Monday, December 24, 2012

Inside Out

Luke 2:1-20


The Christmas story is a familiar one – so familiar that we can lose sight of how radical it is. Looking at the historical big picture should show us that Rome is in control. This is when the Roman Empire was on the rise, annexing or conquering everyone around. Augustus Caesar is the emperor of the most mighty nation/empire known to man. What Caesar says, goes. So Caesar decides to flex his muscles and count his subjects. Just an aside, it is never a good idea to count how awesome you are, whether it is counting your subjects, as Caesar is doing, or counting your fighting men, as King David did in 2 Samuel 24. Why is this a problem? Listen to Psalm 20:7. Some trust in chariots some in and horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God. There is a reason why God chose this exact time for the birth of the Messiah – it was when Caesar was counting how powerful he had become.

Before you nod your head in agreement, remember this when you start counting your money, when you start comparing what you have to what others have. It was when Caesar was at his most powerful that the true King was born. Listen to the contrast prophesied by Isaiah:

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as men rejoice when dividing the plunder.  For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it  with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.
(Isaiah 9:2-7)

Much as in the time of Caesar’s census, we live in the land of the shadow of death. I read the 23rd Psalm at most funerals: Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death… but it is not the dead who walk through that valley. It is those living in a world tainted by sin and death. And world leaders, relying on their military might, lead in a culture of death. I do not mean any disrespect to military men and women, but military might is not God’s way.  God’s way is inside-out.

Talk about inside-out; next we get to Joseph. He isn’t a rabbi or a prominent Pharisee or scribe. He is a carpenter from Nazareth. As the saying went, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  (John 1:46). And the manner in which Jesus was born was anything but kingly – attended by shepherds and animals, laid in a manger, homeless, for there was no room for them in the inn.

Of course there wasn’t room for them in the inn. And let’s put this “inn” thing to rest – the “inn” as we know it, kataluma in Greek, was simply a guest room. This word is only used twice more in the Greek New Testament. Do you know where the other use is? In Luke 22 (or in Mark 14), Jesus sent Peter and John to make preparations for their Passover celebration. He told them to follow a man carrying a jar of water and say to him, “The Teacher asks, “Where is the kataluma where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?” (Luke 22:11) 

This time, instead of finding no room, the room was prepared in advance for Him, so he could celebrate Passover, the deliverance of Israel from Egyptian slavery, and after which, he would go out and deliver the entire world from slavery to sin, and then do you know what Jesus does? He goes to prepare a room for us in His Father’s house (John 14:2-3).

Many of us have faced troubles and suffering, and it can be easy to get stuck in a victim mindset, complaining about everyone else and about our circumstances, but Jesus turns his inside-out. He was born homeless, and his ministry was characterized by his homelessness (later when he was telling his would-be followers about the cost of following him, he told them, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58)). But Jesus, instead of whining about his situation, goes to prepare a place for us, an eternal home. This for the one who was born where there was no room.

You know who else there wasn’t room for in polite company? Shepherds. They were stinky and dirty and they were considered at that time to be untrustworthy. Certainly not the ones who you would invite to your delivery room. But they are not only invited, but they are summoned by angels.

I want to pause a moment here, because many of us have some idea about who God speaks to. Pastors, sure, God can speak to us, because we’ve been to seminary and we have done our continuing education  and we have all kinds of training and stuff. There are some older saints who pray all the time – God can speak to them. But the average Joe? Not really. We don’t expect them to be the ones God speaks to. But God does the unexpected and not only bypasses the Temple and the priests and the scribes and Pharisees, the religious elite, and goes to the shepherds.

This should bring both a warning and hope to us; to we who are comfortable in our Christianity, a warning that God just might be calling to outsiders, those who don’t look like us, dress like us, listen to the same music as we do… and God might want to do that calling through us. And the hope is for those who are discarded or marginalized by polite society: God not only loves you, but demonstrates his love by going directly to you. Jesus himself later pronounced that “He who is least among you all – he is the greatest.” (Luke 9:48)

In fact, the angel’s words to the shepherds are words of hope: But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:10-11)

The good news of great joy was supposed to be for Jews. They were the people of God. But the angel clearly extends the great joy to all people. Around Advent and Christmas we often focus on Jesus as the fulfillment of the Messianic prophecies, but he fulfills so much more. For example, he fulfills the covenant God made with Abram, where God said, “All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:3)

Good news of great joy – is that Jesus comes, bringing life, life to the full, and that life is available for all people!

