December 2, 2018
God astounds us with the undeserved gift of His Son.
I. The Astounding Gift (Luke 1:26-38)
II. Blessed are those that believe (Luke 1;39-45)
III. Our Souls Magnify the Lord (Luke 1:46-56)
As Gail and I sat in our chairs this week, and I was starting this sermon, I commented to her that there are some texts of Scripture so familiar you are no longer really studying them, no longer even meditating on them, but instead the words resonate so strongly that you are really worshipping from them. Of course, the opposite can be true as well. You can get so familiar with a text that you are no longer studying it, no longer meditating on it, but in fact dulled to it, maybe even bored by it. It arouses no heart response at all. This morning you may be looking to this familiar Christmas season with dread. You view it as a chore, a burden, filled with responsibilities you never chose and relationships with more stress than bless. You may open Luke 1 and not even be able to hear the verses when they’re read or focus on them when they’re written or respond when they’re sung. You’re bored, dulled, your heart more dead than alive.
Andrew Peterson, normally pretty uplifting, said this in a song called “The Last Frontier.” “Why don't the mountains make me cry no more? They don't sing the way they did before. They're just piles of stone, as dead as bones, like corpses on a field of war, and they just don't make me cry no more. And the highway's like an old sad song. People moving through their lives alone. On the run from grace, from place to place, like fugitives without a home. And the highway's like an old sad song. And my heart is black as coal. It's been mined and there ain't no gold. It's so dark in there, but I don't care. I will lay down in this empty hole, where my heart is black as coal. And oh, there is nowhere left to go from here. I have fallen past the last frontier. But,” all good songs have a but in them, “at the bottom of this well I hear you breathing.”
You can go two ways with Christmas. Burden or blessing. Worship or work. Wonder or weariness. I want to encourage you today, and myself, to rediscover wonder and worship in the Christmas texts. We’re in Luke 1:26-57, the announcement to Mary and her moment of worship with Elizabeth. If it wasn’t so familiar, we would find these verses absolutely amazing and wonderful, an astounding witness to God’s work. Let’s find it that way again. Let’s let God astound us with the undeserved gift of His Son, and let’s magnify his love in our hearts.
We begin with the annunciation to Mary. Luke 1:26-38. In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.
30And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever. Of his kingdom there will be no end.” 34And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” 35The angel answered her, “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. 36And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
Six months after he appeared in the temple to Zechariah, Gabriel is sent on a similar mission, this time to Nazareth, an obscure town in Galilee. In the prophecies of Isaiah, it is Galilee of the Gentiles from which the promised ruler comes, not Nazareth per se. In John’s Gospel Nathaniel says “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” But Gabriel was sent there, to a virgin named Mary. She is a ‘parthenos,’ an unmarried woman, a virgin. The word would never be used for one who wasn’t. She was betrothed, to Joseph. Betrothal was stronger than our engagement. It couldn’t be broken except by divorce. Betrothal often happened early in life. Since Mary and Joseph were still betrothed, Mary was probably a young woman, unlike her relative Elizabeth. And her fiancé Joseph was descended from David. It was to King David the promises were made of an heir who would reign forever. If the child was to be the Messiah he had to be David’s descendent. So a king will be born to a carpenter and a peasant girl. Typical of God to fulfill promises in unexpected wonderful ways.
Gabriel says to Mary “Greetings, O favored one.” This doesn’t mean there was some quality in Mary that had somehow earned God’s favor. There is no implication of sinlessness, but rather special blessing, undeserved favor from God to her. The Greek word, is charitao, from charitas, grace. It’s the word Paul uses: by grace you have been saved. This is what has been given to Mary: “You are graced by God. The extraordinary wonder of this event does not lie in Mary, but in God, who gives free blessing to ordinary people. Mary herself, greatly troubled at his words, seems to recognize this wonder. She was stirred up, like an ocean in a storm and tried to discern, to figure out what they meant. And I suspect among Mary’s thoughts was “why is God choosing me? I haven’t done anything to deserve his grace.” Gabriel now says: “Don’t be afraid.” We expected that. Then he says “You have found favor with God. You will conceive in your womb and bear a son.”
This reflects Isaiah 7:14, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son.” This is the first of many prophecies fulfilled by Jesus. He is the virgin’s child, miracle child, born of a woman yet not of a man. Gabriel says “this uncommon baby will have the very common name Jesus.” This is the Aramaic form of “Joshua.” It has a great meaning, “Jehovah saves.” In Matthew, when Joseph has his dream, he’s told “that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save the people from their sins.” Here Gabriel gives Mary different details: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.”
