The Root cause
Christianity is difficult. We pretend like it isn’t, selling it almost as a quick-fix to the problems in people’s lives—“In Christ you’ll find the peace and satisfaction you’ve always desired!” And while that’s true, it’s nearly always a pretty far cry from what we had always imagined that would look like. There is peace and satisfaction in Christ, but it usually comes with a good deal of pain. Stephen Mattson wrote, “[While] following Christ is beautiful and worthwhile, disappointment, pain, suffering, betrayal and hurt are also a part of life, and Christians aren’t immune or excluded from these horrors. Contrary to a life of ease, comfort and luxury, following Jesus demands sacrifice, honesty, vulnerability, conflict and a lifetime dedicated to loving others. This is really hard—a commitment not meant to be taken lightly.”
The question is, if God demands such difficult things of his children, what makes any of us think we’ll actually be able to obey him?
Today’s text answers that question. We’ll be starting at verse 39 of chapter 1 of Luke’s gospel. In last week’s text (v. 5-38), we saw an angel appear to the priest Zechariah, to announce that he and his wife Elizabeth were going to have a baby, and that this baby would be the one the prophets predicted, the man who would prepare the way for the Messiah. (This announcement was all the more difficult to believe because the soon-to-be parents were both very old, and Elizabeth had always been sterile.) Zechariah doubts the announcement, and the angel renders him mute on the spot.
Then we see the angel coming to a young girl named Mary, and announcing that she too would have a child, although she is a virgin, and that this child would be the Savior that God had promised—the Messiah, the Son of God. Mary believes, and accepts what the angel says.
Last week’s narrative may have felt a bit anticlimactic, because we left Zechariah in a sad state: mute and shamed because of his doubt. But there was a point to be made in this—that all sin, all rebellion against God, has its root in disbelief in God’s promises. Every time we sin, we sin because we doubt that God will be faithful to accomplish what he said he would accomplish.
This week’s passage is the necessary conclusion to last week’s, because in this passage we see a fuller picture of what it looks like to boldly declare and rest in those promises. As the promises announced by the angel begin to come true, Mary and Zechariah both turn their minds to God's past promises to his people. They reaffirm God's character in the light of his present faithfulness to bring about these miracles.
Like last week, today’s passage is quite long, so we won’t get to all of it. We’re going to spend most of our time focusing on the two monologues we see here—Mary’s prayer of praise, and Zechariah’s prophecy. And we’re going to do this because these two monologues, like the two stories from last week, complement each other: they work together to correct false ideas about God for those who have reasons to wonder what kind of God he really is (viz., the Israelites, who could well have felt abandoned by him).
Mary & Zechariah: Continued
In v. 39, the pregnant virgin Mary (what a fantastically weird phrase!) goes to visit Elizabeth in her 6th month of pregnancy (Elizabeth is related to her, possibly her cousin). And when Mary enters the room, little baby John the Baptist leaps in his mother’s womb! (Not literally, of course—have you ever tried to jump while floating?) The point is, John is filled with the Spirit in his mother’s womb (as the angel predicted in v. 15), and when he comes in proximity to the embryonic Messiah, he feels it, and makes a sudden and strong movement.
Elizabeth then does something astounding: she is filled with the Holy Spirit, and exclaims (v. 42-43):
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”
So through the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth recognizes that Mary is pregnant with “my Lord,” with the Messiah. And then she gives the first confirmation of what we saw last week (v. 45):
“And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
After this, Mary prays her magnificent prayer (often called the “Magnificat”), stays with Elizabeth for three months, then goes back home.
In v. 57, Elizabeth has her baby boy. Everyone’s happy and amazed (because it’s a miracle, of course). Then, as is the custom for the Jews, when he is eight days old they go to circumcise him, and although he should have been named Zechariah (after his father), Elizabeth insists his name should be John, because that’s what the angel said to do.
Then in v. 62 we meet Zechariah again. And the image we have of him now is that of a humbled man. The way Luke describes the situation in v. 62 is perfectly realistic—his says that Zechariah’s relatives made signs to [him], inquiring what he wanted [the baby] to be called. Zechariah’s not deaf. He can hear just fine. But people always forget that one ailment doesn’t necessarily imply another: so rather than talking to him, they’re making signs. This is the kind of thing we’ve all done (like when we’re speaking to someone whose French isn’t very good, and in addition to slowing down, we for some reason feel the need to speak REALLY LOUDLY). And it must have been humiliating to Zechariah. This is an important man, a priest in the temple of the Lord!… And yet he has been reduced to the kind of person with whom you couldn’t have any kind of normal communication.
