Mary, did you know? (Luke 1)

Grace turns the ordinary into the extraordinary.  As human beings we have a long history of constructing our society on the basis of merit—the ugly result being a life of trying to “measure up” or comparing ourselves to others.  Grace shatters this society of merit because in God’s kingdom, human value isn’t rooted in human character, but God’s.

The story of the first Christmas should remind us that God’s grace elevates the lowly while it flattens the proud.  Joseph and Mary remind us that God indeed chooses humble people for noble purpose:

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He 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 father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

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

35 And the angel answered her, “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 called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. (Luke 1:26-38)

If you’ve got any background in church, the story should sound familiar.  The curious arrival of Jesus through Mary emphasizes that yes, God is doing something wholly unique.

Did Mary really know what her Son’s life would grow to be?  At Christmas it’s not at all uncommon to hear the song “Mary, Did You Know?”  The lyrics list the many things that Jesus would do in his lifetime, the song repeatedly asking the new mom by the manger if she knew what her special Son would be capable of.  “Mary did you know that your baby boy will one day walk on water?” “Mary did you know that your baby boy will save our sons and daughters?”

But when I read the text, it’s not clear to me that Mary really understood—or could ever have imagined—what being the Messiah was really all about.  As a faithful Jewish woman, she would have shared her people’s hopeful expectation for God’s deliverance.  But would she ever have expected Jesus to live the life that he did—to die the death that he did?

Think for a second what Mary would see through her mother’s eyes:

  • The death of children by Herod’s hand, as he sought to eliminate Israel’s king (Matthew 2:16).
  • Jesus’ preaching would emphasize that “here are my mother and brothers,” referring to the crowds and his spiritual family, rather than his natural family (Matthew 12:46ff).
  • Family division would arise when Jesus’ brothers refused to believe his message about himself (John 7:5).
  • And, most profoundly, Mary was present at the cross and watched her firstborn son breathe his last. The Jews believed in resurrection, yes—but she could never have expected it to happen in a matter of days.  And this is to say nothing of the fact that in Mary’s social world, she would have born the social scorn of being this “criminal’s” mother.

It’s no wonder that shortly after Jesus is born, Simeon would caution Mary that as she witnessed Jesus’ ministry, “a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:35).  Mary, did you know that you would share so much of your baby boy’s pain?

For now, however, Mary responds to the angel’s announcement with humble obedience:

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

56 And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home. (Luke 1:46-56)

As a side note, we shouldn’t overlook the way that Mary’s words reflect her commitment to and knowledge of God’s word.  Granted, it’s not inconceivable that Luke would have given Mary’s words an editorial polish, but Mary’s theological understanding cannot be denied—a significant feat for a woman of her era.

What does this mean for us?  There was nothing really special about Mary, apart from her faithfulness, but through God’s grace she became “blessed” (v. 48) because of the “great things” God has done (v. 49).

And each of us, though we inhabit a world built on merit, can reflect on the way that our significance comes not on what we have done, but what God has done through us—and for us.  It’s hard to know if Mary understood just exactly what her son would later do, but we know exactly what her son did.  Trust in his work, not your own; this is the secret to true joy.

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A dream deferred (Elizabeth–Luke 1)

“What happens to a dream deferred?” asked Langston Hughes, a poet of the 1950’s Harlem Renaissance.  “Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?…Maybe it just sags, like a heavy load.”

Desire is a fragile thing.  Our unmet desires can fill us with hopeful expectancy, or they can drive us to utter despair.

Culturally, Christmas is a season of desires, of wish lists, of anticipation.  But for many it’s a season of lost loves, empty chairs, and teary eyes.  I’ve had friends tell me how strange it is, after their divorce, to send out Christmas cards without the name of their spouse attached.

With enough time, the “heavy load” of our deferred dreams transform into bitterness—toward ourselves, toward one another, and toward God.