“Most High” was the Greek translation of the Hebrew “El Elyon” or God of Gods. To be the Son of the Most High, therefore, was to be the Son of God. To you and me, maybe, this isn’t surprising. We’ve read the New Testament, we know this is true. But to the Jews and to Luke’s readers the announcement of one who would be Son of the Most High was shocking. The generations preceding the birth of Christ had moved far from a personal conception of God. They had, to their credit, focused on the transcendence of God, holiness, eternity, omnipotence. But that was at the expense of another truth: his personal nature, and steadfast love. If you have forgotten or neglected God’s personal love, you’ll be even more astounded that he would become one with us.
As J. I. Packer says in Knowing God “The supreme mystery with which the gospel confronts us . . . lies not in the Good Friday message of atonement, nor the Easter message of resurrection, but the Christmas message of incarnation. The really staggering Christian claim is that Jesus of Nazareth was God made man, that he took humanity without loss of deity, that he was as truly and fully divine as He was human.” Yet there’s more. The child will also be the Messiah of David’s line. Verse 32: “And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Jesus fulfills Israel’s most longed-for promise. In 2 Samuel 7 God tells David “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.”
This prophecy pointed to Solomon, but after his death, in the decline of the kingdom, the prophets foresaw a future eternal king. Isaiah 9 “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.”
Isaiah 16:5 “In love a throne will be established; in faithfulness a man will sit on it, one from the house of David.” Gabriel says Jesus fulfills these promises. It’s not a surprise that Mary’s response, verse 34, would be “How?” “How can this be?” This was apparently an innocent question, unlike Zechariah’s doubt.
Now Mary might have figured this out. She was about to be married to a man from the line of David, and it would be natural to conceive and have a baby. But I think Mary was startled by the immediacy of the promise. She may also have wondered how, if Joseph was the father, the baby could be “Son of the Most High." Verse 35, “The angel answered her, “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.” There will be no human cause, but it is the power of God the Holy Spirit that will come upon you, overshadow you. Both these words were usually used of God’s presence in the tabernacle.
God was present in the same way with Mary and in that moment God the Son was united with humanity. In that single cell was God Incarnate, human yet holy. He will be called Holy, and also the Son of God. When Jesus was baptized in Luke 3, the Father said “You are my Son, whom I love’ with you I am well pleased.” When Jesus was transfigured the Father said again, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen, listen to him.” At his trial the Sanhedrin questioned him “Are you the Son of God?” They took his affirmation as blasphemy. They couldn’t conceive of God in human flesh. Even today that truth is astounding.
Gabriel further reassures Mary by pointing her to Elizabeth. She’s supposed to be barren, but she’s six months pregnant. So, Mary, learn this simple thing: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” Neither this thing he has promised you, nor anything else, will ever be impossible for the God of the universe. We’re supposed to embrace the same truth. When it feels like your situation is hopeless, God’s counsel is simple. “Remember that nothing is impossible.” You will not always be able to predict how God will do the impossible, and it may not look like he has, but you can be confident that he can. In fact, His plan will often hinge on the impossible, as it did in the incarnation.
How should we respond to this wonder? As Mary does. “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” We submit ourselves to God, giving him the right to do what he wants and to tell us what to do. Mary did this in a difficult situation. She was engaged to a man with whom she had never been intimate. She had to tell him she was pregnant. It was within his rights to accuse her, divorce her, shame her, even have her stoned. But Mary believed that if God called her to this privilege, she would depend on him to provide the strength, the grace, to empower her to do what he had asked.
The ability to see with wonder what God has done, is the foundation for being able to esubmit to his will. When God takes you through the valley, into life’s most difficult situations, it is the truth of his love, the wonder of his love shown in Jesus that gets you through. Christmas is a time to build that wonder as a resource against the burdens of a fallen world. How do you do that? First, believing the word is true. Second cultivating wonder in joy and in worship.
Verses 39-45 are about believing. In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.41When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb. Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
Very shortly after Gabriel’s visit the conception of the incarnate Son must have taken place. If Mary even recognized the moment, we have no record of it. But we do know that shortly after that, Mary went to see Elizabeth. The text says that she went to the hill country of Judea. We don’t know which town, but the trip must have taken at least 4 days, no trip for a young girl alone. Mary must have been accompanied by relatives or travelled with a party. When she arrives she greets Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s baby, John, does somersaults in her womb. Now at six months babies do move a lot, but this must have been extreme.
