Thursday, May 17, 2007

Thursdays with Luke #4

Mary Visits Elizabeth

Luke 1:39-56

It was a family reunion. Family reunions have always been a mixed experience for me. My family doesn’t have any formal reunions; Debra’s father’s family has one a year. We do get together from time to time, of course. I think that what determines the quality of a reunion is the quality of the relationship. I am bound to my larger family by blood and by some shared experiences and memories, but not, for the most part, by much else. I guess what I’m talking about is a common purpose or a common goal or a common calling.

But this family reunion between Elizabeth and Mary was more than just a family reunion. It was a meeting between two people who were united by their respective roles in playing a part in God’s purposes. In that regard, the relationship between Mary and Elizabeth serves as a model for relationships in the church. We are bound by more than friendship; we are bound by the fact that we are God’s people doing God’s work in God’s world. We are more than “joined at the hip” or “joined at the heart”; we are joined at the spirit by God’s Spirit, joined at the love by God’s love, joined at the will by God’s will, and joined at the purpose by God’s purpose.

vv. 39-40

Again, we see God working in a particular place. Only this time, the place is unnamed. We are only told that it was a “Judean town in the hill country.” God works in particular places, but what he is doing is finally more important than where he is doing it. “The journey was about 80-100 miles from Nazareth and would take about 3-4 days” (I. Howard Marshall, Commentary on Luke, p. 80).

Mary is there to see her kinswoman Elizabeth. Marshall interprets her “haste” as reflecting her obedience to the angel’s implied command to go see Elizabeth (pp. 77, 80). It may be that Mary went away to hide her inconvenient pregnancy from the probing eyes of her Nazareth neighbors and figured that Elizabeth would, given her own surprising circumstances, be good company. Elizabeth was the only one who could come close to feeling empathy for Mary. The text does not say but I think it more likely that she went to share in her common purpose with Elizabeth, since Gabriel had offered Elizabeth’s pregnancy as a sign that God would keep his promises to Mary. The two women were partners in what God was up to.

vv. 41-45

In v. 41, we see some interesting prophetic pre-natal activity going on. John leaps in the womb. Of this meeting of the two women, Craddock says, “The one is old and her son will close an age; the other is young and her son will usher in the new. Even the unborn John knows the difference and leaps in the womb when Mary enters” (Fred Craddock, Luke, p. 29). The leaping of the pre-natal John can call to mind the struggles in the womb between Jacob and Esau; there, as here, the older child wills serve the younger (Craddock, p. 29). Elizabeth speaks under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Her words then become a prophetic utterance, a proclamation of the word of God.

vv. 42-45 contain the words of Elizabeth.

We see here the theme of the superiority of Jesus to John. Elizabeth makes clear that she is responding to what God has done in Mary’s life, and that Mary is the mother of her Lord. On one level, scholars suspect that there was some rivalry in the early days of the church between disciples of John and disciples of Jesus. The NT needed to make clear the nature of the relationship. On another, more important level, Luke wants to say that Jesus is the fulfillment of all prophecy, including those that will be uttered by John.

v. 45 is a very powerful statement. Elizabeth pronounces Mary blessed because Mary had believed what the Lord had said to her. Here is a way in which we can and will be blessed, too. We need to ascertain what the Lord is saying to us through Scripture, through his Spirit, through our fellow Christians, and through our leaders (it pays to be discerning, of course), and then to believe. Down that path lies true blessing. Perhaps nothing worth happening happens without the exercise of faith. Belief opens up amazing possibilities. Disbelief stunts and deadens our lives.

vv. 46-55

These words of Mary are traditionally known as the Magnificat after the first word in the Latin translation.

Some themes that emerge from this Magnificat:

The grace of God

There is much emphasis on how God favored and blessed Mary, even though (and probably because) she was of low estate.

The power of God

God is praised for what he has done which also implies what he is doing and what he will do.

The great reversal of God

Notice especially vv. 51-53.

God is about the business of bringing down the proud, the powerful, and the rich, and of lifting up the humble, the lowly, and the hungry. We must never forget the prophetic and gospel message that God does not regard things as the world does and does not value what the world values. He is interested in the doing of justice and in the exaltation of the oppressed and the misused. God will bring down those who trust in themselves and who misuse their power; he will lift up those who trust in him and who have no power to misuse.

A good question for us is how can we participate in that process of reversal today? The process will not be completed until the end, but how can we help today? How can we be about the business of exalting the lowly and helping the poor and strengthening the weak? What does such an emphasis say about the kinds of ministries in which our church should be engaged?

The faithfulness of God

vv. 54-55 point out that what God was doing through Mary he was doing to Israel out of his faithfulness to his covenant promises.

In a way, then, Mary stands for Israel and thus for the people of God. We share in her role of participating in what God is doing.

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