Looking West back towards Burra on the Morgan Road, South Australia

Mary Luke and the Kingdom of God

Luke 2:1-20

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

39 In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. 45And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

46 And Mary said,

My soul magnifies the Lord, 
47   and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 
48 for he has looked with favour 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 for ever.

56 And Mary remained with her for about three months and then returned to her home.

Jeremiah 33

13In the towns of the hill country, of the Shephelah, and of the Negeb, in the land of Benjamin, the places around Jerusalem, and in the towns of Judah, flocks shall again pass under the hands of the one who counts them, says the Lord.

14 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’

Mary Luke and the Kingdom of God

We sometimes cling to the story of "Luke the Historian", taking comfort in his careful presentation of the facts. But history never recites what happened. It is always an interpretation. It always has a purpose. Luke's "orderly account" is written to all his readers so that you, Theophilus, the friend of God, "may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed." (Luke 1:1-3) 

If Luke is not a recitation of "what actually happened," how do we describe the book? It's not historical fiction or a movie "based upon a true story." It is not a moral tale. Luke is a Gospel; a narrative theology. And in this narrative theology, the story of Mary is written after[i] the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, after lived reflection upon that crucifixion and resurrection, so that we "may know the truth of those things." It is a story illuminating the fact of Jesus' death and resurrection, carefully constructed to make the meaning of his death and resurrection visible to us.

So Luke takes the story with its well-known details, John, Jesus, Mary, Nazareth, a birth... and enlightens us. For example:

He has written his "orderly account" so that we who are friends of God; that is, are who Theophilus, "may know the truth concerning" who Jesus is, and what he signifies. The ordering of that account is full of allusions, deliberate parallels, and deliberate contrasts. (Luke 1:1-3)

The angel named "man of God," (Gabriel) comes to an elderly Priest named Yah remembersor Zechariah. [We know the angel's name from 1:19] The priest is told his wife, who is Elizabeth, like Elisheba the mother of Aaron and mother of all priests, (Exodus 6:23) who cannot have children, will bear a child. The child will "turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God with the spirit and power of Elijah." The priest is unbelieving and, at the word of the angel, is unable to speak until the birth of the child.

The angel named "man of God" then comes to a girl named Mary, the name of the sister of Moses, another mother of the nation. Mary, who like all prophets feels unworthy of the call of God, nonetheless says, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." She believes him and is thus able to speak as the first prophet of Luke's world, singing the Magnificat.

The children join the list of those miraculously born. Abraham and Sarah could not have children; God intervened and Isaac was born. Elkanah and Hannah could not have children; God intervened, and Samuel was born. [Elizabeth is too old, and] Mary is too young to yet have children; God intervenes, and [John and] Jesus [are] born.

John's name signifies Yahweh has been gracious. 
Jesus means God saves. (One Man's Web 2015)

Once we see this enlightening of Jesus' story it is difficult to un-see. Indeed, once overlooked details fluoresce: Why did Mary go to a town in the hill country of Judea? In the easy "what really happened" universe the answer is obvious; it's where Elizabeth lived. But in a Gospel, narrative detail is meaning. It is where the theology, the word about God, lives. So "a town in the hill country" is never incidental detail[ii]; it is saying something about God, and about God's actions towards us.

13In the towns of the hill country, of the Shephelah, and of the Negeb, in the land of Benjamin, the places around Jerusalem, and in the towns of Judah, flocks shall again pass under the hands of the one who counts them, says the Lord.

14 The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’ (Jeremiah 33)

And in a hill country town the righteous branch is first recognised. The child John leaps for joy in his mother's womb just as David was once "leaping and dancing before the Lord." (2 Sam 6:16)

This is what Jesus is about. He is the contrast to the wastelands, he is the salvation, and the rejoicing because

Thus says the Lord: In this place of which you say, ‘It is a waste without human beings or animals’, in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without inhabitants, human or animal, there shall once more be heard 11the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank-offerings to the house of the Lord:
‘Give thanks to the Lord of hosts,
   for the Lord is good,
   for his steadfast love endures for ever!’
For I will restore the fortunes of the land as at first, says the Lord. (Jeremiah 33)

I have not thought that the myth of "Luke the Historian" somehow guarantees the veracity of our faith for many years. But for a longer time I could only partially escape the paradigm which demands a more or less close parallel to actual events, not to mention that Mary and Zechariah were brilliant improve poets. It's an understanding which dulled my appreciation of the very definite the past tense of The Magnificat.

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 for ever.’

Mary speaks for Luke and his church. Mary is Luke who knows the destruction of Jerusalem. Mary is Luke who knows the oppression of the people, who sits among the lowly and shares their hunger as they live at the mercy of the proud and powerful. And yet Mary Luke has seen the change death and resurrection have wrought in us. She has seen what Jesus has enabled, and dwelt in the new way of living he has implanted in our souls. She sees that the Kingdom has come and the victory is won.

