What Child is This? (December 22, 2019)
Luke 1: 8-17, 26-38
What Child is This?
Today we have the parts of Scripture that are known as the annunciations, or the announcement of a pregnancy; in this case for Elizabeth and Mary. But they’re not the only annunciations. They are special; certainly the annunciation to Mary is special. But they are building off of the annunciations that exist in the Hebrew Scriptures that we’ve been going through the past several months. Those annunciations do exist, and they would have created expectations within the readers of Luke if they knew those Scriptures. If they didn’t, if they were Gentiles that were coming from Greek backgrounds and Roman backgrounds in terms of religion and mythology, they too would have had some amount of expectations from these annunciations. The way that Luke crafts these annunciations declares something about what he is saying Jesus will be. Luke is stating here at the beginning of his work, “This is what I’m going to say Jesus is.” So let’s take a look at that.
First to the Jewish readers. Luke is speaking here to those who at least knew enough about Jewish scriptures to have an understanding that there are annunciations that happen throughout the Jewish Scriptures. And in fact as we begin the Gospel of Luke and we hear that Zachariah and Elizabeth are a barren couple, and we immediately assume there’s going to be annunciation, because almost every time you see someone is barren in the Scriptures, there’s going to be an annunciation very quickly afterwards. These annunciations, though, are not really about the barren couple. They are about the child. They are done in the Scripture for extremely important people. We have annunciation that is given to Abraham, and within that is the promise of the blessings, of the descendants that Abraham will have. That’s the annunciation of Isaac.
Isaac marries a woman named Rebekah. And Rebekah doesn’t receive annunciation that she’s going to get pregnant, but rather receives a visitation about what the children that she’s already pregnant with will be. She’s distressed, and the angel comes to her and says, “You’ve got twins. And they’re already wrestling inside your womb, because they’re going to fight; not only their entire lives, but the nations that will be descend from them will continue to fight throughout the centuries.” We actually see that fight continue on through the next several books of the Old Testament as these two nations that form from the children in her womb are at odds. And we see that from the annunciation given to Rebekah. That would be annunciation of Jacob, or Israel as he would later become known.
Those are just some of the examples of annunciations in the Old Testament. What we see with all of these is that they are for important people. The Scriptures don’t record God going around giving annunciations for a guy who is going to grow up to be the best cobbler in town. Scriptures shows God giving annunciations for kings, patriarchs, and prophets. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t send visitations for people that are going to be the best cobbler in town, but rather the Scripture just doesn’t record them. For the readers to the Gospel of Luke, reading their Scriptures would make them understand these children, both John and Jesus, have to be important people. And they know that, Luke tells them that, because they receive annunciations.
We also see that usually in scripture there is something unusual about the birth. Something that points to God’s activity in it. Usually it is a barren couple that is receiving a child beyond when you would normally expect a child to come. In the case of Rebekah, there were twins that were wrestling inside the womb. There’s something unusual; although admittedly virgin is new for Jewish scriptures: there’s no virgin birth that happens in the Hebrew Scriptures. And that would announce to a Jewish audience that not only is this an annunciation, so therefore the son to be born is going to be important, but because it’s a virgin annunciation this child would be more important than anyone else you’ve ever heard of.
But remember Luke is the gospel to the Gentiles. Matthew is the gospel that is primarily to the Jews. And although Luke is writing to the synagogues, and therefore is writing to people who do know a little bit about the Scriptures; he’s writing to the Jewish synagogues in Greece. Luke traveled with Paul, so it is likely that he’s writing to those churches that Paul went to. So he’s writing to people who know the Greek mythology at least as well if not maybe more so than the Jewish stories. And virgin births are not uncommon in Greek mythology. But even here, the virgin birth also tells something about the child. Because anyone that is born in a virgin birth in Greek, or any really other mythology, is going to be Divine. Already, right at the beginning, we see Luke is making some claims about Jesus, or at least putting some thoughts in readers.
We also see that annunciations actually focus on the children. Many times the parent doesn’t actually stay in focus at all, or even get mentioned after the annunciation. There’s the notification of the pregnancy, and then the woman gives birth to the child, and the parents are forgotten immediately after by the author. So as readers who are knowledgeable of the Hebrew Scriptures, we are already knowing who were supposed to focus on here is the child.
We also know that the angel is going to tell us something about the child, because annunciations always do that as well. The annunciation of Isaac said that he would be the father of multitude of nations; that he would carry the promise forward. The annunciation of Jacob talked about how he would be fighting with Essau, and that the fighting would continue on for generations.
So let’s take a look at what he actually records the angel saying about these children. First we see the annunciation of John. John’s parents are barren (check). And the angel talks a little bit about who John is. First off John gets named by the angel. Both of these annunciations have the angel name the child. That’s unusual for Scriptural annunciations, but is not unusual for Scripture to have God naming people. It is actually something that happened a lot. And toward the end of the monarchy, the prophets began naming their children what God wanted them to name them. And the names of the children would be prophecies in and of themselves. The most famous example of this being the prophet Hosea, who was told by God to name his children things that meant “God sows,” as in God sows disaster; “not pitied,” and “not my people.” Not great names, but the message of early Hosea encapsulated. So the people would be going around these children “what’s your name?” And they’d respond: “My name is ‘not my people.’” And then the conversation opens and Hosea spreads his message.
Usually when God names people though it is later in life. Like God‘s naming of Israel or when Jesus names Simon “Peter.” And the name usually describes something about the person, even if the person can’t see that yet. For instance, Peter means “the rock,” because Peter was the rock Jesus would build upon. There’s a reason for all of these names. So if God is naming the children we need to look at that. We’ll talk more about Jesus’ name when we get to Jesus’s annunciation. But John means “God has shown favor.” So John’s very name is saying that God has shown favor to the people.
