This past Sunday kicks off the season of Advent. We can officially start getting ready for Christmas now. As we move forward in this season, we are going to be exploring the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke. As you read that story something that becomes clear is that in sending Jesus to earth, God was turning the world on its head. Over the next few weeks, we are going to explore together just how He was planning to do that and what the results of it have been. Tune in each week as we work through this incredible set of stories to see how God turned the world upside down.
Let me pull back the curtain for you just a bit this morning on the process of doing what I do up here each week. Coming up with the title for a sermon can be an interesting exercise. Some pastors really don’t put much thought into it, but like a good title for a book draws you in before you’ve read it, a good title for a sermon will draw the listener in before she’s heard it. The same thing goes when trying to construct a title for a whole series. Now, different preachers take different approaches in their preaching. For some, they can simply make the title of the book they are preaching through the title of the series and walk away. In that sense, I could have called this series, Luke 1:4-2:40. Even if you’re a full-on Bible nerd, though, that doesn’t sound very exciting. It sounds like a verse reference…which is because it is.
For me, the title of a series helps to give it an identity. It comes naturally out of the Scriptures we are going to explore together and the big idea I want to convey to you. Even better is when I can take the big ideas of the series and pair them with something in the culture that will spark a certain need or mood or emotion in your hearts and minds.
Well, as I was preparing for this particular series, reading and rereading the story of Jesus’ birth, one idea really began to jump off the page at me. When God sent Jesus to earth, everything got turned on its head. Jesus’ arrival changed everything. The world was turned upside down. And when that phrase hit me, I couldn’t help but to start singing the song from Hamilton: “The world turned upside down.”
That song from the hit musical captures the spirit of that age really well. The largest and most powerful empire the world had ever seen was being overthrown and defeated by a bunch of ragtag, untrained, poorly equipped colonists. And, yes, we did get some help from international allies, but we did most of the heavy lifting. And then, when all was said and done, we undertook an experiment in self-government that had only ever existed in the realm of theory and ideas. In our grand experiment, we set before the world something entirely new. We turned the world upside down.
In the same way, but on an even grander scale, when God took on human flesh and came to earth in the person of Jesus Christ, He turned the world upside down. Everything that everyone had always assumed worked one way, was suddenly revealed to work another way. The powerless became powerful. The weak became strong. The poor became rich. The hungry were fed. The sick were healed. The lame walked. The blind saw. The ones who thought they had all the power were revealed to have not nearly as much as they thought. People who believed the world revolved around them discovered there was a new king in town. Hope, love, peace, and joy were unleashed on the world and life reigned where once death had held dominion. And although we live in the aftermath of this explosion, it is a good thing to occasionally take a moment to intentionally remember it; to be reminded of how God began to set things right as He had been promising to do for quite some time. It just may be that in a set of stories that are familiar and cherished by so many, we learn something new that will enable us to join in His incredible work even more fully than we have before. Between now and the end of this year, in a new series called, The World Turned Upside Down, we will do just that.
Guiding us in this journey will be Luke’s Gospel. His telling of the story of Jesus’ birth really draws out the potency of the change God was bringing to the world in a way Matthew’s does not. If you have a copy of the Scriptures with you this morning, find your way to Luke 1, and let’s begin this morning by looking at two different birth announcements and two very different reactions to them.
After Luke’s opening statement in which he spells out the exhaustive research he put in to telling the most accurate version of Jesus’ story as he possibly could by interviewing eye-witnesses and running down every source he could find, he starts here in v. 4: “In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest of Abijah’s division named Zechariah. His wife was from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.” It is really interesting that Luke chooses to start here. For someone reading this for the first time, this husband and wife were as unknown as anyone else would have been. But this is Jesus’ story, so we assume they must have some connection to Him. Well, as it turns out, they do, but only loosely. Their son, however, will play a much more significant role in Jesus’ life.
And as for who this couple is, while the descriptions Luke gives us of them may not mean a whole lot to us, to Luke’s original audience, they meant a great deal. At the center of Jewish life in first century Israel was the Law of Moses. At the center of the Law of Moses was the sacrificial system that enabled the people to approach the presence of God. Helping them to perform all of the requisite rituals was a group of priests. As for who could serve as priest, God spells that out in the Law. Priests were all from the tribe of Levi, one of the twelve sons of Jacob. His clan was chosen for this task because they were faithful to the law at a time when none of the rest of the people were. God rewarded them with a special role in the administration of His covenant with the people. And, while any of the children of Levi could serve the Lord in the temple system, the top line folks were all descendants of Moses’ brother, Aaron, the original high priest. During the reign of King David, the various family lines descended from Aaron were all organized into family divisions so they could serve on a more effective, rotating basis.
Well, Zechariah was from the eighth family division, and Elizabeth herself was one of Aaron’s descendants too. In other words, this was a power couple. They would have lived and served in the upper echelons of Jewish society. We don’t know whether or not they were particularly wealthy, but they had prestige for days. They had the right pedigree and even a character to match it. There was just one problem: They didn’t have any kids. And in that day and time, that was a big problem.
