Good morning River City!
If you’re new to the Bible you might need to use your table of contents for this one, but I would love for you to turn to the book of Malachi. This is the last book of the Old Testament, so about ⅗ of the way through your Bible is Malachi. If you see Matthew Mark or Luke, turn left. If you see Isaiah or Jeremiah, or some other strange looking names, turn to the right.
Malachi was the last prophet of Israel, sometime shortly after Queen Esther, about the 5th century BC. Malachi’s prophecy was written about 400 years before Jesus was born, and here’s what part of it says in Chapter 3:1
So Malachi’s prophecy is a word from Yahweh, from the Lord God, and God says “See, I am sending a messenger to clear the way because when you least expect it, I am coming, and I’ll even tell you where: in the temple. But to prepare the way for me to come, there is a messenger coming first.”
Flip now to chapter 4, verse 5, he says more about this messenger:
So, again here’s the prophecy: God says, “I’m coming to the temple. You’ll know it when you see it because I’ll send a messenger to prepare the way. And he’s going to be a prophet. He’ll remind you of the prophet Elijah.”
And what Malachi didn’t know as he wrote was that 400 years would go by before anyone would hear Yahweh speak again. No new revelations, no prophecies, no angel visits, only what seemed like silence.
Within a handful of generations after Malachi’s writing, the Persian empire would fall to Alexander the Great and the Greeks in 334 BC. When Alexander’s died a few years later, his generals lost control of the kingdom, and after two centuries full of civil wars, revolts, and conquests, in 63 BC the Roman general Pompey conquered Jerusalem, and Judea (the region around Jerusalem, the center of Jewish life) became a client-kingdom of Rome.
If you turn in your Bibles to the right to the book of Luke, Luke writes in 1:5 that the events he is writing about begin during the days of King Herod of Judea. Now a quick history search will tell you this is Herod the Great, and though he was born in an Arabian region known as Edom, his family had been forcibly converted to Judaism during one of those previous revolts, so he would have been raised somewhat practicing Judaism. So, when his father made him ruler of Judea in 37 BC, Herod considered himself the king of the Jews, much to the distaste of the real Jews living in Judea.
The Jews who lived in Judea at the time were all over the place in terms of practicing their Jewishness. Some became very secular, and abandoned the covenant of God altogether. Others doubled down on the laws. Some were half and half.
ZECHARIAH AND ELIZABETH
But Luke carefully introduces us to a husband and wife named Zechariah and Elizabeth to make it clear that God has also preserved a group that was loyal to him, to his words, to his covenant – a group who remembered the words of Malachi, that the Lord is coming to the temple one day. And his messenger will clear the way.
Luke 1:6. They did everything required by the Law of Moses. No one could call them out for not following the law. So in God’s eyes, as it pertained to the Law, they got it right, even down to being from the tribe that priests should be from.
But something else was wrong. Luke 1:7
Genesis 1:28 and multiple Psalms have childbearing linked to God’s blessing, while Leviticus 20, 2 Samuel 6, Jeremiah 22 all talk about God keeping certain people from having children as a result of their rebellion or sinfulness; that childlessness was a curse/judgment.
So, in those days, people would naturally assume that because Elizabeth could not conceive, that God was judging them for their sin. No matter how righteous and careful with the Law they were, this was a stain on their record. A disgrace.
But there’s no curse associated with them. The reason they were childless was simply because Elizabeth could not conceive. To make matters worse, they weren’t in the prime of their childbearing years anymore, so they are heading into their twilight years with some measure of grief and sorrow.
However, if you grew up around church, that should ring a bell. For Luke to mention two people well beyond childbearing years, righteous in God’s eyes yet childless and without a curse, is a sort of biblical deja vu that would wisk Theophilus right back to Genesis, to the story of Abraham and Sarah, the patriarch and matriarch of the faith, who found themselves in the exact situation.
And anyone reading Luke’s narrative who knows that story and can see the parallels here knows that a) God is up to something major here in Luke, and b) if this is anything like Abraham and Sarah’s story you’d better be on the lookout for an angel to show up somewhere.
And sure enough.
Zechariah was one of 18000 priests serving at this time, and those 18000 were divided up into 24 divisions. Each division, then, had about 750 priests in it, and each division was called on to serve only two weeks out of the year. Every morning and evening, one of those priests was chosen to go into the sanctuary of the Temple during public worship, burn some incense and say a prayer. That’s it.
So, verse 9 says, while his division was on duty, it so happened that he was chosen by the lot, or rolling the dice, to go in and light the incense and say a prayer while the people prayed outside.
Luke doesn’t record what exactly Zechariah might have prayed by the altar that day, but he says, “The Lord has heard your prayer, and you will have a son.” Can we just underline that too? Your prayer has been heard. That’s truth #1 for us today. Prayer works. It is effective. God invites us to pray!
