by John Piper
Scripture: Luke 1:26-38
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, "Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 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, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." 34 And Mary said to the angel, "How will this be, since I am a virgin?" 35 And the angel answered her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy - the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God." 38 And Mary said, "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her. - Luke 1:26-38
Verse 26: "In the sixth month [that is, the sixth month of Elizabeth's pregnancy with John the Baptist] the angel Gabriel was sent from God . . ." There is the most fundamental fact about Christmas and about the incarnation. It starts with God. It comes from God. An angel was sent from God. Christmas has no biblical meaning without God. It has an American meaning without God. It has a European meaning without God. It even has Buddhist meaning without God—as one of our missionaries pointed out to me recently. But it doesn't have a historically true meaning, or a biblical meaning without God.
Christmas is about the Creator of the universe, who is not himself part of the universe, moving himself, in the person of his Son, into the universe that he made. And what makes this fact even more remarkable is that this created universe—the personal part of it, the moral part of it—is in rebellion against its Maker, and yet he came into the universe that he made in order to save those who are in active rebellion against him. One of the clearest statements in all the Bible is 1 Timothy 1:15, "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners."
So Christmas is about something God initiated—something God did in history. It has to do with the way the created universe relates to the one Being who is absolute—no beginning, no ending, no development, no becoming—he simply is who he is. In fact, God says in Exodus 3:14 that his name is "I am who I am." Christmas is about how this God relates to us and how we relate to him.
What Luke does in this passage of Scripture—Luke 1:26-38—is tell us:
1) how this absolute God broke into his creation to save sinners, and
2) who it was that came from this in-breaking.
So that is what I would like to talk about: the how and the who of the incarnation. How did Christmas happen and who came of it? And in answering the who question my aim will be to answer the so what question at every turn: What difference can this make for you?
1. How did the Creator of the universe break into his universe?
1.1 He broke into the universe by doing the impossible.
Luke 1:37, "For nothing will be impossible with God." Gabriel says this to Mary as the bottom line answer for how God can become man in the womb of a virgin. When all our objections have spent themselves, this truth remains: "Nothing will be impossible with God." God had been preparing the world for this impossibility for thousands of years. Listen to the testimonies: Genesis 18:14, "Is anything too hard for the LORD?" Job 42:2, "I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted." Jeremiah 32:17, "Ah, Lord GOD! It is you who has made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you." And the time has come for the most impossible thing to be done: God enters his creation as part of it, and without ceasing to be the uncreated God.
1.2 God broke into the universe by choosing to enter through a virgin.
In Luke 1:26-27 Luke says, "In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin . . ." The angel says to her in verse 31, "You will conceive in your womb and bear a son." And Mary responds in verse 34, "How will this be, since I am a virgin?"—literally, "since I know no man." That is, I have never had sexual relations with a man. I am betrothed. I am not married. Joseph and I have not slept together.
This was God's choice. An angel sent from God to a virgin. God's way of breaking into the universe was that he would be conceived in the womb of a virgin. We should not speculate very far from the text why he did it this way. The clearest answer is in verse 35, "And the angel answered her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God." God chose to be conceived in the womb of a virgin so that the fatherhood of this child would be absolutely unique—he is the Son of God, not the son of Joseph. He has a divine Father, not a biological human father. He is therefore divine as God's Son, and human as Mary's son. God chose to break into the universe by choosing to enter through a virgin.
1.3. God broke into the universe by choosing for his Son a legal human father who would be an heir of David, the king of Israel.
Luke 1:26-27, "In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David." For two thousand years, since the days of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God had been preparing for this moment in history. Promise after promise had pointed to the day when a son of David would come, a king, an heir to the throne. The prophecy read, "In that day the root of Jesse [David's father], who shall stand as a signal for the peoples." And at the end of the Bible in the book of Revelation (22:16), Jesus waves his banner over all of history with the words, "I, Jesus . . . am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star."
God broke into the universe not as a generic human being, but as a Jew, in fulfillment of 2000 years of covenant promises so that Israel would glorify God for his truthfulness and all the nations would glorify God for his mercy. He came as the Son of David and as the Son of God—a Jew to vindicate every promise, and a man to identify with every nation.
