Sermons

December 1, 2019

How to Receive the Good News

Jason Meyer | Luke 1:26-56

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “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. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name 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.”

And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

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. 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. For nothing will be impossible with God.” 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.

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
    For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
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.
He has helped his servant Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
    to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.—Luke 1:26–56

Introduction

I would like to do a fill in the blank exercise at the beginning of this sermon. Here we go: “Christmas is for ____________.”

Many people may have put things like “Christmas is for Christians” or “Christmas is for the religious.” This is a common belief in our day. It is OK for religious people to celebrate Christmas. Something of a culture war exists after Thanksgiving where people debate what place Christ should have this time of year. Should we call it the Christmas season or the holiday season. Therefore, Christians can feel defensive this time of year because they see the organized and concerted efforts to take Christ out of the public sphere and make everything comfortably secular and non-religious.

Others may see the grace available through the message and meaning of Christmas and say, “Christmas is for everyone.” This is certainly true. The Christmas angels brought this message to the shepherds: “Fear not, for I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10–11).

 But if we would back up to Luke 1, we find a somewhat surprising answer. Christmas is for skeptics. The people who first heard the Christmas message were skeptical, and they struggled mightily to believe it.

This year we are going to look at Luke 1:26–56. This passage highlights two main themes: (1) How to receive the good news (and how not to receive it) and (2) How to respond to the good news. The first message gives the overview concerning how to receive the good news because it comes first as a staggering shock to those who hear it.

In fact, we learn that Mary responded to the staggering shock of the good news in four stages. Mary starts out skeptical, saying, “How will this be?” Then she receives what the angel says with submission, saying, “Let it be to me according to your word.” Then she receives confirmation as Elizabeth speaks by the Spirit. Then she bursts into celebration with a song of praise we now call “The Magnificat.”

Outline

  1. Skepticism (How will this be?)
  2. Submission (“Let it be to me according to your word.”)
  3. Confirmation (the work of the Spirit)
  4. Celebration (“My soul magnifies the Lord …”)

1. Skepticism: ‘How will this be?’ (verses 26–37)

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “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. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name 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.”

And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

 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. 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. For nothing will be impossible with God.”

We learn about who Jesus is in relation to John the Baptist in Luke chapter 1. We are confronted with some staggering contrasts. 

  • Elizabeth is barren, but Mary is a virgin.
  • John the Baptist will be called great as a prophet of the Most High, but Jesus will be great as the “Son of the Most High.”
  • John will be filled with the Spirit, but Jesus will be conceived by the Spirit.
  • John will prepare the way, but Jesus is the way.

The Bible is written in a way that staggers the skeptic. It blows all of one’s categories with what seems hard or almost impossible to believe.

It is hard to believe that a barren woman will give birth, but it seems impossible to believe that a virgin will give birth.

It is hard to believe a prophesy that a baby born will be a prophet and speak for God, but it seems impossible to believe a prophesy that a baby born could be the very divine Son of God.

It is hard to believe that a baby could be filled with the Spirit from the womb, but it seems impossible to believe that a baby could be conceived by the Spirit.

Notice the key point for a skeptic at this point. Zechariah was disciplined for his lack of faith. Mary was not.

Why? Zechariah said he needed more. What the angel said was not enough. See verses 18–20.

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.”

But Mary responded differently, even though the word she received was much harder to believe (verse 34).

And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

She never said, “These things can’t be.” She said, “How will this be?” I want to believe what you are saying, but I don’t understand because I am a virgin. Gabriel’s answer is … the omnipotent power of the Holy Spirit.

So the key in each of these comparisons is this singular truth: What is impossible for humanity is not hard for God to do. There are places that humanity cannot go because it is impossible. But the Bible declares that God can come right up against the limits of what is humanly possible and then go way beyond them. God is not limited by the capabilities of humanity. Therefore, if we change the question from “Is this possible for me?” to “Is this possible for God?” then we are in a better position to receive his word of promise. Notice that this is exactly what Abraham did in Romans 4. 

He did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No unbelief made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised.—Romans 4:19–21

2. Submission: ‘May it be to me according to your word’ (verse 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. 

Here we see Mary’s faith on display. She went from saying, “How will this be?” to “Let it be.” In other words, this is the “amen” of faith. When we say “amen,” we are saying, “Yes, let it be.” This is Mary’s faith. Faith is a response to two things about God: his power and his promise. I know his power and I hear his promise: Let it be. Yes. Amen.

She does not put herself above the word as its judge, but underneath the Lord and his word as a servant. I belong to you. I know your power and I hear your promise and I trust you are able to do what you have promised. Amen. Let it be to me according to your word.

But the Lord does not ask us to believe things that have no correspondence to reality. God’s truth finds confirmation as he brings about circumstances that highlight the coherence of the truth and the experience of the truth.

3. Identification: The Work of the Spirit (verses 39–45)

In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.  And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

The text has paralleled John and Jesus. John is the forerunner preparing the way for Jesus and so their lives are intertwined even from the beginning. We have the prophecy of John’s birth and then the conception of John. This is followed by the prophesy of Jesus’ birth and the conception of Jesus. Then the two mothers meet and the two babies in the womb meet as well. The baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy for the baby in Mary’s womb. She proclaims that the baby in Mary’s womb is none other than Elizabeth’s Lord! We will come back to this point because it is so crucial in the flow of this story.

And Elizabeth blesses Mary as the one “who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (v. 45). That had to be a pointed contrast between Mary and Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah. Her response of faith means that even though the announcement came to Zechariah first, he will not get to celebrate first. Mary sings her song of praise before Zechariah because he is mute for his unbelief.

