God and Christmas
Luke 1:26 – 56
God and Christmas
I’ve got good news
We all like to get it!
I’m sure we all prefer it to the opposite! Which perhaps explains the proliferation of the good news , bad news jokes that I’m sure we’re all familiar with!
In fact I heard a good one just the other day; A man wakes up in hospital and his doctor says, “I’ve got good news, and bad news.
The bad news is, we’ve had to take out 3 quarters of your brain.
The good news is, your friends have all chipped in, and bought you a bass guitar!”
Do you get it? Bass guitar, doesn’t require, yep!
This morning we’re continuing our journey through Luke’s gospel, and one of the things that we’ll see over and over, is that Christmas is all about good news!
Now, you might already have thought that, what, with presents, food, days off, and all that! You might already have been convinced that Christmas is good news,
But Luke’s reasons, perhaps, are a little different! So let’s have a look at what Luke says about the good news of Christmas.
Christmas starts with God.
The first part of the good news that Luke shares with us, is that Christmas starts with God.
That sounds, perhaps, rather obvious, but look how our section opens, In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David.
We’re probably familiar with the story,
We hear the story, and quite possibly our mind goes straight to Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus in a manger,
But in Luke’s original language, his emphasis is not on the fact that an angel appears,
Not on Mary,
Luke’s emphasis is on the fact that this angel Gabriel is sent.
He makes the point that Gabriel is sent from God.
He comes from heaven, from God’s very presence, as Gabriel pointed out to Zechariah last week.
I’ve noticed on Facebook in the past couple of weeks, a number of posts representing one of 2 competing claims on Christmas.
On one side there’s ever increasing talk of “Festivus.” I don’t know if you’ve come across it much, but this is an attempt by the atheist groups and some others, to create a Christianity-free version of Christmas!
And so then on the other side, and partly in response to Festivus, but also in response to the commercialism and everything else, there’s the “Jesus is the reason for the season”, kind of posts. Mostly, I gather, put out there by Christian people.
And I get why say that, they’re trying to kind of reclaim Christmas, I don’t want to knock that, but Luke’s emphasis is slightly different, isn’t it.
Luke points out that Christmas starts with God.
God the Father.
When we see just , “God” in our Bibles, it almost always means God the Father.
Christmas begins with God the Father, deciding, out of his own kindness, that now is the time, to act for his people.
So God , sent, the angel Gabriel to Nazareth.
We really mustn’t think that things have kind of bubbled along to this point, and now Jesus comes to be born. Christmas begins with God sending his angel to announce that he is moving his plans for salvation forward.
Have you ever heard the expression “A Red Letter Day”, meaning a day on which something really important happens?
The term was used historically in church prayer books, because the most significant days in the ecclesiastical calendar were printed in red ink.
The day that commemorates this occurrence, the angel Gabriel visiting Mary, was one of these red letter days, because the church recognised how significant this moment is;, when God puts into motion, his plan, to rescue his creation.
And in fact, in the year 525, when a monk named Dionysius invented the concept of AD, and laid the foundation for the calendar we use today, he suggested that the new year, should begin on the day the church celebrated this event, March 25th.
That’s how important this, first step of Christmas is.
But Gabriel’s been doing a version of this, for quite a while. About 500 years earlier, he’d appeared to a man named Daniel, who was a political prisoner in Babylon, what we now call Iraq, and Gabriel gave Daniel a message from God, about how God was going to rescue lost and sinful people.
Last week the Federal Minister for Vocational Education and Skills launched a pilot program to, and I quote, “help mature workers plan the next stage of their careers.”
And I amused myself when I read that, because I thought of Gabriel, as the ultimate mature worker! He’s been doing the same job, for 500 years! :, Announcing God’s plans to rescue lost people who have strayed far from him!
Christmas starts with God, who has been working at his plans for salvation for that 500 years, and even longer,
Everything that unfolds in this episode, is instigated by God as he graciously acts for his people.
God chooses a humble servant
But for such a significant plan, God chooses a very humble servant. Notice that Luke even has to tell his readers where Nazareth is, because he presumes they’ve never heard of it!