OK, now we come to the big “So what” moment. My good friend, Pastor Greg Roberts, used to share his sermons with me, and I would often tell him, “That’s a really good sermon, but so what? What do you want people to do about it?” It can be easy to preach a Christmas sermon, focus on the good news, focus on the angels and the shepherds and the star and the manger, focus on Mary and Joseph, even focus on who that baby was (and is) and we can leave this place thinking about how much we love the lights and decorations, how pretty the poinsettias are, and don’t forget to take yours with you when you leave, and think about the real reason we celebrate and never do anything about it.

What might we learn from this inside-out Christmas? What might God want us to do about it?

I believe that learning about who God specifically reached out to at the birth of His Son might give us an indication about to whom we should reach out – after all, in Matthew 25, Jesus tells a parable about a king separating people like a shepherd separates sheep from goats, and the reason for the separation is how they treated him. He specifically calls one group “blessed by my Father” meaning that they have been given life by his Father, and it’s obvious because of what they did. They gave him food when he was hungry, water when he was thirsty, took care of him when he was sick, naked and in prison. When they question when they saw him hungry or thirsty or lonely or in need. The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40).

So what does Jesus’ birth mean for us today? It means that Heaven’s gates are open for anyone who accepts him. And anyone means everyone. It means real life is available for everyone, not just in heaven, but right now.  If you are someone who isn’t usually in church, Jesus invites you to real life, life abundantly. If you are someone who has spent all your life in church, please make sure you don’t miss out on Jesus, that you don’t get so busy doing religious things that you miss out on what Christmas really is, God’s gift to everyone – a gift of real life, from the inside out. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

What's All the Shouting About


Isaiah 12:2-6

My boys and I are big Star Wars fans. One character who made a big impression on me was Darth Vader. I remember the first time I saw the menacing mask on the big screen – that guy was scary. I even dressed as Darth Vader for Trick-or-Treat. But recently I saw a picture entitled “the many emotions of Darth Vader” in which there were multiple pictures, all the same expressionless mask, and underneath each picture was listed an emotion.

Hopefully most of us are a little more open with our emotions. But how do you show that you are really excited? One thing that has bothered me for over twenty-five years is how I can see church people behave so differently depending on the setting. I can understand decorum and respect and reverence, but the same people can stand for an entire basketball game and shout when their team scores and scream at the referee, but two hymns is too long to stand, and don’t expect to see any emotion.

For some reason, we have divorced emotion from the Christian experience, and that’s wrong. Isaiah calls for the people of God to shout aloud and sing for joy. What is there that can bring about that kind of reaction? What can we get excited about?

Isaiah also gives hints in the text about why he is singing and shouting. You can read your Bible every day and miss out on some important information if you’re not reading your Bible for all it’s worth. To read the Bible for all it’s worth, you have to read it like it would have been read by its original audience. You need to bring an Ancient Near East mindset into your reading. I’ve mentioned to you before about repetition, but it bears repeating (I hope people get this joke). When a Hebrew writer repeats himself, you have to stop and take notice. For example, if I were a Hebrew writer, and you asked me how I liked a restaurant, and I said it was “good” then it probably was good. But if I said it was “good good” you would know that it was really good, that I would probably be going back again and again.

But if I said it was “good good good” and repeated it three times, I’m not just saying that it’s really good – I am now saying that it is the height of goodness. So when we see the six-winged seraphs in Isaiah 6, and we read that they are calling to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6:3), and then in Revelation 4:8, we read about the four living creatures who never stop saying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” (Just an aside here – this is why it’s vitally important to study the Old Testament before you try to get into a study of Revelation. If you haven’t studied Isaiah, Daniel, and Ezekiel, don’t try to jump into Revelation and understand any of it).

