December 14, 2005
“He Will Be Great”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke, chapter one. There are outlines of the message tonight and if you don't have one, raise a hand and we’ll get you one. There are a couple in the back, OK?…Luke, chapter one, beginning in verse 26.
This is an extraordinarily rich passage. This is the fifth of the Nine Lessons and Carols. We’ll do Lesson Six on Sunday morning, Lesson Seven next Wednesday night, Lesson Eight on Christmas Sunday morning, and Lesson Nine on Christmas Sunday evening. So we are right at the half-way point of these Nine Lessons and Carols from the King's College carol service; and the passage is, of course, the passage in which the angel Gabriel comes to make this great announcement to Mary. It's in the wake of the promise that has been made to Elizabeth and Zacharias concerning John, and it's so rich that we can't possibly cover all the points of importance in it, so I want to draw your attention to six things in particular.
I want you to think as we read through this passage about the significance of God's choosing Gabriel to be the angel messenger. You might start thinking right now, ‘Let's see…when was the last time that I saw Gabriel in the Scripture?’
Secondly, I want us to think about the significance of God's choosing this relatively obscure woman, Mary, to be the instrument of His grand design.
Thirdly, I want us to think together about the significance for us of Mary's almost complete bafflement about this situation in which she finds herself. She's greeted by an angel hailing her and pronouncing her favored of God, and then she's told she's going to bear a son whose name is going to be Jesus, who is going to be the King who is going to sit on His father David's throne, and He's going to be called the Son of the Most High. And she's baffled by this! But I want to suggest that her bafflement has something to teach us.
Fourthly, I want us to think about the significance of our confidence in the unlimited ability of God, and especially as we think about the angel's word. Nothing is impossible with God, or nothing shall be or will be impossible with God.
Fifthly, I want us to think about the significance of Mary's example in this setting. She gives us a beautiful picture of the right response of the believer to the Lord's will, even when it all doesn't make sense to us.
And then, finally, I want us to think about the significance of the person of Christ as that is set forth in this passage.
So before we read this word together, let's look to God in prayer and ask for His help and blessing.
Lord, we love You and we love Your word — not nearly as much as we ought. We love this passage; we've heard it since we were children. We ask, O God, that despite its familiarity to us that You would teach us wonderful things from Your word, and that our hearts would not only be moved by those things but that our minds would be changed and that our lives would be renovated by the truth of Your word. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
Hear the word of God:
“Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee, called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And coming in, he said to her, ‘Hail, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was greatly troubled at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation 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 name Him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; and His kingdom will have no end.’ And Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ And the angel answered and said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God. And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ And Mary said, ‘Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; be it done to me according to your word.’ And the angel departed from her.”
Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to it.
I. Luke draws out minds back to the message of God to Daniel.
It's a great passage, isn't it? It's filled with wonder, and it's associated in our minds with maybe dozens of Christmas's past. I want to think with you about the significance of this message of the angel to Mary for us today, and I want to start with asking you to think with me about God's choice of Gabriel as the messenger. Look at verses 26 and 17. Luke tells us that in the sixth month (the sixth month of Elizabeth's expectancy) Gabriel was sent by God to go to Galilee, to go to Nazareth, and to go to this virgin: this betrothed virgin, this slightly more than engaged virgin named Mary; and that's a very significant thing, because Luke is drawing our minds back to the message of God to Daniel 600 years before.
The last time we saw Gabriel he was being sent from God in answer to a prayer that Daniel was praying about the children of Israel being released from captivity in Babylon and returning to the Promised Land; and it's an extraordinary passage, you remember, because Daniel's deepest desire is that God would forgive His sinful people and restore them to the land. And when Gabriel comes to Daniel, he tells him that God's answer to that prayer is going to be far more glorious than Daniel had prayed that prayer. In fact, he tells Daniel that the response of God to his prayer is going to be the sending of the Messiah into the world, and so it is uniquely appropriate that the annunciation of the Messiah's coming into the world to that virgin – that obscure virgin Mary espoused to Joseph in Nazareth of Galilee – come from Gabriel, who had first spoken of Messiah the Prince and the great deeds that He would do in the Book of Daniel in answer to Daniel's prayer.
You see, the last time that Gabriel appeared in the Scripture, he was delivering a message to Daniel about the coming of the Messiah, and now here he is again half a millennium later delivering a message about the coming of the Messiah to an obscure virgin in Galilee. You see God tying together His plan, showing how none of this is accidental, none of this is coincidental, none of this is deviating one iota from the plan which He had set forth from before the foundation of the world, and so Luke draws our minds back to that great prophecy in the days of Daniel by telling us who this angel was: “The angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee, called Nazareth.”
II. Luke focuses our attention on God's freely bestowed favor on Mary — the exaltation of the humble.
The second thing I want you to look at (and you’ll see this in verses 28 and 30) is the significance of God's choice of Mary. Luke focuses our attention in this passage on God's freely bestowed favor on Mary. The whole theme of the exaltation of the humble is apparent throughout the Gospel of Luke, and here it is in spades. If Mary had not been the chosen instrument of God's purposes, we most likely would never have heard of her. She was not of a prominent family in Jerusalem that everybody knew; she wasn't in the present king's royal household. True, she had a good genealogy. She was descended from the best of folks, but they were rather obscure, her immediate predecessors; and she was from a humble background and engaged to a humble man, and yet God showers His favor on her.
