Veiled in Flesh: The Annunciation

Sermon by David Strain on December 3, 2017

Luke 1:26-38

Well, this morning is the first Sunday in the Advent season, so we are taking a break for this season from our usual studies in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians as we are reminded of the meaning and the significance of the birth of the Lord Jesus and as we celebrate together His first coming. We're taking a break to consider the message, the meaning of the coming of Jesus. We'll be doing it largely from the perspective of the virgin Mary, and so I want to invite you if you would please, to take a Bible in your hands and turn with me to Luke's gospel, to chapter 1. We are considering, as I say, the Christmas story, mostly from Mary's perspective. And so today, we'll be thinking about the annunciation, when the angel Gabriel came and broke the news to the virgin that she would bear a child and that He would be the Messiah. Then, God willing, next week we'll consider the greeting when Mary visits her cousin, Elizabeth's home, and Elizabeth responds to Mary and to her child. And then on the seventeenth, we'll think about the Magnificat, Mary's great song of praise for the coming of Christ. Then finally on Christmas Eve, we'll think about the nativity itself as the Lord Jesus was born into the world, born of the virgin and laid in a manger in Bethlehem.


And so this morning we are considering the annunciation – that extraordinary moment when the angel, Gabriel, announces to Mary all that’s about to take place. Which means, of course, that we will be looking together at Luke chapter 1, verses 26 through 38. And you can find that, if you’re using one of our church Bibles, on page 855. Before we read it together, let me ask if you would please first to bow your heads with me as we pray. Let us pray.


O Lord, we would take the same posture as the virgin Mary at the end of the passage we are about to read, who, having heard the word of the Gospel, responded, “Lord, I am Your servant. Let it be to me according to Your Word.” Let it be to us this morning according to Your Word, for we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.


Luke chapter 1 at the twenty-sixth verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:


“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[e] 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.”


Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy, inerrant Word.


I think that today, for many of us, the Christmas season is a bit like a well-decorated Christmas tree. There are layers of tinsel and lights and all sorts of decorations and ornaments, and if you decorated well, actually it can be hard, at least from a distance, to tell whether it's a real tree, a fir tree, or a plastic tree that you keep in a box and bring out every year for the Christmas season. I think the Christmas message actually, the Christmas season has become so encrusted with, you know, reruns of "It's A Wonderful Life" and "Home Alone" and all the other things that go along with the season – all the sentiment, all the wonderful traditions, all the food and the music and the presents – all the stuff that goes with Christmas, that sometimes it's hard for us to determine whether or not the Christmas message is just another fable, another Christmas myth to warm our hearts in the bleak midwinter, or whether it is, in fact, real and true and authentic after all. 


The Facts

Which is why it’s so very helpful to read Luke’s account of the coming of the Lord Jesus because Luke, if you’ll look at the first five verses of chapter 1, you’ll see Luke is really concerned to show that what happens here is grounded in, rooted in, and is a fact of history; not merely the invention of a storyteller. And so in the first five verses, you’ll see, verse 2, that he is working with eyewitness testimony as he writes this account. It is, he says, “an orderly account,” and so he marshals eyewitness testimony. He sets it all in order concerning the ministry of the Lord Jesus so that, “most excellent Theophilus,” the man to whom he is writing, “may have” – notice – “certainty,” verse 4, “concerning the things you have been taught.” So Luke’s gospel is eyewitness testimony, set in order carefully so that we may have certainty. Those of us who are asking questions about the big issues of our lives and we are struggling to know which way to turn, which way is up sometimes, here in the Gospel, and in Luke’s account of the coming of the Lord Jesus, we may find some certainty, some answers to the big questions. This is a real-world message that took place in a real place at a real time with real people.


You’ll see that if you look at the story of the annunciation. Luke is concerned, isn’t he, to highlight the facts. So verse 26, it took place “in the sixth month.” It took place at a particular time and in a particular place – in a city of Galilee, named Nazareth. To particular people – Mary and Joseph of the house and lineage of David. He is even concerned for the medical details. It took place – it was announced to a virgin. The virgin would be with child, miraculously and supernaturally. Luke is very concerned to show us this is true truth, real history.

