Luke 1:26 – 56
What do you know?
Some of you may be fans of the Australian comedian Carl Barron. I only know about him because as a preacher I need to watch stand-up comedians for research purposes! Actually, when I’m training preachers I tell them to listen to stand-up comics, but, that’s another story! But Carl Barron once noted that we Aussies like to answer questions people ask us, by saying what the answer is not.
How are you going? Not bad!
What are you up to? Not much!
How are you feeling? Ooh, Not real good!
Are we there yet? Not much longer!
How much were they? Not cheap!
Tell me about your wife, She’s not unlike her mother!
Although it’s not just some wacky Australian idiosyncrasy. It’s an actual grammatical construction called a litotes, which, according to my dictionary, is an “ironical understatement, in which an affirmative is expressed, by the negative of its contrary”, Whatever that means! But actually, we Australians are in good company, because God himself speaks like this.
We see it in the Bible, numbers of time, Jeremiah 30:19 for example, God’s speaking about Israel, and he says, I will multiply them, and they shall not be few;
So to speak like an Aussie, is to speak like God!
That’s good isn’t it!
But there’s one more typically Australian example, and that is the question, “What do you know”, or “whaddya know”, to which the answer usually is, ?, “Not much.”
Which is fine, because the person asking, doesn’t really care what you know, do they,
They’re hoping you say, “Not much”, so that the conversation can move on!
For Luke though, who wrote this part of the Bible, the question of what you know, is hugely important.
There is not much that he cares about more, than what you know.
Verses 1 to 4, just on the previous page, tell us that his whole purpose in writing, is that his original reader, this man, verse 3, named Theophilus, will know certain things.
And in God’s kindness, that extends to us, as we read Luke’s gospel, his goal is that we will know the certainty of the Christian message.
And knowing that that’s Luke’s goal, will help us as we think about the significance of this opening part of the story.
If you’ve ever assembled Ikea furniture, you’ll know that the instructions are all in pictures, there’s no words, presumably so they can sell the same thing in every country around the world.
But the first picture in the instructions, is not step one.
The first picture is always the finished product.
This is what it looks like when it’s complete.
This is what you need to bear in mind as you do all the other steps.
So with Luke’s purpose, the finished product in mind,
Let’s consider, what we can be certain of, as we read this account in chapter 1.
We can know the certainty of God’s grace
First of all, Luke wants us to know the certainty of God’s grace.
Verse 26, In the sixth month, 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.
The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
It’s simple, but perhaps we need to be reminded, that Christmas starts with God.
Christmas starts with God.
In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee
In the 6th month, that’s the 6th month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy which we read about last week, God sent the angel Gabriel
In the original language, the emphasis is on Gabriel being sent from God. He comes from heaven, from God’s very presence, as this angel pointed out to Zechariah in the preceding section.
You might have a Christmas decoration or something at home, that says “Jesus is the reason for the season”, which, you know, is great, and is some kind of effort, isn’t it, to try and reclaim Christmas as a celebration of Jesus’ birth, as opposed to a morass of commercialism, or the Christianity-free “festivus” being adopted by many of the atheist groups.
So I’m not knocking the “Jesus is the reason for the season” concept, but Luke emphasises something else, doesn’t he?
Luke emphasises, Christmas starting 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, to act for his people.
So God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth.
We met Gabriel last week, announcing God’s great plan of salvation to Zechariah.
Around 500 years before these events, Gabriel appeared to a man named Daniel, a captive in Babylon, and gave him a message from God, about God’s plan to rescue lost people.
Apparently the average Australian will change careers around 6 times, during their working life.
Gabriel has been doing the same job, for more than 500 years! : Announcing God’s plans to rescue lost people who have strayed far from him!
Now, the point is not that Gabriel has more staying power than the average Australian worker, but that God has been about his plans of salvation for this long, and in fact, even longer.
Christmas starts with God.
Everything that happens in this episode, is instigated by God, who acts graciously, that is, acting in undeserved kindness to his people.
God chooses a humble servant
And God’s grace comes into even clearer focus, as we see who he chooses to be significant in his purposes.
Did you notice that Luke even needed to tell his readers where Nazareth is, a town in Galilee, because he presumes they won’t have any clue where he’s talking about!
Some friends of ours have been studying at Ridley College in Melbourne, where Lauren Hull and Darren Russ have been. And on the drive back, what do they do as soon as they across the SA border? They stop in some tiny country town, to clean the bugs of the windscreen, and to buy a Farmers Union Iced Coffee.
