This Advent season, the Gospel of Luke’s version of the birth story is our focus.
Because of the busy and image-rich Christmas holidays full of nativity plays and orations — many of which combine Matthew’s wise men with Luke’s shepherds — it is easy to miss Luke’s distinctive theological voice and contribution to the season of Advent. Harmonizing the stories into a single, easily digestible account bespeaks a long interpretative tradition in Christianity.
An early Christian apologist, Tatian, created a Gospel harmony, known as the Diatessaron (around 150-160 C.E.), in which he harmonized the four gospels using the Gospel of John as the primary narrative framework. Centuries later, Augustine, a 4th and 5th century Latin Church Father and Bishop in Roman North Africa (around 354-430 C.E.), also created a Gospel Harmony called the Harmony of the Gospels (De consensus evangelistarum, around 400 C.E.), which used Matthew as the primary narrative reference. A version of the story about Mary’s angelic visitation is preserved in both accounts along with the stories about Zechariah and Elizabeth as well as Gabriel.
Interestingly, while Luke functions as a significant source of gospel material in these harmonies, Luke’s gospel never rises to the level of chief reference point. This is unfortunate because there is much the Gospel of Luke can offer to considerations about the theological, religious, and ethical significance and messages of Advent for the church today. Interpreters often pay attention to Mary’s commission to carry the Son of God (Luke 1:35) or to the prophecy of Jesus’ birth and the expectation that ensues, especially when Mary says, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). The story rings with anticipation, leaving its readers primed for the big event — Jesus’ birth and subsequent ministry in the world and beyond.
Perhaps, one helpful way of giving Luke’s storied message a fresh hearing is by paying attention to an often-overlooked detail in the account. According to verses 26-27, Gabriel, the messenger or angel of God, was sent to give Mary a message. This is different from Matthew’s version where the unnamed angel of the Lord is sent to Joseph, not Mary (Matthew 1:20).
The message Gabriel provides Mary makes several points. First, he tells Mary twice that she is favored by the Lord (Luke 1:28, 30) and declares the Lord is with her (Luke 1:28). Moreover, Gabriel tells her the news we often spend most of December rehearsing in our churches and our Sunday morning creeds — namely, that she will conceive by the Holy Spirit and bear the Son of God (Luke 1:35) who will reign as the divine King and ancestor of David (Luke 1:32-33). Language of Jesus’ kingship and kingdom proclamation (4:43; 6:20; 7:28; 11:2; 23:42) as well as his Davidic ancestry (Luke 1:69; 2:4; 3:31, 18:38; 20:41) persists throughout the Gospel. All these details are staples of Advent conversations.
In addition to Mary’s story, Gabriel, the angelic messenger of God, appears elsewhere in the biblical record. In Daniel 8:16-17 and 9:21-23, Gabriel is mentioned as a messenger of God who helps Daniel to understand his visions and the situation of Israel within the larger unfolding drama of human history, governance, and God’s acts of deliverance. He is a figure at the site of a theophany or divine encounter intended to disrupt not only the everyday dealings of an individual, but to alter the circumstances of God’s broader people.
Consequently, the angelic figure, Gabriel, is no stranger in the bible or even in the gospel of Luke. Gabriel tells Mary, “Do not be afraid, Mary” (Luke 1:30). His appearance to Mary is his second appearance in the Gospel following his appearance to Zechariah in the temple earlier in Luke 1:13, where he says, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah.” The double saying, in which Gabriel assures both Zechariah and Mary in the same manner and with the same words links these two characters together. This is a common convention of Luke’s literary style. The Gospel of Luke has different forms of gendered pairs, in which male and female figures share similar stories and experiences that exhibit elements of distinction between them.
In addition to linking Mary and Zechariah together, Gabriel’s statement — “Do not be afraid” — reverberates throughout the rest of Luke’s story. It foreshadows the words offered by the unnamed angel of the Lord to the shepherds in 2:10 when he says, “Do not be afraid.” Each word of assurance offered by the angel is not without cause. Indeed, each instance is accompanied by an awe-inspiring, even unusual moment that reasonably sparks wonder and even fear. Indeed, the practice of offering a word of assurance at moments of supernatural wonder and disruption to the norms of daily life is something Jesus takes up in his ministry later in the gospel (Luke 5:10; 8:50; 12:32).
It is interesting to find that at the moment of God’s divine interventions, assurance is offered before a message of celebration. The simple phrase, “do not be afraid,” offers comfort and hope to those without hope, as in the case of Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:7, 24-25); miracles to those not looking for miracles, as in the case of Mary (Luke 1:26-27); and even disruption to those going about their daily routines, as in the case of the shepherds (Luke 2:8),
Moreover, such assurance cuts across social status and function. Zechariah is one who is of the priestly class, serving in the temple and overseeing the ritual life of the entire Jewish people (Luke 1:5, 8-10). He represents one with resources, access to power and influence, and one positioned around local and national authorities.