The Challenges

But not only is he concerned to show us the facts, he’s also concerned to show us the challenges. He does not clean up his account at all. Notice, when the angel appears to Mary, she is really very afraid. And after the angel begins to talk to her, verse 34, she’s even more confused than she was at the beginning of the conversation. It’s only by the end of her dialogue with the angel that faith really begins to dawn in her heart. You see, Luke doesn’t clean up the account at all. Here it is, warts and all. Mary is struggling. She’s overwhelmed and really quite scared by all that she’s being told and all that’s taking place. And it really is good news for us that Luke is so concerned to show us the facts and to show us the challenges of what is taking place. Because it tells us that his message is a message for the real-world – of hard facts and for people who deal with all sorts of difficult challenges, who know what it is to be afraid, who know what it is to be confused and concerned. The story of Jesus, you see, is not a myth or a fable on a 1st century, “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” That’s not what this is. Luke is dealing not with fake news. He’s not a spin doctor. He’s a medical doctor. He is concerned about reality. And that means that Jesus Christ and the message of Jesus Christ is significant. It’s for real-world problems and real-world people. It’s for you and for me.


Mary’s Fear

And that’s really the first thing that I want you to see. It’s that Luke does not sugarcoat this account. I want you to notice Mary’s fear, first of all. Mary’s fear. When Luke says in verse 29 that Mary was “greatly troubled,” he uses an interesting word. It’s a version of a more common Greek verb. It’s an emphatic version of a Greek verb that means “to be acutely distressed; to cause acute distress.” That’s what Mary is feeling, acute distress, that day when Gabriel showed up at her home. And so when we’re told that she was seeking to discern what sort of greeting this might be, we’re not to imagine sort of mild curiosity on Mary’s part. This is someone who is profoundly troubled. She’s not at all reassured by the angel’s declaration to her of divine favor. This is, frankly, a terrifying moment. Whatever he looked like, I’m pretty sure that Gabriel bore almost no resemblance at all to the cherub on top of your Christmas tree. This is a terrifying moment for Mary. She’s so scared, in fact, that the angel repeats his greeting to her a second time and adds a word of reassurance. Do you see that? “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”


So the favor that is being lavished upon Mary, this good news that he has come to her with, is good news that works for a scared teenage girl, good news for parents, good news, actually, for all of us who, like Mary, are greatly troubled, and like her find ourselves looking for some answers. The reason that Jesus was born, at the heart of the message of the very first Christmas, is that perfect love might cast out fear. It is so that when the Word of God comes to us, as it did to Mary that day, in the sixth month here in Nazareth, our response might not be, might no longer be perplexity or confusion, but faith and joyful submission and the certainty for which Luke is writing and seeking to provide to us about God's good and perfect plan. All of which focuses on the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. Mary's fear. 


Mary’s Favor

Then secondly, I want you to notice the favor shown to Mary. Mary’s favor. That’s the language that Gabriel uses twice over in our passage. Do you see it there in verses 28 and again in verse 30? Mary is told she is a “favored one.” She is highly favored; she has found favor with God, Gabriel says. We use that word a little differently than it is being used here. We tend to use the word “favor” to use something like a kindness shown to us by someone who is in our debt. Or, because of the relationship we sustain to someone, because we have some leverage with them, when we come to them and ask the question, “Will you do me a favor?” they respond favorably.


Mary Is Not Sinless

But that’s really a misreading of what the angel is saying. It’s a misreading that has caused all sorts of mistakes over the history of the church, not least I have to say amongst our Roman Catholic friends. So Pope Pius IX declared, “This solemn and unparalleled salutation heard at no other time, shows the mother of God as the seat of all divine graces and as adorned with all the gifts of the Spirit” – misunderstanding what is really going on here. And from that misunderstanding of Gabriel’s greeting, the Roman Church developed the dogma that Mary herself was born without sin. And more than that, since she is full of favor, in Roman Catholic theology, she can dispense favor to others who pray to her seeking for her help. And so our Roman Catholic friends have developed a prayer, you may well know it, based on the language of the angel’s greeting to Mary, and Elizabeth’s greeting to her later on in the chapter. “Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed art thou among women. And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” That’s Roman Catholic thinking.



