January 14th, 2018

The fact that Mary is a nobody from nowhere is why God chooses her.

Luke 1:26-38



It never ceases to amaze me the things I can learn about Corinth after 25 years. I learned something new this past week. For two and a half decades, I’ve walked past and stood in front of two oil on canvas paintings in the Althouse Room without paying much attention. An insurance adjustor recently had them appraised, and the appraisal came to my attention this past Monday.

One of the paintings is by William Mulready, a nineteenth century British artist. I was shocked to learn its value is estimated at $25,000. The other painting is by Annibale Carracci, an Italian artist who died in 1609. Its value is $40,000.

St. Anthony in Paradise
Annibale Carracci

The paintings were donated by the late Alex Shuford and the late Albert Allran decades ago. Now what do we do with them? We’re still finalizing that decision, but I can tell you what we won’t do with them. We won’t leave them hanging in the Althouse Room where they could be stolen or defaced.

My favorite story about those paintings is that several years ago someone broke into the Althouse Room on a Friday night and stole two sofas, two end tables, and two lamps… but left $65,000 worth of art hanging on the wall. I would call them “stupid criminals,” but then again, I had no idea of the value either.

By contrast, almost a decade ago we opened our 1958 cornerstone and found stock certificates placed there by Harley Shuford, Sr. We immediately thought, “These must be worth something!” and indeed one of them might have been worth tens of thousands of dollars, except that it had long ago been declared lost and is now worthless.

Isn’t it amazing how something you think is worth nothing is valued so highly, and something you think is worth a lot is useless? That’s one of the themes of Luke’s gospel. Theologians call it “the Great Reversal.” In keeping with the painting theme, I’m going to call it “Reappraisal.” Let’s think again about value.

A priest’s surprise

We began our studies in Luke last week with his prologue (1:1-4). We learned that Luke is the only Gentile to write a book of the Bible (as far as we know), which gives him a special interest in how the Jewish Scripture and Messiah connects to the whole world. He is also the only physician (as far as we know) to write Scripture, and was quite likely the personal physician not only of his patron, an important Roman official named Theophilus, but of the Apostle Paul, with whom he traveled frequently.

As a physician, Luke is interested in details that matter, truth that transforms, facts that make a difference, stories that reframe our understanding of who or what matters to God. He’s quite observant about people, which you would also expect of a doctor.

Following the prologue, Luke weaves together two interrelated stories in chapter 1. All of chapters 1 and 2 are “uniquely Luke,” which will be the focus of our studies. Among the Gospel writers, only Luke knows these stories – or perhaps he’s the only one that find these stories critically relevant to who Jesus is.

One of the stories is about an older male priest, highly privileged in that he is chosen by lot to represent his division of priests in the honor of entering the temple to burn incense. Remember, Theophilus was a Gentile and so would be most of Luke’s readers (including us). Therefore, most readers would not understand or visualize the Jewish temple, but most, especially in the first century, would understand that some religious rituals are reserved for those specially chosen and trained.

Inside the temple, Zechariah was even more fortunate. He was visited by an angel – and not just any angel. He was visited by Gabriel, who had also appeared to Daniel during the Babylonian captivity of Israel. Gabriel told Zechariah that he and his wife Elizabeth, now well beyond child bearing years but childless, would be blessed with a child. For Zechariah and Elizabeth, that was the best part of this vision… and also the most unbelievable.

As amazing as that is, it’s not the most important part of the story for Luke. Their child will be filled with the Holy Spirit before he is born. He will be great in the sight of the Lord and will bring back many in Israel to the Lord their God. He’ll be another Elijah.

Zechariah doesn’t believe this. Again, it’s not so much the part about his son’s adult ministry. He’s still stuck on the part about becoming a dad, and Elizabeth becoming a mom, at this late stage in life. “How can I be sure of this?” he asks. He should have known and remembered the story of Abraham and Sarah. Instead his attitude is, “Prove it.”

Gabriel seems annoyed by his response. “Do you know who’s telling you this? I am Gabriel, and I stand in the presence of God. Since you didn’t believe, you will leave in silence – not able to hear or speak – until the baby is born.” And it was so. He couldn’t tell anyone what happened. He went home and fathered a child in the usual way, which thrilled his wife who had agonized for so many years of months of longing.

