Midweek Advent Vespers
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
“Luke’s Lead-up to Christmas: The Annunciation of Our Lord” (Luke 1:26-38)
Our midweek series this year is called “Luke’s Lead-up to Christmas.” During Advent we’re looking at the events in Luke chapter one, which will prepare us for hearing the events of Luke chapter two at Christmas. Last week we began with the opening portion of Luke 1, “The Annunciation of St. John the Baptist” to Zechariah. Today then we continue with “The Annunciation of Our Lord,” our Lord Jesus Christ, to Mary. That’s the way Luke structures these first couple of chapters, on a kind of two-track model, switching from the John the Baptist story over to the Jesus story, back and forth, and so it goes.
The annunciation of John’s birth to his father Zechariah. The annunciation of Jesus’ birth to his mother Mary. Both announcements come from God’s special messenger, the angel Gabriel. The two accounts run back to back, and in so doing they show a contrast between the two recipients. Zechariah the priest, serving in the temple, hears the word from Gabriel that he and his wife Elizabeth will have a baby. Zechariah cannot believe it: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” Then Mary, the young virgin, hears an even more amazing message from the angel, that she, as a virgin, will have a baby. Initially she too is perplexed: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” But Gabriel assures her, “Nothing will be impossible with God.” And then Mary replies in faith, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” In contrast to Zechariah’s faltering faith, Mary stands out as an example of a strong and resolute faith, receiving God’s word–with its profound implications for her life–in all simplicity and humility and receptiveness.
How is it with your faith? Is your faith weak and faltering like Zechariah’s or strong and resolute like Mary’s? I suspect if you’re like me, sometimes you’re like Zechariah and sometimes you’re like Mary. That’s the way it is with us Christians, isn’t it? Not only can there be differences in strength of faith between two Christians, but there can also be differences within the same Christian from one point in that person’s life to another–sometimes even in the same week! There are times I’m all ready to go, to do the Lord’s will, to take hold of his promises with a sure grasp, no matter what. Then there are other times when my faith is as weak as a flickering candle and my confidence in the Lord seems as light as a feather. Is that how it is for you? Welcome to the club.
So how do we want to think about this faith business? First, recognize that faith is a gift from God. The Holy Spirit, working through the word of promise, creates faith in your heart and keeps it strong and grows it stronger, so that you will rise to the occasion as the need for faith presents itself. But what about Zechariah? It wasn’t like he was an unbeliever. No, he was a man of God, even described as “righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” And later on, when John is born, Zechariah finally does “get it,” as we’ll hear next week. Zechariah’s faith faltered, though, at the announcement from Gabriel. And it’s not like that is “OK.” It’s not. Unbelief in any degree, in any situation, is not good. Indeed, it is sin, the product of our old, unbelieving hearts. But God is gracious to us, and forgives us for Christ’s sake, and picks us up when we stumble and fall.
So when you’re like Zechariah, and you realize you haven’t been hearing and doing the word of God as you ought, don’t think, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” Rather, cry out to God in repentance for your hardness of heart, ask for his forgiveness, return to God’s word, and ask for his help to believe and live as his person. “Lord, I believe; help thou my unbelief.”
And when you’re like Mary, and your faith is strong and firm, thank God for that great blessing. Realize that your faith is a gift from God, and always is yours as a gift. “And let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.”
Friends, God would have us grow in a Mary-like faith. But it will not come through you and me mustering up our will and saying to ourselves, “Now I’m going to be like Mary! I’m going to be a strong and faithful Christian, never faltering, never wavering, simply by an exercise of my will.” I can tell you, that will not work. No, rather, we do want a stronger faith, but God is the one who will do the strengthening, and he will do it through the same means he always uses, and that is, through his word. That’s how it worked for Mary herself. The angel greeted her and surrounded her with words of God’s grace and promise.
“Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” That itself is a word of grace, God’s unmerited favor. “The Lord is with you”–there is the Lord’s gracious presence with his people, with sinners like Mary and like you and me. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” More grace. Grace upon grace. God’s word relieves our fears. God is not out to destroy us but to save us.
“And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” Now obviously that was a promise just for Mary and for no one else. Only she would be the mother of our Lord, and God gave her the faith to take on that special role. But the promise of the child she would bear–that is for all of us. This child’s name will be Jesus, and there’s a lot packed into that name. The name Jesus literally means “Savior.” That’s what this child would do–be our Savior, save us from our sins and from death and hell and from all that would keep us from God. The Savior born of Mary–this is the most important of all God’s promises, the one promise that every person needs. And it is the promise you have. And with that promise, with that Savior, comes also to faith to believe in him, to trust in him for your salvation. The word of promise–God’s word has the power to work faith and to deliver the goods Christ won for you on the cross.
“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, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” It’s all about Jesus. “For all the promises of God are yea and amen in him.” Christ’s kingdom is an everlasting kingdom. No term limits for Jesus. He is the Messiah, the divine deliverer, come to right all the wrongs, to undo death, to reverse the curse, and to give life, eternal life, in its place. This is what he has done, for you.
The bottom line today is this: Faith needs a word to cling to, a sure word from God. Faith does not exist in a vacuum. It is not a matter of faith in our own faith, but rather of faith in God, faith in his word. And that faith is produced and nurtured by that very word of God. Dear friends, O favored ones, do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God. God will give you a Mary-like faith, in the Savior Mary bore. And God will do this the same way he did with Mary–through his word. And then you will respond in faith and say, with Mary, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”