Pastor Scott Andrews | July 23, 2023
Several years ago, my Christmas sermon was titled “Joseph, the Forgotten Man of Christmas.” If you were here, you remember we talked about how Joseph has gotten a bum rap – how’s he is seen as a secondary, non-essential character to the Christmas story. Take him out, nobody would even miss him. I illustrated with this:
When it comes time to set up your nativity set each year, you have to go through the process of elimination to determine which little guy is actually Joseph. Jesus is easy – He’s the only baby. Mary is easy – the only woman. The angel is easy – the only one with wings. Then, there are those three kings – who we know weren’t even at the first Christmas. But that’s okay – they look cool in the scene dressed in their opulent attire with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
The animals we can pick out – even though the Bible never mentions sheep, cattle or oxen. Leaving those last three figures – we determine two are shepherds because one’s holding a lamb, the other a staff. And so last, and certainly least, is Joseph. We place him as inconspicuously as possible so as not to distract from the other, more important figures present, or not present, at that first nativity. Get it – animals or people that weren’t there get precedence over Joseph.
If it is true Joseph is seen as a dispensable part of the Christmas narrative, it is equally true we’ve gone to the other extreme with the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. If Joseph is the forgotten man of Christmas, Mary is the exaggerated woman of Christmas. Let’s talk about her today – a sort of Christmas in July.
Think about it, when you see a painting of the baby Jesus, what do you see? A cute little boy nestled in his mother’s arms. The mother is white, blond-haired, blue-eyed, a Vanity Fair model in her 20’s. She’s adorned in robes of rich blue hues, or, in some cases, richly ornamented golden garments. And there is the ever-present halo round yon virgin, mother and child.
The point being, we’re familiar with Mary when thinking of Christmas – and perhaps we should be – she did, after all, give birth to the Savior of the world. But, my concern is, through Christmas legend or church tradition, we might not really know the Mary of the Bible. The fact is, there have arisen many teachings/legends about Mary which aren’t even in the Bible.
For example, there is a legend which says when she was three years old, she took a vow of virginity. From then on, she stayed at the Temple in Jerusalem to fulfill her vow in service to God. We’re told during that time, she enjoyed “ecstatic visions and daily visitations by angels.” I guess then, when Gabriel appeared, it was no big deal.
When she was fourteen, the high priest wanted to send her home for marriage. But, Mary reminded him of her vow, and in his embarrassment the high priest went to talk to the Lord about it. He then called all the young men of the family of David, and promised Mary in marriage to whoever’s rod would sprout and become the resting place of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. Guess whose rod sprouted? So, of course, this promise of marriage greatly perplexed Mary, given her vow of virginity, so she went again to the High Priest. He told her it was alright to marry Joseph, as long as she stayed a virgin – a marriage bound for marital bliss, no doubt. This led to the teaching of the perpetual virginity of Mary – that is, she remained a virgin all her life – she never had a physical relationship with Joseph, even after Jesus was born.
There is also the teaching of the Immaculate Conception of Mary – that when she was born, she was born without original sin. Which means she did not inherit the sin nature of Adam like the rest of us – she was born perfect. And the doctrine of perfect sanctity is used to teach that not only was she born perfect, she stayed perfect – meaning, Mary never sinned. Oh, and by the way – since she was without sin, when she gave birth to Jesus, she didn’t suffer the curse of sin – that is, she didn’t experience any pain when Jesus was born. See ladies, you don’t need an epidural – you just need to stop sinning.
Now, since it is said she was without sin, the question is asked, why did she die? After all, the wages of sin is death – if she never sinned, why’d she die? The answer is simply, she asked God to dissolve the bonds between her soul and body so she could be reunited to her Son. It is said she died on the Mount of Olives, was buried in the Garden of Gethsemane – but of course, you wouldn’t be able to find her remains, since, in what is called her corporeal or bodily assumption, she was taken right into heaven – all you would find is a coffin and a winding sheet. By the way, Jesus met her in her assumption and crowned her the queen of heaven. Finally, because since Jesus will not refuse her a request as seen at the marriage supper in Cana of Galilee, we are encouraged to pray to her, asking her to speak to Jesus on our behalf, because He won’t tell her no.
