Lesson Focus God invites us to participate in God’s mission of salvation and restoration for the world.
Lesson Outcomes Through this lesson, students should:
Contemplate what it must have been like to be Mary.
Understand the social consequences of Mary’s situation.
Discern how they might be used to participate in God’s mission in the world.
Catching up on the story Luke begins his orderly account of the life of Jesus with John the Baptist’s origin story. There was a devout elderly couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth, living during the reign of King Herod of Judea. Zechariah was a priest, and it was his turn to serve in the Temple. During the execution of his duties in the Holy of Holies, an angel appeared to Zechariah to inform him that he and his barren wife would soon have a son. Zechariah demands a sign that the birth of a boy will come to pass, and for his unbelief, he is struck mute.
Unable to speak, Zechariah returns home after his duties are fulfilled, and soon Elizabeth becomes pregnant. Zechariah regains his speech after the boy is born, and he insists the child’s name be John. Luke then shifts from John’s origin story to Jesus’ story. There are many parallels between the two birth announcements, but the emphasis is placed squarely on the importance of this second child, who is conceived in a miraculous way.
Read Luke 1:26-38
In Nazareth of Galilee As Luke did with John’s story, he provides concrete markers of time and place. Jesus’ story begins in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. This time, the angel Gabriel appears to Mary at her home in Nazareth. For Luke’s readers who were not familiar with Israel’s geography, he includes the region in which Nazareth is located. Galilee was located in northern Israel, above Samaria.
Unlike her cousins Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary is not old and barren. Mary is a young girl, likely around the age of 12 or 13. Luke tells us that Mary is a virgin who is engaged to a man whose name is Joseph. Joseph is mentioned only to connect Mary to the line of David. Besides caring and providing for Mary, and subsequently Jesus, Joseph will have no role in the upcoming narrative. Young engagements like Mary’s were common. These engagements were not like ours today, and they were legally binding. Joseph would likely have been older and already established in a trade. Because of the legally binding nature of Mary’s engagement, a pregnancy on her part would result in a significant amount of shame directed toward her, her family, and possibly Joseph.
Luke mentions Mary’s virginity twice, and a third time Mary declares her state herself. Repeated elements in a biblical text are almost always significant. The main point of mentioning Mary’s state so often has to do with definitively declaring the ultimate cause of this pregnancy. While Mary certainly will play a role, the initiative and work are God’s. Mary’s virginity simply points to the magnitude of the coming miracle. It is not to be seen as an exalted state, nor should it point to her humble status (Nolland, 49).
As with Elizabeth’s pregnancy, and her ancestor Sarah’s before her, God shows his ability to bring about life and newness even in places where not all the proper ingredients are in place. That God chooses a woman from the backwaters of Israel, in a place where most of the world would have never heard of, continues the upside-down nature of God’s work in our world. The upside-down nature of God’s kingdom will permeate the rest of Luke’s narrative.
The Angel Speaks We can assume that Mary is somewhere private when the angel Gabriel appears to her, as the presence of such a being would have attracted notice if she was not somewhere private. It is in the quiet secluded space that the angel offers a word of greeting and grace. The angel’s first words are gracious in nature, as he declares that Mary is a “favored one.” Before Mary has done anything, before she has consented to bear the savior of the world in her womb, God bestows grace and goodwill. Over and over in both the Old and New Testaments, we see that grace is almost always God’s first word.
Immediately following the bestowal of grace comes a promise of divine resource. Mary does not yet know what she will need, but she will soon understand that she will have it, whatever it is. In the Old Testament, a declaration like this was often directed toward a person God has called to participate in God’s work of salvation in the world. The declaration comes with the promise of divine resources and protection (Green, 87).
The sudden appearance of an angelic being, coupled with the words of grace, is perplexing to Mary. Luke tells us that Mary was “much perplexed.” Perplexed carries with it the insinuation that Mary did not or could not comprehend what was happening. While that may be the case, Luke intends us to understand that she is distraught and upset.
Though she may be upset, this does not stop Mary from seeking to understand. For the first time, we are told that Mary “pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” In describing Mary’s reaction, it seems that Luke is expressing the profound nature of Mary’s curiosity about her encounter with the angel. She does not just think about the encounter. She spends considerable time and energy trying to comprehend both the encounter and the future the angel proclaims.
While the narrative does not indicate this, I imagine that in the small moments between the angel’s words, Mary’s mind is reeling. Has time slowed down for her as it does for us in those critical and transformative moments of our lives? Has her life, both past and future, passed before her eyes? Or, after the encounter, does she continually seek to understand the ramifications of her impending pregnancy? I’m inclined to believe it’s both.
Previously having delivered news like this, the angel speaks a word of comfort and reassurance, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” Was there an expression of terror on Mary’s face? Had she started to cry? Was she visibly shaken? Again, God’s grace is given. Through no remarkableness of her own, Mary has found favor, literally grace, with God. This grace is what makes it possible for Mary to participate in God’s salvation for the world.
