“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well …” Luke 1:1 – 3a (NASB)
With these words, Luke begins to tell the story of Christ’s life. Today is December 1 and is the first Sunday of advent. A time of year set aside to prepare for the coming of Christ. The very word “advent” derived from the Latin means coming. So today, we begin our looking forward to the coming of the messiah. Yet we do it with a two-fold purpose. First, we look back to the first coming of Christ when he was born in a simple stable with not worldly fanfare or pomp and circumstance. Just a simple child who entered the world in the most seemingly meaningless way. And second, we look forward to his triumphant return.
This first Sunday of Advent is, known as the Sunday of hope. On this day, in many churches around the world, a purple candle is lit on the advent wreath as a symbol of this hope. Hope for a world in darkness that God’s promises will not fail.
This Advent season, I want to take each day and look at a chapter in the Gospel of Luke. There are 24 chapters in Luke, and there are 24 days that lead up to Christmas. I invite you to join me as I travel through the Gospel of Luke to see Christ in action and to prepare to meet Him in a new way the Advent and Christmas season.
So as I begin I borrow from the words of Luke and say, “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well.”
It seems unusual that Luke begins his account of the Life Jesus not with his birth, or even with the announcement of his coming, but rather with the announcement of the coming of another Child. Luke tells us the story of Zacharias and Elizabeth and the announcement that they would have a baby. We learn from the angel Gabriel that this child will be set aside for a particular purpose and that this purpose was to prepare the people for something significant. Gabriel’s exact words in verse 17 are “It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
What is striking, and missed when we look at this in English is the importance of the name John. Two things stand out to me. The first is that the very act of naming the child John, a name that was nowhere in the family history, is a sign to those around that this child is different. Something new is happening. Just look at the reaction of the others when they are told the child’s name in verses 60 – 66 “But his mother answered and said, “No indeed; but he shall be called John.” And they said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who is called by that name.” And they made signs to his father, as to what he wanted him called. And he asked for a tablet and wrote (We need to remember that Zacharias’s voice had been taken away for the duration of the pregnancy, but I will look at that in a little bit.) as follows, “His name is John.” And they were all astonished. And at once, his mouth was opened, and his tongue loosed, and he began to speak in praise of God. Fear came on all those living around them, and all these matters were being talked about in all the hill country of Judea. All who heard them kept them in mind, saying, “What then will this child turn out to be?” For the hand of the Lord was certainly with him.”
The second striking point of the name John is missed in modern English. When we see John, we see a name. But in ancient settings, names carried meaning to them, and John was no exception. The name John, in fact, means the LORD is gracious. That is what John symbolizes, the graciousness of God. Not only had he given a child to Zacharias and Elizabeth in their old age, but he stood as a symbol of the incredible grace God was about to bestow on the world through his son Jesus Christ. This is why Luke starts his account with the announcement that John would be born. As John would prepare the way for Jesus in ancient Israel, so too, the graciousness of God prepares our hearts to receive the promised Messiah into our lives.
I mentioned that I would address Zacharias losing his ability to speak. This served to drive home the importance of the message to Zacharias, who found it hard to believe and to those who were outside witnesses of both the miraculous voice loss and return. I find it interesting that Zacharias’ reaction is quite similar to that of Abraham at receiving similar news. “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, “Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” (Genesis 17:17) Yet in each of these cases, God is faithful to his promise first ushering in a new people he has called as a nation, and then calling in people from all nations to follow him in spite of the apparent doubt expressed by those who received the promise. I am reminded that we can be confident that God will be faithful to his promises, even when we see no way for it to happen.
This is a long chapter, but two other key items need to be observed in this chapter. The first is the proclamation to Mary that she would have a child, and the second is Mary’s visit to Elizabeth.
While I am quite familiar with the announcement to Mary, it is her responses that really makes me stop and think. The Bible tells us that she had four responses to the message. The first comes immediately following the angels greeting where it says in verse 29, “she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was.” This was not an everyday happening, and she was a simple young woman. This comes at her out of nowhere. The idea that she was “perplexed” and was trying to figure it out should not come as a surprise, yet I think we to often get this image of Mary as someone who has it all together and took everything in stride. But if we are honest, her confused response is no different than any of ours would-be if an angel suddenly spoke to us.
The second response is after the angels relays the message that she would have a son. In verse 34, “Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Again, does this response surprise me? No, but it does again remind me that Mary was just like any other young girl, and in her mind, what is being told her is impossible.
So the angel explains it to her and even tells her about Elizabeth having a baby to make the point he sums up in verse 37, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Mary’s third response is now one of acceptance. Yes, in her mind, this is impossible, and she is nobody special, why should it happen to her, but she now accepts that God can do anything and so declares in verse 38 “may it be done to me according to your word.”
I mentioned that there are four responses to the angel’s message, and while the first three were verbal, that final one is in action. First, she was confused; second, she questions, third she accepted, but it is the fourth response that truly demonstrates her belief. Picking up after the angel leaves, we read in verses 39 and 40 “Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth.” Mary did not simply take in what she had been told, she acts on the information. Why did she go visit Elizabeth? One reason may have been to verify what the angel told her, and if this is the reason, then she receives her confirmation immediately. In verses 42 – 45, we read that upon hearing Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth “cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And how has it happened to me that the mother of my Lord would come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.” Here we return to John, who is yet unborn, and still, he is already preparing the way of the Lord as he confirms for Mary what she has been told by leaping within Elizabeth’s womb. To this truth, Mary is overcome and prays the prayer we know as the Magnificat in verses 46 – 55.
So what is the biggest take away from this chapter? I would have to say it is that God is faithful and will do all that he says because “nothing will be impossible with God.”(V37) We see an elderly barren couple conceive and have a child. We hear an angel announce to a virgin that she will conceive and have a child. We hear the promise that Mary’s son would be called the son of the Most High and that he would be named Jesus, meaning “God saves.” So on this First Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of Hope, we are reminded that God had promised hope to the world in his Son, and today, in a world that often seems so dark, we can still find hope in Jesus Chris.