Advent 2023: Make some noise
December 24 | 4th sunday of advent |Year B
The Sound of Jubilant Surprise
Luke 1:26-38 | 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16 | Luke 1:46b-55 | Romans 16:25-27
What’s the historical context?
Couldn’t See That Coming
Powerful parents with a family pedigree derived from Judah and the Davidic line was the common narrative for how most people imagined the Messiah, the “anointed” One, would come into view. It would have been assumed that mom and dad would have conceived this messianic mainspring the way every one else did (insert talking point on the birds and the bees)! So, the narrative we find in the annunciation of the angel Gabriel to Mary in our passage for the fourth Sunday of Advent is quite a surprise.
Certainly, Isaiah 7:14 says that God will give a sign, “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Luke employs the Greek word for virgin, parthenos, the same noun that the translators used to render the Hebrew word almah into the Septuagint’s Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. However, while the Greek translation specifically refers to a woman who has yet to be in the “know” sexually, the Hebrew noun can refer to a young woman who is either married, unmarried, a virgin or not. The reality we have in Luke’s account is that no one in 1st century Judea could see this coming, not Mary, not Joseph, not the scribes, the Pharisees, or anyone familiar with the Jewish scripture.
Joseph as Clueless as the Rest
One would think, if Isaiah 7:14 were more clearly connected with both a virgin birth and a messianic prediction, that Joseph might have responded to the discovery of Mary’s little secret in quite a different way than described by Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew 1:19 says this of Mary’s betrothed, “her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” You see, Joseph did not expect a Messiah absent a biological father.
Myth or Marvel?
Greek lore has its share of virgin births. Perhaps one of the most famous of them is the story of the birth of Perseus, the slayer of monsters. His mother Danaë, imprisoned by her father Acrisius because of an oracle that warned him that his daughter’s son would one day murder him, is impregnated by the god Zeus. The rest is mythology. Well, actually all of it is mythology, a way of bringing sense and meaning to the world through tall tales that tease out the etymology of a people, place, culture, and context.
Mythological stories are the yarns that cultures tell to convey truth. In fact, knowing that, many modern scholars and perhaps a significant swath of casual and maybe not-so-casual readers of the Gospels would assign the same to Luke’s account of the virgin birth. It goes something like this, “The church propagated a religious myth of Jesus’ divine origin in a way not dissimilar to those of other cultures.” Unfortunately, that is not the way that Luke tells it or the church intended it, contrary to popular belief. For one, Judaism doesn’t contain within it divine origin myths like that of the Greeks. A Gentile writer such as Luke could have possibly been tempted to borrow from the playbook of Hellenistic mythology to relate to a Gentile audience seeped in the mythological tea leaves. However, his rabbinical school traveling companion, Paul, whose sensibilities were thoroughly Jewish, would have balked at such a re-formation of the birth of Jesus unless it was grounded in reality.
Why Does This Really Matter?
The virgin birth, like the accounts of women being the first resurrection eyewitnesses in a period in which patriarchal tendencies ruled, tends to cast a cloud of unnecessary doubt. What could have simply been beautiful news of the birth of a child who would manifest the presence of God is complicated by Luke’s account. However, sometimes the most implausible and difficult narratives of scripture point to the most believability since they force us to conceive (no pun intended) of something only God could muster, which defies our human understanding, and demands to be taken on faith.
If I were Luke with the intent to put down the history of Jesus and the Church in a way that would appear most credible, I would eliminate those “myth-like” stories that may pose a stumbling block to acceptance. But, might it be that Luke includes the story because it really does matter? In fact, the church universal has implied such in its creedal statements and reflections on the doctrine of the incarnation.
How do we point to Jesus?
A Powerful Prediction
In verses 32-34, the heavenly messenger gives Mary a list of titles that will be added to her divine progeny’s resume: great, Son of the Most High, owner of the throne of David, ruler of the house of Jacob, and King forever. He adds a bonus one in v. 35, Son of God.
It is difficult for me not to hear the refrain of Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus,” “The Kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of the Lord and of his Christ and He shall reign…” How long? “Forever and ever.” The angelic prediction to Mary will come to fruition in the vision of everlasting power articulated in Revelation 11:15.