1.4. God broke into the universe by sending his Holy Spirit with divine power to impregnate the virgin Mary with a divine child.
Mary asks in Luke 1:34, "How will this be, since I am a virgin?" And the next verse (Luke 1:35) must be one of the most important statements that has ever been made in any book in all of history. You ask "How," Mary? Here's how: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy - the Son of God." God himself, the Holy Spirit, with impossibility-working-power—the power of the Most High—will take the place of a human father, and under the shadow of his wing—pure, virtuous, holy, unseen, mysterious—you will become pregnant with the Son of God.
That is what Luke tells us about how the infinite and absolute God broke into his universe. He broke into the universe
1.by doing the impossible,
2.by choosing to enter the universe through a virgin,
3.by choosing a legal human father who would be an heir of David, the king of Israel,
4.by sending his Holy Spirit with divine power to impregnate the virgin Mary with a divine child.
Now we turn to the question: Who was it that came from this in-breaking of God? And what difference can this make for you?
2. Who came from the in-breaking of God into his universe?
Let's start with the controversial fact that the person who came of this in-breaking of God is a king. Luke 1:32b-33 says, "The Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." Three words tell us that this person will be a king: "Throne"—"The Lord will give to him the throne of his father David; "Reign"—"And he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever;" "Kingdom"—"And of his kingdom there will be no end."
What makes this controversial is that we believe in democracy, not kingdoms. Saudi Arabia is not an attractive system to us. Democracy is what the world is moving toward. It's what we are fighting for in Iraq. Rule by a king was a more primitive form of government, wasn't it? Democracies are more advanced, more developed, more suitable for the modern world. This is where history is going—democracy, not kingdom.
Let me respond to this very soberly and very simply: the only legitimate reason that kingship is not attractive to us is because in this age and this world the only kings available are finite and sinful. Listen to C. S. Lewis describe why he believes in democracy:
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 . . . Mankind 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.1
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.
The question is not whether God broke into the universe as a king. He did. The question is: What kind of king is he? What difference would his kingship make for you?
There are four words in this text to answer that question, and they all imply that your joy will be best served by submitting to this kingship.
Luke 1:35, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy." Holy means pure, good, without any defect or deficiency or blemish. This word is full of hope for us, because it means that this person is fit to die as a spotless Lamb of God in our place, and he is fit to rule as a flawless king. Unholy kings create the need for democracy. A perfectly holy king would create universal peace and perfect justice. This is who he is. He is holy.
2.2. Son of God.
Luke 1:35, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God." And Luke 1:32b, "He will be . . . called the Son of the Most High." This means that when God broke into the universe the person he became was both divine and human. The king who rules the world is not just the king of Israel as the son of David. He is the King of kings and Lord of lords as the Son of God. To have this king as your king is to be protected by infinite power. No one can destroy you.
Luke 1:31, "And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus." God chooses the name of his Son: Jesus. And Matthew 1:21 adds, "You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." Jesus transliterates the Greek I ēsous which corresponds to the Hebrew name Joshua and means savior. Therefore, the king of the universe is given the name savior. Not savior of the righteous. But savior of sinners. "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (1 Timothy 1:15). All his holiness, all his deity and power stand in the service of his saving mercy. God broke into the universe to be a holy, divine, saving king.
Luke 1:33, "He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." The king of Israel, who is also king of the universe, will never be replaced. There will never be elections for a new President of the universe. There will never be a successor sitting upon the throne of Jesus. His kingdom is forever. Therefore, salvation and his protection are forever.
God broke into the universe to be a holy, divine, saving king forever. That is the answer to the question: Who is it that came of Christmas?
This king has commissioned me on this Christmas day, 2005, to declare publicly that there is an amnesty for all who have rejected his kingship up to now. Before he sat down on the throne of the universe, he died for our sins so that whoever would believe on him might not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). Whoever lays down the arms of rebellion and receives the forgiveness of the king and swears allegiance to him as the holy, divine, saving king will live for ever. In the name of king Jesus, come and receive this gift.
1 C. S. Lewis, "Equality," in Present Concerns: Essays by C. S. Lewis, qtd. in Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root, eds., The Quotable C. S. Lewis (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1989), pp. 152-153.
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