So Zechariah takes a writing tablet and confirms what his wife has said, that the baby’s name is John. And at that exact moment, he is healed. He can speak again.
He’s healed because because accepting John’s name is a way of showing that he has now fully submitted to God’s will: he now believes what the angel had said to him about his son, and that his son really would be the person the angel said he would be: John, the one who would prepare the way for the Messiah.
Upon getting back his ability to speak, Zechariah immediately is filled with the Holy Spirit, and begins to prophecy. God’s discipline has had its desired effect: Zechariah has been humbled, and now here he is, restored.
So let’s take the rest of our time together and look at these two monologues—Mary’s prayer and Zechariah’s prophecy—back-to-back. And as we read, let’s remember again that Luke is making intentional choices here—he’s not including everything that happened prior to Jesus’s birth, but rather choosing to include certain things, certain discourses, for a good reason.
So the question we have to ask ourselves once again is, “Why is Luke choosing to include this? What is it about Mary’s prayer, and Zechariah’s prophecy, that makes Luke want to include them, one after the other?”
The answer, I think, is evident—because they go together: they don’t say exactly the same thing, but they complement each other to such an extent that it’s hard to imagine one without the other.
Both monologues say a number of things about God himself. So to make things easier to track, I’ve narrowed it down to six—three things which Mary affirms about God, and three things which Zechariah affirms about God.
1) God saves.
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.”
The first thing Mary says should calm many a Catholic: my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… In other words, Mary is not divine, nor is she perfect. If Mary were divine, she would be subject to no one; if Mary were perfect, she would not need a Savior. My guess is that if Mary could have seen what the Catholic church would make of her in the future—into a quasi-divine intermediary between God and man—she would be appalled.
I say that because of what she says right here: she is rejoicing because God has looked on the humble estate of his servant. Mary was in no position to demand anything of God; she did not deserve anything from God… She was helpless and unable to save herself…and yet, God looked upon her humble estate and rescued her.
This is what God does. There is only one human being in all of history who did not need to be saved in this way, who did not need for God to come down to him, and that was the baby in Mary’s womb. And that is an incredibly important fact. God created the world, and mankind rebelled against God. We needed him to come down and rescue us—and when it finally came time for him to do so, he did not merely come down to us, to pull us out of our “humble estate”: he joined us in our humble estate by becoming a weak, helpless infant in the belly of a young girl. And this young girl now rejoices before the grace shown to her to simply be a part of all of this.
2) God serves.
50 And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
When Christians think of God’s mercy, we often think of the cross—and that is absolutely, gloriously true. God showed us his mercy by sending his Son to take our place and take our punishment on the cross, so that we wouldn’t have to endure God’s wrath. But that is not the only way God shows us mercy. Mary rightly says here that God shows his people mercy by serving them.
51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; 52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
One of the hallmarks of our culture is that we pride ourselves on self-sufficiency—everyone wants to be independent, to imagine they can live life on their own terms and get things done by themselves. The rich don’t generally feel like they need to be saved; the proud don’t think they need to be helped; the mighty don’t feel like they need to be rescued. So all too often, when they experience God’s common grace in their lives, they’re not even aware of it—they chalk it up to their own abilities and resources, saying, “I did that.”
“The humble,” on the other hand, know they need help; they know they can’t do it alone. “The hungry” know they need to be filled. So when God provides for them, the first thought to cross their mind (after perhaps the simple relief of being helped) is, Someone must be taking care of me, because I definitely didn’t make this happen.
But there’s a catch: none of us naturally think we need God. We are all naturally proud; we all desire to be self-sufficient. So when God gives us grace, one of the first things he always does is to “scatter us [the proud] in the thoughts of our hearts.” By sending his Son to serve us, he shows us that we need to be served. By sending his Son to save us, he shows us that we need to be saved. And once he has broken in and shown us this reality, once he has devastated us with the knowledge that we are not self-sufficient, he comes alongside us and says, “But remember—I sent my Son for you. You don’t need to be self-sufficient, because my grace is sufficient for you.”