That’s Nazareth. It’s the town, on the road, to somewhere else.
It doesn’t get a single mention in the entire Old Testament, and it was only in the 20th century, that archaeologists found any reference to Nazareth in history, prior to this reference here.
So not only does the town have nothing to commend itself.
Mary, is nothing special.
And I mean that in the sense of, pick any teenage girl out of our church youth group, and as lovely as they are, but there’s nothing about any of them to suggest that God would choose them, to be significant in his plan to save a broken world, is there?
This country girl, from a nowhere town, is described in 2 simple terms:
She’s a virgin,
And she was pledged to be married
From that description we can say Mary was likely about 13 years old, at this point.
We discover in Luke chapter 2, that when Mary and Joseph make an offering in the temple, they’re so poor, that they can only offer the sacrifice that God prescribed especially for the poorest of the poor.
But did you notice what the angel said to Mary, in verse 28?
The angel went to her and said, “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.
Literally Gabriel says, “Mary, you have found grace”,
God’s kindness has been poured out upon you.
God has come to you, but see he’s not asking you to prove that you’re deserving of this honour.
You have found grace.
That phrase, has an equivalent term in the Hebrew language of the Old Testament, and there it’s used of people like Gideon who speaks of having found favour in God’s eyes, and in Gideon’s case, it’s very obvious, that grace is undeserved!
He is extremely undeserving!
Mary is chosen for this role, not because she’s earned it,
Not because she’s sinless, and therefore she has some claim to this role, which is, what the Roman Catholic Church teaches about Mary.
The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, is not, anything to do with the conception of Jesus.
The immaculate conception is a teaching about Mary’s 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 find grace.
Grace is the undeserved kindness of God, towards sinful people.
If this morning, you had walked into, not a Christian church, but the gathering for any other faith system,
What you’d hear is,
Mary earned God’s favour,
And you have to earn God’s favour,
You’d have to work,
You have to do something, to be acceptable to God,
But God gives an example here, of how a relationship with him always works, by choosing a humble servant, with no merit of her own, that she should be considered for such an honour.
That’s the entire basis for anyone’s relationship with God.
We can know the certainty of God’s salvation
But notice the angel says something else in his greeting, “Greetings, you who are highly favored!, The Lord is with you.”
But this is more than just that assurance of God’s presence 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 I think, based on Mary’s response, she’s familiar enough with her Bible, to recognise its significance.
This is the language that God uses throughout the Old Testament, when he speaks to someone, that in his grace, he has chosen, to play a significant part 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.
But you can’t live forever as a rebel against God, in the world that God made
Those who live as God’s enemies, will die, and be forever cut off from God and his blessings.
But God himself comes to our rescue!
And the Bible is the story of God’s rescue plan! A plan that unfolds, sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly, as God raises up men and women, to drive his rescue plan forward.
Jacob, Genesis 28.
Moses, Exodus 3,
Gideon, who I mentioned earlier, in Judges 6, and plenty of others.
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 this task.
I don’t know if it’s ever happened to you, but sometimes you hear someone say “hello”, or they wave, and you kind of instinctively greet them, “Hi!”, before you realise, they weren’t actually talking to you!
This is no kind of impulsive, empty greeting.
This is a greeting that says God is working his purposes out, acting in his grace and kindness, for his people,
Just as he has before.
That’s why 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!
And of course, that’s exactly what unfolds next.
Mary is drawn into God’s great plan of salvation, in a way no other person in human history ever has been.
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 who are perhaps not prone to that, are possibly too quick to think that Mary’s place in salvation history is no different to any of ours!
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 be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.
Jesus means, the Lord, Yahweh, saves.
It 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, which we saw last week, is God’s way of saying, I’m at working, bringing people back to me.
Some of you I’m sure, still haven’t finished your Christmas shopping, or started your Christmas shopping!
But perhaps some of you have though, “A good gift for someone might be a gift voucher.” And so you get a scrap of paper, the back of an envelope, and you write on it, “This voucher can be exchanged for $50 worth of goods, at Bunnings.”
That’s a nice gesture, isn’t it?, But it’s pretty meaningless! The person you’re giving it to, they’re not going to have any real confidence that it is actually worth $50 at Bunnings.