A WOMAN’S REPROACH

As we saw last week, the Christmas narrative isn’t simply played out as some God-sized drama.  It’s a deeply personal story, with characters of real flesh and blood, feelings and thoughts, and—like many of us—dreams that have gone unsatisfied.

Zechariah and Elizabeth, we learn, were a couple who had been very faithful.  Yet their faithfulness only threw their childlessness into sharper contrast:

5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. (Luke 1:5-7)

The ancient Jewish community saw children as a blessing from God.  Recall that God had promised Abraham that through him, God’s people would experience the blessing of the Promised Land and countless descendants.  Thus, children became seen as a sign of God’s providential care.  The ancients would likewise speak of having “quivers full” of children (Psalm 127:3-5).  To be barren, to be childless—well this was indeed a sign of reproach.

Elizabeth, of course, could recall the stories where God had enabled women like Rebekah (Genesis 25:21) and Leah (Genesis 29:11) to conceive—and this is to say nothing of Sara conceiving in her old age (Genesis 21:2).  Still, these were the exceptions—not the rule.  What hope remained for her?

So as the years went on, we can imagine Elizabeth’s quiet pain, the subtle ache that came from seeing friends or family bear children.  She could share their joy, yes—but only as an observer, never from holding a child of her very own.

That this couple continued to serve faithfully is a testimony to their enduring trust in God, and their satisfaction in him even amidst their anxious grief.

THE REVERSAL OF REPROACH

One thing has always been true regardless of the century: a baby changes everything.  When Zechariah is promised that he and his wife would conceive, it turns their world upside down, and it turns Elizabeth’s reproach into joy:

24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25 “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.” (Luke 1:24-25)

We might imagine that Zechariah found a way to communicate to his wife what was happening, what the Lord was doing.  The text doesn’t clarify why Elizabeth spent five months in seclusion, though it’s reasonable to expect that this aging woman took some time in her first trimester or so to ensure the health of both her and the child.

It’s not clear that Elizabeth fully understood what was happening in the life of her cousin, Mary—at least  not until the Holy Spirit reveals this knowledge to her through supernatural means.  Mary makes a journey covering 80-100 miles (3-4 days, in that era) to visit Elizabeth.  Why?  We’re not told, but presumably she’s reacting to the Lord’s leading.  And it’s in that encounter that we find our first tangible expression of the child’s future purpose:

39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” (Luke 1:39-45)

Elizabeth would later give birth to John, who, later in life, would make a career out of pointing people to Jesus, “the strap of whose sandal [he] is not worthy to untie” (John 1:27).  So dedicated, it seems, that John began his ministry in utero.

THE OBJECT OF OUR EVERY DESIRE

Finally, the child came:

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son.58 And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59 And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, 60 but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” 61 And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” 62 And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. 63 And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. 64 And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. 65 And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, 66 and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him. (Luke 1:57-65)

Many of us have desires that have long gone unmet.  There’s a reason that the return lines are so long on December 26.  People return their gifts to get what they really want.  Or they go on a shopping spree with all their gift cards.

Still others will not get what they want, or perhaps cannot have what they want.  And that’s heartbreaking.

But even this should never be seen as an interruption to our holiday; it should remind us why Christmas was necessary in the first place.  The desires of our hearts are only shadows and hints of a deeper desire, a desire that can be satisfied only in the Creator of the universe, the author of human destiny, and the Savior of the soul.  Our culture’s Christmas emphasis has long been that if you’re good, you get good gifts for Christmas.  But the gospel promises that because God is good, he gives you himself, and he is what satisfies the soul long after our sweaters go unraveled.  The cross promises forgiveness of sins, just as it invites us into a life of personal transformation.

What happens to a dream deferred?  It rests in the hands of Jesus.

 

The Song of Zechariah (Luke 1)

The story of Zechariah continues here as he talks about his special son John, who will grow to become the forerunner of Jesus Christ – John the Baptist …

(Zechariah speaking) …

I am not going to live long enough to see it fulfilled myself. But I have been given a prophecy about this little boy.

