Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Luke 1:26-38
December 14, 2014
This week I have posted a gallery of paintings depicting The Annunciation from different times and different cultures to prompt us to think of how we imagine the Angel Gabriel told Mary she would become the mother of Jesus. Compare with the text, especially that Gabriel is not really described with wings or radiance.
Henry Ossawa Tanner 1859–1937
|The Virgin of the Annunciation|
Fra Angelico 1395-1455
Russian Icon of Ustyug
Many of the words of hope we associate with the birth of Jesus and read during Advent come from Isaiah. (7 of the 12 readings from the Hebrew Scriptures the Lectionary suggests for three years of Advent come from Isaiah; the others from 5 different books.)
Isaiah 61 comes from what is sometimes called Third Isaiah, written in advance for or when Judah returned from Exile to Jerusalem. (I’ve reposted my brief essay about these scholarly issues again below.) The people were discouraged at not experiencing the great joy they had anticipated. Most people struggled to sustain themselves in poverty, and rebuilding the Temple languished. But a few people became very wealthy and very powerful, which the prophets cried out against.
Isaiah 61 is rooted in the Year of Jubilee in Leviticus 25 in which debts were canceled, slaves freed and property returned to original owners every 50 years. It was a socio-economic reset button to give people on the bottom a chance for a fresh start. Psalm 146:7-9 paraphrases it.
The Lord “executes justice for the oppressed; [who] gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind. The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow.”
Jesus read it to begin his ministry as his mission statement in Luke 4:16-21 and spoke it in the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:3-12; Luke 6:20-23. Reading Isaiah during Advent, tells us that with the birth of Jesus, God turns human power upside down and brings joy out of mourning.
The Angel Gabriel’s announcement of the birth of Jesus to Mary in Luke 1:26-38, clues us that Christmas cannot be a sentimental celebration of a special mother and child.
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, favored 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 favor 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 forever, 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.
Since before the time of Mary, many Jewish girls dreamed that one of their children would be the Messiah. Mary knew that the Angel Gabriel was saying she’d be the one. Mary never questioned that a common peasant woman would be the Messiah’s mother. She knew God reversed human expectations. Though perplexed to be called God’s favored one, she didn’t argue about her spiritual qualifications. Her objection was that as a virgin, she didn’t expect to be having a child immediately.
Not only am I convinced Mary was conversant with the Hebrew Scripture, I suspect she was a contemplative. Perplexed by the Angel Gabriel’s greeting, she pondered what sort of greeting it might be. After the shepherds had seen the newborn Jesus and left praising God, Mary treasured and pondered these things in her heart (2:19). She was amazed at Simeon’s prophecy when Mary and Joseph dedicated 40 day old Jesus at the Temple (2:33). Returning from Jerusalem after 12 year old Jesus’ visit to the Temple, Mary treasured that event in her heart (2:51). She probed deeply the spiritual significance of being the mother of the Messiah.
The Angel Gabriel told Mary about Elizabeth’s pregnancy as a sign confirming that nothing would be impossible with God. From Nazareth to the Hill Country of Judah was about an 80 mile walk. Very few people rode animals or wagons. No one, certainly not a young woman, traveled alone, but in the 7-10 days the walk would take, Mary had plenty of time to meditate on seeing herself in the Song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10). When she saw Elizabeth she was ready with her own song, The Magnificat. Echoing Hannah, Mary celebrated that with the birth of her child, Jesus, God was turning human power upside down and bringing joy out of mourning.
We pick up that theme from Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:4-8, which is also echoed in Psalm 113:7-9.
The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. 5Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. 6The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. 7The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts. 8He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.
Listen for how Mary echoed Hannah in Luke 1:51-53.
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
Psalm 30:5, 11 says, “Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning. … You have turned my mourning into dancing; you have taken off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy.” On this joyful Sunday, we rejoice that with the birth of Jesus, God turns human power upside down, bringing joy out of mourning.
Do we believe God is active and might interrupt in our personal or congregational lives? What are you hearing from God during this interruption between pastors? Can you find God's hand turning human power upside down and bringing joy out of mourning in the recent racial tensions?
As we anticipate celebrating the birth of Jesus, what might God use us to turn upside down to bring joy out of mourning to Highlands Christian Church? to the Lake Highlands community?
Mary responded, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Are we, as individuals and as a congregation, ready to say we are first and foremost God’s servants, ready to let it be with us according to God’s word and not our own plans?
How many prophets wrote Isaiah?
You don’t have to be a scholar when reading Isaiah to recognize that a very significant change takes place between chapters 39 and 40 and a less obvious change takes place between chapters 55 and 56. Chapters 1-39 were clearly written by Isaiah to people about events that were happening in Judah in the 8th century BCE. Chapters 40-55 do not mention Isaiah or any of the people or events of 8th century BCE and speak quite directly to the conditions Judah was facing while in exile in Babylon. Chapters 56-66 also do not mention any people or events of the 8th century BCE and seem to fit conditions when the people of Judah had returned to Jerusalem after the exile in Babylon.
I grew up and was educated in a tradition that insisted that the prophet Isaiah wrote the entire book in the 8th century BCE. Very learned and responsible scholars marshalled the arguments and evidence for what they the called the integrity of Isaiah’s authorship. At some points this position became a litmus test (Shibboleth – Judges 12:6) of theological orthodoxy and scholarly acceptability. Most of these scholars recognize the three sections of Isaiah were written for these three distinct times in Judah’s history and say that God inspired Isaiah to write them in advance of the time they would be needed.
Many other scholars believe the second and third sections were written by other prophets than Isaiah at the time Judah needed those specific messages from God. Most believe that the prophet who wrote the third section (chapters 56-66) is likely also the one who assembled the book of Isaiah as we have it today. They also believe those two other prophets were likely descendants of the original Isaiah’s disciples who kept his message and ministry alive through the terrible years of exile. Though the three sections are distinct, they do share some common themes and literary approaches.
Personally I would suggest that whichever approach makes the most sense to you, you should not treat it as a test of faith and condemn those who hold the other opinion. I certainly believe God is quite capable of inspiring Isaiah in the 8th century BCE to write what the people of Judah were going to need going into and coming out of exile. I also believe God is quite capable of raising up new prophets in the descendants of Isaiah’s disciples to speak God’s Word contemporaneously with the events to which it connects. Since Isaiah’s name and other people and events of his time drop out from chapter 40 on, I see no reason to postulate any factual contradictions if they were written by others. From a strictly literary perspective, Isaiah as a whole is commonly viewed as a towering pinnacle of human literary achievement in any language at any time. From a faith perspective, whether written by one or three prophets, I recognize Isaiah as God’s Word, Scripture divinely inspired, reliable and authoritative.