Unlike religious leaders, who claimed to come from God or to be gods, or to have messages from God, Jesus in contrast to these others was expected. That is to say, there were preannouncements which would judge the validity of such claims. No one for example foretold the coming of Buddah or the birth of Confucius or the origin of Mohammed. But because of the Old Testament prophecies, because of the gentile anticipations that we talked about earlier, Christ’s coming was not unexpected. I think another distinguishing fact is that once he appeared, Jesus Christ struck history with such impact, that he split it in two, dividing it into two periods, B.C., that is before Christ and A.D. which does not mean after his death as some people falsely say, but A.D. is anno Domini–meaning in the year of our Lord. A third fact separating Christ from other religious leaders is this: That every other person who ever came into this world came into it to live. Jesus by way of contrast came to die. His death, his cross, was first and primary, his life was last. His coming is called an incarnation; literally his enfleshment. In the taking of human flesh, God the father prepared it; God the Spirit formed it; and God the Son assumed it. He who had eternal generation in the bosom of the Father, now experienced temporal generation in time and space. When Jesus became man, he did not gain one perfection more by becoming man; nor did he lose anything of what he possessed as God. Here is the mystery of God manifested in the flesh. The union of two natures in one single person.
Christ’s birth is also referred to as an advent; the word ‘advent’ meaning a coming—a coming or an arrival. We say that of his first advent or his second advent or coming that his life did not begin like that of other men, that he came into the world from a preexistent state on a special mission—as we see John chapter 1, the opening verses. With those facts before us, we look at the three announcements which heralded the coming of Christ at his first advent. The first of these is the appearance of the Angel to Zechariahs recorded in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke. Zechariahs of course would be the Greek way of writing it coming from the name ‘Zechariah’, the Hebrew equivalent in the Old Testament. Either Zechariah, or Zechariahs means “Yahweh remembers” or “God remembers.” He was an elderly priest from the tribe of Levi, one of the sincere righteous minority looking for the messiah. Keep in mind that every direct descendent of Aaron, was automatically a priest—meaning that for all ordinary purposes there were far too many priests. So they had to be divided into twenty four sections. We read about his in 1 Chronicles 24. Those twenty-four sections were each composed of anywhere from four to nine families each. Luke tells us that Zecharias was of the course or the division known as Abia, or the Old Testament name, Abijah, number eight in the list. Only at Passover, Pentecost, and tabernacles which were the three major feasts of the Jewish calendar: Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles; only at those three occasions did all of the priests serve. It is estimated that there were in this time roughly eighteen to twenty thousand priests who would serve during these three great festivals. But for the rest of the year, each course would serve one week, twice a year. They would have eight days of duty, from Sabbath to Sabbath. And the godly priests certainly looked forward to this service as the highlight of their lives.
Something else by way of background that may be of some help is that a priest could only marry a woman of pure Jewish lineage. The wife had to be able to trace back her ancestry at least five generations. But in Zechariahs’ case his wife Elizabeth was the daughter of a priest and therefore was a descendant of Aaron as well. Also, notice that the name ‘Elizabeth’ means God’s oath; or God’s covenant. It is an interesting combination of Zechariahs and Elizabeth. God is remembering his oath. Luke stresses their piety, their spirituality; they were obedient to God’s command; they were blameless in his requirements; they went beyond merely external or legal righteousness.
Within the priestly sections, all duties were allocated by lot, some form of chance selection. Every morning and evening sacrifice would be made for the whole nation. Before the morning the sacrifice and after the evening sacrifice, incense would be burnt upon the alter so that the sacrifices would go up to God in an envelope of sweet smelling incense. This was a once in a lifetime experience for any priest and the greatest day of Zechariahs’ life, he must have been jubilant to have that opportunity to be at the alter of incense.
There was a domestic problem, however. Elizabeth was sterile. To have children was a sign of blessing in that day. She was barren and both of them of course were old in age. And really barrenness was a triple tragedy for any Jewish woman. First of all it shriveled up the hope any kind of posterity—any kind of children. Secondly, it sparked taunts form other women in the village when they would go to the village well, for example, and the women would get together and talk. Someone who did not have children might be scorned and made the object of jokes. Thirdly, by not having a child, it signified what they believes was her sin. An indication that she was out of favor with God because when God blessed, he gave children, so to be barren was to be in some way sinful. So childlessness was even a valid ground for divorce at that time.
