Or, A Christmas Call to Faith
November 28, 2021
Lord’s Day Worship
Christmas is a double-edged story that cuts off both the legs of Gnosticism and materialism in the same swing. God, clothed in flesh, endorsed the physical world, perhaps in a deeper way that even the creation itself. Yet how the Incarnation comes about, and what it points to, calls us to live on earth by faith, not by empiricism. Even though we don’t really have another good, consistent option (than living in the flesh like Christ by faith in Christ), too many Christians are exactly bad at this balance.
Also, let me acknowledge that I do appreciate John Calvin’s exegetical tenacity. He apparently never broke off of a verse-by-verse sermon series no matter the occasion. He once picked up in the next verse after a three year banishment from his pulpit in Geneva (see The Legacy of Sovereign Joy, 139). But as relevant as Romans remains, in holiday season and out, I think there is some pastoral purpose to take these advent Sundays and mediate together on the Incarnation, its story and theology and application.
Last year, 2020, was my first time preaching four advent/Christmas sermons. We spent all four Sundays looking at the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1, from four different angles. This year I’d like to take a look at a different gospel and four different passages. We will, Lord willing, work through the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38), the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), the Birth of Christ (Luke 2:1-7), and the Heavenly Host (Luke 2:8-20).
Each message will have three related but distinguished parts: the passage in its gospel context, the doctrine in its biblical context, and the call for us in our present context, how the realities of Christmas should shape our celebrations in these next weeks and shape our faith in the flesh year-round.
Luke wrote his history for Theophilus (1:3), and gathered eye-witness reports in order to provide an orderly account. He began with an announcement from the angel Gabriel to the priest, Zechariah, about the birth of John the Baptist (1:5-25). Following that is an announcement from the angel Gabriel to a young woman named Mary about the birth of a child who would be her son and also God’s Son (1:26-38).
Gabriel was sent by God when Elizabeth was six months pregnant (1:26), not to the temple city of Jerusalem, but to a small polis called Nazareth. Luke probably added “a city in Galilee” because most people probably wouldn’t know Nazareth by name, and if they were famililar with it, they wondered if anything good could come from it (see John 1:46).
The greatest surprise comes in verse 27. Gabriel came to a virgin, betrothed but unmarried. The Greek word parthenos could refer to a young girl, but verse 34 leaves no doubt that she had not “known” a man. She was promised to Joseph, but they had not consummated any covenant. It was one thing for God to give a child to Elizabeth, old and barren, but somehow that seems more possible than pregnancy for a virgin.
Gabriel greeted Mary, and affirmed her, not because she deserved God’s favor, but because of God’s election.
As we might expect, she was “greatly terrified” by the angelic saying. But Gabriel continued:
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.” (Luke 1:30–33 ESV)
This is the annunciation, the announcement. It wraps up various promises given to God’s people in our Old Testaments, not only that are astounding, but that is impossible.
“Jesus” is Jeshua, a name that means “Yahweh saves.” “Son of the Most High” compares with the Hebrew name, El Elyon (Genesis 14:18, and Melchizedek who was “priest of God Most High”). That His father is “David” means that this is the Messiah, the promised and Anointed heir, and He will rule over “the house of Jacob,” that is, Israel. His kingdom will be never-ending, “He shall reign forever and ever” (see also Psalm 89:27-29).
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this.
(Isaiah 9:7 ESV)
After 450 or so years of no new revelation from God, that news must have sounded too good to be true. But it also sounded impossible. “How will this be?” (verse 34). She says, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (KJV) basically saying, “Okay, but I haven’t had sex.” Whether or not she was thinking directly about Isaiah’s prophecy, she must have assumed that this son would come before her marriage to Joseph.
“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 ESV)
God would supernaturally, miraculously, cause Mary to conceive.
Gabriel compares it to God opening a barren womb, and concludes, “For nothing will be impossible with God,” which itself is phrasing similar to the Lord’s comment to Abraham about Sarah’s pregnancy (Genesis 18:14).
A betrothed young woman was likely to be post-puberty, so probably an early to mid-teenager. Mary’s question wasn’t about her reproductive capacity but about the lack of relational intimacy.