No, if you want your friends to be sure, you don’t make your own voucher, with your own promise on it. You go to Bunnings, and you buy one of their vouchers, with their promise;, “This is worth $50.” And your friends can therefore trust it, and go and spend it.
God gives this name, so we might be certain of God’s promise of salvation.
We can know the certainty of Jesus’ lordship
But we also see that we can know the certainty of Jesus’ Lordship, his rule.
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 the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
Son of the Most High, is just a way of saying Son of God, as verse 35 shows us.
This child will be God with his people,
But not just God present with, his people, but God ruling his people.
Did you notice all the different ruling words in there?
Jesus has a throne,
He has a kingdom,
We live in a world where it seems that autonomy is valued above all else.
My right to do as a choose is unassailable.
I spent 15 minutes this week looking on the websites of South Australian primary schools, at photos of kids’ work, as part of values education.
Have a listen to what our kids are now repeating back:
“You can be anything you want”,
“Don’t ever let someone tell you, you can’t do something”
“Whatever it is your heart desires, you can have it.”
We need to hear this very clearly:
Gabriel, God’s messenger, says that Jesus has come to rule,
Jesus’ didn’t come to remind people, of his father David,
He didn’t come to teach Jacob, that is God’s people, Israel.
It’s not that his legacy will never end.
Jesus is a king who rules.
The language changes a little in the next section, when Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth.
See verse 42, 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?
“Lord” or “Lorship” today tends to have negative connotations.
I worked with someone once who had a coffee coaster with the words “His Lordship” printed on it, which I think was given to him by his mother-in-law!
For someone to be Lord means they’re in a position of authority,
Lordship means that others submit.
And Elizabeth understands that the child growing in Mary, is her Lord.
And verse 45 tells us, that when Elizabeth says Lord, she’s in fact speaking about her God.
See there, speaking of Mary she says Blessed is she who has believed, that what the Lord has said to her, will be accomplished!”
Elizabeth’s lord is the God of Israel.
And yet . Elizabeth, either through God’s divine inspiration, or because she’s been told what the angel has said to Mary, she knows that Jesus is Lord.
Because Jesus is Elizabeth’s God, she willingly accepts his Lordship, his rule, his authority.
Now, there’s submission, and there’s submission, though, isn’t there?
I can submit to the law that says “drive at the speed limit”, by always driving below the speed limit.
Or, that submission can be, if you like, grudgingly given, that is, I might really wish to go a lot faster, but I stick to the speed limit, only because, there’s a police car right behind me.
How does Elizabeth feel about submitting to the Lordship of Jesus?
“Oh, great! Now the Lord’s come! There goes all the fun!”
Not at all!
She cries out, why am I so favored?,
She is excited about the arrival of her Lord.
And rightly so!
Submitting to the Lordship of God, 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,
God didn’t create us with the goal of casting us off, never to interact with us again.
We were created to rule God’s world, under his lordship.
And yet, as I said, to acknowledge, or to submit to the Lordship of Jesus is unpopular in a world where autonomy and independence are valued above all else.
It’s not unique to our generation though. Back in the 19th Century, the British preacher Charles Spurgeon made this observation;
“Men 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 more like Jesus is the servant boy, who does all the dirty jobs that you don’t want to do.
Back in 2 Samuel 7, a thousand years before Jesus, God promised to King David, that one of his descendants would reign over God’s people forever.
Our Queen, Elizabeth is, what, about 2 years away, from being the longest reigning British monarch, which would be 63 years.
That’s a long time, but even that doesn’t come close to an eternal reign!
Jesus’ lordship is not without its rivals
Well, the eternal king that Israel has been waiting for has come!,
And listen to the sorts of things that he’ll do, that is, what this work of God’s salvation that he’ll bring will look like.
Back down in Mary’s song,
He is merciful, 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.
Verses 50 and 51 help us work out who the humble, the hungry, the rich are.
We’re given 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.
That’s what this king is interested in; The well-being, the hearts and minds of his people.
But in Luke chapter 1, there is already a king! Actually there’s already a king, Herod, and an Emperor, Caesar Augustus.
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!
William Temple was the Archbishop of Canterbury during the last days of the British Raj, the British Rule of the Indian subcontinent. And it’s said, that Temple recommended that missionaries in India, not read this section of the Bible in public, because to casual listeners, it sounded too revolutionary, and there were too many people, authorities, military, and others, who would find these claims too confrontational.
He was exactly right that it’s confrontational, wasn’t he?
