Malankara World

Sermons Based on the Lectionary of the Syrian Orthodox Church

St. Mary Visits Elizabeth

Sermon / Homily on Luke 1:39-56

Exegetical Notes on Luke 1:39-55

by Brian Stoffregen, CrossMarks Christian Resources, Marysville, CA

Scripture: Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]

THE LARGER CONTEXT (Luke 1:1-56)

Luke has carefully crafted the opening chapter of his gospel. Verses 1-4 set forth the purpose of the entire Gospel and the book of Acts that follows. The only time these verses are looked at in our Lutheran Lectionary is on the Festival of St. Luke (October 18), but they should be studied in preparation for understanding Luke's writings. Note that the purpose of the writings is not primarily to give a historical account of what happened, but to show how "what happened" is now being "fulfilled among us" the second or third generation believers not the eyewitnesses. In other words, how those past events affect the present believers more specifically, to correct some possible misunderstandings Theophilus (and others) might have about Jesus and his followers. It is like a sermon applying past events to present circumstances. It is meant to be more than history. It is the fulfilling of God's word in the past and in the present -- among us.

Next comes parallel annunciation stories of Zechariah (1:5-25) and Mary (1:26-38). Richard Jensen (Preaching Luke's Gospel) states rather forcefully, "Luke intends that we catch the fullness of his meaning by hearing these stories together! What Luke has joined together no lectionary system should rend asunder!" [p. 23]

A CONTRAST IN FAITH

One of the themes from this larger context that Jensen presents is that of faith.

Zechariah has heard the word of the angel and has not believed it. He wants proof. He wants to know. Unfaith always wants to know. But the angel of God is not about knowing. The angel calls for faith and punishes Zechariah for his lack of faith. "Because you did not believe my words...you will become mute..." (v. 20). And it was so. Zechariah stands before us as a model of a person of unfaith.

Many, on the other hand, stands before us as the model of faith! The contrast between Zechariah and Mary is stark. He is a priest of the highest order in Israel. Yet he does not believe. She is a common peasant woman. But she believes! She is all that Zechariah is not. [p. 24]

And later Jensen adds:

And Mary believed the words of promise. Gabriel had scolded Zechariah because he did not believe the words of promise. Zechariah is the model of unfaith. Mary models faith. "Here am I," she says, "the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word" (1:38). Faith has everything to do with hearing the promised word of God and trusting that word. That's a simple yet profound understanding of faith!

...To hear Mary's story...without hearing also Zechariah's story, is to miss a wonderful homiletical opportunity! These stories belong together. [p. 25]

Jensen presents the following homiletical direction concerning this theme:

Having told these two stories so that they properly stand in contrast with each other, we are immediately tempted to leap to judgment. "Don't be like Zechariah!" we would like to shout out. "Be like Mary." It is always tempting to preach the Law in such fashion.

But it really doesn't work that way in these stories. In the first place, we are all quite obviously more like Zechariah than we are like Mary. In the second place, we have not as yet heeded the whole story of Zechariah. Yes, he became mute. But his inability to speak was limited in scope. Once the child was born, Zechariah got it! His tongue was set loose and he blessed God (1:64), old Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and his tongue burst loose in wondrous song....

Zechariah, too, comes to faith in God's promise! His faith timetable is just a little slower than Mary's! Remind you of anyone? The proclamation for this sermon might go like this. God is the speaker. God says: "I am a God who makes promises. I am a God who keeps promises. I made a promise to Zechariah. Zechariah, like many of you, was slow to believe. But I kept my promise! I made a promise to Mary. She got it immediately and trusted the word of promise. I kept my promise to Mary, as well. In Jesus Christ, the Son to be born, I make a promise to you. Some of you will get it right away. Some of you might ponder the matter for some time. But never fear. I am a God who makes promises. I am a God who keeps promises. I will keep my Christ-promise to you." [pp. 27-28]

WHO IS THE GREATER ONE

Another truth presented in these opening verses is that Jesus is presented from the very beginning as the greater one. The miracle of John's birth to two aged parents is great. The miracle of Jesus' birth to a young virgin is greater. The angel tells Zechariah: "even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit" (1:15), but Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit -- that's greater. John will be a prophet of the Most High (3:76), but Jesus will be the Son of the Most High (1:32) -- his relationship to God is closer.

Related to this, we might remind ourselves that after two weeks of hearing about John, that he and his preaching were secondary to Jesus. While it is a simplistic and only partially accurate dichotomy, we might say that John's preaching centered on answering the question "What should we do?" (Answer: Bear fruit worthy of repentance.) In Jesus we have the declaration, "This is what God has done and is doing." If we stop with the more legalistic preaching of John, we haven't moved on to the greater one. Zechariah, Mary, John, even Jesus, and the disciples are all "supporting characters" in Luke/Acts. The main character is God. It is God who comes to Zechariah and Mary. It is the Holy Spirit who guides John, Jesus, and the disciples (especially after Pentecost). Luke/Acts is a story about God.

MARY'S VISIT TO ELIZABETH (1:39-45)

"On that day" and "with haste" indicate the immediacy of Mary's trip after hearing the angel's message, Mary goes to Elizabeth presumably to confirm the angel's word about Elizabeth's pregnancy and perhaps share in her joy. It could be understood as a sign of Mary's faith -- "I'm going to see what God has done with Elizabeth;" or a testing of the angel's message -- "I'm going to see if what the angel said about Elizabeth is true."

Perhaps it was obvious to Mary when she entered the room that what the angel had told her about Elizabeth was true.

It also became obvious to Elizabeth that there was something special about Mary and the baby she was carrying. Her knowledge didn't come from an angel, but from a kick in her womb!

