The Greatest Story Ever Told: Leaping for Joy

Sermon by Derek Thomas on December 8, 2002

Luke 1:26-45

Turn with me now to the gospel of Luke, chapter 1, and we'll pick up the reading at verse 26. Hear now the word of God.


‘Now in the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you." Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 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, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; His kingdom will never end. “How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?" 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. 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. For nothing is impossible with God." "I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her. At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!"’


Amen. May god bless to us the reading of His holy and inerrant word. Let's pray together.


Our Father in heaven, we ask now that You would be our teacher, our instructor, as we look to these wonderful and amazing passages in the gospels about the birth of our Savior. We ask for Your blessing in Jesus' name. Amen.


This is the greatest story that has ever been told. It's the story as C. S. Lewis puts it somewhere, “That there is one in this world, who dwelt in this world, who was greater than the world itself.” Zacharias, when he gives what we sometimes now call the benedictus, beginning in verse 68 through 70 of Luke chapter 1, describes what is happening at this point in history as the ‘sunrise dawning upon us.’ That's the imagery that he uses in verse 78: the sunrise dawning upon us. Don't you love the sunrise? For some of you it may not be a frequent occurrence, but when you get up before the sun rises and you see the first hint of day on the horizon and you know it's going to be a beautiful, beautiful day. Photographers will tell you that that's the best time to take landscape pictures. There's something about the mist and the water vapor that adds a certain texture that isn't there at 12 noon.


This has been a long, long night. Every since the exile from Babylon in the fifth century, for 400 years since the prophecy of Malachi, the last prophet of the Old Testament, Israel had been in darkness. The prophecy seemed now to mock them, the story of redemption itself seems to have flickered and died. And many of the Jews were looking for redemption, salvation through politics. Looking for release from their captivity to the Roman yoke, more than anything spiritual.


But a flicker of light emerges in the gloom. A priest called Zacharias and his wife, Elizabeth, are visited by no less a personage than the angel Gabriel. Zacharias is one of the class of priests who's on tour of duty. He comes from the hill country of Judah, possibly four or five miles away from Jerusalem, but now he's on station, he's on duty. He's doing his tour of duty at the temple in Jerusalem and he's visited by the angel Gabriel who tells him that his wife, Elizabeth, is going to conceive and bear a son who will be the forerunner, as Malachi had prophesied, the forerunner of the Messiah Himself. Right. Zacharias didn't believe him. Partly because it wasn't a daily occurrence to be visited by the angel Gabriel. Partly because, as the Bible so deliciously puts it in verse 18, "I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years." That's code, you understand, for "You must be out of your mind." She's way past all that stuff and probably Zacharias too. For that outburst of unbelief he is struck dumb for the remainder of the pregnancy. It's of the adage "If you can't say nothing nice, don't say nothing at all."


I. Mary.


Now in the story that follows there are three persons, three characters, and I want to look at all three of them. The first of which is Mary. Mary, the bearer of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Look at the text in verse 26. Six months later, in the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy, Gabriel comes again and this time he comes to the northern city of Nazareth. Well, maybe 80, 90 miles north of the hill country of Judah where Zacharias and Elizabeth live. He comes to Nazareth and makes himself known to Mary. She makes tracks south to Elizabeth, makes this arduous journey south, to where we are now. Elizabeth knows as soon as she arrives that Mary is pregnant. And Elizabeth is overjoyed. Yes, this unmarried, betrothed young girl is pregnant and Elizabeth is overjoyed. And she says, “The baby inside me leaped for joy whenever I heard the sound of you coming.” Who's been talking?


We need to go back a little. Mary is betrothed to a man, a man by the name of Joseph. They're pledged to be married. That's much, much more than what we would call engagement. The betrothal was, as Matthew tells us, almost like marriage although they had never slept together. Joseph refers to her as his wife. Betrothal would last for about a year. Girls would get betrothed to their husbands at a very, very young age. In our day and age we couldn't begin to understand it. We don't know exactly how old Mary was. And Gabriel comes to visit this young girl, betrothed to be married, but a virgin, and Gabriele's words to Mary are, "Congratulations, you're pregnant." Actually what he says to her is "Pregnant with significance." “The Lord is with you," he says. She's carrying, you understand, the Son of God. And yes, in the most real sense of all, the Lord was indeed with her.


And Mary is remarkably composed. To be sure she was a bit apprehensive before he had explained what it was he had come to say. She was no doubt afraid but she is remarkably composed for a woman who's just been given this piece of news. She asks understandably "How can this be since I'm a virgin?" Now Roman Catholics see in that a reference to perpetual virginity on Mary's part. If that was so why is she betrothed? In any event the gospels tell us that Mary was to have many other children after Jesus so it's not that I don't think.


