Called to Be a Vessel
After participating in this lesson, each student will be able to:
1. Retell the story of Gabriel’s appearance to Mary.
2. Give examples of other instances in which God chose “lowly” people to carry out his tasks.
3. Write a prayer that asks God to use him or her in a way that seems impossible to human thinking.
How to Say It
Ezekiel. Ee-ZEEK-ee-ul or Ee-ZEEK-yul.
Daily Bible Readings
Monday, Dec. 3—God’s Wonderful Works (Psalm 40:1–5)
Tuesday, Dec. 4—An Unexpected Visitor (Luke 1:26–29)
Wednesday, Dec. 5—Mary’s Son’s Future (Luke 1:30–33)
Thursday, Dec. 6—The Miraculous Conception (Luke 1:34, 35)
Friday, Dec. 7—Nothing Is Impossible! (Luke 1:36–38)
Saturday, Dec. 8—Elizabeth Blesses Mary (Luke 1:39–45)
Sunday, Dec. 9—Mary Sings to the Lord (Luke 1:46–56)
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.”
Why Teach This Lesson?
Mary’s calling was unique; it was special. There was no calling that had ever been or ever would be again quite like her calling. Mary was called to be the earthly mother of the Messiah. Although she was an ordinary person, the special call of God on her life transformed her from being ordinary to unique with a special purpose. Her place and calling were very important in the kingdom of God and in the world.
Your learners should realize that even though Mary’s calling was vitally important, so is theirs. God calls every believer to carry out tasks in the kingdom of God. Every call is unique and important in God’s eternal plan. No two callings are just alike. Each called person has an individual purpose and place in God’s kingdom. The challenges and difficulties each believer faces will vary depending on the nature of his or her calling. Mary, for example, had to watch in agony as her son died on a Roman cross. But God strengthened her for her task. He will strengthen us in fulfilling our callings as well.
A. Precious Cargo, Fragile Vessels
New York jeweler Harry Winston bought the famed Hope Diamond from an estate sale in 1949. In 1958, Winston decided to donate the diamond to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Weighing 45.52 carats, the gem was extremely valuable.
So how would the transfer be made? Rejecting armored trucks or elaborate delivery schemes, Winston merely put the diamond in a box and sent it through the U.S. mail! It arrived in good order, without incident.
Are we startled that someone would choose a fragile vessel and an ordinary means of conveyance for such an extraordinary cargo? As we ponder this account, we can recall the fact that God chose a young peasant named Mary to bring his precious Son into the world. When she was called to be a vessel, she agreed. Her willingness to be used by God is the highlight of this week’s lesson.
B. Lesson Background
As we compare last week’s lesson with today’s, we see interesting parallels in God’s plan to bring salvation to humanity. The angel Gabriel appeared to both Zechariah and Mary, in separate incidents. Each was quite startled at Gabriel’s appearance. Gabriel instructed each not to be afraid. Each was promised a child. Each was given a hint of his or her child’s future greatness. Each was told what the name of his or her child was to be.
Thus the beauty of God’s plan for salvation continued to unfold. Zechariah had been called to believe; then Mary was called to be a vessel. Even though we should not expect angelic appearances today, God continues to issue calls to us through his Word.
I. Gabriel’s Greeting (Luke 1:26–30)
A. In a Real Time and Place (v. 26)
26. In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee,
Luke’s Gospel is careful to locate events in both time and place. The account is definitely not a “once upon a time” fairy tale! In preparing to send his Son into the world, God makes sure that this angelic announcement is documented.
After Gabriel appeared to Zechariah in Jerusalem and announced that Elizabeth would give birth to a son (Luke 1:13), the mute priest returned home to the hill country of Judea (1:23, 39-40). Elizabeth rejoiced in the knowledge of her pregnancy, but remained in seclusion for the first five months (1:24). Then, in the sixth month of her pregnancy, something of even greater importance takes place.
Gabriel, the angel who stands in the presence of God himself (Luke 1:19), is sent to a city of Galilee by the name of Nazareth. Nazareth is not mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament, but it is situated very close to Sephoris (or Sepphoris), the capital of the district of old Galilee. Nazareth is also close to an important trade route. This city’s location is about 17 miles due west of the lower end of the Sea of Galilee (see, for example, www.nazarethvillage.com). A derogatory evaluation of the character of the city comes from Nathanael: “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46).
