The Scandal of It AllDecember 21, 2003, 9:00 am & 11:15 am
Fourth Sunday in Advent
There is scandal and skepticism written all over this story. An otherwise unknown, young, Galilean girl, a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, himself a descendent of King David, is suddenly encountered and addressed by an angel named Gabriel and told she will soon be pregnant with a child to be called Jesus, which means "God, help! God saves."1 This is the same angel, who six month earlier had been sent to Zechariah, to announce that his barren wife, Elizabeth, was about to have a child, a son they were to name John. Zechariah's skepticism left him mute. But, sure enough, Elizabeth did become pregnant, albeit, with Zechariah's help.
This time, Gabriel's message is even more incredible and scandalous. "Greetings favored one!" Gabriel says to Mary, "The Lord is with you." Notice that contrary to Zechariah and Elizabeth this is all we know about Mary. There is no background as to Mary's character or piety. The translation "you have found favor with the Lord!" can suggest some quality in Mary that made her the object of God's choice. Years of tradition have imputed such character to Mary. But the text does not say that, and makes it clear; God is favoring Mary for God's own reasons. This is an act of sheer grace breaking into an unsuspecting life.
To know more about Mary, we need some background material about marriage customs in Palestine during her time. A girl was eligible for marriage in the Roman Empire by the age of ten. In Jewish practice, marriage generally took place before a girl reached twelve and a half. The process was two-fold. First there was the betrothal, when the marriage contract was negotiated between the parents in the presence of witnesses and the paying of the "bride price" to her parents. This engagement gave the relationship legal status which could only be broken by a writ of divorce. The girl continued to live with her parents, generally for about one year, before the groom came to complete the marriage contract, take her to his home and consummate the marriage. Any time between then and betrothal the girl could be called the groom's wife, and any violation of his marital rights was regarded as adultery.2 The Law of Moses proscribed that any betrothed virgin discovered to have been involved sexually with another man, was to be brought to the gate of the town with the man and the two stoned to death.3 So, here is Mary, a virgin almost thirteen, betrothed to Joseph, who is of the house of David, suddenly encountered and addressed by a stranger.
Gabriel's salutation is regularly translated, "Greetings." However, it can also be translated, "Rejoice!" So let's do that: "Rejoice, Mary, the Lord has favored you." Rejoice? Mary is distressed, greatly troubled, as well she should be. What is this man doing speaking to her in this way since women in that culture were only addressed thus by other women?4 Is this the beginning of a sexual assault? Should she cry out for help? "Do not be afraid, Mary," says Gabriel, "you have God's favor. You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will call him Jesus." Jesus--God, help! God saves. Gabriel continues, "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 ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."5
Rejoice? What kind of favor is this; pregnancy to a betrothed virgin? That is no blessing. That is the curse of death. What does this mean? Is Joseph soon to come for her and take her home to consummate the marriage? For Mary asks the question no married woman can ever ask: "How can this be?"6 Mary is still living with her parents. Joseph has not come to take her home and exercise his marital rights. This is impossible.
Gabriel responds, "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 holy; he will be called Son of God." No, Joseph is not coming to complete the marriage contract. This conception will have nothing to do with Joseph. The Spirit of God, the "power of the Most High," is to be present and at work in Mary to bring this conception into being because the child to be born is not only to be a son of David, but also the Son of God.
I doubt seriously that Mary knew the stories of the ancient Greeks with their mythologies of the god's coming to engage in intercourse with women to produce demigods, but clearly, Luke would have known. And Luke is very careful in the telling of this story, to be clear that this is not what is taking place. The presence of God's Spirit here is not some sexual union between divine and human. As one of my theology professors, Dr. George Hendry, used to remind us, "The virgin birth does not mean that the Holy Spirit took Mary behind the wood shed." This is theology, not gynecology. Luke wants us to know there is a unique identity and relationship between God and this child Mary will carry and bear. Luke also wants us to know that when God chose to come among us it was as one of us--born of a woman.
Here is a double scandal--a virginal conception in which God becomes human. Yet, why is it scandalous to think that God could act in such a way if God chose to? Cannot the Spirit of God which hovered over the formless void at creation now hover over the void of Mary's virginal womb, speak the eternal Word, and bring him to life in it? Luke is saying that God, the life-giver, is present in Mary's life to conceive in her one whose holiness will identify him as God's own son. All of God that can be contained in human form will come to birth in her son.
Sensing Mary's incredulity, less skepticism than simple awe and wonder, Gabriel continues, "And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." Gabriel's words are an echo of God's word to Sarah, when, disbelievingly she had stood behind the door of her tent and laughed at the word that she would be having a son at her age. "Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?"7 Mary's reply has ever after been revered as the ultimate response of faith in any circumstance of life: "I am the Lord's servant; let it be with me as you say."8
Gabriel leaves her. As soon as possible thereafter, Mary heads south for the hill country of Judea to seek out Elizabeth. There the message will be confirmed, not only in Elizabeth's pregnancy, but also in her greeting. "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.... Why has... the mother of my Lord come to me?"9 Luke then puts into Mary's mouth a hymn of praise to God for God's intervening power and graciousness on behalf of all who, like Mary, can say, "I am the Lord's servant; let it be to me, according to your word." God's promise to Abraham and Israel is coming to fulfillment in Mary's womb--God, Help! God saves.
