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We all like to think that there are areas in our life where we are in control.
CS Lewis in Surprised by Joy wrote this of his pre-Christian phase: “… But, of course, what mattered most of all was my deep-seated hatred of authority, my monstrous individualism, my lawlessness. No word in my vocabulary expressed deeper hatred than the word INTERFERENCE. But Christianity placed at the centre what then seemed to me a transcendental Interferer. If its picture were true, then no sort of ‘treaty with reality’ could ever be possible. There was no region, even in the innermost depth of one’s soul (nay, there least of all) which one could surround with a barbed wire fence and guard with a notice No Admittance. And that was what I wanted; some area, however small, of which I could say to all other beings, ‘This is my business and mine only’.”
As we prepare for Christmas it’s worth reflecting on one of the most breath-taking moments in history – the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28b). We can appreciate Mary’s perplexity with this supernatural visitation: she wondered what it might mean.
But the angel, sensitive to her apprehension continued, “Do not be afraid, 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… (Luke 1:30-31).
“How can this be, since I have no husband?” Mary responded (Luke 1:34). Even though she was engaged to Joseph, at this point she had clearly not slept with him. And, perhaps like Peter at the time of Jesus’ transfiguration (Luke 9:33), she uttered the first thought that came to mind.
The angel’s response to Mary’s question is unexpected and astonishing (Luke 1:35). It is one of the most awesome statements about Jesus in the whole of Luke. Gabriel clarified for Mary, and for us, just why this baby can be described as truly human and yet divine: ‘God’s Holy Spirit will come upon you,’ he says, and ‘the power of the Most High will overshadow you’. They reflect the life-giving work of God in creation (Genesis 1:2; Psalm 104:30), and in salvation (Ezekiel 37:14).
Mary was a special recipient of God’s grace. God would be with her (future tenses) in the events that were to unfold. His centuries old promises concerning his kingdom and his salvation were about to be fulfilled.
Consider what the angel Gabriel goes on to say to Mary about her baby: “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord 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” Luke 1:32f).
The theme of a virgin or young woman bearing a special son found in Isaiah 7:14 is present here. Yet Luke, unlike Matthew, doesn’t reference this. His emphasis is on the son rather than the mother: the baby is to be named Jesus. Furthermore, Luke sets out who the baby is – drawing our attention to the themes of the prophet Nathan’s words to king David in Second Samuel, chapter 7. Nathan speaks of David’s descendent whose name would be great and who would sit on the throne of his father David (2 Samuel 7:9 and 13-16). Furthermore, Nathan speaks of him as God’s son who will rule over God’s people (see also Psalm 7:17 and Daniel 4:24).
We should also note Luke’s contrasting statements about Jesus and John the Baptist. Whereas John would be great before the Lord (Luke 1:15), Jesus would be great in his own right (Luke 1:32). Many will rejoice at John’s birth (Luke 1:14) but God would give Jesus the throne of his father David (Luke 1:32). While John will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God (Luke 1:16), Jesus will reign over the house of Jacob forever (Luke 1:33).
John would play a significant role in God’s plan, but Jesus would be more significant in every way. John would stand in the tradition of the great prophets, but Jesus would be greater than a prophet. He would not simply stand in the tradition of the kings but would be the king God had promised long ago. (2 Samuel 7:9-16; Psalm 89:14, 19-29, 35-37).
For Luke, Jesus’ connection with David is most important (1:32; 1:69; 2:4; 2:11; 3:31). While Jesus would be given the title Lord after his death and resurrection (Acts 2:29-36), glimpses of this would be seen during the course of his ministry (Luke 18:39; 19:38). This royal figure would be the Son of the Most High (Luke 1:32). His rule would be over Jacob and would be forever (Luke 1:33).
In this remarkable, unexpected scene, Luke records God’s direct and personal involvement in his creation. From the moment of his conception in Mary’s womb, Jesus is understood to be truly man and truly God. God’s kingdom or rule has come into our human experience in a new and personal way. Jesus is truly divine and yet he is from the family of the kings.
Mary’s closing words challenge us: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
When we consider this simple yet profound scene the implications are life-changing. They threaten our desire to be in control. Yet when we reflect, we discover an unexpected ray of light and hope for us and for our world. Yes, God is the ‘transcendental interferer’ but his ‘interference’ springs from his amazing heart of love and mercy.
No wonder we sing, Hark! The herald angels sing, … glory to the newborn king.
A prayer. Lord we beseech you, pour out your grace into our hearts; so that, knowing the incarnation of your Son Jesus Christ by the message of an angel, we may be brought to the glory of his resurrection by his cross and passion. We ask this through Jesus Christ who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
© John G. Mason
Note: My comments on Luke 1:26-38 are drawn from my book, Luke: An Unexpected God, Second Edition, Aquila: 2019.