Luke 1:5-38 Fourth in Advent

Notes from sermon preached on 18th December 2011, morning
(please note these are notes!)

Mary’s faith

Many unusual and wonderful things happened around the time of Jesus’ birth.  The Shepherds, when the angels appeared, were “sore afraid”, which means they were scared stiff!  King Herod on the other hand got very angry at the thought of a rival king, and plotted to murder the baby Jesus.  The three other kings from the East visited Jesus with gifts, and worshipped.  People responded in different ways to the birth of Christ, and they still do.  This morning I want to talk about two other people – Zechariah and Mary [from Luke 1] – who both had very similar experiences, but who responded in very different ways.

How should we respond to God? How have you responded to God in the past?  Practically, we respond to God in different ways.  It may be simply a prayer.  It may be doing something – but whatever it is, the heart of all our responses should be motivated by faith.

Martin Luther King: “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

Corrie Ten Boom, in Tramp for the Lord: “Faith is like radar that sees through the fog.”

The Bible: “Without faith it is impossible to please God.” [Hebrews 11:6]

Both Zechariah and Mary had a God-encounter – an angel – messenger – who brought God’s word to them – a son was promised.  Zechariah’s son, John the Baptist, would prepare the way for the LORD; Mary’s son, Jesus, would be the LORD, the Son of the Most High.

These God encounters were unique – God was fulfilling his century old promises in a special way.  But we also meet with God as well, usually through the Word and the Spirit.  There is much we can learn from Zechariah and Mary about how, or how not to respond to the LORD.

The first thing I notice is that Zechariah and Mary were at very different stages in life.  Zechariah was an old man, Mary a young girl – a teenager.  Zechariah had been married for many years; Mary was only engaged to be married.

We can encounter God –respond to God – at any age.  I remember J who gave his life to the LORD a few years ago, and confessed Jesus as his LORD and Saviour in baptism aged 82.  Just 3 weeks ago we baptised A, a young girl, and D, who is somewhere in between!  We are never too old or never too young for God.

But we can use age as an excuse.  “”I’m too young, I’ll just wait a few more years – there are some thing I want to do first! I’m not ready!”  I think we must think God is a kill joy.  The only thing God wants to kill off in our lives is sin – which isn’t doing us any good anyway.

Or we think, “I’m too old, there’s no point in changing now.”

Using our age in this way is just excuse.  The truth is that we can only come to the LORD in faith NOW.  God speaks to us NOW. He calls us in the present.  God is not only the God of the past and the future – but we can only respond to him in the present, whatever age we are.  Whatever it is we believe we ought to do, we should do it!

The second thing I notice is that Zechariah and Mary held very different stations in life.  Zechariah was a priest, serving in the Temple; Mary was a humble girl from a poor family.  We might think the place to meet God is church – the special place. Yet God is omnipresent – everywhere.  Solomon recognised this in his prayer after finishing building the first temple:

“But will God indeed dwell with man on the earth? Behold, heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built!” [2Chronicles 6:18]

We can talk to God and know his presence anywhere.  We can’t tie God down to a particular place.  We can respond to him whoever we are, whatever we do, and wherever we might be.  All that is required is faith.  The LORD wants to show he is with us wherever we are so that we understand that he is interested in every area of our life, not just the so-called religious side.

The next thing I notice with Zechariah and Mary is that this God-encounter frightened them.

Zechariah: “And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him.” [Luke 1:12]

Mary: “But she was greatly troubled at the saying.” [Luke 1:29]

They were both “troubled” – startled, disturbed, agitated.

To be frightened is normal, it doesn’t mean we don’t have faith. Faith is the radar that sees through the fog – the fog is still there.  God can frighten us as well.  It’s a normal human reaction: what will it really mean to give my life to the LORD?  Unfortunately fear often prevents us stepping out in faith.  I remember that even going to church for the first time was a nerve racking experience – stepping out into the unknown.

In the Bile people who encountered God were often frightened at first.

