Glad Tidings: Dead Ends Revisited

Sermon by Wiley Lowry on January 9

Luke 1:5-56

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If you would turn with me in your Bibles to Luke chapter 1, you can find that on page 855 in the pew Bibles. And we will continue in our study in Luke’s gospel this evening by studying verses 5 through 56.

We have a friend from Memphis, and to her, a cul de sac is a cove. Period. She won’t hear it any other way. I don’t know if other places have different names for cul de sacs or if anywhere else calls it a cove like Memphis does, but it’s obviously a Memphis thing and there are coves all over the place on the map in Memphis. If you talk with an urban planner, a cul de sac or a cove is a bit of a sore subject. It’s become something of a symbol of suburban sprawl and of neighborhoods that have these long, winding roads with cul de sacs coming off in every direction. It can be difficult to walk in a neighborhood that is full of cul de sacs because everywhere you go, every street you turn down, it’s a cul de sac; it’s a dead end. And whether you call them cul de sacs or coves, we know what they are. They are dead ends.

And there’s something related to that in our Scripture passage tonight, because Luke chapter 1 is full of dead ends. Everywhere we look there is a dead end. The circumstances, the main characters, they don’t seem to be going anywhere at all. There aren’t many options available for them. And that can be true for us as well sometimes. We find ourselves in the same situations, don’t we? We find ourselves in dead ends and we may even feel that at times we are a dead end. But it’s in those very moments, those very moments of weakness and helplessness, that Charles Bridges is so helpful in his commentary on Psalm 119 because Charles Bridges says in that commentary that in our helplessness, in our weakness, he says, “here, let your faith realize at one and the same view your utter insufficiency and your all sufficiency.” In your helplessness and your weakness, recognize your utter insufficiency and at the same time, God’s all sufficiency. So those will be our two points, our outline for this passage tonight – man’s insufficiency and God’s all sufficiency.

Before we read the passage, let’s look to God in His all sufficient power to help us to understand and apply His Word. Let’s pray.

Father, we thank You for Your Word. We thank You that in Your power, Your greatness, Your majesty, Your glory, Your incomprehensibility, that You have come down to us and revealed Yourself to us in Your Word and in Your Son, Jesus Christ. And so we pray that You would give us the power of Your Holy Spirit, the guidance, the direction, the insight, the illumination of the Spirit tonight; that we would see You in all of Your glory, that we would see Christ for who He is, and that we would bow in humility and worship before You tonight. We pray all of this in Jesus’ name, amen.

Luke chapter 1, starting in verse 5:

“In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.

Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.’

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.’ And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, ‘Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.’

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.”

The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God endures forever.

Man’s Insufficiency

Verse 37 says, “Nothing will be impossible with God.” Do you believe that? Do you believe that God is truly God? Do you believe that He can and will carry out all His holy will? Do you believe it? Because everything that is recorded in this gospel, everything about God’s work of salvation by His grace, comes down to this – that nothing will be impossible with God. Nothing will keep God from fulfilling His plan – His plan to forgive sinners and to bring about the blessings of His kingdom for His people. Nothing will stop it. Not politics, not old age, not the weakness of the human flesh, not even death can stop the good purposes of God. That’s because nothing will be impossible with God.

And that’s important for us to see at the beginning of Luke’s gospel because Luke’s gospel begins with a series of impossibilities. It begins with a series of dead ends. And he begins this story about Jesus in verse 5, “In the days of Herod, king of Judea.” There’s dead end number one, because God’s plan of salvation was promised to come from a king of the house and lineage of David. But Herod, Herod had none of those qualifications. In fact, Herod wasn’t even a Jew. He was from a region called Idumea. It was an area to the south of Judea. That’s where the Edomites lived. Those were a people who had a long and complicated history of conflict with the Jewish people. It’s a story of conflict that went back to the conflict between Jacob and Esau. And on top of that, Herod wasn’t really a king. He was just an extension of the Roman power in the region, in the territory of Judea. He was what historians call a “client king” or a “territorial ruler” of the Roman Empire. And as a territorial ruler of the Roman Empire, he seemed more concerned about spreading the influence and the impact of the Greek and Roman culture than he was about protecting and promoting Judaism in Jerusalem and Judea.

