Advent, Christian living, Jesus

The Peace of Divine Purpose (Advent 2022)

Matthew 1:18-21; Matthew 2:1-15; 2 Timothy 1:7; Hebrews 2:17-18

Paul told his young assistant Timothy that God’s Spirit does not make us timid.  Instead, it emboldens us to live a life of love and self-discipline.  Paul wrote this from prison awaiting execution.  Clearly, there is a peace about living in God’s will, even when the way is unclear or involves suffering.

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In the Christmas story, we find many people who discovered peace in the midst of suffering and confusing situations because they placed their faith in God.  They believed he had a plan and trusted him to guide them through the darkness into light.  Mary had an unplanned pregnancy.  Joseph was confused how his girl could cheat on him and what to do about it.  The magi thought they knew where God was taking them, yet they ended up in the wrong city!  They almost became political pawns in the process.  Joseph, Mary, and Jesus found themselves on the run from authorities.  Eventually, they became political refugees living as immigrants in Egypt, wondering when they could return home.  They had to live in a culture not their own, learn a new language that was foreign to them.  Many they encountered day after day probably hated them because of their foreignness! 

This was just in the first few years of Jesus’ life!  No wonder the writer of Hebrews tells us Jesus was made like us.  He was human in every way.  He understands our needs because he has suffered as we have.  Jesus came into our Egypt, our captivity, our exile.  He did not break sins’ shackles from the comfort of heaven.  He was “born into shit and straw” (to quote the ever-colorful Bono from U2).  This helpless babe had to trust not only his heavenly Father, but also his parents to protect him and love him.  Jesus suffered as we suffer.  He was tempted as we are tempted.  Through it all, he trusted his Father’s plan and walked in accordance with the Spirit of God.  This is what made him the Prince of Peace.  This is how he was able to save us from our sins.

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Advent, Christmas Is Coming! Be Ready!, sermon

Surrender and Be Ready! (Advent Week 4)

Tim Allen was in two rather different Christmas stories. (Both characters, interestingly include the names of Protestant Reformers: Martin Luther and John Calvin.) Scott Calvin in The Santa Clause learns from an elf that–through a series of unplanned events–he now must become the new Santa Claus. He is told he has 11 months to get his affairs in order before reporting for duty to the North Pole. The film centers on Scott’s process of coming to terms with the responsibility that has been thrust upon him. Ultimately, he surrenders to the call and embraces it. On the other hand, Luther Krank in Christmas with the Kranks spends the majority of the movie resisting cultural expectations of the Christmas season and enduring the gossip and scorn of his neighbors because of his choices. The experience of these characters relate in different ways to the story of Mary we find in the Gospel of Luke 1:26-38. In that story, she is called to surrender to a life that will ultimately result in rumors, gossip, and misunderstandings alongside unlimited love, wonder, and grace.

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The first thing the text teaches us is that we must surrender to God’s presence (vv. 26-30). While God is always present, there are times he is present and calls to us in a special way. A dramatic example of this is the sudden appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary, a virgin pledged in marriage to Joseph. While modern Western women typically get married in their mid- to late-twenties, Mary likely was in her early teens (12-15 years old, if she was the typical first century Jewish girl). Gabriel greeted this teen as “highly favored one!” and told her, “the Lord is with you!” The young girl was greatly troubled by the words, filled with questions about what the greeting could mean. The words–not the appearance of the angel!—created these doubts and concerns. Perhaps the fact the angel wasn’t the source of her concern shows a steely resilience in this girl that would be important for the mother of the Messiah (vv 28-29). Her reaction certainly was different from that of the old priest Zechariah in the preceding story. He was “gripped with fear” upon the sight of this same angel . . . even before the angel had a chance to speak a word to him (1:11-12).

The angel comforted both of them with the words, “Do not be afraid!” because Zechariah’s prayers have been heard and Mary had found favor with God–like others before her, such as Noah (Gen 6:8), Abraham (Gen 18:3-5), and Moses (Exod 33:12-13). In the presence of God, we may feel fear or find comfort, but there is always an element of danger. It is like being in the middle of a violent thunderstorm. If we are in the bare elements, the raw energy and power of the storm can be a fearful if not deadly experience. From the safety of our home, however, that same raw power fills us not with fear but with awe at the beauty of the lightening show and the roar of the thunder. In the same way, those who are in God’s grace (the Greek word translated here as “favor”) are safe within the dangerous presence of the living God. Mary surrenders to God’s presence. Do we?