So, I’d say we have gone a bit far with Mary, making her too central, not only to the story of Christmas, but the story of redemption. Is this the Mary of the Bible, or the Mary of our own making? What do we really know about her? Let’s look this morning at Luke 1 – which is the first time she appears in the New Testament. Luke 1:26-38, often called the Annunciation.
Let me just say, may our attitude in response to God and His work be that of Mary, not that of Zacharias. We have begun a study of the book of Luke. In his prologue – the first four verses of the book – he gave his purpose for writing – that we would be certain – know for sure – the things we have been taught. So, it seems to me we should be careful – not taking away, not adding to the Word of God. Last week, we jumped into the book, starting with the announcement to Zacharias as he served in the Temple that he and his barren wife Elizabeth would have son. They were to name him John, and he was to be the forerunner prophesied by Malachi – the one to prepare the way for the soon-coming Messiah.
We noted a couple important points. First, Luke’s intention was to demonstrate a continuity between the Old and New Testaments – that John was the last prophet of the OT era, serving as a bridge to the NT – from the old covenant to the new with the coming of Jesus. Everything prophesied in the OT would be fulfilled in the NT in Jesus. Second, we noted last week the similarities between the births of John and Jesus. They are set side by side for comparison, and contrast. Remember:
- Both births are announced by the angel Gabriel.
- Both sets of parents are bewildered by the announcements.
- Both births are incredible, even miraculous.
- The names and mission of both sons are announced.
- Both parents question how this could happen.
- Both parents are assured God will bring it about.
- Both parents are given signs.
- Both annunciations occur in isolation from each other.
- Both pregnancies intersect with Mary’s visit to Elizabeth.
But, there are also some significant differences – and by them, Luke is demonstrating the supremacy of Jesus to John. This doesn’t diminish the importance of John – it actually highlights it. John was the forerunner of the Messiah, but Jesus was the Messiah. Look at some of the significant differences:
- John’s mother was barren; Jesus’ mother was a virgin. So while John’s birth was incredible, Jesus’ birth was miraculous.
- John’s announcement was disbelieved by his father; Jesus’ announcement was received (even submitted to) by His mother.
- John would be a prophet crying in the wilderness; Jesus would be a king sitting on David’s throne, and that, forever.
- John would be great in the sight of the Lord; Jesus would be great as the Lord.
- John would be the son of a priest; Jesus would be the Son of God.
- John would be filled with the Holy Spirit; Jesus would be conceived by the Holy Spirit.
- John would prepare for the Lord’s coming; Jesus would be the Lord at His coming.
So again, without diminishing the role of John, we see the infinite greatness of Jesus. But there are also some other differences which highlight Jesus’ humility which we will see in our text today. Consider:
- John was born into a priest’s family; Jesus was born into a carpenter’s family.
- John’s birth was announced in the Temple in Jerusalem; Jesus’s birth was announced in the nothing town of Nazareth.
- John’s birth would have been celebrated by all; Jesus’ birth would have been questioned by all.
- Because, John’s birth was to a barren woman; Jesus’ birth was to an unmarried woman (that is, the marriage was not yet consummated).
And those humble differences highlight both the way Jesus came, and to whom He came. When Gabriel came to Mary, he bypassed Judea for Galilee, Jerusalem for Nazareth, the Temple for a grotto – a priest for a young teenage virgin. Jesus came humbly, to the humbled, to marginalized, the ostracized, the fringes of society, those often overlooked, the poor, sinners, tax collectors, children, and women. To the weak, the sick, the leper, the blind, the lame. In short, to the broken, and those who knew they were broken. He comes to the same kind of people today. So, very simply, this morning, I want us to look at:
- The Recipient of Grace (26-30)
- The Revelation of Grace (31-37)
- The Response of Grace (38)
Let’s begin, then, by seeing Mary as a Recipient (not a repository, but a recipient) of Grace in verses 26-30. As she is introduced, we find twice, she was a virgin. While she was engaged to Joseph, they had not yet consummated the marriage ceremonially or physically. They were in the one-year betrothal period that was the custom of the day. Now, at this time, it was possible and quite common for a girl to be betrothed to her would-be husband as a young teenage, 13, 14. Which means, when Mary gave birth to Jesus, she was not in her twenties like we see in the paintings – she was a young teenager, which makes this story, in terms of her acceptance of the angelic message, even more amazing.