In contrast, Mary is a young woman who lacks all of the power, positioning, and prestige associated with Zechariah’s position. As a virgin (the Greek word is parthenos), Mary is not only a young woman of puberty age (ages 12-14 years old), the Gospel story makes clear she is one who lacks prior sexual activity (Luke 1:31, 34) and is in the period of betrothal (Luke 1:27). Whereas Zechariah is an elder, head of household, and powerful, Mary is one who is young, inexperienced, in between households, and vulnerable.
Furthermore, the shepherds are a group of worker class who “rank low on the scale of power and privilege” when compared to Temple priests and the Roman emperor.1 From Zechariah, the older man who is part of the establishment, to Mary the vulnerable young woman with hopes for a secure future, to the shepherds working the fields and overseeing livestock — assurance is offered at the very moment readers expect celebration.
In the New Testament, words of assurance have purpose. They offer comfort when the status quo is about to be altered and the rhythms of the everyday about to be disrupted. Moreover, words of assurance offer comfort when a community is under duress and suffering attack and persecution presently (1 Peter 1:6-7; 3:14) or in the near future (Revelation 2:10). Words of assurance in the New Testament also create the space for courageous action to take place, as is the case for Paul in the second volume of Luke’s work (Acts 18:9, 27:24).
What happens to the story of Mary during this season of Advent if we see the word of assurance as functioning as more than a simple courtesy or greeting? It can serve as a different sort of interpretative invitation — one that we do not often entertain during Advent, but perhaps we should. In Luke’s account of the virginal conception, a word of assurance and comfort functions as an invitation for Mary to do the unusual and the bold for the sake of the entire world because “nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).
What does Advent look like if instead of starting with words of celebration, thanksgiving, and even commemoration, preachers begin with words that remind God’s people that we can stand boldly and not be afraid? Perhaps, herein, lies one of the gems Mary treasured in her heart as she watched the gift of God grow and manifest in the world (Luke 2:19, 51).
Within David’s checkered story (a patchwork of triumph and downfall) comes a pivotal glimpse into the Lord’s relationship with David, Israel, and ultimately all of history by way of the promise of an eternal “house.”1
Textual Horizon A snapshot of the events in the narrative leading up to this point of this periscope: after David was anointed King of Israel (2 Samuel 5:1-5), he consolidated political power in Jerusalem culminating in the construction of a royal palace of Lebanon cedar and the sowing of more royal “seed” (5:6-16), fought and emerged victorious over the enemies of Israel (5:17-25), and with great drama and liturgical fanfare brought the ark of the Lord to rest in a tent in Jerusalem (6:1-23).
The pericope begins with a bit that could massage the imagination—an interchange between the king and a heretofore unknown prophet, Nathan:
“Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, ‘See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in tent.’ Nathan said to the king, ‘Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.'” (2 Samuel 7:1-3)
David is clearly feeling comfortable in his digs and presumably desires that the ark of the Lord—the very presence of the Lord—have a house as well. Nathan appears to want the king to remain that way, and plays the yes-man to David’s desires. In short, David alludes to a desire to build a temple in Jerusalem for the ark of the Lord.
That night, however, the Lord intervenes by way of Nathan with an everlasting promise, a theological statement about the ‘house’ of David.
The promise, anchored in the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt (2 Samuel 7:6), plays with the Hebrew word bayit, meaning house. David sits in his palatial house contemplating building a house for the Lord. The divine promise, however, is of a house not of stone or cedar, but a royal dynasty that the Lord establishes forever (7:16). Unlike the Lord’s blessing of Saul, which was revoked (1 Samuel 15.26), the blessing of the Davidic house (even with the failings of David’s successors) will remain forever (2 Samuel 7:14-15).
This dynastic house is intimately connected with David, though it is clear that the building and blessing of the dynasty is the Lord’s doing. “I took you from the pasture…” begins the Lord’s first-person recollections and promises (2 Samuel 7:8b-16) regarding David’s call, appointment, and in the verses omitted from the lectionary portion the succession of David’s house after his death. This is the Lord’s doing.
An important piece of this is the centrality of the people of Israel (7:10). The royal house is not established solely for the monarch of the day but for the Lord’s people.
In the end, the pericope climaxes with the promise of an everlasting house and kingdom: the line of David. As such, David’s initial desire to build a house of cedar for the ark of the Lord is put off to David’s son, Solomon (2 Samuel 7:13).