Luke says the John will prepare the hearts of parents and children, that he will make ready the people, “with the power of Elijah.” Now the Jewish people were expecting, and are expecting, Elijah to come ahead of the Messiah in order to do exactly this: in order to prepare the way for the Messiah. And so by Luke saying “I am announcing the birth of a child who will come in the spirit of Elijah to prepare the people,” what he’s actually saying is something about the next child. If he is making a declaration that Elijah has come, then he’s also making a declaration the Messiah won’t be far behind. Luke is at least preparing to make an argument throughout his gospel about who Jesus is, and what he will do.
And Luke really gets into that when we arrive at the annunciation of Jesus. We have that Mary is a virgin. We already talked a little bit about that, but that implies that Jesus is at least really, really important; or if you take the other religions in the area around round them into account, then this is declaring Jesus is Divine. But don’t worry, we’re going to get very clear on that in a moment. It’s also stated that Mary is engaged to a man named Joseph of the house of David. That is important because this put Jesus at least in his adopted, legal family, in the line of David. Jesus is royal. Even if we don’t have a descendent of David on a throne at the moment, we do have Jesus being royal.
The angel Gabriel says to name him Jesus. Jesus means “God saves.” That is an important name. This was a name that was relatively common in the time. It was also almost a title really, taken by people who were trying to be the Messiah, who are trying to save the people of Israel and restore the kingdom. We see this in the Gospel of Matthew that Barabas is called “Jesus Barabas.” Barabas had taken on that name, that title, of Jesus as the one who was the savior of the people (before he failed to save the people and got arrested by Pilate). So by simply having the angel evoke that name, Luke is already saying “this is the Messiah” to a Jewish audience.
And then he begins to make predictions. The angel here says Jesus will be a great person in history, that he will be given the throne of his ancestor David. So now we explicitly say that not only is he in the house of David, but he’s going to become the king that we’ve all been waiting for. That’s what it meant to be the Messiah: to be the king in the line of David sitting on David’s throne in an independent Kingdom. He will be called the Son of the Most High; most high being God. The son of the most high means we now we have an explicit claim of Divinity. So, he is going to be Messiah, he’s going to be great, he’s going to be the king in the line of David, and he’s going to be the son of God. And, finally, he’s going to establish an eternal kingdom. Which is the hope of Israel: they hope for a return to the Davidic kingdom, and have an eternal kingdom that will never be conquered under a king in the Davidic line. Luke says that Jesus will do this. In other words, Jesus is the one we have all been waiting for.
What Luke is doing here is interesting to me. He is setting expectations. He’s declaring in the midst of this annunciation that this is who Jesus is, this is what Jesus will do. And for the rest of the Gospel he’s going to prove that Jesus did this. In the words of academics, Luke is making a thesis statement here, and for the rest of the essay he is going to be proving the thesis.
Here’s the thing: Luke wrote this decades after Easter. Luke knows how the story is going to play out. He isn’t writing this as Jesus is living, and then will have to try and adapt it later on. He knows how the story is going to play out. He knows the cross is coming up. He knows that Jesus is going to be killed, that he never picks up an army, that he never overthrows the Romans that were occupying Judea, he knows that Jesus never establishes a royal kingdom in the midst of Jerusalem. And now he is ascended up to heaven. He is not even physically present anymore. And Luke knows all of that. And he knows that that is not the way that the Jewish people expected all of those promises about the Messiah to play out. He knows that for someone reading this for the first time, that’s not the ending they expect from this beginning. And yet he does not shy away from saying it just because the world expects a different ending.
We as Christians are supposed to evangelize, we’re supposed to share our faith. We’re supposed to invite people to come and be a part of this community that we call the Church. And I don’t know about you, but it’s been a while since I’ve invited anyone to any church that isn’t my direct family. It’s easy to invite grandchildren to church, it’s easy to invite parents to church, it’s easy to invite children to church. It’s harder to invite our neighbor, or a coworker, or a friend from 10 years ago to church. But we’re called to do it.
And part of why I think I don’t necessarily want to get into those kinds of conversations is because I have to then defend the church. And the church has not lived up to the world’s expectations. The world has a list of things that they expect the church to be in order to be the church. They’ve read the Scriptures, and they’ve come to an interpretation of the Scriptures, and if you don’t live up to that (or really if every church doesn’t live up to that) they’re just not going to come. And I find myself having to defend a church I don’t have a part in against the expectations of an atheist. And rather than fight that fight, I just don’t invite.
But maybe that’s not the right standard. Luke knows what the world’s expectations of these statements will be, and he knows that his story is not going to live up to those expectations. Yet he still says what he believes the truth to be: that Jesus is the Messiah, that he is the King on the eternal throne of David. It’s just up in heaven. And we see the kingdom here in the church, not in an independent Israel but here in the church. So he makes the claims; he says who we are, he says who Jesus is, and then he lets the Spirit determine what is right in their hearts or even in his own.
But we don’t go anywhere unless we do something. Luke doesn’t grow unless he begins to talk about his faith. He might be the one that’s corrected, and I think he knows that too, but nothing happens unless the conversations happen. That’s why I’m calling on you right now, calling on you to go and have those kind of conversations. In your bulletin, there’s a postcard for Christmas Eve services. That’s not for you. It’s not for your family. We want you and your family to come, don’t get me wrong. But the postcard is for your neighbor, your coworker, your friend. That’s to start the conversation. There is no more powerful service than candlelight Christmas Eve, and there is no better place for the story to be told. That’s what the sermon will be: “this is the story, this is who Jesus is, this is why we do what we do.” I want you to invite someone, even pick them up and bring them if need be. Invite someone to Christmas Eve service; and let’s share the light of Christ. Amen.