Earlier this year our family were driving from Warrnambool to Horsham in Victoria, and as we drove out of Warrnambool, I thought, “we need to get petrol, I’ll stop at the first petrol station that we see”.
Turns out, you can drive all the way from Warrnambool to Horsham, without passing a single petrol station!
I’m sure we were running on the last fumes, from the last drop of petrol in our tank, when we eventually rolled into a petrol station on the outskirts of Horsham.
Now, we’d passed through plenty of towns, but they were all towns like Nazareth! ;, A few houses,
A war memorial,
And not much else! Most significantly for us, no petrol station!
Nazareth isn’t mentioned once Old Testament, and it wasn’t until 1962, that archaeologists found any reference to it in ancient documents other than the Bible.
But not only is the town an unlikely place for anything important to happen,
Mary, is nothing special.
And by that I mean,
There’s nothing at all about her to suggest that God would choose her for a significant role in his plans.
She’s a country girl,
From a nowhere town,
And notice the description, a virgin, pledged to be married
As I said in Question Time last week, this would make Mary about 13 years old.
And we discover in Luke chapter 2, when Mary and Joseph make an offering in the temple, they make the sacrifice that God specifically prescribed, for the poorest of the poor.
She is no mover and shaker.
There’s nothing about Mary that makes her the logical choice, the human choice, to stand near the very centre of human history.
But listen to what the angel says in verse 28, 28 “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God
you have, found favor
Literally Gabriel says, “Mary, you have found grace”,
God’s kindness has been poured out upon you,
God has come to you, but he’s not asking you to prove that you’re , deserving of this honour,
That you’re , good enough.
You have , found grace.
Many of you will know the story of Gideon in the Old Testament. This same language is used by Gideon. He describes himself as having found favour with God. And in Gideon’s case, it’s perhaps even more obvious, that grace is undeserved, because Gideon is extremely undeserving!
Mary is not chosen for this role, because she’s earned it,
She was not without sin, which is what the Roman Catholic Church teaches
The doctrine of what’s called the Immaculate Conception, is not about Jesus’ conception, but a teaching about Mary’s own conception, supposedly free from sin, and it’s taught that she continued to be free from sin, throughout her life.
But that is not what it means to have found grace.
Grace is the undeserved kindness of God, towards sinful people.
And the thing is, Mary is unique, yes,
But the basis of her relationship with God is the basis for anyone’s relationship with God;
God chooses a humble servant, with no merit of their own.
Which is good news for us, with no merit of our own,
With nothing to offer God, that could make us attractive to him.
Christmas is about God’s salvation.
But notice the angel says something else in his greeting, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Now, if you’re a Christian, you know that God is with you!
And maybe if you’re here because you want to find out about Christianity, it might be this very assurance that you’re interested in;, God who is with you.
And that is a wonderful part of coming to know God in Jesus, but this greeting here is more than just the assurance that God is with his people.
Mary stands in a long line of those God has chosen in his plans for salvation
This is Old Testament language.
And based on Mary’s response, she knows enough of her Bible to recognise its significance.
See, this is the language that God uses throughout the Old Testament, when he commissions someone for a major role in his plans of salvation.
For almost the entirety of the story of the Bible, people have been faced with a problem.
Rebellion against God.
Often very polite rebellion, just quietly pushing God to the edges of our life , and beyond.
But we live in God’s world, as if God doesn’t exist!
But the thing is, you can’t live as a rebel against God, in the world that God made, and expect there to be no consequences.
Those who live as God’s enemies, will die, and be forever cut off from God and his blessings.
That’s the problem!
But the good news is that God himself comes to our rescue!
And the Bible is the story of God’s rescue plan!
It’s a rescue plan that unfolds, sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly, as God raises up men and women, to drive his plan forward.
Jacob, Genesis 28.
Moses, Exodus 3,
Gideon, who I mentioned earlier, Judges 6, and plenty of others.
And this language, The Lord is with you, is how God speaks, when he’s preparing someone for a particular role in his rescue plans, and he wants to assure them he will help them, with the task he’s entrusting to them.
That’s why Luke tells us that Mary is greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.
She knows that this is how God speaks to people, who are about to have a major role in his plans for salvation!