Preaching Horizons The Advent setting may draw one to focus on the incarnational and eschatological trajectory of the concluding verse of the pericope: “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). Recall the announcement that will echo though sanctuaries with the Gospel reading of the day: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary” (Luke 1:26-27). 2 Samuel 7:1-11 provides a footing for understanding the idea of the royal Davidic house and the promise in 2 Samuel 7:16, that this house and throne are established forever. In light of the historical fall of the Davidic dynasty upon the demise of Jehoiachin and Zedekiah at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, and in line with the Gospel writers, Christians traditionally and theologically understand Jesus as taking up this royal line.
In light of the incarnation, life and ministry, death and resurrection of Christ, the Davidic line is reinterpreted in terms of the incarnation and of servant kingship. Abuses of monarchical power and authority that mark the reign of David, Solomon, and those that follow them, while not provoking a revocation of this divine promise, do mark the reign of Davidic kings with episodes of amnesia about the fact that the house was established by the Lord and for the Lord’s people. The Lord remains faithful, the dynasty not so much.
The crucifixion and resurrection of the incarnate Word—Christ’s enthronement—when read in the light of his adopted Davidic heritage marks the advent of a new, everlasting servant reign.
1 Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 21, 2008.
This wonderful and important psalm emphasizes another aspect of God’s promises that we consider in this season of Advent — the promise to be with King David and his line forever.
That being said, Psalm 89 is a complicated psalm, filled with twists and turns, and very difficult to fit into a single form.
For the purposes of Advent, the most important thing to be said about Psalm 89 is that it is a royal psalm, a designation that it shares with such significant psalms as 2, 18, 45, 72, and 110 among others. Royal psalms place particular emphasis on:
For the most part, these psalms were written about real kings, often at special times like enthronement or weddings, or in perilous times when the king was in danger. By the time of the completed psalter, these psalms were no longer about living kings. Instead the royal psalms had become about the promise of a messianic king who was to come, the leader of God’s future kingdom. For this reason, the royal psalms are very often important for the writers of the New Testament… they point to Jesus. And they are particularly important in the time of Advent. We see this very explicitly in this Sunday’s pairing of Psalm 89 with the annunciation story in Luke where Mary is told by the angel Gabriel her son “will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32-33).
Often royal psalms are strategically placed in the psalter, and Psalm 89 is no exception. It comes at the end of the fourth book, inviting us to look forward to God’s reign.
Psalm 89 begins by praising the firmness of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness as explicitly made manifest in God’s covenant with David. This covenant is “forever” and “for all generations.” Notably the first person “I”, which initially designates the singer of the psalm, quickly becomes the divine “I” with God becoming the dominant speaker and the actor of the psalm. Notice the many first-person activities of God:
These verbs speak volumes about the nature and extent of God’s promise to David.
Several aspects of these activities are particularly worth noting. Note that God supports David not only with the ever-present divine faithfulness and steadfast love (verses 2 and 24) but also with the divine hand and arm (verse 21). The mention of God’s arm invariably leads us to think of God as warrior. Which is to say, God’s might is required as well as God’s commitment.
Might is needed because of the presence of the enemy. In verses 22-23, God commits to crushing and striking down the foes of the Davidic king. That this battle has cosmic dimensions is made clear in the connections between verse 25 and verses 9-13 which are not part of this day’s lesson. Verses 9-13 speak of God creating the heavens and earth by defeating and ruling over the chaotic seas, ruling the waves and crushing the sea monster, Rahab, who is the personification of the sea. This is done with God’s mighty arm and strong hand. The promise of verse 25 is that the Davidic king’s hand and arm set on the very same sea will partake of this same cosmic power, but now the enemy is the very real enemy at the gates.
This promise to defeat the enemy stands at the very heart of Psalm 89. We know this because of the second part of the psalm which is not read on this fourth Sunday of Advent. Verses 38-52, the final verses of Psalm 89, show the psalm to be a lament. But now, says the psalmist in verse 38 “you have spurned and rejected” your Davidic king; “you are full of wrath against your anointed… your messiah!” Suddenly we know that all is not right with the world. The enemies have won. The king is not in power; he has lost battle, scepter, and throne (verses 42-44). Which is to say that all of the praise of God concerning his choice and commitment to the Davidic king is now taken up as lament, as plea, as a cry for help. “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?… Where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” (verses 46, 48)
You promised , O Lord? So how can this possibly be?
I wonder if we might allow this psalm in all its fullness to help us to keep Advent and Christmas from being detached from the real world? Can we let this psalm help us to quiet our “theology of glory” with a glimpse of the “theology of the cross?” What would happen if we let this psalm help us to struggle with how we hear God’s promises in a world which is not as it should be? The promises would still stand. They remain the proclamation of this psalm. But they never stand outside of the reality of a fallen world.