Listen to more of the story: “Both were righteous in God’s sight, living without blame according to all the commands and requirements of the Lord. But they had no children because Elizabeth could not conceive, and both of them were well along in years.” In other words, by every social measure of the day, this couple should have been as favored in God’s sight as they could possibly be. And yet, He had afflicted them with this terrible curse. They had tried for years to see it lifted, but to no avail, and now their window of opportunity for having kids had passed. While they perhaps tried to go through life as normally as they could, their feelings of total bewilderment at the apparent anger of God with them would have been oppressive at times. And they never quite would have been able to keep the people around them from thinking something wasn’t quite right in spite of their obvious righteousness.
And then, one day, everything changed. “When his division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, it happened that [Zechariah] was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and burn incense. At the hour of incense the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. An angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified and overcome with fear. But the angel said to him: ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. There will be joy and delight for you, and many will rejoice at his birth. For he will be great in the sight of the Lord and will never drink wine or beer. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb. He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.’”
And again, for us, some of that seems like prophetic mumbo-jumbo, but rest assured that for Zechariah and anyone else with whom he shared this message, these would have been the most exciting words they had ever heard in their lives. These were the most hopeful and exciting words that had been spoken in 400 years. This was just nearly the moment the whole nation currently living had been waiting for all of their lives. “Your son,” the angel said, “is going to get the people ready for the Messiah.” It’s hard to imagine there was any higher honor for a parent in all the world than this. In this moment the angel was saying to Zechariah that not only had God noticed his and Elizabeth’s lifetime of righteousness and faithfulness, but He was rewarding them for it with interest. So. Much. Interest. Perhaps the only thing better was if they were told they were going to give birth to the Messiah Himself.
Speaking of that, let’s jump forward a few months and to a small town way to the north of Jerusalem in the province of Galilee called Nazareth. Here we meet another character about to get some big news of her own. This time it is a young woman named Mary. Luke writes, “In the sixth month [of Elizabeth’s pregnancy], the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.”
Now, I suspect you’ve heard of Mary. She’s kind of important. But let’s assume for a minute we’re reading this for the first time through first century eyes. Luke goes out of his way to note that Mary is engaged and a virgin. This meant she was young–maybe 14-15 years old. She was certainly not 18 yet. She didn’t have any kind of pedigree to mark her as a person of much merit. She was from the tribe of Levi, but her family was not evidently one of any kind of prominence. She certainly didn’t have much in the way of life experience on which to base a very thorough evaluation of her character. And yet, here she was with an angel appearing to her just like it had to Zechariah. What’s more, the angel’s message now was even more exciting than Zechariah had received.
Look how this unfolded. “And the angel came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you.’ But she was deeply troubled [that is, afraid] by this statement, wondering what kind of greeting this could be. Then the angel told her: ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Now listen: You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end.’”
Unlike what Zechariah received in his message from Gabriel, Mary’s message was clearly messianic. She was going to give birth to the Messiah. The One everyone had been waiting for was going to enter the world through her. There were so many things this meant that we don’t have time to even scratch the surface of them all this morning.
If that was the two different birth announcements, though, what I want us to see together this morning is how these two very different individuals responded to them. Pretend with me for just a minute you had never heard this story before and you were listening through first-century ears. How do you suspect these two responded to their respective invitations to join in God’s work in critical ways? Given your cultural conditioning, you would have fully expected Zechariah to respond with exuberant faith. I mean, not only are he and his wife finally going to have a child, this child is going to be a boy. Even more than that, this boy is going to be the herald of the Messiah. Let’s add another element to this. As a faithful priest, Zechariah knew the Scriptures. He knew the story of Abraham and Sarah having a child in their old age. He knew all of the ways God had told His people about this very moment. Of course, they didn’t know when it was coming, but now that it was clearly here, he should have embraced it with gusto. This was something he had spent his whole life hoping he would experience. He had spent his life helping fellow Jews prepare for it as well. And Luke even went out of his way to note that Zechariah and Elizabeth were both well-regarded for their personal righteousness with regards to the Law. Everything about him said he was the kind of person who was going to hit the ground running to take part in God’s advancing work.
Mary, on the other hand, would have merited no meaningful expectations. First of all, she was young–barely a woman. Then there was that unfortunate fact: she was a she. While the place of women in Jewish society was advanced well beyond that of the broader Roman culture, it was still not anywhere near as far along as we’ve come today. Nothing of significance was expected from a woman. A man who had only daughters would have been considered just nearly childless. This was an awful perspective to have, but it’s where they were. The church would eventually start fixing that, but it would be a few years yet. Mary would have had some schooling in the Law, but not very much. She would have known the stories about the Messiah, but not the detail Zechariah would have had. In other words, if she had said, “No way, I can’t do that!” no one would have batted an eye.
Yet look at what actually happened. First in Luke 1:18: “‘How can I know this?’ Zechariah asked the angel. ‘For I am an old man, and my wife is well along in years.’” Now Mary’s response in Luke 1:34: “Mary asked the angel, ‘How can this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man?’” Now, on paper, those responses look fairly similar. I mean, the lexical difference in English between “how can I know this,” and “how can this be,” isn’t very big. Yet the hearts of these two responses could not have been less similar.
