It often is said that good things come in small packages. This passage adds a twist to that theme. For the announcement of Jesus' birth shows that wonderful things come in surprising packages. God does not always do things the way we would do them.
The announcement to Mary sets up a parallel to John's birth and mirrors a number of birth announcements in the Old Testament. But this passage's mood is very different from the Zechariah account. A simple calmness rules the exchange between Mary and Gabriel. Where Zechariah was in the midst of activity before the whole nation in its religious center, this announcement comes to the future childbearer privately, in the country. Had we designed these events, pomp and circumstance probably would have attended the announcement and birth of Jesus, but God chose to use an average young woman and to announce his intentions in quiet obscurity. The fulfillment of God's promise came to earth in an unadorned package of human innocence, without any pomp, far away from any palace. The promised one entered human life as he still seeks to meet it: at the level of everyday experience with everyday people.
God again takes the initiative when he sends Gabriel to Galilee, a region some forty-five to eighty-five miles north of Jerusalem. God's announcement comes to a betrothed virgin, Mary. God will bring an unexpected addition into her family. Betrothal in the ancient world was part of a two-stage marriage process. The initial phase, the betrothal, involved a formal, witnessed agreement to marry and the giving of a bridal price (Mal 2:14; m. Ketubot 4:4-5). At this point the bride legally became the groom's and could be called his wife. About a year later the actual marriage followed, and the husband took his wife home. In the first century betrothal could take place starting at the age of twelve. Mary's age is unstated. It is during this betrothal stage that Gabriel breaks the news.
Mary's chaste character is highlighted by the description of her as a virgin. It is clear that the account attributes Jesus' origins to the Holy Spirit (vv. 34-35). But the human Davidic connection, the tie to the royal line, is also noted in verse 27. The point is important, for it seems that this connection is attributed to Joseph and comes to Jesus through him. Joseph need not be the biological father in order to pass such lineage on to Jesus (Schweizer 1984:27-28). The virgin birth is one mark of superiority for Jesus over John the prophet. It makes Jesus totally unique. The only other person to have had such a direct divine intervention in his birth was Adam--a point Luke will note in 3:38.
The portrait Luke paints of Mary is significant. She is a model believer, taking God at his word, in contrast to Zechariah (vv. 37-38). She is favored of God (v. 30), thoughtful (v. 29; 2:19, 51), obedient (v. 38), believing (v. 45), worshipful (v. 46) and a faithful follower of God's law (2:22-51; Craddock 1990:27-28). It must be emphasized, however, that despite all these qualities, God's choice of Mary to bear this child springs from his grace, not from any inherent merit that she possesses. She is the object of God's unmerited, graciously provided goodness. Her description as one who has found favor with God (kecharitomene, v. 30) makes it clear that God has acted on her behalf and not because of her. In fact, Mary is totally perplexed by the sudden announcement. She did not ask for or seek this role in God's plans; God has simply stepped into her life and brought her into his service. Her asset is that she is faithful. She should be honored for her model of faithfulness and openness to serve God, but that does not mean she is to be worshiped. Luke wants us to identify with Mary's example, not to unduly exalt her person.
The announcement of Jesus' birth, which is formulated like Old Testament announcements (Gen 16:11; Is 7:14), stresses three things about Jesus: his position (Son of God, Son of the Most High, ruler), his authority (seated on Israel's throne forever; ruler of a kingdom that will never end) and his divine ties (the Holy Spirit will come . . . and . . . overshadow you). In short, Jesus is the promised king of the Davidic line. Old Testament roots for this promise come from 2 Samuel 7:8-17 and Psalm 89 and 132, along with Isaiah 9:5-6; 11:1-5, 10; and Jeremiah 23:5-6 (C. A. Evans 1990:25). The kingdom in view here was the promised messianic kingdom, and Luke will develop and expand the Old Testament understanding of that kingdom through Jesus' teaching, the hymnic material of Luke 1--2, the ministry of John the Baptist and the miracles of Jesus. The expansion will not be at the expense of what the Old Testament promised, but comes in to complement it. God will complete promises made to Israel, the original recipients of his promise, even as he expands that promise later in the New Testament period to involve the Gentiles. In Christ both Jew and Gentile--that is, all humanity--have access by faith to God (Gal 3; Eph 2:11-22; 3:1-7).
So Jesus is not only great, as John was, but Son of the Most High, Son of God (vv. 32, 35). To Jewish ears this would be the same as calling him king (2 Sam 7:8-17; Ps 2:7). The Jews did not expect a "divine" Messiah, as the Gospels themselves make clear. God had promised David that the king would be God's son, since Yahweh would be the son's Father. This birth would be the first step in bringing the promise to David to its permanent, ultimate fulfillment. This long-held Father-son relationship was to reach unique heights in Jesus. It is clear from Mary's reactions to Jesus in his early years that she did not understand the angel's promise to be a declaration of Jesus' ontological deity (2:41-52; see also Mk 3:3133). Her hymn and those that follow it in the infancy section stress Jesus' regal and delivering role. Jesus is the holy one; he is begotten of God; but the full implications of these statements will not be realized for some time. Luke chooses to present Jesus from the "earth up"--that is, showing how, one step at a time, people came to see who Jesus really was. He starts with Jesus as the promised king and teacher who reveals himself as Lord in the context of his ministry. Only slowly do people grasp all of what is promised.
This approach matches how most people today come to see who Jesus is. Drawing on two thousand years of theological reflection about Jesus, the church often tells the story from heaven down, but there is merit in Luke's path. It is the path of people's experience. Luke's approach is different from that of the Gospel of John, which presents Jesus as sent from heaven to earth. At the start of John's story there is no doubt that Jesus was with God in the beginning. Both approaches are true; they are just different ways to consider the person of Christ. The church has tended to emphasize John's approach, because it is the full story, but there also is value in unfolding the story gradually as Luke does.
Mary has difficulty comprehending the announcement. She asks, "How will this be?" She knows she cannot yet have conceived a child, since she is a virgin. The answer comes in terms of God's creative overshadowing power. Mary's faith is put on the line at the start. Will she believe that God has the capacity to create life within her? God does not leave her alone in the decision. The angel notes the life that is stirring within the womb of an elderly woman, Elizabeth, Mary's relative. Thus John serves as a pointer to Jesus not only in his preaching but also in his birth.
The angel states the basic premise "Nothing is impossible with God." Mary simply responds in humble acceptance, "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said."
We can only imagine what this announcement required of Mary, especially as her condition became obvious. A hint of the issue is raised in the story of Joseph's dilemma in Matthew 1:18-25. Is God's power such that he can create life and exercise sovereignty over it? This is a question Jesus' birth should raise. Would people believe the claims surrounding Jesus? The questions are profound. Wonderful things come in surprising packages, but they can come, because God has the power to deliver them.