Listen to how Gabriel speaks to her: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” [You could ponder, by the way, that phrase ‘The Lord is with you’ for a long time as it concerns Mary.] But notice how else he speaks of her in verse 30: “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God.”
Now, Mary no doubt was a young woman of unusually mature spiritual character, and it's no wonder that the church speculated on who her mother was, and wondered about her parents, and made up stories about her parents and her upbringing which are not recorded for us in the Bible, because surely God worked through the instruments of her parents to make her the kind of young woman that she was, and we do not want to denigrate at all the unique character that she displays throughout this whole calling that God has given to her. In fact, we're going to reflect on that when we look at verse 38 in just a few moments.
But the important thing, you see, that Luke wants us to realize is that God's choice of Mary is not because of her own inherent and unique worthiness, much less her sinless perfection. God's choice of Mary is a display of how He exalts the humble. She herself will sing in response to this announcement about how the Lord humbles the proud and exalts those who are humble. She got the message. She understood that God's choice of her as the instrument of His purposes was a display of how He loves to manifest His power in weakness, His sovereignty in our inability, His plan in our humility; and so, Luke focuses our attention on God's freely bestowed favor on Mary as a way of showing how God exalts the humble in His plan and purposes.
But I want to say in passing, before we go to the third point, how unique a privilege it was for Mary to be the bearer of Christ, and for Christ to share her flesh and blood; yet, there is a closer relationship that can be had to Christ than Mary's flesh and blood relationship, and that closer relationship that can be had with Christ is the relationship that we have with Christ by faith union with Him.
On one occasion Jesus will be called aside by His followers who are saying ‘You know, Your mother and Your brothers would like to speak to You.’ And you remember His response: “Who is My mother, and who are My brothers but those who do My will?” And Jesus there, it seems, is pointing out the reality of the connection that He has to those who are His disciples, those who by faith have been united to Him. They share the closest possible relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ. It is appropriate that we honor the unique place that Mary had in the dispensation of the plan of God, but we must not suppose that because of her unique role as the bearer of the Christ that we (the rest of us in Christendom) are relegated to a second-class relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. Oh, no! We have been given the privilege of the sons and daughters of the Most High. We have been made by grace brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, united to Him by faith, and we should never forget that privilege.
III. Luke reminds of the necessary mysteries of Christian Faith.
So the third thing I want you to see — and you’ll see it in verse 34 — Mary's response to the angel's salutation of ‘Mary, God is with you; the Lord is with you; God has favored you.’ Mary's response is bafflement! And I want you to see here that Luke is reminding us of the necessary mysteries of the Christian faith.
Mary says to the angel ‘How can this be? I'm a virgin. I don't understand this.’ She is absolutely baffled by what God has announced to her. And again we can understand the unique situation that Mary is in. Mary does not have the benefit of 2,000 years of study of the Christian Scriptures, the Gospel accounts of how this story played. She's having to learn this on the fly! I don't want to downplay that at all, but you know there is a sense in which Mary is not in a fundamentally different position than any Christian disciple, in the sense that none of us can fully understand the mind of God. None of us know how the plan of God is worked out to the “nth” degree, and God's will and God's purposes and God's ways–they are as high above us as the heavens are above the earth, and He does not reveal all the designs and counsels of His secret will. And sometimes He teaches us things in the word that we scratch our head about.
My son, Jennings, for the last couple of weeks has really been pressing me on the eternality of God. (Now, he doesn't use that language, you understand!) But he keeps saying, “Dad, I just don't get it. God made everything, but who made God?”
“Jennings, nobody made God. He's always been here.”
“I don't understand that, Dad.”
“Jennings, I don't understand that either.”
And we could make a list of those things, couldn't we, in the Scriptures, where we scratch our heads and we think our hardest, and we try and be as biblical as possible and give all the answers that the Scripture gives, and we still in the end have to say ‘I don't understand. But I believe You, Lord, because You say it in Your word.’
And, you see, if we worship an infinite God, a God who is not finite, a God who is not limited, a God who is higher than we are, then of necessity our religion is going to contain mysteries. In fact, if we understood it all we would know that He is not an infinite God. If I understood everything there was to know about God and His plan that would be living proof that this God is not infinite, because I'm finite; and if a finite being can understand everything there is to know about God, can compass Him about, then He is not the infinite God of Scripture. We would know Him better and better–and we will never ever plumb all the depths of His glory.
In a heavenly religion, in a faith which has actually been designed by God, there is of necessity going to be mystery. And Mary's response, “How can this be?” is a reality that every believer knows at one point or another.
IV. Luke's record of the angel's message makes it clear that faith must rest on the sovereignty of God.
There's a fourth thing I want you to see, and you’ll see it in verse 37 in the angel's words, “Nothing will be impossible with God”; and it's the significance of our confidence in the unlimited ability of God that I want to think with you about for a few moments.
