Sunday, December 11, 2011

Jesus' Family Album (3): Mother Mary and Uncle Zechariah

Luke 1:46-55 (call to worship)

Isaiah 61:1-4 (kids)
Luke 1-2, selections (message focus)

We’ve been looking at Jesus’ family album, through the origin stories in each of the four gospels. The first week of Advent, we looked at Matthew and found a portrait of Father Joseph. The second week, we looked at Mark’s gospel and found a portrait of Cousin John, all grown up. Today, we look at Luke’s gospel, together with Matthew the only gospels to record any story of Jesus before his baptism as an adult. Unlike Matthew, Luke focuses not on Joseph but on Mother Mary. And, Luke includes the family connection with John by introducing John’s parents as well.

Did your family ever have two moms pregnant at the same time? In our family, Robin was pregnant with Caleb (our second) at the same time that her sister Marcy was pregnant with Tony (their first). Tony was born a month before Caleb. A generation before, Robin’s grandmother had her third child, Mark, one of those late life surprises, only one year before Robin’s sister was born, two years before Robin.

In cases like that, comparing notes on first words, crawling, walking, potty training, teething, and – eventually – driving, is just what you do, particularly in the family and even with other parents whose children are close to yours in age.

Luke flips back and forth between Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of Cousin John, and Mary, mother of our Lord. In their case, there is a six month delay between parallel events.

The angel Gabriel announces the birth of a son to Zechariah. Six months later, Gabriel announces the birth of a son to Mary. Mary visits with Elizabeth, living in the Judean hill country, staying for three months, and leaves for home in Galilee before John is born. John is born, Zechariah – his tongue finally loosened – sings praise to God, and the child grows. Jesus is born, the angels sing praise, and the child grows. The parallels in structure, and even in the language of the original Greek text, are striking. (See program insert of chart from Fitzmyer, 313-314.)

There is parallelism between John and Jesus, but not equality. Though both are agents of salvation, and both sent from God, Jesus is after John (conceived 6 months later) and is greater than John. John is “great before the Lord”, Jesus is “Great”. Zechariah and Elizabeth are “righteous”, Mary is “favored”. (See Fitzmyer, 315.) Zechariah is “troubled” (1.12), Mary is “deeply troubled” (1.29), an intensive form of the word (Brown, 288).

By this parallelism without equality, Luke tells us that John is prophet, Jesus is Savior and Son of God. The parallelism also introduces differences between the parents, particularly between Zechariah and Mary, and some implications for the life of faith.

The Blessing of Belief:
In both of these parallel stories, the blessing of belief plays a prominent role. To Zechariah, the angel declares, “Now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur” (1.20). And, to Mary, Elizabeth exclaims, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord” (1.45).

So, is being mute a curse? And is being able to speak the blessing? No, and no. Being mute is the sign. Zechariah needed an additional sign – the angel announcement wasn’t enough – and God, kindly, provided. Mary too was given a sign, but not because she asked for one. She was simply told, “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” (1.36-37). (See Fitzmyer, 313-314.)

Is being mute a curse? Well . . . maybe. Imagine not being able to speak to a friend about your miracle baby! However, it was also a sign. Finally, when his tongue was loosed, all he could do was offer praise, and not for the gift of speech but for the gift of his son John, for the gift of God’s mercy, for the gift of the coming Savior from the house of David.

So, what is the blessing?

Maybe we are missing the point. The Greek expression for blessing in 1.45 is an adjective, a descriptive term, rather than a verb form. It is describing Mary as blessed rather than actually blessing Mary. It is the difference between “You are blessed!” and “Bless you!” In the New Testament, it is often the recognition of deep joy. As, “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth.” That beatitude is, in some English translations, “Happy are the meek”, because it is a description, it “recognize[s] an existing state of happiness or blessing” (Brown, 333-334, on makarios). Though, for me personally, “happy” is not deep enough for the joy of meek ones oppressed by the strong or lowly ones rejected by the important.

And, this matches the context. We do not find a reference to any concrete blessing. What we do find is Mary joyful. Joyful to join God in this work: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (1.38). Joyful in declaring God’s praise: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (1.46-47). Joyful for an unseen reality in which the powerful are brought down and the lowly lifted up, an unseen reality in which the hungry are filled and the rich are empty (1.52-53), an unseen reality that will be manifested in that “great and terrible day of the Lord” (Joel 2.31).

The blessing of belief.

And, the Grace of the Gospel:
Twice in the course of these parallel stories, the Greek root for “gospel” or “good news” is used. Both times, it is in the mouth of angels. First, Gabriel tells Zechariah, “I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news” (1.19). Second, to the shepherds, an unnamed angel declares, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (2.10).

Interestingly, the shepherds respond with belief. Mary, responds with belief (though the actual Greek term is not used in relation to her). But Zechariah, the priest, the religious professional, does not believe the gospel. What happens to him? Does he miss out on grace? Is he forever rejected? “I am bringing you bad news of great judgment for all the people.”

Good thing I’m not God. If I offer someone something and they don’t receive it, I’ll pass it along to someone else. “You don’t want the last piece of pie? Well, then I’ll eat it myself!”

God still answered Zechariah’s prayer (1.13), a prayer he never believed would be answered! Now, faith in prayer is important. It is important but not decisive. Only God is decisive, only God is sovereign, only God rules. And though we often struggle to understand how that works, what we learn from this story is that the Gospel is truly Gracious.

Of course, to acknowledge that it is all about grace means that we acknowledge that it is not all about me. Instead, it is all about God. I love this line from Isaiah: “All our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64.6). Even at our best, we are nowhere near good enough. Zechariah? No worse than me. God is gracious. This is truly “good news”. And, once we really get that, once it gets hold of us, we won’t be able to stop praising God. Like Zechariah, we’ll be come evangelists ourselves.

Raymond E. Brown. 1977, 1978. The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke. New York: Doubleday, Image.

Fitzmyer, Joseph A. 1982-. The Gospel According to Luke I-IX: Introduction, Translation, and Notes (Anchor Bible 28). New York: Doubleday.

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