For Elizabeth, a late pregnancy would remove her reproach (1:25), but for Mary, an unwed pregnancy would bring reproach. Plus, as I’ve said, the promise really seems unbelievable. In the midst of this, in the same conversation (not after days to process it all), she responded better than the religious professional. “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
Of all the parts in this annunciation, including the nature and future of this Son, it wouldn’t matter without His arrival. His first coming, His first advent, was not by natural method. And this miracle is one of the first things skeptics and doubters criticize about the Christmas story, and about Scripture itself.
The Lord revealed through Isaiah that this would happen:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14 ESV)
This is why He is called Immanuel (Isaiah 9:7), why John could say that the eternal Word became flesh (John 1:14).
Gabriel connects this conception to the holiness of the Son (1:35). He is of a different nature.
It also connects to the very first promise of the gospel, sometimes referred to as the protoevangelion:
And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; kit shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel. (Genesis 3:15, KJV)
Unlike stories of Greek and Roman gods who came to sow seed among men, this miracle would be honor. Per the Creed of Chalcedon (AD 451):
perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man,…begotten before all ages of the Father according to the Godhead, and in these latter days, for us and for our salvation, born of the Virgin Mary,…Only-begotten, to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation;
This is the moment of divinity united to humanity. Those who reject this are redefining Jesus to be less than God, less than Lord, and unnecessary to be obeyed.
There really are a partridge and a pine tree worth of profitable truths in this story. Paul makes a case for Christ’s humility, as seen in God taking on the form of a man, and calling us to have the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:5-8). There’s certainly value in considering Christ’s complete obedience, from the beginning. He wasn’t sent to earth in a mature form for a weekend mission.
We can benefit from the observation that God invented babies and the process of growth, not just for normals, but for the birth of an eternal. That ought to encourage us to be patient when God gives new souls in small and needy packages. There is nothing wrong with that at all; see Jesus.
But the thing that stands out in Luke 1 is faith. It is not merely a history of events that the Spirit inspired Luke to record. He tells the story like a man but doesn’t start with the birth of Jesus, or even the birth of John the forerunner. Luke takes us precious space, and gives prime position to two announcements. That he includes the announcements at all requires our attention, with added details, then he contrasts how the announcements were received, and then he highlights the blessing to Mary because she believed.
Why even insert the foretellings? Why not get straightaway to the facts? It’s not just because these details make it more entertaining. It’s not that Luke is trying to build tension. It’s because God is building faith. God tests faith, God teaches faith. His Word is full not only of miracles to believe, but also promises to believe and wait for. The Christmas story, at least since Genesis 3:15, and through centuries of Messianic longings, calls for faith. The Christ would come: believe! A Son would be born: believe!
The alternation of annunciations also highlights faith, in one who lacked it and another who was blessed with it. It’s the same angel, who gives the same comfort not to be afraid, who announces the same promise of a son, who describes similar good things for each son, and yet Zechariah questioned. Gabriel said, “because you did not believe my words,” Zechariah would be silent until the words were fulfilled. By contrast, Mary said, “let it be to me according to your word.”
Note in the next section, when Mary visits her cousin, Elizabeth says, “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord” (1:45).
The Word of God calls for faith in His work, on earth. We believe that God rules in heaven, that He sees from heaven, but just as He sent Gabriel, He sent His own Son, to be born of a flesh and blood woman, to give His own flesh and blood for our lives.
What makes Advent practice such a Christian discipline is that it calls for living from faith to faith.
Believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, because it is true, and because our God is a God who does miraculous things. Believe that Jesus is coming again in His resurrected, glorified flesh and blood to reign as King of kings forever and ever. Believe that He blesses those who believe; He rewards those who seek Him by faith (Hebrews 11:6). Believe that when you plan ways to serve your kids, when your schedule is inconvenient and tiring, Jesus knows the temptations.
Believe Him when He gives gifts that take away reproach, and believe Him when He gives gives that add reproach.
Faith belongs when you can’t see. Faith works when in the dark. Faith sustains when it has taken too long. Faith comforts when it’s costly. Faith orients when it changes your plans.
Mary wasn’t perfect, certainly not sinless, but she did believe, and she praised the Lord, which we’ll see next week, Lord willing.
Perhaps the hardest part of this season is not figuring out what gifts to give or how you’re going to fit in all the events and extra work, but rather submitting to the Word of the Lord. He knows the plans He has for you, plans to put you under pressure of various colors/weights to test your faith. When you know His Word, believe it and do it, no matter how much it may be messing up your plans for His.
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. (1 Thessalonians 5:23–24, 28, ESV)