We find in the sixth month – that is, the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, the angel Gabriel came from God – remember, we saw last week he stood in the presence of God – and appeared to Mary as she lived in the small town of Nazareth, north in Galilee. Remember later, when presented the possibility of Jesus of Nazareth being the Messiah, Nathaniel said, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” You see, Nazareth was a nothing town. It does not appear in the OT or rabbinical writings; in any extra-biblical literature until 200 years after Jesus was born. Not in Josephus or any other historian of the time. Archeological studies suggest the town, almost in the middle between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Galilee, was a small town with grottos or caves as houses, and likely had a population of, at most, about 500 people.
It would be the same if Jesus were born today. A nothing town – Boone would have been too big or too well-known. We have people who vacation here – nobody even had an Airbnb in Nazareth; we have the university here – Mary would have been illiterate; we have a worldwide ministry here – nobody would have traveled more than a few miles from Nazareth. No, Boone is much too much for the Savior of the world. It would have to be a town you’ve never heard of – not even a town, a village like Meat Camp or Deep Gap.
As we saw last week, Gabriel appears to serve as the messenger of God and was the same one sent to Zacharias. Gabriel came into the place where Mary lived, probably with her parents. Listen, having been born, she would have been married off, had some babies, and died in total obscurity like thousands before her. Remember, Luke elevates women. One author suggests Gabriel could not have found a more unlikely person in all Israel. At least, Mary was the least conspicuous. She was lowly – a poor, uneducated peasant living in a small town far from any center of power or notoriety. Kent Hughes says “she was a nobody in a nothing town in the middle of nowhere.” Yet, she was given the greatest honor that any woman has ever received. (Next week – Catholics vs. Protestants) Gabriel said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” What? Then, in verse 30, he says, “you have found favor with God.”
You may be interested to know the Latin for “Greetings” is “Ave,” hence, “Ave Maria.” In the Greek, the words “favored one” and “found favor” both have the word grace as their root. That’s important. The idea is that Mary was a graced one – she had found grace with God.
And therein lies an important question. Everyone agrees Mary was special – she was a virgin chosen to bear the Son of God. But the question is, what caused her to find grace with God? What caused her to be chosen – to be the graced one? Was it her inherent grace, or the grace she received for the task? There is much confusion about this, largely because of a prayer offered by Catholics which says, “Hail Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus, Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of death.” While this prayer contains some biblical language, it is not a biblical prayer. The problem is it treats Mary as the source of grace rather than the object of grace. And so, people pray to her because they think she has grace to dispense. To be clear, she was the recipient of grace, not the source of grace.
You see, the phrase full of grace is a mistranslation of this passage in the Latin Vulgate, which is the foundation of the Catholic Bible. Even today, most Catholic scholars admit it’s a mistranslation. But, by church tradition and not Scripture, they still think Christians should pray to Mary. Again, Mary is the recipient of grace, not the repository and thereby the source of grace. When Gabriel calls her favored one, it is a passive participle – something done to her, not something she has done to earn the title.
You see, God sit in heaven and look around for the best possible mother to be the mother of Jesus. Did He look for one most worthy of the responsibility? Oh yes, there’s Mary – she’d make a good mother of God. No, rather His choice of her made her worthy – a recipient of grace. Think of it this way, did God choose her because she was favored, or was she favored because God chose her?
When Gabriel says, “Greetings, favored one,” the word for “favored one” appears in only one other place in the New Testament, and it sheds some light on its meaning. It’s found in Ephesians 1:5-6. “He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.” The words freely bestowed translate the same word – in other words, His grace was not something we earned, it was something He freely favored on us in His beloved Son, Jesus Christ.