B. To a Real Person (v. 27)
27.… to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
This time Gabriel’s message of an unexpected birth is not to an elderly man, but to a very young woman who is a virgin. Some reject the idea that a virgin can have a child. But Scripture does not shy away from its bold claim: the miracle of the ages is about to happen—to a virgin. If one cannot accept the miraculous, then one cannot accept Jesus.
To be pledged means that Mary and Joseph have already taken the first steps to becoming married. To break the relationship at this point requires a legal divorce (compare Matthew 1:19). Thus an ancient pledge is a much stronger concept than the modern idea of being engaged.
The final step of the extended marriage process takes place in a ceremony where the groom calls for his bride and takes her to his home. In the case of Mary, even after Joseph takes her to his home, she remains a virgin until after Jesus is born (see Matthew 1:24, 25).
We are not entirely sure whether it is to Mary or to Joseph that Luke is referring as being a descendant of David at this point. Joseph definitely is of that line according to Matthew 1:20 (compare Luke 3:23, 31). Mary’s own descent from David would signify that Jesus is of David’s line biologically as well as legally through adoption by Joseph. For the Messiah to be of the house of David is an important part of the story line (see 2 Samuel 7:12–16; Matthew 1:1; Luke 1:32; 3:31; 18:38-39; etc.).
C. With Real Grace (vv. 28–30)
28. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Since a young woman is usually betrothed in her teens at this time, it is likely that Mary is quite young when the angel greets her. Perhaps she is no more than 15. Even so, she is highly favored in the eyes of the Lord. There is no record that the priest Zechariah, for his part, received such a commendation.
Gabriel continues his greeting with words of assurance. The phrase the Lord is with you means that God is about to do something good for his people (compare Judges 6:12).
What Do You Think?
God still invites faithful people to assist with his work. What can you do in the coming week to respond? How might you have to rearrange your priorities to serve him best?
“The Lord Is with You”
I grew up in a midwestern state of the U.S., and my entire family, grandparents included, lived within an 80-mile radius. But when I was 12, my maternal grandparents moved to Florida. That Christmas my mother, my sister, and I went to spend Christmas break with them. While we were there, my grandfather took me fishing. I’m not sure I had ever been fishing before or even had been out in a boat.
The whole experience was rather exciting and intimidating at the same time. But as long as grandpa was with me, I had no fear. The water, the rocking of the small rowboat, the sights and sounds—nothing made me afraid. Grandpa was close by, and I felt secure.
Mary was initially troubled at the appearance of the angel, but she was soon told of the Lord’s favor. A message of reassurance is also available to each of us. We have the Lord’s promise that he is with us at all times (Matthew 28:20). With this realization, we can be as relaxed and confident as a child out on the water with his grandpa. —J. B. N.
29. Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.
But Mary is confused and troubled at the words of Gabriel. Angelic appearances can have this effect! Dozens of questions probably flash through her mind in an instant. Why has an angel appeared to her? What do these words signify? So far nothing makes sense, because this event is far beyond anything she has ever experienced.
30. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.
Gabriel recognizes the obvious signs of distress in Mary’s countenance. So he assures her with the words Do not be afraid. He also calls her by name, a subtle proof that this is no case of mistaken identity. It is indeed Mary who has found favor with God; it is she who is the one God has chosen!
What Do You Think?
What are some limitations that people believe hinder them from serving God? How may God view such limitations?
The position of women is generally low in the ancient world. But God singles out a woman to be a favored servant. He is going to send salvation to the world through his Son—and his Son will not come out of thin air, but will be born of a woman (see Galatians 4:4). Luke’s Gospel and his book of Acts tell of women who were significant in God’s plan (examples: Luke 2:36–38; 7:36–50; Acts 16:11–15; 18:1–3).
II. God’s Message (Luke 1:31–33)
A. Mary’s Son (v. 31)
31. “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.
Gabriel’s greeting now gives way to God’s message for Mary: contrary to all expectation and all human experience, this virgin will conceive. Gabriel knows the baby’s gender in advance. He also announces to Mary (as he had to Zechariah) that God has chosen the baby’s name. That name is to be Jesus. This is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew name Joshua, which means, “the Lord is salvation.”