So let me read to you what I wrote and have said. I tell you, of anything I have ever said or written, I was never so “INSPIRED” as with these words … they really are, I can assure you, words that came through me under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit …

68 “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them.

69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David 70 (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), 71 salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us—72 to show mercy to our ancestors and to remember his holy covenant, 73 the oath he swore to our father Abraham: 74 to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

76 And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, 77 to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven 79 to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.”

Yes, the Messiah is coming, and John will play a role in preparing the way for him to fulfill God’s greatest plan of the ages. People – don’t miss this truth, don’t fail to see and understand God’s salvation revealed for all people. This is what ALL of God’s work is ALL about!

Before I go, let me share with you some timeless lessons from my life experience …

God is able to use us in our weakness, even redeeming our failures.

I’m not pleased I did not believe immediately, having prayed for the very thing that was now happening. And it was annoying to not have a voice for many months. But God used all of that for great good, adding to the witness that He was doing a special work in the birth of John and in who he will become.

The important thing when making a mistake is to not double-down on it and try to fix it and twist it yourself. Acknowledge the failure and get right back on the road of trusting God and following His way.

God remembers his promises and fulfills his word, even if it seems often to be terribly delayed in arriving.

Remember my name? Yahweh remembers. That name was so popular in Israel over the years because it has been the nature of our nation’s history to believe that God does not remember … that He forgets … that it takes a long time for answers to problems and injustices. But God does not forget; He is always working His plan in His time. And His timing is always perfect – both in the big plan of things, right down to the details of each of our lives. And remember also that His plans are much bigger and eternal when compared to our small lives and brief time in this world.

God may choose to use our offspring to accomplish greater things than we ever imagined for ourselves.

I don’t know what it is like in this time and in this place, but too many people where I am from believe that they are the center of the world and that everything should circulate around them. The greatest achievement of our lives may be what we make possible through the family and generations that follow us. It is the place of greatest potential impact for all of us.

Pastor Randy told me in our brief time together that this is a major focus of this synagogue … and you should listen to him – he’s a really smart guy!

God is able to do the impossible, to bring life from that which is even dead.

There is simply no way possible that a child could be born to Elizabeth and me at our advanced age. But the God who created life in the first place was able to bring life to the death of her womb. This “life-giving” is God’s business.

We are all born dead – separated by sin from the perfect relationship such as God had originally intended in the creation of man. But there is a perfect plan of salvation that is to come through one person – God’s Anointed One – don’t miss that! Don’t overlook that. Don’t minimize the importance of the unfolding of that story.

My Name is Zechariah (Luke 1)

Our First-Person Christmas series will feature five Sundays of first-person narrative sermons. The initial presentation was this past Sunday, featuring a personal look at the life of Zechariah. For those of you who missed being there, here today and tomorrow is much of that manuscript. And even if you were there, reading it will likely refresh your memory with new insights you may not have caught by ear.

My Name is Zechariah

Yes, my name is Zechariah, you may have read about me in the Bible.  OK … I know what you are thinking.  “Yes, Zecharia, like in Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, ZECHARIAH, Malachi!”

Wrong!

Actually, there are 31 different men in the Bible who have the name Zechariah … which means “Yahweh remembers.”  You need to remember that, because I’m going to tell you more about that later!

My home is in the hill country of Judah, were I live with my wife Elizabeth. I am a priest and serve the nation of Israel in that capacity. My background is not just from the tribe of Levi, but actually I am descended from the line of Aaron, dating back 1500 years to that brother of Moses. And I might add that my wife Elizabeth is from the same unique family lineage of the Aaronic priesthood.

And as you can see, I’m a rather old fellow, as is my wife; and therein lies the great sadness that has attended our lives over the decades. We had been childless, even to well past the time and age of bearing children.