The angels aren’t just stuck on a chorus. They aren’t just repeating themselves to fill a line in a song. The original audience would have known that they are repeating “Holy” three times to let you know that the Lord God Almighty is the ultimate of Holy, the definition of holy, that there is none holier.

So when you see a triple repetition, think two things: first, the author wants to get your attention, and second, whatever is repeated could carry a deeper meaning. So in the passage from Isaiah 12, there are two words or concepts repeated three times. The first that I’m going to mention is secondary, because it is simply a concept mentioned three times over the course of five verses – the repetition here is simply for emphasis. The concept is singing.

There is a reason why we sing in any worship services. In fact, if you ask what worship is, most people will answer something about singing. There is something about singing good music that opens us up to something deeper. Even Alzheimer patients who don’t readily recognize members of their immediate family can often sing along with favorite hymns. Music touches us deeply, and singing is a highly vulnerable activity. After all, to sing is to open yourself up to critique. Nowhere is this more prevalent than in our current entertainment. How many singing contests are there out there? I used to like to watch the opening rounds of American Idol, where everyone who thinks they can sing would get on there and embarrass themselves. The whole draw of the early rounds was to make fun of people who can’t sing, wasn’t it?

Here’s a sad fact: when you ask people about singing, there are plenty who say, “I only sing in the shower” because they don’t want the humiliation of having someone else hear them sing. I tease Gary about joining the choir – he tells me that if we want to clear out the sanctuary, he’ll sing. The problem with this mentality is that it makes something that should be joyful into a contest.

Besides, if you are singing for a contest, can you truly sing for joy? And are you really singing to the Lord? No, you are singing for yourself. It’s not a bad thing to sing well, but, as in everything else, the key is the motivation. But here, God is bringing the motivation.

To understand this fully, you have to know the context (you should be getting used to hearing me say this – I’ll keep saying it, because the three most important factors for biblical interpretation are context, context, context). From the beginning of the book of Isaiah we hear God pronounce judgment on his people. Ah, sinful nation, a people loaded with guilt, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the Lord; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him. (Isaiah 1:4). Though God continues to give hope if his people will only follow, the context is that of woes and judgments. In Isaiah 7, Judah is facing attack by Ephraim and Syria, and King Ahaz is so scared of them that he can’t believe God is with them.

Have you ever wondered if God is with you?

Ahaz can’t believe that God is with him, so he makes an alliance with the big number one enemy, Assyria. I think we can be tempted in the same way, maybe not making alliances with enemy nations, but certainly putting our trust in things other than in God. We trust in our money, oh, that’s a big one – we think if we just have a little more, then we’ll be OK. We trust in our ability to self-medicate our deepest pains and sorrows and our fruitless search for meaning and significance – why else would we be drowning in substance abuse issues?

And the question still remains: is God enough?

Isaiah comes to the conclusion: Yes, God is enough. More than enough, even. That brings me to the second repetition, and this one is serious: Isaiah repeats one word three times in two verses. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The Lord, the Lord, is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.” With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. (Isaiah 12:2-3). Did you hear the repeated word?

Salvation.

The question that was asked was: Is God enough? Can God save his people from their enemies? And the answer is an emphatic yes. God is salvation. Notice that I didn’t say that God brings salvation: God is salvation.

To understand the deliverance that Isaiah is proclaiming, you need to hear some of the things he said before this moment: In Isaiah 7:14, we read: Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. In Isaiah 9:2, we read: The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. Isaiah 9:6: For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  And listen to Isaiah 11:1: A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit…

Does anyone have a guess as to what Isaiah is referring when he talks about salvation? Or, rather, to Whom…

And the verse from Isaiah 12 that the Lectionary omitted from the reading: In that day you will say: “I will praise you, O Lord: Although you were angry with me, your anger has turned away and you have comforted me.” (Isaiah 12:1) How does God accomplish this? Only in the person of Jesus Christ!

When we come face-to-face with this reality, there is only one way we can respond: Give thanks to the Lord! This is where the singing praise comes in; we are put in a spot where the only thing we can so is break into spontaneous song. Listen to the chorus from the Chris Tomlin song How Can I Keep From Singing.

