Responding to God's Words of Promise (preaching resource for Advent 4, December 24, 2023)

This post exegetes Luke 1:5-38, providing context for the RCL Gospel reading for 12/24/2023 (the fourth Sunday of Advent). This exegesis draws on commentary from Warren W. Wiersbe ("Bible Expository Commentary") and I. Howard Marshall ("New Bible Commentary").


Luke writes to share the gospel with all who read his retelling of Jesus’ story, which fulfills God's many promises to all humanity. He begins in chapter 1 by contrasting the response of several people to God’s promises. In this post we'll look at the response of two people: Zechariah (who responds with unbelief) and Mary (who responds with faith). It is Mary's response that we are called to emulate.

"The Annunciation" by Waterhouse (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Zechariah’s response of unbelief

It was a time of darkness in the Jewish nation—no prophetic word had come from the Lord for some 400 years. The Jewish spiritual leaders were shackled by tradition and tainted by corruption. Their Roman-imposed ruler, Herod the Great, was a maniacal tyrant. But no matter how dark the time, God remained faithful to his covenant of promise to his people. But how would they respond as God now brings the fulfillment?  Luke first presents the response of Zechariah, a servant of God who falls prey to the sin of unbelief. 

5 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. 6 Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly. 7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.

Zechariah and Elizabeth both belonged to the priestly line of Aaron. The priests were divided into 24 courses (1Chron. 24)—each serving in the temple two weeks a year. In spite of the godlessness around them, Zechariah and Elizabeth lived “blameless” lives. Their only sorrow was that they had no children, and they made this a matter of constant prayer. Little did they know that God would answer their prayers and give them, not a priest, but a prophet! And no ordinary prophet at that, for their son would be used of God to announce the fulfillment of God’s promise to send his Messiah!

8 Once when Zechariah's division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside. 11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13 But the angel said to him: "Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. 14 He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. 16 Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous-- to make ready a people prepared for the Lord."

The priests on duty drew lots to see which ministries they would perform, and Zechariah was chosen to offer incense in the holy place. While busily at work in the temple, an “angel of the Lord appeared to him.” We learn in verse 19 that this angel is Gabriel, and when he appears, Zechariah is “gripped with fear,” for Gabriel’s appearance could have meant divine judgment. But Gabriel brings instead words of assurance: “Do not be afraid.” This phrase is used frequently in Luke. So Zechariah was calmed and imagine how excited he must have been to hear that he and Elizabeth were to have a son—a source of great “joy” and “delight” (Luke 1:14a). “Joy” is another prevalent theme in Luke, mentioned at least 19 times. Good news engenders great joy! Gabriel instructs Zechariah to name his son John (“Jehovah is gracious”) and to dedicate the boy to God to be a Nazarite all his life (Num. 6:1–21). He would be filled with the Spirit before his birth (Luke 1:41) and would be God’s prophet to present God’s Son to the Jews (John 1:15–34). God would use John’s ministry to turn many people back to the Lord, just as Isaiah had promised (Isa. 40:1–5). 

8 Zechariah asked the angel, "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years." 19 The angel answered, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. 20 And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time." 21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. 22 When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.

You would think that the presence of Gabriel announcing God’s promise would engender in Zechariah a response of faith in God. Instead, he looked at himself and his wife and decided that the birth of a son was impossible. He wanted assurance beyond the word of God from Gabriel—perhaps a miraculous sign would do. Zechariah’s response was, of course, one of unbelief. He was questioning God’s ability to fulfill his promise. Had he forgotten what God did for Abraham and Sarah? Did he think his physical limitations could hinder Almighty God?  Faith is blessed, but unbelief is judged; and Zechariah was struck dumb until God’s promise (which he would not trust in) was fulfilled.  

23 When his time of service was completed, he returned home. 24 After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. 25 "The Lord has done this for me," she said. "In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people."

Zechariah must have had difficulty completing his week of ministry in the temple, not only because of his handicap, but also because of his excitement. He could hardly wait to return “to the hill country” (Luke 1:39) where he lived, to tell his wife the good news. And God kept his promise to Zechariah (God is always faithful, even if we aren’t!), and Elizabeth conceived a son in her old age. Apparently the amazement and curiosity of the people forced her to hide herself even as she praised the Lord for his mercy. Not only was she to have a son, but the birth of her son was evidence that the Messiah was coming! 

