The Modern Family: “Christmas with people we know”!

Ornaments 4Have you ever looked at a family Christmas tree? I mean, have you ever REALLY looked at it? Some of the mangiest looking ornaments are the most prized on the tree – a faded bulb that says “Our first Christmas together – 1982” has long since lost its luster, but not its meaning. It isn’t just the beauty of the ornament – it is the MEMORY it represents. In some ways, Christmas ornaments are like little photo albums of our Christmas past.

I want you to look back with me to a very old Christmas family album – ornaments that extend all the way back to the first Christmas. This was the album of Jesus’ family – now two thousand years old. When you look at it…don’t be surprised at the people in the album – they look just like the people in yours. People in that old story were just like people you will be sitting across from at Christmas dinner this year. In fact, God’s story of the first Christmas is the same as the story of every subsequent Christmas – albums filed with broken people in some state of repair – all focused on the one Person Who transforms our life… Jesus – the Son of God Who was sent to save us.

The story of Jesus’ birth is told in the Bible in two of the four Gospel accounts: Matthew and Luke.

Matthew began with a long list of names – a genealogy – showing that God had long promised the Messiah to come to Bethlehem of Judea, a small town that couldn’t give up their focus on their favorite son – King David from one thousand years before! If you came from one you know that small towns change slowly and have long memories…

After the genealogy in Matthew’s account, the story moved right away to Joseph – the step-father of Jesus.

Joseph

This first picture in the ancient album was that of an obedient but disappointed friend – someone who was doing right but watching life repay him with undeserved trouble. He wanted to follow God, but God kept changing the directions on the path. Matthew reminds us of his troubles:

Matthew 1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. 19 And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly.

No matter how you look at the story, I think it is safe to say that Joseph was committed to God but still confused by life’s turns. He is the friend you know who has followed God, but came home stunned from the news of his last doctor’s visit. Joseph made a promise to Mary and she appeared to have broken it, though she didn’t (1:18). He was thrust into God’s plan in an awkward way – or at least that is how it looked to him.

Here is the truth: Even when you follow God – things don’t always work out the way you planned.

Joe’s Christmas experience was one of learning about God’s direction. He learned that God can move in our life in a way that makes no sense at the time – this is part of His Divine Prerogative. God is entitled as my Creator and my Master to redirect my life. After all, isn’t the Bible filled with stories that make this truth obvious? This is our God:

• He pushed Noah into building a boat on a flat plain far from water.
• He revealed an “impossible to believe” family expansion for an aged Abraham and Sarah?
• He enlisted Moses as a national leader from a burning bush in a barren desert.
• He trained a little boy named David for “giant slaying” while he was on a lonely hill protecting a flock of sheep.

In the Christmas story, God redirected Joe in a series of dreams – revealing that Joe was called to follow Him, not to figure Him out. The fact is Joe was going to be HURT in order for God’s will to be done.

Why can’t we clearly see that? Why are we so certain that God will only work in my life when I am happy with that work?

In fact, the Bible teaches that God can deliberately bring me into a path that includes pain to serve His purpose. He doesn’t do it cruelly, He does it lovingly… but He still does it. Yet, in the grip of pain, He offers me a place to cry when I cannot stand alone. God hears our cries as He quietly reminds us that He is in control of all things.

You see, God is telling His story. He wanted to tell it through Joseph’s life, but that included wounding him, bringing him through a misunderstanding – and then giving him a key role in the story. No man or woman of God should think God will do otherwise. If we would be used of Him mightily, we must place ourselves in His hand willingly – and be slow to react to the pains of His direction. When we do, here is our consolation…God doesn’t leave struggling believers in the dark forever.

Joe got new direction from God to clear up his confusion. We must understand that as we follow God – Sight will come. God will speak again. The Word teaches that God speaks to the listening ear. The fact is that our problem is not so much ignorance – as it is WILL to obey. The issue is always the same – will I trust His direction? He awaits those who let Him work through them. The story made clear that while Joe was worried about his integrity – but God was busy saving the world! (1:21b).

Mercifully, God was careful to include Joe in the story for listening to God’s direction. Matthew reminds: Matthew 1:24 says “And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, 25 but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.”

God desired and got obedience from Joe – not understanding or a full grasp of where God’s path was leading him. But Joe got a privilege beyond compare. He held in his arms the child-Savior, and was the first to pronounce His name and official purpose: “He is Yeshua – He is the Savior of man.”