How can I keep from singing your praise? How can I ever say enough, how amazing is your love? How can I keep from shouting your name? I know I am loved by the king, and it makes my heart want to sing.

But notice that the singing response is not the only response. That’s the internal part, if you will, but there is also an external part.  In that day you will say: “Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known among the nations what he has done, and proclaim that his name is exalted. Sing to the Lord, for he has done glorious things; let this be known to all the world. (Isaiah 12:4-5)

Once we realize salvation, our job is to make him known among the nations and to make him known to all the world. This isn’t a new command – it’s not new at all. In fact, it goes all the way back to Abraham. God never forgot his covenant with Abraham, who was called Abram at the time. In Genesis 12 (this is a very important passage), God calls Abram and tells him to leave his father’s household and go to a land that God would show him. Then he gives him the covenant: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:2-3)

The word “bless” is one of those Christianese words that has lost its meaning over the years. There are about three uses left for “bless” – the first is when someone sneezes; some of you have been conditioned so whenever you hear a sneeze, you involuntarily emit a “Bless you” – having no idea that this concept came way back when people believed that during the process of sneezing, you actually sneezed your soul out, and if you didn’t get a blessing, a demon would possess you before your soul could re-enter. Another use of “bless” is a generic Christian term meaning something good has happened. I’ve been blessed by… and we can fill in whatever good thing that has happened. The third is more pervasive in the South, where the response “Bless her heart” usually means “what an idiot.”

But blessing really has one meaning and one use in scripture: It’s all about being given life. God is the life giver. He is the one who created and put his breath into us. And in John 10:10, Jesus contrasts himself with Satan: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy: I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” This is the life that Isaiah prophesies.

It’s the same life God promised in Genesis 12 in his covenant with Abram. God gives us the ability and responsibility to be life-givers as well. This is the blessing, and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.

The goal of blessing, of God giving you life, is for you to give it to others. This is the mission of the church. As we put it, to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. When we make new disciples of Jesus Christ, we are giving them life. And that transforms the world, from death to life.

So as we prepare for Christmas, we do so in giving life. How will you give life and life to the full for Christmas? Will that be accomplished by your usual gift-giving, or are you going to have to do something different this year? 

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Prepare


Malachi 3:1-4

What do you do to prepare for Christmas? Most of us have traditions that we follow: who puts up a Christmas tree? Who decorates with lights? Who buys Christmas presents? Who prepares for charitable outreach, like food baskets or gifts for those in need? Who prepares for a special Christmas program or party?

What other preparations do you make for Christmas?

A major theme of Advent is preparation. Advent is a kind of strange time; we’re supposed to prepare for something that already happened. Kind of like Good Friday, where we mourn over Jesus’ death, even though we know that Easter will come and we’ll be celebrating his resurrection. So how do we prepare for something that already happened?

While we’re on the thought of what already happened, I want to look backwards from the passage we read in Malachi 3. Most of us don’t spend a lot of time in the little books of prophecy in the end of the Old Testament, the ones that are known as the Minor Prophets, so what’s in them isn’t as familiar as David and Goliath or Noah or Abraham.

Before Malachi 3, we see a pretty grim picture of what worship had become some four hundred years before Jesus’ birth. God asks “Where is the honor due me?” “Where is the respect due me?” God makes the accusation that they are showing contempt to God by bringing defiled sacrifices. This is what God says in Malachi  1:8: When you bring blind animals for sacrifice, is that not wrong? When you sacrifice crippled or diseased animals, is that not wrong? Try offering them to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?” says the Lord Almighty. I had no idea when I started this message that I would end up talking about money. I simply picked the Lectionary scripture for the week. But Malachi is talking about money. But can you imagine what would happen if we paid our taxes the way we give to the church? Let’s imagine that we have a non-confusing flat tax rate of 10%. We’ll call that 10% a tithe. What a novel concept. Can you imagine what the IRS would do if you said, “I have a long tradition of paying my taxes. I was one of the biggest givers in the entire county. I paid 2-3% of my income.” You’d be in jail so fast! Or how about this one: “I don’t pay my taxes; I only give to my own pet projects.” Can you imagine telling the police this as they came to take you to jail? How ridiculous would that be to give that attitude to the government? Yet some of us do this all the time to God, and we don’t realize or admit that we are showing utter disdain for God.

