In this sermon, for the Second Sunday in Advent, I contrast Mary’s response to Gabriel with Zechariah’s response. When it comes to treasuring God and his Word, are we more like Mary or Zechariah?
Sermon Text: Luke 1:26-38
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Recall last week that after Gabriel tells Zechariah that he and his wife, Elizabeth, are going to have a child, Zechariah asks, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” He doubts Gabriel’s message. And what happens next? The angel zaps him! He makes him mute—and as we can infer from verse 62 later in the chapter, deaf as well. For the next nine months, until his son is born, Zechariah is unable to hear or speak.
Of course, Gabriel is only acting on God’s behalf. So it’s not that the angel did it so much as God did it. God punished or disciplined Zechariah.
What do we make of this?
Just last week, in the New York Times, Billy Bush wrote a personal essay about his experience being fired by NBC News this time last year. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, you can google Billy Bush. I’m not getting into it! All you need to know is that Bush—a member of the political dynasty—was a rising star at NBC News before he got in trouble. And he got fired.
But I bring it up because I found the last two paragraphs of his essay deeply moving. He wrote:
On a personal note, this last year has been an odyssey, the likes of which I hope to never face again: anger, anxiety, betrayal, humiliation, many selfish but, I hope, understandable emotions. But these have given way to light, both spiritual and intellectual. It’s been fortifying.
I know that I don’t need the accouterments of fame to know God and be happy. After everything over the last year, I think I’m a better man and father to my three teenage daughters—far from perfect, but better.
As a fellow sinner saved by God’s grace alone, I can only say a hearty “Amen.” What I hear in Bush’s words, first, is an acknowledgment of the destructive, insidious power of sin—but in the same breath I hear the grace of repentance and the mercy of God’s discipline.
That’s right… I said “mercy.” God’s discipline of Billy Bush was merciful.
How else would you describe it? As he said, “After everything over the last year, I think I’m a better man and father to my three teenage daughters — far from perfect, but better.” God did that for him, and it sounds like Bush knows it.
If you are a Christian, please know that God will discipline you—frequently. The author of Hebrews quotes Proverbs when he writes,
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord,
nor be weary when reproved by him.
For the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
and chastises every son whom he receives.”
The author goes on to say that God “disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”
So, by rendering him deaf and mute, God disciplined Zechariah. When we consider the difficulty that we sinful human beings usually have believing and abiding by God’s Word, we may wonder if God’s discipline of Zechariah wasn’t overly severe, harsh—perhaps even unfair. But that’s because we often think the purpose of life in this world is for us to be happy, to be comfortable, and to glorify ourselves, rather than to live for God’s glory alone.
Regardless, I doubt Zechariah believed God was treating him unfairly. Like Billy Bush, I’m sure Zechariah could look back over this season of God’s discipline in his life and be thankful because, as with Bush, God used this experience to make him a better man, a more faithful man, a more trusting man—and not to mention a better father to his newborn son, John.
When God disciplines us—and he will—he will show us that same kind of mercy. Thank God!
Let me put a pin in this discussion of God’s discipline and come back to it later. For now, let me address a question that many of you might have: Does the angel hold Mary to a different standard than Zechariah? When Gabriel tells her that she’s going to miraculously conceive a son who will be the Savior, the Son of God, and the Messiah, she also asks a question: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Isn’t she expressing doubt? Is her question really so different from Zechariah’s?
And the answer is, “yes.” It’s drastically different from Zechariah’s! Zechariah is saying, “I don’t really believe God has the power to do this, so will you please give me a sign that it’s going to happen?” Mary, by contrast, is saying, “I believe that God is somehow going to work this miracle. I’m just trying to figure out how.” Mary’s question is not whether God can do it, but how he’s going to do it.
This is just the kind of person Mary is! She’s inquisitive. She ponders things. She thinks things through—deeply. We see this in a few different places. After the angel greets her, Luke tells us that she was “trying to discern what sort of greeting this might be.” Later, after Jesus was born and the shepherds come to the manger and tell her about the angels’ announcement to them, Luke tells us, “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.”
Twelve years later, after Mary finds Jesus in the temple, astounding the Bible teachers with his wisdom and insight, Luke tells us that Mary “treasured up all these things in her heart.”
How do we follow Mary’s example today? How do we “treasure up” the things of God in our hearts? The answer is very straightforward… By devoting our lives to God’s Word: reading it; meditating on it; studying it; memorizing it.
I have a favorite Bible, the ESV Study Bible. This is the Bible that I’ve been reading nearly every day for the past six years. And it’s the Bible I turn to first when I prepare sermons. And I’m happy to report that I’m literally tearing it up. The cover is starting to separate. The onion-skin pages are getting badly wrinkled and worn. To make matters worse, pages are starting to fall out. In fact, page 1985 and 1986, which includes most of Luke chapter 13, has come loose entirely. I tuck it in before I shut the Bible so I won’t lose it.
Listen… It is a very good sign that this Bible is worn out! Because let me tell you a true story: Not long after I became a Christian in 1984, I saved my money to buy an expensive Bible—for me. It was a lot like this one, but it was the NIV Study Bible. I loved it. By the time I graduated high school, the cover had fallen off. The margins had all kinds of writing in them. It was worse for wear.
So someone gave me, as a graduation gift, a new NIV Study Bible to replace it. Only this one was leather, and it had my name engraved in gold on the cover. It was beautiful.
Friends, I’m sad to say I never needed to replace that one—through five years of college and well into my professional life. That leather-bound Bible remained in mint condition.
