December 06, 2020
Prayer for Illumination:
God of the universe, revealed to us in Holy Scripture through the writings of the prophets and the preaching of John the Baptist, you have called us to prepare our hearts for your visitation. Ready us now to hear your Word and to respond as faithful servants, to the glory of Christ. Amen.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
35 And 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. 36 And 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. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. 
This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.
Luke is preparing us for the birth of the Christ. He began by preparing us for the birth of the forerunner. He told us that John will prepare the way for Jesus. John’s job is to make ready a people prepared for the Christ. Luke continues preparing us for the birth of the Christ by announcing that Mary will conceive and bear a son; a son who is the Christ.
In this announcement, we are told that we are far more sinful than we realize, God is far more gracious than we know, and God is far more powerful than we imagine.
We are Far More Sinful than We Realize
Six months after the angel Gabriel told Zechariah that he would have a son who would prepare the people for the Christ, he appears to a young woman, Mary, in Nazareth. She is betrothed to Joseph, a descendent of King David.
One day, he comes to Mary and tells her that she will conceive and bear a son whom she is to name Jesus. Typically, parents name their child. And normally, Jewish parents at this time would name their children after grandparents or great-grandparents. In Luke 1:59, right after John is born, all of the relatives are clamoring that they name the child after Zechariah because it was custom to name the child after a relative.
Imagine someone telling you what to name your child. Your child has just been born and someone says, “You are to name your child Olaf”. You’d balk. You’d say, “No. Who are you to name my child?”
In this case, it’s not some random person naming your child something. It’s actually God who is naming the child Mary is about to conceive. God names Mary’s son. When God names someone, it indicates a special relationship with that person. When God enters into covenant with Abram in Genesis 17, he changes his name. Abram was the name his parents gave him but God changes it to Abraham. In that same passage, God names Abraham’s soon-to-be-conceived son Isaac. It shows he will have a special relationship with Isaac just like he had one with Abraham. Just as God was with Abraham, he would be with Isaac and Isaac’s son Jacob to fulfill the promise he made to Abraham. When God names someone it shows he has a special relationship with that person.
Here the relationship is that Mary’s son is the eternally begotten Son of God. The child Mary will conceive and bear is the second person of the Trinity. We’re told that when Gabriel says he “will be called the Son of the Most High”. The Most High is a common name in the Old Testament for God. What we’re being told is that Mary’s son will be fully human and fully God. Jesus is one person with two natures. He is not some hybrid or demigod like Hercules. He is fully man and fully God. He is the Son of God and the son of Mary.
God names Mary’s son Jesus. Jesus means “YHWH saves”. When God names someone there is significance to the name. The name actually reveals something about that person. God never says, “Hey, this name sounds nice; I’m going to call you this”. We do that; that’s why we give our friends nicknames. I call my friend Matt from seminary Matthias von MacClackenberg. Why? Just because it sounds funny and silly. It sounds nice.
But when God names someone, the name he gives them reveals something about that person. When God changes Abram to Abraham, it’s to reveal something about him. Abram means “Great father”; Abraham means “Father of a great multitude”. God makes Abraham the father of the Israelites and the Ishmaelites by physical descent and the spiritual father of Christians. His name reveals exactly who he is. Abraham is the father of a multitude of people.
Isaac means “laughter”. Through Isaac’s birth, God brings laughter back to Abraham and Sarah. He restores their joy in each other and ultimately in him. When God names someone it reveals something about that person. And God names Mary’s son Jesus, YHWH saves. It is through Jesus that God is saving his Church.
If we need someone to save us, we must be in dire straits. When someone needs saved, they are not in a great situation. Maybe some of you remember the movie “Saving Private Ryan”. The movie came out back in 1998. And it’s the story of a World War II company that is tasked with saving Private Ryan who has been captured by the Axis forces. Private Ryan was the last living son of a mom who had seen her other three sons die in the war. So General Marshall sends this company of seven soldiers to save Private Ryan. He was in dire straits and needed the seven men to save him.
We are in dire straits. We are in desperate need of having someone save us. So often we think “we’re not that bad; we just need a little help”. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say “God helps those who help themselves”. We say that because we think we aren’t so bad; we think that our situation isn’t so bad as to require saving, just a helping hand. We often don’t recognize we are in dire straits.
The bible makes very clear that we are in dire straits. The bible makes clear we are in desperate need of being saved. Paul in his letter to the Romans says that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and because we have sinned we deserve death. “For the wages of sin is death”. The prophet Ezekiel is given a glimpse of our true spiritual state. In Ezekiel 37, the prophet sees a valley of dry bones. That is our natural state. We are naturally dead in sin; so dead spiritually that we are dry bones. Those are dire straits. That is our situation.