Do you know what God says about the one who won’t give God what is due him? Cursed be the cheat…

Then Malachi addresses the priests, those who are supposed to be the spiritual leaders of the people. Listen to what God said to them: “For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth. But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble. You have violated the covenant with Levi,” says the Lord Almighty. (Malachi 2:7-8).

Malachi addresses this admonition to the priests, but it’s not only for clergy. It is for any of us who have positions of influence. What are we teaching? So no matter if you are a preacher, a Sunday school teacher, a lay leader, a children’s church teacher, or a Bible study leader, this applies to all of us. We are looked to as messengers of the Lord Almighty, because, as Christians, everything we do or say is done in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. So, how are we presenting Him?

OK, now that I have done some introduction work, let’s get to today’s passage in Malachi 3:1-4. “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.

I don’t know what’s been preached here during Advent, but I know that every year, the lectionary focuses on John the Baptist, as he was the messenger who came to prepare the way of the Lord. His voice was as foreign then as it is today. Calling people to repent? How culturally insensitive! How dare he call lifestyle choices sin! But I want you to notice something, not just about John the Baptist, but about Malachi. These words were not delivered to godless heathens. John wasn’t preaching to Samaritans, and Malachi wasn’t prophesying to outsiders. They were speaking to Jews. God’s covenant people. People who had lost the way. The scathing critiques John the Baptist delivered were to church people. What do you think John the Baptist would say to us? Would he say, “You guys have it all together” or would he say, “Repent!”

We think if we show up on Sunday and are generally nice to one another, then we’re fine. But we live in a way that says “self-preservation” instead of “prepare for Jesus’ return.” Remember, Advent is about preparation, not just for Jesus’ birth, but also for his return. And when Jesus himself is talking to his disciples about that return, he says he doesn’t know the day nor the time – only God knows. The messenger’s job is to prepare the way.

The assumption in verse 1 is that the people are seeking the Lord. One hallmark of the Jews is that they have been seeking and awaiting the coming Messiah. But when he did come, they missed him. But understand this: Jesus will return, suddenly, and there are those among us who will miss him. You won’t be prepared for his return. And his return might just not look like what you are expecting.

Listen to Malachi 3:2-4. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. 

We sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that Jesus’ return will be simple and easy, but that’s not what the Bible tells us. I don’t know if any of you have seen the process of refining silver or gold, but it’s not simple, and it’s not comfortable. The silver or gold is exposed to extreme heat and chemicals and thus the impurities are removed.

The starting point of the refining process is that there is a rock with potential. Turn to someone near you and tell them: “You may be a rock, but you have potential!”

We are made in God’s image – we are already precious precisely because of who God is and who he made us to be, but we haven’t lived up to that potential. And because God cares, he will either allow us to be refined or he will do it himself. You are already precious, but God will purify you.

But if our churches are full of members who desire our own comfort first and foremost, we will never survive the purification process. We seek our own comfort and personal preferences to the detriment of others’. You have to look no farther than Christmas to see this - we give Christmas gifts because it’s the culturally accepted way to celebrate the holiday. Then we complain about secularists who push Christ out of Christmas while it is we who have done it by exchanging a celebration of Jesus’ birth into Giftmas, which is all about us. Those who have no relationship with Jesus shouldn’t be expected to celebrate him – sure, the holiday is really supposed to be all about him, but you can’t expect a culture who doesn’t know him to celebrate him! Yet we still throw up the smokescreen, complaining about “those people” who want to kick Christ out of Christmas, while we go on without him. We become more worried about the placement of Christmas decorations than about sharing Jesus with people who don’t know him. If you don’t agree, then let’s take down some of the decorations in the church and see who complains. What might refining look for us?