This is very important. You see, we have a problem today. Even in Christianity, we think there is something we do to earn God’s attention – His merit. There was something about Mary that caused her to be chosen. There had to be – she couldn’t just be a normal girl – that wouldn’t do – so we’ve come up with all kinds of ideas about her. Certainly, if she was going to give birth to Jesus, she couldn’t be a normal sinner like us. So, we’ve come up with the doctrines of the immaculate conception – no original sin – and perfect sanctity – that she never committed a sin and perpetual virginity. Certainly, she had to earn God’s favor – this grace, didn’t she?
One of my favorite musicals is the Sound of Music – one of the greatest movies of all time. You’ve seen it. You remember when Captain Von Trappe breaks off his engagement with the Baroness, he goes to find Maria in the gazebo to tell her he’s in love with her. It’s a great scene – he says, “I can’t very well marry her when I’m in love with someone else.” They kiss, then Maria breaks into a song, singing, “Here you are, standing there, loving me, whether or not you should. So somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good. Nothing comes from nothing, nothing ever could, so somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good.”
Great song, horrible theology. Rogers and Hammerstein didn’t understand grace – which is getting what we don’t deserve. This Maria couldn’t comprehend God giving her the captain, undeserved – she must have done something to deserve him.
And we think the same thing. The other Maria – the Ave Maria one, the one we call Mary, must have done something good to deserve God’s grace. There must be something about her that caused God to choose her to bear the Son of God. So, even if the Bible doesn’t say so, we’ve made up all kinds of good things about her. Even if those things go against what the Bible says, like, “There is none righteous, no, not one.” Not even Mary. You see, it is true…the mother of God needed Jesus as her Savior just like we do. Which is why a few verses later, in the Magnificat, she says, “My spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.”
This is a magnificent truth for us. There is nothing we do to deserve God’s attention – to deserve His grace – to deserve the greatest gift of all – the Son of God. God doesn’t look around and choose to give His grace to those who deserve it. If you think you are too bad to deserve God’s favor – you’re just the person He delights to save. He gives grace to those who understand they’re broken – He gives it to those who understand they don’t deserve it. This is a message of Luke. That’s what it means to be a “graced one” – to receive God’s forgiveness, His love, when we haven’t done a thing to earn it. That is, after all, what a gift is.
Again, we mess the idea up even with our other made-up Christmas stories. Santa’s keeping a list, checking it twice – why? Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice. Why? The nice ones have earned good gifts. The naughty ones are going to get a chunk of coal. We’ve taken the truth of Christmas and turned it upside down. God doesn’t work that way. That’s not what a gift is. And when we realize our naughtiness, our sin, and seek God’s gracious forgiveness, it’s then we receive the greatest gift of all – Jesus as our Savior.
Mary is a reminder to us of what grace is all about. I’m not saying she was extra bad – and that’s why God chose her. I’m saying she was the favored one, not because she was sinless, or stayed a virgin, or that you can pray to her today to intercede for you, or that she’s your mother or mine – or any of a number of other things we’ve made up about her. I’m saying, she was graced because God noticed her, just like He’s noticed us, when we didn’t deserve it. And even though He checked His list and found us all naughty, He gave us what we didn’t deserve, the greatest gift of His own Son. If you’re here this morning thinking you’re too bad to ever receive the gift of God’s Son, you might just be where you need to be to receive it.
Which leads to our second point. First, Mary was the Recipient of Grace. And that grace was ultimately displayed in the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ. Incarnation simply means God took on flesh. It truly is what the birth of Jesus is really all about – the Revelation of Grace. The angel appeared to Mary, pronouncing her the favored one – why? Because she would conceive and bear a son. But not just any son; we learn several things about this Son to be born:
- First, we see He is to be called Jesus. Matthew tells us that name, which is a Greek rendering of the Old Testament name, Joshua, is appropriate, because it means, “The Lord saves,” and refers to the fact that Jesus will save His people from their sins.
- Second, we see that He will be great. Remember, John would be great in the sight of God. Jesus would be great without qualification. In the OT, whenever the word great is used without qualification, it is almost always used of God. Already we are beginning to see the juxtaposition of the meekness and majesty of Jesus. He came humbly through a lowly birth to a peasant girl. He would live a life of humiliation – poverty, rejection, persecution and ultimately execution. But He would still be called great.