Well Luke tells us it was about the time of the morning sacrifice, that would about nine o’clock in the morning, he entered the Holy place alone, a moment of intense expectation and as the cloud began to rise, a symbol of prayers being accepted by God, all of sudden the angel Gabriel appears on the right side of the alter where the priests were said not to tread. Gabriel’s message was the first recorded word from heaven for over four hundred years. By way of introduction, Gabriel told Zechariahs not to fear that his petition had been heard, and we wonder was that a petition for a son; was that a petition for the salvation of Israel?; was it perhaps a petition for both? We don’t know, but his prayer had been heard. Then Gabriel announced several things: first a son was to be born and he would be born to them even though they are in their old age. Secondly, his name was to be John; John’s name means God is Gracious. His birth would bring personal joy to this family as well as universal blessing to the whole nation and to the whole world. He would have unusual privileges; particularly the privilege of being great in the eyes of God. He would have unusual power; that means he would be filled with the Spirit from his mother’s womb. In other words, prenatal sanctification. He would also have unusual preaching ability. Many would turn back to the Lord as a result of his preaching. He would operate in the Spirit and the power of Elijah as Malachi 4 predicted. Tremendous statements of fact predicted by and promised by Gabriel. Yet after years of unanswered praying, Zechariahs doubted and he asked for a sign. In response he received a rebuke with the punishment of dumbness, the inability to speak. So upon his exit to the waiting people outside, he should have led them in a great prayer, but all he could do was make signs to them. And they marveled at his long delay within as well as his dumbness as he came out. So in wordless daze of joy, sentenced to nine months of silence, he finished his week’s duties and went home.
There are numerous practical lessons that we can draw from that incident in scripture. First, God’s message came to Zaharias while he was doing ordinary work in the house of God—he was carrying on his duty, his assigned duty, God spoke to him. It is very difficult to turn a car wheel unless the car is moving. There are a lot of people who get an idea that if they just go out in the woods someplace and wait on God, that somehow God is going to give them all the plans for the future and lay it right in front of them and He will speak in that way; but in many cases, in most cases, God speaks to us in the midst of ordinary routine life as we are being faithful in what He has called upon us to do and He gives us the next words of instruction.
We also notice the prayer was answered unexpectantly, not in the way the Zechariahs had anticipated. Unbelief fettered his tongue of testimony. Contact with the Lord will also make men marvel. Often time will cause us to forget the clock when we are in the presence of God. A sermon could be preached on that. But notice the significance of this announcement to Zechariahs: heaven’s silence is broken; and yet it is met with unbelief. Yet messiah is going to come at the set time. The second announcement comes to Mary the mother of our Lord. This is recorded in Luke the first chapter beginning with verse 26. The time of this announcement is about six months after the announcement we’ve just been talking about to Zechariahs. The place is Nazareth. Again the Angelic messenger is Gabriel. The Bible tells us that Mary was betrothed or espoused to Joseph at this time. We must understand the significance of that statement in the light of the fact there were three phases to Jewish marriage at that time. First of all, there was the engagement period that could be made by the Parents in most cases, or by a professional match maker. It could be made even when the couple were in infancy. Normally it was made even before they had seen each other. Marriage was considered too serious a step to be left to the human dictates of human love and passion. Secondly, there was a betrothal period which was the ratification of the engagement into which this couple had previously entered, or been entered. The ratification of that engagement. That could not take place until that couple had come of age, that meant that the girl came of age at the year twelve, plus one day. At that stage she could refuse to accept the young man. By the way, this consecration of the bride to her husband could be rendered valid in one of three ways. Either by a symbolic sale, in which the bridegroom handed the bride some article of value. Perhaps corresponding to today’s practice of giving a ring. Or it could be by written agreement; or it could be by cohabitation, intercourse, which was considered disgraceful in the eyes of Jews at that time. But once that betrothal was entered into, it was binding. It could not be broken except by divorce. Normally there was a twelve month’s waiting period which would intervene to demonstrate the purity of the virgin to be wed. If it was a widow who was remarrying, then it would a one month period of intervening—but normally a twelve month period for a virgin.