If some Christians are prone to the error of thinking too highly of Mary, of elevating her to that level of sinlessness,
Placing her alongside Jesus as a dispenser of God’s grace, and a mediator between us and God,
We perhaps, are not prone to that, maybe we’re more likely to think too little of Mary,
Too quick to think that her place in salvation history is no different to the place where you or I stand!
But she’s right to say, in verse 48, all generations will call me blessed,
God did give her a unique and special role.
Verse 31, You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus
Jesus means, God , Yahweh, saves.
Jesus was a common name.
It was the John Smith of first century Judaism, but unlike all the other little Jesuses who were born that year, this one is named by God himself. And remember we saw in the previous section, when God names someone, it’s his way of saying, “I’m marking this person out, as someone with a key role in my work.”
God gives him the name, Jesus, “Yahweh saves.”
My sister lives in England, and so I find that adds an extra challenge to buying a Christmas present.
So I thought, “a gift voucher!” She can go to Harrods, say, and buy something that she really likes!
So I get out a Post-It note, and scribble on it “This voucher can be exchanged for goods to the value of, 50 pounds, at Harrods”!
What a great brother I am!
But actually, it’s not worth much, is it?
And she wouldn’t even bother trying it out.
No, If I want her to be able to go to Harrods and have confidence that she can buy what she wants, I need to get in touch with Harrods, and buy one of their vouchers, with their promise “This is worth 50 pounds.”
Then she’ll have confidence, that she can trust what’s written on the piece of paper.
When God himself gives the name, with his promise, “Yahweh saves”, we can be absolutely certain, that we can trust the promise.
Christmas is about the birth of a king.
Luke doesn’t stop with such a great promise, though, he continues, and we learn that Christmas is good news, because it’s about the birth of a king.
Verse 32, He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
Now we had a royal birth this year, Princess Charlotte was born on the 5th of May. And I noted this week that when she was baptised, she had 5 godparents, so I’m sorry about that Oscar, but I’m sure Tim and William will make up any slack!
But according to the royal watchers, there’s not a significant chance that Princess Charlotte will ever rule. She’s currently 4th in line to the throne, and it’s unlikely that she’ll ever reign over us.
But this child, Jesus, ruling over his people is a significant part of what he’s going to do.
Did you notice all the different ruling words in there?
Jesus has a throne,
He will reign,
He has a kingdom,
We live in a world where it seems that autonomy is valued , above all else.
My right to do as I choose is unassailable.
I remember, maybe 2 years ago, looking at photographs of work that kids had done in South Australian primary schools, as part of what was called “Values Education.”
And have a listen to the values lessons these kids had been taught, that they were repeating back:
One kid: “You can be anything you want”,
Or, “Don’t ever let someone tell you, you can’t do something”
And, “Whatever it is your heart desires, you can have it.”
This isn’t limited to kids, we need to hear this.
Jesus has come to rule,
Not to remind people, of his father David,
It’s not that his legacy and influence that will never end.
Jesus is a king who rules.
And in case we have trouble hearing this message, we get the same idea, in slightly different language in the next section, when Mary goes up to the hills to visit Elizabeth.
Look at verse 42 there, In a loud voice Elizabeth exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?
The idea of someone being a “Lord” or having “Lorship” today has almost universally negative associations.
I worked with someone once who had a coffee coaster with the words “His Lordship” printed on it, which had been given to him by his mother-in-law!
For someone to be Lord means they’re in a position of authority,
That others are required to submit.
Yet Elizabeth understands that Mary’s unborn child is her Lord!
And have a look at verse 45, so we see exactly who Elizabeth means when she speaks of my Lord. She’s talking about Mary, and she says Blessed is she who has believed, that , the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!
Who’s made promises to Mary?
The God of Israel,
The God of the Old Testament!
That’s who Elizabeth calls Lord!
And so maybe by divine inspiration,
Or maybe because Mary’s already told her what the angel said, somehow, Elizabeth knows, that Jesus, is Lord.
Is her Lord.
And because Elizabeth recognises who Jesus is, she willingly accepts his Lordship,
She submits to his rule, his authority.
And she doesn’t submit grudgingly,
She cries out, why am I so favored?,
For her Lord to turn up, is good news!
And rightly so!
Submitting to the Lordship of God’s King Jesus, that’s what we were designed for!
Living in the world that God created, under God’s rule!
You cannot get more human,
Or more natural.
And yet, as I said, to acknowledge that Jesus has the right to rule over me,
To submit to the Lordship of Jesus, that’s an unpopular idea in our world, where autonomy and independence are valued above all else.
But this isn’t unique to our generation. It’s not some hurdle that Christianity has never come up against before.
Listen to this observation from the English preacher Charles Spurgeon in the 19th Century.
“Men, humans, will allow Jesus to be everywhere, but on his throne.
They will allow him to be in his workshop to fashion worlds and make stars.
They will allow Him to be in His treasury, to dispense His alms and bestow his bounties.
They will allow Him to sustain the earth and bear up the pillars thereof, or light the lamps of heaven, or rule the waves of the ever-moving ocean;,
But when, Jesus ascends His throne, His creatures then gnash their teeth.”
What does it look like in your life, for Jesus to be on his throne?
Does it even look like he is the king?, or does it look like he’s been deposed?
Could it be said that Jesus is Lord of your, , time,
What does it look like for Jesus to exercise his rule over your speech, your language, the thoughts you entertain?
Or have you tried to create a little autonomous region somewhere in your life, over which Jesus has no authority, No rule.
Jesus’ lordship is not without its rivals
Well, have a look at what’s going to happen, now that Israel’s king has arrived!
Mary’s song describes some of the great saving acts of this king, Jesus.
He shows mercy, verse 50, to those who fear him.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
It reads to us, like Mary’s giving a recital of history, “these are the things that God has done in the past.”
But we should probably understand this in a prophetic sense, with Mary looking forward to things that are going to be accomplished through Jesus’ eternal reign.
It’s a pattern that we see at a number of points in the Bible, where things that God is going to do, are spoken of in the past tense, because the person speaking is so sure, that God will accomplish what he puts his hand to.
Chris Edwards, who I used to work with, who some of you know, now a bishop in Sydney, when he was younger, he had a reputation for starting things and not finishing them because he’d get excited by something new. His nickname, in those days, was half-done Edwards!
Do you see that this way of speaking about God, is the exact opposite? So sure can we be, that God will accomplish these things through his king, Jesus, that they can be spoken about as if they’re already finished.
And if you’re wondering, “Well, who are the rich?,
Who are the hungry?
Verses 50 and 51 help us work it out.
We get this contrast between those who are open and responsive to God, and those who are not.
Those who fear God, that is, they acknowledge God’s position and power, and those who don’t.
It’s not a matter of how much you’ve got in your pocket, but a question of does what you have, stop you responding to God and his king?
But we’ve seen in Luke 1 previously, there is already a king! Actually, there’s already a king, and an Emperor!
To say, “there is a new king”,
To say, “Jesus will reign on the throne of his father David”
To say, “My Lord has come”, those are fighting words!
During the last days of British rule in India, when William Temple the Archbishop of Canterbury was sending missionaries to India, it’s said that he encouraged them not read this section of the Bible in public, because to casual listeners, it sounded too revolutionary,
Well, he was exactly right that these words are confrontational, wasn’t he?
And from this moment, in, whatever, 6 BC or something, until today, 2015, the claims of the Lord, King Jesus, still cut across the claims of religious leaders, earthly kings, and rulers, and authorities, and bosses, and sometimes even parents.
On Friday, a friend of mine showed me a photo he had taken in a shop in Malaysia. It was a DVD of , the Bible. And it had a sticker on it, “Warning, not suitable for Muslim viewers”
The message of Jesus, “Yahweh saves”,
The message of king Jesus, the one who rules,
Is a message that confronts and challenges, even today, and there are rivals, to Jesus’ lordship.
For us, I think the rivals are not so much other authorities, or religious practices, but our allegiance to other things will collide with Jesus’ lordship.
We might choose to honour a relationship, instead of honouring Jesus,
We prioritise social standing, or influence, rather than Jesus.
