Well as Ed said, this is now the second Sunday in Advent and you will remember we are approaching the Christmas story this year by thinking of the four angelic birth announcements that surround the coming of the Messiah. The first we looked at last time – the announcement to Zechariah of the coming of John the Baptist. Then to Mary, and then to Joseph, and finally to the shepherds. And that means today we turn to Gabriel’s announcement to the virgin Mary that she would conceive and bear a son and call His name, “Jesus.”
And as we approach this familiar story, one of the things we should note that doesn’t come out all that terribly well in our translation of the passage, is the note of grace. Grace is present, both linguistically and theologically, throughout the message that the angel Gabriel conveys to the virgin Mary. The Christmas story is all about grace. And as we reflect on that this morning, I want us to wrestle in particular with three dimensions of grace in the angel’s words to Mary. First, we’re going to see that grace unsettles; it perplexes, it is scary. Grace unsettles. Secondly, grace descends; it comes down, it enters into our world. And thirdly, grace assures. For all that is unsettling and perplexing, in the end, it’s aim, the aim of grace is comfort and assurance and contented submission to the will of the Lord. So there’s the outline. Grace unsettles, grace descends, and grace assures.
Before we read the Scriptures together, we’re going to pray. If you have a Bible, would you turn with me in God’s Word to Luke’s gospel, chapter 1, beginning at verse 26. And then once you have your Bible’s open, let’s bow our heads and pray together.
O God, we need the light of the Holy Spirit because sin clouds our thinking, our judgment, our understanding. We suppress the truth in unrighteousness. We distort it. We twist it to fit our preferences. Our hearts are unruly and rebellious things, and so we pray, Lord Jesus, rule us by Your Word, subdue us to Yourself, humble and teach and instruct us. Rebuke us and discipline us. Call us back to You. Show us You are enough for our hearts and help us to lean, to rest our whole weight upon You as You speak in Your holy Word. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
Luke chapter 1, beginning at verse 26. This is the Word of 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 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.”
Well let’s think first of all about how grace unsettles. Grace unsettles. For a long time, I wondered what Mary was so disturbed by when Gabriel met her that day in Nazareth. Luke says she was “greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.” Unlike the annunciation to Zechariah about John the Baptist’s coming birth, it’s not this time the angel’s appearance that is unsettling to Mary. We know nothing, actually, about Gabriel’s appearance from the text. It is completely silent on that matter. Certainly we need to drop the idea that Gabriel appeared in a long white robe with massive swan’s wings, you know, and a halo. It’s not Gabriel per say that is troubling to her. According to the text, it’s the greeting itself that is so disturbing. “She was greatly troubled at the greeting, and was trying to discern what sort of greeting this might be.” That’s what’s bothering her. The words, the greeting. And I’ve always wrestled with that a little bit. After all, on the face of it, Gabriel’s opening line isn’t really all that disturbing. Is it? Verse 28, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” It sounds like good news to me. It’s a little surprising, I grant you; I dare say Mary probably did not feel like she was anything special and so perhaps the angel’s greeting took her off guard. But I always thought there was nothing especially unnerving about these opening words.
Of course, I was quite wrong. The word translated, “greetings,” and the word for “favor,” in Gabriel’s opening message actually share the same root in Greek. They both come from the word for “grace.” And that’s important here. It’s an over-translation, but it helps to make the point that what Gabriel says to Mary is something like this – “Grace to you, object and recipient of grace. The Lord is with you!” He says it again in verse 30. Do you see that? “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor,” or, “grace with God.” This is a passage about grace. And as Mary is about to find out, the grace of God that was being lavished upon her has consequences; it has implications. I think she has some sense of that right away as she listens to Gabriel’s message. “What could possibly be coming next after a greeting like that? What is God about to do for me and in me and through me that He should lavish such grace upon me?”
Tim Keller somewhere tells the story of being approached after preaching one day by a lady who confronted him a little agitated, demanding why she had never heard this message about how free and generous and unconditional God’s grace really is. And after a few probing questions, Keller got to the bottom of what was really upsetting her. She said, “If I have some contribution to make to my own salvation, well then, there’s a limit to what God can ask of me. I’ve done my part, you see, and now He has to do His. But if salvation is entirely free to me, all at His expense, if it’s all grace, then that’s really scary because it means if I accept this gift, this grace, then there’s no limit to what He can ask of me.”
