Today’s Chocolate: Endangered Species Dark Chocolate with Forest Mint
Today’s Passage: Luke 1
We’ve just finished a trip through the minor prophets, and it’s the Christmas season. You hardly have to guess where we’re going next. It’s time to break that 400-year silence between testaments and crack open the gospel accounts of the birth of Christ. We’re going to hit Luke and Matthew’s accounts, and we may hit Mark and John as well, even though they don’t directly report Jesus’ birth. After that, we may take a look at thankfulness in the gospels, and probably segue right into the rest of Luke. There’s gonna be a little bit of playing it by ear, but it starts with Luke 1.
It’s an informal tradition in my family to read the birth narratives from the gospels at Christmastime. Some years we’d read them at home before we left to visit relatives, other times we’d read them at the house of whichever grandmother we were visiting that year, and I recall at least one year during the six-hour drive to Virginia that we read them in the car. Reading from the gospels at Christmas was just a fact of life, and sometimes I felt like it, and sometimes I didn’t, but I came to appreciate the regularity of our annual visits to the first couple chapters of Matthew and Luke each year. Discipline helps you keep it together; discipline reminds you what’s important. Christmas these days doesn’t evoke the same feelings in me that it did while I was a kid, but I can continue to make an annual practice of reading the story that the season celebrates. I can keep my eyes on what really gives the season meaning.
But by the time we finish Luke 1, Jesus Christ has yet to come out from the womb, and in fact, much of the chapter concerns the birth of John the Baptist. When the angel Gabriel tells Zacharias that he will have a son named John who “will go as a forerunner before [the Lord] in the spirit and power of Elijah” (17), Zacharias remains uncertain, questioning whether he and his wife Elizabeth could still have a child in their old age. As a result, Zacharias becomes mute until John is born. Gabriel tells him it’s “because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time” (20). The text doesn’t say that Zacharias disbelieves, but his agnosticism results in nine months of inconvenience, reducing him to writing his words slowly on a tablet. When an angel appears and delivers you a message from God, withholding your belief has consequences.
Gabriel visits Mary too, predicting that God will give her son the throne of David, the King. Mary asks, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (34). Mary doesn’t get muted, though. Why? I could assume she believes Gabriel’s message and merely has questions about the how, but let’s contrast her question with Zacharias’. “How will I know this for certain?” Zecharias asks, further explaining, “For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years” (18). Zecharias asks how he will know. He asks for a sign, and the angel gives him one. Mary, in contrast, asks for an explanation, for additional information. In each case, Gabriel gives them what they want. You might view the two incidents as a classic case of “be careful what you wish for;” when you ask God questions, look out, because he just might answer them.
Mary takes the news of her miraculous king of a child to her relative Elizabeth, where she delivers her hymn known as the Magnificat. I’ll confess that the Magnificat has never really resonated with me the way other passages from the gospels have. But in last week’s sermon, the pastor at my church pointed out that Mary knows her Old Testament; her song of praise is rife with themes from the Hebrew scriptures, directly quoting Psalms 103:17 and 107:9. And coming out of the minor prophets, I can recognize prophetic themes of God’s justice, mercy, and power woven throughout here.
On top of that, a friend of mine recently described the the Magnificat as Mary “spending three paragraphs dunking on the rich.” Just look at Mary’s words:
He has done mighty deeds with His arm;
He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones,
And has exalted those who were humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things;
And sent away the rich empty-handed. (51-53)
Mary’s an ordinary Jewish teenage girl in backwater Nazareth, in the precarious position of being pregnant and unmarried, living at a time when Judea had to answer to Roman rule. You could hardly select a less likely mother for a king, yet she’s precisely whom God selected as the mother of the Messiah. Through him, God will bring kings to their knees and throw the rich out with nothing. A revolution is growing inside Mary’s womb.
For what it’s worth, as soon as Zacharias gets his voice back, he also praises God.