Now imagine holding in your hands the Creator of the Universe in the tender package of a tiny baby. Feel the thrill, and grab the weight of the responsibility of being his “fill in” dad. Do you think he will say in Heaven, “It was worth it! I obeyed the Lord and it was truly worth it!” I bet when we gather in the great throne room of Heaven, and the King of Kings steps forward to the thunderous sound of the song, “Worthy is the Lamb! Worthy is the Lamb!” Joe will be upfront with the “proud pappa” smile. You will recognize him… He will have the tears running down his face and a deep thankfulness in his heart for the whole experience.

He will be grateful to have been included in the plan… and so will you.

Uncle Zacharias and Aunt Elizabeth

The Gospel of Luke focused on other characters in the family – all who were a part of the ancient Christmas family album. In Luke 1, the story began with an aunt and uncle of Jesus – a man named Zacharias and his wife Elizabeth – both Levites who walked through life secretly disappointed by their faith, and shamed by the fact that God didn’t really see, to listen to their prayers…Luke recorded it this way:

Luke 1:5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years.

Ironically, Zechariah’s name means “Yahweh remembers.” The sting of praying for a child for a lifetime, and watching your wife disappointed month after month was the story of this quiet and discouraged Levite.

The text is clear: His wife felt SHAME in Luke 1:25.

In the pictures Zacharias may looked stunned by God… because he learned that God always remembers. Every prayer that went seemingly unanswered, God remembered. Every moment when they felt like the heavens were strangely silent, God remembered. That’s the testimony of Uncle Zach and Aunt Liz today: Don’t give up on your prayer—God has not forgotten you. God’s power isn’t sadistically dangled in front of you – He loves you.

Luke made the careful note that Uncle Zach and Auntie Liz had hearts that were clean before God. It wasn’t just religion with them, it was faith – and everything else that happened in the story hinged on the truth of their yielded heart.

Truthfully though, the couple’s hope for God’s answer had mostly slipped away because it appeared that things could never change (1:7b). They were past the time that it would be normally possible to have children. They had to “settle” for second best, and muddle through.

Zach kept working (1:8), but in time he lost the wonder that God could really do anything (1:18). Still, God strangely considered Zacharias a useful tool in the priesthood.

You see, for Jews of long ago, the absence of children was seen as a reproach—evidence of God’s judgment on a person’s sin. How hard it must have been for Zechariah, a spiritual leader in Israel, and Elizabeth, to keep on obeying God, keep on remaining consistent in their faith, and still bear the sentence of a life that appeared unacceptable!

When you are doing all that God has asked you to do, and He still doesn’t respond to your prayers, that’s hard. But they pressed on.

The day came that God chose Zacharias by the casting of lots to burn incense in the temple – to represent the prayers of the people before His throne. Scholars generally estimate about 103,000 members of priestly families in the C1 CE in the land. About 7,200 were eligible for service in the functioning priestly role. These were divided into 24 courses called “mishmarot”. Each mishmar had about 300 servers for their week at the Temple. They served in rotation and all 7,200 at National feasts declared by God in Dt. 16. Of the 300 of the week, 50 served per day with all 300 serving on Shabbat. Only one of the 50 would be selected to mix and offer the prayer incense inside the Holiest Place. As a priest, you may only get one chance to do this in your life.

The lot fell by Divine appointment. Though Zechariah didn’t know it, but God had been planning this day from the very beginning. Zechariah and his family were going to be a part of God’s plan to offer salvation to the world. What seemed like unexplainable silence was really God’s work of preparing Zechariah and Elizabeth for this incredible day.

The point is, when God seems to remain silent, when your prayers seem to go unanswered, it’s not because God is asleep on the job. Before God works on your problems, He wants to work on you. When God says NO, it is because He is working a plan, and your request is pulling against that plan. Don’t worry. God knows what you need, and He is watching the whole scene. Not a tear falls that He might miss.

As Zacharias was performing his duty, an angel appeared beside the altar, while other priests waited in the courtyard outside the temple praying and awaiting the rise of the incense.

Can you imagine what they were praying for? Some, like old Simeon, awaited the Messiah. Some were praying for another prophet for direction was lacking and God seemed so quiet that the silence was unsettling.