In any case, this is not the sort of thing a young lady in her position wants to hear. However much she knows herself to be a virgin, others, including Joseph, are thinking the worst and who could blame them? If Mary is pregnant there could only be one conclusion and Joseph begins proceedings for divorce. And yes, that would be the language even though they had never slept together. They were still betrothed and in that time it was a marriage that could only be released by divorce. Actually Joseph, according to Old Testament law, could have had her stoned to death, but he doesn't do that.


Let's get ugly for a minute. I know it's Christmas. Don't you love, actually I detest the sentimentalizing of Christmas, but that's not my point for a minute. We need to try and understand the story here. Don't you love it when you get those cards with Santa Claus looking down at the crib and seeing the baby Jesus? Don't you love it? Now we need to actually understand the story here as to what is exactly happening, because some people don't believe the story. Some people say we're not meant to believe the story. It's myth. It's clever myth. It's sophisticated myth. It's a very personal kind, particular kind of myth, but it's myth, like Wind in the Willows and Lord of the Rings. It's make-believe. Everybody understands that. There's a moral lesson here of course, somewhere, but we're not actually expected, you and I, to believe all this, are we?


It seems to me that we have three choices this morning. One, even though Luke tells us in a spiel at the beginning of chapter one that he's a careful historian, looked into all the facts, examined all the documents, done all the homework, the background information, that he invented this story about the virgin birth. No, that doesn't go together, does it? He's a careful historian but he invents this? No, that doesn't go together. But, well maybe, maybe Luke was just naпve. He's a careful historian but he's naпve. He didn't realize this wasn't a true story. He just thought these were the facts. Right. But Luke was a doctor. Luke was a physician. But he wasn't a twenty-first century physician, so he didn't have all the knowledge that you and I have. But you know, I think that doctors knew that virgins just didn't get pregnant all by themselves. There's only one conclusion, you see, that this is actually true, that this is the very word of God. That this story, profound and amazing and wonderful as it is, it's actually the very truth. It actually happened.


So what does Mary do? Gabriel comes and says to her, "Congratulations, you're pregnant." What does a young girl in her condition do? She goes, verse 39, immediately to Elizabeth. She makes this 100-mile journey, three, four days south, to a relative of hers. Now she does this, you understand, before she has any physical evidence that she's pregnant. She's only just heard it. Maybe this is the next day, maybe it's the same night. She went with haste. So she comes to Elizabeth and what does she say? She wouldn't have known herself to have been pregnant so what does she do? What does she say?


Imagine, imagine you're not a Greek for a minute. You know, the Greeks read stories like this, about gods coming down to earth and impregnating young women. There were lots of stories like that in Greek mythology but she isn't a Greek; she's a Jewess. She's from a conservative small town north Judea. And just for a minute she's had casual sex, she's had an affair outside of the bonds of this betrothal, and just in case she's pregnant she makes a 100-mile journey down to a relative of hers, much older than she and she says, "Elizabeth I want you to know that the Holy Spirit has made me pregnant." Jewish girls didn't do that sort of thing. That's almost incredible isn't it? Unless it's true. Unless it's true.


Imagine, imagine, O, can I push the envelope? I know I'm walking on ice here. It's like a frozen pond. I hear it creaking beneath me. I've been in a church where you weren't supposed to say the word pregnant from the pulpit. So I'm on ice here, I understand that. But we need to understand this story. If a young girl came to you, fathers, a young girl comes to you and says "Daddy, the Holy Spirit has made me pregnant." Now what are you going to say? What are you going to say, really? Unless, unless it's true.


What do you think a young girl might have said in her condition? She's had a casual affair, she's contemplating the possibility, that's all, the possibility that she might be pregnant. No morning-after abortion pills. Not an alternative. It never is an alternative. What does she say? Suggest to Joseph that they get married right away. You know, "Forget the tradition of one-year betrothals, Joseph, let's get married right away." Joseph would smell a rat. Perhaps suggest to Joseph now that they're betrothed that it's okay for them to sleep together. Right. So she goes 100 miles away from Joseph down to Elizabeth. It's all so fantastic unless it's true. Unless it is true.


And actually, my friend, the staggering thing about this story is that Mary believed it from the very start, from the very start. Zacharias didn't believe it about his wife. Joseph didn't believe it about Mary. But Mary believed it about herself. With nothing to show, "Let it be according to thy word," she says. Isn't that beautiful? Let me pull that out for a minute. There's a wonderful lesson there because Mary finds herself in a hard spot. You know, it doesn't get harder than this for a young girl. Doesn't get harder than this for a young girl. With all the gossip and the innuendo that was going around it doesn't get harder than this for a young girl and her reputation. But she finds herself in a providence that was hard and difficult and what does she say, "Lord, whatever You will, whatever You plan, whatever You bring about, whatever You do to order my life, so be it, according to Thy word." O what a wonderful, extraordinary woman Mary is.


