400 years is a long time. According to our calendar, 400 years is equal to one hundred and forty six thousand days; or three million, five hundred and four thousand hours; or two hundred and ten million, two-hundred and forty thousand minutes. Four hundred years is a long time.
It is generally understood that the time period between the two testaments in the Protestant Bible (Old Testament and New Testament) is four hundred years. For many, this inter-testament time period symbolized a time of silence and darkness. It was as if God had removed Himself from the known world and the heavens were shut.
Then, suddenly the heavens were rendered.
In a flurry of activity, Luke begins to unfold a detailed series of events depicting God’s continuation of His redemptive plan. The heavens are opening and God is going to come down.
Beginning with a priestly couple centred around the Temple in Jerusalem, Luke shows through his orderly account how the unfolding events in the ancient world of Galilee and Judea are of universal significance. The story of Jesus’ birth and childhood is a celebration of God’s love for Israel and for all of humanity.1
Luke is careful to present and contrast two women: Elizabeth and Mary. Elizabeth is a daughter of Aaron and married to a priest of admirable status. By all accounts, Elizabeth has the right name, family, tribe and marriage. However, she was barren. As a result, she would have suffered disgrace among her people and would have been on the low rung of the Jewish social ladder. But God has come to lift up the lowly (1:52).
Next comes Mary. A peasant girl far away from the social and religious centre of the Temple. She does not reside in Jerusalem, but in a backwater town in Galilee that was despised, rejected and deemed unclean.2 Could anything good ever come from such a place?
These two ladies are at the centre stage in Luke 1:5-2:52. One is a shining example of Jewish piety and a life that is oriented around the Jerusalem Temple. One is in great need. One is highly favoured.
What we discover is that behind both chains of events that are set in motion, stands Almighty God, who is present via a messenger.
Gabriel, the angel of end-times visions, and last seen by Daniel, is now on earth again. Could God be acting to bring about His final plans and end-time deliverance for His people? Who is going to play a part?
The simple answer is both. The offspring of Elizabeth (John) and Mary (Jesus) are both involved in God’s redemptive plan for humanity. However, the focus of God’s plan is not going to be on a priestly couple operating in the Temple, or anyone else with high status or prestige.
The emphasis falls on Mary and the rejected town of Nazareth. It is here, within a peasant village that God found one who would embrace His plan and be one of His dedicated servants. Luke tells us that Mary, who is a ‘little person’ in the eyes of Judaism, has been the one who is highly favoured by God.
Gabriel makes the announcement: ‘Rejoice favoured one! You have found favour with God … You will conceive, you will give birth … you will call His Name Jesus.’
Gabriels words echo what was spoken to Hagar, and Isaiah’s prophecy … this child will be ‘great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and His kingdom will have no end.’
This sign truly will expand from the depts of Sheol to the heights of heaven – Jesus means YAHWEH SAVES.
Mary’s response: ‘How can this be?’
This is not a statement of unbelief, but one of perplexity. How is this physically possible? How is it that I have become the recipient of God’s grace?
Gabriel’s final wordsmay echo the comparable statement of the Lord made to Sarah: ‘Is anything impossible with God?’
Mary’s final words: ‘I am the Lord’s slave.’
In this short introductory chapter, Luke has begun to tell us about God’s active and ongoing plan in the world. Not only has God come to be with us, but He is somehow supernaturally joining Himself to us.
‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the holy One to be born will be called the Son of God.’
Those two sentences contain a supernatural wonder and mystery for the ages: Almighty God has become a human being.
For Mary, this meant an active role and a divine partnership in the unfolding of the purposes of God in the world. Joel Green believes that this is exactly what Luke is saying. It seems that the miraculous, redemptive activity of God calls forth a human response and partnership.3
The Christmas story is similar to the ancient story of Abraham and Sarah. God seems to call people into a divine partnership so that His redemptive plan continues to unfold here on earth. None greater than this story. None greater than the gospel of Jesus.
You see, the Christmas story features Mary, the one who had been highly favoured by God. She will have a supernatural encounter, she will receive divine favour that will result in the most profound mystery known to humanity: the conception of a child by the Holy Spirit. It is Mary who will fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy:
Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel.
In the Ancient world, the status of a slave was determined by the status of the householder. Luke has taken particular time to carefully craft and characterize Mary as a ‘slave’ of the Lord. By doing so Luke has begun to undercut the competitive maneuvering for positions of status that were prevalent in the first-century Mediterranean world.4
Mary, who seemed to measure low in all rankings—age, family heritage, gender, and so on—turns out to be the very one favoured by God. It seems as though God has come to bring about a change to the social status of the world.
You can read about this in Mary’s prophetic praise at the end of Luke chapter 1.
In Mary’s rejoicing, she sees and depicts God as the Mighty One who sides with and works on behalf of the lowly.
Mary’s song captures the very essence of God’s merciful plan and highlights that God has looked with favour upon the lowliness of His servant (1:48). Mary understands her low, poor status and rejoices because of the merciful, greatness of God
Mary’s song also points out that God has come to oppose the social, political and religious forces in the world that are proud, high and mighty. Mary believes that God has come to scatter the proud, bring down the powerful, and send the rich away empty.5
We need to be careful to understand that Mary’s praise is not about God obliterating the powerful so that the lowly can achieve the positions of honour and privilege that had been previously inaccessible. No.
Mary’s prophetic praise points out that God is at work in individual lives (like Mary) and in the social order as a whole in order to bring down the very structures of society that support and keep such distinctions alive.
In short, the God who has been working redemptively in the world, still is, and is now especially doing so in Jesus in order to bring about a balance the power.5
I am not sure that this will make any Hallmark cards, but perhaps it’s time that we see Christmas the way this old-timer did:
Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honour, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and sees the glory of God precisely in his lowliness. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly … God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would lest expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer
If this is true, then perhaps Christmas is more about God marching in (saving) to heal the world and bring about a change in society, culture and class. Followers of Jesus today would do well to think about their concepts of salvation and contrast them with Jesus’ teaching on the kingdom of God. What does responding to God look like?
If this is true, then perhaps Christmas is more about God searching to find willing human beings to partner with so that this transformation to society, class and culture will happen. Those believing in the power of the Holy Spirit would do well to reflect upon the mission of God’s Spirit in the world concerning the norms of society. What are the words and deeds of the Spirit empowered community?
If this is true, then perhaps Christmas is more about God coming to join Himself with humanity so that ‘whosoever will’ is able to be propelled towards a new way of being human. Those who profess to being a Christian would do well to think and reflect upon the life of Jesus and how He embodied God’s Kingdom on earth. What does participating with God look like?
If this is all true … then perhaps we need to rethink a lot of things about God, His Story, the Gospel, salvation and Yes … even Christmas!
Regardless, may we all continue to model a light and love that resembles the merciful love of Almighty God that broke through long ago. May He continue to break through and shine in the world via His messengers today.
The world needs to know that God is still here.
Green, Joel B.. The Gospel of Luke Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition