“I hope I will get what I want for Christmas. I hope things will work out in my marriage. I hope my children will make wise decisions. I hope my health will improve in the upcoming year. I hope my boss will see how valuable I am to the company and give me a raise. I hope I just bought the winning ticket in the lottery. I hope we can finally get pregnant and have a baby. I hope my team wins the Super Bowl. I hope I can find someone that makes me happy. I hope these bad things that keep coming my way will stop and I can be happy again. I hope…” What are you hoping for today?
Hope is essential for life. It is so important for you and me to have hope. It has been said that people can live 40 days without food, three days without water, eight minutes without air, but only one second without hope. Hope is vitally important for our well-being, but for the followers of Jesus, “hopes” focus is not on circumstances, but on God and His will. Eugene Peterson writes,
Hoping does not mean doing nothing. It is not fatalistic resignation. It means going about our assigned tasks, confident that God will provide the meaning and the conclusions. It is not compelled to work away at keeping up appearances with a bogus spirituality. It is the opposite of desperate and panicky manipulations, of scurrying and worrying. And hoping is not dreaming. It is not spinning an illusion or fantasy to protect us from our boredom or our pain. It means a confident, alert expectation that God will do what he said he will do. It is imagination put in the harness of faith. It is a willingness to let God do it his way and in his time. It is the opposite of making plans that we demand that God put into effect, telling him both how and when to do it. That is not hoping in God but bullying God. (Peterson, Eugene, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society.)
Most often in our day, our hope is rooted in the possibility of the improvement of our circumstances. The object of our hope is a better life for ourselves, but in God’s Word, the object of hope is God Himself; His character, His purposes, and His promises.
During the four Sundays of Advent we focus on Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love. This Sunday I want to focus on hope. As we take a look at hope this morning I want us to turn to God’s Word and take a look at a young woman who embodied hope, even though her circumstances didn’t seem very hopeful.
Luke tells us Mary was “betrothed” to a man named Joseph. The Jewish “betrothal” period was not like our engagement period. Betrothal was binding. It was a period of time that took place before the couple moved in together and consummated their marriage as husband and wife. The relationship could only be ended by death or divorce.
When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, he said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” (Luke 1:28 NIVO) To find favor is to find God’s grace, His approval. Mary found favor with God, but there is no way she would find favor with the people of Nazareth once they found out she was pregnant. A young, teenage girl, unmarried, and expecting a child…who would buy her story that she had never “known” a man?
In our day Mary would have been given a baby shower, but in biblical times Mary would have suffered public humiliation. An unmarried pregnant woman was considered an adulteress. Mary knew there was the possibility that she would be taken to the gate of the city where her clothing would be torn, her hair let down (the way prostitutes wore their hair,) and she would be mocked and subjected to public humiliation. Gabriel’s announcement came to one who was highly favored by God, but what would Joseph say? What would everyone else think? Turn with me to Luke 1:28-35 and let’s read how it all happened.
28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” 29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. 31 You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” 34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. (Luke 1:28-35 NIVO)
Mary was troubled at the angel’s words because she was a nobody living in the nowhere town of Nazareth. Nazareth? Years later, when Philip found his brother Nathanael and told him they had found the Messiah–“Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45). Nathanael, with no hesitation asked, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46) After the angel had told Mary that she would give birth to a son who would be the Son of the Most High, the heir to the throne of David, the long awaited Messiah, Mary said, “How will this be since I am a virgin?” After Gabriel walked Mary through all that would happen, Mary said,
38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:38 NIVO)
“I am the Lord’s servant…” Those are stunning words. An amazing declaration. Don’t you know there were all kinds of scenarios swirling in Mary’s mind about what would happen to her, but she simply responded, “I am the Lord’s servant.” There’s no way Mary could have understood all that Gabriel’s announcement would mean for her future, but even if she could have understood I believe she would have responded the same way, “I am the Lord’s servant.” We fail to recognize Mary’s true future because we have idealized, sanitized, put a Christmas spin on the life of Mary.