3) God keeps his promises.
54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.
In order to get what she’s talking about here, we have to go way back, practically to the beginning of the Bible. In Genesis 15, God made a covenant with a man named Abram (who would later be renamed Abraham). A covenant can take several different forms, but probably the most common is when one party agrees to do one thing, on the condition that the other party does something else. God promised Abraham that if his descendants, who would become the people of Israel, listened to him, loved him and obeyed his commandments, they would be God’s own people, and he would be their God. This is a covenant the people of Israel failed to live up to, at nearly every turn.
Now this is a big deal, which we’ll see more as we go on, because since Israel failed to keep their part of the covenant, the covenant should have been broken. God would have been perfectly just to not keep his promises to Israel, because those promises were given in the context of a covenant—“I’ll do this if you do this,” and Israel didn’t do their part. But God kept his promises anyway. And it goes even further than simple kept promises. God did not only keep his promises to Israel; he kept Israel’s promises to God.
He sent Jesus, his Son, God himself, as a man belonging to the people of Israel. Jesus became Israel’s representative, and Jesus kept Israel’s part of the bargain. Where God’s first son Israel had failed, God’s true son Jesus succeeded—he held up Israel’s part of the bargain for them, and thus perfectly preserved the covenant between God and his people.
So you see, God went much further than merely keeping his part of the covenant; he also kept Israel’s part of the covenant, for them. Jesus is the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, because he did what they could not do themselves.
Now, a little later, Zechariah is filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophecies—and in his prophecy, many of the same elements are there, but he takes them further, unpacking them for us.
4) God protects.
68 Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people 69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David...
This phrase “horn of salvation” is a strange phrase. Think of an animal. As R. Kent Hughes writes, “An animal’s horn is its weapon for defense and vengeance, and also its ornament of beauty.” An animal’s horn is not there for decoration; it is also its way of defending itself and of fighting its enemies.
God’s “horn” would be a king from the line of David who would save God’s people—he would be the figurative “horn of salvation”—both a display of the beauty of God, and God’s means of defending his people.
And Zechariah explains this a little more explicitly in v. 70-71:
70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, 71 that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us...
Now was Israel really “saved” from their enemies? Is he talking about military salvation? Of course not. God’s people would be under Roman rule until long after Jesus left the earth. So how precisely could he say that this “horn of salvation,” Jesus, would save God’s people from their enemies?
Salvation from enemies does not mean that none of God’s children will die at the hands of their enemies; it means that their enemies will not win.
God protects his children. He saves his people from their enemies—not by preventing them from being persecuted, but rather by uniting them to Jesus, so that even if they are killed, they have lost nothing. They’ve only lost their lives! But in return, they have gained everything. As Paul says in Philippians 1.21, For to me to live is Christ, and to die is GAIN, because when we die, we go to be with Christ, and that is far better. God protects his people from anything which might separate them from what truly matters, and protects his gospel from being crushed under the heel of its persecutors.
5) God makes us holy.
Zechariah says that God remembers his holy covenant, (v. 73) the oath that he swore to our father Abraham… Why? Why was God so doggedly determined to keep his covenant with Abraham? Does it come down to something so elemental as, “Because he said he would?” No.
God remembered his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us 74 that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, 75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
This is absolutely stunning. God fulfills the covenant perfectly in Jesus Christ…so it might be tempting for us to say, “Great! Christ is our representative! He was perfect in our place! So now we don’t need to be bothered with holiness. We’re free to live as we please want because Christ was holy for us!”
While this is partially true (at least in the sense that it is not our holiness which saves us, but only faith in Christ), anyone who thinks this way betrays a profound misunderstanding of the gospel. God did not remember his promise to Abraham so that his people could be free to live in any way which pleased them; he remembered his promise to Abraham so that his people could be free to live like him!
He did it (v. 74) that we might be delivered from the hand of our enemies—that we might have the absolute, rock-solid assurance that nothing—no enemy, no persecution—could ever separate us from him! NOTHING! And why did he do that?
