On the Incarnation (Part 1)

(Material from adult Bible class at Hollywood Church of Christ)

The Great Reversal

Promises Pending

Advent is about the wait—rehearsing Israel’s wait for the Deliverer in order to renew our hearts as we continue to wait for the second coming of our Deliverer.

So it’s strangely difficult to start at the beginning of the Gospels with a deep enough sense of the desperate longing of Israel’s remnant but also strangely easy to start at the beginning of the Gospels with a deep enough sense of our own desperate situation.

It’s sadly all too easy this week to begin our preparations for the Christmas celebration, because we have been overwhelmed with such violence, chaos, and fear—right along with the empty responses of politicians and the vengeful responses of our neighbors and possibly our own hearts. We stare into an endless spiral of retribution and hate and death heaped upon suffering. I want to own that this morning as we read Scripture. This is what precedes the celebration of the birth of the Messiah: a waiting in the midst of an overwhelming need. If we settle into that frame of mind, then we can be gripped by the astonishing, disruptive way that God shows up to keep his promises.

[Imaginative monologue from Mary’s perspective, leading into “Magnificat,” by Keith and Kristyn Getty (listen below)]

Painting of the Annunciation
The Annunciation (1898) by Henry Ossawa Tanner

[The image stays up on the screen for the duration of the class—a visual focal point. I love this painting, because unlike many typical paintings of the annunciation, Mary is not here portrayed as regal and pious but as small, humble, and uncertain.]

Luke 1:26–38 (NRSV)

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth,  27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.  28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”  29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.  30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  32 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.  33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”  35 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.  36 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.  37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”  38 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.

An Echo and a Heart-Stopping Claim

We’re liable to hear many things in these words, but the most important one for the doctrine of the incarnation may escape us. Two things put us at a disadvantage: (1) We’re not generally saturated enough with the Old Testament to hear its many echoes in the New Testament, even when they’re obvious. (2) Old Testament echoes in the New Testament often aren’t obvious, especially when they only come through word choices in the original languages.

In this case, if you’re very familiar with Exodus 40:34–35, you might find familiar language in Luke 1:35. “The power of the Most High will overshadow you” sounds a lot like the way God’s presence manifested over the tabernacle. But it really depends on your translation, since the words are not very similar in many versions.

34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.  35 Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled upon it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.  (Exod 40:34–35; NRSV)

The real clue is in the Greek language. Luke uses a word that shows up in the ancient Greek Old Testament version of Exod 40:35. Where Luke says “the power of the Most High will overshadow you,” Exodus says “the cloud settled upon” the tabernacle. But it’s the same word in the New Testament Greek and the Old Testament Greek version (called the Septuagint).1

Luke’s claim, if we can hear it, is that just as God’s presence filled the tabernacle, so in Mary’s conception God will fill her womb. This is the birth not only of the Messiah (the promised king descended from David) but of God in the flesh. This is the meaning of “incarnation” (becoming flesh) in Christian teaching. Although John 1:14 gives us the phrase “became flesh” and is our easiest point of reference for the teaching, Luke teaches us the same thing in his way. By drawing our attention to the tabernacle of the Old Testament, Luke is conveying the critical point: this is not just a king, nor even a special kind of divine offspring or demigod, but God’s own presence in the flesh.

And not just in the flesh, but in the womb of a poor, engaged virgin in the village of Nazareth, in Roman-occupied Judea. The main point of the story is the incarnation—how God shows up to keep his promises. And that is why it is Mary’s story: she is how God shows up, and this is hugely important for the church.

For the same reason, I find ancient interpretations of Mary’s role compelling. They heard the echo of Exodus 40 and marveled at this girl’s part in the story!

Gregory the Wonder Worker  (c. 213–270), “Homily on the Annunciation to the Holy Virgin Mary”:

“Most of the holy fathers, and patriarchs, and prophets desired to see Him, and to be eye-witnesses of Him, but did not attain hereto. And some of them by visions beheld Him in type, and darkly; others, again, were privileged to hear the divine voice through the medium of the cloud, and were favoured with sights of holy angels; but to Mary the pure virgin alone did the archangel Gabriel manifest himself luminously, bringing her the glad address, “Hail, thou that art highly favoured!” And thus she received the word, and in the due time of the fulfilment according to the body’s course she brought forth the priceless pearl. Come, then, ye too, dearly beloved, and let us chant the melody which has been taught us by the inspired harp of David, and say, “Arise, O Lord, into Thy rest; Thou, and the ark of Thy sanctuary.” For the holy Virgin is in truth an ark, wrought with gold both within and without, that has received the whole treasury of the sanctuary.”

Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 297–373), “Homily of the Papyrus of Turin”:

O noble Virgin, truly you are greater than any other greatness. For who is your equal in greatness, O dwelling place of God the Word? To whom among all creatures shall I compare you, O Virgin? You are greater than them all. O [Ark of the New] Covenant, clothed with purity instead of gold! You are the Ark in which is found the golden vessel containing the true manna, that is, the flesh in which divinity resides.

For those unfamiliar with the Old Testament, here is the basic thing you need to know: the ark was the golden container placed inside the tabernacle (and later the temple) on top of which the presence of God resided. Inside the ark was, among other things, manna, the bread God provided to the Israelites when they lived in the desert. So these ancient interpreters make two beautiful connections by comparing Mary to the ark. One, as Luke’s language implies, she is the place where God’s presence will show up. Two, inside her will be the Bread of Life, as John’s Gospel will call Jesus. I find this to be wonderful, rich imagery as we meditate on the incarnation.

Mary, the first person to speak theologically about Jesus

We should note that Mary’s song serves as a commentary on what has happened up to this point in the story. And that story is already a reversal that comes to a climax in her song, for she is the first person (not counting Gabriel) to speak theologically about Jesus. She does this as the culmination of a story in which the priest Zechariah is literally a mute, while his wife Elizabeth responds to Jesus with blessing. The women are doing the theological work, as Luke would have it. It should hardly surprise us that if a woman can literally bear the Word of God into the world, she can speak a word that becomes Scripture. But whether we are surprised or not, Luke surely sees the prominence of women in these stories as a part of the amazing reversal that Mary celebrates.

Luke 1:46–55

46 And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Mary understands what is happening: the great reversal. The lowly are blessed! The upside down world will be put right side up. The king will restore justice, and the promises will be kept.

But not only that. Luke, through Mary the theologian, is giving us a clue to an even greater reversal. God becomes human! The Most High comes low, so that the lowly may be lifted up. God becomes a man through a poor girl—thereby blessing her and making her into a blessing.

Mary, astoundingly, does not refer to the promises of the restoration of Israel, as we might expect, but the promises to Abraham. Suddenly, Mary’s commentary in song begins to do its work on us.

Genesis 12:1–3

1 Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.  2 I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.  3 I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Given the reference to this promise, the words “all generations will call me blessed” clearly implies that they will say this because through her they too have been blessed. Mary recognizes that her election, like Abraham’s, is instrumental. She is blessed to be a blessing. This lowly girl is the means, the way that God comes to save, in keeping with the meaning of the incarnation that happens through her.

Our God who draws near to save us will do so through weakness and vulnerability in order to show us how we, like Mary, may also be called blessed and become bearers of this blessing. This is the only way the cycle gets broken, the only way we come out of the spiral. God does not retaliate with violence for violence but instead makes himself killable so that others can learn how to live.

He starts a different spiral: in Paul’s words, “you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). But this is not just a swap; it’s an argument about why the Corinthians should be generous: he became poor, so that you might become rich, so that you might become poor, so that they might become rich, and on and on. Blessed in order to bless. Lifted up, in order to humble ourselves, in order to be lifted up. God becomes human and shows us how to be the image of God—human.

So this is the question as we wait in weakness and fear because everything is upside down: when the message comes, “Do not be afraid, I’m coming in the weakness of the flesh,” can we sing a song like this little Jewish girl, one that says, “Therefore the promises are kept”? Can we say, “Let it be, according to your word”?

  1. For the language nerds, here is the text of both passages:

    Exod 40:35 καὶ οὐκ ἠδυνάσθη Μωυσῆς εἰσελθεῖν εἰς τὴν σκηνὴν τοῦ μαρτυρίου, ὅτι ἐπεσκίαζεν ἐπ᾽ αὐτὴν ἡ νεφέλη καὶ δόξης κυρίου ἐπλήσθη ἡ σκηνή.

    Luke 1:35 καὶ ἀποκριθεὶς ὁ ἄγγελος εἶπεν αὐτῇ·πνεῦμα ἅγιον ἐπελεύσεται ἐπὶ σὲκαὶ δύναμις ὑψίστου ἐπισκιάσει σοι·διὸ καὶ τὸ γεννώμενον ἅγιον κληθήσεται υἱὸς θεοῦ.

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