4. Celebration: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord’ (verses 46–55)

 And Mary said,
My soul magnifies the Lord,
     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
     For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
     and holy is his name.
And his mercy is for those who fear him
     from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
     he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
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.
He has helped his servant Israel,
     in remembrance of his mercy,
as he spoke to our fathers,
     to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.

The poem has two parts: 46–50 and 51–55. God is the explicit subject of praise in this song. The first part celebrates what God has done for Mary. The second part sees what God has done for Mary as a pattern for what he does with everyone. In the first, the Mighty God has done something for the humble woman. In the second, the Mighty God will do something for the humble—and entire social strata are involved: He scattered the proud and cast down the mighty from their thrones, while the humble are raised up. The hungry are filled, the rich are empty. Jesus is indeed destined for the “rising and falling of many in Israel” (2:34). He often says that those who exalt themselves will be humbled, but those who humble themselves will be exalted.

This is important because sometimes Protestants have issues with Mary. Rightly so, they do not want to venerate her like Roman Catholics do in a way that goes way beyond Scripture. But worshiping Mary would miss the point of the passage. Mary does not say, “God looked upon me because I am unlike everyone else—I have a special virtue that no one else does.” No. Her poem goes in exactly the opposite direction. I am no one—lowly, poor. Look what God has done! This is the kind of thing he does for all those who are poor and lowly. 

Application

Here is what this text would say to skeptics this morning. Skepticism has its place. Claims should be evaluated. Questions should be asked. Understanding should be sought. Being gullible and naïve is not a virtue at all.

But skepticism also has its limits. This text calls the skeptic far beyond where he or she wants to go. Skepticism has some natural points of contact when it comes to religion. Some skeptics find enough evidence to say: “I do not think I am comfortable calling myself an atheist anymore. I am now an agnostic. I am open to the existence of God, but I just do not know for sure.” 

This text would take the skeptic far beyond the typical religious conversation. God is not a philosophical construct. He is not merely a First Cause or an unmoved mover. He is not a God who is merely an Intelligent Designer who created the world and then left it to run like clockwork. He is not a distant God of isolated attributes. He is the God who makes promises and keeps promises. He is the One who loved the world by sending his Son. He is the God for whom nothing is impossible. And no gift is too extravagant to save this rebellious world. 

So how do you bridge the gap between where you are with your questions and where this text is with the glory of what it affirms?

The answer the text gives is profound. How can you believe that the First Person of the Trinity sent the Second Person of the Trinity? Answer: the Third Person of the Trinity.

The Holy Spirit is the very reason why a virgin could conceive (“the Holy Spirit will come upon you”—Luke 1:35). And the Holy Spirit is the only reason someone could recognize that Jesus is the Son of God. 

The Holy Spirit enabled Elizabeth to confess the baby as her Lord while he was still in Mary’s womb.

And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.—Luke 1:41–44

The same Holy Spirit enabled John the Baptist to recognize the baby as the Lord while both of them were in the womb. How is that even possible? Luke gives us the answer earlier in the chapter with the words from the angel about John the Baptist. 

“And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.”—Luke 1:15

What about after Jesus has been born? We have angels tell the shepherds in Luke 2, but what about in the temple? There were no angelic visitors there to herald his coming to the temple. We learn the answer in verses 25–32.

Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.  And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,
     “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
            according to your word;
      for my eyes have seen your salvation
            that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
      a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
           and for glory to your people Israel.”—Luke 2:25–32

Ultimately, I do not think that I am going to come up with just the right argument or just the right words to bring anyone from skepticism to faith and adoration. We don’t have to play the Holy Spirit because there already is a Holy Spirit. Let’s ask for his identifying, convicting, enlightening work. 

The Holy Spirit has been called the shy member of the Trinity. He is like a spotlight. He does not put himself forward and shine the light on himself. He is always shining the light on Jesus. Look! There he is! Look at who he is! Look at what he has done! Believe and receive and be saved.

But even as I call you to believe the good news, I want you to know that the only reason you can receive the good news is that Jesus purchased the good news. There is a great similarity and difference between Mary and Jesus at this point. Mary responds to the good news by declaring that she is the Lord’s servant. She receives Gabriel’s word with humble submission (let it be to me according to your word). But later in Luke’s Gospel we see Jesus purchasing the good news. We see his humble submission to the word and plan of the Father. We see the Son of God sweating drops of blood because as the servant, he has come to seek and save the lost, and he will have to take the cup of God’s wrath and drink it to the dregs. And he has to submit to God’s word: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).

Sermon Discussion Questions

Outline

  1. Skepticism (“How can these things be?”)
  2. Submission (“May it be to me according to your word.”)
  3. Identification (The work of the Holy Spirit)
  4. Celebration (“My soul magnifies the Lord”)

Discussion Questions

  • What is the structure of Luke 1:26–56? Can you see the four movements of the text?
  • How is the response of Zechariah different from the response of Mary? (See Luke 1:18–20 and 1:26–38.)
  • In Luke 1:46–55, what is the structure of Mary’s poem of praise? How does this structure show that we are not supposed to elevate Mary above all other believers?
  • Why can people receive the Good News today even though an angel never visits them? How does the story itself show the answer in Luke 1:39–45?

Application Questions

  • In terms of the four movements of the text, where are you today? How can you take the next step toward the next movement?
  • How does Luke 1:26–56 guide us to be patient with people when they are skeptical and have questions? How does Luke 1:46–55 guide us in terms of how we should pray for people to know Jesus as Lord? Who are the people in your life who have questions or need to know the Lord that you can evangelize this Christmas?
  • What part of Mary’s poem of praise stands out to you? Are there attributes of God that shine especially bright for you this Christmas? What would it look like to grow in giving thanks for these attributes?

Prayer Focus
Pray for a grace to receive the Good News in humble submission to the Word and in joyful celebration of all that Christ has done.

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