This was a great sadness for both of us, but particularly for my wife Elizabeth. In our culture, childlessness can be seen as a sort of judgment from God … or at least a suspicion of that.  But we knew that was not true in our circumstance. We have lived our lives consistently in an upright fashion, trusting God and honoring his commands – being faithful to observe the law, doing so joyfully as servants of the one true God.

Even so, I have to say, it still was an inner hurt that never went away. Our home was terribly quiet. The sounds of children at play would always dredge up to our conscious awareness that there was a vacancy in our lives – a hole that was never filled, not even by all of the good and blessings we received.

You may not know or understand this, but there are literally thousands of priests in Israel (somewhere around 18,000 right now), all connected to the lineage of Aaron. I have a lot of distant cousins! God wasn’t kidding when he told Abraham that his offspring would be like the stars of the sky or the sands of the sea. I am from the family – the division – of Abijah. There are a total of 24 divisions of the priests – this set-up dating all of the way back 1,000 years to the time of David.

Though I have responsibilities on a regular basis, particularly during the festival times of the Jewish calendar, my division only serves in the Temple for a week at a time, once every 24 weeks. Those 7 days are a busy and intense time.

Not long ago, during my rotation week of serving, I was chosen by lot to go into the Temple and into the Holy Place to burn incense. It was a daily event that accompanied the daily sacrifice – before the morning sacrifice and after the evening offering. This was an amazing opportunity – a day that would/could only happen once in my lifetime. The incense represented the prayers of our people – the whole nation – before the Lord. The focus of the entire nation at that moment in time is upon that priest who goes before the Lord.

It was the regular experience in the Temple at this daily moment for a crowd of people to gather and see the priest go into and out of the Holy Place; and they pray during this time as well.  So, yes, I was a bit excited about this and could feel my heart pounding somewhat as I went inside and began to offer the prayers. Others had told me of what an intense spiritual moment this was for them.

But none had a story quite like what happened to me. Suddenly I was not alone!!  There appeared an angel on the right side of the altar. I was terribly frightened!  How many of you have had an angel show up when you least expected it?

And he began to talk to me, telling me that my prayer had been answered. My prayer??  I was praying – as all the faithful in Israel would pray – for God’s ultimate redemption in the coming of a long-awaited Messiah. Was this to be the prayer to be answered?  Well, more on that later …

But the angel’s words were, “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John.”

Ah … OK … I wasn’t really thinking about that right now. And … well … I wondered – Does this angel not see how old I am?  And if you think I look bad for having babies, you should see Elizabeth!

Before I could debrief with him a bit on this matter of age and discuss my natural skepticism, even seeking some sort of sign or evidence beyond his words, he continued his message.  He said some interesting things that are to come true of my son John. Let me list them for you …

He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.

There is no doubt that a child could bring great delight to us, and beyond that to those who know us.  But this seems to be speaking of something more than that. Somehow this revelation is that this boy of mine is going to be powerfully blessed in God’s work…

He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born.

Of course we understand that a vow to abstain is related to a particular commitment to God’s work, which is clearly the future for John. And it is wonderful to hear that God will be with him by the filling of the Holy Spirit – that is for us in Israel only the rare benefit of those that God particularly sets apart…

He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.

There is no doubt that a great need exists in the nation for people to return to faith and trust in our God. These are discouraging times with the Roman occupation. So many of our national and spiritual leaders are in an unholy alliance with them, while others – the “Zealots” we call them – look for a political or military solution. But the heart of the matter is a spiritual issue – a declension from a true trust in God and obedience to Him.

And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Wow, speaking of the hopes of a Messiah – this part of the message was truly messianic – bringing up the name of Elijah.  It was not the prophet of my name (Zechariah) who spoke about Elijah coming again, but the next and last prophet – Malachi … writing, “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents…”

Some people believe Elijah himself is to come again, though I have always understood it to be someone in the same God-given power and authority to lead the nation to revival … and this angelic message to me was that my son John was to do this service.  And why?  It would be to prepare the nation for this promised Messiah to come with true and full salvation.