A second thing we see in the story is that we should surrender to God’s power (vv. 31-35). The virgin is told she will have a child and must name him Jesus. The pattern of the announcement (conceive/give birth/call the son) is the same pattern found in the sign of the prophet Isaiah to King Ahaz (7:14), “the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” The birth of Jesus is the promise that God is with us (the meaning of the word Immanuel). But there is an earlier story that also uses this same announcement pattern, a story about another strong woman placed in a precarious position yet told to surrender to God (Gen 16:11). Hagar is visited by an angel to tell her that she has conceived and will give birth to a son, Ishmael (which means “God hears”). The birth of Jesus means that God has heard the suffering of his people and so he has sent a Savior to liberate us. Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn, was not the ultimate child through whom God’s promises to Abraham would flow. That would be Isaac. Though Judaism was a blessing, it was not the ultimate blessing. That blessing would come through the birth of Jesus, Abraham’s seed through whom all nations would be blessed.

The promise of the son to be born to Mary was not like the promise of the son to be born to Zechariah. The angel told Zechariah that John the Baptist would be “great in the eyes of the Lord” (1:15) but Mary is told that Jesus will be “great” (v 32). That is, John’s greatness was dependent upon God’s perspective but Jesus’ greatness was inherent to who he was. Another difference between these births is that John from birth was not to have wine or fermented drink but Jesus had no restrictions placed on him. He was holy (v 35) and did not need to maintain his righteousness (1:6) through any specific actions.

Luke tells us that Mary was pledged to Joseph, a son of David. The Romans (and Jews) understood adoption to be a legal avenue to ascend to the throne. Augustus Caesar was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, as Tiberius Caesar was the adopted son of Augustus, yet all three ruled the Roman Empire. Jesus would have a legitimate claim to the throne as an adopted son of Joseph. To make sure the reader understands that Mary’s son was the Son of David to inherit the throne of his father David (v 32), however, Luke shapes the words of vv 26-27 (“God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David.”) with faint echoes of 1 Samuel 16:1 (“The LORD said to Samuel, ‘. . . I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem for I have chosen one of his sons to be king'”–that king being David).

Yet before David’s throne is mentioned (v 32) or the title Son of God was bestowed upon Jesus (v 35), the angel first clarifies Jesus’ title, calling him, “Son of the Most High.” This Jewish circumlocution for Son of God is interesting to find in Luke (given his predominantly Gentile audience), which may indicate the Jewish origins of this announcement story. But more significant for Luke’s use in this passage is that it explains the “type” of Son of God Jesus would be. Augustus and Tiberius were both called “Son of God” when Caesars, because the Romans had declared their predecessor (upon his death) to have become divine. Jesus, however, was not Son of God as a mere human accolade or on account of the deification of a human (whether David or a Caesar). Jesus was Son of the Most High–YHWH. He was the Son of the God of all creation.

At this point, Mary asks a very reasonable question: “How is this possible? I have known no man.” Her question is not one of doubt or rejection. It is simply one of confusion. Her question is not like that of Zechariah in the preceding story. When he hears the angel’s announcement that he and Elizabeth will have a child, he asks, “How can you be certain?” But then this foolish question is followed by a wisdom borne from years of marriage, for he says “I am old” but then says my wife is “well along in years.” (In other words, she’s had her 39th birthday many times over, but he doesn’t call her old!) The response to his doubt was, “Dude! I’m Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God and I just told you. Why are you doubting!?” (1:18-19). This rebuke was followed by a temporary curse so that Zechariah cannot speak until John’s birth. But Mary doesn’t doubt. Instead, she demonstrates faith seeking understanding.

Gabriel explains, “The Holy Spirit will come on you” (v 35). This same phrase is later used by Jesus in a promise to empower his disciples as his witnesses (Acts 1:8). In a poetic restatement of the same idea, the angel says, “The power of the Most High will overshadow you.” The imagery is twofold. First, it invokes the image of the Spirit of God hovering over the chaotic deep at the start of creation (Gen 1:2). Jesus’ birth is the genesis of a new work of God, the start of the New Creation. Second, the language draws our thoughts to the presence of God overshadowing the tabernacle, the meeting place of heaven and earth (Exod 40:35). The child to be conceived will be a new and final temple, the fullness of God in bodily form (Col 2:9). So Jesus will fulfill God’s promise to David that David’s seed would reign forever (v 33) and build God’s temple (2 Sam 7:13).