During this time of one year, they would be known as man and wife. In fact a girl whose fiancé had died, lets say during that year, would be called a virgin who is a widow. Then the third step would be the wedding itself, which was a tremendously great day of celebration in any Jewish community and nothing less than a religious duty to attend. Usually autumn was the favored time of year to get married. The reason for that of course was that the grain and grape harvest were gathered in, there was more time for relaxation and rejoicing in the autumn.
Virgins were generally married on Thursdays, and widows on Fridays. There was no honeymoon as we know it, but after the supper, the couple would stay at home in the home of their parents and for a week they were treated like king and queen in joyous festivities and then they would settle down to the routine of home life and the rearing of a family. So, when it says that Mary was betrothed or espoused to Joseph at this time, this is the ratification stage of the marriage, not the consummation of the marriage, but simply that ratification of that earlier engagement made by the parents on each side. Gabriel’s message to Mary, was in this wise. First of all, Mary is to bear a son and she is to call his name “Jesus” the meaning of Jesus is what? Savior. The Lord saves, or the salvation of the Lord. Thou shalt call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins. Not only that, but he will be the son of the highest, that is the Son of God. He will reign on David’s throne; he will reign over the whole house of Jacob forever. His birth will be conceived by the Holy Spirit and Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth also with child, is about six months along at this particular time.
Notice Mary’s beautiful kind of response. It seems that her response was simply an act of faith, she asks simply in faith for an explanation. She willingly submitted as the Lord’s servant. She illustrates how to be ready for anything. You know what that tells us? That tells us God always prepares us for any of His invasions into our lives. We have this angelic announcement that comes to Mary, rather than leaving her in the dark about strange internal feelings and changes.
Secondly, we have to be prepared to be prepared. We have to ready to receive the angels that God sends into our lives and respond much the same way Mary did. Also, we receive power from the God who is present in the time of preparation. It is interesting isn’t it, there is no argumentation on her part; there is no need for further elaborate explanations; it was simply his presence that overshadows her and us, and makes us adequate to face those new challenges that come our way. So to Mary was granted the blessedness of being the receptacle through whom the Lord Jesus would be born and this tremendous extraordinary privilege and blessedness, this highlight experience was also going to be something that would be a sword to break her heart, because someday she would see him hanging on a cross. And that tells us that to be chosen of the Lord often times will mean both a crown as well as a cross.
Here is a woman who is highly favored. Not the dispenser of grace, but the recipient of grace. Highly favored of God, full of grace, that is greatly endowed with grace. Tradition tells us that Mary’s parents were named Joachim of Nazareth and Anna of Bethlehem. And she was somewhere in her teenage years at this time. It wasn’t uncommon for girls to marry in the east anywhere after the age of thirteen. So, somewhere in the middle teenage years, or in the later teenage years, this experience is coming to Mary.
On December 8, 1854, Pope Pius the IX went so far as to declare that Mary was conceived without sin. And this is a Roman Catholic doctrine known as the immaculate conception—referring not to Jesus but referring to Mary—saying that she had been conceived without sin. We hear a great deal about the “Hail Mary’s” which actually comes from the scripture when he addresses her with the Ava Maria, or Hail, was simply a greeting an ordinary mode of salutation in that time. It has been perverted in some places, but that was its original form. It is probably true that most of us would tend to devalue Mary even as there are some Christians who over exalt her and make her more than what scripture claims her to be. Without going into detail, there have been books written even as late as 1960 and maybe even books since that time, that imply very clearly and state rather explicitly that Mary is practically the equivalent of part of the Godhead. So rather than a trinity or tri-unity, we have a quartet. She is called by a lot of exalted titles: co-redemptress and co-creator and similar kinds of expressions in trying to exalt this marvelous lady of the first century.
Protestants on the other hand have tended to devalue her because Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians have exalted her—they (protestants) tend to go the other direction and hardly speak about her at all, but when we begin to see the kind of responsiveness she has toward the Spirit of God, her openness, her lack of asking for a sign like Zechariahs did; her willingness to receive that truth from in such a startling fashion, makes her a woman highly to be praised and to be honored and revered even while at the same time, she should not be worshipped.
