It’s perhaps appropriate in the week when Harry Potter hit the big screens in Australia that we should be looking at this account of Luke 1. Because here we see the supernatural in far more startling form than anything you’ll ever read in Harry Potter - and this is history! Here we have an angel appearing out of nowhere, announcing that a barren couple will have a child. Even more amazing than that, he subsequently announces that an unwed virgin will also become pregnant and bear a child and even more startling, that this child will be called the Son of God. And overarching all of this is the announcement of God intervening in the creation to bring salvation to all people.
Here at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel we find three accounts where a herald brings a message to God’s people, a message of hope, a message of a long-awaited deliverance.
1 John, the Forerunner.
After a short introduction, which we’ll look at later, Luke launches into the account of the birth of John the Baptist. We’re introduced to Zechariah and Elizabeth, both descendants of Aaron. Their story is one which has certain parallels with another story from the Old Testament, that of Elkanah and Hannah, who were the parents, after a long wait, of Samuel, the first of the Prophets. We’re told that Zechariah and Elizabeth were getting on in years. Like Elkanah and Hannah, and Abraham and Sarah before them, they were getting too old to have children. In fact they were probably well past the normal age for childbearing. Yet, strangely, as far as people of their day were concerned, they were both righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. Their barrenness, you see, would have been taken as a sign of God’s displeasure. But not so! God had great plans for them and for their son who was yet to be born.
One day as Zechariah is standing in the Holy of Holies, a privilege received probably only this one time, his prayers are interrupted. There, to the side of the altar, is an angel. You can perhaps understand that Zechariah at that moment is terrified. But the angel quickly reassures him. He’s come bearing good news. His prayers have been answered. His wife Elizabeth will bear a son and they’re to call him John.
Well, that’s certainly good news for Zechariah and Elizabeth. But as you read on you start to wonder, what were the prayers that this child’s birth would answer. Were they just the prayers of a barren couple for a child to be born, or were they more than that? As we read on in the first couple of chapters of Luke’s gospel we come to realise that the prayers that are being answered may be far more than just Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s. Notice in v10 that the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. As we read on we discover people like Simeon and Anna who are waiting for God to act, to bring about the consolation of Israel, the redemption of Jerusalem. So it seems quite likely as we read further that the prayers to which the angel refers are those prayers: prayers that God might send the Messiah to restore the Kingdom of Israel.
Certainly the words of the angel in vs16&17 point to such a conclusion. This child will be the one whom Malachi foretold, Elijah reborn, who will turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.
Well, the response of Zechariah is total confusion. He wants to know how he can be sure of all this. After all he knows how old he and Elizabeth are, how impossible all this is. But the angel will have nothing of his doubting. He’s the angel Gabriel, who stands in God’s presence. He’s been sent by God to give this message. How could anyone doubt such a messenger? But just to show that he is what he says he is, he tells Zechariah that he’ll be struck dumb until John is born.
Well, as the story progresses we discover that Elizabeth does become pregnant and we end this episode with Elizabeth rejoicing.
2 Jesus, the Son of God.
Well, if the first herald’s proclamation of good news was received with joy, we have to imagine that the second herald’s message may have caused a little less joy. In fact probably quite some consternation to begin with. Here was Mary, betrothed to Joseph, of the line of David, and she’s about to be told she’s going to have a baby, without Joseph having anything to do with it. The angel may say that she’s highly favoured, but she may wonder whether Joseph will think so.
Still, the privilege she’s being given is no small thing. She’s to bear a child who "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 ancestor David. 33He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." His name will be Jesus, which means Saviour. And he’ll be called the Son of God. His kingdom will not only encompass Israel, but the rest of the world as well. It’ll be a kingdom without end. I don’t think we can really comprehend the sorts of feelings and thoughts that must have been going round Mary’s head at that moment. How can a mere human being give birth to a child like that? It’s hard enough for us to understand how God could take on the form of a human being, but for Mary it must have been unbelievable.
Well, one of the themes of Luke’s gospel is the way Mary observed the things that happened to Jesus as he grew up. The term that’s used is ’she treasured them up in her heart.’ It’s as though she was still taking it all in long after the angel Gabriel came and announced the coming of Jesus.