Great Favor for the Lowly
Now, it seems like it should go without saying that such a powerful prediction from the mouth of an angel to the likes of Mary, a seemingly insignificant young girl, rings out with both a sense of dissonance and irony. News fit for the halls of power and the palaces of the honored instead reverberates throughout the backwater village of Nazareth to a young woman with no position, no power, and no prestige. But, isn’t that the way God chooses to work, to make his strength perfect in weakness, and his power manifest in spiritual and material poverty?
God’s great favor is not lost on Mary. She knows her place well, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant” (Luke 1:46-48).
I know many of you will say, “Stop already with the virgin birth theme,” but I feel compelled to continue. This is important to our understanding of Jesus. There is a hint in John’s Gospel that the curious crowd of covenant observers, who sparred with Jesus when he challenged them on their claim that they were Abraham’s children, questioned Jesus’ own birth. Upon Jesus’ objection to their assertion, they said to Jesus, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God” (John 8:41).
Some think that although Joseph did the honorable thing with Mary, the waters were murky enough around Jesus’ majestic conception that it was a subtle and not-so subtle stigma (in the case of John 8:41) that followed him throughout his ministry, that he was considered a mamzer, the Hebrew term for that shameful and dehumanizing expletive that some use to belittle another, a word which literally describes a child born out of wedlock. The implied accusation of these religious detractors of Jesus was that he was illegitimate while they were not. Most of us don’t usually consider how a miraculous conception such as the one described by Luke might be interpreted by the larger society should any doubt of Joseph’s paternity have arisen. Later polemic against Christianity in the 2nd century would falsely posit that Jesus was the product of an abusive union between Mary and a Roman soldier, most famously parodied in Monty Python’s 1979 film, Life of Brian. The truth, though, as the mainstream church has affirmed, is indeed stranger than fiction.
How does this impact us today?
The Scandal of God’s Arrival
Luke describes Mary’s surprise at Gabriel’s announcement in Luke 1:29 by using a Greek word whose root means to “disturb,” or “agitate,” diatarassō, like a storm stirring up a quiet body of water. Of course, its use in Luke is mental agitation, perplexity, and confusion. On first hearing, the news of the conception creates choppy seas in Mary’s mind. On second hearing, indicated by her response in v. 34, she questions the credibility of such news since she is a woman who has never “known” a man in the euphemistic sense of that word. Mary will eventually come to embrace the whole scandalous beauty of the virgin birth, but subsequent skeptical generations of Christian believers find it scandalous in the sense that it proves ridiculous to the world around us.
I once watched a “Club Random” episode with Bill Maher in which a guest sympathetic to the Christian story attempted to explain its beauty and truthfulness to Maher, who not surprisingly chalked it all up to ridiculous mythology. While I agreed with his guest, since my own sympathy lies with the story that is told, I also had great empathy for Bill and folks like him. The Gospel story is scandalous to the point of being ridiculous to the outsider. If Paul could say that the cross is a stumbling block to the Jew and foolishness to the Greek (1 Corinthians 1:23), I would venture to guess that he might also affirm the same for Jesus’ story of origin. In fact, Mary’s first reaction was akin to Maher’s without the expletives and snarky dismissiveness. The incarnation of God in the way it is described in the Gospels isn’t going to win any points for those who don’t have eyes of faith. It simply isn’t believable in the way that we define belief: an empirically observable and repeatable event.
I. Howard Marshall in NIGTC on the Gospel of Luke says, “From the historical point of view acceptance of the virgin birth is not unreasonable, granted the possibility of the incarnation” (Marshall, p. 76). He also says something which I think might be helpful for those who would ridicule its scandalous nature,
In this narrative the writer is striving to express the ineffable in human terms…It remains possible that this language, while mythological in colouring, bears witness to some real event which cannot be described in literal terms and which remains veiled in mystery. Historical and literary investigation can take us thus far and no further. (Marshall, p. 76)
“So What” for Us Who Wait
The annunciation story and the miraculous nature of Mary’s conception all point to a God of mystery and power, to the liminal spaces where heaven and earth meet. Luke’s account encounters our limited capacity of understanding, humans whose feet are rooted in the tactile feel of sand, silt, clay, and loam, sentient beings who are much more comfortable with the immanent and transcendent remaining polar opposites where never the twain shall meet.