Roman Catholic theology there are different stages of worship that are taught within the Roman Catholic church. There is, for example, adoration—given to God alone; there is veneration of the Saints; and then there is an expression called hyperdulia which is the worship afforded to Mary. Part of Roman Catholic logic is deductive logic, which means starting with a major premise and going to a minor premise, and then coming to a conclusion. Deductive reasoning is going from a major premise to a minor premise to a conclusion. The way in which that is done within Roman Catholic thinking is to say that Jesus is God—that is the primary statement. The secondary statement is to say that Mary is the mother of Jesus and therefore the logical conclusion is to say that Mary is the mother of God.
Now the fallacy there logically is what is called a fallacy of equivocation. The problem is that first statement. It is true, Jesus is God, but he is also man. With that left out of the equation, it distorts the final conclusion.
I’ll come back to Mary in just a moment, but now the third annunciation is to Joseph as found in the first chapter of Matthew’s gospel. This of course was to clarify to Joseph by divine intervention that Jesus was to have a human mother, but there was to be no human father. The Bible tells us he was a just man. That he conscientiously lived by what was right. And that he adhere to the law. The time of this announcement was after it was obvious and apparent that Mary was pregnant, and this announcement was basically redemptive in nature, indicating Jesus to be the Savior and to be a Emanuel, or God with us. There’s a lot of ways we could treat this account to Joseph, but let me suggest that Joseph is the forgotten man at Christmas. We know very little about him. Oh the genealogical table given in Matthew records that fact that this carpenter had royal blood, because David had been among his ancestors. But that is an interesting fact obviously, but hardly an important fact for a little mathematics would show how many ancestors a person had twenty-five generations ago. What seems to be great about this village carpenter is capsulized in that sentence “That he who has never profoundly doubted, has never profoundly believed.” Certainly Joseph doubted profoundly. That was partly due to the circumstances, partly due to his nature. That is only what it might be expected to be for a man who worked with his hands. Joseph’s mind took a practical matter-of-fact turn. I guess in modern terminology we would call him a realist. He could never have composed a magnificat, like Mary did. He didn’t have visions or ecstasies. His mind was trained to trust things that could be seen, measures, footrules, weights. He knew what could and could not be done with certain materials; and he adjusted his plans accordingly. His approach to life was similar. Mysticism and poetry were suspect to a man like Joseph. Only with solid unimaginative prose could he feel safe.
Here is the kind of man who is called upon to believe the most unbelievable story ever told. It is shocking enough in all good conscience that Mary, who he held in such high esteem and whose reputation had been spotless should now confess herself to be pregnant. And didn’t her explanation just add insult to injury? How could she expect him to be so gullible, so naïve? Doubtless many women in comparable situation have drawn freely upon their imaginations. It is very plain from the biblical narrative that he didn’t believe Mary’s story of an angelic announcement. Who expect him to? Would any of us if confronted with the same situation? The only questions was, what should he do about this tension? That tension is expressed in the sentence that Matthew records pulling him in two directions when it says, “Being a just man” and at the same time, “unwilling to put her to shame.” Here he was a dutiful son of the law, he knew the prescribed punishment for the violation of God’s moral standard, she deserved to be stoned to death and yet he loved here, and he pledged his lifelong affection and loyalty to her. He couldn’t bear to think of such a terrible fate falling upon her no matter what she had done. But then he would hear little voices whispering in his ear, proclaim your own virtue by making a public condemnation of your fiancé’s faithless conduct. Because unless you do, people are going to conclude that you were responsible for her condition, and that you were too much of a coward to face up to the consequences. And then the judgment of the community will be upon you even more than upon her. Even though he was sure Mary had sinned, he wanted to protect her from the result of her own folly and to shield her as far as possible from the vicious gossip of the village.
