Bible Study 11.21.11, 11.24.11, 11.27.11 For Worship 12.4.11

Bible Study 11.21.11, 11.24.11, 11.27.11 For Worship 12.4.11

Luke 1:26-38

Luke 1:26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth,

27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.

28 And he came to her and said, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”

29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be.

30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.

31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.

32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David,

33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

34 And Mary said to the angel, “How shall this be, since I have no husband?”

35 And the angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.

36 And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.

37 For with God nothing will be impossible.”

38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

COMMENTARY

Birth narratives for larger than life figures in the ancient world were common. The Roman historian Suetonius wrote a birth story about Caesar Augustus. The narrative of Suetonius was incorporated into the official records of the Roman State Religion. According to Suetonius Augustus was divinely conceived, when his mother, Atia, spent the night at the Temple of Apollo. Suetonius also included a special star in the sky, when Augustus was born, a visit from Persian Wisemen, and a special prophecy from a noted soothsayer. Sound familiar?

Truth to be told almost no one was paying attention, when the great personages of the ancient world were born. So many children died from childhood diseases, no one kept track of births, or conceptions, or any records until an important person had achieved fame. In the first chapter of Luke we have a birth narrative, highly edited by the early church, for John the Baptist. The visitation of the angel Gabriel to Mary is a faith story rather than history. So what are we intended to take way this faith story?

First, note that Joseph, who would be the official father of the Jesus, like Gaius Octavius was the Father of Augustus, Joseph could trace his family lineage back to the Great King David, a requirement for anyone who might aspire to the title of Messiah. Second we should note that the visitation of Gabriel to Mary also establishes a family connection between Jesus and John the Baptists. Mary and John’s mother Elizabeth are described as kinswomen, probably some form of cousin. Even though Luke would weave a tale that would place Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem at the time of the birth of Jesus, Luke source rightly identified the village of Nazareth as the village of Mary’s residence.

According to popular belief by the time of the First Century, Gabriel, was one of the four Archangels, who stand in the presence of God. Gabriel’s first appearance in scripture is in Daniel 9:21, a messenger from God to Daniel. In Islam Gabriel is identified as the Holy Spirit who revealed the Quran to Muhammad.

Verses 28 and 29 offer us a profound understanding of what it means to be chosen by God. Gabriel says, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”

And Mary immediately wonders what is up. “But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be.” Those who are chosen by God often suffer the most and have the most to lose. No wonder Mary was cautious in responding. God was asking a great sacrifice. Pregnancy and childbirth in the ancient world were dangerous undertakings. Many women died from simple infections known as childbirth fever. Even if she survived childbirth, to mother and protect a messiah would be a dangerous undertaking. Surely Herod would not welcome any rival to the throne. He had already murdered his brother-in-law, wife and two sons, because he perceived they threatened his power.

Mary was also a practical young woman. She knew where babies came from: “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” Mary’s question may highlight another possible danger, the charge of adultery becoming pregnant while betrothed to Joseph. It’s not that couples didn’t become pregnant before marriage in those days, but if the child was not the child of the person to whom you were betrothed, you could be denounced and then stoned as an adulteress.

Gabriel underscores that nothing is impossible with God, and notes that the previously barren kinswoman Elizabeth is six months pregnant even though she is passed the usual age for giving birth. We don’t know how long Mary paused between verse 37 and giving an answer to Gabriel in verse 38. A good question for discussion is whether or not Mary had to give her ascent. Would God have made her pregnant anyway, if she had said, “No?” More conservative readers like to argue that God knew Mary would say, “Yes.” But then we have to ask whether or not Mary had free will, and that leads to the question of whether or not we have free will? If God knows our decisions before we are even asked the questions, are we free?

The song “Go Tell Elizabeth” captures the possibility that Mary’s decision was more fraught with conflict and difficulty than what comes through in the text:

I’ll Go Tell Elizabeth

So many things are happening to me that I don’t understand.

Visions and angels and a baby names Jesus is not what I planned.

Plans I have made are like bird nests blown down in the wind and the rain.