Second half of v. 74:
THAT WE…MIGHT SERVE HIM WITHOUT FEAR, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
How many of us try to serve God because we’re afraid? How many of us try to obey God’s commandments because we’re worried that if we don’t obey well enough, we’ll lose our salvation? that something or someone (maybe even ourselves!) will come and snatch us out of his hand?
Loanne and I once listened to a pastor preach on Romans 8, and it was an excellent sermon. He arrived at the end of chapter 8, and declared with incredible force and conviction:
“If you are in Christ, if your faith is truly in him, if you have been united to him, then nothing! nothing! nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus!…”
He paused for a long moment, then added, “Well… Maybe one thing… Yourselves. Your unfaithfulness. Your sin.”
By adding that tiny, final sentence, he completely destroyed the good news he had just spent an hour proclaiming.
Inciting people to fear that God will let us go if we fail him is definitely an effective way to create well-behaved, presentable, “good little Christians,” but obedience rooted in fear isn’t really obedience at all.
Imagine a child with an abusive, violent father. That child might be perfectly well-behaved at home, and outside the house people might even comment on how “good” he is. But his good behavior isn’t coming out of a heart that really wants to do good; he’s only doing it to keep from getting hit by his daddy. The external evidence of good behavior is there, but what’s underneath that good behavior is utterly tragic and rotten. His behavior is not a credit to himself, and certainly gives no honor to his father—quite the contrary.
Now take that child and place him in a context where he is loved; where he is protected and cared for; where he doesn’t have to worry about being abused if he makes a mistake. When he obeys, what is happening then? He’s obeying because he wants to obey. He’ll make mistakes, sure—but he’s not worried about not being loved by his parents if he does. So when he messes up and asks for forgiveness, you know he is sincere; and when he is obedient, you know that he is not being obedient because he’s afraid of what will happen if he doesn’t, but because it makes him happy to do so—it pleases him to imitate and honor his parents who love him.
Brothers and sisters, God keeps his promises so that we might not be afraid of losing him! So that in that perfectly secure context, we might grow in true holiness and righteousness, obeying for all the right reasons. People who truly understand the gospel, who truly understand their eternal security in Christ, do not become more sinful (as some suggest)—quite the opposite. They grow to be more holy, more obedient, more like Christ; and their obedience glorifies God, because they don’t obey out of fear, but because it simply makes them so happy to be loved by God and to be like God.
6) God always accomplishes his plans.
We saw last week that all of this is leading to the coming of the Messiah—Jesus Christ, who would save his people from their sins. The first step in that process was to send John, who would prepare the way for the Messiah. And what would he do? V. 76:
76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high 79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
John would prepare the people for Christ by helping them get used to the idea that God was going to save them not through military might, but by forgiving the people of their sins. He would resensitize the people to their sins; he would preach forgiveness, so that when Christ came, they might look on him and say, “He is light. He is peace. He is forgiveness,” and that they might turn to him, and believe.
John’s coming was proof that when God has a plan, he makes it happen. Often in ways we don’t expect and with timing we don’t expect. But he always accomplishes his plan. John’s coming is the beginning of that accomplishment.
Brothers and sisters, salvation is a sovereign work of God. Read back over these monologues and notice who does what. God is not the only actor here—we have a part to play—but everything we do is a result of what he did first, and dependent on what he did first, and assured by what he did first. The root cause of everything that we do as Christians is God himself. He is the reason why we can have a realistic hope that we will be able to obey him, that we will be able to live this life he calls us to!
We cannot deserve his “tender mercy” (he saves the humble, not the proud!); we can’t work for it (he saves the weak, not the mighty!); we can’t purchase it (he saves the poor, not the rich!). God sent Christ to save those who cannot save themselves. This is the whole point of the gospel.
And faced with this glorious God, who saves us, who serves us, who keeps his promises to us, who protects us, who makes us holy, who accomplishes his plans for us…again, we must respond. In v. 45, Elizabeth says to Mary,
“And blessed is she who BELIEVED that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”
Mary responded with faith; and Zechariah, after being loved enough by God to be disciplined by him, also responded in faith. We too must respond in faith. We are called to believe that we cannot save ourselves. That it is God who serves us, so that we might serve him. That he protects us in order to give us the freedom and the confidence to live like him.
This is our call in this text: to believe in the abounding faithfulness of our God. Blessed are we who believe that the Lord will fulfill what he has spoken to us.