Sermon preached on Luke 1:5-80 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 06/13/2021 in Novato,
As we dig into Luke’s historical narrative concerning Jesus, he begins not with the birth of Jesus, but with the birth of the forerunner to Jesus, John the Baptist. Indeed, we learn of both in today’s passage and see the similar way in which both were announced via the angel Gabriel. So then, we will look first today at Gabriel’s announcement to Zechariah about the birth of John. Then we’ll look at Gabriel’s announcement to Mary about the birth of Jesus. Then, in our third point we’ll step back and see how the work of the Holy Spirit is so marvelously showcased here in God’s work to bring about the redemption of his people through the coming of Jesus Christ.
We begin then first by observing Gabriel’s announcement to Zechariah foretelling the birth of John who would go on to be known as John the Baptist. Beginning in verse 5 we are introduced to this Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth. We note they are both of Aaron’s priestly lineage and that Zechariah is serving as a priest. They were righteous people, with such wonderful praise given here for how above reproach they conducted themselves. This was a very godly and spiritually mature husband and wife who really loved the Lord. Yet, we also learn that they were childless as Elizabeth was barren, and they were both old now, and in other words, beyond the point of time when one normally had children.
So then, we are taken into the context of Zechariah serving at the temple, specifically presenting the offering the incense. This was a fragrant offering given daily, morning and evening at the temple. It is here, in the context of his performing his priestly service, that the angel appears before him and begins to speak to him. Righteous Zechariah is struck with fear, which is a commendable response in a such a situation. Likewise, the angel Gabriel tells him not to fear. This is assuring Zechariah that he didn’t come for judgment but with a word from the Lord. He is told of the miraculous birth of a son that they were soon to enjoy – miraculous in opening a barren womb, and that in their old age. They were to name this miracle child “John”, which roughly means gracious gift of God.
But then the angel tells us more about what this child will be destined for, starting in verse 16. This John will bring joy and gladness to many as the forerunner to the Lord’s coming. This was something God had already prophesied, such as in Malachi 3:1 which says, “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me.” John would be the one to cry out in the words of Isaiah 40:3, “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” As the forerunner to the Messiah, he is described as coming in the spirit and power of Elijah, something also prophesied by the prophet Malachi (4:5). John’s arrival will not only signal the imminent coming of the long-awaited Messiah, but he will prepare the way for the Messiah.
And the angel helps us understand what his role will be in preparing the way. It says, he will turn many Israelites back to God. John’s forerunner ministry will be to call Israel to repentance. As Zechariah prophecies at the end of our passage in verse 77, this includes John telling people of the salvation and forgiveness of sins that they will find in the coming Messiah. And how fitting that our passage ends by telling us that John was in the wilderness until his public appearance to Israel. In fact, it was the wilderness at the Jordan river where John conducted the bulk of his ministry. That is the right spot for someone in John’s role where he is basically calling for Israel to experience a restart, covenantally speaking. At the start, God had led Israel through the wilderness across the Jordan and into the Promised Land with vows by them to keep covenant with God. Now, at the brink of a new covenant, John begins his ministry of calling the people to repent in the wilderness at the Jordan to call them back into following the Lord.
So then, we see this announcement from Gabriel to Zechariah. Unfortunately, we see the Zechariah’s initial response is doubt. In verse 18, he questions how he can know that such a wonderful thing would actually come to pass, given the old age of he and his wife. That seems like a very reasonable question until we hear the rebuke of the angel Gabriel. He stands in the presence of God and was sent with this gospel word from God himself! When you hear that, Zechariah’s question suddenly doesn’t sound very reasonable! Yet, Gabriel does give Zechariah a sign of sorts – the silence of chastening. In disciplining him for his unbelief, he strikes Zechariah with muteness until these things come to pass. And that is what this is – unbelief. That’s what Gabriel says in verse 20. This godly, upright, leader among Israel, the righteous Zechariah, has had a bout of unbelief at the promises of God.
