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Winter Quarter: Honoring God
Sunday school lesson for the week of December 22, 2019
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Lesson Scripture: Luke 1: 39-56
Key Verse: Luke 1:46-47
“My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”
Aim and Goal of the Lesson
To study the events leading to the beautiful, inspired Magnificat. To recognize the contrasts and comparisons in this narrative that help us grasp the full wonder and meaning of her praise.
Historical, Geographical, Theological and Experiential background of Luke 1:39-56
In last week’s lesson we learned that though David deeply desired to construct a permanent structure for the Ark of the Covenant and a house for God, God had chosen another for the task. David’s son Solomon would construct the majestic first temple that would provide Israel with a permanent symbolic place to worship their Lord. However, David would become the central character in the creation of another structure, a spiritual
structure that transcended wood and stone. Through David’s lineage a spiritual house would be built using David’s descendants as its spiritual foundation. From David would arise a kingdom, a government in which God would reign over all. It would exist forever and no temporal or celestial power could destroy it. A descendent of David would occupy that throne, and the major descendent would be the Messiah. As Isaiah proclaimed in chapter 9, “Of the increase of his government there shall be no end.”
In our lesson’s narrative the time has arrived for this messianic descendent of David to enter our world, join humanity, and redeem the entire world. Luke employs the literary techniques of comparison and contrast to reveal the wonder of the unfolding events that welcomed the Christ-child into the world. The narrative will open with Mary’s visit to her relative Elizabeth who was with child six months prior to Mary. Elizabeth has been barren, thus her carrying a male child in her womb was, for Elizabeth and Zechariah, quite miraculous. It implied that God had a plan for Elizabeth’s and Zechariah’s child. In the tradition of other biblical accounts in which barren women found themselves with child, the gift of the child usually preceded an act of God’s redemptive work in Israel’s history. For example, Sarah gave birth to Isaac and Hannah gave birth to Samuel. Isaac was the child of the covenant, and Samuel became one of the first mighty judges of Israel. Therefore, we can conclude that the birth of John to Elizabeth and Zechariah held great significance for God’s movement in human history. John became the Nazrite calling Israel to repentance and baptism and was among the first to recognize Jesus as the “Lamb of God that taketh away the sins of the world.” Furthermore, he is closely associated in spirit with the prophet Elijah who was believed to arrive prior to the arrival of God’s Messiah. As we study the text, these contrasts and comparisons will compliment powerfully the Advent story and the important role of each important character.
Historical, theological and experiential reflection upon the narrative of Luke: 1:39-56:
Luke 1: 39-40
As Mary discovers she is with child, she hurriedly prepared to visit Elizabeth. Having already heard from the angel Gabriel that Elizabeth was with child, Mary undoubtedly was able to understand that the two births would share a special spiritual connection. Many scholars assume Elizabeth is from the town of Hebron. Mary’s journey from Nazareth to Hebron is approximately 70 miles. This would mark the first long journey of two during Mary’s pregnancy. Seventy miles was a long distance over tough terrain. Hebron was an important biblical city. It is the city in which the patriarchs and matriarchs were buried, such as Abraham and Sarah. David was first anointed king at Hebron. Thus, in this sacred city of the tombs of the patriarchs, Mary journeyed to visit Elizabeth who would bring life into the world. She carried the child who would proclaim Jesus to be the Messiah. I don’t think we should assume it to be coincidental that Mary travels to Hebron. After all, the patriarchs looked for that day when God’s messiah would come. The Messiah is the fulfillment of the covenant made with Abraham, entombed at Hebron. Messiah is to be from the lineage of David who himself was anointed king in Hebron. At the place of David’s anointed arrived a visit from Mary who carried within her womb the king of kings. Places are significant in the Bible and this was a significant place for Mary and Elizabeth to visit.
In terms of biblical tradition, usually males were the spokesmen in the biblical era. Women were not even allowed to testify in a court of law as an eye witness, considering her perception to be unreliable for no other reason that she was a woman. Yet, God’s redemptive activity ignored this patriarchal way of looking at the world and used women for his redemptive plan. Remember, it was a woman who first experienced and proclaimed the resurrection of Jesus! Zechariah was a priest, an important man in Hebron. However, he is mute because of his unbelief. Therefore, it is the peasant girl Mary and her relative Elizabeth who are blessed to address and speak of the great thing God is about to do. They do not understand the full implication of what God is going to do through their children, yet still they believe what Gabriel has spoken and are willing to share it. Since Elizabeth is the older, it is customary and respectful for Mary to greet Elizabeth as she arrives.