Here’s the thing – we often don’t recognize refining when it is happening.  We feel uncomfortable or even in pain. But when we look back, we can take it for what it was: refining.

And how will we know we are refined? Malachi defines it this way: Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.

When we have been refined, God will accept our offerings as given in right relationship with him. Wouldn’t this be a good thing to give to Christ for Christmas? Being in right relationship with him? Is there anything better? So prepare…

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Upside-Down


Upside-Down (Advent #1) Luke 1:46-55
46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name.

 50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.

54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.”

Christmas is all about a world turned upside-down. We enter a scene already in progress – angels have already met Elizabeth and Zechariah, foretelling the birth of John the Baptist. Now the angel Gabriel comes to Mary to tell her the news – that God has chosen her to be the mother of the Messiah. Now, we find this incredible scene. My Bible calls it Mary’s song, though it’s not clear if she sings it or says it. Actually, that’s not the significant part. What is significant is that any time you find a song or a prayer written in scripture, the contents of that prayer or that song are going to be vitally important.

Verse 46 tells us that Mary’s response is to first praise God. Now, remember, Mary isn’t praising God after the fact. She is not giving thanks to God after God has done great things for her. She is trusting in God completely to do these things. At Thanksgiving, how many of us gave thanks to God for the things he has done? Most of us do that. But how many gave thanks to God for the things he has yet to do?

46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name.

Really, as of this moment, what has God done for Mary? She isn’t yet the mother of the Son of God. But as her relative Elizabeth noted in verse 45, “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished.” This is exactly where Mary’s song comes from; she is completely convinced that what God said would come true, and it drives her to worship. Some of us equate worship with singing, but there can be a profound difference. Mary is worshiping from her very core. Her soul glorifies the Lord and her spirit rejoices in God. Does your soul glorify God simply on God’s promises? Or have you stopped and looked at God’s promises?

Here are a couple of God’s promises for you (and this would be a good time to take notes):
·         Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you¸ plans to give you hope and a future.”
·         Matthew 11:28-29 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”
·         Isaiah 40:29-31 He gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. Even youths will become tired and weary, and young men will stumble and fall. But those who trust in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles. They will run and not grow weary. They will walk and not be faint.
·         Philippians 4:19 And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.
·         Romans 8:37-39 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in creation nothing can ever separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
·         John 14:27 “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”
·         Romans 10:9 If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
·         Romans 6:23 For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.

Do these promises cause your soul to glorify God? If not, why not? Have you heard them so many times that you’ve lost your perspective? Or do you really believe them? What might your life look like if you would daily remind yourself of these promises God is making to you, and if your soul began to glorify and praise God for them?

Mary’s soul gives thanks to God because he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.  She wasn’t humble in the sense of a false humility that many of us can conjure. She is truly humble, lowly, seemingly worthless. But from now on all generations will call [her] blessed. Why is that? It’s all because of what God is doing. She recognizes that the only thing she has to give to God is her obedience. There is no way she’s going to be blessed otherwise. She’s not going to go out on her own and somehow build up a following and have everyone come back and talk about what a great thing she’s done. The only way she gets there is because of what God is doing. Our culture is full of people shining their own light. Celebrity and fame are the order of the day and the name of the game. We somehow think that if we can get on TV or on stage and do our own thing, that we’re going to find fulfillment. We work hard to make sure that everyone knows what we’ve done and how well we’ve done it. We want the accolades and the glory. But Mary is clear here – the only reason she’s famous at all is because of God. Because God chose her. And what is most important to her is who God is and what God has promised. She uses her fame, as it were, to point to God. The light that she shines is purely a reflection of God, and not from herself. Listen to how Mary describes what God has done:
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53 He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.

God has turned society and culture upside-down. Did you notice the contrasts here? Mary contrasts God extending mercy to those who fear him with scattering the proud. God brings down rulers but lift the humble. And God fills the hungry with good things while sending the rich away empty.