Looking a bit more closely at Zechariah’s response, the words Luke used in Greek, kata ti, translate literally as “according to what.” Mary’s response begins more simply with “how.” In other words, while Mary was asking for an explanation (which seems pretty legitimate considering the angel was announcing something that in the whole history of the world has happened once and she was it meaning it hadn’t ever happened as far as she was concerned), Zechariah was asking for proof of its happening. Mary doesn’t know any better than to assume what the angel says is going to happen, and very innocently asks about the mechanics of it. Zechariah doesn’t really believe it is going to happen, and wants proof before he’ll commit himself to it. Mary’s question comes from a place of faithful obedience. Zechariah’s comes from a place of mistrusting doubt. And, yes, we can make an argument justifying Zechariah’s doubt. If you had been through what he had been through, you might respond with doubt too. But given his position and knowledge and access to God, he was held responsible for what he should have known. Mary didn’t have any of that and trusted anyway.
As a result, while Zechariah gets a punishment for his sign–“Now listen. You will become silent and unable to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.”–Mary gets an answer–“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. And consider your relative Elizabeth–even she has conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called childless. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Zechariah winds up looking like a raving lunatic until the day finally arrives. Mary comes off displaying one of the greatest, most profound faiths the world has ever known: “I am the Lord’s servant. . .May it be done to me according to your word.” And listen, she said that knowing full well the social consequences she would experience if the angel’s announcement proved true. Zechariah would have seen none of that, and he still wouldn’t believe.
So, what do we do with all of this? Friends, God was turning the world upside down, and this great reversal began before things even started happening. Zechariah should have been the faithful one, and Mary the doubting one according to what anyone around at that time would have thought and expected. But the exact opposite proved to be true. And God has been turning things on their head ever since.
He’s still turning things on their head today. Everywhere He sets about advancing His kingdom, God consistently operates in ways that defy what the world might define as a rational explanation. He uses the weakest and most unlikely servants to accomplish the greatest and most incredible Gospel advancements. He uses small ministries to achieve amazing ministry successes. People who are coming from places of utter brokenness He makes whole and uses them to reach into the lives of those even more broken than they were. Individuals who should be defined by their limitations He uses to prove to the world that, just as the angel declared, “nothing will be impossible with God.” He does all of that, and He gives you and me the opportunity to take part in it. The question is: How will we respond? Can I offer a suggestion to you this morning? When God gives you an opportunity to join in His work, take it.
It may be tomorrow, it could be a year from now, it could be that you have something on your heart and mind even as I am speaking to you this morning that God is using to spur you on to action for the sake of His kingdom. It could be something unimaginably grand from the outside looking in, but it could also be something that seems as insignificant as having a conversation with a friend or taking a student out for lunch. Whatever it may be, if you are a follower of Jesus, God has or will come to you with an opportunity to join in the work He is doing in His world. If you would not count yourself a follower of Jesus, it may be that God has been working on your heart and mind with an invitation to place your faith in Him for the first time and begin taking part in a work greater than anything else you have ever committed yourself to in the past. Whatever this invitation may be, when God gives you an opportunity to join in His work, take it.
Take it because you don’t know what His plans are and how critical a role you may play in them. Apart from the work of God through their lives, Zechariah and Mary would have been completely lost to history. No one would have remembered their names. But God worked, and they accepted His invitation to join Him. That’s right, they. Even Zechariah accepted His invitation eventually. We’ll get to that part of the story in a couple of weeks. But for now, that just means that if you have told God no in the past or doubted He could really use you and walked away, you can still turn around and take Him up on His offer. You can respond with faith and marvel at the ways God uses you. When God gives you an opportunity to join in His work, take it.
So then, where is God calling you to join in His work? That invitation could come in a number of different ways. It may be that God has simply laid something on your heart; a ministry idea you just can’t seem to shake. Perhaps you noticed a need in the community and feel a driving desire to do something about it. It could also be more indirect than that. Maybe someone at church has invited you to serve in a new place. Perhaps a friend has reached out for godly wisdom and advice in the face of a challenging personal situation. There are all kinds of ways His invitation could come. The challenge before you is whether or not to accept it. When God gives you an opportunity to join in His work, take it.
This challenge isn’t just personal, though. It’s also corporate. Where might God be calling this church to join in His world-changing work? How can we participate in His turning the world upside down here in Oakboro, in Stanly County and around the state, and to the uttermost parts of the earth? The invitation will come in such a way that it will seem well beyond anything we imagined we might accomplish together–like building a big, new facility to enable us to connect with more people and more effectively make disciples who make disciples at a time when building costs are sky-high and when we already have space for everything we’re currently doing–but if we’ll join Him in whatever it happens to be, trusting that with Him nothing will be impossible, we will experience the wonder of His plans in ways we only ever dreamed. When God gives us an opportunity to join in His work, let’s take it. There’s a world to change out there. God sent Jesus to change it. Let’s join Him in continuing the work.