Advent & The Gospel of Luke
INTRODUCTION (Advent & the book of Luke)
Table Rock—welcome to the first week of Advent! This is a time of year when we, as Christians, set aside time on our calendar both in our personal life and our church life to think about the arrival or coming—the Advent—of Jesus. His coming marks the beginning of the most amazing event in history—that God enjoined himself with humanity and brought us back into relationship with him by becoming a man! What an amazing truth to dwell on and be thankful for. If the second person of the Trinity hadn’t become a man he couldn’t have lived a righteous life on our behalf and died for our sins. We would still be lost. You will continue to hear more about Advent throughout these next four weeks, and if you would like to read more about it, you can check out our December email that went out this last week. This change in season coincides well with our change in study on Sunday mornings. We have previously been going through the Psalms and looking at the character of God and knowing his character should move us to praise him. As we start a new season of the year we are also are going to switch out of the Psalms and head into the Gospel of Luke.
Now, a couple of notes about the Gospels. Each of the first four books of the New Testament could simply be titled “The Gospel.” The four authors—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—are each trying to describe the “Good News” (The Gospel) of who Jesus is and why that should matter to us. They overlap in certain areas (and they have to overlap in some areas to give an accurate account), and in some areas they purposefully tell about different aspects of Jesus’ life to make a point that the other Gospel writers hadn’t made up to that point or because of that author’s difference under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
If we were to look at each of the Gospels, they each start a little different. Mark basically starts with the ministry of John the Baptist in the wilderness and then moves quickly to Jesus. John starts with a brief but theologically deep statement about Jesus always being the “Word” of God, and then also goes directly to John the Baptist’s ministry and the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus and his family, and then moves to where we might assume you would start, with Jesus’s birth.
Luke also starts with the birth of Jesus, but he has some distinct aspects that we need to talk about before we look at our section this morning. First, Luke makes it clear he is writing his account for someone named “Theophilus” in the beginning of chapter 1. This is likely a pseudonym—meaning “lover of God”—and is probably a Roman who has helped commission and fund Luke’s investigation. Luke calls him “most excellent,” which is a phrase he reserves other places in his accounts for those of higher rank. So perhaps this was a Roman official who wanted a better account of Jesus and hired Luke to look into his life.
Whoever Theophilus is, it is also good to remember that Luke was likely a good choice for this type of task. We have indications that Luke was a physician, and as such he would be used to observation and careful study, and much of his account reveals this type of examination. He was also likely a Gentile, which would give him a type of “outsider” authority in examining these accounts, and not as a Jew or original insider as Jesus’s disciples.
Luke wrote not only his Gospel but also Acts. These two books are meant to be read together as the totality of Luke’s observations. One, Luke’s gospel, focuses on Jesus: The Messiah of the Lost. Acts is all about how Jesus continues this mission through His Holy Spirit and His people—the church.
As we come this morning to our section, Luke 1:26–38, Luke does something no other writer of a gospel does. He juxtaposes (compares and contrasts) the promises of Jesus’ birth with the promise of the birth of John the Baptist. He records John’s backstory in as much detail as he does Jesus’s birth and the events leading up to it. This morning, I pray that as we look at the birth of our Savior and compare it to what God was doing in John the Baptist’s narrative, we will see the same amazing picture that Luke wants us to see as well—that our God is working and our God is coming! Will you pray with me to this end?
ZECHARIAH, ELIZABETH, AND JOHN
You already heard the account of the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, but let’s back up a bit and read the account of what happened to Zechariah and Elizabeth. Turn with me to Luke 1:5.
“In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.
Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”
And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.—Luke 1:5–25 ESV
Here we have a very different, but also very similar story, to what we already read this morning about Mary and Gabriel. I believe Luke, in hearing these two accounts, heard the similarities but also notable differences, and he wants us to see them as well. So, what do we see when we juxtapose these two accounts?
An Angel Visits
It’s odd—Gabriel only shows up one other place in scripture outside of these two accounts. (He shows up to help Daniel interpret his dreams.) And he shows up here in two very distinct circumstances. First, Zechariah is entering into the Holy Place in the temple. He is a priest, and we find out he has had a constant prayer that he and his wife might have a child. Contrast that to Mary. As far as we can tell she is just going about her business as a young lady, in the backwaters of Israel, betrothed to Joseph, minding her own business. It doesn’t seem that she was praying that she might be the woman who would carry the promised Messiah.