Last week I introduced you to a man named Simeon. Simeon had been eagerly waiting for the arrival of the Messiah. When Mary and Joseph took Jesus to the temple while He was just a baby, Simeon saw Him, ran up to the couple, took Jesus in his arms, and marveled that salvation had finally come. Then Simeon spoke to Mary. Turn to Luke 2:34-35 with me.
34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, 35 so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2:34-35 NIVO)
“And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Those are not the words we’d expect to be spoken to the woman who gave birth to the Savior of the world. We would imagine Mary’s future filled with scrapbooks of articles from the Jerusalem Post lauding the accomplishments of her superstar Son. “Jesus Turns Water Into Wine!” “Jesus Walks On Water!” We’d imagine video on the evening news of Jesus and Lazarus, fresh from walking out of the tomb, flashing the thumbs up for everyone to see. That was not to be. Oh, those things took place, but they stirred anger, animosity, and rage to the point where they crucified Mary’s Son. And there she was…at the foot of His cross, watching her Son, God’s Son, writhing in anguish until He drew His last breath. Mary’s future reality was far different than the script we would have written.
Mary had no idea what it all meant when Simeon, holding Mary’s Son in his arms, said, “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the angel Gabriel’s announcement, a troubling announcement, and yet Mary’s response was “I am the Lord’s servant.”
After Gabriel left Mary, we’re told she gathered up her stuff as quickly as she could and headed south to the hill country of Judea, about a 75-80 mile hike, to see her relative Elizabeth. She went into Elizabeth’s house and we’re told,
41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!” (Luke 1:41-45 NIVO)
Mary had already settled matters in her heart before Elizabeth had spoken a word, “I am the Lord’s servant.” After Elizabeth spoke, Mary burst out in song, a song of praise. Today, we call it Mary’s Magnificat. Read it with me beginning in Luke 1:46.
46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me– holy is his name. 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.” 56 Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months and then returned home. (Luke 1:46-56 NIVO)
When you read Mary’s song slowly, you will notice some things that tip you off to what was going on in Mary’s day as well as reassure you that what Mary was singing was the same tune the prophets had been singing for generations. First, let’s talk about Mary’s personal confession. Mary said, “…he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on generations will call me blessed for the Mighty One has done great things for me–holy is his name.” If it weren’t for God who among us, would anyone in the entire world remember an unmarried pregnant girl from Nazareth 2,000 years later? Hardly. But God. But God chose her, showed her His favor, and she said, “I am the Lord’s servant.” The Lord had done a great thing in choosing Mary, the least, to carry the greatest Gift that would ever be given.
Now let’s turn our attention to the revolutionary declarations of Mary. Mary sang, she belted out the anthem of the King of Glory and declared that He would scatter “those who are proud in their inmost thoughts,” bring “down rulers from their thrones,” He would “lift up the humble,” He would fill “the hungry with good things,” and send “the rich away empty.”
The Jewish people living under Herod the Great were living in dire circumstances. If you have ever been with me to Israel then you’ve seen some of Herod’s incredible building projects that still stand today. Those didn’t get built out of Herod’s own pocket. Major trade routes which allowed merchants from Egypt and Syria to travel and sale their products were taxed heavily by Herod. Herod put exorbitant taxes on his own people. The Jews who wanted to be exempt from practicing the Roman state religion had to pay the fiscus Judaicus, a tax. The land in and around Judea was fertile. Olive oil was plentiful. Dates, grapes, grains, wine, and everything else that was produced from the land was taxed and then taxed again. The taxes were burdensome, backbreaking, and forced many into poverty. Mary declared that God would “lift up the humble” and fill “the hungry with good things.” Those are wonderful declarations, everyone would welcome that day.