What happened to me? I stopped doing what Mary does in today’s scripture: I stopped treasuring God’s Word. I got distracted by the cares of the world. I got caught up in school, in grades, in friends, in professional ambition, in trying to make my way in the world. And I “abandoned the love that I had at first,” as Jesus warns in Revelation 2:4. I fell out of love with Jesus. There was little joy in my relationship with God. I was going through the motions. And this lasted for years—during seminary, during the first several years of ministry! Before I repented!
And the trouble all started when I stopped treasuring God’s Word; when Bible-reading and Bible study became an optional extra feature of my life—when I had time for it. When I could fit it in. So, among other things, this nearly worn-out Bible reminds me of the good changes that God has made in my life since then.
So my warning to you is, don’t follow my example! Save yourself some heartache! Follow Mary’s example! Treasure God’s Word in your hearts!
And if you’re not currently treasuring God’s Word like that, why don’t you give yourself a Bible for Christmas and wear yours out alongside mine!
Let’s move on to verse 31: “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” Jesus is the Greek version of the name Joshua, which means “God saves.” The angel who comes to Joseph says, “[Y]ou shall call his name Jesus”—why?—“for he will save his people from their sins.” Save “his” people. Who are his people? Israel? Yes—except those of us who believe in Christ are now part of Israel—the way a “wild olive shoot” is grafted onto a tree, as Paul says in Romans 11. We are his people!
Gabriel goes on to say, “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.” Again, “house of Jacob” is a reference to Israel—of which those of us who are in Christ are part.
So what does that all mean? It means that Christ is our king, and he’s reigning over us right now.
Are we O.K. with this? Are we Americans O.K. with this?
I ask because we are dyed-in-the-wool democrats. And I know what many of you are thinking: “Not me! I’m a Republican.” That’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is that most of us are citizens of the first country founded on the principle that government is “of the people, by the people, for the people”—and that we the people can govern ourselves better than any king can govern us. Right?
C.S. Lewis, a British citizen from Northern Ireland who died, interestingly, on the same day as John F. Kennedy, was also a great admirer of democracy. He wrote:
A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true… I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation… The real reason for democracy is… [that] [m]ankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.
The point is, in this fallen, sinful world, we need democracy because we can’t put absolute power in any one person’s hands. Because we’re all terrible sinners who will abuse this power. I mean, look at the news: any congressman or senator has far less power than a king, yet look how, in light of the sex abuse scandals—look how they abuse the limited power they do have. Democracy is necessary because we need checks on the power of rulers—which is the genius of our U.S. Constitution. It is, I believe, a great gift from God.
Having said all that, please note: Our convictions concerning democracy do not and cannot apply to Christ and his kingship. Pastor John Piper puts it like this:
If there could be a king who is not limited in his wisdom and power and goodness and love for his subjects, then monarchy would be the best of all governments. If such a ruler could ever rise in the world—with no weakness, no folly, no sin—then no wise and humble person would ever want democracy again.
This is the kind of king we have… in Christ.
And if this is the kind of king that we have, then all we can do, all we ought to do, is surrender to him. Without getting a vote on the matter!
When Gabriel struck Zechariah deaf and mute, Zechariah could have responded with bitterness… with anger… “Why are you doing this to me, God?” But a far better response would be, “Why is God my king, who has absolute power and authority over me, who is completely sovereign over my life, who is perfectly loving, perfectly good, perfectly just, who is always working for my good, who always has my best interest at heart—why is God doing this to me? I mean that sincerely, why? What does he need to show me? What does he need to teach me? How do I need to change? To what good end is he directing this deafness and muteness? Even if I don’t know what his reasons are, I can trust they’re good. Because God is my king, and he’s in charge here.”
I think that’s how Zechariah responded.
If so, then Zechariah’s response would be more like Mary’s response in verse 38, which are some of the most beautiful words ever recorded: “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” John Wesley, in his commentary on this text, speculates that the moment Mary speaks those words is the very moment Christ was conceived inside of her—and he may be right!
Here Mary surrenders to the kingship of Christ. It’s her choice, to be sure. God isn’t forcing himself on her. Mary gets a vote, if you want to think of it that way. But once she says, “Let it be with me according to your word,” she is voting to never again have a vote—in her relationship with God, at least. I’m not talking about politics.
By giving up her right to vote, Mary is also giving up the life that she knew—the life that she planned, the life that her family and Joseph’s family planned for her, the life that she dreamed of… Everything was going to be different from now on. And she is embracing a potentially frightening, uncertain, unknowable future—at least to her. God knew exactly what her future held. And she’s embracing a future that’s going to cause great heartache, great suffering for her—as the prophet Simeon later tells her in the Temple, when they bring the infant Jesus to be dedicated, and Simeon tells Mary, “A sword will pierce your own soul also.”
And what does Mary get for all her trouble? Jesus. And he’s enough for her. Is Jesus enough for you and me?
1. Luke 1:18 ESV
2. Billy Bush, “Billy Bush: Yes, Donald Trump, You Said That,” New York Times, 3 December 2017.
3. Hebrews 12:5-6, 10-11
4. Luke 2:19
5. Luke 2:51
6. Romans 11:17
7. C.S. Lewis, “Equality,” in Present Concerns: Essays by C.S. Lewis, quoted in Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root, The Quotable C.S. Lewis [Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989], 152–153)
8. John Piper, “The Child to Be Born Will Be Called Holy — the Son of God,” desiringgod.org. Accessed 9 December 2017.