We are far more sinful than we realize. We recognize that we do bad things and that we sin when we lie, or gossip, or steal. We recognize that is sin. But do we recognize that even that internal temptation to sin is sin? That’s what James tells us in 1:14-15 of his letter. James writes, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death”. So even our internal temptation to sin is sin. That is just how much sin has affected us. Those are some dire straits.
We can sin even if we do the right thing. Do you know that? If we don’t murder because we don’t want to go to prison but still harbor hatred in our hearts that is sin. In Matthew 5 Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment”. If we don’t lie because we don’t want to get in trouble but still don’t value truth that is sin. If we don’t steal because we don’t want to go to prison but still covet what someone else has that is sin. So we can do the right thing but for the wrong reasons. And that is sin.
We are far more sinful than we realize. Sin has affected us not just at a surface level but at our very root. This is radical depravity. That is why you don’t need to teach a child to lie or cheat or to covet. Children naturally know how to lie, cheat, and covet. You don’t need to teach them how to do those things, they know how to do them from their birth. In Psalm 51 David writes, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me”. Sin has affected us our very root. From our very conception, we are sinners. We are far more sinful than we realize. But God is far more gracious than we know.
God is Far More Gracious than We Know
Despite the fact that we are more than sinful than we realize, God shows his grace in saving his Church, in saving his elect. We have no right to demand that God save us. If we were to demand our rights, we would be in hell tonight. That is what we deserve.
But God shows his grace in providing salvation for his Church. God was under no obligation to save us. But he has. He has done so to show the great love with which he has loved us. He has loved us even when we didn’t love him. That is what Paul says in Romans 5. God loved his elect, he loved his Church, even when we did not love him. God’s plan from before time was to save his Church out of sin and death. This was the plan he made within himself that he would create, that he would allow sin to enter into his creation, and that he would save his Church out of sin.
The way that he would save was that Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, would be born of the Virgin Mary. Jesus, the one who established the laws of the universe and gave the law to Moses, was born under the law to save those enslaved to the law. Jesus saves his Church by being born under the law, perfectly fulfilling it throughout his life, and dying in the place of sinners. This is how God saves us. It is through Mary’s son, Jesus, that God saves his people.
In saving us out of our sin, misery, and death God shows his grace. God was not obligated to save us. He willingly said “I will save my people”. That is grace.
Sometimes people think that God is this harsh taskmaster who is always looking to swat us on our behinds. People think that. They think that God is mean and just looking for an excuse to damn us.
God does not need to look for an excuse to damn us. We have damned ourselves with our sin. God knows that. God knows that by virtue of our sin and depravity we are damned. And yet he freely decided to save his Church out of their sin, misery, and death. That is grace. God is far more gracious than we know.
We get a glimpse of God’s grace in how Gabriel greets Mary. He called her “favored one”. Our English translations don’t do the best job of translating that from the Greek. In all fairness, it’s hard to translate it because we don’t have an exact equivalent for the tense in English.
In Greek, the word is passive. Mary hasn’t done anything to deserve the favor. God simply favors her because he favors her. We’re told that God has mercy on whom he has mercy (Ex. 33:19; Rom. 9:15). God shows Mary favor simply because he shows her favor. There is nothing she has done to earn it. God favors those whom he favors simply because he favors them. We cannot earn that favor; we cannot lose that favor. His favor is rooted in him and his grace.
That’s not that hard part of the translation. We have passive voice in English. What is difficult to translate in the word is the specific past tense of the word. In Greek it is a past tense but the effects carry on into the present. So God’s favor of Mary is not something that begun the day Gabriel appeared to her. God has favored Mary long before that day and his favor will continue long after Gabriel’s visit. He has favored Mary simply because he favored her and he will continue to favor her simply because he will favor her.
God’s favor is not something we can earn. It is not something that we can lose. God favors those whom he favors simply because he favors them. And the favor he shows us does not start the day we come to faith. His favor for his people is from before time and his favor continues long after our coming to faith. God’s favor of his people shows just how gracious he is.
God is Far More Powerful than We Imagine
The angel Gabriel has just told Mary that she will conceive and bear a son named Jesus who will save his people and sit on his father David’s throne for all eternity. She hears this and she assumes that this means she will conceive soon.
Hearing this she says, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” What Mary literally asks is “How will this be since I am not knowing a man?”