Mary's response of faith

26 In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. 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."

In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Gabriel appeared again with another birth announcement—this time to Mary, a young girl in Nazareth. Luke is intentionally contrasting the person and the response of Mary and Zechariah. Judean Jews disdained Galilean Jews, considering them “un-kosher” because of their contact with Gentiles (Mat. 4:15). They especially despised the Jews in Nazareth (John 1:45–46). But God in his grace chose a despised and lowly girl from Nazareth of Galilee to be the mother of the promised Messiah! Mary was a Jewess of the tribe of Judah, a descendant of David, and a virgin (Isa. 7:14). She was engaged to a carpenter in Nazareth named Joseph (Mat. 13:55), and apparently both were quite poor. Among the Jews at that time, engagement was almost as binding as marriage and could be broken only by divorce. Since Jewish girls married young, it is likely that Mary was a teenager. 

When we consider Gabriel’s greeting (Luke 1:28), we understand why Mary was perplexed and afraid: “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you!” Why would an angel come to greet her? In what way was she “highly favored” (“greatly graced”) by God? How was God with her? Mary’s response reveals her humility and honesty before God. She certainly never expected to see an angel and receive special favors from heaven. There was nothing unique about her that such things should happen. Gabriel then gave Mary great good news: she would become the mother of the promised Messiah whom she would name Jesus (“Jehovah is salvation,” see Mat. 1:21). Note that Gabriel here affirms both the deity and the humanity of Jesus. As Mary’s son, he would be human; as the “Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32) he would be the Son of God (Luke 1:35). He would also be a King, inheriting David’s throne, and reigning over Israel forever! Gabriel was referring to God’s covenant with David (2 Sam. 7) and his kingdom promises to the people of Israel (Isa. 9:1–7; 11–12; 61; 66; Jer. 33). Jesus came to be the Savior of the world, which fulfilled the promises God made to the Jewish fathers (Rom. 15:14). 

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. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. 37 For nothing is impossible with God." 38 "I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her.

Mary’s question in v34 (“how will this be”) was not evidence of unbelief (cf. Luke 1:18); rather, it was an expression of faith. She believed the promise, but she did not understand the performance. How could a virgin bear a child? First, Gabriel explained that it would entail a miracle, the work of the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her betrothed, would not be the father of the child (Mat. 1:18–25), even though Jesus would be legally identified as Joseph’s son (Luke 3:23; 4:22; John 1:45; 6:42). No doubt, some people would think that Mary had been unfaithful to Joseph and that Jesus was “born of fornication” (John 8:41). This was a part of the pain that Mary had to bear all her life (Luke 2:35).  Gabriel was careful to point out that the baby Jesus would be the “Son of God”—the “holy one.” His humanity was engendered by the Holy Spirit (Heb. 10:5) who “overshadowed” Mary. That word is applied to the presence of God in the holy of holies in the tabernacle and temple (Ex. 40:35). Mary’s womb became a “holy of holies” for the enfleshment (incarnation) of the eternal Son of God! God become flesh.

The angel ended his message by giving Mary a word of encouragement: her aged relative Elizabeth was with child, proving that “nothing is impossible with God” (“no word of God shall be void of power” ASV, 1901). God accomplishes his purposes through the power of his word (Psa. 33:9). Mary’s response was to believe—to surrender herself to God as a willing servant. She experienced the grace of God (Luke 1:30) and believed the word of God, and therefore she could be used by the Spirit of God to accomplish the will of God. A “servant” was the lowest kind of female slave, which shows how much Mary trusted God. She belonged totally to the Lord, body (Luke 1:38), soul (Luke 1:46), and spirit (Luke 1:47). 


Through Mary's example we are directed to the promise of Jesus’ coming into the world and the appropriate response of faith. Later in this chapter we are also given additional positive examples (including Zechariah's second response). Let us join with them in responding in faith to all that God has promised to us in Jesus—we do so by sharing in Jesus' own faith, which he shares with us through the Holy Spirit. By the Spirit,