So after sleepless nights, his conclusion was reached. The Bible tells us he resolved to divorce her privately. He would make no bid for public sympathy. No show of his own virtue, he would at least salvage part of his own dignity by privately divorcing her. Yet that decision was not according to the plans of God, and so, as a result Joseph found his plans overturned just when he thought he’d found a satisfactory escape from this painful dilemma. Exhausted by the struggle he had weighed in his heart and contented with the solution he’d found, he finally fell asleep. In that sleep and divine messenger came to him with the words, “Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost” (Mt. 1:20).
Here is the most stupendous fact in all recorded history announced to Joseph as reason why he should carry out his marriage plans. This disproportion is incomprehensible unless the historical accuracy of the story is accepted, because only that kind of an earth shattering explosion could have shattered the doubts of Joseph. But the doubts were shattered. The man who profoundly doubted now became the man who profoundly believed. In fact, there are few persons whom we meet in the record of our Lord’s earthly life who held to such strong faith under such adverse circumstances.
It is true he had an angelic vision in a dream, but those are rather fragile. How does that withstand the long wear and tear of years of inescapable doubting? How brief a dream, how long the years of testing, especially for a practical man like Joseph, can one build a marriage successfully upon a dream? How could he ever be certain that this vision was not just the feverish fulfillment of his own wishes and desires? The self delusion of one who in spite of all the evidence still loved his fiancé. We can be sure those plaguing doubts must have recurred time and time again during his working hours when his hands were busy working and his mind was free to think. The doubts would probably occur during the long nights, the very presence of Jesus later in contrast to his other children, must have prodded his mind with doubts. I wonder, was that midnight word, “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife, that she was conceived of the Holy Spirit,” can that really be depended upon? Or should he believe the sly whisperings and lifted eyebrows of the villagers. We could be sure that there was gossip. That doesn’t rest simply on the fact that human nature hasn’t changed and tongues then just as now do not obey the laws of love, but also upon hints that are indirectly given here in the biblical account. It is not hard to read between the lines actually. Some of the bitter words of controversy recorded in John’s gospel when certain Jews were in the presence of Christ said to him, “We were not born of fornication” implying “as you were.” “We have one father, not a real one, a legal one like you had.”
We can further speculate that Mary had to listen to those same whispers. They must have cut deeply into her sensitive spirit. But one difference is that Mary knew the accusations were untrue. No matter how unreasonable the criticism, she would at least know the facts. She had that assurance that her husband could not share. But Joseph could never know. He had to build his married life upon trust. Trust in this startling story of Mary. Trust in her character, trust in the dream from this angelic visitor. He could not even talk it over with somebody else. He couldn’t talk it over with the villagers who showed so clearly that they regarded him as a sentimental fool. He couldn’t talk it over with Mary because how could he do that without showing as having doubts about the love relationship? Probably no one else has really had to face Joseph’s problem exactly. So we have no knowledge drawn from experience as to the way he meted. We can’t how he fed his faith and how he starved his doubts, but we can be sure of the fact that in the midst of that profound doubt, he believed profoundly. Joseph has something to say to our generation. Where the great symbol is the question mark of doubt. Saying that in the midst of all the skeptical things around us there can still be that kind of trust and confidence which he expressed and experienced.
Something else we need to look at is the advent hymns found in Luke’s gospel. It is appropriate in light of the chapel message that we should talk about the hymns of Luke chapter 1 and 2, all dealing with the advent of Christ. In Luke 1:28 for example, we have the Ave Maria—or the “Hail Mary.” In Luke 1:42ff we have the song of Elizabeth. Then later in verse 46 and following Mary’s Magnificat. Then in verses 68 and following of that same first chapter the Benedictus of Zechariahs. Then the Glory in Excelsis in Chapter 2 of Luke, the Song of the Angels. Finally Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis beginning with chapter 2 and going from verse 29-32.
When we examine these various hymns given these latter Latin names, we find in form as well as in content, they very clearly resemble the Psalms of Israel. The same kind of diction, the same kind of beat and accent and parallelism that we find in the Old Testament Psalms. They express the same messianic expectation as Israel’s prophets expressed in the Old Testament. So, even thought they appear here in the New Testament cannon, they are couched in Old Testament prophetic language. The Magnificat, as one example of these, title comes from the fact that within the vulgate in the—Latin Translation of Scripture—the opening word is ‘Magnificat’, meaning “my soul doeth magnify the Lord.” We must not think of this as a written composition, bur rather as an original utterance; a prophecy in the presence of a spontaneous bubbling up under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit by Mary in response to Elizabeth.