To this point in the story, though, it’s kind of, well good for you guys. Couldn’t have a baby, now you can. A miracle, yes, and very exciting, but not earth-shattering. What Gabriel the angel says next should blow the doors off of Zechariah. It should leave him speechless…
Zechariah! Your son is the messenger preparing the way for the Messiah! Malachi’s prophecy! The time is now! The last thing they heard God say 4 centuries ago is the first thing they heard God say. He picks up with his promise WORD FOR WORD. I love that! Truth #2 for this morning: God doesn’t forget what he’s doing. When you think he’s silent, he’s not. When it seems like things are out of control, they aren’t. When God says something will happen, IT WILL HAPPEN!
But instead of being speechless at the magnitude of this message, Zechariah was hung up on something else: His age. His circumstances stood in the way of faith. In fact, he viewed his circumstances as something God would not be able to overcome. “How are you going to give us a kid? We’re old. I’m old, Elizabeth is old.”
And God said, “aw shoot – you’re right. Gabriel, check that address. Are you at the right place?”
I wish I could say I’m different from Zechariah. Man, church, how often do we let our circumstances tell God what he can and can’t do? O how little time we spend speechless at the magnitude of the message of grace, and how much time we spend talking about everything that is wrong with our circumstances, our country, our church, etc. We need to repent.
The angel rebukes this priest of God, and makes him speechless. It’s only by the grace and patience of God that most of us aren’t made unable to speak or hear or type for a season.
 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived and kept herself in seclusion for five months. She said,  "The Lord has done this for me. He has looked with favor in these days to take away my disgrace among the people."
Just underline that whole verse 25, and circle the word FAVOR. The Lord has looked on me with favor to take away my disgrace. That word for favor is the same word we translate grace. The Lord has done something for her that is all grace, something she was powerless to do anything about, in order to remove her shame.
What a beautiful picture of the gospel! What a marvelous picture of grace!
This God, who is powerfully working all things together, connecting promises from the OT to the New across hundreds, sometimes thousands of years, sovereignly overseeing every second of the life of every plant, every creature, every human on the planet, heard and answered the prayers of this elderly couple.
God may not answer our prayers in our preferred timeline or even in the way we think he should, but I think truth #3 today is that no one gets run over or overlooked in the kingdom of God. No one is too small, too old, too broken, too sorrowful to be beyond the redeeming hand of God.
Speaking of which, near the end of Elizabeth’s second trimester, the angel Gabriel shows up again, this time in a little town about 60-70 miles north of Jerusalem called Nazareth, to a young engaged woman named Mary. She is engaged or “betrothed,” which means the bride price has been paid for her, and there has been a public ceremony where others have witnessed a formal agreement to marry. She legally belongs to Joseph and is already referred to as his wife, although the marriage ceremony will not take place for at least a year, or until Joseph gets his home and his finances ready for her to move in. Luke doesn’t mention their age, but a girl could be betrothed as young as 12.
And the first words of the angel are: “Greetings favored woman! The Lord is with you.”
There is that word “favor” again. I love how author John Piper writes about this moment.4 He says:
The very first thing Gabriel says to Mary is that she is about to receive a free bestowal of God's grace. She does not deserve this honor. It is grace. There are other virgins in Nazareth. God could have prepared them. But he chose her. Why?
Because (and I’ll call this truth #4) – grace eliminates all boasting. Parents are prone to boast about their children. How much more if one of your children is the Son of God. So Gabriel quenches the spirit of pride before he does anything else. "The Lord is with you, Mary, in a way you can't fathom. But never forget, it is a favor, a free gift of grace."
But look at Mary’s response in verse 29 (Troubled; wondering)
Why is Mary fearful? Isn’t God being gracious to her? I think sometimes we have this picture of grace as if it’s always the sunshine and rainbows of life. We read Jesus’ words in chapter 11, “if your son asks for bread you don’t give him stones, or asks for fish you wouldn’t give him a snake” and we think, yeah that’s right – grace is all the good stuff, like good food, kids who are getting along, having enough $ to get bills paid on time, or having a child after years of not being able to. #blessed That’s the stuff of Grace. And it is.
And all the difficult stuff of life – we don’t tag those #blessed, that is certainly not grace, we say.
Here’s Piper again talking about Mary’s response:
The highest and most precious gifts of God do not always come to us in attractive colors.
Grace can perplex. Grace can frighten. The grace of healing may have the face of a hypodermic needle or a surgeon's knife. The grace of patience may have the face of pain. The grace of humility may have the face of defeat. O, how we need to learn from Mary not to lash out at God for the frightening forms of grace. Instead like her we ought to wait and "consider in our minds" how this strange event might be grace.”4
See, while Elizabeth will get her reputation back, Mary is about to lose hers. An old woman finally having a child is cause for community rejoicing; Joseph’s fiance turning up pregnant, and not by him... in a small town? Not so much.