Do I have to persuade you that that is, in fact, a misreading of the teaching of this passage and is not at all warranted by the Word of God? The focus here is not to draw our attention to Mary; that there's something in Mary for which she is being favored. But rather, to help us understand that the favor she is being shown is the grace of God lavished upon her despite who Mary is, not because of who Mary is. In fact, the word for "favor" comes from the word "charis,” which means “grace” – grace lavished upon undeserving Mary. Mary the sinner. Luke has actually been emphasizing Mary’s ordinariness, not her extraordinariness. That’s what makes grace so wonderful – that it breaks in upon people who do not deserve it. We receive from the hand of God a favor for which we have not looked. We may not even have realized how desperately in need of His mercy and grace and favor we really are. And here in Luke’s gospel, and particularly here, clearly here in the annunciation, the favor and the grace that is being given to Mary is not some abstraction, not some treasury of merit that can be cashed in, you know, like casino chips when you need a blessing. But rather, the grace and the favor that is coming to Mary, the grace and favor that must come to us if we’re to find grace and acceptance with God at all, is bound up with and is frankly identical to the person and the work of the Lord Jesus Christ.


And so as the angel begins to explain what he means when he tells her that she is being highly favored, his explanation focuses on two things about Jesus. He talks to her about Jesus' identity – who He is. And he talks to her about Jesus' mission – what He came to do. If you want to know what grace is and if you want to know where to find it, you cannot do better than to study these two themes in the angel's message for Mary. Who is Jesus and what did He come to do? Grace is bound up with the identity of Jesus Christ and the mission of Jesus Christ. You will find it nowhere else. 


Jesus’s Identity

Let’s think about what the angel tells us, then, about Jesus’s identity, first, and then His mission. Look at verses 31 and 32 – Jesus’s identity. “Behold,” he says to her, “you will conceive in your womb and bear and son, and you shall call his name, Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” That tells us two things about Jesus’ identity.


Fully Human

First, it tells us Jesus will be a real and true human being. He will be conceived in the womb of the virgin. He does not arrive on the scene of history in the same way as Gabriel did that day in Mary’s home, suddenly just appearing. But rather, He is conceived in her womb and all the usual processes of cellular multiplication and fetal development take place for Him in her womb as it did for all of us. He was eventually delivered of His mother and was nursed and cared for her just like every other human being. He was taught and instructed. He grew and matured, subject to all the normal processes of human growth and mental development. There were things He did not know, things He had to learn. He slept when He was tired. He ate when He was hungry. He wept at His friend Lazarus’ graveside. He bled when the nails were pounded into His hands and feet. He thirsted upon the cross. And there, nailed between two thieves, His ordinary human heart stopped beating as He died. Jesus Christ is a man, fully, really truly human in mind and in heart and in soul and in body. He has a human nature.


Son of God

But Gabriel’s greeting also tells us this baby growing in the womb of the virgin will be more than a man. He will be fully, truly, really human, but He will also be, notice, “the Son of the Most High God.” When Mary asks her question in verse 34, the angel says to her in response that her supernatural conception of the Lord Jesus in her womb will be the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit and “therefore,” verse 35, “the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God.” Not man only, but God the Son, who has from eternity dwelt in perfect fellowship with the Father and with the Holy Spirit in the unity of the blessed Trinity. The God who fills the universe and upholds it by the Word of His power. Who is that Word who was “with God and who was God in the beginning,” and “by whom all things were made that have been made.” He is Jesus Christ, Mary’s infant child. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see. Hail the incarnate Deity. Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Immanuel.”


Now, why is that important to see those two facets of the identity of Jesus Christ? Why must He be, as the catechism puts it – right Claire? –as the catechism puts it, "both God and man in two distinct natures and one person forever." Why does that matter? Well here's why. On the one hand, as an ordinary human being, as a real man, Mary's Son was equipped and qualified to stand among us as one of us, filling our shoes as it were; able to sympathize with us in our weaknesses. Plumbing the depths of our sorrows; taking our place. Bearing our guilt; paying our price. Dying that we might live. And on the other hand, as eternal God, He can pay what no finite creature, a debt no finite creature could ever pay – an infinite debt. You know those are the dimensions of our problem. We're in big trouble, aren't we? Big trouble. Because our sin and guilt before God is infinite, we have no possibility on our own of repaying. Praise God that His appointed Messiah and Redeemer is no mere creature, therefore, but has an infinite capacity as eternal God to pay in full. And not just for one or two or for a few, but as infinite God, there is room for all people and for every person who will come to Him. He is able to save to the uttermost all who come to God by Him. He can fully quench the demands of divine justice that burn hot in wrath against our sin and make full atonement for sinners.