A virgin’s assurance

Six months later, we come to the story we read as our Scripture text this morning. Not just here but throughout the rest of this chapter Luke intentionally weaves the two stories together, alternating scenes from one or the other and at one point bringing the characters into the same setting.

For now, though, Luke wants you to notice the similarities and differences between the story he just told and the one he now unfolds.

Gabriel, the same angel, is sent on another mission. This time, though, instead of appearing during a solemn worship moment at the magnificent temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, Gabriel is sent to Nazareth – a town nobody’s heard of, or if they have heard of it, nobody thinks much of it – in a region dominated by Jews but contaminated or encroached upon by Greek and Roman cities and theaters and temples. Thirty years later one of Jesus’ disciples, on hearing Jesus came from Nazareth, would exclaim, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (John 1:46).

Furthermore, he is sent to a virgin who is pledged to be married. We don’t know for sure how old Mary was, but the Mishnah (Jewish oral law that organized and interpreted the Torah, or Law of Moses) said that a girl’s marital vow was valid at age 12. Most interpreters think Galilean virgins married soon after puberty. They were not dumb, but they were not usually educated or employed. Their purpose was to bear and raise children. Thus Mary, the uneducated, female, innocent, naïve teenager, is a dramatic contrast the aged, educated, male, experienced priest Zechariah.

Gabriel’s greeting to Mary is different than his opening words to Zechariah. He started with Zechariah, “Do not be afraid. Your prayer has been heard.” With Mary he begins, “Hello, favored lady! The Lord is with you. You are blessed among women!”  Honestly, I don’t want to overdo my humanization of Gabriel, but I think he’s really excited – much more excited than he was with the mission to Zechariah. I hear him exclaiming, “Good morning, gorgeous! I have a one-of-a-kind surprise that has your name all over it. God just showed up in your story.”

It’s almost as if he forgot to start with the common angel assurance, “Fear not.” Maybe he should have, because she, like Zechariah, is terrified. (The same Greek word is used of both.) Not only that, but she’s confused. Why is she the recipient of such a greeting?

“Nothing to be afraid of, Mary,” Gabriel says, calming her beating heart. “God has favored you. Look! You are going to have a baby and will name him Jesus. He will be great (same word used with Zechariah about his son, but then the message changes), and he will be called Son of the Highest! The Lord God will give him David’s throne, so that will rule forever and ever over Jacob’s house.”

There’s so much packed in those words. If she knows anything at all about Scripture, and presumably she knows something, she understands she is to bear the Messiah. The words directly connect to what Nathan said to King David when David wanted to build the temple. God said no, but said his kingdom would endure forever.

Like Zechariah, though, her focus is on the immediate puzzlement, not on what her son will become when he grows up. She might have logically assumed this would happen in the usual way after she got married. Gabriel didn’t say otherwise. She is more intuitive than that, however, and realizes this is to happen now. So she asks the logical question:  “How will it happen? I’m a virgin.”

Here’s another contrast with Zechariah’s story. She’s not scolded or punished for her question, as he was. She’s told how – not the biological details, but the bottom line. “The Holy Spirit will hover over you” (words reminding some of Luke’s readers about Genesis 1, where the Spirit hovered over the waters in the first creation). That’s why your boy will be called, literally, the Son of God.”

One would suspect at this point that Mary is still having a hard time grasping this. Her face shows it. So Gabriel continues, “Elizabeth your relative who is way past childbearing years, is six months pregnant! There is nothing God can’t do! If this word comes from God, it’s not impossible.”

Since she’s not struck deaf and mute, like Zechariah was, she responds to Gabriel a second time. (Remember, he never said anything else after his exclamation of unbelief.) “I’m Yahweh’s slave,” she says, and we can only imagine the tears in her eyes and the combination of joy and fear in her heart. “Let it happen as you said.”

In other words, “If there’s nothing God can’t do, it must be true. I’m in.”

Slave to the impossible

This may be a great story, but Luke doesn’t tell it because it’s a great story. He tells it because it’s a great story that matters. It’s a great story that God wants to use to change you. It’s a great story that illustrates at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel what kind of response God wants to his word.

I notice several themes that Luke will continue throughout not only his Gospel but the book of Acts.

