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The Incarnation

Updated: Jan 2



December 24, 2023 |The Incarnation|Luke 1:26-38

JD Cutler


Click here for the sermon audio


We come this Christmas Eve morning to celebrate the birth of our Savior by talking about one of the more misunderstood passages of scripture in some traditions. That is the situation surrounding Mary and the way in which our savior was brought into the world he created. Far from being a minor detail, it has far reaching implications for our faith and understanding. 

As Protestant Christians, we base our understanding of Mary on the canonized scripture alone. In agreement with the history of protestant thinking, we base our doctrine and beliefs off of only these 66 books of the Old and New Testaments.


In them we find the familiar story of the announcement to Mary by the angel Gabriel concerning the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. 

We find this encounter in the gospel of Luke if you want to turn there now. Luke chapter 1 at verse 26. Let’s read it together.

 

Luke 1:26-38 (ESV) 26 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.


At the core of this story, it is not about Mary, it is about God acting on his creation. It is a story of God moving in miraculous ways to enter into his creation as its promised redeemer. Since that is the case, this morning I want to share with you three reflections on God’s activity as revealed in this passage that teach us about our savior. 

Three reflections, the first is…


God’s choice displays the humble nature of our savior.

Our encounter opens with these words 26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth  to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.… every word telling us something about the place God is choosing to act in and the people he is going to include. 


God sent, this is not God responding to the prayers of people, this is not God responding to initiatives of men, this is God acting according to his will and sovereignty. 

The angel Gabriel, previously identified as the angel who appeared to Zechariah in the temple next to the altar of incense to announce that Zechariah and Elizabeth would have a child that they would name John, who would prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. Here we are supposed to be both reminded of his previous visit, but it also encourages a contrasting between Zechariah’s response of doubt to Mary’s response to the message of Gabriel. 

To a city of Galilee, an area described in scripture as Galilee of the Gentiles, one from which the religious leaders say no prophet would arise from. It was the northern area of the three areas that made up Palestine. Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. 

It was known for its intermingling of Jews and Gentiles and in addition it was far from Jerusalem and the temple. 

But not just the area of Galilee, but specifically, a city of Galilee named Nazareth.

When Philip went to find Nathaniel and tell him that they had found the Christ, Jesus of Nazareth, some thirty years later, Nathaniel says, (ESV) “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

This was a small country town far from the center of power, less educated and less refined.

Not the place you would think Christ’s incarnation story would start.

But just as unlikely of locations is who Gabriel is sent to in Galilee, in the city of Nazareth. A virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph. Scholars tell us that Mary was most likely very young, 12 or 13 years old. In that weird place between childhood and womanhood. Based on her hometown given here, we infer, like many people in Israel, she was a poor, uneducated peasant living in a small country town. Not to mention, in this day women were discounted in the culture, thought as less than and easily dismissed. 

From a merely human perspective, she was as insignificant as one can be. Kent Hughes, bible commentator, calls here “a nobody in a nothing town in the middle of nowhere.”


And yet, it is here Gabriel is sent, to this young engaged virgin child to deliver the news that God was about to act to fulfill his many promises to send a deliverer and redeemer to his people. 

What he says when he arrives is one of the reasons I say this passage is often misunderstood. 

28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 

In Latin this becomes Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum. (probably butchered that for our Latin experts out there)

Which then translated to English becomes ‘Hail Mary, full of grace,The Lord is with thee.’

Which is the beginning of one of the most well known prayers in the Catholic church. The problem is that the Latin and subsequent English misses the meaning of the original Greek, which Catholic scholars will admit, but simultaneously retain the inflated meaning.


What is it that Gabriel says here?

Greetings- sometimes translated as Hail, in Hail Mary is better translated as Rejoice! Or Be Glad!

O favored one- here is where the problem lies. The Latin and English translation full of grace ascribes something to Mary that Gabriel does not. The greek word here is in the perfect passive tense indicating Mary is the recipient of the action, not the author. The root word is grace and this word that Gabriel uses is to be made full of grace.

Do you see the difference? Mary does not possess grace in fullness in and of herself, Gabriel is describing what God is doing is rooted in his grace towards her. 


The Lord is with you- Similar to the angel that pronounced this to Gideon as he hid in a winepress Judges 6:12 (ESV) 12 And the angel of the LORD appeared to him and said to him, “The LORD is with you, O mighty man of valor.”

That is to say, The Lord has chosen to be with you because he has chosen you to be the vessel of his grace and involve you in his work. 

As Mary was trying to figure out what kind of greeting this was, Gabriel goes on. 

Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Favor here again is the word for grace. 

To find favor does not necessarily mean she was looking for it, sometimes the word means to happen upon something you are not looking for. The truth is we do not know for sure the condition of Mary’s heart prior to this moment. But whether she was seeking God or not, Gabriel says God has chosen her to be a recipient of his immeasurable grace. 


