Sermon preached on Luke 1:26-45 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 11/10/2013 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Mary and Elizabeth: “For With God Nothing Will Be Impossible”
We continue today our sermon miniseries through key women of the Bible. Last week we looked at Esther, and considered life under the time of exile for the nation of Israel. We had mentioned how the Israelites at that time were allowed to move back to the Promised Land and resettle there, and some of them did. That resettling would have brought the hope to them that maybe God would finally fulfill his promise of raising up a Messiah from the line of David. But by the time the New Testament period begins, and where we come to in our timeline for today, still that had not happened. Israel had resettled the Promised Land, but the promised Messiah had not yet come. For that matter, the even more ancient promise of the seed of the woman who would be born to crush Satan had still not been born. Well, when we get to our passage for today, all that is beginning to change. For in our passage we see the miraculous conception of two baby boys. One is the final precursor to the Messiah, John the Baptist, who would pave the way for the Messiah’s ministry. The other is the long awaited Messiah, Jesus, who would be our savior. Consequently, today we will particularly consider the two mothers involved here. Elizabeth, mother of John, and Mary, mother of Jesus.
And so today we arrive at the culmination of this age old promise. The promised seed of the woman arrives with the conception and birth of Jesus! But first, there is one more anticipatory birth before that. As we’ve walked through the Scriptures these last several months, we’ve had the privilege to see several miraculous births among the people of God. There have been others as well, that we’ve not had opportunity to study too, like Hannah giving birth to Samuel, for example. But time and again we have seen God overcome barrenness in order to carry on the line of his people, and that has especially been the case in the specific line of the Messiah. All such miraculous births have helped teach us an important principle — that it would be God’s power that would fulfill his promise to raise up the promised seed of the woman that would crush the seed of the serpent. I’m referring to that promise spoken to Eve and Adam in Genesis 3:15. And so before the Messiah himself is born, yet another one of these anticipatory births occurs. And the one born here is John the Baptist, who’s specific job will be to preach a message that prepares the people for the imminent coming of the Messiah. And so how fitting then that John’s birth is somewhat similar to how Abraham and Sarah conceived and gave birth to Isaac. It was clear that from human efforts, it was impossible that Abraham and Sarah could have a child. That is clearly the case then with Elizabeth and Zechariah, as per verses 7 and 18. They also were too old for children, from a human standpoint. But with God, nothing will be impossible.
Notice, by the way, what we learn about Elizabeth and Zechariah here in verses 5-6. They were both of priestly lineage, and they were both righteous before God; in other words they lived commendable, godly, lives. Elizabeth and Zechariah were people of God and in an honored position. Well as the story begins, Zechariah is honored to be chosen by lot to present the offering of incense in the temple, verse 9. And as he is doing that priestly service the angel Gabriel appears to him. Gabriel announces to him that he and his wife will have a child, a wonderful child with a special ministry to pave the way for the Messiah. He would be the one promised to come in the spirit of Elijah!
But notice how this man of God responds. In verse 18 he asks, “How shall I know this?” Realize that he is expression unbelief. Zechariah points out he and Elizabeth’s old age. He asks for a sign, some proof, that would confirm Gabriel’s promise. Realize, first off, this really shouldn’t be something you even need a sign for. But notice that Gabriel says the sign is right in front of him — the mighty angel Gabriel is the one bringing him the message, verse 19! Don’t miss how this is at the heart of what it means to be an Israelite. Abraham received this promise and he believed. And that was credited it to him as righteousness. Here, this son of Abraham does not believe a similar promise. And that was not a righteous response. Here this religious leader among Israel fails a test of faith. Here his personal godliness is shown to be not sufficient on its own. But then again, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised at this. Zechariah represents why Israel (and us) needs a Messiah and Savior. Even the most godly among them falters and fails.
And so God through Gabriel brings chastisement. Zechariah would be mute until the child is born. We might remember here Miriam’s chastisement where she too had a punishment for a time — her leprosy, as an expression of God’s fatherly discipline. That is exactly what this is. God is disciplining Zechariah, and it will work well. When John is born and he confirms in writing that his name is to be John, as Gabriel had told him, then his voice is restored, and he instantly begins to praise God. That is what John the Baptist was to do for all the people of Israel. To call them to repentance in preparation for the coming of the Christ. That work begins with his own Dad.
Well, after we see Gabriel announce to Zechariah of John’s birth, we see the angel go to Mary to announce how she will give birth in an even more miraculous way.