It is interesting that Mary was not an unwilling or passive instrument in the hand of God like Balaam in the Old Testament, or Saul in the Old Testament. The Spirit uses natural will, her natural knowledge her imagination, her emotions all of her life, just as he used the Psalmist and the Prophets in the same way in times past. For one thing, this Magnificat shows the wonderful knowledge that Mary as a teenage girl would have of the scriptures. Because if we look at it carefully, it is just steeped with Old Testament phraseology. In fact there are four direct quotations from the Old Testament, primarily from the Psalms. The whole song breaths the atmosphere and echoes the language of the Old Testament. Someone who has looked at it carefully and has noticed of the 102 words of the Greek New Testament making up this song, 61 that is 60 percent is borrowed phrases from the Old Testament. Apparently, she had hidden God’s word in her heart as a child, and the spirit uses this. In fact, there are quotations from all three parts of the Old Testament. The Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. And we can clearly associate this with some other Magnificats in Scripture.
This hymn can be read as a victory song of the human spirit. It is a marvelous utterance that comes forth out of the mouth of Mary. We looked at some of the background features of that in the last chapter. Giving the hymn a brief treatment—it is composed of four stanzas; each of the stanzas have four lines apiece, except for the third one which is the climax and that has six lines; so its four lines, four lines, six lines, and then back to four lines.
If anyone were going to preach on this, they might talk about the first stanza versus 46-48 as signifying the delight of God’s handmaiden—"My soul doeth magnify the Lord.” Of course the word ‘magnify’ means to enlarge. Not that we enlarge the Lord, but we enlarge our perception of Him. When Mary talks about soul and spirit, I think she is using these terms in a non-technical way. They are used as basically synonymous terms in this context. I don’t know if most of people are tricotomists or dichotomists or believers that men and women are unities; but however we divide personhood up, I think she is using it in a very non-technical way in this instance. She talks about the fact that God had regarded her low estate, or her low degree, which probably is referring to her external condition rather than referring to her humility of mind, because that would make her boastful of her humility. But we know that her family was very poor; she ranked least in her father’s house—she may even have been an outcast, we don’t know. But it is interesting that she refers to herself as God’s handmaiden. The word ‘handmaiden’ there at (Lk 1:48) is from the Greek δούλη (doulē) meaning ‘slave.’ So it is God’s female slave (not mother of God)—one who is a servant of the Lord. Notice how Mary is saluted by Elizabeth as “blessed”—not above women—but blessed among women. Therefore, she is to be honored, she is to be congratulated, but she is not to be worshipped. So that is the delight of God’s handmaiden.
Then we have in the second stanza, the display of God’s attributes. She mentions in verse 49, “For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name” (KJV). And so she extols three attributes of the nature of God. Talking about his might or power, talking about his holiness and talking about his unmerited mercy—the display of God’s attributes. Then verses 51-53 is the third stanza it is the disclosure of God’s triumph, where prophetically she looks forward to the triumphs that will be effected by Messiah’s work. The principles that she expresses are timeless; they will be consummated in a future age, but which even now are meant to be implemented as the purpose of God. Notice also some of the antithesis, or contrasts that she makes. For example she says, “He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away” (Lk 1:51-53, KJV). Notice there is a moral contrast there between the proud and the humble. Secondly, there is a social contrast between the high and mighty, in contrast to those of low degree. The third contrast is economic; the change between the rich and those who are hungry and poor. What she seems to be doing is to say the Gospel developed around Jesus Christ is going to bring about revolution. An economic revolution; a social revolution; a moral revolution, because of the advent of her son and because of the impact of his life upon the world.
Then the last verses, 54-55 are a declaration of God’s faithfulness. “He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy; As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.” He has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy as he spoke to his fathers Abraham and to his posterity forever. Again we can’t help but marvel at how a simple Jewish maiden would know so much theology and was able to, under the inspiration of the Spirit, utter forth this marvelous declaration. Clearly those versus are intimating the revolution which Christ brings to this earth.