This verse is an obvious fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 7:14. The wording is similar, although the designation of the child is expressed differently. In Isaiah the designation is Immanuel, which means, “God with us” (see Matthew 1:23). Both designations correctly identify God’s Son: Immanuel identifies who he is; Jesus tells us what he is going to do. Many other names and titles, such as those prophesied in Isaiah 9:6, also apply to him.
Visual for Lesson 2
Have this visual on display in the front of the room as you introduce the question at the top of page 137.
B. God’s Son (v. 32a)
32a. “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.
God has a special plan for Mary, but the far greater plan is for her child. Every mother wants her children to be great, but Jesus will be great in ways that Mary cannot begin to imagine. Although John the Baptist will be called “a prophet of the Most High” (Luke 1:76), Jesus will be called the Son of the Most High.
During Jesus’ ministry some 30 years later, people will embrace him gladly as a healer and teacher. The people will shout with excitement at the thought that he is the kind of Messiah for whom they have been waiting. But when Jesus says that God is his own Father, making himself equal with God, they will be angry enough to kill him (see John 5:18). Can Mary accept what the angel declares before Jesus’ birth, that he is to be the Son of the Most High?
C. David’s Son (vv. 32b, 33)
32b. “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David,
Centuries earlier, God had promised David that one day a special descendant of his would rule (again, 2 Samuel 7:12–16). God himself is to establish the kingdom for that son of David. The throne of his father David that the Lord God will give to this child means that the child will be no less than the long-awaited Messiah.
The eager expectation for this Messiah will be seen later in the expressions that people use when they fervently cry out to Jesus: “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on us!” (Matthew 20:30); “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Matthew 21:9); “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” (Mark 11:10). Devout Jews of the time know that the Messiah—whenever he is to come and whoever he is—will be a son of David (see Matthew 22:42–46).
33. “ … and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
The closest Old Testament expression of and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever is in 2 Samuel 2:4, where David is anointed to rule “over the house of Judah.” God promised David that the kingdom God would establish would be an everlasting kingdom (2 Samuel 7:16; also see 1 Kings 8:25; Micah 4:7). The reign of Jesus will extend not just through earthly years, but also through all eternity. We see Messiah’s eternal rule expressed in Ezekiel 37:25: “David my servant will be their prince forever.”
Furthermore, the good news of the Messiah will be not just for the Jews. As the angel will tell the shepherds on the night when Jesus is born, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10). God’s plan for salvation intends that the inhabitants of Heaven will include those of “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9).
A challenge that has attracted countless scientists and inventors over the years is the idea of creating a perpetual motion machine. Perpetual motion refers to “a condition in which an object moves forever without the expenditure of any limited internal or external source of energy” (Wikipedia).
Many designs have been attempted over the years, but none has ever worked “perpetually.” Some designs depend on magnetism, some depend on gravity. Some designs are known as “Rube Goldberg”-type inventions—complicated in construction, almost whimsical in nature, and apparently more useful for generating chuckles than anything else. The problem is that there is always enough friction that some of the energy is dissipated, and ultimately the motion of the machine stops.
Only God is the source of perpetual energy. And his angel Gabriel announced to Mary that God’s kingdom would never end. The Roman Empire lasted for 1,229 years; the Holy Roman Empire lasted for 1,004 years. As I write this, the U.S. government under its current constitution is the longest-lived government in the world (218 years). No one knows how long the United States of America will endure, but the kingdom of God will last forever! The energy of its king will never be exhausted. Where does your primary allegiance lie? —J. B. N.
III. Mary’s Response (Luke 1:34–38)
A. Reasonable Doubt (v. 34)
34. “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
Sometimes when God calls someone to do something, that person raises doubts. Moses felt incompetent (Exodus 3); Gideon felt incapable (Judges 6:15); Zechariah was skeptical (Luke 1:18). Mary herself raises a concern: How will this be … since I am a virgin?
Mary correctly understands that Gabriel does not mean that she and Joseph will eventually have a son after they are fully married. God’s plan calls for her to conceive before that marriage is consummated. Thus Mary’s question is one of honest bewilderment. By saying I am a virgin, Mary states the fact that she has never been sexually intimate.
Thus Mary expresses reasonable doubt that what the angel has said can be possible. She knows that she is a virgin, and who can believe that a virgin can bear a child? Yet she readily accepts the explanation she receives (next verse).