I love the picture of God extending mercy from generation to generation of those who fear him. God’s mercy is new every day, and God’s mercy is new every generation. God didn’t just extend mercy to one generation and then announce “sorry about your luck” to the rest of us; God continues to extend mercy, and through Jesus, God extended mercy once and for all who accept him. But while God extends mercy, don’t mistake his mercy for cheap grace. This isn’t Santa, threatening children with a naughty or nice list. God scatters the proud. Again and again I’ve heard testimonies about wealthy people who lose everything. Pride in self, pride in accomplishments, pride in wealth, pride in looks… all of these things are fleeting. I’ve buried strong, self-made men who are a shell of their former selves. None of that matters in the long run.

God turns power upside-down as well, bringing down rulers but uplifting the humble. We put so much emphasis on the powerful, whoever that may be. When it comes to our national elections, I heard a lot of people lamenting the end of our nation as we know it, and a lot of Christians were really upset about it. Do you think God was surprised that President Obama was reelected? This is a good time to remind you that God really is in control, and that he is the one who brings down rulers from their thrones but uplifts the humble.

What does it mean to be humble? It boils down to dependence. While we pride ourselves in our independence, God’s design is for us to depend on him for everything. Are we really depending on God for everything, or are we depending on ourselves and our own ability to get whatever it is that we want whenever we want it? When we depend on God for everything, we find out that God is everything we need.

The third contrast here is between the hungry and the rich. The thought at that time was that hungry people were hungry and rich people were rich on purpose – that it was God’s punishment or reward. But Mary knows better – she knows that God turns it all upside down.

Jesus himself fulfills what Mary said. In Luke 4, Jesus is in the synagogue in Nazareth, reading from Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor… Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”(Luke 4:18, 21) Jesus is always bringing good news like “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3). Really, the contrast of God giving the hungry good gifts and sending the rich away empty is just a continuation or even repetition of the previous thought. God won’t force-feed himself to us – but when we are hungry for him, we find that he feeds us what we need.  This shouldn’t be a surprise if we’ve read the Bible, because in John 6:35, Jesus offers himself as the Bread of Life, saying “He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never go thirsty.”

Unfortunately, we’re so overstuffed on spiritual junk food that we don’t have any room for the Bread of Life. When we get our spiritual meals from Oprah or Dr. Phil, that’s spiritual junk food. When we get our spiritual meals from pop culture, that’s spiritual junk food. But if you are really hungry for God, he will fill you. Jesus is indeed the bread of life – he is all we need.

There’s a story in Luke 18, where Jesus interacts with the man we’ve come to know as the rich young ruler. This man wants to know how to gain eternal life. Jesus tells him to keep the Commandments. This guy is all over that, “No problem.” So Jesus tells him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” And when he heard this he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Luke 18:22-25)

Our culture values the wealthy, not the hungry. Honestly, most of us are extremely wealthy, not only on a global scale, where if you make $25,000, you are in the top ten percent of the world (even though if you have a family of four, you’re straddling the poverty line at that income level). So what do we do with all this wealth? Do we have to give it all away?

Jesus’ answer to that is that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. In other words, he wants you to wrestle with it. I will guarantee you that if you begin to wrestle with God, God will win, but you stand a good chance of winning as well.

What might Christmas time look like if we were to wrestle with God during Advent? I’ve been doing my best to help you enter the wrestling match - I have been giving you a steady diet of “all you need is Jesus, and if you are looking anywhere else for satisfaction, that’s idol worship” and some of you are starting to get it, and you’re wrestling with it. Others of you haven’t heard a word I’ve said in five months. So here’s something messed up to wrestle with: During this Christmas season, the American Research Group’s survey expects that we will spend an average of nearly $850 per family on Christmas gifts. For the parents out there, the average is $270 per child. Meanwhile, every thirty seconds, a child dies somewhere in the world due to malnutrition or other hunger-related causes.

Mary finishes her song in verses 54-55: 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.”

What I love about this is Mary’s faith. Do you notice how Mary is praising God before the fact? Has God already done this? Has God already helped Israel with mercy forever? No, that help really doesn’t come until Jesus’ resurrection. But Mary is already praising God for it. That is a picture of faith. What might we look like if we had that kind of faith? Would you pray for the kind of faith that praises God before he even acts?