception of baby boys and the response to this good news was prophetic songs. These two chapters tie the story very closely to the God of the Old Testament who would enable barren women to conceive children and motivate people to sing of God’s goodness.
Perhaps the purpose of the Gospel of Luke is understood best in light of his introduction as he conveys to his reader that his purpose in writing such a narration was that “you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught” (Luke 1.4). When we think about the Christmas story, are there parts of the story that are still a bit of a mystery to you?
And, now let us turn to the part of the first two chapters that remember Mary’s account of the Annunciation of Jesus and the months leading up to his birth. The story of the announcement is in Luke (1.26-38).
When we read the story of the announcement, there are key prophetic words we need to remember. Truly, there’s just something about his name. Although common in his day his name – Jesus/Joshua/Yahweh meaning saves – is a prophetic word as to what the child would one day become (Luke 1.31). The angel Gabriel notes that this child will be called the Son of the Most High (Luke 1.32). Gabriel further indicates that this child will be seated on the royal throne of his father David (Luke 1.32), his kingdom will never end (Luke 1.33). This child will hold the seat of authority over Jacob’s descendents forever honoring the original covenant of promise to Israel’s father Abraham, a lineage that would be as numerous as the stars (Luke 1.33). This child will be called the Son of God (Luke 1.35).
And, the way this child would be conceived was in the overshadowing presence of Almighty God …just as God’s cloud of glory had overshadowed the tabernacle in the Old Testament (Exodus 40.35, Ps. 91.4) …just as the cloud of God overshadowed Jesus on the Mt. of Transfiguration (Matthew 17.5, Mark 9.7, Luke 9.34) … and just as Jesus promised that the new birth would come to every Christian at Pentecost when the power of the Holy Spirit would overshadow them (Acts 1.8).
When we read the story of the Annunciation of Jesus, it is followed by the Visitation of Mary at Elizabeth’s home. It is easy to see how the stories of two baby boys, John and Jesus, are intertwined so tightly together. One birth narrative could not be told without the other. God’s fulfillment of his promised Messiah entailed that one in the spirit of Elijah would come before the Messiah preparing his way. And, that one was John. John was conceived some six months prior to the Annunciation of Jesus. And, the angel Gabriel connects these women in his announcements of their conceptions and subsequent births (1.19-26). To be sure there were two babies on one mission.
Jesus’ life is briefly narrated and lacking details from the majority of his years upon the earth. We only know snippets of his common everyday life experiences. But what Luke does communicate to us about Jesus is point to the fulfillment of God’s promise to bring to the world a Savior who would deliver the people from sin and death. Luke desires for his audience to understand that Jesus was fully-human and fully-God but does not dwell on the daily details of his human existence. Perhaps it is because of time constraints or ability to recount such a long biographical work that Luke focuses on just the essential details of Jesus human experiences but most likely it is because Luke has a story to tell to his audience that he would rather focus in on – that Jesus truly was the God-Man that the Israelites had been waiting for and now he had fulfilled all that was necessary for each and every person to enter into the coming Kingdom of God.
Now that we have gathered this information about Luke’s message and the style of Gospel storytelling, we turn now to the message of the Incarnation – the promised Messiah fulfilled in the God-Man Jesus. Let us look closely at the prophetic message and the form it was originally conveyed to the recipient, Mary, and her prophetic response of song. When we think about songs, I’d guess there are several songs that cross your mind. I would equally guess that those songs were not about humility and pride as we will soon discover that is Mary’s tune.
Singing a Song of Joy. Mary has a story to tell, but she hasn’t expressed it just yet. However, when Elizabeth meets with her – that first meeting was a breath-taking experience for them both. The opportunity to be in one another’s presence to share this good news brings joy to mothers and babies alike. And, Mary’s first response is to sing the good news of her humble salvation and the mercy of her God. Mary sings a song full of joyful obedience in what God asks of her no matter the circumstances. But let’s look closely at what she is singing about – humility and pride. What’s this? Shouldn’t she be singing about tiny toes and dimpled cheeks – or even stinky diapers?
When we look at Mary’s Song, we observe the character of a young girl named Miriam and her experience of knowing her personal smallness or humble state of being before her God (Luke 1.48). Mary helps us to find our place of smallness in relationship to God and neighbor. Humbleness implies a state of living without any pretentious behavior and in further implies a total lack of arrogance or pride in one’s character. Humility is a characteristic that can be elusive to most human beings. We only develop humility over the course of practicing our smallness before God.
The children’s bulletin today uses humble three different times – in the crossword, word search, and definition-word match. The definition-word match states that humble means not proud or boastful (of oneself). Six down in the crossword puzzle notes that the humble is defined by not being proud or boastful (of oneself). But true humility is more than not being prideful, but about lowering oneself to a position of submission in obedience to God. Being humble is one’s understanding of being small in relationship to God himself.
Mary helps us to understand the role of God in humbling those who are haughty in their spirits (Luke 1.51-53). There is a close relationship to the fear of God and humility. Mary points out that mercy is extended to those who fear God. But for those who do not fear God and are haughty in their inmost being, God will scatter them and bring them down even to topple them from their authority as leaders among their peoples. Mary explains to us that God chooses to lift up those who are humble in heart. Mary teaches us that the hungry will be filled with good things, but the rich will be sent away empty handed.
Mary remains confident that God will fulfill his promise to Abraham and the nation of Israel (Jacob). The promise is an inheritance promised to the ancestry of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Israel). She is implying that her family tree remains humble in light of God’s inactivity in recent history. Truly, God comes to those who humble and lowly recognizing that God is great and greatly to be praised. God despises the haughty who think more highly of themselves than they ought finding themselves easily offended and self-righteous. God will keep his promise to Abraham and the nation of Israel by making good on his covenant.
Young Mary leads us to faith-filled obedience of heart and life. Mary exemplifies the faithfulness required of God’s people. God turns the world upside down by lifting up the humble and needy all the while dis-positioning the rich and proud. May God gift us with the humility we need to be obedient to his call upon each of our lives. May we seek to dis-position ourselves when we are haughty in our attitude toward others. May we belief God is who he says he is and that he always fulfills his promises to his people. Amen.