On one hand, this might be a fulfillment of the prophecy that the angel told Zechariah about his son: "Even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit" (1:15b). The unborn John is presented as recognizing something about the unborn Jesus. In fact, Martin Luther uses this event to talk about "infant faith" in an argument for infant baptism. (I don't remember where I read it.) Is that an argument that can be used against those who claim babies should be baptized (or communed) because they don't have faith -- that John exhibited faith in Jesus while still in the womb?

On the other hand, the movement in the womb requires some interpretation. The word for "leap" (skirteo) in the NT is used only in Luke. Twice in reference to John's "leaping" in the womb (1:41, 44) and once in reference to Luke's beatitude about persecution. "Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven" (6:23ab). The same word is used in the LXX at Genesis 25:22 about the twins struggling together in the womb.

Is there really any difference between a "kick" in the womb or twins "struggling" in the womb and a "leap for joy" in the womb? It all depends on how one interprets the actions. Certainly in this text Elizabeth is able to correctly interpret the movement within her because she has been filled with the Holy Spirit.

How often are we put in a position to offer a Christ-centered interpretation of events that happen? Was it just circumstances? Was God involved? Should we say, "You were sure lucky!" or "Blessed be God!"? There is a danger in assuming that we might know what God is doing, but there is also a danger of discounting God's activities in our lives. It has been suggested that many if not most American Christians are functional atheists -- they live or function (or we can also say, interpret the events in their lives) as if there were no God.

While I don't want to limit the activities of the Spirit, frequently in Luke/Acts being filled with the Spirit resulted in a speech.

After Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, she exclaims with a loud cry (1:41).

After Zechariah is filled with the Holy Spirit, he speaks a prophecy (1:67).

After all are filled with the Holy Spirit, they speak in other tongues (Ac 2:4)

After Peter is filled with the Holy Spirit, he speaks (Ac 4:8)

After all are filled, they speak the word of God boldly (Ac 4:31)

After the Holy Spirit fell on the Gentiles, they speak in other tongues (Ac 10:44)

In contrast, Ananias is filled with Satan and lies to the Holy Spirit (Ac 5:3)

SHOUTED PRAISE!

Some weeks ago I suggested that the blind man's prayer, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!" (Mark 10:47), should be shouted louder and louder by the congregation. Similarly, words of Elizabeth are cried out (anaphoneo) with a loud shout (krauge megale). Should we do that in church?

First Elizabeth "eulogizes" Mary and the "fruit of her womb."

Literally, the word eulogeo means "to speak well of," then "to praise," then "to bless," and finally, it can refer deeds that bring blessings, "to act kindly towards."

There is a sense that this word not only declares the blessing or praise, but makes it happen. It is used by Jesus over the bread and fish at the feeding of the 5000 (9:16); and by the risen Jesus over the bread at the home in Emmaus where he is made known to the two (24:30). [NOTE: Luke uses eucharisteo for the blessings over the bread and cup at the Last Supper (22:17, 19).] Jesus is blessing his disciples at the time of his ascension (24:50-51).

Why is Mary blessed/praised?

"She is the mother of the Lord." This is what sets Mary apart from all other believers. At the same time, I'm not sure how many of us would be praising/blessing a young teenage, (probably 12-14 years old,) unmarried girl whom we discover is pregnant. It is likely that these words of praise come more from the confessions of the early church than a song from Elizabeth.

"She has come to Elizabeth." Elizabeth's joy at her own pregnancy after so many years of barrenness is overshadowed by the joy at Mary's visit -- or rather that the unborn Lord would honor her with his presence. How wonderful it would be if we had that same attitude concerning the presence of our Lord in our gathering together, and in the Word, and in the Supper: "Blessed be God who has come to us this day." I think that too often we think of worship as our good deed of bringing ourselves to God, when, in fact, it is a time and place where God comes to us.

"She believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." The word for "blessed" in v. 45 is makaria, which carries more the idea of being happy because of favorable circumstances. A verbal form of this noun is used in v. 48. As the mother of the Lord, Mary is unique. As one who believes that God's Word will be fulfilled, she is a model of faith for us all.

MARY'S SONG (Luke 1:46-55)

There is an option this week of including Mary's song as part of the lesson or using it as the Psalm response. It needs to be heard. Jensen makes the bold statement: "It could be said that the entire Gospel of Luke is a commentary on this song!" [p. 25] in Jesus, the Messiah, their whole outlook and expectation had radically changed. Their insignificance no longer mattered, since they knew God through his Christ had come to their help. They were chosen for redemption and that meant that they already had gained a new sense of worth and dignity, along with a new community of loving and caring believers. But above all it meant the sure hope of God's mercy and justice in the coming age, when all the injustices and oppressions and burdens of this life would be gone. Then only good things would be theirs from the hand of God. In such a way, we think, these earliest believers grasped the message and promise of Jesus. [p. 61]

I think that what was true in the uplifting experience of the lowly and poor and hungry among the early believers, was also true among the rich. We read about the rich man who is unwilling to part with his wealth and give to the poor, and so he unable to inherit eternal life (18:18-25). We read about the rich man, who was unwilling to share with the poor and poor, hungry Lazarus and the reversals they experienced in the future life (16:19-31). But Luke also tells us about Zacchaeus who was brought down (from the tree!), who voluntarily gave away his wealth after his encounter with Jesus (19:1-10). I think that there were some of the rich like Zacchaeus and Cornelius who shared their wealth in godly ways. This song also expresses their experience with the God who shows might and power through mercy.

See Also:

Sermons, Bible Commentaries, Bible Analyses on St. Mary's Visit to Elizabeth

Malankara World Special on St. Mary

Malankara World Special on Shunoyo of St. Mary

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