At Sinai, “the people saw the lightening and the thunder, and hear the trumpet, and saw the smoke on the mountain, they trembled with fear.  Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid.” [Exodus 20:18-20]

When Isaiah had a vision of the LORD, and he cried out, “Woe is me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” [Is 6:5]

When John saw the LORD, he fell at his feet as a dead man. The LORD said, “Do not fear.”

Peter caught a glimpse of Jesus’ true glory in the fishing boat, and said, “Lord, away from me, I am a sinful man.”

God doesn’t want us to be afraid, but often we are.  The first thing the angel said was “Do not be afraid.”  I once heard a preacher say “Do not be afraid / do not fear” appears 365 times in the Bible – one for each day of the year. So I looked it up and found it wasn’t true!  But again and again God speaks to his people, “Fear not!”

“Faith is not without worry or care, but faith is fear that has said a prayer.”  Author Unknown

Genuine steps of faith are not always easy since it involves letting go and letting God be God – for this we need faith.

Let’s look at the promise God gave to Zechariah and Mary, and then how they responded. The angel promised both a son.  But it seemed impossible.  Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were too old, and Mary wasn’t yet married to Joseph.

God is a God who acts in impossible situations – so that our only possible response can be faith.  God, I can’t do it, but I believe you can.  One of the best examples of faith, which also involves a baby, was Abraham and Sarah.

Romans 4:19-25 THE MESSAGE

“Abraham didn’t focus on his own impotence and say, “It’s hopeless. This hundred-year-old body could never father a child.” Abraham had God’s promise, but he faced the facts that he and Sarah could never have a child.  Faith isn’t avoiding reality – but it is believing, even against the odds.

“Nor did he survey Sarah’s decades of infertility and give up. He didn’t tiptoe around God’s promise asking cautiously skeptical questions.”

But he was strengthened in his faith, and gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God had the power to do what he had promised.

This is why it was credited to him as righteousness.  And the word it was credited to him as righteousness were written not for him alone, but for us to whom God will credit righteousness – to us who believe in him who raised our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead.  He was delivered over to death for our sins and raised to life for our justification.

What Paul is saying here is that being put right with God – victory over our sins – may seem hopeless and an impossible situation.  But it is something God will do as we respond to him in faith.

Faith is missing from society today. This week Lord Sachs (Chief Rabbi in this country) preached an excellent sermon, and he said in it:

“When a civilisation loses its faith, it loses its future. When it recovers its faith, it recovers its future.”

It doesn’t happen immediately, but it surely happens.  We’ve lost sight of the Living God in whom we should put our faith in, and therefore we have lost much hope.

How do Zechariah and Mary respond to the promise of the angel?  They both had a question, in Luke 1:18 & 34. Zechariah : “How shall I know this?” Mary: How will this be?”  In other words: “How on earth will it happen?  It’s impossible!”

If we look carefully at the questions, though they seem similar, they are quite different.

Zechariah: “And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” [Luke 1:18]

This was not faith – it was not faith taking the first step even when he couldn’t see the whole staircase.  This was an objection. He wanted a sign. He thought, “I can never believe this.”  It was a response of scepticism and unbelief. He said, “For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”

But, as a priest, he should have known about Abraham and Sarah, and others such as the birth of Samson and Samuel.  It seems that Zechariah was taken up more with the trappings of religion, but denying the power.  The angel reminded him of God’s power, “I am Gabriel” – which means God’s power.  He told him he would be unable to speak until the promise was fulfilled.  The same is true for us.  We can’t speak about God or even speak to God if our hearts are full of unbelief.  Spiritually we are made deaf and dumb like Zechariah.

Mary: “And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” [Luke 1:34]

This is the language of faith.  “How will this happen, since I am a virgin? I believe it will happen, and I know from the scriptures that the Messiah will be born of a virgin.  But if it is to be me, could you show me more how it is going to happen?”

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to understand more. The angel says the conception of the child will be a work of the Holy Spirit.    Then, from a place of faith, Mary was able to speak, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  That was enough.  When we have faith we can rest in God’s promises.  Things will flow as they will, and we go with the flow, and as with Mary it will be our great delight.


One Response to Luke 1:5-38 Fourth in Advent

  1. Pingback: The Cost of Unbelief | YOU DECIDE

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