Now you understand Mary is a sinner like you and me. Yes she is. She bore the implications of Adamic imputation like all the rest of us. But Mary's faith is profound. She accepts the will of God in a hard place. O my friends, there's something to learn there.


II. The Holy Spirit


And that is the work of the Holy Spirit. We read in verse 35 an explanation that follows about the virgin birth, or perhaps better the virgin conception. There was nothing abnormal or miraculous about the birth: it was the conception that was miraculous. We are told in verse 35 the angel answered her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, the power of the most high will overshadow you." Isn't that a beautiful word? The Holy Spirit. You want an explanation. Some of the gynecologists in the first service gave me all kinds of medical, scientific explanations for parthenogenesis, the technical term for how you can actually become pregnant even though you're a virgin.


You know science has moved on since Mary's time, but we're not in the realms of science here. This isn't the Holy Spirit coming and giving 23 chromosomes to Mary's 23 chromosomes or whatever. That may well have been the case. There was certainly part of Mary and her DNA and her genetic structure in the physical form of Jesus. But we're given something far more than that here. We're told that the Holy Spirit overshadowed her. It's using a word that comes straight out of the Old Testament from two different locations. One is from the creation story itself where after the world, the universe, had been made we're told about the Spirit hovering or brooding over the waters, ready to take that which had been created and mold it and fashion it and give it form and beauty. That's what the Holy Spirit is about to do in Mary. But it's a word that also comes straight out of the Exodus narrative, the Shekinah cloud of glory that overshadowed the tent of meeting and went before the people of God in their wilderness wanderings. It was a symbol of the very presence of God Himself. You see, when Gabriel came to Mary and said "The Lord is with you, " the Shekinah Himself had come down and overshadowed Mary, and the very presence of God Amighty was in her womb. I don't begin to understand all of that.


But what is the reason for the virgin conception? Well, we're told in verse 35 "Therefore the child to be born will be called holy." It was in order to separate Jesus from the rest of humanity. Now the virgin conception doesn't answer all of the issues with regard to the sinlessness of Jesus. He still bore the DNA or whatever of Mary. Something miraculous would have to take place to ensure the sinlessness of Jesus. The virgin conception doesn't answer all of the questions. But you see something like two centuries on either side of the life of Jesus, the virgin birth on one side and the resurrection on the other, there were these profound symbols and statements that God Himself was at work in this child, in this infant, in this adolescent, in this fully-grown man. There is someone in this world who is greater than the world itself.


What this story elicits from us my friends is wonder, is sheer awe and wonder at what God has done. The entire forces of the godhead, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are at work at bringing about our wonderful salvation. “When all Thy mercies, O my God, my rising soul surveys, transported with the view I'm lost in wonder, love and praise.”


III. Jesus


But there's a third character and it's of course Jesus Himself. And five things are said about Jesus. First, that His name will be Jesus; Joshua, the deliverer, Mary's deliverer, Joseph's deliverer, the deliverer of His people. “Thou shall call His name Jesus because He will save His people from their sins.”


He will, secondly, be great, my friends. There is none greater. Thirdly, he will be called the Son of the most high. Fourthly, the Lord will give Him the throne of His father, David. He is the Messiah, the long-expected deliverer of His people. And fifthly, He will reign over the house of Jacob and of His kingdom there will be no end.


You see, the only issue this morning, the only issue this morning, is ‘Are we bowing in subjection to this One of whose kingdom there will be no end? Are our minds and our wills and our affections and our hearts bowed in submission to the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords, who fills the entire universe and is greater than the entire universe? Who nevertheless condescended to become flesh and blood, “Contracted,” as Wesley says, “to a span, incomprehensibly made man.”


Are you bowing your hearts to worship Him, to adore Him, to give Him the praise that is due only to a god, only to a god? Because Gabriel is saying to Mary, "Mary do you understand?" And how could she possibly understand that the One she was carrying inside her was the One who had made the universe?


Are you lost this morning in wonder, love and praise as you should be? As you should be? Let's pray together.


Our Father as we come again to this extraordinary story we pray that we might bow in love and praise before the King of Kings, for Jesus' sake, amen


© 2019 First Presbyterian Church.

This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.

To view recordings of our entire services, visit our Facebook page.

Print This Post