That day, God was answering as He spoke through Gabriel. He connected Zach and Liz’s prayers to a larger plan in a supernatural way. All the time of waiting now began to make sense. Zach wanted a son – but God wanted a prophet – and the people had to be ready.

Remember, if God speaks to us only when we demand answers, then the focus is all on US. But life is not about us. We serve Him.

Zach learned that although doubt causes us to focus on what WE can’t do, faith calls us to remember what God can do.

Mary

Focus for the last few moments on a mother and a baby in the back of a cave with a house built in front of it. Mary’s lessons were deep, and took a lifetime to grasp. She learned to listen to the cry of the Savior – and jump to response. She learned to ponder God’s direction when others forget yesterday quickly…She learned that God forgets no one. There are no God-forsaken people. The lowest of the low are part of His plan – and she sung about it.

Look at her tenderness – a young woman interrupted by God learning deep things with unexperienced eyes.

Her focus was probably immediate that first night – get the baby out! By the way, this wasn’t a silent baby – no matter what the songs say. He had God-sized lungs that needed to practice crying before He could bellow out preaching!

Make no mistake about it… This was an invasion of God… and Mary got a front row seat. This was God’s love expressed in a warm bundle, snuggled against her heart.

Jeannette George tells a story about an experience she had on a short flight from Tucson to Phoenix. Across the aisle from her sat a young woman and her baby, both dressed in white pinafores. The baby had a little pink bow where there would eventually be hair. The mother was smiling, as the baby kept saying “Dada, Dada,” every time someone walked down the aisle. The mother said Daddy was waiting for them after they had been gone for a few days. She was so adorable – quiet – that all passengers enjoyed watching her. Unfortunately, there was a lot of turbulence, making the flight extremely rough, which of course was hard on the baby. But the mother had some fruit and a little Thermos with orange juice in it. Every time the baby cried the mother fed her a little bit more orange juice and a little more fruit. While this seemed like a good idea at the time, the turbulence seemed to spread from the air around the plane right down to that baby’s gastro-intestinal system, and pretty much all of the fruit that had gone down came up. However, the process of coming up was considerably messier than the process of going down had been. It also seemed to have increased in volume tremendously between the going down and the coming up, so that not only were the baby and the mother pretty much covered in it, but so were most of the passengers within a significant radius of the baby, [including Jeanette George, who was telling the story.] Fortunately for the mortified mother, all of the passengers were gracious and tried to help her and tell her it was OK. After all what could she do about it?? The baby was crying, and she looked awful. Even though they didn’t cry, her fellow passengers looked – and smelled – pretty awful, too. The mother was so sorry about it. As soon as they landed, the baby was fine and returned to calling: “Dada, Dada.” The rest of the passengers didn’t recover quite so quickly, being covered as they were in pre-digested fruit. Ms. George said, “I had on a suit, and I was trying to decide whether to burn it or just cut off the sleeve. It was really bad.” Waiting for the plane was a young man who had to be “Dada.” He was wearing white slacks, a white shirt, and he carried white flowers. Now what do you think that clean Daddy all dressed in white did when he saw his baby who had that sticky, smelly stuff all over her clothes and her face and her hair? He ran to the young mother, who handed the baby over pretty quickly so she could go get cleaned up. That Daddy picked up that baby, and he hugged her and he kissed her and he stroked her hair. As he held her close, he said, “Daddy’s baby’s come home. Daddy’s baby’s come home.” All the way to the luggage claim area, he never stopped kissing that baby and welcoming her back home. Ms. George thought, Where did I ever get the idea that my Father God is less loving than a young daddy in white slacks and white shirt with white flowers in his hand? [Jeannette Clift George, “Belonging and Becoming,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 93. Taken from sermoncentral.com]. Remember, God isn’t afraid of human dirt – Jesus made that clear.

Don’t be surprised at the Christmas family photo album of Jesus – it looks just like yours. People in the story are just your family and friends. God’s story is told through broken people who are being changed by Jesus.

Consider this: The same baby that was introduced by the Father into a dirty stable was introduced into dirty hearts that opened their door to Him. Just as He willingly entered a sin-sick world, so He eagerly enters a sin-sick heart – if we ask Him. That is the Christmas story. God invades the dirty and the broken – and changes them. He transforms them to be His children. They find peace by finding Him.

Merry Christmas!