Elizabeth rejoices because God has taken away her disgrace; Mary knows God’s grace toward her means things are about to get really difficult. People will think she slept around on her fiance. She’ll say “an angel came…” and get a lot of sideways glances. She could lose her fiance, get kicked out of her home, and if her local synagogue follows the letter of the OT law, she should be stoned.
That’s what makes her response so incredible in verse 35: I am the Lord’s servant – may it be done to me according to your word. I’ll take the loss if you ask me to. I’ll trust your word over the circumstances that are sure to come.
Crazy enough, it’s the same thing her Son Jesus would say 33 years later as HE was greatly troubled, confronted with the cost of grace. Knowing he would be arrested and crucified in just a few hours, also with an angel by his side, Jesus said something that it sounds like he may have picked up from his mother - not my will, but yours be done.
The angel’s reminder in verse 30 is that grace, even if it is perplexing or confusing or painful, it is still grace from the hand of the God who is good, working all things together for what is ultimately best, and what ultimately brings him glory.
The angel continues: Luke 1:31-33
This announcement points to kingship. Throne. Reign. Kingdom. David. John will be great in the sight of the Lord, but Jesus will be greater. John will be a prophet, but Jesus will be a king. To say he will have the throne of David and reign over the house of Israel is another way to say Jesus is the real and true King of the Jews whether or not they think of him that way.
The name Jesus means “savior” or “Deliverer” which squarely identifies him as the promised Messiah, the serpent crusher promised to Eve, the offspring of blessing promised to Abraham.
Mary clears her throat and says in verse 34, “uh – question, if I may.” She may not be very old, but she knows how babies are made. The angel replies Luke 1:35
Mary’s body will be the carrier of someone much greater than Abraham or Jacob, greater than David or Elijah, much greater than Malachi or John – He is uniquely from God in a way that none of them are. Two questions you could have right here, and we’ll end with this – 1) why does it matter that Mary was a virgin? 2) Did God or the Holy Spirit have sex with Mary? I’ll answer both of those at once.
Get ready, because this is pretty sweet:
If you look back to Genesis 1, and the Creation story, God created the life of animals, trees, plants, fish with no sexual act, but with a word; when it came to creating humans, Adam and Eve, he created Adam out of dust and filled him with his breath, and created Eve out of Adam’s side. So first of all, God does not need sexual activity to create life, and secondly for him to have sexual relations with Mary would make her a) not a virgin, and b) it would make God no longer holy if he violated his own sexual ethic. So that answers the second question.
Why does it matter that she was a virgin? There are the only two humans before this point in history created without sexual activity of some sort: Adam and Eve.
And here in Luke, God is doing it again – creating another human without sexual activity… The apostle Paul jumped all over that and said, I’ll tell you why it matters: A new Adam is being born! And what we learn from the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians is that where the first Adam failed to follow God’s wisdom for living, failed to listen to God’s voice, this second Adam would perfectly follow God’s voice. For Mary to be a virgin means her child will not have a sin nature passed along to him from a human parent. If Jesus gets a whiff of that sin nature, if he fails to uphold God’s glorious standard for even a second, this whole thing is over, and this life is as good as it gets for us.
But instead of being born fallen short of God’s glory like you and I were, as a result of this miraculous birth, instigated by God, made possible through the Spirit, this child will be holy, and called the Son of God.
And that’s the kind of re-birth you and I need in order to be saved! A miracle, instigated by God, accomplished by Jesus Christ, made possible by the Holy Spirit. The story of what Jesus did for YOU, when you by faith were truly born again, is no less a miracle than what happened to Elizabeth or Mary.
Old lady giving birth? Miracle. Virgin giving birth? Miracle. Sinners who were enemies of God saved by the grace of that same God, and adopted into his family as his own? Miracle.
I think we can summarize it all with Truth #5: Nothing is impossible with God. Two old people conceiving a child? God can do that. Fix your marriage even when it seems too far gone? Rescue your child from the clutches of sin and rebellion? Give you wisdom when things seem to be spiraling out of control? Give you health and healing when Drs say it’s over? Help you stay sexually pure when the temptations feel overwhelming? Bring sinners to salvation? He can do that too. Nothing will be impossible with God.
Where you are:
- Grace has been amazing
- Grace has been really hard
- Grace is the only thing keeping you from hell – God’s patience for you is the only thing keeping you alive. REPENT.
- Darrell Bock, Luke: Volume 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994)
- https://www.britannica.com/biography/Herod-king-of-Judaea, referenced September 14, 2021
- John Piper, https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/christ-conceived-by-the-holy-spirit, accessed September 16, 2021