Up until this point, I had not said anything, as this was a lot to take in … I mean, I just couldn’t stop thinking about how old I am … and then … (not the best moment of my life or career, I admit), out of my mouth comes, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

You would think that being a priest and a descendent of Aaron – being one who has always been deeply aware of the details of the Jewish scriptures – that I would be quickly open to the idea that God can intervene miraculously and bring life to that which is dead and hopeless. No less than our Father Abraham had the same experience and he believed the prophecy – being credited to him as righteousness for believing God’s promise … though his wife Sarah was worse than me – she outright laughed at it.

But they weren’t the only ones. Samson and Samuel were born to women of advanced age. But so many years had passed with no children. So much pain … and for my wife Elizabeth – the shame of being barren. We had given up hope long before the angel Gabriel showed up.

Yep, Gabriel – that’s who this angel was – the same one who spoke to Daniel on two occasions. I didn’t have a chance to say something like, “Sorry I didn’t recognize you; I’ve never seen an angel before!”  He went on to say …

I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.  And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”

Well shut my mouth!  Literally!  That’s what happened. Try as I might, I couldn’t talk, though I remembered every word perfectly as stated to me.  And yes, I deserved it for not believing immediately. And though I could not talk, I knew altogether that this was real and going to happen exactly as stated.

All of this took a lot more time than was the routine for a priest doing the incense.  The folks standing and praying outside were wondering what the delay was all about. I’m sure I was a sight when coming back out to them; and when I could not talk to them, they knew that I had seen a vision and had an unusual experience. Through motions I attempted to share what had happened, though few understood much about it.

My week of service time had passed and I went home, communicating mostly in writing to my wife about all that had occurred. Elizabeth and I were much secluded in the coming months, though her relative Mary – the mother now of a baby named Jesus – came and spent three months with us. In time, our son John was born.

Elizabeth has also been invited by Randy and Chris to speak to you… just don’t tell her about how I talked about how old she is!

According to Jewish law and tradition, we took John to be circumcised on the 8th day. Now remember, I haven’t been able to talk all this time. In the Temple, they thought that we would surely name the boy Zechariah, after me.  But Elizabeth spoke up for us and said that, no, he would be named John (as the angel had told me).

Not believing we would do this – there were no “Johns” in our family – everyone looked at me to see my reaction. And asking to be able to write my response, I wrote that indeed his name was to be John. This surprised everyone; but even more surprising was that at that very moment, my voice returned.

All of these events have caused quite a stir, I must say … especially back home in the hill country of Judah. Though John is still just a little fellow, it is clear that there is indeed something special about God’s hand on him – everyone can see it and they all comment about it.

(the rest of the story will come tomorrow)

Mary and Joseph’s tough assignment – Luke 1, Matthew 1

About a half of a lifetime ago I was leading a music group to Scotland on a summer missions trip. I was being hosted by a lovely Scottish family, who in the course of conversation told me that they were still in a bit of recovery from having lost a five-year-old son in the past year to some disease that took him rather suddenly. Even in the midst of their grief, they modelled the joy of faith and life in Christ.

It was quite remarkable, and my understanding of their faith was informed by what the father told me of his experience. He said, “This is the thought that has given me the most comfort: If God had come to me six years ago and said, ‘I have this precious child that I need someone to give a home for five years, but then I’m going to take him back with me; would you be willing to do that?’”

And the father, with moisture gathering in his eyes, looked at me and said, “I would have certainly said to God in answer to that question, ‘Absolutely, YES, we will take that assignment.’  So why should I be angry about my loss when I have so much to be thankful for about the great blessing we received?”

That would be a tough assignment. It is difficult to give your heart away to uncertain situations. And that is what, for example, makes foster home parents such fantastic people in my book! But honestly, most of life is quite uncertain.