The Holy Spirit, who is already playing a key role in Luke, as he does in Acts, showed Elizabeth what it meant. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” The word ‘blessed’ is usually used to praise God or ask him to care for others. But Elizabeth recognizes that Mary has already been given God’s incredible blessing. Elizabeth sees Mary’s visit as a blessing “And why is this [blessing] granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” In Greek you can use the term Lord as we use ‘sir,’ but you don’t say sir to an unborn baby. The other meaning of ‘Lord’ is the Lord God. The Spirit has shown Elizabeth the truth of the incarnation. It’s this she’s in awe of, not any merit of Mary’s. Verse 44: “For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” Gabriel said that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit from birth. Apparently it happened before his birth. He was already a person even in the womb. Verse 45 “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” This is really the key verse of the section. When confronted by wonder, by things too wonderful to be true, Mary believed.
This is key for us as well. We may look at a world this Christmas that seems devoid of God: troubles in our country, maybe in our family, in our finances, even troubles in our souls, so we are wretched over our own behavior. Maybe you don’t see much to call wonderful. But the wonder has already happened. The Son of God has come, God has been made man, God is with us. This wonder is enough. Our circumstances may be hard. Our souls may be impoverished. But the wonder of God’s fulfilled love can sustain us even in this.
We receive this blessing as we believe the words of Scripture and the works of Jesus. This is true first in salvation. Jesus said "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies. And he who lives and believes in me will never die.” He said: “I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.” We receive light and life when we trust in Jesus, who died to keep these promises, to purchase salvation for the undeserving. Beyond that, as his children, we need to trust, have faith, that all he has said is true and will be true. What he said about his love, his presence, his rest, his reign, his return, these things are true and will be fulfilled. We need to believe that what he says he will accomplish.
Verse 46-56 show us what this believing looks like. It’s worship that expresses wonder. And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; 52he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” 56And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.
These verses are called the Magnificat, from the first word in Latin. It’s a poem, a song, a psalm. How could Mary’s response be so poetic? Many commentators have implied that Luke added to Mary’s words. My theory is different. I think that as Mary traveled from Nazareth to Judea, she meditated on Scripture, and on her situation, and crafted a psalm of praise to God. “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” The word magnifies means exalts or praises, but I like the English connection. Picture your soul as a magnifying glass that shows God and his works in detail and with clarity. “My soul magnifies the Lord.” The phrase is from 1st Samuel chapter 2, Hannah’s prayer when she gave birth to Samuel. Mary could obviously relate to this.
“My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Mary knew God as her Savior. The Greek word has great images: It is used, of course, of saving from sin. But it also means rescuer, used of rescuing from danger. It means healer, used of making someone well or whole. And the word Savior in Hebrew is Yeshua, Joshua, Jesus. You shall call his name Yeshua, for he will save his people from their sins. Is Mary consciously making this connection? I don’t know. But we can! We rejoice in Jesus our Savior. Verse 48: “for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.” Our humble estate isn’t just powerlessness or physical poverty, but more our fallenness and sinfulness. Jesus not only said that he had come to proclaim good news to the poor and liberty to the captives and the oppressed, but he also said he had come to seek and save the lost, to call sinners to repentance. He looked on our humble estate and came to save us.
And so, in the remainder of her song, Mary worships God. It’s worship that comes from wonder. Verse 48: “For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” She turns it back on God. Yes, all generations will call her blessed. But it’s all because he who is mighty has done this great thing. It’s because he’s holy, his name is holy, and yet has chosen this might way to bless her. It’s because of his mercy. Verse 50: “And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.” Mary reflects the truth of Psalm 103: “The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him.” The God Mary worships, the God we worship, is a God who shows mercy and love to those who fear him, hold him in awe.
Verse 51 “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.” Mary identifies pride, self-centeredness and internal rebellion as the attitudes of the heart that separate a person from God. Verse 52: “he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” What will be true in the political realm with rulers and subjects, will also be true in the social realm with the rich and the poor. But there is a spiritual as well as a social implication. Jesus says in Matthew “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be satisfied.” The proud of heart, those who depend on their power or their riches, will be sent away empty, but the spiritually hungry will be fed. Verse 54 “He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” God is not only merciful, as Mary already mentioned, but he is faithful, trustworthy, fulfilling in Jesus his promises to Abraham and his descendants. And that includes us. His promises of rescue are equally fulfilled for us through Jesus in his atonement.
As we look back on Jesus and his promises and we can have now, today, the same wonder. We can worship a God who is trustworthy and who humbled himself and came to save us. My counsel to you, and to myself this season, this morning, is to cultivate wonder and worship. Let the old, old story of Jesus be fresh to you this year. Let it pierce your soul, as we’ll see it did Mary’s. Let it renew your worship. Christmas is a way to remember wonder.