By Sue Whitt
Purpose: To make commitments to others and to God and strategize ways to be faithful to these commitments.
Bible Lesson: Luke 1:46-55
Background Scripture: Luke 1:26-38, 46-55
Key Verses: “And Mary said, “My soul praises the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savoir.” — Luke 1:46-47
Earlier in this first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, an elderly couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth, unexpectedly find that they are finally going to become parents. Then, an unmarried young woman, Mary, the cousin of Elizabeth, unexpectedly finds that she is going to have a baby. An unexpected message to unlikely recipients.
In the background verses to this week’s lesson, we hear Mary’s response. She is perplexed, “How can such a thing happen?” Gabriel, the messenger sent by God, tells her that her child is to be the son of God. He adds the news that her cousin Elizabeth is six months pregnant. Her fear and her questioning turn into acceptance, “Here am I. Let it be with me as the Lord wishes.”
God chose Mary. Mary accepted God’s choice.
Mary goes to visit Elizabeth. This week’s and next week’s lessons are based on that visit. Next week, we will focus on Elizabeth. This week, on Mary.
Mary responds to Elizabeth’s good news and her own with a song of praise. Like Hannah before her (see 1 Samuel 2:1-10), Mary begins by praising God: “My soul magnifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. From now on, all generations will call me blessed because of what God has done for me.”
She then describes what God has already done. Notice how Mary’s song emphasizes differences: God has brought down the powerful and lifted up the lowly. God has fed the hungry and sent the rich away empty.
Questions: Who should be reassured by this song? Who should start worrying?
God chose Mary to bear the savior. Why didn’t God pick a woman from one of the more powerful prominent families? Why would God choose the backwater of the empire to be the birthplace of the savior? Why not Rome, say?
In verses 54-55, Mary reminds us that God has helped Israel according to the promises made to our ancestors. God’s promise is to Abraham and his descendents forever.
Question: How do these words sound to us Christians when we realize that both Jews and Muslims consider Abraham to be their ancestor, as well?
Purpose: To recognize God’s action in the lives of others and to respond by making their own commitment to God.
Bible Lesson: Luke 1:39-45
Background Scripture: Luke 1:5-24, 39-45
Key Verses: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!” — Luke 1:41-42
The angel Gabriel came directly to Zechariah and to Mary. Each of them responded initially in disbelief. Although Mary was able to voice her acceptance, Zechariah was not. He returned home to his wife Elizabeth, who did conceive, as Gabriel had foretold (See Luke 1:5-24).
Elizabeth, who had been long barren, was now carrying a child. The first readers of Luke could see her story one of hope for Israel. They had suffered a long time of barrenness. Yet, they had hope that God would restore them to their designated role.
Elizabeth can continue to model for us how to respond to God’s gifts and challenges. When her young pregnant cousin appears, Elizabeth immediately is affected. Her child, whom we will know as John the Baptist, leaps in her womb. And she is filled with the Holy Spirit. Mary has made the physical journey.
Elizabeth has remained at home. They both are blessed. They both recognize the blessings in the other.
Many of us have been tempted to give up on whatever it is that we once dreamed of. It’s too late for me, we conclude. As a nation, or as a church, we may also think that we are incapable of achieving some blessing that we once wanted very much. Elizabeth’s story can remind us that, as Sarah put it in Genesis, “Nothing is impossible for God.”
Questions: On what has your congregation given up? What is too hard for you to achieve? How would you respond if you realized that, contrary to your previous experience, you are now capable of carrying out that goal? Is it possible that you already are able to enjoy God’s blessings, but just ignored that fact?
Shepherds Glorify God
Purpose: To demonstrate commitment to God in acts of praise.
Bible Lesson: Luke 2:8-20
Background Scripture: Luke 2:1-20
Key Verse: “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen which were just as they had been told.” — Luke 2:20
“In that region,” this week’s text begins. The region that Luke is referring to is the portion of the Roman Empire. Look back at verses 1-7. Augustus is emperor; Quirinius is governor. The emperor decrees that all persons be registered; that is, the emperor is going to make sure that he gets taxes from everybody under his control.
Then there are some folks who can’t issue decrees. The only things they control are somebody else’s sheep. And it is to this kind of person that the angels go with their news. Not the emperor, not the governor, but the shepherds.
Although they had a positive image in the Old Testament — think of the 23rd Psalm, for example — shepherds living and working at the time of Jesus’ birth were not viewed positively. Rather, they were regarded as lower class, untrustworthy, migrant workers who used other people’s grass to feed their sheep.
The shepherds were not expecting the news. They were at work, and, to their society at the time, not very well-thought-of work. Yet, the Lord sent a messenger to them with the good news.
Their response was immediate. They went to Bethlehem immediately to see for themselves. And when they had seen, they told what they had seen.
Questions: Who is trusted by God to receive and carry messages? Try to imagine a modern-day counterpart to first century shepherds. Would you be interested in anything such people had to say to you? Is it hard for you to imagine God’s telling them something before letting you know?
John the Baptist Proclaims God’s Message
Purpose: To examine John’s commitment to call people to repentance in preparation for the coming of the Messiah.
Bible Lesson: Luke 3:7-18
Background Scripture: Luke 3:1-20
Key Verse: “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” — Luke 3:8
The word of God came to an itinerant prophet — not the emperor’s representative, not the local king who owed his position to the emperor, not to one of the official priests. This prophet quoted to them the words of Isaiah who had preached in an earlier time of crisis. The crowds flocked to hear him.
In this passage, John preaches to them a three-point sermon:
• Being in the right church doesn’t necessary mean you’re being right.
• Compassion is required.
• Watch out.
John questions them, “How religious are you, really? You say you are religious, but you aren’t acting like it. Your actions will get you in trouble with God. You may have had an upright grandpa and a moral grandma, but you are still accountable for your own actions. You may belong to a good church, but you haven’t been doing what the church has been preaching.”
When the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?“ he replied, “Share. Be fair. Don’t use your position to get more than you deserve.” Repentance is more than a momentary feeling, it’s something that changes the way you live, the way you treat others.
And then, John warned, “Keep watching. I’m not the Messiah. The Messiah is coming. The Messiah is coming to judge.”
Imagine John coming to a church conference in your congregation. Imagine him listening to the annual reports your church leaders make about what your congregation has been doing. How has your church been spending its time and resources? Have you been involved in the kinds of activity that John would have thought important? Necessary?
Is your congregation spending much effort on evangelism? On social justice? On living morally? Are you remembering to praise God and to fight poverty? Do you live as if you believed?
That day, John stirred up the people. They thought perhaps he was the Messiah. John told them, “No, but the Messiah is coming. You better start getting ready for him. A lot is at stake.”
A lot is at stake.
The Rev. Sue Whitt is an elder in the Mississippi Conference. She lives in Jackson.