Why spend the time to make this distinction? Because if Mary was somehow full of grace, if she was herself sinless as the Catholic church teaches, then in some way she deserved this special favor given to her by God, but if she was a sinner in need of grace, just like every other man or woman, then this choice of God to use her to bring his son into the world rests solely in his providential grace and shows us that God chose the humble, the lowest, the least deserving to bless by making her the mother of our savior. 

Interestingly enough, Mary’s understanding of this is reflected in her praise when she goes to visit Elizabeth, her cousin, and mother of John the Baptist. Listen to what she says, Luke 1:46-49 (ESV) “My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.


Jesus would be born to a humble young Jewish girl from a humble town in Galilee, engaged to a carpenter. When God chose to enter his creation he did not do it with pomp and ceremony, he was not born to a wealthy religious leader, to a queen or even in a royal family, he came into the world in the way he would live in the world, humbly. 


When we magnify Mary we minimize the humbleness of Jesus, when we magnify God’s grace we can wonder at the humble way God chose to enter into his world as a helpless babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger. One of the most humble births he could have experienced. 

Our savior came into this world humbly and lived humbly and died humbly. 

Philippians 2:5-11 (ESV) 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

In the retelling of his birth to the young virgin named Mary we are reminded of our savior’s humility that led him to lay down his life for those who did not deserve it, humility that began in this unlikely choice of God to enter his creation in this way. 


God’s means displays the human nature of our savior.

Picture the scene. God sends Gabriel to announce the coming savior to his soon to be mother. Everything we know about angels in scripture is that they are imposing creatures that serve God’s will. Standing, announcing the fulfillment of prophecy long expected, long awaited, God is sending his Messiah. 

How would he do it? I mean he could have just manifested in the flesh as a fully grown man, went to the cross and died for us, right?

God could have formed him from the dust of the ground like Adam, right?

If you were God, maybe you would have just had the eternal Jesus descend in a glory cloud on the Temple.

And yet, how does Gabriel say he is going to come into the world? 

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.”

You will conceive, (same word used for the normal conception of a child, like in the case of Zechariah and Elizabeth), in your womb (again emphasizing the normal means of her pregnancy). You will bear a son, literally bring forth, the normal word for birthing a child. We have no reason in the scriptures to assume that Jesus came forth by any other means than the ordinary means of birth. Anything else comes from extra-biblical sources like the apocryphal books rejected by protestants. Later, Luke gives this account of his birth. Luke 2:6-7 (ESV) 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 

Mary carried Jesus for 9 months, and when it was time gave birth to his very human child and wrapped him up and placed him in a manger. How utterly human is our savior depicted!

God chose the ordinary human means to bring our savior into the world because he was human. 

Not that he appeared human, but he was 100% human. This is vital to our understanding of Christ, to deny his humanity is to deny the biblical Christ, it is a heresy that has been condemned over and over again by the church. 


Philippians 2:5-11 (ESV) 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.


The Bible teaches that the word of God became flesh. That God put on humanity, fully and finally. 

It also tells us why that is important. Two places in particular I want to highlight. 


Romans 8:3-4 (ESV) 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.


Galatians 4:4-5 (ESV) 4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.


He must be born under the law in order to redeem us from the law and he must be in the flesh so that the penalty of sin could be condemned in the flesh. Too often we emphasize the divinity of Christ and ignore his humanity. One writer said it this way, highlighting all the things in scripture that teach his actual humanity. 


He was born (Luke 2:7). He grew (Luke 2:40, 52). He grew tired (John 4:6) and got thirsty (John 19:28) and hungry (Matthew 4:2). He became physically weak (Matthew 4:11; Luke 23:26). He died (Luke 23:46). And he had a real human body after his resurrection (Luke 24:39; John 20:20, 27).

The author goes on to repeat an often quoted line concerning Jesus, “That which he has not assumed he has not healed.”

He became man in full, so that he might save us in full. He is a truly marvelous Savior.


Nowhere is this truth more plainly seen than in the means God used to bring himself into our world. By being born to a young woman named Mary, brought forth in Bethlehem, wrapped lovingly and placed in a manger. 

But as we know, he is more than just a man, which brings us to our last reflection.  


God’s method displays the divine nature of our savior.

Mary asks a very important question. “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

Notice this is not doubt like Zechariah when he asks “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” Which is roughly translated, why should I believe this?

Mary says, how is God going to do this for me since I am unknown to a man, that is to say, the natural way of bringing a child into this world. Another way to understand this, is what do I need to do? 


The language Gabriel uses is prophetic in nature. Mary understands that Gabriel is not announcing the birth of any son she is to name Jesus, which is the first indicator of who he would be, the name means ‘The Lord is Salvation’ or ‘God saves’, a common name in this day, but rather he is talking about the promised Messiah. 

Second, he says he will be great. Notice with me he does not add any modifiers. 