And I’m scattered like straw and I can’t quite tell,

where to find saneness again — saneness again.

So I’ll go tell Elizabeth, for she’ll understand,

I’ll go tell Elizabeth she’ll hold my hand — she’ll understand.

Go talk to Joseph, well I’ve talked to Joseph and Joseph’s a man.

So many things that a woman can know that a man never can.

Joseph is practical and Joseph is worried with things of his own.

And talking with Joseph is sometimes no better than being alone – being alone.

So I’ll go tell Elizabeth, for she’ll understand,

I’ll go tell Elizabeth she’ll hold my hand — she’ll understand.

Sometime I wish I could wake up to discover it all was a dream.

I ought to be shouting for joy yet I’m coming apart at the seams.

Mostly I’m quiet I keep things inside me that’s how I get by

There’s too much to handle and I need someone near me

To share a good cry – to share a good cry.

So I’ll go tell Elizabeth, for she’ll understand,

I’ll go tell Elizabeth she’ll hold my hand — she’ll understand.

So many things are happening to me that she’ll understand

Now that she’s pregnant her life isn’t going exactly as planned.

Plans we both made are like bird’s nests blown down in the wind and the rain.

And we’re scattered like straw and we can’t quite tell,

where to find saneness again — saneness again.

So I’m coming Elizabeth ‘cause I’ll understand,

I’m coming Elizabeth, I’ll hold your hand, I’ll understand.

Yes, I’m coming Elizabeth ‘cause I’ll understand,

I’m coming Elizabeth, I’ll hold your hand, I’ll understand.

Mary’s ultimate response, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word,” stands as a challenge for us. Are we willing to give over our lives for God’s purposes? Most of us try to use prayer and religion to manipulate God into helping us to accomplish our purposes. But the story of Mary suggests God wants us to serve as divine instruments in the world.

I think the story of Albert Schweitzer may be instructive. Schweitzer was a brilliant and talented young man. He earned degrees in Theology, Philosophy, Music, and a Medical Degree. He was a brilliant concert pianist and organist, and periodically went on concert tour in Europe to raise money for his Hospital in Lambarene. He concluded that he was indeed blessed by God, and he would spend the first thirty years of his life devoted to scholarship and music, and then give the rest of his life to God in service to the poorest of the poor. In 1912 he left Europe with his wife, Helene, for Gabon where he started a hospital in the African bush. There he labored until 1965, 53 years giving his life to relieve pain and suffering and bring healing. He was also very, very humble. When a reporter came to Lambarene and found Dr. Schweitzer pushing a wheel barrow on a construction project at the Hospital, the reporter asked, “Dr. Schweitzer, how is it that you are pushing a wheel barrow?”

The good Doctor replied, “it is actually quite simple. You place dirt in the barrow, and then lift up on the two handles and push.”

Perhaps we can become more open to God working in and through us, rather than trying to recruit God for our purposes.

LET’S ASK SOME QUESTIONS OF THE TEXT

1. What angel was sent to Nazareth?

2. Did the angel have specific instructions?

3. In the sixth month of what was the angel sent?

4. How does the text describe Mary?

5. What was Mary’s response to the angel’s greeting?

6. How did the angel try to allay Mary’s fears?

7. What was Mary told about the child she was being asked to carry?

8. How does the angel say all of this will be accomplished?

9. What if any objections did Mary have?

10. What was Mary’s final response to the angel?

LET’S ALLOW THE TEXT TO ASK QUESTIONS OF US

1. What do you think were God’s requirements for the birth of the messiah?

2. Do you think people are ever chosen before they are born for special responsibilities or missions?

3. Do you think we have free will?

4. Do you think Mary could have said, “No?”

5. Do you have a sense of having a God given purpose in your life?

6. How do you think you have done living out God’s purposes in your life?

7. Do you think God allows us to have some of our own plans and purposes?

8. Do you ever find yourself scattered like straw wondering where to find saneness again?

9. Why do you think plans never quite work out the way we imagine?

10. Do you think God can work in us and through us?

11. What do you think prevents God from working in us and through us?

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