So what do we do with Gabriel’s proclamation to Mary? We treasure it as did Mary. We allow ourselves to rest in its mystery and majesty as we do the very idea of incarnation. A dear pastoral mentor of mine was fond of saying that the best gifts come “wrapped in flesh.” God wrapped himself in the womb of a virgin and took on flesh so that we might experience the divine presence in the nearness of a beating heart, glistening skin, and working lungs, Immanuel, “God with us.”
The nativity mystery “conceived from the Holy Spirit and born from the Virgin Mary”, means, that God became human, truly human out of his own grace. The miracle of the existence of Jesus, his “climbing down of God” is: Holy Spirit and Virgin Mary! Here is a human being, the Virgin Mary, and as he comes from God, Jesus comes also from this human being. Born of the Virgin Mary means a human origin for God. Jesus Christ is not only truly God, he is human like every one of us. He is human without limitation. He is not only similar to us, he is like us.
—Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (Harper Perennial, 1959).
For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us.
—Athanasius, On the Incarnation of the Word (Christian Classics Ethereal Library).
A Dream of Immanuel
When he was a young boy, twelfth-century church leader Bernard of Clairvaux fell asleep outside a church while waiting to go in for a Christmas Eve service. In his sleep he had a dream, a kind of vision, in which he saw very clearly and distinctly how the Son of God, having espoused human nature, became a little child in his mother’s womb. In that act he came to see how God’s heavenly majesty was mingled with sweet humility.
This vision so filled young Bernard’s heart with comfort and jubilation that throughout his life he kept a vivid memory of it. What was it that filled his heart with joy? It was nothing other than the fact that God chose to be with us: Immanuel. Out of love Jesus was conceived, and out of love he chose to die. There is something in us that God finds lovable. It is certainly not our sanctity, nor is it our fidelity. When I look at my own baseness, my incredible ability to sin at a moment’s notice, I wonder what God sees in me.
- The Gospels of Matthew and Luke make a rather big deal about the conception of God’s Son to a virgin. For many minds, maybe even our own, this seems rather primitive. Does a virgin birth really matter for our belief? Why or why not?
- Look up the Nicene Creed on your digital device and read it aloud. How good a job does it do affirming the words of the angel Gabriel to Mary? Does it add something to the story that it shouldn’t?
- Scripture says that God chooses the lowly things of this world (1 Corinthians 1:27-29). How does his choosing of Mary speak to that truth? In what other ways do we see God use the weak and foolish things of the world?
- Have you ever considered that the nature of Jesus’ birth may have created controversy for him? How does the nature of his birth still create controversy for us?
- Why does it matter that the transcendent becomes imminent, that heaven melds with earth, that the incarnation happened in the way in which it is described?
Prayer of Invocation
Hark the glad sound! The Savior comes,
The Savior promised long!
Let every heart prepare a throne
And every voice a song.
Our glad hosannas, Prince of Peace,
Your welcome shall proclaim,
And heaven’s eternal arches ring
With your beloved name. Amen.
Philip Doddridge, 1702-1751
Prayer of Confession
Call to Confession: The prophet asks the Lord’s people, “Who can endure the Lord’s coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap.” Let us come before Almighty God in humility, confessing our sins.
Prayer of Confession: Almighty God, you have been in our midst, and we have not been faithful. We fail to acknowledge your presence, living as if we can do whatever we want. We ignore the needs of others, we ignore your commands, and we wonder why we aren’t aware of your presence. Please forgive us for our inattentiveness toward you and your ways. Please help us to see you in our midst as we come to you in silent confession.
(Time of silent reflection)
Austin D. Hill
Assurance of Pardon
He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith—to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.
A Greek icon of the annunciation, Andreas Karantinos, before 1716. Tempera on wood panel.
The angel Gabriel hails Mary while the Holy Spirit flies between them in the form of a dove.
Andreas Karantinos, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
More Quotes: Advent 4
More Illustrations: Advent 4
Scott Bullock is a Board Member and Contributor with The Pastors Workshop. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has served churches in Illinois, New Jersey, and California. He holds an MA in New Testament Studies from Wheaton College, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a ThM in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary. Scott is married with three teen-aged children.