Now he did rebuild the temple during his administration, but this was a man, Herod, who was deeply flawed. He had multiple wives. He was a murderer. His family was dysfunctional. Herod was nothing like a Davidic king. Maybe he was. Maybe he was a little too much like a Davidic king. But he was nothing like what a Davidic king should be. And really, that is something of the point of the books of Samuel and Kings, that we hear about king after king after king and none of them can match up to the expectations of being the Deliverer and the King and the Savior of God’s people. And here is this man, Herod, that we meet in verse 5. His kingdom has a very limited reach and his reign lacked the qualities of peace and justice and righteousness, the things in which God delights. Salvation was not going to come through Herod or through his house. He was a dead end in the plan of God. In fact, it had been almost 600 years since a son of David had been on the throne in Jerusalem.

And then there is dead end number two. And it’s found in the house of a priest named Zechariah, verse 5. Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth, were a godly couple. They had been faithful to God for many years, and yet it was just the two of them because Elizabeth was barren and both of them were “advanced in years,” verse 7 says. And whatever sadness or whatever emptiness they may have felt because they were childless, it would have been made all the worse because of their calling and their circumstances because Zechariah was a priest. And what do we know about the priesthood? We know about the priesthood that it was passed down from generation to generation to generation. It was tied to ancestry and lineage. And Zechariah was from the division of Abijah. It says in verse 5 also that Elizabeth was from the daughters of Aaron. Think about that. These people could trace their family line all the way back to Aaron. That’s Passover and Exodus and Mount Sinai and Ten Commandments and tabernacle Aaron. That Aaron! They could trace it all the way back there and then that line has come to an end. It’s come to a dead end for them.

And we are told in verse 8 that when the time came, it was Zechariah’s division that was on duty, and according to the custom, verse 8, of the priesthood, “he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and to burn incense.” That would have just compounded the hurt and the ache of being childless because here was this priest and he was coming to what commentators say was most likely a once in a lifetime opportunity for him to go and enter into the temple to offer and to burn this incense. He had this great privilege, this great honor to take up and to become a part of what his forefathers and generations before him had been a part of in the worship of the temple. But there wouldn’t be another generation for Zechariah. He had prayed for a son. Elizabeth had endured the shame, she had endured the reproach of being childless for years, and yet the time had passed for them and the thought of a baby was out of the question.

But we’ve heard that before, haven’t we? We’ve heard that before in the Bible – whether it was Abraham and Sarah or Manoa and his wife or Hannah and Elkanah or many others in the Old Testament. There were barren wombs and old age, and yet that wasn’t the end of their stories, was it, because God provided offspring for them and He used their children in the outworking of God’s plan and He would do the same for Zechariah and Elizabeth. And here we have this angel, it’s Gabriel, who comes to Zechariah in the temple and he tells him that his wife Elizabeth will bear a son, the son would be named John, and he would be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb; that he would be set apart from his birth to be a prophet, to go out in the spirit and the power of Elijah and to make ready for the Lord a people prepared. This was, to Zechariah, what verse 19 says, “good news.” It was good news for him, for him and his wife Elizabeth. And Elizabeth conceived, verse 24 tells us, and she recognizes clearly that this was nothing but the hand of the Lord, the miraculous hand of God upon her. Verse 25, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when He looked on me to take away my reproach among people.” Dead end number two.

And then there’s Mary. But before we get to Mary, just consider the three types of people that we meet in the first part of this passage. There’s Herod and Zechariah and John – king, priest, and prophet. That’s what we were hearing about in the children’s devotional wasn’t it? Prophet, priest and king. There’s the king that represented God’s reign and authority over His people. There is the priest who represented the people before God in worship. And there is the prophet who represented God to the people in speaking His Word to them. The king, the priest, and the prophet – they had a long established and a central role in the life of the people in Israel. And here we can find represented the legacies of people like Abraham and Aaron and David and Elijah and Isaiah and others as well. You can tell the story of the Bible up to this point by telling the story of these men and others like them. And so much of Scripture in the Old Testament is about the office and the work of the prophets and the priests and the kings.

And yet each one, ultimately, is insufficient. In the big picture, each one of those in the Old Testament – prophet, priest and king – is a dead end. And that’s true with Herod. Herod wasn’t even technically a king. Zechariah, even though he was an upright priest, he himself needed an offering before he could go into the temple to make an offering before the Lord. And for all of his piety and for all of his devotion, we see unbelief in his life, don’t we? And Gabriel tells him that he will be silent; he will be unable to speak because he did not believe. He did not believe Gabriel’s message from God. And then John, even John who will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, he would preach with power and with great authority. We are told elsewhere in the Scripture that John was the greatest prophet who had ever lived. And yet his whole role, his whole work is one of preparation. Verse 17 says, “to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” He is born to fade into the background, and his job has in it a built-in obsolescence.