And what happens is what normally happens when people encounter angels in Scripture—they are afraid! These are no cute Michelangelo or Da Vinci cherubs. These beings immediately strike fear and reverence in people. Yet, even here, their fear seems to be for different reasons. Again, Zechariah has entered the Holy Place of the Temple. Throughout the Old Testament, when God’s presence was on the Tabernacle and Temple, there was a very real fear and reality that if one entered the temple and hadn’t prepared well for it, you might die. In fact, we have records of them tying ropes to the priest’s ankle during certain functions in the temple, so that if he died they could drag him out of there. And even though God’s glory has not settled on the Temple since before Israel was exiled out of the land, there is no doubt when an angel appears before Zechariah he was immediately worried that this might be a bad sign.
Contrast that to Mary. Mary, minding her own business, has an angel appear to her. And Luke’s account makes it clear that what troubles her is what the angel Gabriel says to her:
“Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you! But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.”—Luke 1:28–29
Our language doesn’t do credit to this phrase. The angel is literally saying to Mary “Greetings to the one on whom grace/favor is being bestowed, the Lord is with you.” Now, to our Christmas ears we might respond, “Awesome! You are getting a gift, how cool.” However, throughout much of history many people have realized that being bestowed a gift from God comes with much responsibility. The French called it ‘noblesse oblige,’ or the responsibility of the nobility. Those whom God had gifted by being born into a royal family had an obligation to the people of their realm. (This didn’t actually work out well, hence the French revolution, but the concept is helpful).
There was a season of time where my dad would call me and start the conversation with, “Can you do me a favor?” That small phrase began to make me fear those phone calls. No one wants to say, “no, I won’t do you a favor”, but I never knew what the question would be! Was he going to ask me to drive several hours to Saint Anthony, Idaho to help pick up a light pole (yes, that happened), or did he just need to know what Christmas presents my kids might like this year. The phrase began to take on meaning, and I think that is how Mary was feeling here. She knew that to be given favor and grace by God would likely have ramifications for her. Think about Job. He was favored by God, proclaimed to all—including Satan—that he was the most righteous on earth, and look how that worked out for him at first!
Yet in both cases, despite their fear, what Gabriel brings is word of a promise and a miracle!
A Promise and Miracle
In the case of Zechariah, Gabriel promises that God will open Elizabeth’s womb, and that the child they are to have will be the promised second Elijah (Matthew 11:7–14) and messenger (Isaiah 40:3)—going before Jesus preparing his way. The promise is who the son will be, what he will do, and that they will actually have a son. The miracle is the opening of Elizabeth’s womb.
Mary is very different! The promise is that God will give Mary a son and he will be called:
“Jesus. 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, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”—Luke 1:31–33
The amazing promise is that of the long-awaited Messiah. Gabriel is referring to many prophecies, including in places like 2 Samuel 7:11–13,16; Psalm 89:4; Psalm 132:11; Isaiah 9:6-7, 16:5; and Daniel 2:44, 7:14,18,27. Jesus, the son of David who will sit on his throne forever, the Son of God, is coming through Mary. The miracle is how this will happen (as we will talk about in a moment).
In both cases, these promises and miracles prompt a question from both Zachariah and Mary.
A Question and Response
Zechariah hears this and asks a question:
“How shall I know this?”—Luke 1:18
Again, the language is a little different here. What Zechariah is asking is, “By what will I know this?” In other words, by what sign will I know this will happen? Zechariah, even though he is a priest in the temple, even though he knows that God has opened the womb before—think of Abraham and Sarah, Rachel, Hannah. For some reason, here, when Zechariah is told of this amazing promise and miracle that God is going to perform, he wants a sign. And what happens should be read with a little fear and trepidation.