So here, here is the glory of the Christmas story, the wonder that is on offer to us. Here is hope kindled and despair and fear banished at last. The babe in Mary’s arms is the eternal God, and the God who stands in holiness to judge has stepped onto the scene in frail human nature to stand in our place and satisfy all the justice that our sinful rebellion has incurred to make redemption possible for the least and the worse of us. You know, if you do not grasp this message, you do not understand Christmas at all. Jesus’ identity.


Jesus’s Mission

Notice what we're told here also about Jesus's mission. What did He come to do? Well, two things to notice. Just as He is God and Man, there are two parts to His mission also. First, Jesus comes to make a new beginning, to be a perfect Rescuer. When Mary asks her question in verse 34, "How will this be since I am still a virgin?" the angel doesn't really explain. Does he? But he simply points her to the mysterious, secret working of the Holy Spirit. "The Holy Spirit," he says, "will overshadow you and the power of the Most High will come upon you and you will conceive and bring forth a child.” The language he uses echoes the ministry of the Holy Spirit who hovered over the surface of the waters at the primordial creation back in Genesis chapter 1; there, poised to bring life and light at the first creation. Now, He comes overshadowing the virgin to bring new creation, forming of her substance the flesh and the human nature of our Redeemer. New creation in Jesus Christ. A new humanity. A second Adam. He will bring a new beginning for everyone who trusts Him.


You may remember back at Genesis chapter 3 at verse 15 when God judged our first parents after their transgression and sin, He made a promise to Eve that one day, one of her sons would be born who would crush the serpent's head. The seed of the woman would come who would triumph over the serpent, Satan, and bring salvation to the world. Well, that one has come. He has come! A second Adam – "holy, harmless, undefiled and separate from sinners," the catechism again says of all Adam's descendants. "All mankind, descending from Adam by ordinary generation, sinned in him and fell with him in his first transgression." That is to say, everyone who descends from Adam in the ordinary way is a sinner and is guilty in God’s sight. But Jesus doesn’t descend from Adam in the ordinary way. That is why the angel says, “The child that will be born of you will be holy.” When no one else ever has been, this child, from beginning to end, will be holy, harmless, undefiled, and separated from sinners. Tempted in every way, as we are, to be sure, and yet without sin. A second Adam who obeys where the first fails, who keeps the Law of God, so that lawbreakers like us may find a refuge in His righteousness having no righteousness of our own. A perfect Savior who brings a new beginning.



But there’s another final part to His mission. Look at verse 33 again. Verse 32 and 33 again. “The Lord God,” the angels says, “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.” You know the angel here is echoing the prophecy of Isaiah chapter 9. You probably know it well. “To us, a child is born; to us, a son is given. And the government shall be upon his shoulders. And his name shall be Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. And of his reign there shall be no end.” Jesus is not simply Redeemer and Rescuer. He is God’s appointed King who reigns and rules over all.


Now I don't want you to miss what that means for us. If Jesus is God's great King, then He is not simply an option you may consider. No, He summons you and you are obligated to bend your knee to Him. You have really no choice. This is not a take-it-or-leave-it proposition for those who like that sort of thing. No, Jesus is God's universal King who summons you to come to Him and to trust Him. You know, everyone in the world will bend the knee to Jesus, either in this life with joy and faith, seeing and finding in Him the salvation they so desperately need, or when He comes again, as King of kings to judge the living and the dead. And they will bend the knee on that day with frustration and regret, grudgingly perhaps required to say that Jesus Christ is, after all, Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Please let it be the first and not the latter in your case. While there is yet time, while it is still called today, won’t you come, bend your knee to King Jesus? He is God’s Savior, His Rescuer, appointed for you and suitable to your need.