First, meet the Trinity. This is way too early for a fully developed doctrine of the Trinity. Mary couldn’t have told you after this encounter that there is one God in three persons who are coequal and coeternal. Still, Luke introduces the Holy Spirit, who will be prominent in the ministry of Jesus and take center stage in the book of Acts. When you lie to the Holy Spirit, he’ll make sure we know, you lie to God. The Holy Spirit belongs to believers, and brings God’s power and presence and gifts. He may be invisible, but through him every word of God comes. When God speaks, in one way or another, that’s the Holy Spirit.

Here in Luke 1 we learn that the Holy Spirit will fill John, the forerunner of Jesus, and the Holy Spirit’s power will rest on Mary. That is why her baby will be the Son of God. Luke’s language is very careful here, not at all mimicking the language of pagan mythology that suggest some sort of physical union between a god and a woman. The Holy Spirit – intangible and invisible – is the One overcoming Mary. But Luke also is setting us up for the work of this same powerful Spirit in you.

Second, it’s about grace. The word “grace” in various forms comes into this story three times. “Grace to you, graced one” is how Gabriel greets Mary. When she’s terrified at his appearance, he adds, “Do not be afraid, Mary. You have found grace with God.” Each time it’s some variation on the Greek word charis.

This is one place where we respectfully disagree with the teaching of the Roman Catholic church. We honor Mary and love her part in the story, but we don’t embrace the ideas of her sinlessness or perpetual virginity. She’s not chosen because she’s different; she’s chosen because she’s ordinary. She’s not special by her merit; she’s special by grace. Grace is undeserved favor, and Luke will demonstrate over and over in Luke-Acts that this grace is God’s initiative only. Only God empowers his Son as he takes on human form. Only God grants success to the mission of his church.

And only grace would choose Mary. She’s a nobody from nowhere, a naïve teenage girl without qualification or status. That’s why Luke tells Zechariah’s story first. You should be impressed by who he is. He’s been instructed in the Law of God all his life. Mary herself sings of the Great Reversal later in this chapter, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”

This is Gospel perspective on every person, everywhere. I don’t know who said what behind closed doors at the White House this week, but I can tell you that any perspective that values one person or nation above another is not informed or shaped Luke or the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We who embrace this Jesus should be at the forefront of not only welcoming the poor and undeserving here but going to seek and save them wherever they are. There’s not a soul in this world that is not deeply valued by God. The fact that Mary is a nobody from nowhere is why God chooses her.

Zechariah is worthy, a man who has remained faithful to God in the face of decades of unanswered prayers. Mary hasn’t lived long enough to be disappointed with God. She’s just a kid. It’s not that she’s been a bad kid, but she hasn’t lived enough life to ever experience anything that would make her question her faith. She doesn’t have the spiritual maturity that Zechariah and Elizabeth have. Grace is why she’s chosen. And grace is why God has chosen you.

Third, response is required. It’s not enough for Mary to be told, “There’s nothing God can’t do. No word of his is impossible.” She needs to answer, “I’m in.” Her response, “I am the Lord’s slave,” is a deliberate contrast to Zechariah, who is rendered totally unable to say anything.

Mary’s response is what Luke wants us to grasp as well. When the word of God is clear to me, “I’m in.”

“Well,” you say, “In for what? Tell me how it will play out and I’ll let you know if I’m in.”

That’s the point. Mary doesn’t know. Mary doesn’t know what’s going to happen with her engagement to Joseph. She doesn’t know how to raise the Son of God. She doesn’t know what it will look like when Messiah takes center stage. She certainly doesn’t know that a sword will pierce her soul as she watches her Son die on the cross for the sins of the world. If you have to know how everything’s going to play out, you’re not in. Nobody knows when God calls you to parent a child or cross the ocean or teach a Sunday School class or face a terrifying diagnosis or serve on the Consistory or move your family or get involved in a justice issue or share Christ with a neighbor or coworker or anything else what will happen next, much less a year or a decade from now.

It’s the willing heart God seeks. It’s the responsive, trusting spirit. It’s the determined belief to trust him fully, no matter what the eyes see. Our first response may be, “How can this be? I can’t do this!” Michael Card says, “To become obedient to his call always means becoming a slave to the impossible.”

William Barclay adds, “Mary has learned to forget the world’s constant prayer, ‘Thy will be changed,’ and to pray the world’s greatest prayer, ‘Thy will be done.’”  Amen.

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