Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Shocking Visit

Luke 1:26-55

I once met a guy who talked to angels.  He was also homeless.  When we hear people talking about spiritual encounters, our western modern response is frequently skepticism; we understand that there are spiritual forces out there somewhere, but they just don’t manifest themselves in a visible, tangible way.  This was also true during the period about which Luke narrates.  We are following the “Intertestimental Period,” the time between the Old and New Testaments, in which God had been silent.  For 400 years, the prophets weren’t speaking, because God was silent.  And then an angel appeared, not to prophets, not to kings, not to a warrior or to the powerful, but to a young, unmarried woman.  

You have to understand that in those times, a woman derived her worth by the man she was attached to.  A young woman’s worth came from her father, and the Bible doesn’t tell us who he was.  We know that she was related to Elizabeth, who was married to Zechariah, the priest, but Luke doesn’t draw on that.  A married woman’s worth came from her husband, and though Joseph was in the line of David, they were not yet married.  So she was a nobody. And what’s worse, she was from Nazareth, which was a nothing town.  When people ask me where I live, I tell them Millersport, and if they look blankly at me, I tell them it’s on Buckeye Lake.  If they’re from central Ohio, they know immediately where I am.  They usually say something like, “Oh, you have the Sweet Corn Festival, don’t you?” But Nazareth didn’t even have that going for it.  Unmentioned in the Old Testament and a passing mention in the New.  A nowhere town.

And so it’s a great surprise that the angel, Gabriel, greets Mary, calling her “highly favored.” It’s a surprise, that is, if you don’t know God.  The phrase “highly favored” is one Greek word, “charito’o” from the root word “charis” which we translate “grace.”  The unmerited favor of God.  This is the grace attributed to God, of whom the Proverbs say: He mocks proud mockers but gives grace to the humble. (Proverbs 3:34)

I want to make this clear; Mary was nobody when Gabriel came to her.  This wasn’t a case of God finding the best, most accomplished person.  It’s been said that God doesn’t call the equipped; God equips the called. 

Mary wasn’t planning for this honor.  And she was greatly troubled and wondered what it might mean when Gabriel told her the Lord is with you.

This is not a new formula.  In fact, you can go all the way back to Genesis and find it.  In Genesis 28, we see God telling Jacob, I am with you and will watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:15).

Now we have the angel telling Mary: remember way back in history, back when God made promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?  Now He is fulfilling those promises.  Through you.  It’s no mistake that Gabriel references Jacob in his description of the son Mary will have.

“You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 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, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

Remember what God told Jacob: I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.  Now, through his messenger Gabriel, God is elaborating on that promise; “he will reign over Jacob’s descendents forever; his kingdom will never end.”  Did you notice that God’s promise never gets “less” – it only gets “more”? In other words, instead of giving the bare minimum, God gives something even better.

This is so typical of the way God works.   A virgin is going to give birth.  A complete miracle.  The angel tells Mary that the power of God Most High will overshadow her.  Have you ever really thought about the power of God?  Have you really thought about how powerful God is? 

This is the same God who created the world in a word.  This is the same God who led the Israelites out of Egypt.  It is overwhelming to think of his power.  We often fall into the trap of thinking we are all powerful – we think we can make all our own decisions, but there comes a time when we realize we’re powerless.  That’s a scary place to find yourself, but it leads to a freedom that many people might not understand.  Most of us live most of our lives in the place where we can pretend that everything is under control or at least close to being under control.  So what happens when you find out that it’s not?

Like I said, that’s a scary place to find yourself.  But it’s not a scary place to stay.  In fact, it’s the safest place on earth.  Because the sooner we get it out of our heads that we’re in control, the sooner we can begin to trust in God for everything. 

Gabriel ends his discourse with an important word: for no word from God will ever fail.

Have you ever thought about the importance of this statement?  No word from God will ever fail.  When God makes a promise, it’s always true.
·          
When God promises to pour his Spirit out on all people, his word will never fail.
·         When God promises that we have been set free from sin, His word will never fail.
·         When God promises that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, his word will never fail.
·         When God promises that in all things, He works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose, his word will never fail.
·         When God promises that we are more than conquerors through him who loved us, his word will never fail.
·         When God promises that anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame, his word will never fail.
·         When God promises that he will not let us be tempted beyond what we can bear, his word will never fail.
·         When God promises to never leave us nor forsake us, his word will never fail.
·         When God promises that death is swallowed up in victory, his word will never fail.
·         When God promises deliverance, his word will never fail.
·         When God promises a hope and a future, his word will never fail.
·         When God promises heaven, his word will never fail.
·         When God promises a reality in which there is no more death or mourning or crying or pain, where he makes all things new, his word will never fail.
·         And when God promises Jesus is returning soon, his word will never fail.