Can you name other biblical places of great importance because they were tied to Israel’s past walk with God? Examples given: Mt. Moriah, Sinai, Gethsemane? Can you name other women in the Bible who played major roles in God’s redemption of the world and in the history of Israel? What important women can you name from the New Testament and their role in the development and growth of the faith and church?
Luke 1: 41-42
When Elizabeth hears Mary’s voice, the child in her womb, John, leaps with joy! It would prove unfair and rash if we attempt to claim the leaping of Elizabeth’s child was little more than a normal movement of her child during pregnancy. Luke wants us to understand there is a recognition!
As John baptizes the repentant later, and Jesus approaches, it is John who first recognizes who Jesus is. This is not a recognition he has gained from spending time with Jesus. The text implies that John intuitively and spiritually knew that Jesus of Nazareth was God’s Messiah. Therefore, Luke seems to be saying to us that his recognition has existed from the beginning of their lives in the womb. If God can allow barren Elizabeth to have a child and move upon a poor peasant girl like Mary that she might be with child as well, then we cannot say that John could not recognize Jesus in the womb. Such are the wonders of God. We accept it as a matter of faith and because we accept the inspired biblical account recorded carefully by Luke.
What Elizabeth says next is through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear.” Luke’s Gospel is often called the Gospel of Compassion and the Gospel of the Holy Spirit. Luke’s Gospel mentions the presence of the Holy Spirit and the activity of the Spirit more than the other gospels. Luke could have written that in a state of ecstasy Elizabeth proclaimed Mary and her child as special. However, Luke, again the writer who investigated his sources and treated them with care, writes plainly that Elizabeth speaks as she is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Not only is God moving in their midst, God is also speaking!
What do you believe is Luke’s intent that we understand the special, unique connection between John and Jesus in the Advent narrative? What are the spiritual connections they will share in the coming years? Why do you believe it was important for Luke to remind us that it was the Holy Spirit speaking through Elizabeth?
Luke 1: 43-45
In the previous verse notice that Elizabeth speaks of herself in a subordinate position to Mary. Mary is the one Elizabeth lifts up in exultation. From the beginning, Luke’s Gospel informs us that John is not Messiah, but a messenger who prepares the way for the Lord. John himself will repeat his subordinate claim later at the Jordon. Even Elizabeth recognizes her child will make a path for the Lord to proclaim his redemption. There is not a single hint of jealousy or covetousness on the part of Elizabeth. Her humble faith is accepting of God’s ministry for her and her child, and thankful for it. It is Mary who struggles to understand why God has chosen her, a lowly maiden, for such a holy calling. At least Elizabeth is married to a priest. Mary is betrothed to a carpenter! She is truly overwhelmed and cannot fully comprehend what is transpiring within and through her, and most importantly, why? Her most revealing response to the wonder of Gabriel’s message is, “How will this be?” Furthermore, she adds her words of resignation and faith, “May your word to me be fulfilled.” In other words, she is admitting though she does not understand, she accepts what God has proclaimed. Again, Zachariah is mute with disbelief; Mary is full of expressions of wonder.
Can you recall a moment, or moments, when you struggled to understand what God was doing in your life? Was it easier to question the Lord, or submit as Mary saying, “Let it be?” Was there a time later when you recognized God had birthed something great in your life through that difficult time?
Luke 1:46-50 (the Magnificat)
This beautiful, honest song of praise has become a part of the church’s liturgy for hundreds of years. Every Advent season of my Christian life I have listened to the Magnificat recited, read, or sung. It always blesses me. We must remember this song of praise arises from the heart of a very young woman, overcome with fear regarding what her culture and future husband might think of her or do with her. Furthermore, she is without a rational answer as to why she is with child.
A song of glorification to God implies that there is nothing we can ascribe to ourselves. We have done nothing to merit the circumstance or event that is bringing us eternal joy. No, only God deserves the respect and thanksgiving; to God we ascribe all goodness, for the Lord alone deserves it. Mary sings, “My soul glorifies in the Lord.”
Mary’s praise is among the highest expressions of praise anyone can give unto God. She isn’t just thanking God for what he had done in her. She offers praise for who God is
. What God has done is an expression of who he is!
In verse 47, Mary rejoices in God her savior. Her rejoicing has everything to do with her inability to comprehend what God has done in her and why he chose her. There is mystery in her rejoicing. What God has done makes no logical sense; it cuts against the grain of the culture, it violates the cultural norms regarding marriage, and yet it must be a righteous act, for it is God who has performed it!