But that’s really just an aside. What really matters here is the divine origin of Jesus. Look at how the angel describes what will happen to Mary: "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 holy; he will be called Son of God." If the first announcement was of a special messenger sent from God, a prophet like Samuel and Elijah, this second announcement is of a miraculous birth far outweighing John’s in significance. The birth the angel is announcing will be a virgin birth. Joseph has no part to play in this birth. Mary is the mother but there’s no father apart from God himself. The power of the most high will bring it to pass.
This is one of those contentious pieces of Christian theology. People in this scientific age steer away from anything that sounds quite this supernatural. I mean they’re happy to read about Harry Potter or Gandalf and imagine supernatural events, as long as its clear they’re purely fiction, but when they read something like this, a virgin birth, purporting to be history, they immediately bring it into question.
But let me ask you, if we believe in a God who brought this world and all that’s in it into being, who created out of nothing everything that can be seen, why do we doubt that he could bring a child to birth in the womb of a young woman? Surely that would be easier than creating human life in the first place? Or is it that deep down people doubt that God even created the world?
In any case the virgin birth is an integral part of the story. Both here and in Matthew’s independent account of Jesus’ birth, we’re told that the pregnancy comes about by the intervention of the Holy Spirit. God is at work here in as significant a way as when he first created the universe.
To reassure Mary, who needed to be reassured just as much if not more than we do, the angel Gabriel tells her how Elizabeth too has become pregnant. This is to encourage Mary to see that with God nothing is impossible.
So Mary responds in humble submission: "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Now let’s not just read this and pass over it without further thought. I’m sure those words were a lot harder to say than they sound. It’s been suggested that the reason Elizabeth goes into seclusion for 5 months (v24) was because she was avoiding any further reproach from her neighbours until it was obvious to all that the disgrace of her barrenness was removed. But Mary faces far greater disgrace as it becomes obvious that she’s pregnant long before her marriage to Joseph actually takes place. Matthew tells us that Joseph considered divorcing her, before an angel came and reassured him. So her submission to the will of God is in fact an act of great heroism on her part.
So here are 2 cases where a herald brings significant tidings to 2 different people, tidings that in one case are entirely good news and in the second are good news for the world but are a mixed blessing to the recipient.
3 Luke, the Herald of The Gospel
But overarching and incorporating both of these is a herald who announces a message for all people to hear. His message is announced initially to a man named Theophilus. It’s a considered message, an account of things that have been carefully researched from the eyewitness accounts of those who were present when these things took place.
But it’s an account of what has been fulfilled (v1). What does that mean? Well, it means that the things that he’s recounting, the events of Jesus life, are the fulfilment of the sort of thing that the people like Anna and Simeon and those praying in the Temple precincts were looking forward to. They’re the fulfilment of all the Old Testament prophecies about the coming of a Messiah. They’re the fulfilment of the plan of God to create a people for himself who will reflect the community that exists within the Godhead. They’re the fulfilment of the creation of the world and of humanity in God’s image.
Here is a message that’s to be proclaimed to all people, about a king whose kingdom will extend to the ends of the earth and whose kingdom will never end. Luke is one of the first in a long line of heralds of this message. But he tells it not just for Theophilus, but also for us. And he tells it so that we too can become heralds of that message.
I started off by mentioning Harry Potter coming to the big screen. Now unless you’ve been on a desert island you’ve no doubt been hearing about Harry Potter’s coming for weeks or even months now. The heralds of Harry have been trumpeting his coming far and wide. We’ll find the same thing over the next month with the coming of Lord of the Rings. And they’ve been heralding his coming with such great enthusiasm that there’s been such an incredible desire to see him that apparently you can’t get tickets if you want them. Well, we have someone to herald who is of far greater significance than Harry Potter. In fact it’s almost ridiculous to speak of them in the same breath. We’re looking forward, not to the coming of the Lord of the Rings, but to the coming of the Lord of the Universe, the Lord of the Ages. Here we are on this Advent Sunday 2001 being reminded again that we too, just like Luke, are chosen by God to herald the good news of Jesus Christ. Let’s not be ashamed to tell people about this child who was born of Mary but who was also the only Son of God. Let’s get excited by the fact that God has become one of us. That God has revealed himself to us in the person of Jesus Christ. Let’s be looking for opportunities to tell our friends and neighbours about him. Then this good news of great joy for all people might be heard by those thousands who live around us who still need to hear that Jesus has come to be the Saviour of the world, that he’s the Son of God, that his kingdom will not only encompass Israel, but the rest of the world as well, a kingdom without end.
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