The angel Gabriel responds in verse 35, “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.” Gabriel tells Mary that she will conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The word “overshadow” is the same word in the Greek translation of the Old Testament that is used when God fills the tent of meeting in Exodus 40:35. In Exodus 40:35 it says “And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” The Lord overshadowed the tent. The Lord will overshadow Mary.
This is the miracle of the virgin birth. Mary’s conception of Jesus is not through the normal means. Mary’s conception of Jesus is because God Almighty overshadowed her and filled her with the Holy Spirit.
Sometimes we think that it was easier for people to believe in the virgin birth because they didn’t understand how babies were conceived. No. They understood. Mary clearly understood. She understood that babies were conceived only when a man and woman had sex. They understood.
And this would have been hard-to-believe for many in the first century. They would have known that babies are conceived through normal means of men and women being together. Some in Nazareth who knew that Mary got pregnant before her marriage to Joseph assumed she had an affair. Matthew, in his gospel, tells us that’s what Joseph thought until Gabriel revealed how she really became pregnant. Others would have struggled when hearing that Mary’s pregnancy was the result of God overshadowing her. They would have considered this fantastic and hard to believe.
Many since the 1920s have struggled with the virgin birth. At that time, the churches in America were wrestling with the relationship between science and the Christian faith. Some started saying that the first believers didn’t know any better but the virgin birth didn’t happen. Even today, people like the Jesus Seminar, expressly deny the virgin birth. They consider it fantastic and hard to believe.
Some of my coworkers at Starbucks found the virgin birth one of the most fantastic and hard to believe claims of the Christian faith. They know the way that people normally conceive and they see this and find it fantastic and hard to believe. So many struggle with it.
And yet this is how Mary conceived. God is far more powerful than we imagine. The bible makes clear that God is powerful. The opening words of the bible are “in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”. He spoke everything that is seen and unseen into existence. In Job he says to Job that he is the one who set the boundaries of the sea; that he is the one who causes the sun to rise and set; that he is the one who set the stars in their place. He is the one who wrote the laws of physics and biology. God is far more powerful than we imagine.
If God is the one who spoke creation into existence and wrote the laws of physics and biology, then certainly he can overwrite those same laws. If a computer programmer who writes code can overwrite what he has written, then God who is far more powerful can overwrite the laws of physics and biology.
God is far more powerful than we imagine. He can overshadow a young woman and cause her to become pregnant because he has the power. He has the power to cause a woman to conceive simply by overshadowing her and he has the power to raise the dead. God is far more powerful than we imagine.
What that means for us is that even though we are dead in sin, God has the power to grant us life. The Holy Spirit can come upon us, fill us, and create in us new life. That’s exactly what happens when someone comes to faith. God has overshadowed that person and caused them to come to be born again. He has done that to each and every person who believes. He has filled them with the Holy Spirit and caused them to be born again. He has that power.
There are people in our lives that do not believe; people we love who hear that a young woman conceived but not through normal means and find it too fantastic to believe. I have friends and family like that. And yet, I know that God has the power to bring them to faith. I know he is more powerful than I can imagine. If he can create the universe out of nothing simply by speaking, he can cause a virgin to conceive. And if he can cause a virgin to conceive, he can cause someone to be born again.
Do you believe that God has that power? Do you believe that God is far more powerful than you could ever imagine? If so, then believe he could cause Mary conceive. If you believe God could cause Mary to conceive simply by overshadowing her, then believe he can bring even most antagonistic person to the gospel to faith. It is not beyond him. He has the power.
Not long after Jesus’ ascension, a young man was antagonistic to the gospel. He was breathing out threats and trying to stamp out the Christian faith. Then one day while this man was traveling to arrest Christians, God caused him to come to faith. That is the story of the Apostle Paul and how he came to faith. God has that power. He is far more powerful than we imagine.
Maybe there is something in your life who is antagonistic to the gospel. Pray for that person. Trust that God has the power to cause that person to be born again. Pray that God would do that. If he has the power to speak creation into existence, he has the power to cause someone to come to faith. God is far more powerful than we imagine.
To prove that God is far more powerful than Mary imagines, Gabriel tells her that Elizabeth is six months pregnant. Elizabeth who was advanced in years and couldn’t conceive when she was in her youth is now pregnant. God is far more powerful than we imagine.
And seeing that God has the power, she submits. She says, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” She recognizes that God is telling her we are far more sinful than we realize but God is far more gracious than we know. God’s grace is in him redeeming his Church out of their sin, misery, and death. And he can do that because God is far more powerful than we imagine. That is the gospel. That is the meaning of Christianity.