Over 60 years after Jesus birth a doctor and follower of Jesus known as Luke wrote down a story which portrayed an intimate scene between Mary and an angel called Gabriel. No one else was present and no one else wrote the story down in the same way. In fact the only other version we have of the birth narrative of Jesus is found in Matthew’s gospel and it is quite a bit different.
To quote from Luke himself concerning this particular situation it would be easy to be “much perplexed by his words”. Or maybe we might want ask with Mary “How can this be?”
The kind of conundrum which is presented to us in this classic Biblical story, known as the annunciation, is a conundrum which leads me into speaking about something which is foundational in my faith – how I read the Bible.
It is quite fanciful to think that Luke’s fly on the wall account of this miraculous event has any real sense of absolute historical truth about it. Even if there was a tradition handed on, a story about what had occurred, the idea that it would have remained accurate and intact for 60 years in naive at best.
So what do we do with this story? How do we understand it? Does it have any real authority for us?
My answer is, “Of course.”
The notion that we only read the Biblical text as some kind of accurate and literal account of events has only really been around for about 100 years or so. Narrow literalist readings of the scripture seem to be reaction by many in the church to the liberal theology of the nineteenth century. A theology which, for example, had no real trouble accepting Charles Darwin’s theories expressed in his ground breaking book “The Origins of Species”.
But, just as there are problems with literalist readings of the scriptures which seek to enshrine the words of the text in a way which I believe is idolatrous, so too I have great difficulty with those who would disregard the text because it does not make scientific and historic sense to them.
Many of the so called liberal theologians would say that there is no evidence for what the scripture is saying or that it is inconsistent, and more than that, that the church has indoctrinated us to have naive beliefs about the scriptures.
To both literalist and liberal I would want to say Luke was not writing history and nor was he writing science – Luke was writing theology.
The purpose of Luke’s story is not to make a claim about the historicity of the encounter between the angel and Mary which may or may not have actually happened in the way that he described. Nor is it to provide a scientific explanation concerning the notion of a virginal conception.
Luke’s task is theology: to explain who God is and how this God relates to human beings and how human beings relate to God. This is where the authority of the scriptures lie and it is how they should be read.
To do theology, to think about who God is and who we are before this God, is to stand on the precipice of a vast mystery. It is as if we are looking into the far reaches of the ever expanding universe seeing the glimmer of billions of stars, aware and in awe, whilst not fully comprehending what is really out there.
As Luke fashions his story, of the encounter between Gabriel and Mary, what he is seeking to do is to convey some basic theological truths as had been revealed to him; truths which may have some historical grounding in an encounter which Mary may have described to others.
Not surprisingly one of the key truths that Luke explores, not just in this story but throughout his gospel, is the incomprehension and incredulity of people when they encounter the divine. To push the miracle of this story a little further I would argue that what is occurring here is a theophany, which essentially means an appearance of God.
When Mary encounters the divine she is perplexed, she ponders his words, she even doubts by asking “How can this be?” My sense of Mary’s response “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”, is not that of a humble faithfulness that we can extol in any way rather it is a simple acceptance of what she has come to realise is fait accompli.
This is part of Mary’s story and it is part of our story too. In the years I have spent in ministry many people have shared with me encounters with the divine: visions, feelings, angelic appearances, dreams, words of wisdom and insights. These are intimate stories of witness, which we seem so often reticent to share in our scientific and ordered world, and they have been a gift to me. I would continue to encourage you to take the confidence to share these intimate moments of your faith, your divine and miraculous encounters, with each other far more freely and so I believe to be surprised at just how common they are. God is at work among us!
It is fascinating to me that Mary moves from a place of questioning, into obedient response and acceptance, and then when she visits Elizabeth into praise and thanksgiving to God.
It was in the sharing of her story that Luke depicts Mary as praising God openly. A praise possibly born out of the joy of knowing that her story had been heard and her witness had meaning for Elizabeth; but we know not only for Elizabeth but for the millions of Christians who have treasured Luke’s narrative since that time.
Luke is telling us that even Mary who bore Jesus in her womb found it difficult to comprehend and accept what God might be doing and that the reality is that any encounter with God can lead us into confusion and questioning, “How can this be?” If anything the story reassures us of our own questions concerning our spiritual experiences and should encourage us to know it is in the sharing of these experiences that both enlightenment and praise can occur.
This leads me into making a comment on another of Luke’s key theological points in this passage – the incarnation.
I remember a few years back making the comment in a sermon on this same passage that Luke’s point is not to get us to believe that Mary was a virgin but that Jesus was God’s Son. When I made this statement I was leaving room for those who might struggle with the science of a virginal conception and other historical anomalies which lie around this story. The question I asked at the time ‘was it more believable that Mary was a virgin or Jesus was God’s Son?’ At worst Luke is telling a stock standard story for his era to get his point across: if Jesus was to accepted as divine including the story of a virginal birth was really nothing new.
I would say however after years of contemplation on the issue I have come to the conclusion that the idea that Mary was a virgin is not such a difficult leap after all and like most Biblical inclusions has deep theological significance in itself.
What Luke conveys to us is that God chose in God’s own mysterious way to reach into Mary and create within her a new life. Psalm 139 describes the mystery of our embryonic life with these wonderful words: “you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb”. Whilst biological science may explain these processes there is still an awesomeness and mystery to be embraced in the miracle of life.
So when God knit Jesus’ life together in Mary’s womb he did so in a new way. In the womb of this woman Mary, who was a child of Adam and Eve, God did something new in the creation. This is the miracle of the incarnation, the eternal Word of God being made flesh, he is a new creation!
For so many Christians the cross is the focal point of our faith and rightly so. Great theologians such as Martin Luther, Karl Barth and Jurgen Moltmann have pointed us to the cross to understand God. Yet the cross is given its meaning so profoundly because of who it is we believe is hanging there in Jesus – God incarnate: the Word made flesh knit together in Mary’s womb!
This is why Luke’s story is so important because he describes for us a theological truth which has us standing with mouths agape just as Mary did: “How can this be?” “How can God become a human being?”
You see the incarnation stands us something which is completely unique about our faith. The story of a God who as John puts it pitches his tent among us; he tabernacles with us!
It is his presence in the world that alters the reality of all existence. This means that for me Christianity is never about telling you how to live or what you need to do to get into heaven or what kind of morals you should have. These may be side effects of the good news but the heart of our faith, its essence, is about what God is up to in Jesus.
It would have been far simpler for me over the years to have taken the well worn route of preaching moral truths telling you how to behave or what to do but this to me would lack the truth of our faith and of eternal life, which is described by Jesus in John “as knowing him and the Father who sent him”.
As I continue in ministry in this place it is my prayer, and my hope, that you have not found anything of value in knowing me beyond that you have come to know God more deeply, for this is the task for which I believe I was sent. To point away from myself and at God incarnate who is Jesus, and him crucified and risen for the life of the world.
To return to where I began, Luke’s purpose was theology. The story of the annunciation is our story – the story of our confusion and disbelief when God appears. Yet it is also the story of God’s faithfulness and immeasurable love revealed in the Good news, “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.”
Is it any wonder that when Mary began to really comprehend this she extolled God before Elizabeth saying,
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.”
May we in grace and hope join her song.