And that’s exactly right. The grace of God is free. We don’t earn it. We don’t deserve it. We don’t merit it. But the grace that is free has implications. When it comes, nothing can be the same again. It has consequences. And as that realization dawns on Mary, not unlike the woman who approached Tim Keller that day, she becomes increasingly troubled. The word that’s used here to describe her is more intensive even than the word, the similar expression that described Zechariah’s reaction back in verse 12 of Luke chapter 1 when Gabriel told him about the coming birth of John. It indicates a depth of distress, an anxiety that wells up in Mary’s heart, which is why Gabriel has to tell her in verse 30, “Do not be afraid.”
Now you will remember Mary is engaged to a good man, Joseph. They would soon be married. Life was on track. Things are going according to plan. All was well in Mary’s world, and then the grace of God came and everything changed. Everything was turned on its head. Mary’s plans went out the window. Nothing could stay the same. Her miraculous pregnancy exposed her to potential scandal in her community. Certainly, as we’ll see next week, it came close to ruining her relationship with Joseph. I think the truth is, we have rather domesticated Christmas. Haven’t we? Wouldn’t you agree? We have rather domesticated it. Two thousand years of tradition and storytelling have blunted the deeply disturbing reality of what happened that first Christmas. Nothing could have blunted the force of it for poor Mary, however. She felt the full impact of its disruptive power. When Gabriel tells her she has found grace and favor with God, she does not therefore smile seraphically or rub her hands together in excitement like children on Christmas Eve who can’t wait for tomorrow’s presents. No, when grace erupts into Mary’s life, she freaks out because she knows that in its wake there’s nothing now God cannot ask of her.
The grace of God, you see, is disruptive. It is disturbing, unsettling. It’s not tame. It’s not domestic. Grace isn’t about having warm, fuzzy feelings. It is wild and it will change the whole course of your life. Listen, a Christianity that leaves everything in your life just as it was before and just adds a little sprinkle of Jesus is not the real thing. It’s counterfeit. If you really come to grips with the Christmas story, get ready. Get ready, because nothing will ever be the same again. Grace is always, always a change agent. So grace unsettles.
But why? Why is it so disruptive and unsettling? Well think with me in the second place about how grace descends. Look at verses 31 and 32. The angel Gabriel says, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor or grace with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” Now Gabriel intends to reassure Mary. Right? “Don’t be afraid.” But the next thing he tells her, this unmarried, virgin teenager, is that she is about to get pregnant and have a son. I can’t imagine that that was all that reassuring. But don’t miss the connection in what Gabriel says between the grace he tells her she’s come to enjoy and the child he announces she will shortly bear. “You have found grace with God and you will conceive in your womb.” Grace has come down, you see, and it’s come in person.
And that is crucial to understand. We sometimes think of grace in the Bible as a sort of substance – a blob of spiritual stuff, you know, that God doles out to His people like Tinkerbell’s magic pixie dust. And we need some of that grace stuff to get right with God and live the Christian life and so on and so forth. But that’s not what grace is. Grace is not spiritual stuff that God dispenses. Grace is relational; it is personal. In its highest expression, of course, it is in fact the gift of Jesus Christ Himself. What is it you get when God gives you His grace? You get Christ! Jesus is what He conveys to His people. He unites you to Him. He sustains us in Him and conforms us to His likeness and image. The saving, redeeming, transforming grace of God is always in Christ. It’s never apart from Christ. It’s not some abstraction. It’s about Him. So when Gabriel tells Mary she has found grace, he isn’t telling us something about Mary – how special she is. That’s not the point at all. He’s telling us something about Jesus.
The Roman Catholic Church, I have to say, has completely misconstrued the angelic greeting at this point. They’ve turned Gabriel’s greeting into a prayer to the virgin. You’re probably aware of it. “Hail Mary, Full of Grace. Blessed art thou amongst 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 what the Roman Catholic Church does with the angelic greeting. But that’s a fatal misunderstanding of the Biblical teaching. Gabriel isn’t telling us that Mary herself is full of grace, that she is some sort of reservoir or repository of grace that she can then make available to us. No, when Gabriel tells her, tells us she has found grace and favor with God, the only thing he is telling us about Mary is that she is in the same position you’re in and I’m in – a sinner who needs grace! A sinner who needs grace. The point isn’t to direct us to Mary, but to Jesus. He is the source and the fountainhead of the grace she needs and I need and you need. Gabriel’s message is that He, grace Himself, has come to her not only into her womb to be born of her, but into her heart that she might be born again of Him. He’s the source of grace.