In contrast, we move now to our second point and observe how six months later the angel Gabriel then announces to Mary foretelling the birth of Jesus. Compared to Zechariah, Mary’s description is much more humble. We learn in verse 27 that she is a virgin betrothed to man named Joseph who was of David’s lineage. We also learn that she lived in Nazareth of Galilee, which was not a very prestigious town among Israel, to say the least. And that is where the angel appears to her, and yet what exalting words he says to Mary. He begins by calling her the favored one, verse 28. This does not mean, like some Catholics like to say, that she possessed a treasury of favor that she could dispense at her desire. No, it means that God has shown favor and grace to her in what God would be doing through her with the Messiah. That is what he goes on to explain in verse 30, that Mary has found grace from God – this word “favor” is in the Greek the word typically translated as grace. This is a reminder that Mary was not chosen to be the mother of Jesus on her merits, but as a function of God’s grace. In other words, she didn’t deserve such a blessing, just like none of us deserve the blessing of a savior, but God graciously blessed her in this way for such service. So then, Mary at first responded in a similar way of fear as Zechariah did when the angel arrived. Again, that is a commendable initial reaction, and we likewise see again Gabriel dispelling that fear – that he has not come in judgment but to bring good tidings from the Lord.
Gabriel then explains of the miraculous virgin birth of a son through her. He tells her to name him Jesus, which means roughly the “Lord saves”. Gabriel says that God will give him the throne of his father David and that he will reign forever. His kingdom will have no end. Just pause and think of that. Mary is told she will have a miraculous son and he will be a king forever. As surprising as that sounds, it was actually something God’s people were waiting to hear. These words from Gabriel clearly announce the fulfillment of the covenant God had made with David. This is exactly what God had promised David – that one day one of his offspring would be established as king forever over a kingdom that would have no end. Gabriel pronounces the imminent fulfillment of that with this son to be born to Mary. Gabriel had told Zechariah that he had gospel, good news, for him. Well, this is certainly more gospel that he brings Mary.
And so, Mary believes the angel. While she, like Zacharias, responds with a question, it is a different kind of question. She asked in verse 34, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Zechariah’s question was asking the angel for proof. Mary’s question was asking the angel for an explanation, which he freely and wonderfully gives. In that explanation we see that indeed this would be a miracle – a virgin birth. And in that explanation we learn that Jesus would not only be a son of David, but also the Son of God.
The text means for us to contrast Mary’s response here to Zechariah. While we might have expected the well-known godly leader Zechariah to have responded most properly, it is this rather humble Mary that had the better response of faith. See how the text brings this out in the next scene in the text – this visit of Mary with Elizabeth. Mary comes and greets Elizabeth and the baby John inside her leaps for joy. Elizabeth then praises Mary’s faith in verse 45 for believing the angel’s message. But we should notice how Elizabeth connects Mary’s believing of the angel with her verbal greeting. In other words, we remember that Elizabeth’s husband didn’t believe the angel and could not speak anything, not even a greeting. We could imagine that if Mary had responded with doubt like Zechariah she might have lost her voice too. But Mary in her faith comes and is able with her voice to greet Elizabeth and Elizabeth connects the words of her greeting with Mary’s faith, praise be to God.
Along these same lines of comparison, we observe that both Mary and Zechariah will go on to give a song. This is one distinctive of this opening section of Luke’s gospel – he records several songs of poetry and praise to God that came forth at this time. And it is so very fitting that there would be such new songs coming forth. That language of a “new song” is seen at points in Scripture. It’s the idea that God’s people should write new songs at key points in redemptive history to commemorate and praise the saving acts of God. Luke shows us the people were heeding that biblical exhortation of a new song in this fitting moment on the eve of the coming of the Messiah. But notice who sings first. It is Mary, verse 46. With her voice that she has in her faith in God’s word through the angel, she sings of what God was doing through the coming of the Messiah. It is only after John’s birth, when Zechariah’s voice is restored, that he then is able to sing forth his song starting in verse 68. We should also note that both of these songs are ultimately about Jesus. Yes, Zechariah’s song does also at a point mention his son John, but even then it is as he will be a forerunner to the Messiah. Both songs praise God for this climactic moment in redemptive history where God is fulfilling his various promises from the Old Testament to bring redemption to his people. We find the promises of both the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants referenced in these songs.