And from this moment, until today, the claims of the Lord, the King Jesus, still cut across the claims of earthly kings, and rulers, and authorities, and bosses, and sometimes even parents.
And so those who would submit to Jesus as Lord, have had to learn, what it looks like, to submit to these earthly authorities that God has established, and yet still be mindful of the question, “at what point does my submission to King Jesus, trump my obedience, to this earthly power.”
In God’s kindness, it’s not something that most of us, struggle with daily, but our brothers and sisters around the world do.
For some Christians in other countries, to acknowledge Jesus as Lord, means to be seen as an enemy of their country. In fact nothing could be further from the truth, but that is how they’re seen.
We can know the certainty of God’s power
Lastly though, Luke wants us to know the certainty of God’s power.
“How will this be,”, Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
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.
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. 37 For nothing is impossible with God.”
I remember years ago reading one scholar’s comments on this episode, and he said, “Mary is surprised at the angel’s message, although it is not clear why”!
Actually I think it’s perfectly clear why!
She’s a virgin,
Virgin’s don’t have babies.
You may know the story about the 8 year old boy, who went up to his father one day and asked, “Dad, 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!”
Dad’s pretty pleased with his explanation by the end of it, but he looks down at his son whose eyes have just been getting wider and wider, and now the poor kid has a look of total shock and his belief on his face! And so dad says to him, “Why do you ask?”
And his son replies, “Well that new boy, Sammy, 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 upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you
The power of God will be 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, and created humans from the dust of the earth, will create life, in the womb of a virgin.
And once again the familiar, or perhaps what ought to be familiar, Old Testament languages, fills in the picture:
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 in the wilderness, when God’s presence dwelt with his people there.
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, 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 manifests his presence among people, gloriously and powerfully, this is how he’s described.
Jesus is conceived by a glorious, powerful, creative work of God in Mary.
Some people argue that since the word for virgin in the Greek that Luke writes in, can also possibly mean just a young woman, maybe that’s all Luke means here; Mary was a young woman.
But while it’s true that the word for virgin can mean just a young woman, it’s most natural meaning, expected meaning, is a virgin, and to the ancient Jewish mind, there was almost no such thing as a young woman who wasn’t a virgin.
But even more so, in verse 34, Mary’s question to the angel is literally, How will this be, since I have never been with a man?
There is no question, over the virgin birth, unless you’re happy to disregard the text, because you don’t like the implications.
You don’t like what it says about who this baby is,
You don’t like what the virgin birth means for Jesus, and for you.
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 more obvious in the original, 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. Pretty much anything that can be said about these events, is said in that commentary.
And the author says, this verse is one of the most christologically significant verses of the whole book. Which is which is a fancy way of saying, this verse tells us something very important about who Jesus is.
The Athanasian Creed, the ancient summary of the Christian faith, describes Jesus as “God, of the substance of the Father, and man, of the substance of his mother.
Yes, Jesus inherited half his DNA if you like, from Mary, but that unique creative work from God is required in order to provide an adequate saviour.
The Swiss theologian Karl Barth described the inability of the human race to provide our own saviour.
“Human nature,” he wrote, “possesses no capacity for becoming the human nature of Jesus Christ’. Not education, not decision or desire, not civilisation, not evolution - 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 cannot just take or leave the virgin birth.
It’s not an optional extra.
Jesus identity as Son of God and saviour depends on it.
But let me say, and draw this to a close, It’s OK to still have questions.
Having faith, doesn’t mean, you’re not allowed to have any questions.
Mary had faith,
She trusted God,
She believed his promises, but she still had questions:, How will this be, for I have never been with a man?
It’s entirely natural to trust in something, and yet not understand all the detail about how it works.
That’s not to say that faith and understanding are opposites, as some would have us believe, but we live like this all the time!
When I flew to Sydney the other week, I believed, I trusted, that the very youthful sounding Virgin Australia pilot would get me to Sydney in one piece. I can assure you I would not have got on the plane, if I didn’t believe that!
And yet I have absolutely no understanding at all, of what he did, to get us from Adelaide to Sydney. Especially since over the plane’s PA, he sounded like he was about 14 years old!
I got lots of questions, about how that’s possible,
But obviously a well-placed trust, that it is possible.
What do you know?
Well, there’s a lot in this account, that Luke wants us to be absolutely certain about.
God is gracious,
God acts to save,
Jesus is Lord,
God is powerful.