I imagine this scene a little like Gandalf and Frodo in the Lord of the Rings. Frodo realizes the magnitude of the task before him and offers the ring to Gandalf. And Gandalf, in the movie, raises to a terrible height and thunders at Frodo the ramifications if he were to take the ring. The same happens when he meets the elf queen Galadriel. She too rises in terrible and majestic form at Frodo’s offer of the ring to her. Here, we see Gabriel rise up, and he says:
“I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.”—Luke 1:18–19
Whoops. What more of a sign did you want, Zechariah? God sent his messenger, Gabriel, to share this news and miracle with you. It was an amazing gift, and it came with discipline for Zechariah (his muteness).
Compare and contrast that with Mary. She also asks a question of Gabriel.
“How will this be, since I am a virgin?”—Luke 1:34
Now we can infer that there was nothing wrong with this question, because Gabriel does not rise up and punish her the same as he did with Zechariah. But we can also tell because of the type of question this is. Mary isn’t asking for more proof that this will happen. Rather, she is asking how is it possible? I dare say, the only reason we don’t marvel as much as we should at her circumstance is because the story is so familiar to us. God is going to place a baby inside a virgin? God himself will overshadow Mary and create life in her?! This is amazing news, and it is definitely fair for Mary to ask how this would have happened without loosing faith that God was truly working in her life.
Interestingly, Gabriel gives Mary what she didn’t ask for—a sign. Her cousin, Elizabeth, has also been blessed and is now six months with child.
WHAT GOD IS DOING
When we back up and juxtapose these two accounts, I believe we see something amazing about God.
Word then Deed—This is God’s Work!
First, through the similarities in these two accounts we see that God is working! God is doing what he has done throughout all of human history, He first gives his word and tells what will happen, and then he follows up with deed to show he is truly powerful and in-charge.
He promised Adam and Eve that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent (Genesis 3:15)
He promised the Messiah would be a descendant of David (2 Sam 7:12-16)
He promised the Messiah would be preceded by a messenger (Malachi 3:1)
He promised that the Messiah would be born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14)
Our amazing God has been making promises and fulfilling them through his power for thousands of years prior to Jesus, and nothing was different in the birth of John and Jesus. God would not be thwarted by physical, sinful corruption (the barrenness of Elizabeth), nor the need for the miraculous to happen by creating life in the womb of a virgin.
The King is Coming!
It is at this point, how the miracle occurs, that we see something amazing about what God is doing in the differences of these stories! What is happening with Mary is no mere reversing of the sinful nature of bodies. It is not healing blind eyes, crippled bodies, nor barren womb. It is a miracle like none other that has ever been done. God himself would enjoin himself to humanity by becoming a man! The King is coming! This is no mere child, no merely good man or prophet. Listen to what Gabriel says:
“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.”—Luke 1:35
The miracle of Jesus’s virgin birth matters. Gabriel says it is because of this miracle that Jesus is called holy and the Son of God. The second person of the Trinity joining himself with humanity through a divine conception in Mary’s womb is how he is known to be the Son of God.
Friends, as we all enter into this Christmas season, you will be confronted again and again with the miracle of Jesus’s birth. God becoming flesh. God being born of a virgin. Jesus, our king, coming to save us.
My one real application question for you this morning is, “will you respond to these claims like Zechariah or Mary?”
Christianity is not a blind faith. We are meant to ask questions, to humbly seek to understand what God is doing and has done for us. It should boggle your mind that God has so correctly identified your sinful state. That he, through his word, can list for you all the ways that you want to pull away from his rule and reign in your life and seek out idols of self-pleasure and godless comfort. You should wonder how can God know you this well? You should hear of the story of Jesus and want to know why—why would God come to save you? And even now, as a Christian, you should still wonder at how God is going to continue to sanctify and change you even though you know your heart so well and know how much it doesn’t want to serve and follow God. In this manner, you should continue to humbly ask how—because it will continue to cause you to press into God and know him more and more through his Holy Spirit and his word.
Yet there is a moment where humility turns to hubris. Where asking turns to arrogance. When in essence we say to God, “Show me a sign.” We say that his deeds for thousands of years are not enough. His prophecies that were fulfilled are not enough. His incarnation and death on our behalf is not enough. Yes, faith is always involved, and you need God to change your heart, but we can actively fight against him in our stubbornness.
Maybe that is you this morning. Are you fighting God and saying, like Zechariah, “show me another sign” when the mysteries and glory of God have been unfolded before you through his word?