Each one of these men and their offices, in some way, even at their best, can be said to be weighed in the balances and be found wanting. Everything about the Old Testament, everything about prophet, priest and king is anticipation. It’s preparation. In fact, even verses 5 to 25 of chapter 1 of Luke is preparation; it’s anticipation. It’s preparing us for the angel’s message to Mary that starts in verse 26. And yet even Mary is another dead end in this passage, isn’t she, because Mary is from the region of Galilee and she is from a city called Nazareth. Neither of those places would have registered very much on the Messianic expectations of the Jews. Nazareth was a nowhere town with a no-good reputation and Mary was a virgin. And when Gabriel tells her that she will bear a son, she was only betrothed to Joseph which was something more serious than but similar to an engagement. She says in verse 34, “How can this be since I am a virgin?” If you look, if you have the ESV there, there is a footnote and it says that in the Greek it literally says, “since I do not know a man.” “How can this be since I do not know a man? I have not been with a man in an intimate or sexual way.” There was no way that she could have a child.

And by the way, can’t you see something or hear something of the tone of voice that comes out in this passage as you compare Mary’s response with Zechariah’s response because they really ask similar questions, don’t they? Zechariah says, “How shall this be, for I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years?” And then Mary says, “How will this be since I am a virgin?” And yet one of those is asked from unbelief and one of them is asked from wonder and faith. And we know that because Zechariah is struck with silence and Mary demonstrates a remarkable faith. God knows the heart, you see. He knows the heart of these individuals. He knows our hearts and he can see where there is unbelief and there is wonder. And we see with Mary there is wonder; there is faith. There is faith that her virginity is not an obstacle to God’s plan.

God’s All Sufficiency

And as we think about that, I think we can say this. That her being a virgin actually shows us what is the biggest problem or obstacle of them all. The biggest dead end in this passage is not prophet, priest or king. The biggest dead end in this passage is not ancestry or old age or barrenness or virginity even. It’s humanity. It’s the sinfulness of human flesh altogether. And the reason for the virgin birth is that man is completely corrupted by sin and no mere man is qualified to bring about God’s plan of salvation and to deliver us from sin. It is impossible. It’s impossible. But God is all sufficient. And verse 37 tells us that “with God nothing will be impossible.” Nothing will keep God from fulfilling His Word. Nothing will prevent God from working out His plan of salvation. Nothing will stop God from blessing His people. Praise God. He is able to make something out of nothing as He did in creation when He spoke all things into existence. He gives conception to infertility. He brings life even out of death because nothing will be impossible for God.

And the force of verse 37 comes out in the Greek as a double negative. It reads something like this, literally – “For not not able from God are all things,” or “every word.” “For not unable is God to do all things.” The force of the phrase is something like when I called, years ago, I called a restaurant to order take-out and I was asking about the portion size of a certain item on the menu and the man on the other line at the restaurant, he told me, he said, “It ain’t not never filled me up!” “It ain’t not never filled me up!” And you may not be able to work out all of that and how that all works together with actually a triple negative, it’s a rare triple negative, but you get the point don’t you? It’s a filling portion on the menu!

Well here’s the point of verse 37. Here in fact is how the Amplified Bible translates verse 37. “For with God nothing is ever impossible and no word from God shall be without power or impossible of fulfillment.” And here’s how God will do that with Mary. Here’s how God will do that for sinful humanity. Gabriel says that the Holy Spirit will come upon her. Verse 35, “The child will be called holy – the Son of God.” Earlier Gabriel had said to her that His name will be called “Jesus.” “Jesus” means “God saves.” It means, “Salvation is from the Lord.” And this Jesus would be great. He will be called “the Son of the Most High.” He will be given the throne of David, “reigning over the house of Jacob forever with a kingdom that will know no end.” Here in the person of Jesus is the perfect, the anticipated, Prophet, Priest and King, all in one person to do the work of God’s salvation that He has called Him to do.