If we read this psalm to its end and let the cries and questions stand, then we hear the final verse of our advent reading quite differently. We hear the Davidic king cry to God in verse 26, “You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation!” In David’s cry we perhaps hear also the cry of Jesus from the cross. And Advent and Christmas are joined to Good Friday and Easter.
The doxology of Romans 16:25-27, as well as the past sixteen chapters of the epistle center on the project of bringing all humanity to the obedience of faith in the Gospel in order to bring great glory to God.
In contemporary culture, the idea of God receiving glory might be interpreted as something that makes God seem needy, or even arrogant. Who is this God who constantly requires this sort of affirmation and recognition; indeed, this sort of glorification, and that from the entire world? When we think of human “glory-seeking” exemplars, many images come to mind. We think of the professional athlete, the successful business person, the model parent or child, the high school quarterback, and a host of other examples that are often accompanied by the glorious accolades of human crowds.
This sort of thinking frustrates in advance our concept of “glory,” poisoning its potency by eviscerating the infinite qualitative distinction between God and every other person and thing in existence. Instead of viewing God as the infinitely wise, eternally loving, totally transcendent Other who is approachable only through supernatural grace, we view God as a cosmic football quarterback, sitting on a velvet throne, thriving on the glorious praises that are shouted from his adoring fans across the universe. We think of God as a version of ourselves that just happens to be more grand, expansive, and impressive.
Yet, in order to understand the glory of God, and to understand how the preaching of the Gospel brings God glory, we must rid ourselves of the rot of the insufficient analogy of human glory applied to God, and instead repopulate the meaning of glory by situating it in reference to the character of God himself. First we must ask: why does the preaching of the Gospel and the obedience of faith bring God glory? God is not like the prideful church planter who likes to drop church growth stats over coffee meetings with colleagues as a source of pride. God is not like the mega church prosperity pastor who gets glory based on the number of sheep herded into the arena and the volume of “love offerings” made toward the purchase of his third private jet.
Rather, God’s glory is a direct result of the paradox of divine love. God is glorious, not because he is infinitely arrogant; but because he is infinitely humble. This is most profoundly expressed by the others-centered, self-giving love of Jesus on the cross for the sins of the world. God’s glory, then, must be defined by the glory of his love, which is his very essence (see also 1 John 4:8).
The obedience of faith is considered to be the pinnacle of God’s glory not because God is after “big salvation numbers” but because faith in the God who is love transforms us into the image of his love (Colossians 3:10). And when we behold the face of the glorious God, we are transformed into the image of his glory (2 Corinthians 3:18). Likewise, in 2 Corinthians 4:5-6, it is through the proclamation of Jesus Christ, the preaching of his Gospel, that we come to a “knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Elsewhere in Paul, in Philippians 2:1-11 the exaltation of Jesus by God the Father is not a result of Jesus’ will to human power or his claim to divine privilege; it is a result of his servant-like, suffering obedience even to the point of death on a cross.
The humility of God in the person of Jesus Christ redefines glory forever. The posh royal thrones of human rulers no longer express the glory of true kingship. The royal throne of the crucified God is now forever defined by the humility of a carpenter on a cross, thereby killing the idolatrous narrative of human prestige, power, and arrogance.
Earlier in Romans 5:1-11, the glorious love of the Gospel is on full display: Christ died for humanity while we were still sinners. The Gospel is a story about the humble king who died for a people who hated him in order that his sacrificial death might turn their hate into divine, world-transforming, redemptive, cruciform love. The glory of the Gospel is in the paradox of divine love, and the paradox of divine love, is what makes the obedience of faith so glorious.
The phrase, “the obedience of faith” is found earlier in the epistle, in Romans 1:5-6 where Paul says that his apostleship was given to “bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations.” Both there, and in Romans 16:26, the phrase can be interpreted as “the obedience which is faith,” thus functioning as a reference to the act of faith in the believer. Or, alternately, the phrase can be translated “the obedience which comes from faith,” focusing more intently on the obedient life that is sourced in or produced by faith in Christ. Whichever is the better rendering here, is really a moot point; in a robust, biblically-faithful theology, both are true.
In Galatians 5:6 we find that true faith is that which is “working through love.” Likewise, in James 2:26, the Scriptures teach that faith “apart from works is dead.” It is not that something else — love or works — is required in addition to faith to save us. Rather, the truth is more profoundly radical, namely, that true faith is alive only when it is infused with, characterized by, and empowered through divine, transformative cruciform love.
The obedience of active, loving faith glorifies God because it transforms individuals and the world through the power of divine love into the image of divine love. Through the exercise of the obedience of faith, the will to power is re-framed by the renunciation of power. The paradox of divine love results in heavenly redemptive humility rather than human regal haughtiness.