We have mentioned the Retribution Principle and its relation to Old and New Testament Jewish theology. Simply stated, righteous people are blessed. Those who obey the law live in health and their family enjoys a lifestyle of greater wealth. The inverse is true for those who violate the law of God. There is no reason at all, as related to Jewish theology, that Mary should receive any benefit from God. She is poor and comes from a peasant family because her culture believes the family is out of favor with God. She cannot be blessed by God for she is with child while only betrothed to Joseph. The Jewish understanding of righteousness would claim there is no reason for Mary to be blessed or rejoice over anything, possessing a family background like her own. However, the great contrast, if not an absolute contradiction, is that she is blessed
! She is filled with joy! And Mary’s statement adds to the ultimate contradiction, “All generations will rise up and call her blessed!” The unworthy in Judaism were believed to be forgotten. There would be no accomplishment by which the family could be remembered. Their name would mean nothing. And Mary has indeed accomplished nothing according to her Jewish culture. However, the advent story proclaims that God has done something so special and redemptive in her the world will never forget what God has done, and never forget her.
As Mary closes this section of the Magnificat, she poetically states a beautiful expression of humility. Mary’s humility is still evident as she refuses to simply draw all attention to herself and what God has done for her. His mercy is given for all fear him, from generation to generation. God will bless others beyond Mary in the years to come. There will be the lame, the blind, the poor and brokenhearted. There will be the centurion who recognizes at the cross that Jesus must be the Son of God. There will be Mary Magdalene who discovers the empty tomb. An endless line of those who will receive God’s mercy continues beyond Mary and includes each of us. The redemption of the world is not yet complete, but is ongoing through Mary’s child.
What do you think of Mary’s humility? Is humility easy to identify today? What does God’s choice of Mary say to us about who God can choose for great acts of love and redemption?
Luke 1: 51-53
As the Magnificat draws to a close, Mary is inspired to once again note the great contrast between the meek and powerful. Mary is an uneducated young woman from a poor home. Yet, she towers above the arrogant prideful rulers of the world. With a single movement of God’s metaphorical arm, he can sweep all arrogant accomplishment and boasting aside. What is left standing? The peasant girl from Nazareth whom God has chosen for reasons the proud will never fully understand. Those who seek “bread that does not satisfy” will remain hungry. Those who seek the bread, who have no money, God calls, “Come, buy and eat!” (Isaiah 55:1-3)
From this final verse from the Magnificat how would we define real power versus transient power? What will God’s power always accomplish, and what will prideful, self-serving power accomplish? Make a list of Jesus’s expressions of power and ask, “What is different about them from other expressions of power, and what do they accomplish that others cannot?”
The song of Mary closes with that one great thread that unites the Old and New Testament. It is the one thread that is woven through all its books and unites them in one grand redemptive theme: God is true to the covenant he made with his people. God instituted this holy covenant in Gen. 12 and has never violated it, in spite of Israel’s sin. Now this covenant has found its fullest expression in the gift of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the New Covenant written on the hearts of all by faith, a covenant that guides and empowers by unconditional love.
In the closing verse we can hear Luke the historian remaining true to the facts he has gathered. He informs us that Mary remained with Elizabeth for three months before returning home. She might have stayed until John was born, but the text doesn’t reveal this.
From the beginning, God has overwhelmed and sometimes confused those who define power from a secular perspective. The Advent narrative and Christmas story would read far differently if God used only the powerful and not the meek. Yet, its greatest beauty lies in the Lord’s use of the meek and lowly. We are blessed with a story of a peasant girl, betrothed to a mason, who gives birth in a manger, and whose first visitors are lowly shepherds. The wonder of Christmas lies in its beautiful ability to confound, baffle, and drive us to our knees in wonder. My favorite song of Christmas is “O Holy Night.” The one verse that always leaves me with a tear in the eye is:
Truly He taught us to love one another; His law is love and His gospel is peace. Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother, and in His name all oppression shall cease, sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we; let all within us praise His holy name! Christ is the Lord, then ever, ever praise we! His power and glory, evermore proclaim! His power and glory, evermore proclaim!
(personally adapted from Mary’s Magnificat) Our soul doth magnify the Lord. And our spirits rejoice in God our savior. For the Lord hath regarded the humility and humanity of his servants. Behold and henceforth, as the Lord chose Mary, let all generations be chosen to bless others in Christ. May all be blessed through his faithful servants, male and female, of every stage, age and station, until God’s kingdom comes on earth is as it is in heaven. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.