Realize that the general picture of Mary, contrasted with say Elizabeth, is that she is just some young girl from a small town, betrothed to a carpenter. In Mary’s words of herself, she is lowly, verse 48. But Gabriel comes to her an announces essentially that she will conceive and give birth to the promised Messiah. Now clearly Mary understands what Gabriel is saying. Gabriel is predicting a virgin conception and birth. As powerful as God is to make barren wombs fruitful, this is even more amazing. That God can make a woman who has not known a man yet become pregnant. Mary understands Gabriel to say this, but she doesn’t understand how it can be possible. So, she too asks the angel a question. Verse 34 she asks, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” Realize that this question is fundamentally different than the question that Zechariah had asked. His question was one of unbelief. Her question was one that came from faith. She’s not doubting that what Gabriel said is true. But she is just trying to understand how it’s possible.
Gabriel’s answer is wonderful. In verse 35, Gabriel says that the Holy Spirit will overshadow her. In other words, it will be a miracle wrought by God himself. He also says that this means that the child will be the Son of God. That’s in contrast to what the angel had just previously said when he emphasized the human lineage of the baby through the line of Jacob and David. This baby will be both the son of man and the son of God. Gabriel further answers her question of how this is all possible by letting her know about Elizabeth. The angel tells her that Elizabeth’s barren womb has also been overcome. The angel summarizes it all with the powerful words of Luke 1:37, “For nothing is impossible with God”. God’s power can bring life to both barren and virgin wombs!
And so Mary believed this. Realize, the angel didn’t really give the kind of answer some of us might want if we were Mary. We’d probably want some scientific explanation. We might want to truly understand how this all could happen. Even today, people ask such questions. But the answer given to her was enough for her to believe. You don’t have to fully understand a mystery in order to believe it. It was enough for her to trust in the power of God and the Word of God through his messenger. That is what Zechariah failed to do. But she believed. Her response to the angel expresses this faith. She tells the angel, “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.” Elizabeth herself will commend Mary for her faith in this, per verse 45.
Well, this then brings us to our third point for today — to consider Mary’s visit with Elizabeth. We learn here that they are relatives, and after Mary learned of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, we are not surprised to read about Mary then going to visit her. Well, when Mary arrives and greets Elizabeth, look at the amazing thing that happens. John within Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy! Elizabeth in turn responds with blessing to Mary and the baby within Mary. Elizabeth shines here as a prophet, as it says in verse 41 that these words were inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Elizabeth really serves here like her son will later serve. She’s acting as a prophet preparing the way for the birth of the Christ. She is used to interpret even the initial ministry of John the Baptist. John is too young yet to speak for himself — still in utero, not even born yet. But in verse 44, Elizabeth interprets John’s leaping in her womb as joy at Mary’s visit. In this, Elizabeth really commends Mary’s faith. There is a clear contrast going on here now with the failing faith of Elizabeth’s husband. Zechariah did not believe the angel’s words. In contrast, Elizabeth blesses Mary for her faith in believing the words told to her by the Lord. Zechariah’s lack of faith resulted in him losing his voice. In contrast, John leaps at the voice of Mary’s greeting, a sound she wouldn’t have been able to make if she had not believed and had the same chastisement as Zechariah. Here, the joy of this visit between Mary and Elizabeth is so jubilant because both Mary and Elizabeth have their voices. The sound of Mary’s greeting sparks joy in John. Elizabeth in turn gives her prophetic voice to bless Mary, and to rejoice in the coming of the Christ.
And so Elizabeth draws us to consider Mary’s faith here. Why the emphasis here on this faith of Mary? Well, surely a big part of it is that Mary believed that nothing is impossible with God, verse 37. Actually, verse 37 is most literally a future tense. Not only is nothing impossible with God here and now, but nothing will be in the future. This future tense makes us look forward to the fruit of Mary’s womb. It makes us look forward to the Christ who would come from that womb. For its her son, the Lord Jesus Chris who would go on in Luke’s gospel to say something very similar. When Jesus’ disciples later ask him, “Who then can be saved?”, Jesus responded by saying, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.” And how is that God can do such an impossible thing like save a fallen sinner? By the righteous one, the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus is the one who ultimately secures God’s ability to do the impossible when it comes to saving man. Otherwise, the righteous God would not be able to justify such humans, because his own righteousness would constrain him. But in Jesus Christ, God would be able to do the impossible in saving mankind. Because the righteous Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins.