When he announces John the Baptist’s birth he tells Zechariah he will be great before the Lord. This word is used in various ways in the New Testament, such as they cried out with a great cry, he will do great things, they had great joy, he hosted a great feast, he was a great prophet, etc…


From the (Reformed Expository Commentary) I found this statement that sums up the significance here. 

In the Old Testament, whenever this word is used without qualification, it almost always refers to God himself. God’s wisdom is great; his works are great; his power is great; his mercy is great (e.g., Ps. 92:5; 103:11). So great is God’s greatness that he alone deserves to be called “great.” By saying that Jesus would be great, therefore, Gabriel was testifying to the deity of Jesus Christ. No one is greater than he is. Jesus is great in wisdom, great in power, great in love, and great in the majesty of his divine being. His greatness is the greatness of God.

Thirdly he says he will be called the son of the Most High, indicating a special relationship between this Jesus and the Heavenly Father. He is the eternal son, the second member of the triune God-head. 


Lastly, he says that he will sit on the throne of his father David forever. He is the promised King that God said he would send to eternally reign over his people. 


This is what God announced through Gabriel to Mary. Mary would give birth to a son named Jesus, who would be the great savior and the son of God, the most powerful ruler in the history of the world. She believed this, and we know this because her only question was how. How is God going to do this?

That is, I understand I am going to give birth to the promised Messiah, but what is the method God is going to use? Specifically it seems that Mary understands this is going to happen before her marriage to Joseph. To which Gabriel answers, “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. 


Isn’t this a fair question? Don’t we have the same question, how can someone become pregnant apart from the natural human method God gave mankind? According to Gabriel, the answer is pretty simple, if you believe in the power of God.  

As important to our theology as the humanity of Christ, the supernatural virgin birth has always been a part of the things we confessed about Christ. (Reformed Expository Commentary) It is in the Apostles’ Creed: “he was conceived by the Holy Ghost, and born of the Virgin Mary.” We also say it in the Nicene Creed: God the Son “was incarnated by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and was made man.” This is how Mary had a son. The child in her womb came from the Holy Spirit:

The virgin birth is essential to the faith. 


So how was God going to accomplish this? Gabriel says that the Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of God will overshadow you. Prior to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, God would send his Spirit to certain people at certain times. But this is more than that. Yes, God would send his Holy Spirit, but in addition, the power of God would overshadow Mary. 


This language is similar to what we see happening at the tabernacle, God’s dwelling place in the Old Covenant.

Exodus 40:34-35 (ESV) 34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. 35 And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.


Luke uses this same word for what happens to the disciples on the mount of transfiguration. Luke 9:34-35 (ESV) 34 As he was saying these things, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. 35 And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!”

The cloud, the idea of overshadowing, is the manifest presence of the Lord descending on a place. 

Not a great description for those curious on how God was going to accomplish this miracle, but I think that is the point. It is a miraculous, one time, work of God, by the will of God. More importantly than answering any questions we have about this divine method, Gabriel rather explains to Mary the implications of it. 

therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.


Because this child will be conceived by the supernatural power of God, he will not be like any other human being. This is a picture for us painting the divinity of our Lord. Why is this important for us to understand? As one commentator summed it up so well. Jesus had to be born of a woman to be a man. But if he had been the physical offspring of Joseph, then he would have been nothing more than a man. His virgin birth, his divine conception by the Spirit—these things were necessary for his incarnation. Only the virgin birth preserves the humanity and the deity of Jesus Christ. His conception by the Spirit points to his deity. His birth from a woman points to his humanity. One person, two natures—a divine nature and a human nature. And because he was conceived by a unique creative act of the Holy Spirit, Jesus was not corrupted by the guilt of Adam. Fallen humanity could not produce its own Savior; he had to come from somewhere outside, by way of divine initiative and intervention. Therefore, God sent Jesus into the world as the perfect Son of God, born without sin.


Conclusion:

A humble savior, a human savior, a divine savior. 

This is the story of Christmas, this is the story of the incarnation. 

If your celebration of Christ is missing any of these reflections, you are not celebrating the Christ of scripture.

This is who the Bible boldly declares Christ to be. 

I’d like to finish today by reading you our confession of faith regarding Jesus. 

Christ is the eternal Son of God. In His incarnation as Jesus Christ He was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. Jesus perfectly revealed and did the will of God, taking upon Himself human nature with its demands and necessities and identifying Himself completely with mankind yet without sin. He honored the divine law by His personal obedience, and in His substitutionary death on the cross He made provision for the redemption of men from sin. He was raised from the dead with a glorified body and appeared to His disciples as the person who was with them before His crucifixion. He ascended into heaven and is now exalted at the right hand of God where He is the One Mediator, fully God, fully man, in whose Person is effected the reconciliation between God and man. He will return in power and glory to judge the world and to consummate His redemptive mission. He now dwells in all believers as the living and ever present Lord.


How should we respond to this wonderful truth of the gospel?

We turn one final time to our text. 

38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” 


Total and complete surrender to the will of God by faith because of his great grace extended towards us in Christ, the incarnate eternal son. 





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