Reflection for the fourth Sunday in Advent

Annunciation (c. 1472–1475), by Leonardo da Vinci, Uffizi

Lectionary Passage Luke 1 vv 26 – 38

Mary finds herself caught up in God’s redemptive plans and purposes

 Traditionally the Fourth Sunday of Advent directs our focus to Mary – the mother of Jesus.

It is Luke in his Gospel who gives us the greatest detail about the events that lead up to and then surround the birth of Jesus.  Of the other Gospel writers, it is only Matthew who gives us any information at all – neither Mark nor John even mention it.  Christmas would be very different and greatly impoverished had Luke also decided to start his Jesus story with the beginning of the public ministries of John and Jesus – as did Mark and John.   I am fascinated by the way the Gospel writers gathered and then selected and arranged the material that they chose to include.  John, towards the end of his Gospel, talks about both that selection process from all that was available and also his purpose in writing – John 20 vv 30-31. Luke tells us, at the very outset, that he has carefully studied the material about Jesus and is setting out an ‘orderly account’ for Theophilus – Luke 1 vv 1 – 4.   Chapters 1 and 2 of Luke’s Gospel are very different from the rest of his writings.  They are long chapters – 80 and 52 verses respectively.     I can’ help wondering about the source of all that Luke sets out.

As far as we know Luke, who was a doctor of Gentile origin – Colossians 4 v 14, was late on the scene. He wasn’t one of the group of early disciples and, as far as we know, never met or heard Jesus in person.   For at least some parts of Paul’s second and third ‘Missionary Journeys’, Luke was one of his travelling companions.  There is a very early and very strong tradition that John the Disciple ended up in Ephesus and an equally strong tradition that there he looked after Mary.  We know that Luke got very close to Ephesus on that third journey – Acts 20.  Did he then or at another time actually go to Ephesus. Did he meet Mary?  Did Mary share parts of her story with Luke?  Where else could Luke have obtained the intimate and intricate details but from Mary herself?

Early in Chapter One, Luke tells us about Zechariah and Elizabeth both of whom belonged to priestly families.  They were old and childless but, in mirror images of both Sarah (Genesis 1) and Hannah (1 Samuel 1) God promises a son.  God’s messenger – the word angel is derived from the Greek word ‘angelos’ which means ‘messenger’, is Gabriel.  We meet Gabriel twice in the book of Daniel and then twice here in the first Chapter of Luke.  Having brought the news of a baby to Zechariah, six months later he does it again – but this time to a young girl called Mary.

I don’t think it at all disrespectful to say that Mary must have been quite a girl.  And a girl she almost certainly was.  In the custom of the day a girl could be promised in marriage in an arrangement between families at a very early age.  Mary was somewhere between betrothal and formal marriage.  She was startled, afraid and deeply troubled at Gabriel’s appearing and at his message to her.  Not surprising really!  Gabriel has come with words of peace and re-assurance and then words about God’s gracious purpose and plans for her.  And through Mary, God’s age-old purpose of redemption.

As an aside to ponder, throughout the New Testament, an aspect of Jesus and his fulfilment of the Old Testament is that he belongs to the line of King David -v 32 etc.  That is where Joseph comes in and is important.  In the genealogy of Luke 3 and Matthew 1 the family line from David come to Jesus through Joseph – not Mary.

We could, quite fruitfully, explore some aspects of Mary’s disposition and character and faith.  She was blessed and favoured by God vv 28 &30, deeply thoughtful v 29 & Chapter 2 vv 19 & 51, obedient v 38, faith-full v 45 and worshipful v 46.   I believe to do so would be to miss the point.

God, in all sorts of situations, in his divine purpose, chooses to use all sorts of different people.  Sometimes they seem to be the most unlikely people.  The Bible is cram-full of them.  Moses the murderer.  Jacob the cheat.  Rahab the prostitute.  David the shepherd boy.  Peter the rough and ready fisherman. Saul the Pharisee who set out to persecute the followers of Jesus.   Ask the question of anyone who has a sense of the irresistible Call of God and not least those called to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament.

In Chapter One of Luke’s Gospel, it is an elderly couple and, here in our passage for the day, a young woman living in an obscure rural village (‘Can anything good come Nazareth?’ ask Nathaniel – John 1 v 46) – in a backwater of the Roman Empire who God uses in his plan of salvation.

The Christmas Story in its own right is a tremendous story.  This year in unusual circumstances; circumstance which just perhaps enable us to put aside all the trimmings and even the excesses and focus again on the central truths of the story, we celebrate both the advent of Jesus in history and the advent of Jesus to us, here and now through our faith.

For our purposes in using the Lectionary for the day it seems to me that the key verse is verse 37.  Gabriel says, ‘For there is nothing that God cannot do.’   This Advent Season, in your life and in mine, how is God speaking to us and waiting to use us in his continuing plan and purpose.  How ready are we, like Mary, to answer ‘I am the Lord’s servant’?

Bryan Coates

December 2020