- Because you see, third, we see that He is will be called the Son of the Most High. Now, we know that Mary was confused during this conversation – not understanding how she could possibly conceive, given the fact that she had never had a physical relationship with a man. It is then we are told that the Holy Spirit would come upon her, and the power of the Most High would overshadow her. We don’t know the medical science of all that – all we know is that Jesus did not have an earthly father – His was the Heavenly Father – making Him one with and equal to the Father – which leads to His third title here – the very Son of God, speaking of His deity. Luke will reveal this over and over – at conception, at His baptism, at the transfiguration, at the resurrection: He is the Son of God, with whom God is well-pleased.
- Fourth, we see that He will be a King – not just any king – but the King promised to sit on David’s throne. This title referred to His Messiahship – He was to be the Anointed One – the Christ, who would sit on His father David’s throne, forever. His kingdom will have no end – right out of Isaiah 9 of Christmas fame, 2 Samuel 7 of the Davidic Covenant, Daniel 7. All that is promised in the OT is fulfilled in Jesus in the New.
The truth is, Jesus is the very representation, indeed, the revelation of grace itself. By the way, in the middle of the annunciation, Mary asks a question, how can this be, since I am a virgin? This is not the same as Zachariah’s question of unbelief. It was a natural question of biology – how can this be? Can you imagine for a minute what this young girl just heard? You will have a son. He will be great like God is great, He will be the Savior of the world, He will be the Son of God, He will be the promised Messiah, He will the fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant as the King forever. I’m sure she felt like fainting. How can this be?
Gabriel answers – the Holy Spirit – remember, Luke makes much of the Holy Spirit – the Spirit will come upon you. Just like the presence of God overshadowed the Tabernacle in Exodus, just like the cloud overshadowed Jesus at the transfiguration, so also the Spirit overshadowed Mary at conception. Just an aside, but John 3 says that we are born again in much the same way – by the Spirit of God coming on us – regenerating us, making us alive in Christ. Here, the power of the Most High – that’s God, and the power is simply another way to refer to the Spirit – will overshadow Mary; and for this reason the holy child shall be called the Son of God. In a sense, while different, we also will be called children of God because of the Spirit’s regenerating work.
Another quick aside. Many want to deny the virgin birth today. They suggest it doesn’t really matter how Mary got pregnant. Yes it does. You see, in order for Jesus to be the God-man, fully God and fully man, He was born of the virgin Mary, a woman producing the nature of His humanity; and He was born of the Spirit, God producing the nature of His deity. Two natures, one person. In theology, it’s called the hypostatic union. We say it in our creeds, “He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” If Jesus was born the natural way, by Joseph and Mary; if He was not born by the power of the Most High, conceived of the Holy Spirit, then He was just a man, and we are still in our sin.
Which brings us to our third and final point, the Response of Grace. I want you to try to approach this story like you haven’t heard it at least once a year for the last 10, 20, 30 or 80 years. This angel just told Mary, this 13 or 14 year old girl, that she was soon to become pregnant, out of legal wedlock, and that the son to be born would be the Son of God. A bit overwhelming, don’t you think? We will talk next week about what that meant culturally, societally.
And yet, what was Mary’s response? It was the response of grace in verse 38, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” Isn’t that the way you’re your teenagers respond when you tell them to clean their rooms? Mary said, I belong to God – the One who has showered His abundant, undeserved grace on me. My only possible response is obedience. The only possible response when God graces us with His Son, is obedience. It’s not that Mary’s obedience made her the recipient of grace – she already was. It was because she had received God’s grace that she recognized her only response was to submit to the angelic proclamation.
And Mary becomes the example to all of us who have likewise received the promise of the Son. As Jesus comes into our lives, our only response is one of humble obedience. May it be done to us according to His word.
As Gabriel announced the coming of Jesus through the virgin’s womb, what did he say in verse 30? “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God.” She is an example – maybe even the example of God’s unmerited favor. Grace. Even when we feel small and insignificant, overlooked by the world, we can know that God sees us, and gives us His sweet, unmerited, unearned grace.