Do you understand how impossible this is? Of course you don’t; no one does. No one can fully comprehend everything that the angel is saying here in this passage. We can’t even comprehend that it is an angel saying it to Mary. And yet this is the mystery of all mysteries. It is the miracle of all miracles. It is the impossibility of all impossibilities – that God, whom Zechariah and Elizabeth and Mary know as one God and He is holy and He is set apart and He is lifted up; He is to be worshipped and feared and reverenced – that this God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There is a plurality in His unity. There is an incomprehensible majesty in His glory, in His beauty, and this God will take on flesh and will take up residence in the womb of an unknown virgin girl in lowly Nazareth. This child who would be born to her would be the Son of God. He would be her Lord and her Savior. These are the most profound and the most sublime mysteries of all time and eternity.

And as we read this passage tonight, we have to come face to face with the incomprehensibility of God – that the depths of His glory and His beauty and His wonder, it cannot be fathomed; it cannot be measured. And yet, He makes Himself known. He reveals Himself in His Word and most fully in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ, this one who is to be born of Mary. “Authentic Christianity,” you see, writes John Stott, “Authentic Christianity, the Christianity of Christ and the apostles, is supernatural Christianity. It is not a tame and harmless ethic consisting of a few moral platitudes spiced with a dash of religion. No, it is a supernatural religion. It is a life lived by the power of God.” You see, it’s not just that God does hard things or that He accomplishes unlikely things. No, He does impossible things. That’s because He is bigger and He is more awesome than anything we can comprehend.

His infiniteness is far beyond the limits of our finiteness, which really brings us to the last dead end that we come to as we read and study this passage tonight. The last dead end that we have to consider is you; it’s me. It’s anyone who is reading this gospel because we all come to the place where we recognize our limits, don’t we, and we come to the place where we face the unknown. We all come to places in our lives where we run out of options. If no other time, it’s through this time of pandemic that we recognize this. We come to recognize our utter insufficiency. And yet as we come to see our utter insufficiency and we see it in light of God’s all sufficiency, His ability to work the impossible, where does that take us? Where does that leave us? It brings us to the place of humility. And Mary recognizes that. Mary recognizes the place of humility before the glory of God and before the wonder of His salvation. “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for He has looked on the humble estate of His servant,” verse 46 and 47. Verse 51, “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.” It’s humility.

Humility is at the heart of the Christian life. Are we ready to humble ourselves before the Almighty God? Will we deny ourselves and give up our rights for the sake of exalting His name and not our own name? Will we give up control in order to submit to His will in our lives? My guess is that most of us can accept humility up to the point that it actually costs us something, but a posture of humility is a posture of outright faith and dependence upon God. And so much of our conflict, our discontentment, our worry, even our disobedience, so many of those things come from our pride. It comes from us living with self-reliance. It comes from a lack of humility in our lives. But humility understands this. Humility understands that God works difficult things together for good and God brings blessing out of costly obedience. And God will restore a hundred fold those things which we sacrifice and give up for His sake and for the sake of His kingdom and for the sake of the Gospel. Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity. Man’s insufficiency is met by God’s all sufficiency. And God’s strength is made perfect in our weaknesses because with God, nothing will be impossible. Nothing will be impossible with God.

Sandy Wilson was our pastor several years ago in Memphis, the land of coves and not cul de sacs, and Sandy said that one time he preached a sermon on humility. And as he went to the back door and he was greeting the congregation, one person came up to him and said, “Sandy, that was a really good sermon, especially considering that that’s not your strong suit.” And I’m sure that could be said to any one of us and we would have to accept it because humility, oftentimes, is not our strong suit. And yet, we all have our dead ends and we realize that ultimately we are a dead end and we need rescue. We need salvation. We need deliverance from our sin. That we can’t do it ourselves; we need God to do the impossible for us. God does the impossible and He has done the impossible for us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, for us and for our salvation. And He will do the impossible. He can do the impossible in your lives in difficult things to bring about blessing for others and glory to His name. And so we bow. We bow in humility, like Mary, and we magnify the Lord. “My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Nothing, nothing will be impossible with God.

Let’s pray.

Our Father, we thank You that You are a God who does impossible things, that even as we study this passage tonight and we remember again the good news, the Gospel, the wonder of salvation that came to us in Christ, we are met by the limits of our own understanding and we are met by the unlimitedness of Your greatness and glory. You are God and we pray that You would astonish us, humble us, make us worship and bow down in praise and glory to Your name. Help us to see Jesus in all the mystery and miracle of who He is and what He has done for us; His perfect sufficiency for us. In our insufficiency we rest there and we go out with Your all sufficiency for us. And we pray all of this in Jesus’ name, amen.

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