And Now Calmed and reassured, Mary receives the details of God’s plan. She will conceive and bring forth a baby boy into the world. His name will be Jesus. Jesus will be great, and he will be called the “Son of the Most High.” That’s shorthand for the God who is above all other, who is above all that has been and all that will be.
Looking deep into the future, the angel proclaims that Jesus is the one Israel has anticipated. He will rule as a descendent of King David, but unlike David and all of his successors, King Jesus’ reign will never end. We don’t know if Mary understood the magnitude of the angel’s announcement. Did she realize who her baby would be?
Instead of seeking clarity about who her son will be, Mary wants to know how all of this will take place because she is a virgin. She certainly knows how babies are made, and she hasn’t engaged in that kind of activity and won’t until she’s reached maturity and her wedding to Joseph has taken place.
Mary’s question is a legitimate one, to be sure. But unlike Zechariah’s question regarding how he will know that Elizabeth will become pregnant, Mary’s question does not result in chastisement. Instead, the angel answers that her pregnancy will be the work of the Holy Spirit. As a result, the child will be holy. He will be the Son of God.
To give further assurance that the thing will come to pass, Mary learns that her old and barren cousin has also become pregnant. The angel ends his announcement with a declaration of God’s unlimited creativity, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Notice the future tense; this is a promise of God’s working in the middle of situations that seem utterly devoid of life and hope. Literally translated, the phrase would go as such, “For no word will be impossible with God.” All the words the angel has spoken on God’s behalf will come to fruition. Mary’s response places her firmly within God’s word of promise. “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”
So What? We’re entering the second week of Advent, and this story is familiar to us. We tell a version of it every year, but have we placed ourselves inside of God’s word of promise? Have we allowed ourselves to be greatly perplexed and maybe even frightened by God’s proclaimed work in this world? Like Mary, have we deeply pondered what it all could mean?
While we will never be the ones to carry God’s son in our wombs, we are no less called into participation in God’s work in our world. If we stop and think about this story, we should be in awe and wonder at the fact that God’s plan of salvation involves the likes of an unwed mother.
The sheer physicality of it should shock us. God is not just calling Mary to obediently participate in his plan. God is actively taking up residence inside her body, using her DNA, her genes, and her very substance to birth something new into the world.
I think that this is God’s plan for all of us: that we might allow God to inhabit us in such a way that our obedience and faithfulness is not merely a result of our action, but that our very substance is used to birth God’s work and word in our world. This Christmas, may we deeply ponder God’s word and work in our world through Jesus, and may we be inspired to pray each day, “Here we are, servants of the Lord; let it be with us according to your word.”
Group Discussion Questions
Betrothals like Mary’s to Joseph were legally binding. How would her pregnancy have complicated her engagement?
Put yourself in Joseph’s shoes. How would you have reacted to the news from Mary that she was pregnant?
Luke tells us that Joseph is from the “house of David.” How might this be a relevant piece of information?
In the course of the story, Luke mentions Mary’s virginity three times. Why would Mary’s state be any concern to Luke or those who read his narrative?
The first words out of the angel’s mouth are a declaration of God’s grace now bestowed upon Mary. “Favored one” in verse 28 can be translated, “one who has grace bestowed upon them.” If this pregnancy will cause some serious social and relational problems, why should Mary feel that God’s kind grace has been bestowed upon her?
The phrase, “The Lord is with you,” is a standard greeting in the Old Testament, usually spoken to someone who God will empower to do God’s work in the world. What might this statement mean for Mary? Is this why Mary “pondered what sort of greeting this might be?” How would you react to such a greeting?
According to Luke’s telling, it doesn’t seem like Mary has any choice regarding her impending pregnancy. Could Mary have refused? What do you think the consequences of such a refusal might have been?
After the angel’s announcement, Mary wonders out loud how it will be that she will become pregnant because she is a virgin. Why doesn’t she get chastised like Zechariah was? Compare and contrast Zechariah and Mary’s response to the angel’s announcement. What makes them similar? What makes them different?
The angel tells Mary that the Holy Spirit will be instrumental in her pregnancy. Put yourself in Mary’s place. What would your reaction have been if you heard a pronouncement like that? Would you think it odd?
Why does the angel mention what has happened to Zechariah and Elizabeth?
Verse 38 gives us Mary’s final response to the news of her impending pregnancy. What do you make of it? Might it have been hard for her to respond this way? If so, why? If not, why?
By becoming pregnant with Jesus, Mary physically becomes a partner with God in God’s mission of salvation and restoration in the world. How does God call people to participate in his mission in the world in similar ways to Mary?
How might we, as individuals and as a church, seek to participate fully in God’s mission in the world? What concrete things might we do?
Works Cited Green, Joel B., The Gospel of Luke, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997). Nolland, John, Luke 1:1-9:20, Volume 35A, (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1989).