This double confirmation of Gabriel's message will be matched by a third--Mary is pregnant. Luke tells us that she stayed with Elizabeth about three months--long enough to be sure she was truly pregnant--before returning home, now visibly beginning to show the signs of her condition. There she must face parents, neighbors, and most of all, her betrothed, with her scandalous condition. Yet, this first scandal will be a mere prelude to the one that will follow in the world when those for whom this Gospel was first written embrace Jesus as more than simply Mary's child.
God become human? God enter the world the same way that you and I emerged into it, through a mother's womb? God, take on flesh and blood to live in the world like the rest of God's creation? The Creator becoming a creature, to set right what had gone wrong in creation? God become one of us in Jesus, so that you and I might become one with God in him? The Messiah of God, also God's Son? Scandalous!
It was true enough that the King of Israel was spoken of functionally as God's son, ruling over the people on God's behalf.10 But there is simply no evidence that first century Judaism expected the Messiah to be divine.11 Functionally the son of God, yes; but God in human flesh; no! But Luke is clear; this is more than a functional sonship. Luke's description of Jesus' conception makes it clear that it is heaven sent in a way that transcends all other pregnancies. There is a relationship and identity between this coming child and God that is different than that of all other children. He is God's Son in a way that no other child--no matter how holy--can ever claim to be.
I said at the beginning, there is scandal and incredulity all over this story. Yet, there is a third dimension to the scandal which may be even harder to comprehend than the virgin birth. The mystery of the incarnation that Luke has portrayed for us is about more than the Spirit of God overshadowing a virgin and bringing human life forth in a Son she names Jesus. It is about that same Spirit of Holiness overshadowing those who follow Jesus to bring to birth in them that same holiness. It is about God bringing to birth the Christ in us. In fact, Luke uses the very same verb to describe the coming of the Spirit upon the first disciples at Pentecost, as for the coming of the Spirit upon Mary to initiate the conception of Jesus in her.12 For the gospel is God's angel bringing a word to us not unlike God's word to Mary: "Rejoice! Favored one, the Lord is with you. As Mary would become the first God-bearer--Theotokos is the name the church has ever after honored her with for bringing God's pre-existent son to birth--so too can you and I become wombs in which God brings the Christ to birth. How can this be? That was Mary's question when she first heard Gabriel's words to her. But she said, "I am the Lord's servant; let it be to me according to your word," and she became her son's first disciple.
Can you conceive of yourselves as the dwelling place of God? New Age writers speak of "the god within" as though they think they have discovered something new. It is as old as the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In Jesus, God comes to help; God comes to save. The Christian message is about more than gaining a hall pass into heaven when death comes because one believes in Jesus. The gospel is about the Spirit of holiness taking root in your life and mine, an act of sheer grace breaking into an unsuspecting life because God favors us. It is about God's Spirit impregnating your life and mine with the power of God, that Christ might come to birth in each of us, in order that you and I may live as God's servants in this world, bearing Christ into each corner of our lives.
Scandalous? You bet it is! But for those who with Mary respond, "I am the Lord's servant; let it be to me according to your word," it is also the gospel of God.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
- For the development of Jesus' name, Iesous in Greek, from the Hebrew word for Joshua, which means "God, help!" to Yesuah, based on a verb meaning salvation, e.g. "God saves," see Joseph Fitzmeyer, The Gospel According to Luke, I-IX, Anchor Bible, (New York: Doubleday, 1970), p. 347.
- Cf. Joseph Fitzmeyer, Op Cit. , p. 343f.
- Deuteronomy 22:23-24. Note verses 25-27, and the provision that frees the virgin from guilt if the sexual encounter occurs in the countryside. In the city, she had opportunity to cry out and prevent it. Since she did not, she is complicit in the act and to be punished. In the country, where there would be none to her, she could claim rape and be presumed innocent.
- Fitzmeyer, Op. Cit., p. 346.
- Luke 1:31-33.
- Rudolf Bultmann was the first to make this observation.The Greek text says quite literally, "since I know no man;" the word "know" to be a Semitism for sexual intercourse.
- Genesis 18:14.
- Cf. Fitzmeyer's translation, Op. Cit., p. 352.
- Luke 1:42-43.
- Psalm 2:7.
- Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, (New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1977), 312. Interestingly enough, the enigmatic figure "the Son of Man," from the Book of Daniel (7:13), was thought to be ageless--in some way associated with God--but not the Messiah. It is also interesting to remember that "Son of Man" is the title Jesus most preferred and used when speaking of himself.
- Acts 1:8
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