And we see why that is so, don’t we, in the angelic description of who Jesus will be. Look at Gabriel’s description. First of all, we’re told He will be one of us. One of the really striking things about the annunciation to Mary is how radically different it is to the annunciation to Zechariah. Do you notice that in the two accounts side by side here in Luke’s gospel? Zechariah is a priest. He’s serving in the temple, in all its grandeur there amidst the sacred sights and sounds and smells. All the splendor, all the paraphernalia and drama of the Old Testament system of worship. There, the angel appears to Him and announces the birth of the last and the greatest prophet of the Old Testament age. But when it comes to the announcement of the Messiah Himself, Gabriel goes about fifty miles north to the tiny little rural backwater named Nazareth, to an utterly unimportant, altogether ordinary peasant girl. Verse 28 says, “He came to her” – literally, “He entered.” That is, He did not step amidst the glories of the Jerusalem temple nor did He go into the majesty of an emperor’s palace. But He entered into the rustic simplicity of Mary’s nondescript home. And there, without fanfare or drama, the coming of Christ was made known. “The tone and setting of Jesus’ birth matches the tone and setting of Jesus’ ministry,” writes one commentator. “The great God of heaven sends the gift of salvation to humans in a serene, unadorned package of simplicity.”
It would be entirely understandable, wouldn’t it, to harbor high expectations for John the Baptist’s life and career in light of the circumstances surrounding Gabriel’s annunciation in the temple. But surely we’d all likely have overlooked the news that Mary was going to have a baby, except perhaps to gossip about a teenager pregnant out of wedlock. There was really nothing to mark it out as special. The Lord Jesus Christ born in lowly circumstances, living in humility, obeying and bleeding and dying, for us, as one of us, in humility. And that note is sounding here very clearly.
And yet along with it, Gabriel says he will be called the Son of the Most High. Verse 35, “holy – the Son of God.” So the man, Jesus of Nazareth, Mary’s boy, is at the same time the God of all glory Himself come to dwell among us. In the virginal conception, the eternal Son of God was united to human nature so that He would be – remember as our catechism so helpfully puts it – “both God and man, in two distinct natures, and one person forever.” Here’s the measure now of His condescension and love. The eternal God, the Lord of glory, second person of the blessed Trinity, came among us as a man and more in the lowliest circumstances; without ostentation or any of the trappings of earthly glory, God Himself came in Christ, all the way down into our lowly estate.
And that means we can go to Him. We might not dare approach Him were He suddenly to come as the mighty conquering earthly King. But that He came in the lowest of circumstances means that the least of us may make direct approach to Him knowing that, “He knows our frame and remembers that we are but dust.” He is, He is the fountainhead of grace. You can go to Him, so can I. We can run to Him. He hears and knows and understands, and there is in Jesus, sympathy, a High Priest able to sympathize with us in our weakness.
And we learn not just about who He is but what He does. His rule in particular is highlighted, isn’t it? The promise made to King David, 2 Samuel chapter 7, that his son would reign on the throne forever was now coming true. “God will give Him the throne of His father, David,” Gabriel says. He is going to be the King of the Jews. Actually, more than that – King over every human heart. “For of His kingdom there will be no end,” Gabriel says. It’s the words of Isaiah’s famous prophecy now being fulfilled – “For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulders. And His name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and of peace there shall be no end, and on the throne of David and over his kingdom to establish it and uphold it with justice and righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.”
So when you see all of that, is there really any wonder that the grace that came in person at that first Christmas was so disruptive? So upending and transforming and unsettling? You see, His coming demands our surrender. He does not come to enter into a negotiation. He comes as the King and He demands that we bend our knee to Him. Grace unsettles. Grace descends.
Thirdly, grace assures. Gabriel has already attempted to dispel Mary’s fear back in verse 30, but as verse 34 makes very clear, her heart is still bursting with unanswered questions. Who can blame her? So verse 34, “How will this be since I am a virgin? I just don’t get it!” And Gabriel’s answer in verses 35 and 38 helps her. It’s wonderful in its clarity and reassurance. First of all, he explains, verse 35, that the conception will be miraculous, supernatural. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you. The power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Like the work of the Holy Spirit at the dawn of history breathing life into Adam at creation, here now is a new creation, a second Adam. The promised seed of the woman who came to crush the serpent’s head. God will do it by the Holy Spirit. And so the child will be called “holy.” That is to say, He won’t be a sinner. He will be the consecrated, sinless, sin-bearer, uniquely qualified to be the one sacrifice without blemish or stain who can take away the sin of the world.
And then Gabriel provides some supporting evidence to bolster her faith. He points Mary to her cousin Elizabeth’s experience. Elizabeth, Mary knew, had been unable to conceive, and here she is now, six months pregnant. Mary, as it turns out, will be the climactic example of a long line of miraculous pregnancies in Scripture. Think of Sarah and Rachel and Manoah’s wife and Hannah and now Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth. If God could open the womb of these women who were unable to conceive, He could so work in Mary that the virgin would bear a Son and call His name, Jesus.
