“The Handmaid’s Tale” (Luke 1:26-38)

Fourth Sunday in Advent
December 20, 2020

“The Handmaid’s Tale” (Luke 1:26-38)

I’ve never seen the program, but I have heard about a television series called “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The premise of the show is that there is a tyrannical, theocratic government that is oppressing women. Of course, the religious people are portrayed as evil. The women that they are oppressing and enslaving are called “handmaids.” Well, the American Left have seized upon this, and in some of their marches, their women dress in the handmaids’ costumes as a way of protesting how religious people in our country are oppressing women.

However, in the Holy Gospel for today, from Luke 1, we meet a young woman who is content with being a handmaid. In fact, she even calls herself by that term: “I am the handmaid of the Lord,” she says. And indeed, she is, as we just sang, a “most highly favored lady.” So let’s hear her story now, under the very good title, “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

In the first chapter of his gospel, Luke lays out the story of what leads up to the birth of Christ. He goes back and forth between the background of the miraculous birth of John the Baptist and the background of the miraculous birth of Jesus himself. First we have the account of the angel Gabriel announcing to aged Zechariah that he and his wife Elizabeth, who had not been able to have children–that they will have a son named John, who will prepare the way of the Lord.

Now, six months later, the angel Gabriel has another message to bring, about another special birth. He goes to the town of Nazareth and comes to a young woman named Mary. He greets her: “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” As usual in the Bible, whenever a human being encounters an angel, that person is frightened, and the angel has to do a “Fear not.” Which Gabriel does: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”

Notice, Gabriel has addressed Mary as “O favored one,” and now he explains, “for you have found favor with God.” Let’s explore this a little bit. The word that’s translated here as “favor” is the Greek word “charis,” which can also be translated as “grace.” “Charis,” grace, favor–it means God’s free gift. Mary has been given grace, by God. It’s not that Mary is a source of grace. She is not a dispenser of grace. Rather, she is a recipient of grace, God’s free grace and favor. So when Roman Catholics repeat Gabriel’s greeting and say, “Hail Mary, full of grace,” if they think that somehow the Blessed Virgin is a source or dispenser of grace, as though she can hear and answer our prayers–well, that is a misreading of the text.

So Mary herself has been graced and favored by God. And what is the gift that she has been given? Gabriel now tells her: “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He 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 father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Mary is being given the gift of a son. Now that in itself is nice, but it would be nothing extraordinary. What is extraordinary is the son she will bear! God has even picked out a name for him: Jesus. Again, that in itself would be nothing extraordinary–Jesus was a fairly common name for Jewish boys. It’s the same name as “Joshua,” who was one of the heroes of Israel’s past. Joshua was the one who led Israel into the promised land. This Joshua, this Jesus, will lead all of God’s people into the eternal promised land of heaven. “Joshua,” “Jesus”–the name means “The Lord is Savior,” and this baby will fulfill that name perfectly.

“He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” Now this is extraordinary! This is remarkable! The Son of the Most High God! God’s one and only Son is going to be born in the flesh! This will truly be a one-of-a-kind birth!

Gabriel continues: “And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Jesus’ birth will be the fulfillment of a very significant promise that the Lord gave to King David a thousand years earlier: that one of David’s sons, one of David’s descendants, will rule as king over an everlasting kingdom of blessing. Jesus now will be the fulfillment of that promise. He will be the Messiah, the Son of David, spoken of so long ago.

So Mary’s boy child will be great, to say the least. He will have a special destiny to play in God’s plan for the ages–the key role, in fact. But Mary herself will have a special place in this plan: She will bear this child, God in the flesh. She will be the mother of the Messiah. This is a high honor! This is the gift, the grace, the favor, that Mary is being given.

One problem, though: How can Mary give birth to a child when she is not even married? She asks the question of Gabriel: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel replies: “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 called holy–the Son of God.” “Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary”: Just like you learned it in the Creed. This will be no ordinary pregnancy and birth–as befits the unique child who will be both true God and true man.

Elizabeth’s pregnancy in her old age took a miraculous act of God. Mary’s pregnancy, while remaining a virgin–Mary’s giving birth to God’s own Son–this even more so can only be God’s doing.

And so Gabriel concludes: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary responds: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Now notice, it says: Nothing–that is, no “thing”–will be impossible with God. “Nothing” is a decent translation. But the Greek word here is “rhema,” which can mean “matter” or “thing,” but often “rhema” has the added nuance of being a “thing spoken of,” an “utterance.” In other words, Gabriel is saying: “No utterance, spoken by God’s messenger–just as I have spoken to you, Mary–no utterance from God will fail to come to pass.” You can count on it, Mary. God’s word will do what he sends it out to do. When God speaks, things happen. God’s creative, active, powerful word will bring it about.

This is a lesson for us. You are hearing God’s “rhema,” his spoken utterance, delivered to you by God’s messenger here today. God’s word is alive and powerful. It does for you what it says: When God’s messenger, your pastor, tells you, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,” it is as good and certain as if Christ himself were declaring it to you. When I deliver to you the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins, that is a sure deal. God’s word does what it says. You can take it to the bank. This “rhema” is as sure as when Gabriel spoke to Mary.

And that’s how Mary receives it. She says, “Let it be to me according to your word.” And guess what? What is the word here for “word”? Once again, it is “rhema.” Mary is trusting in the spoken utterance from God’s messenger. In this respect, Mary is a wonderful model for the church. Would that we all would take God’s word to heart and let it sink down deeply!

Now notice one more thing about Mary’s reply. She says, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord.” The “servant” of the Lord: This is the word for a bondservant, a slave. A bondservant does not do her own will; she does the will of her master. And Mary, willingly, is ok with this!

“Behold, I am the servant of the Lord.” Some of the older translations have, “I am the handmaid of the Lord.” And this is the verse where that television series gets its name, “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Only this handmaid, Mary, is not being enslaved by some mean old oppressor of women. No, quite the opposite. She is being given a great gift, a great privilege: to be the mother of the Savior of the world! Mary regards being the handmaid of the Lord as the highest honor anyone could have! Which it is.

Again, Mary is the model for the church. Would that each one of us would say, “Behold, I am the maidservant, I am the manservant, of the Lord. Thy will be done in me and through me, O Lord!” This is not oppression. No, this is contentment, knowing that God’s will for us is always best. This is the joyous freedom of the gospel!

“Blessed are you among women, Mary, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” What was spoken to Mary–the “rhema” delivered by God’s messenger–found its fulfillment in the birth of Christ. For nothing is impossible with God, even the salvation of the world. And this is the beginning of how it happened. This is the true “Handmaid’s Tale.”

Published in: on December 19, 2020 at 8:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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