God sometimes gives people some tough assignments to carry out in the context of a difficult, sinful and fallen world. Mary and Joseph could justly say that God gave them a pretty tough job. Along with the issue of the social stigmatization of the pregnancy, there was the challenge of raising and having this unique child in one’s home. We see a taste of that when Jesus is accidentally “left behind” in Jerusalem, hanging out in the Temple playing Bible trivia with the religious leadership.

Beyond that we see that his brothers were essentially finding Jesus to be a bit “out there” in the early days of his ministry. It appears they sort of came to try to talk him down off the edge, get a more balanced view of self, and to come back home.

And finally, at the cross we see Mary … apparently Joseph had died somewhere along the way … watching her son on a Roman cross. Talk about a brutal assignment!

But both took the assignment from God … immediately … no doubting or delaying.

From Luke chapter 1 is the account of Mary hearing from God …

26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month.37 For no word from God will ever fail.”

38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

Mary’s Song

46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name.

There is no waffling or but, but, butting … she just said, “Yep, bring it to me, I’ll do it. I am blessed among all people to be given this assignment.”

And then in Matthew chapter 1, we see the portion of the story about Joseph …

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

So Joseph woke up and went and put into action what God wanted done. There was no doubting or second-guessing. The assignment was tough, but the rewards of obedience are better and higher.

There is an eternally timeless truth in that statement

God’s Plan Tied Together – Malachi 4:1-6 / Luke 1:5-17

The founding of the colony at Jamestown, Virginia was a long time ago – 406 years to be exact. We think of that as a substantial hunk of time, and it is. And that is the amount of time that passed between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament.

Yet the story from Genesis to Revelation is one grand story of God’s work. We even speak of it in our children’s ministry curriculum at TSF as “God’s Big Story.”  It is God’s masterpiece – it is THE BIG PICTURE. And we fit into that story as his workmanship … his ambassadors to a lost world.

What might not be immediately evident in today’s two Scripture passages is that, though there are 400 years between them, the story line itself has essentially no gap. The reading in Malachi chapter 4 is the end of the Old Testament. The reading in Luke chapter 1 is actually on the flip side of the page in terms of the working out of God’s plan. Malachi ends with the promise of the return of Elijah before the great day of the Lord, and Luke says that John the Baptist is the coming and fulfillment of that prophecy.

In the previous chapter 3 of Malachi, just prior to today’s reading, the prophet wrote,  14 You have said, ‘It is futile to serve God. What do we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the Lord Almighty? 15 But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly evildoers prosper, and even when they put God to the test, they get away with it.’”

We have all had that feeling sometimes, right? … the sense that those who do wrong get away with things while good people suffer injustice. But the next several verses remind the readers that God is really good at record keeping, and in the end, the following happens …..

4:1 “Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,” says the Lord Almighty. “Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,” says the Lord Almighty.

“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.

Malachi says that in a final day, there will be a just judgment – of fire upon those who are evil, and of light and life upon those who are the righteous. The picture presented here is of cattle who have been penned up, and then when set free, they really do run and jump for joy!

And verse four brings back to our memory so much of what we emphasized in the ReviveTSF.org writings from our Deuteronomy series this past spring – that God honors his covenant and blesses those who are obedient to remember and observe. “Remember” is a word that was used 18 times in contexts of exhortation in Deuteronomy.

“See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”

The concept of the “day of the Lord” is a bit complicated. This is the time when the Messiah does come – as Christ did, accomplishing salvation through the cross – though every aspect of the final judgment of evil and sin has not yet been fully realized. But the sunrise of this entire period was heralded by the coming and ministry of John the Baptist …

The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold – Luke 1:5-17

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.

Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.

11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16 He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

So John the Baptist is sent as a sort of “warm-up” act for the coming of Jesus. His ministry was recognized by masses of people as unique, and it set up a fresh expectation of God stepping into time to fulfill his covenant promises to the nation of Israel; and we know now that the plan of God through the work of Christ was truly universal – touching us as well.

