Expecting the Unexpected: Luke 1:26-38

Posted on 6 May 2010 in Reveal | 0 comments

You can read Luke 1:26-38 here

I’m still not sure why people use the word ‘expecting’ when talking about pregnancy. I know that some of it is societal politeness. It’s true, it does sound a bit better than saying “yeah, she’s preggers.” But honestly, the vagueness of the term disturbs me a bit. Expecting what, exactly? Expecting joy, laughter, pain, sorrow, or perhaps a new financial disaster? I use the word expecting to talk about something I have relative certainty about – I expect that the sun will rise tomorrow. I expect the pedestrian crossing light to turn green when I hit the button (even if I have to punch it about 35 times to achieve that result.) I even expect certain levels of courtesy and respect and care from people I know. But with a baby on the way, what is there to expect with any degree of confidence? Everyone I know has a different story about what happened with all their expectations. And the stories always wind up the same. They’ve discovered that it’s nothing like they expected. But the unexpectedly expectant mothers inevitably still use that term.
If there is one story that I am truly familiar with, it’s the story of the unexpected pregnancy. So now, linguistically, we get to jump through a few hoops. Not only is the lovely lady expecting, but unexpectedly so. So which is it? Is it unexpected or is she expecting? It makes my head spin. Perhaps the being ‘expecting’ was what came so ‘unexpectedly.’ But in all actuality, how could people having sex not expect some consequence? It’s not like the biological ramifications of that kind of intimacy aren’t displayed. And no one ever anywhere ever told me that any birth control was 100% failsafe – other than not having sex – so any sexual encounter increases the likelihood of one of these ‘unexpected’ expectancies. I guess my inner cynic is coming out. I’d rather have people use the term ‘unexpected’ than ‘accident.’ But that’s a different agenda for a different moment. All that aside, I think regardless of the manner of getting pregnant, there are still nine months to get used to the idea. So after about the first month, can you really call it unexpected anymore? And in today’s world, unexpected pregnancies are handled relatively calmly. I won’t say that there aren’t disagreements about the manner in which they are handled, but in general, things are decided relatively easily compared to the first century. Science, health, and the whole baby-delivery systems are so much more advanced. Infant mortality is so much lower. The prenatal care is so much better. That’s not to mention the number of resources for unwed (and wed) mothers to draw on in order to support themselves and their children. In the first century, unexpected and unwanted children wound up thrown out – literally – into the elements to die. And the mothers often were brutalized for their indiscretion. Don’t bother looking for the father, as he’s most likely disappeared. The patriarchal society was simply not even remotely concerned with the well being of the mother and child in comparison to the importance and reputation of the sire. At best, a bastard, and at worst killed mercilessly. Mary’s options are not quite as pretty as they would be today. Sure, there might be some stigma. But compared to her options in the first century? We’re talking apples and oranges.
I don’t know that this story has the same impact today that it might have back in the first century. As far as detours go, this one is about as big and beautiful as you can get. But the way in which Luke tells this story amazes me. It’s so clinical.
About five years ago, I had a brilliant team of teenagers write a scene for a musical in which Mary has to explain to her parents how the Holy Spirit ‘knocked her up.’ They did a brilliant job. Somehow, they got how awkward it would be to be young, engaged, and show up home pregnant – and a virgin.
Getting pregnant must awkward enough. I occasionally get a bit seized up just thinking about something else growing inside me like a little alien, taking my energy, my concentration, my body – even if it were something I willingly chose. I look at the changes that go on in my friends – nausea, diet changes, and the worst of all… No coffee. That’s heartbreak right there. Then the baby comes, and there’s sleepless nights, poo, vomit, crying, screaming. Those are just the negatives, I might add. Can you imagine being so consumed with love for another life that everything else drifts away into the background? Even though it sounds astonishing and amazing, it sounds terrifying as well. All the good, the frustrating, and the brilliant wrapped up in a little bundle of human life that you pushed out of a small orifice in your body after nine months of life-change and normally at least a day of pain and labour to get it out of you.
And the stories from those I know are always about how it was the best thing to happen to them. A miracle, a blessing. But today, the stigma, the shame, the utter disaster of an unwed pregnancy is not quite the same. Hating the baby for the ‘crimes’ of the mother are the exception, not the rule these days. Most people feel moral enough to want to make sure the baby stays alive – even if it’s only taken care of until delivery. But back then, it was completely different.
And that’s why Luke’s clinical tone shocks me every time. 12 verses to explain how the God that created the universe is going to descend to earth in human form. Luke eventually goes into greater detail later, but that’s not his purpose here. He’s just finished telling us about this young girl’s cousins, and it’s almost like an afterthought to get us to the next part. Note that the time frame is still set around Elizabeth. She’s six months along – probably beginning to show. As his orderly account goes, this seems such a small part of the story and such an enormous detour.
Compare Mary to Zechariah. Zechariah – desperate for an heir – is financially stable with a secure place in society. His reputation as a righteous man may be in question because of his lack of an heir, but he is still allowed into the Temple to prepare the offering. He has had a rich life, lacking in only one thing , and God answers that prayer. This child will repudiate his reputation instantly and bring him esteem. What is his response? Doubt. Mary – a good, faithful girl – finds out that she is about to become the town pariah and lose the future she had expected for a future she never could have imagined. And yet her response? Faith.
Luke, in his orderly account, is pointing out the level playing field here when it comes to God’s planning. It’s almost as if God is swapping the reputations of two of his faithful servants. In the first century, Mary’s announcement could very easily have led to her instantaneous and incredibly painful death. It certainly would have led to the townspeople believing the very worst about her. And yet she accepts it simply and follows the path that God has set down for her steadfastly. That kind of steadfastness in the face of disaster is something that comes only through grace. Luke uses the word ‘favour’ twice in this passage to describe Mary. I think that God favoured her even before she became the mother of Jesus. The kind of character and faith that it takes to accept this announcement with the destruction of the future she expected… It is only something that could have been developed over the long-term.
A million small decisions.
A momentary kindness
A fleeting prayer
A brief helping hand to someone in need
A heart that clung to the promises of God.
This kind of character is not formed in the big decisions, but in the little ones. Her only question is “how does this work?” She never questions what will happen to her reputation, but accepts God’s path for her life as the best one and is curious about the mechanics. She has, after all, been faithful to not only God, but also her betrothed, Joseph, so there seems no biological method for it to happen.
What an incredible response to a detour.
She walks along the broken, horrific road – full of peril and danger – and does it with a grace and favour that makes the rest of the world shine.
Her response to that detour sets the stage for the Incarnation. God’s very own beautiful detour.