And that is what Elizabeth’s praise here is really all about. Yes, she does commend Mary’s faith. But it’s a faith commendable because of the object of her faith: God who does the impossible, putting the power of the impossible within her womb. And that is what Elizabeth’s praise goes on to bring out. More than praising Mary, she’s praising Mary’s son. Verse 42, blessed is the fruit of your womb, Elizabeth says. Elizabeth calls Mary the mother of her Lord, Elizabeth’s Lord, verse 43. Elizabeth rejoices in how the angel’s words would be fulfilled, and that’s all about the coming of Jesus as Lord and Savior!
You see, that is what all this is really about. We said it at the start of our series on the key women of the Bible. That really, we are seeing the story of the coming Messiah who would be our redeemer. That we aren’t really preaching these different women of the Bible, but we are preaching Christ! And so here, in this passage, everything and everyone is ultimately here to serve Jesus and his coming. The baby of Elizabeth and Zechariah will prepare the people for the coming of Jesus. Once Zechariah gets his voice back, that is what he will sing about at the end of this chapter — about the messiah — more than even about his own son John. Elizabeth, and John within her, can’t help but rejoice and speak about the coming of Jesus. Mary submits herself in faith to bear the Christ-child, and herself will go on in this chapter to sing about how great of a salvation this is — through the child within her! That’s what this whole chapter is about — about God finally fulfilling his promises to send the savior. And that’s what it’s all been about these many chapters before. Yes, John prepares the way for the Messiah, but all the stories we’ve read in the Bible up to this point have been doing just that. Preparing the way! And now it has come!
Yes, it has happened. The promised seed of the woman promised to Eve, this is Jesus. The one promised to Sarah and Abraham, through whom all the families in the world would be blessed, this is Jesus, verse 55. The one from the house of Jacob with Leah, verse 33. The one of the line of David, with Bathsheba, verse 32. This is the promised man who would save us from our sins, that ministry embodied by his very name of Jesus, verse 31. And this son of a man, would also be the Son of God, verse 35, through the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit on Mary. Jesus is the star of this passage, and he’s the star of the whole Bible!
And how would Jesus save us from our sins? By his righteousness. He is the righteous king of an eternal kingdom. And he is the righteous high priest who does not doubt or falter at God’s plan. And he is the righteous prophet at whose words we all leap with the greatest joy. For in Christ, all things will be possible, particularly God’s people being saved from our sins!
Brothers and sisters, I’d like to conclude then today’s message with a few final applications. First, we have to beware of sinful skepticism. This lack of faith can be found even among the righteous leaders of God’s people, as it was with Zechariah. But of course, this is particularly a temptation for those in high position, that they can become haughty by their position, and not watch themselves as they should. None of us should ever think we are above any sin. And here we see the call to believe the work of the Lord and his promises to us. This is a temptation for us, even when we don’t have an angel of the Lord appear in front of us with some supernatural promise. But in the everyday circumstances of life, we have to believe God’s promises for us. For example, when we are tempted to be anxious about something, do we believe that God will work through prayer to give us a peace which transcends understanding? Philippians 4 says God will, so let’s believe it. Or, when we encounter some trial, do we doubt that God is working for our good? Romans 8:28 says God is, so let’s believe it. Or when we see that Christ still has not come again, do we dare doubt that? 2 Peter 3 says God is not slow concerning this promise, as some count slowness, but if he hasn’t returned yet it’s showing God’s patience, that all his elect would come to repentance; so let’s believe that. This passage reminds us to believe in God’s promises. If Zechariah should have believed the promises given by the prophet Gabriel in his presence, we too should believe all the prophecies and promises given by God’s Holy Word, for we know that no prophecy of Scripture ever came about by man’s own invention, but as God moved the authors of Scripture by the Holy Spirit. These words come from God, let us believe them.
Well, we thank the Lord that should we falter in this area that he does loving discipline us in this. It’s how he grew Zechariah, and it’s how he will grow us too. But let’s really hunger to grow in our faith. We see here again with Mary, a truth we see time and time again. God does amazing things through people’s faith. In a sense, Mary’s visit with Elizabeth would have missed such blessing if she hadn’t had the faith she did. Presumably she too could have been mute like Zechariah, and not able to greet Elizabeth and John. God time and again does great things through his saints as they believe. Recognize that again today. And rejoice in how God works through faith. And believe then all the more in God and his good promises and his ability to do the impossible.
Yes, this is a faith wrought from above. But it’s still something to pursue. Pray for a growth in faith. Feed your faith with the truth of the Word. Nourish it as well with the Lord’s Supper as you see Christ’s death proclaimed until he comes. Believe that he will work through these God-given means. And then rejoice that God has done something for you even more impossible than a virgin birth. He has justified you a sinner by grace, and drawn you to himself in faith. Praise be to God and his amazing grace! Amen.
Copyright © 2013 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.