Mary Luke's faith is not in what God will do— the Magnificat does not look forward. It rejoices in what God has done. She sings no pious hymn but sings the observed consequence of the Christ. It is this which she trusts. Luke's gospel is not a promise of what will come in some distant future.  It is an understanding of what has been done, of what has been achieved. It is invitation to a new understanding of history and of creation. Luke is language with which to see kingdom,  "For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you." (Luke 17:21) And Mary Luke is telling us that when we read the story of His birth, when we read of His death, when we read of His resurrection, the Magnificat is what they are about, the Magnificat is what God is doing for us.

The headlines of today suggest something else, and tell us in a hundred different ways that brute power rules or that the world is falling apart. They do not see the Kingdom of Heaven. Or perhaps, sometimes, they do.

I bring you a story of the Kingdom of God, which in one little irruption, sits on Fullarton Road, annoying the swish corporate developments around it, frustrating the land agents, and removing a little polish from the exclusive "heritage" development across the road which is seeking to gloss over the horrors of the old mental hospital. The house has been irritating a certain mindset in Adelaide for many years.

20181223-roycewellsThe ABC reports that finally the Housing Safety Authority ordered the eviction of the owner who has lived there all his life, because of concerns for his safety and the safety of visitors. Bits of roof are falling in, there is no running water or sewage. The property is

full of possums and spiders... [But] With help from the local Burnside Council, a plan was hatched to declare Mr Wells's house an outbuilding and to build him a cabin at the back of his property. The council approved the plans last week... But no banks would loan Mr Wells money for the work, despite his land being valuable because of its commercial zoning. Instead [a friend] will stump up the money himself... Over the past year, now-former councillor Di Wilkins has hosted meetings to make sure to meet the Housing Safety Authority's deadlines.... Other community members have stepped in to do gardening and get Mr Wells help with daily tasks like shopping.

How do we see Kingdom in this? The answer is that I don't know. I can't make it happen. I can't will myself to see the reality of God. My experience is only that somewhere, behind my back, unseen, this became true:

my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, 
48 for he has looked with favour 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.

This is the occasion for a great peace. The angst and fury and fear of life is drained. The hopelessness and cynicism begins to lose its sting. I am relaxed. Everything is different. James Alison says this better than I can:

Something rather like a deep unconcern about myself is born, and a desire to be reconciled with the other because I know that both [s]he and I will be much more, and will be able to enjoy ourselves much more if we are reconciled. (Alison Undergoing God  pp117)

And two little sisters who made my school life hell, and whom I hated, become folk I wish I could find to ask how life has been. To say how sorry I am not to have realised what they were living in. To wish them well. This is Kingdom.

It has had something to do with acceptance of what I have been given. Mary said, 'Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ No demand for signs. No seeking of guarantees. When I gave up on those things and lived where I was, and stopped grasping for reputation, for signs and wonders in worship, and for clear cut answers, the peace came:  An old man who can stay in his ramshackle house, a baby in Bethlehem, a child taken by the state who returns to look after his mum, the old potato farmer who kneels at the door of the church each week and ties the shoes of a woman who can no longer manage laces. This is Kingdom. It is among us.

Andrew Prior (2018)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Also on One Man's Web

Luke 1:39-45, (46-55) - Advent Study Week 4 (2015)
Luke 1:26 - 55 - Every pure and virgin soul (2015)
Luke 1:26-38 - Grim Joy or Glorious Hope (2015)
Luke 1:39-45 - Joy and Sorrow (2013)
Luke 1:26-38 - Getting the Jesus story... (2012)
Luke 1:26-38 - Not about the baby (2010)
Luke 1:39-45 - Hill Country Happiness (2010)

[i] "The reader, in picking up the Lucan or Matthean Gospels, is first confronted with the infancy narrative, and might not be aware that this actually represents the latest part of the gospel tradition to take shape." (Joseph Fitzmyer The Gospel According to Luke 1-1X, pp305)

[ii] Neither, one presumes, is the carefully curated placement of Jesus (in utero) at the birth of John! (1:56)

Bill Schlesinger 24-12-2018
Some stuff from 'aorist tense' - I use Blue Letter Bible for Greek work: The aorist tense is characterized by its emphasis on punctiliar action; that is, the concept of the verb is considered without regard for past, present, or future time. There is no direct or clear English equivalent for this tense, though it is generally rendered as a simple past tense in most translations. The events described by the aorist tense are classified into a number of categories by grammarians. The most common of these include a view of the action as having begun from a certain point ("inceptive aorist"), or having ended at a certain point ("cumulative aorist"), or merely existing at a certain point ("punctiliar aorist"). The categorization of other cases can be found in Greek reference grammars. The English reader need not concern himself with most of these finer points concerning the aorist tense, since in most cases they cannot be rendered accurately in English translation, being fine points of Greek exegesis only. The common practice of rendering an aorist by a simple English past tense should suffice in most cases. It isn't just past tense in Greek - it seems to mean events without regard to time - past present and future?
Andrew 24-12-2018
The thing they talked about when I was in college was "proleptic tension"; "now but not yet" held in tension. I like the notion that something pivotal has been done in Christ's dying and resurrection which means that the old order, the old way of being human, is over. There is a new consciousness which means we will now always know survival of the fittest, and brute power, are simply inferior ways of being which always limit our humanity. A nice quote: "God creates from the future by drawing contingent beings into a harmonious whole." Peace be upon you and yours this Christmas, Bill.

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