Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.

The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”

The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 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 1:26-38

Like millions of other Americans, Kelley and I are devoted fans of “This Is Us.” We always tape it on Tuesday so we can watch it on Wednesday and fast forward through all the commercials. We love the humanity of the show but we are also, like everybody else, hooked by the little “hooks” that come with every episode. Little teasers about what we might expect in future episodes. The show both looks backward, and leans forward, just like the birth stories of Jesus and John.

Pastor Don Carlson recently shared with me an extended quote from a book called “When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation” by Paula Fredriksen. I offer it today because this way of understanding the birth stories in Matthew and Luke always sits in the back of my mind as I read them. Hopefully, they will now sit in yours as well:

These two quite different yet similar birth narratives [the nativity/birth stories in Matthew and Luke] also give us the measure of these evangelists’ literary freedom. This is an extremely important point to bear in mind. It holds true for all our narrative New Testament texts, both for all four of our gospels and certainly for Acts.

These writers were not doing history, certainly not as our modern discipline, born in the Renaissance, is conceived. They were not consulting archives that preserved historical records of Jesus’ birth. None existed. They were not critically assessing various materials and interviewing different people in search of a plausible reconstruction of what might have happened.

Quite the opposite: These authors were unconstrained by any historical knowledge. They were therefore free to allow the scriptures to generate the biographical “data” on Jesus that they needed. Their purpose in writing was not to preserve “memories” or to relate a plausible history: It was to persuade their hearers about the messianic identity of their protagonist. The gospels first of all are proclamations, not histories.

The evangelists’ only constraint was biblical tradition itself: David the king had come from Bethlehem. Therefore, somehow, Jesus had to come from Bethlehem, too. And so, they each wrote up a story, deferring to select biblical passages that conformed Jesus’ past to their own current convictions about him.

So it is that Gabriel visits another woman with news of another impending, important, birth. Mary’s response becomes the quintessential definition of discipleship: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Let us pray: Dear Lord, you do surprising things through surprising people. Sometimes our willingness joins your purposes. Give us the openness to being used by you following the example of Mary. Pushing through her fears, pushing through her questions, surrendering to your will, let this be us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

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