Because God is all-powerful, you do not need to fear his calling if his presence is with you. God fills Christians with his Holy Spirit. He has given believers the same power that miraculously conceived a child in the womb of a virgin. What is God calling you to do in the coming year? Will you surrender to his power, as Mary did?

Finally, the text reveals our need to surrender to God’s perspective (vv. 36-38). Too often, we look at ourselves and our flaws and do not see the potential which God sees. We do not see the possibilities that the power of God opens up for those who live in the presence of God. From Mary’s perspective, the future is unclear because “I have known no man.” From Zechariah’s perspective, a child is impossible because he knows that he and Elizabeth are too old. Each fails to see that God was with them, that his grace (that is, his favor) was on them. They needed to reframe their stories from the viewpoint of God.

To help Mary see her situation from a new perspective and demonstrate God’s power, Gabriel told her Elizabeth, her relative said to be infertile, was in her sixth month (v 36). The woman everyone in town gossiped about, who must be accursed of God because she couldn’t conceive. Why, if Elizabeth had lived in the American South, the community would have said one to another, “Bless her heart!” But now something had changed. She was the talk of the town in a radically new way. The gossip had turned to wonder and praise. Sorrow now became joy. How was this possible? Because “no word from God will ever fail,” Gabriel said (v 37). This is the same phrase (in the Greek translation) used about Sarah’s conception (Gen 18:14). Isaac was the child of promise born to Abraham and Sarah in their advanced years. Abraham is told God’s covenant would pass through Isaac and not the “natural born” son, Ishmael. So Jesus was the ultimate child of the promise through whom, as the seed of Abraham, “all nations would be blessed” (Gen 18:18).

As we reach verse 38, we find the clearest statement of Mary’s surrender. “I am the Lord’s servant” (literally “slave”). Mary submitted herself to God’s presence and power because she now saw things from a new perspective. She surrendered to God and to his plan. When we hear her say, “May it be done according to your word,” we often imagine a demure young woman meekly acquiescing to the angel. But, as N.T. Wright once noted, it is probable half the women in first century Israel hoped they would be the mother of the Messiah. Everyone was convinced he was coming soon. Perhaps we should hear the response as an eager exclamation much more in keeping with the strong will she seemed to possess. “Bring it on! Let it be me!”

Why this young girl? We are not told that Mary received this calling because she observed the Torah blamelessly, as Zechariah and Elizabeth did (1:6). Their son John was the climax of the old covenant, but not its fulfillment. Their Torah observance was a blessing, but there was coming an even greater blessing, a new covenant of righteousness based on faith in Jesus. In Mary’s story, we catch a glimpse of this life of surrender and faith. Luke presents Mary as a paragon of faith. Like a female Abraham, she received a call from God and stepped out in faith, not knowing where the journey might lead. Unlike Moses, she did not question God’s calling (Exod 3:11, 13; 4: 1, 10, 13) but accepted it like a Daughter of David. David raised no objection nor question when God sent Samuel to anoint David with oil to be king (1 Sam 16:2, 13). Similarly, when God sent Gabriel to announce to Mary the overshadowing of the Spirit and coming of Messiah, she accepted the call.

Certainly Mary (like Abraham) did not understand all that her calling entailed. Without question, she was the object of gossip, slander, and speculation about the source of her conception. She likely had tense relations with her in-laws under whose house (or at least in whose village) she resided after marrying Joseph. (The loss of family honor within the community would have been part of the impetus for Joseph’s contemplation of divorce, Matt 1:19.) Governmental bureaucracy and red tape required her to travel many a mile while 9 months pregnant just to complete a census. Then persecution forced her to become a political refugee and spend years in a foreign land, learning a new language and navigating unusual customs. More than likely Joseph struggled in Egypt to find a job due to prejudice against immigrants and the faced constant insecurity because they didn’t have a family or clan to protect them. And all this before she probably turned 18!

Are you ready to surrender to God’s presence and discover the Jesus we celebrate at Christmas? Are you prepared to surrender to God’s power and live as a witness for Christ through the power of his Spirit? Will you surrender to God’s perspective, trusting that he sees the potential you do not, that his power and presence will be with you to fulfill whatever calling he places on your life? Do you see yourself as God’s servant? Christmas is coming! Surrender and be ready!

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“Surrender and Be Ready!” (Luke 1:26-38)