Following His Footsteps: “The Truth Within” – Luke 7

truth within2Have you ever had someone suggest to you that you could find the truth about life WITHIN yourself? The other day I was invited to watch a motivational seminar on video by a Christian friend who thought I could really gain some insight from a well-known speaker. Because I know this friend well, I put it on the list of things I do for personal growth, and when it got to the top of the stack, I watched it. The man was entertaining and informative, and I found some of the information quite useful, that is, until he journeyed into “self as a source of truth.” That idea troubled me. There are many spiritual and religious groups that suggest that truth is found “within” a man or woman – many Buddhists believe this, and the Gnostics of the early centuries of Christianity taught it as well. They believed that “real truth” was sparked inside a person when they confronted the Almighty and had an incredible experience that led to the truth.

Students of the Bible – especially those who appreciate literalism – have generally dismissed that thought, and turned people to the fact that the truth is found in Jesus Who called Himself that very title: “The Truth”. In Him, we know, is the answer – in His purposes for us. If you think carefully and deeply, I think there IS an important truth that you can discover within you… but it isn’t the answer to a question – it is the problem we face. I believe that if you look inside – you will see that we are broken people, but we are also stubborn people. We can’t find the answer to our brokenness within – that truly IS found only in Messiah; but we can discover the problem – the fact of our brokenness, closely guarded by our stubborn pride.

We like to think of ourselves as competent. As Christians, we like to think of ourselves as vessels usable to our Master. Yet, if you ask almost any Christian they will tell you that for much of their life they admit to stubborn, self-oriented decision making. We who know Jesus also know ourselves – for when He came into our lives, the truth of who we are – and who we are NOT – became evident. That is a hard side of our faith… Inside each of us we wrestle with the pride and ego that hinders us from the continual surrender that invites God to work at transforming us – and for much of our life our stubborn resistance is our single greatest foe.

Key Principle: God draws near to one who opens their heart, but withdraws from one who refuses Him entrance.

There is a portion of Jesus’ ministry that highlighted the battle within those who met Jesus– the fight to surrender to God’s control – we want to continue our look at lessons in the life of Jesus with a brief stop in Luke 7. That passage is carefully framed around stories of five encounters between Jesus and people. For this lesson, let’s look at how Jesus dealt with people, and what hindered some people from really gaining the full benefit of standing face to face with God in human skin. Look at each of the five encounters. They were:

1. Jesus and the Humble Gentile: The Open Reverence of the Needy Centurion (Lk. 7:1-10).

2. Jesus and the Helpless Widow: The Surprise of the Broken-hearted and Helpless Widow (Lk. 7:11-16).

3. Jesus and His Uncertain Friends: The questioning of the familiar, yet unsure cousin of Jesus, John the Baptizer (Lk. 7:17-23).

4. Jesus before the Hardened Theologians: A fourth was a group of Pharisees that diverted the heart truths of God by theological arguments! (7:24-35).

5. Jesus and a Grateful Sinner: A shattered sinful woman that came to Jesus full of gratitude for His love, forgiveness and acceptance (7:36-50).

Step into the five scenes, one at a time – and look carefully for those who really grasped the truth of Who Jesus was, and what He could do for them.

The Humility of a Needy Centurion (Lk. 7:1-10)

Luke 7:1 When He had completed all His discourse in the hearing of the people, He went to Capernaum. 2 And a centurion’s slave, who was highly regarded by him, was sick and about to die. 3 When he heard about Jesus, he sent some Jewish elders asking Him to come and save the life of his slave. 4 When they came to Jesus, they earnestly implored Him, saying, “He is worthy for You to grant this to him; 5 for he loves our nation and it was he who built us our synagogue.” 6 Now Jesus started on His way with them; and when He was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to Him, “Lord, do not trouble Yourself further, for I am not worthy for You to come under my roof; 7 for this reason I did not even consider myself worthy to come to You, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. 8 “For I also am a man placed under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.” 9 Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled at him, and turned and said to the crowd that was following Him, “I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such great faith.” 10 When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health.

Jesus finished teaching and walked back into the village of Capernaum. When he got into the town, he was met by some of the local elders of the “synagogue near the sea” who came and asked Jesus to do a good deed for a slave – a strange request. It appears the centurion previously built a great relationship with the Jewish community by showing care to the local Jewish community and helping them raise the funds to maintain and add to their synagogue. The Jewish leaders came to Jesus and sough a healing for the man’s servant.