And then, Gabriel makes his point. He draws his conclusion in verse 36. You see it in verse 36? “Nothing will be impossible with God.” That is actually the final answer to the “How?” question that Mary’s fear-filled heart is asking. “Nothing will be impossible with God.” And in it, we find the final defeat of doubt; the answer of God to every fear-filled heart. Don’t we? Whenever we find ourselves asking, “How will it be? How will I overcome this trial? How will I endure the next few days? How will Your promises be fulfilled, O Lord? How will good triumph and how will Your kingdom prosper when everywhere evil seems to prevail? How will my unbelieving children be saved when they’ve wandered so very far away from You? How will these things be?” Whatever it is, whenever it is, when we find ourselves asking, “How?” eventually, somewhere we’ve got to get to the point where we’re preaching Gabriel’s gospel to our hearts again. “Nothing is impossible with God. Nothing is impossible with God.”
And so here at last, Mary’s perplexity evaporates. “Behold,” she says, “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” What should you do with the message with which we are confronted in this text? We’ve learned that in the conception and birth of Jesus the disruptive, unsettling, life-transforming grace of God has come down into the middle of human history. And He is so disruptive, so unsettling, because He’s more than just another religious leader, more than another great man, more than a visionary or a prophet; certainly more than merely a Christmas story. He is the living God made flesh, dwelling among us. Holy, harmless, undefiled and separate from sinners, come to bear our sin, pay our penalty in His body at the cross.
What do you do with that message? How should you respond? Well Mary points the way. “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” “Have it Your way. I trust You.” Have you said that to the Lord? Have you come to bow before King Jesus to say to Him, “Have it Your way. I trust You. Not my way; Your way. Let it be to me according to Your Word.”
Let me tell you a story of someone who came to do just that one Christmas Eve, and then we’re done. I’m sure you’ve seen the iconic black and white photograph from the Vietnam War of the little girl, naked, running screaming from the napalm that had burned her skin. Have you seen the picture? Do you know the one I’m talking about? You may not know that that little girl grew up in an eastern religion in which she had found absolutely no hope, no comfort amidst all the dreadful pain that her wounds and her terrible experiences exposed her to. Seeking answers one day in 1982 she was in Saigon’s central library with a large stack of books from world religions on the table in front of her. Among them was a New Testament. When she began to read it, she encountered in Jesus a man who claimed to be “the way and the truth and the life,” the only Savior, one who suffered unspeakably for those He came to save. She still was not a Christian, but she was certainly intrigued. And later that year she attended a Christmas Eve service at a small church in Saigon, and let me read the rest of the story in her own words:
“The pastor spoke about how Christmas is not about the gifts we give to each other so much as it is about one gift in particular – the gift of Jesus Christ. As I listened to his message, I knew that something was shifting inside me. How desperately I needed peace. How ready I was for love and joy. I had so much hatred in my heart, so much bitterness; I wanted to let go of all my pain. I wanted to pursue life instead of holding fast to fantasies of death. I wanted this Jesus. So when the pastor finished speaking I stood up, stepped out into the aisle, and made my way to the front of the sanctuary to say ‘Yes’ to Jesus Christ. And there, in a small church in Vietnam, mere miles from the street where my journey had begun amidst the chaos of war, on the night before the world would celebrate the birth of the Messiah, I invited Jesus into my heart. When I woke up that Christmas morning, I experienced the kind of healing that can only come from God. I was finally at peace. Nearly half a century has past since I found myself running frightened, naked, and in pain down that road in Vietnam. I will never forget the horrors of that day – the bombs, the fire, the shrieks, the fear – nor will I forget the years of trial and torment that followed. But when I think about how far I’ve come, the freedom and peace that comes from faith in Jesus, I realize there is nothing greater or more powerful than the love of our blessed Savior.”
That’s why Jesus came, you see. King of kings and Lord of lords, Prince of peace. Born in humility to a virgin in Bethlehem. He came to rescue you. And so we need to come, you and I, we need to come bend our knee to Him and take up Mary’s response and say, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to Your word. Have it Your way. I trust You.”
Let’s pray together.
Father, we bow before You with grateful hearts that Jesus, one of us and yet Lord of glory, has come to save us. Help us to take Mary’s prayer on our lips and to bow before You in trust and surrender, to release the reigns of our lives that we imagine ourselves competent to hold, and to entrust them wholly into the hands of the Prince of peace. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.