No word from God will ever fail. This is in direct contrast with us.  Psalm 73:26 says My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. People will continue to fail you.  If you put your trust in other people, they will fail you. If you put your trust in yourself, you will undoubtedly fail others – and yourself.  And often I’ve seen people give up on God because other humans have failed them.  Scripture tells us and experience confirms that all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), but God’s word will never fail.

As Mary realizes what this means, she responds I am the Lord’s servant.  May your word to me be fulfilled.

This verse is an amazing demonstration of Mary’s obedience.  God sends Gabriel to her and gives her a Mission Impossible scenario: should you decide to accept this mission… and Mary decides she will do it.  She will obey.

But what we often ignore is the cost of obedience.  We sometimes touch on what it meant to be an unwed mother in the Ancient Near East, realizing that the “no room in the inn” story had more to do with Mary’s status than the overcrowding of Bethlehem. 

We recognize from Matthew’s account that Joseph was well within his rights to leave Mary – in fact, would have been expected to do so, and it was only due to the intervention of an angel that he did not divorce her quietly so as not to expose her to public disgrace (Matthew 1:19).  The cost of obedience could have meant losing her husband-to-be.

But the cost is even greater than that.  First of all, let’s clear up a translation issue. The word we see here translated “servant” could better be translated “slave.”  She’s not just hiring herself out as a servant; she is identifying herself as a slave. And remember that a woman in the Ancient Near East was afforded her status only through the man with whom she was associated.  By calling herself the Lord’s slave, Mary is giving up her status.  The status of the Lord’s slave supersedes her status as Joseph’s betrothed.  In this one statement, Mary gives up all claim to everything she has, placing herself in voluntary slavery to God.  

Mary’s response to the angel means: “I will follow God above everything else, no matter what the consequences.”

Are you willing to do that?  Are you willing to give up everything? If not, where’s the line you’ve drawn in the sand?  What happens when God’s will and your will come into conflict?  Jesus told the crowds “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26) Not exactly your best Sunday School Bible verse.  But what Jesus is saying is that there can be nothing above Him. 

This is Mary’s legacy – surely she lived it out, and we revere her for it.  But Jesus calls us to make the same proclamation.  As we celebrate Christmas, remember that we are celebrating Jesus’ birthday, and this is what’s on His birthday list.  All of you.  Every bit of you.  Everything you are. That you’ll put Him first in everything, that you will hold nothing above Him.

And the funny thing is this: if you give him what he’s asking for, you will be the one who benefits, as he gives you Himself, the best gift of all.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Surrounded

Hebrews 12:1-3

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

Last week I talked about being stuck – how the man by the Pool called Bethesda was stuck there – 38 years as an invalid with no way to get healed.  Sometimes when we feel stuck, it’s easy to also feel all alone. A few years ago at a Youth Workers’ Convention, the speaker asked us to stand if we were going through a tough time.  I hesitantly stood, and then looked around and saw nearly half of my fellow youth workers standing, including my friend I was rooming with.  The truth was I was not alone.

In the book of Hebrews, the “great cloud of witnesses” is the Faith Hall of Fame from Hebrews 11. Abel, who offered a good sacrifice to God.  Noah, who built an ark, far from water. Abraham, who followed God, though he didn’t know where he was going, had a child in his old age, and passed the test God had for him.  Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and so many heroes of the faith. And those are joined by multitudes who suffered for their faith, who persevered and who made it. The author of the letter to the Hebrews was on to something; we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who keep us focused on our goal. 

We might be tempted to think of the “witnesses” as mere spectators, ones who stand alongside, cheering, but never actually participating, but that’s not what Hebrews 12 is talking about.  The word here means something more like those who have borne witness to the possibilities of the life of faith, those who have lived in the promises God has promised to them.  The word that we recognize as “witness” is also the word used for “martyr” – someone who suffers for their faith.

As a church, our great cloud of witnesses includes Rev. Martin Kellogg, the first pastor of the first church in Millersport, back in 1838.  Rev. Richard Frasure, the pastor of the Millersport EUB church when this building was built, is one of the members of the cloud of witnesses.  So are Harold Jeffers and Jack Swick, Kenneth Wrightsel, Pastor Merle Walter, Pastor Tom Keene, and Pastor Clarence Hensel.  I mention the pastors, because those are the names I know.  But if it weren’t for the prayers, guidance, and leadership of faithful Christians, clergy and laity, we wouldn’t be the people we are today. Did you know that in the early days, services were punctuated by “Amens” and shouting, primarily from Peter Cool, Emily Brison, and Mrs. Gabriel Critton?  And there are so many who have walked the path before us, those mentors and spiritual parents who led us closer to the Lord, those who have guided us along the journey toward Jesus Christ.   