If Herod had heard Mary’s song he wouldn’t have heard one word beyond the line, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones…” Herod the Great was the most powerful ruler in the region and yet, the more power he gained, the more paranoid he became. He had one of his wives, Miriamme killed because he couldn’t bear the thought of her having another husband if he were killed. He had Miriamme’s two sons, Alexander and Aristobulus, strangled to death. He thought his favorite son, Antipater was scheming against him, so Herod had him killed just five days before his own death. Herod the Great had anyone killed that he thought was a threat to his throne and the deaths became more frequent the older he grew. Macrobius wrote,
When [Caesar Augustus] heard that Herod king of the Jews had ordered boys under the age of two years to be put to death and that the king’s son was among those killed, he said, ‘I’d rather be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son!’ (Macrobius, Saturnalia 2.f.11)
And the greatest threat of all to Herod’s power, a young virgin with child. Mary didn’t whisper, she sang, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones.” Remember what she had decided back when Gabriel appeared to her and made his announcement, “I am the Lord’s servant.” Tracey Bianchi wrote,
Anyone listening to her song at this time would have known her words were aimed at Herod. Herod, the ruler of that day, later hears that a baby king has been born and orders the slaughter of children under two years of age. At the mere whiff of a challenge to his authority, he responds with mass murder. What would he have done after hearing the words to Mary’s song? In a culture where freedom of speech was not welcome, and death was the penalty for disagreeing with leadership, Mary’s song was jarring. Scot McKnight says that for Mary’s world, the Magnificat was what “We Shall Overcome” was to the African-American community in the ’60s and ’70s here in the United States. (Bianchi, Tracey. Girl Interrupted: The Unmistakable Strength of Mary. Preaching Today.)
One of the things we often miss while studying God’s Word is the fact that it is rooted in history. We read God’s Word and say, “What does it mean to me?” Our first question must always be, “What did this mean to those who first heard it?” The announcement of the coming King was a pronouncement that the powers that ruled at that time were no power at all. Herod the Great was a passing power, but the power of God’s King would never end.
Luke lets us know that Jesus was born during the reign of the great, Caesar Augustus, the Emperor of the Roman Empire. Caesar Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, whom the Romans believed to be a god. Caesar Augustus was viewed by the Romans as a savior, a son of god, because he brought an end to 100 years of civil wars that were taking place in the Empire and brought in the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome. Scot McKnight writes,
The gospel of Rome was that Augustus, a “son of [a] god,” saved Rome by bringing peace to the world. Luke’s Christmas story, told largely through the eyes of Mary, sets the birth of Christ in the context of the gospel of Rome. Luke counters and upstages each element in Rome’s gospel—Good News, peace, the Son of God, and the Savior. The gospel that angels announced to Mary and the shepherds was the Good News that Jesus, the Son of God, was the Savior who would bring true peace to the world. (McKnight, Scot. The Mary We Never Knew. Christianity Today.)
The great Roman Empire would come to an end, but the Kingdom of our King will never end. Caesar Augustus, Herod the Great, they went the way of all of the other rulers who have ever lived. You can visit their tombs, just outside of Jerusalem for Herod and in Rome for Augustus. You can also visit what once was the tomb of Jesus, but you won’t find Him there. He is reigning and ruling over all of creation! He is the hope for all who trust in Him.
We look at Mary and think of the wonder of it all. What would it have been like to be the mother of the Savior of the world? Can you imagine?! The truth is, Jesus complicated Mary’s life. Mary, I’m sure was like all of the other Jews who believed that her Son would be a political Messiah, a power more powerful than Herod and even the Emperor himself. She had no idea that the crown Jesus would wear would be a crown of thorns or that His throne would be a cross. Mary didn’t understand much of what Jesus did while He was alive. He didn’t do things the way she would have Him do them and she would certainly have never dreamed that one day she would stand and watch Him be crucified. But remember her words when the angel Gabriel announced what was to take place in her life, “I am the Lord’s servant.”
I want to encourage you this Christmas to turn your hopes toward Jesus and away from the prospect of better days ahead. Root your hope, ground your hope, in who He is and what He has promised to you and me; not in the possibilities of better days ahead. In Titus 2:11-14 we read,
11 For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. 12 It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope– the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good. (Titus 2:11-14 NIVO)
He has called us to be light in a dark and dreary world. Let’s let His light shine while we await the blessed hope–the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. Our hope is built on who Jesus is, what He has done, and what He has promised you and me. He has not left us as orphans. He is Immanuel, God with us. He will never leave you nor forsake you. He will walk with you through the deepest valleys of life. He will be your Light when no other light can be found. Place your hope in Him. Trust in Him.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
December 17, 2017
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