The record that Luke gives us of the angel's message to Mary makes it clear that our faith must rest on the sovereignty of God. The basis of Mary's trust in the angel's message is not ultimately in her capacity to understand everything. In fact, even in the explanation that the angel gives her in answer to her questions, as helpful as it is, it would have been one of those circumstances…you remember when a student asks a question in class and the professor answers it, and he really hasn't answered everything that the student wants to get an answer to, and he's already asked the question once–he doesn't want to say ‘But…but…could you tell me something more?’ I mean, she asked ‘How can this be? How am I going to have this child? I'm a virgin.’ And he says, ‘Well, here's the answer, Mary. The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you, and for that reason the offspring will be called the Son of God.’ Well, friends! She would have had more questions at the end of that answer than she had at the beginning! ‘Wait a minute, Gabriel! Can we just work on each phrase of that answer?’ Ultimately, though, you see, he says ‘Mary, here's the bottom line. Nothing is impossible with our God.’
And it's Mary's ability to rest in the sovereignty of God, not Mary's ability to understand every iota of what she is about to go through, that is at the heart of her living of the Christian life. You see, it's trust in the good and wise and sovereign — though often inscrutable — providence of God that is key to the Christian life. That's what our friends on the coast of Mississippi who love the Lord Jesus Christ are having to do right now: trust in the good and wise and sovereign, though inscrutable, providence of God.
I love what J.C. Ryle says: “Faith never rests so calmly and peacefully as when it lays its head on the pillow of God's omnipotence.” When it realizes the sheer power of God, in God's goodness and His wisdom and His kindness, faith is able to rest peacefully. Luke's record of the angel's message points us to an enormously important and practical pastoral truth: that the sovereignty of God is key to the living of the Christian life. It's not an abstract doctrine that only ivory tower theologians are to talk about in graduate school somewhere. It's the most practical doctrine that you could ever imagine, and sometimes it's all that we have to put one foot in front of the other: God is sovereign, and He's kind, and He's good, and He's wise; so when we don't understand, He does, and He is in control.
V. Luke points us to the grace-wrought bravery, faith, and humility displayed by Mary.
There's a fifth thing I want you to see, and you’ll see it in verse 38. Mary's response is extraordinary, and Luke is pointing us to this grace-wrought bravery and faith and humility displayed by Mary because Mary's response here is an example of the right response of the believer to the Lord's will. She is a walking, talking, living, breathing example of how a believer ought to respond to the announcement of the Lord's will. Her response – “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord….” In other words, ‘Gabriel, you are looking at the bondslave of the Lord. I am the Lord's permanent servant. If this is what the Lord wants, I'm ready to do what the Lord wants.’ “Behold, the servant of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” And, you see, her submission to the will of God is a beautiful mark of her discipleship of the Lord, because submission to the will of God is the mark of a disciple.
I've got a letter in the mail from Archie Parrish (some of you know Archie, who served for many years in different capacities with our denomination–serves on R. C. Sproul's board, is with Serve International) and his opening paragraph says, “I wish you a Mary Christmas” —
M-a-r-y — “Mary Christmas”, and then he underlines it to let you know that it wasn't a typo. And then he quotes this verse: “Behold, the bondservant of the Lord.” And remember, the name of his ministry is — what? Serve International. His point again is that Christians serve the Lord. They submit themselves to the Lord. They do His bidding, and so he's wishing us a Christmas in which it's our heart's desire to serve the Lord, because submission to the will of the Lord is the mark of a disciple.
VI. Luke clues us in on the identity of Jesus
There's one last thing I want you to see, though. It's the most important thing in the passage, and we've got about thirty seconds to look at it. You’ll see it in verses 31-33, but you also see it again in verse 35, and that's the way that Luke points us to the person of Christ in this passage, and it's significant.
You see, Luke clues us in on the identity of Jesus here:
“You will name Him Jesus [the Lord saves]. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord will give Him the throne of His father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; His kingdom will have no end….the holy child will be called the Son of God.”
Now there's a five-point discourse on the person of Christ right there. But look — one of the things that would have come through loud and clear is simply this: ‘Mary, understand this. You are about to be the mother of the Messiah that the people of God have been waiting for since Adam, since Abraham, since David. You’re going to be the mother. But let me tell you: even though the people of God have been waiting for Him for more than 2,000 years, He is going to be more than they ever imagined. He's going to be the Son of the Most High.’
Now, I imagine Mary had more questions then than she had had at any point in that encounter, but you see how Luke has beautifully set forth the expectation of the significance of the person of Christ, even as he records Gabriel's words to Mary. He's unfolding for us most importantly in this announcement who Jesus is, because who Jesus is is absolutely essential to what He is going to do.
May the Lord help us to remember that this Christmas. Let's pray.
Lord God, thank You for Your word, and thank You for this great, great, familiar and beloved passage; and help us to learn the practical lessons for our own Christian lives, even as we listen to Gabriel and watch Mary and focus on Jesus. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
Would you stand for God's blessing.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God the Father and our Lord Jesus the Messiah. Amen.