My cloud of witnesses includes my mother, who faithfully brought three children to church and who prayed for us and led us in family devotions.  My cloud of witnesses includes Patty Mumaw, who taught my first grade Sunday School class, and then sent me the church bulletins and a note when I went off to college.  It also includes Ron and Jean Simpson, who taught my third grade class, and when he went to the Promised Land, he brought back each of us an olive wood cross, and knowing my affinity for stamps, he sent me a postcard with an Israeli stamp on it.  My cloud of witnesses includes Rod Cameron, the camp director at Rainbow Christian camp, as well as numerous volunteer staffers who gave a week of their summer to invest in my life, people like Greg Fasnacht, Denny Stevenson, and Randy Ware.

It includes David Schaff, who confronted me on my lukewarm Christian witness, and Drew Rick-Miller, who helped me start a Bible study in my fraternity.  It includes Rev. David Handley who gently demonstrated social justice and racial reconciliation.  And it includes Dr. Chris Kiesling, who spent extra time mentoring a young seminarian, and Monty Wilkinson, who mentored me as an intern at Southland Christian Church.   

Who is in your Great Cloud of Witnesses? 

It’s important to note what the cloud of witnesses is all about. The second half of Hebrews 12:1 tells us that they motivate us to throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

There are lots of people who encourage us but who aren’t necessarily part of the great cloud of witnesses.  One of the hallmarks of the cloud of witnesses is the type of motivation.  They help us to grow closer to God.  Have you ever had someone who loves you tell you that something you’re doing isn’t good or helpful?  I’m a part of a group where we have asked to be held accountable.  We allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to say “these are the areas where I’m struggling” and then we invite the others to ask us about those areas.  Not to condemn us, but to help us.  One struggle many of us have is the struggle between the good and the best.  We don’t struggle with “do I murder this person I don’t like?” But frequently there are good things that get in the way of the best thing.  Sometimes these “good” things end up hindering us and we get sidetracked from the best thing we should be doing.

God has a plan for each of us.  Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” Though God has a good plan for us, it doesn’t mean it will be easy.  It takes perseverance and patience. 

James even tells us to consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. (James 1:2-3).  In other words, to actually gain the type of perseverance it takes to run the course that God has set for us, we will have to face trials of many kinds.  It’s those tests that build in us that persistent determination to follow Jesus.  

During trials and testing, it’s easy to lose heart, but the author of the letter to the Hebrews knows this, and reminds us of our goal. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2)

Our goal, the purpose of everything we do, is Jesus.  Why Jesus?  If you read through the book of Hebrews, you’ll see Jesus as the ultimate High Priest, overshadowing all other priests.  Here, the author demonstrates that Jesus is also the ultimate witness within the Great Cloud.  He is the pioneer of our salvation, made perfect through suffering, as noted in Hebrews 2:10, and also making our faith perfect by being the personal end goal of our faith. 

Jesus suffered and died for us. People often consider how we’d like to die, if given the choice, and when we’re talking about a loved one’s death, we’ll share, “At least he didn’t suffer.” But Jesus actually chose to suffer shame, humiliation, as well as horrendous pain and die a cursed death, on a cross.  But that wasn’t the end.  Jesus was no simple martyr who died for a cause.  He sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

Jesus received his reward for patient obedience, the payment for his perseverance through incredible suffering.  That’s why Hebrews 12:3 tells us to Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

When it seems like there is no end to your trials, take heart, because Jesus suffered without complaint at the hands of sinners, not only the Jews’ and Romans’, but at our hands, for it was our sin that nailed Him to the cross.  But he is still receiving his reward, and he promises the same for us as well.  So do not grow weary or lose heart.

As we conclude this worship service, we will be participating in the Lord’s Supper, receiving the bread and the cup, participating in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. 

We remember God’s mighty acts and how Jesus suffered and died, but we also recognize His resurrection from the dead, and his ascension into heaven, from whence he will come to judge us.  We recognize his promises and the gift of forgiveness that is only available in Him, forgiveness of our sin, and freedom to joyfully obey Him.  We accept the strength and perseverance He give us to endure the journey set before us, and we walk those steps in His council, with our eyes fixed on Him.