Luke 1:5-38 Interventions: Birthing the Impossible (Notes from Sunday July 12th)

This is what we reflected on together as a community this past

The kingdom is for the Little Ones

We have two parallel passages today, one with a story of two people “getting on in years” as the text says, alongside two young people not old enough to drive by today’s standards, let alone give birth to a revolution.

Both accounts trace God’s interaction through the angel Gabriel and God’s intervention into two unexpected couples, who turn out to, after their encounters, both be expecting. In the way that last week we see people go from eyewitnesses to witnesses, this week we have people go from being unexpected to expecting.

These are two stories about God giving birth to the impossible.

So far this morning we’ve been experiencing worship around the theme of “the little ones” or our motto might, “the kingdom is for little ones.” If by “little ones” we mean, easily silenced, powerless, sometimes young, sometimes very old, poor, doubtful and weak. All throughout Luke’s Gospel narrative he favors these “little ones.”
A juxtaposition – Powers and Weakness

Luke contrasts the powerful and the weak. Here’s an example:

We read a poem this morning about births (Julie C. Robinson). It seems to me that there is a connection between the poetry and what Luke is up to in his narrative. Poetry is an art-form, that tells a truth in a way that is vulnerable, potentially misunderstood, and weak – it’s related to a sense of “perhaps.”

This is contrasted with stone-cold logic, well-delivered arguments, yelling and screaming, and the firey preaching we’ve all heard stories about from the past.

A: Socrates is a man
B: All men are mortal
Therefore: Socrates is moral

Thankfully, Luke did not write his Gospel in this way!

He makes no effort to give us logic, he use of songs, poetry, and stories about barren women, a virgin who gives birth, shepherds, and people like Simeon and Anna who were by all accounts old and ready to die, useless in the eyes of the world, but who had eyes that could see that the very fragile kingdom of God, the baby Jesus, was present with them in the temple.

So Luke likes to tell his story in a way that contrasts with power, and what we can call “the logic” of the world, with the little, weak, even foolish, ways of God.

Luke begins with the logic of the world and reminds the reader of the context of which all this is taking place: “In the days of King Herod of Judea,” (Luke 1:5 NRSV). And “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.” (Luke 2:1-2 NRSV). “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” (Luke 3:1-2 NRSV).

The logic of the world is: ( from John Captuo)

In the New Testament, the “world” and the kingdom are antagonists because the logic of the world is a calculus, an economy, a heartless system of accounting or of balanced payments, where scores are always being settled. In the logic of the world, nothing is for free and nobody gets off scot-free. By the same token, in the logic of the world, everything is for sale,
everything has a price, and nothing is sacred. The world will stop at nothing to get even, to settle or even a score; the world is pomp and power and ruthless reckoning. In the world, offenders are made to pay for their offense and every investor expects a return. Every equation must be balanced, with Wood or money or prison time. In the world, everybody has a lawyer. So the logic of the world and the poetics of the kingdom do not describe two
different places, like New York and Paris, or Athens and Jerusalem, or this World and the other one behind the clouds… They describe, not two different “wheres,” but two different “hows,” whose differences must be negotiated in the one and only world we know.

Through this narrative device of juxtaposition, where each section is placed within the context of a particular ruling power, Luke balances the power of the world with the birth of this baby Jesus. King Herod, was known for his political regime, the problems he brought on the people both economic and culturally, and many Jewish elders resisted his leadership.

Caesar Augustus in chapter 2, refers to Octavian, who people hailed as “the divine savior who brought peace to the world.”

And most of you will remember history class talking about The pax romana, the peace of Rome, was produced through conquest, plunder and maintained through subsequent taxation of the people, keeping the too poor and working too hard to do anything else.

Challenging the peace of Rome, The multitude of angels announce at the birth of a tiny little baby cuddled up in a barn, “peace on earth!”

You can see why we might us the term “foolish” to describe this story, our story.

“Like Alice In Wonderland of wedding feast as mad as any hatters’ party, of sinners getting preference over perfectly respectable fellows, of virgin birth, of eventualities that confound the ecnomy of the world.” (John Caputo)

A Juxtaposition – Responses

Zechariah and Elizabeth

First Gabriel shows up in the temple – notice how the temple is an important place where all this stuff happens in the first couple chapters of Luke, there’s a reason for that (40% of the content) – and visits Zechariah. The temple is the cultural center of the ancient world for the Jews – all of life is oriented around it (Joel Green, 61).

Also take note of how Luke introduces people. For instance, “there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.” (Luke 1:5-7 NRSV).

Status in important in the first century. And status is important to Luke’s story.

Here are two people who have achieved some status. Zachariah is a priest and they are both blameless, but Elizabeth has low status honor because she is barren.

When Zachariah was told by the angel that his elderly, barren, wife was going to have a son he responded with a request for a sign. Request for signs never go over well in Luke’s Gospel. (Luke 11:15ff; 29-32; 23:8-9).

“When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign. He questioned him at some length, but Jesus gave him no answer.” (Luke 23:8-9 NRSV).