Perhaps we follow the callings of career, or family expectations, rather than the claims of Jesus.
There is much today, to rival the lordship of Jesus.
Christmas comes about through God’s power.
The last piece of good news we see here, is that Christmas comes about through God’s power.
Look from verse 34 with me. 34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on 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.
I remember once, years ago, reading some scholar who said, “Mary is surprised at the angel’s message, although it is not clear why”!
Actually I think it’s pretty clear why!
She’s a virgin,
Virgin’s don’t have babies.
You know the story of the little boy, who asked his dad, “Daddy, where did I come from?”
Dad takes a deep breath and realises that the time has come for them to have that father-son talk. So he starts to explain, “When a mummy and a daddy love each other very much, and , well, you know the rest!”
The little boy’s eyes just get wider and wider. He’s got a look of total shock on his face.
So dad says to him, “Why do you ask?”
And his son replies, “Well that new boy, Jonny, at school, he said he comes from Melbourne, so I was just wondering where I come from”!
But where does this baby come from?
The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you
This is God’s power at work,
The Holy Spirit, who, Genesis 1 verse 2, was hovering over the waters at creation, he is the active, life-giving agent of God.
God who created life out of nothing, will create life, in the womb of this young girl.
And once again if we know our Old Testament, it will help us see the significance of what’s going on here. That phrase, the power of the Most High will overshadow you, these are the words that describe the cloud of God’s glory, coming to rest on the tabernacle, the tent where God’s presence dwelt among his people.
These are the words used when God describes covering his people in the shelter of his wings, giving them refuge.
And later on in his gospel account, Luke uses this language again, to describe the cloud on the mountain when Jesus is transfigured before his disciples, and appears radiant with the glory of his Father.
When God turns up, gloriously and powerfully, this is the language that’s used to describe it.
Mary conceives Jesus, by a glorious, powerful, creative work of God.
You might have heard people argue that since the Greek word, that Luke uses for virgin, can also mean just a young woman, maybe that’s all Luke means; Mary was a young woman.
No miracle necessary.
And the word can mean “young woman”, but it’s most natural meaning, is a virgin. And of course, in Judea, in the first century AD, there was almost no such thing as a young woman who wasn’t a virgin.
But even more so, in verse 34, Mary asks the angel, literally, How will this be, since I have never been with a man?
There is no question, over the virgin birth, unless you want to disregard Luke’s historical document, because you don’t like the implications.
Because there are implications.
Did you notice the language of verse 35, the power of the Most High will overshadow you., So, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God
It’s only a little word.
It’s the “therefore” word.
Mary, a virgin, will conceive, under the creative, powerful, glorious work of the Spirit of God, , Therefore, the Holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.
Jesus’ identity, hangs on the virgin birth.
The fattest Bible commentary I own, is a thousand pages on the first 9 chapters of Luke’s gospel. It’s kind of the last word, on what we know about Luke’s gospel.
And the author says, this verse is one of the most christologically significant verses in the whole of Luke’s gospel. Which is just a fancy way of saying, it tells us something very important about who Jesus is.
Jesus must be God, the product of a unique creative work of God, if he’s to be the saviour that we need.
No mere human, can save us from the due punishment for our rebellion against God.
Anyone who’s just a human will be in exactly the same situation we are, when it comes to our separation from God. He’d be unable to save himself, let alone anyone else.
Karl Barth, the Swiss Theologian, described our inability as humans, to be able to provide our own saviour like this: “nothing could procure from among our own ranks a worthy saviour.
Our plight was desperate. In our very bones we carried about our own doom.”
We need God to save us.
So, we can’t just take or leave the virgin birth,
It’s not an optional extra.
Jesus’ identity as Son of God and saviour depend on it.
We need God to turn up amongst us.
I read this week about a man who had been travelling in Europe for work, and, just as he was about to fly home, he rang his wife from the airport, and his 4 year old son who had been waiting for his father, all these weeks that he’d been away, grabs the phone, and asks, really just sighs into the phone, “Daddy, when will I be, where you are?”
When will I be, where you are?
Friends, the good news of Christmas, is that we can be, where God is.
He comes to be with us,
So that we can be with him.