God has a master plan. It is not about just the Old Testament and the covenant people of Israel. It is not just about the Christian church. It is about how God has redeemed a lost creation of mankind back to himself through the work of Christ on the cross. The Old Testament looked forward to it – presenting the background and the need. The New Testament finishes the story by telling how it was fulfilled in Christ, and how that message is one for us to preach until such time as God returns to make an end of his entire earthly work.

In a way, it might be said that we fit into that story book somewhere in the next to last chapter. And we have a lot of history and obligations to understand and put into practice in our world. We have obligations to live in a way that we are in right relationship with God. But our obligations extend beyond ourselves – most particularly to be passing along this truth to the rising generations behind us … in our homes first, then in the church, and finally to the rest of the world. We need to understand where we (personally, and as a church) fit into God’s plan, not how do we get God to fit into our vision.

All of this story was passed down to us … over thousands of years of people transmitting it – some at the cost of their very lives. We now carry the baton, but it must be passed off as well to those who will run after us (pending God’s return). How are you involved generationally in that transfer?

Luke and Theophilus – Who Are these Guys? (Acts 1:1-3, Luke 1:1-4)

If I handed you a letter written from one person to another, and you began reading it somewhere in the middle, it would not likely make a lot of sense, would it? You would not know who was writing, to whom it was written, or what was the purpose for the letter.

Yet as silly as that sounds, this is exactly how many people begin studying the Bible – just jumping into the middle of some section of Scripture. And then, it is said to be difficult to understand!  No wonder!  We do not always know the “who, what, when, where, and why” for every book of the Bible, but we do know it for many, and that background helps us immensely with understanding the Scriptures.

It is fairly clear that the book of Acts was written by Luke and to a guy named Theophilus. We know that Luke also wrote his Gospel for a fellow addressed as “most excellent Theophilus.”  And though the writer of Acts never identifies himself, he likewise addresses Theophilus again and references his former written book. (Look below to see these passages.)

As well, later in the Acts of the Apostles, the writer puts himself into the narrative of traveling with Paul for a time by talking about the places “we” went in “our” group. From other New Testament writings we are able to know who was with Paul at that time, and the list includes Luke. All the others are mentioned by name at some point in Acts, and so the process of elimination makes it pretty clear that Luke is the writer. We know too from Colossians 4:14 that Luke was a physician, as well as being a gentile believer in Christ.

The identity of Theophilus is more obscure. Many believe he was some sort of gentile Roman official who was interested in an accounting of who was this fellow named Jesus Christ, along with curiosity about what was this message of the Gospel. If so, that would make him likely a seeker of truth, perhaps someone very unique among his circle of acquaintances – which were more likely to ridicule this faith with its Eastern origins.

So the books of Luke and Acts go together. Just as it was unimaginable to write of the work of Jesus Christ without also recording the results worldwide of his teaching, it was likewise incomplete for Luke to write a history of those results without first reviewing the earthly ministry of Christ.

The title of the book “The Acts of the Apostles” was of course not selected by Luke, but was rather how it was commonly referenced in the first century or so after it was written. Peter is the primary character for the first part of the writing, while Paul takes center stage in the latter half. Some have said it should more appropriately be called “The Acts of the Spirit,” since it records the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, and then the subsequent work of the Spirit in the spread of the Gospel.

Whatever it is called, it does present the growth of the message of the Gospel and the expansion of this truth through the establishment of the church in the Roman world. We would really be lost to understand so much about the letters to the churches that comprise the Epistles without having this historical background. And the book gives us a practical model for living in the midst of a secular world.

And beyond this historic progress report of the spread of Christianity, another theme is the prominence of prayer as supportive for successful living and ministry. And that is especially why we are studying the book this summer.

Luke 1:1-4

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilledamong us,just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,  so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

Acts 1:1-3

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3 After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.