Zachariah is right to have his doubts, the situation looks impossible. But Zachariah apparently didn’t know his Old Testament stories very well, there is a parallel happening here, anybody see what it is? Luke goes to great lengths to actually make this clear.

“The narration of barrenness itself becomes grounds for anticipating the gift of a child.” (Joel Green)

Israel is used to the idea that God is in control of the womb and the children are a sign of the blessing of God (Joel Green 61). And here again we see God is working behind the scenes (1:9) to birth a faithful people.

Elizabeth’s situation is hopeless, impossible without God’s intervention.

Fortunately enough Elizabeth knew this and responds better (Gen 21:6 Sarah; Gen 30:22-23 Rachel). In fact, her openness runs in stark contrast to her husband (v.25). Here Luke puts, “A woman forward as a recipient of God’s favor and as a model of faithfulness to God’s purposes.”

Pay attention to the women in Luke.

All this is keeping with the basic structure of the stories we’re used to, because it is “the impossible.”

Mary

Then we get to Mary. What’s interesting is that Luke tells us more about Joseph than he does Mary! She’s a nobody as far as we can tell. There is no good reason that God should bring about his kingdom through a nobody, especially not a 12 yr old!

Gabriel goes far away from where the temple is located to Galilee an “insignificant, despised and unclean town” (Green). To greet a teenage virgin girl with a shocking revelation. Virgin here signals both her non-sexual activity as well as her age between 12-13.

He might have said, “Mary, you have the seed of revolution in your tummy.”

Where Zechariah hesitates, Mary embraces. This young virgin girl, embraces the divine plan and declares that she is God’s servant, even though she has no idea what all this means just yet.

In the face of the impossible, we hear Mary’s response, “Here am I…”

Among its many meanings, The virgin birth is a beautiful symbol for us as co-laborers with God. Mary was a co-laborer with God’s son, she did not get pregnant on her own and so it seems to me that there is this participation with God that is emphasized here. “We are co-laborers, we do not labor alone.” (Julie C. Robinson, 12)

If “The narration of barrenness itself becomes grounds for anticipating the gift of a child.”

Then Luke takes it a step further by having Mary the virgin become pregnant with God’s son, he shows that God is a God of the impossible.

God gives favor to someone who cannot claim favor or worth for herself, and draws her into his divine plan, he raises her up. And the contrast between Zachariah’s response and how both Elizabeth and Mary respond, two people who were unworthy in their social setting, is that for Luke’s Gospel, the “little people” receive God’s favor with great joy.

And here is the clincher:

“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.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.” (Luke 1:36-38 NRSV).

The whole Gospel of Luke is wrapped up in God’s intervention in these impossible ways. There is always the possibility of the impossible. It’s almost as if for God there is an ordinariness about the impossible.

What I like about this story is this, the losers are the winners, and Jesus, our revolutionary Lord, comes by way of a plan that is totally hair-brained, cock-eyed, and foolish.

The logic of the kingdom of God is more like poetry than it is mathematics, or logic. It comes by way of parables, reversals, paradoxes, and the little ones.

Luke uses two woman, one very old, and one very young to show that each have a place in God’s ultimate plan. When our culture has so much ageism, and denigrates the elderly, the Gospel narrates the story of Elizabeth, a barren, elderly woman, who birth’s the prophet John. When our culture hails youth, beauty, fame and fortune, our story tells of a young teenage girl who all we know anything about is her name and that she’s betrothed to a man who has some clout in his lineage.

Luke’s “little people” encompasses the virgin Mary, as well as the older people, who often get ignored and are no longer listened to as well.

Finally, Elizabeth Gurney

As I got to thinking about children, women, and God’s working in seemingly impossible situations I started thinking about a more contemporary example of someone birthing the impossible: the Quaker Elizabeth Fry Gurney.

This is why we read the poem earlier.

She was a minister who pioneered prison reform between 1780-1845. Elizabeth was an innovative thinker, among the first, to challenge the idea of punishing criminals and demonstrated through her own work how rehabilitation can benefit the person and society better. She came from a very wealthy Quaker family (they would wear the very brightest and best to meeting on Sunday scandalizing the other Quakers there) but after being transformed by an inspirational sermon she set out to help the poor in her village. That progressed into her going to Newgate prison where she would pray for the women and their children in prison. She brought them clothes and cared for them the best she could. Shortly after that she started a school for the woman prisoners of Newgate and even had a matron she employed who could overlook the activities of the school. “She arranged for devout women to visit the prisoners and teach them scriptures. And she sought to improve the conditions for prisoners in the prisons and during their transportation (to places such as Australia). (All Taken from ABC’s of Friends)

And speaking of children, she gave birth to 11.

In her story, I found a woman who struggled with the excesses of life, the heaviness of the burden she carried for the people she helped, and her desire to be faithful to God’s dealings. She penned in her journal, something I imagine both Elizabeth and Mary said in their own way, and I hope that we will be able to say as well:

“Alas, what can I do but follow the openings?

May this be our prayer of response to the God of the impossible.

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.