What Do You Think?
When was a time you struggled to make sense of something that was happening to you? How did your faith grow as a result?
B. Divine Explanation (vv. 35–37)
35. The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.
God’s intention is that his own Holy Spirit will come upon Mary. In that way the miracle of the virginal conception can and will happen. Because Jesus is to be born through God’s Spirit and God’s power, he will be holy, and he will rightly be called the Son of God. Through all the years of his life on earth, Jesus will be holy. He will be tempted in every point, just as everyone is, yet completely without sin.
The virginal conception is a supernatural event. That is to say, it is an event that goes above and beyond what we know to be the normal laws of nature. To be sure, there were cases in the Old Testament of God’s miraculous or providential intervention for children to be conceived (Genesis 18:10–14; 25:21; 30:22; Judges 13:3; 1 Samuel 1:19-20). The fact that no one else is ever conceived in the way Luke 1:35 tells us does not mean that Jesus could not have been. Instead, the virginal conception proves the uniqueness of God’s Son.
36. “Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month.
In confirmation of what he is saying, Gabriel tells Mary that God’s miraculous plan is already in effect: her elderly relative Elizabeth is already in the sixth month of her own pregnancy. These two miracles prove that God is intervening in history in a special way.
37. “For nothing is impossible with God.”
What a marvelous truth Gabriel now proclaims! This is an echo of Genesis 18:14. Mortals cannot break the laws of nature, but God can. Mortals cannot walk on water or raise the dead, but God can. Nothing that is necessary to the plan of God can ever be impossible to him. He who ordains the laws of nature is able to suspend them.
When we reflect on the statement for with God nothing is impossible, we may ask ourselves, “What about Hebrews 6:18?” That verse says that it is impossible for God to lie. God cannot lie because to do so would violate his holy nature. He can never be divided against himself. But in all that is consistent with truth and holiness, nothing is ever impossible with God.
C. Humble Acceptance (v. 38)
38. “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
What Do You Think?
What life circumstances have challenged or enhanced your service to God? How have you dealt with the challenges?
Mary is to be honored for her humble acceptance of God’s call. As the Lord’s servant, she completely yields herself to God’s will. In total surrender, she invites the fulfillment of the angel’s message so that everything can take place according to his word. With the message delivered and accepted, Gabriel returns to Heaven.
While Scripture does not teach us to worship Mary or pray to her, it is entirely appropriate to honor her purity, her faith, and her submission. She is aware of the difficulties this pregnancy will bring—with Joseph, with her own family, and with the people of Nazareth. Yet she willingly accepts her role in God’s great drama to prepare for the coming of Jesus, on whom the main attention should be focused.
What Do You Think?
The Bible records various responses to God’s invitations to join him in fulfilling his plans: think of Moses, Gideon, and Jonah. Which one is most like your own response to something God has invited you to do?
Throughout sacred history, God has chosen men and women to be instruments of his will. He chose Abraham to begin the Jewish nation; he chose Moses to be their lawgiver. He chose the kings to rule them; he chose the prophets to instruct them. All of these were chosen and called to play their significant roles in his plan.
As his plan to save humanity neared a critical point, God chose Mary. He called her to be a chosen vessel, to become the earthly mother of his divine Son. She was young, inexperienced, perhaps naïve. But in her virginal purity she was the right vessel to bring Jesus into the world.
The beauty of Mary’s story lies in her willing submission to God’s plan. Despite the fact that she could not grasp how everything was to happen, she was willing. Regardless of the physical hardships and the social disgrace she would endure, she was willing. Even though there would be “a problem of explanation” with Joseph, she was willing.
Mary’s willing response to God’s call is an example for all Christians today. God still issues calls to men and women to be used as his holy vessels, and we must respond to those calls. He calls us to accept his Son, to become followers, and then to be proclaimers. He calls us to be his vessels—vessels of his love, vessels of his truth, vessels of his power. “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
Thought to Remember
God still calls people to be vessels for him.
Father, may it be unto us according to your will. Help us to follow the example of Mary in humble submission. Most of all, fill us again with joy for the coming of Jesus into the world. In his holy name we pray, amen.
Nickelson, Ronald L. ; Underwood, Jonathan: New International Version Standard Lesson Commentary : 2007-2008. Cincinnati : Standard Publishing, 2007, S. 131