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Jesus' Family Album: Mother Mary and Uncle Zechariah

. 6 min read

16-17
Dec 2017, Christ Mountain Top
Luke
1.46-55 (call to worship, Magnificat)
Isaiah
61.1-4 (advent wreath)
Luke
1.5-23 (kids)
Luke
1.26-45, 1.57-71, 2.1-7 (message focus)
We’ve
been looking at Jesus’ family album, through the origin stories in each of the
four gospels.  The first week of Advent,
we looked at Matthew and found a portrait of Father Joseph.  The second week, we looked at Mark’s gospel and
found a portrait of Cousin John, all grown up. 
Today, we look at Luke’s gospel, together with Matthew the only gospels
to record any story of Jesus before his baptism as an adult.  Unlike Matthew, Luke focuses not on Joseph
but on Mother Mary.  And, Luke includes
the family connection with John by introducing John’s parents as well.
      Did your family ever have two moms
pregnant at the same time?  In our
family, Robin was pregnant with Caleb (our second) at the same time that her
sister Marcy was pregnant with Tony (their first).  Tony was born a month before Caleb.  A generation before, Robin’s grandmother had
her third child, Mark, one of those late life surprises, only one year before
Robin’s sister was born, two years before Robin.
      In cases like that, comparing notes on
first words, crawling, walking, potty training, teething, and – eventually –
driving, is just what you do, particularly in the family and even with other
parents whose children are close to yours in age.

Luke
flips back and forth between Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of Cousin
John, and Mary, mother of our Lord.  In
their case, there is a six month delay between parallel events.
      The angel Gabriel announces the birth of a
son to Zechariah.  Six months later,
Gabriel announces the birth of a son to Mary. 
Mary visits with Elizabeth, living in the Judean hill country, staying
for three months, and leaves for home in Galilee before John is born.  John is born, Zechariah – his tongue finally
loosened – sings praise to God, and the child grows.  Jesus is born, the angels sing praise, and
the child grows.  The parallels in
structure, and even in the language of the original Greek text, are striking.  (See program insert of chart from Fitzmyer,
313-314.)
      There is parallelism between John and
Jesus, but not equality.  Though both are
agents of salvation, and both sent from God, Jesus is after John (conceived 6
months later) and is greater than John. 
John is “great before the Lord”, Jesus is “Great”.  Zechariah and Elizabeth are “righteous”, Mary
is “favored”.  (See Fitzmyer, 315.)  Zechariah is “troubled” (1.12), Mary is
“deeply troubled” (1.29), an intensive form of the word (Brown, 288).
By
this parallelism without equality, Luke tells us that John is prophet, Jesus is
Savior and Son of God.  The parallelism
also introduces differences between the parents, particularly between Zechariah
and Mary, and some implications for the life of faith.
The
Blessing of Belief:
In
both of these parallel stories, the blessing of belief plays a prominent
role.  To Zechariah, the angel declares,
“Now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their
time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur”
(1.20).  And, to Mary, Elizabeth
exclaims, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of
what was spoken to her by the Lord” (1.45).
      So, is being mute a curse?  And is being able to speak the blessing? No,
and no.  Being mute is the sign.  Zechariah needed an additional sign – the
angel announcement wasn’t enough – and God, kindly, provided.  Mary too was given a sign, but not because
she asked for one.  She was simply told,
“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”
(1.36-37).  (See Fitzmyer, 313-314.)
      Is being mute a curse?  Well . . . maybe.  Imagine not being able to speak to a friend
about your miracle baby!  However, it was
also a sign.  Finally, when his tongue
was loosed, all he could do was offer praise, and not for the gift of speech
but for the gift of his son John, for the gift of God’s mercy, for the gift of
the coming Savior from the house of David.
      So, what is the blessing?
Maybe
we are missing the point.  The Greek
expression for blessing in 1.45 is an adjective, a descriptive term, rather
than a verb form.  It is describing Mary
as blessed rather than actually blessing Mary. 
In the New Testament, it is often the recognition of deep joy.  As, “Blessed are the meek for they will
inherit the earth.”  That beatitude is,
in some English translations, “Happy are the meek”, because it is a
description, it “recognize[s] an existing state of happiness or blessing” (Brown,
333-334, on makarios).  Though, for
me personally, “happy” is not deep enough for the joy of meek ones oppressed by
the strong or lowly ones rejected by the important.
      And, this matches the context.  We do not find a reference to any concrete
blessing.  What we do find is Mary
joyful.  Joyful to join God in this work,
despite the personal cost: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with
me according to your word” (1.38). 
Joyful in declaring God’s praise, despite the life-long stigma of
illegitimate birth: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God
my Savior” (1.46-47).  Joyful for an
unseen reality in which the powerful are brought down and the lowly lifted up,
an unseen reality in which the hungry are filled and the rich are empty
(1.52-53), an unseen reality that will be manifested in that “great and
terrible day of the Lord” (Joel 2.31).
      The blessing of belief.
And,
the Grace of the Gospel:
Twice
in the course of these parallel stories, the Greek root for “gospel” or “good
news” is used.  Both times, it is in the
mouth of angels.  First, Gabriel tells
Zechariah, “I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news”
(1.19).  Second, to the shepherds, an
unnamed angel declares, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the
people” (2.10).
      Interestingly, the shepherds respond with
belief.  Mary responds with belief
(though the actual Greek term is not used in relation to her).  But Zechariah, the priest, the religious
professional, does not believe the gospel. 
What happens to him?  Does he miss
out on grace?  Is he forever
rejected?  “I am bringing you bad news of
great judgment for all the people.”
      Good thing I’m not God.  If I offer someone something and they don’t
receive it, I’ll pass it along to someone else. 
“You don’t want the last piece of pie? 
Well, then I’ll eat it myself!”
      God still answered Zechariah’s prayer for
a child (1.13), a prayer he never believed would be answered!  Now, faith in prayer is important.  It is important but not decisive.  Only God is decisive, only God is sovereign,
only God rules.  And though we often
struggle to understand how that works, what we learn from this story is that
the Gospel is truly Gracious.
      Of course, to acknowledge that it is all
about grace means that we acknowledge that it is not all about me.  Instead, it is all about God.  I love this line from Isaiah: “All our
righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64.6).  Even at our best, we are nowhere near good
enough.  Zechariah?  No worse than me, and no better than me.  God is gracious.  This is truly “good news”.  And, once we really get that, once it gets ahold
of us, we won’t be able to stop praising God. 
Like Zechariah, we’ll become evangelists ourselves.
Resources:
Raymond
E. Brown. 1977, 1978. The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy
Narratives in Matthew and Luke.
New York: Doubleday, Image.

Fitzmyer,
Joseph A. 1982-. The Gospel According to Luke I-IX: Introduction,
Translation, and Notes (Anchor Bible 28)
. New York: Doubleday.