Faith of Mary

So the fear that Mary had, and the favor that Mary was shown. And then finally, I want you to notice the faith that Mary exhibits. That’s the narrative arc, isn’t it? There’s a journey Mary is on. She begins terrified. She moves from fear to confusion. But at the end, she comes to a place of wonderful submission and faith and trust in the Lord and in His promises. You’ll notice the marvelous kindness of the angel Gabriel towards her. He sees what’s going on, and so after he delivers his message, he offers her some help. Doesn’t he? He says, in effect, “You know, Mary I can see this is a lot for you to take in. I can tell that you’re terrified, even overwhelmed. So let me give you some help. If you’re wondering, ‘Can you really believe all of this? Can you really trust God’s promises?’ here’s some evidence that with God there is nothing that is impossible. Go visit cousin Elizabeth. In her old age, you will discover that she is pregnant with a child who would be John the Baptizer, the forerunner of the Lord Jesus who would go ahead of Him proclaiming good news in the coming Messiah.”


And that is, it seems, enough for Mary. She, at last, believes. Verse 36, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to Your word,” she says. And I want you to notice that carefully because that really is one of Luke’s great concerns. Isn’t it? That we understand that faith in Messiah Jesus is not a blind leap in the dark. It is not an exercise in wish-fulfillment. The Gospel message is not a crutch for those who can’t make it any other way. No, it is based on evidence. And so if you’re a skeptic this morning about the claims of Jesus, if you’re wondering if this is all perhaps pie in the sky when you die, let me invite you to check it out. Don’t just repeat the same tired old objections. Have you actually checked it out? You might start by reading Luke’s gospel. Continue reading on through the story and see who Jesus is and what He said about Himself and is it really credible. Or you might come, if you look at the back of this, you might come to a Christianity Explored course or a Life Explored course. You can bring your ugliest, gnarliest questions with you. Take the gloves off and explore the evidence for Jesus. I’m convinced that if you’ll give the evidence an honest hearing, you will find it to be utterly, utterly compelling. He is, in fact, who He claimed to be.


The Real Blessing

Let me close with this. There is a fascinating incident that happens later on in Luke’s retelling of Jesus’ life in Luke chapter 11. Jesus is preaching, there is a great crowd listening to Him, and one of the women who is in the crowd is just overwhelmed by the message and she’s gripped by this person, the Lord Jesus. And she sort of exclaims almost muses out loud to herself about how awesome it must have been to be Jesus' mother; such an impact He has had upon her. And so she says, “Blessed is the womb that bore You and the breasts that nursed You! How awesome it must have been to be Your mother! What a blessing she must have enjoyed!” And having surveyed our passage, I’m sure we can agree with her. The angel Gabriel certainly agrees with her. There’s blessing coming to Mary.


What is really interesting to notice, in that passage in Luke chapter 11, is how Jesus responds when the woman shouts out about Jesus’ mother, Mary. She says, “Blessed, blessed is the woman who gets to be Your mom!” And Jesus says, “No, blessed rather are those who hear the Word of God and keep it.” The real blessing for Mary was not that she got to be His natural mother. And the real blessing for us lies precisely here. That we hear the Word of God, the promises of the Gospel, the offer of favor, of grace, bound up with Jesus – who He is and what He came to do – a perfect Savior of sinners. And like Mary, we bend the knee and say, “Behold, the servant of the Lord, let it be to me according to Your Word. I believe and I trust You to rescue me.” You may not know you need rescuing, but you do. Without Jesus you are on a collision course with the judgment of God. But He has come to be your Rescuer and to deliver you by Himself, bearing that judgment in your place. And the way you receive His mercy and grace is so very simple. You simply take Mary's posture and you trust the promise of a Savior in Jesus Christ. Won't you do that today? Let's pray together.


Our Father, we bow before You and we praise You that Jesus is God and therefore infinitely able to save. And man, and therefore one to whom we can go, sure that He knows – who has been touched with the feeling of our infirmities and on whom we can rely. We bless You that He is a second Adam, come to bring a new humanity, a new beginning to make us new creatures. And He is Your great King who will reign over His kingdom forever. Would You grant to all of us to bend our knee here to Him, in joy, as we receive the rescue that He offers, that we might not be required to bend the knee in horror and regret hereafter when He comes again to judge the living and the dead. For we ask it all in Jesus’ name, amen.

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