I can’t help but take a point of application here when comparing Mary and Zechariah. Zechariah’s doubts are contrasted with Mary’s faith, but we realize this was a doubt that came from such a godly man. The application is that even the godliest among us can have struggles with doubt. Likewise even the godliest among us can have struggles with sin that results in God’s chastening in our lives. I think of even father Abraham who was known for his faith had his own struggles with doubts that led him to have a child with Hagar. And I think of even father King David who was known for his righteousness yet he sinned so badly with the Bathsheba incident and God brought strong chastening to him. Yet, here we read how God’s redemptive promises to both Abraham and David were fulfilled. And here we see that Zechariah’s failing of faith did not end there. No, God mercifully restored Zechariah and strengthened his faith. It’s why he insisted the boy be named John. And it’s why he went on to write this glorious song of praise. So then for us, while we look to live in faith and righteousness, we should realize that we are not immune to the struggles our forefathers have faced. We might have moments of significant failings. But should that happen, and should God even chasten us, let us see that as his mercy toward us. And let us, by the grace of God, get back up and keep looking to put our faith in God and walk in his ways.
In our third point, I’d like us now to briefly see how this passage showcases the work of the Holy Spirit. There are several characters involved in all what we read, but throughout there is a clear testament to God’s work through the person of the Holy Spirit. You know, we often attribute the second person of the Trinity, God the Son, as the accomplisher of redemptive history. But here we are reminded that the third person of the Trinity, God the Holy Spirit plays an instrument role in inspiring and empowering the key actors in redemptive history – Jesus and others.
We see this first in verse 15 when Gabriel foretells how John will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from the womb! We even see that to be the case when John leaps from within the womb at the sound of Mary’s voice. We again see the work of the Holy Spirit in verse 35, when Gabriel says that is the explanation to Mary of how she will conceive a son when she is a virgin. The virgin birth happens by the Holy Spirit’s overshadowing Mary. Again, we see the Holy Spirit at work in verse 41. That’s when Elizabeth goes on to speak prophetically words of blessing upon Mary, even understanding that Mary is the mother of the Messiah. It credits Elizabeth having these words and knowledge to the Holy Spirit filling her. And then in verse 67, we again see the Holy Spirit at work through Zechariah as he writes this song. It credits the song’s composition to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It’s saying that Zechariah was prophesying by the Holy Spirit in what he wrote in his song.
So then, this chapter is a testimony not only to this angelic revelation that came to Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary, but especially to the work of the Holy Spirit. This chapter is a glorious record of God’s work through the Holy Spirit to bring first the forerunner John the Baptist and then ultimately to come himself in the person of Jesus. We should not be surprised that the culmination of so many generations of God’s promises to redeem his people would be so thoroughly God’s initiative, working, and empowering, through his Spirit. And when we remember how Luke’s second volume begins, we know that the Spirit continues his work. I recall how Acts begins with the pouring out of the Spirit on the church. He now powerfully fills each of us from our spiritual birth as Christians. We go forth in testifying to Jesus and bringing God’s Word and gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit. Let us believe that. Let us remember that we rely on that. Let us know that God is accomplishing his redemptive purposes even now by that Spirit he has given to us. That means God uses us in completing this last chapter of redemptive history through the Spirit’s work in and through us. Let us believe this. And let us sing of this! Praise be to God!
In conclusion, brothers and sisters, I’d like to draw a final application from verses 65-66. When the neighbors and relatives of Zechariah and Elizabeth begin to learn about God’s special plans for John, it sparked fear and awe and wonder with lots of talk and lots of questions. They ultimately were asking, “What then will this child be,” verse 66. That is a question they were wrestling with. Zechariah’s subsequent prophecy would have begun to answer that, but surely they still had questions over how it would all work out. Well, while our study ended here in chapter 1, we have the rest of the book where we find the answers to their questions. Let us be excited to delve into these details. For many, this will be a refresher course where you can dig deeper into learning these truths. For others, this may be the first time you’ve really gone through systematically this record of Jesus’ life and ministry on earth. Let us kindle awe and wonder and excitement to go through this book. For the Holy Spirit is speaking again even today through the Word to testify to who Jesus is, preparing even the way of our hearts, that we would believe on Jesus and be saved. Amen.
Copyright © 2021 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
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