We don’t know much about the centurion – but we know some important details. The text offers six details:

• His rank put him in charge of a “centuria” consisting normally of 80 men. Six “centuria” formed a “cohort”…. The man was in a responsible position in the Roman army.

• The Centurion had a soft heart toward his servant (7:1-2). He was a leader with a heart for PEOPLE, the object of God’s affection.

• The Centurion had a tender heart toward God’s people (7:3-5). To love me is to love what I love beside me.

• The Centurion had a deep sense of unworthiness (7:6-7a). An open sense of God’s “stooping” to us is a great place to begin a successful walk with God!

• The Centurion had a firm trust in Jesus’ authority (7:7b-8). The first step in our walk must be to stand firmly in Jesus’ ability.

• The Centurion gained Jesus’ attention (7:9-10). Jesus required only one thing of this follower – honest trust in Him!

This story made clear that Jesus aided a man of humility, tenderness and faith. The humility was not a poor self-image – it was “ranking himself beneath” out of respect. He recognized the power and position of Jesus, and he recognized his own sinfulness. His tenderness was shown in actions of assistance to those who needed help. His “faith” – the ability to see things as God says they are – was clear in the way he dealt with the Savior. Arrogance pushes God away – humility draws God in to help.

A second story also draws in a hurting and needy person…

The Surprise of the Broken-hearted and Helpless Widow (Lk. 7:11-17).

Luke 7:11 Soon afterwards He went to a city called Nain; and His disciples were going along with Him, accompanied by a large crowd. 12 Now as He approached the gate of the city, a dead man was being carried out, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow; and a sizeable crowd from the city was with her. 13 When the Lord saw her, He felt compassion for her, and said to her, “Do not weep.” 14 And He came up and touched the coffin; and the bearers came to a halt. And He said, “Young man, I say to you, arise!” 15 The dead man sat up and began to speak. And Jesus gave him back to his mother. 16 Fear gripped them all, and they began glorifying God, saying, “A great prophet has arisen among us!” and, “God has visited His people!” 17 This report concerning Him went out all over Judea and in all the surrounding district.

Jesus left Capernaum not long after the assistance to the centurion’s servant, and walked toward the Jezreel Valley on the road that passed the foot of Hill of Moreh – a place famous because of the ministry of Elijah and Elisha long before. As he walked by the village of Nain, a parade of mourners happened on the road carrying a funeral bier of a young man. Jesus noticed a widow – walking without a husband or children behind the bier. He approached the broken hearted woman and told her to cease weeping. Next, He walked toward the bier; in a bold but shocking move – He TOUCHED the small bed with the body on it. This story offered a few details of the woman:

• The broken woman was loved, but broken beyond the hope of asking for help from God. Truthfully, in the midst of her pain, she probably never noticed Jesus standing before her! (7:11-12).

• The widow could not “cry out” for help, but Jesus picked her out (7:13).

• The crushed momma was unprepared for the incredible deliverance God brought – though He had done it before in others nearby! Elisha raised the Shunnamite woman’s son – and Shunem was a nearby village on the opposite side of the same hill! (7:14-16; cp. 2 Kings 4:36).

Consider this woman for a moment. Isn’t it true that in our tears, we can fail to see clearly? Sometimes in the midst of a terrible night, God stands ready to reveal Himself – even if we weren’t looking for Him! Jesus saw her tears, and He met her in the midst of her pain. He gave her back what she lost – but He gave her much more – He gave her His kind attention and care. Brokenness draws in the tender approach of God. There is no place so painful that God cannot touch it. There is no person so broken that God cannot repair them. There is no joy deeper than the knowledge that God is there when my pain is unbearable!

Yet a third story was collected by Luke and joined to this one, and though this one isn’t a healing, it is by someone in a desperate situation…

The uncertain cousin of Jesus: John the Baptizer (Lk. 7:17-23).

Luke 7:18 The disciples of John reported to him about all these things. 19 Summoning two of his disciples, John sent them to the Lord, saying, “Are You the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?” 20 When the men came to Him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to You, to ask, ‘Are You the Expected One, or do we look for someone else?'” 21 At that very time He cured many people of diseases and afflictions and evil spirits; and He gave sight to many who were blind. 22 And He answered and said to them, “Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the BLIND RECEIVE SIGHT, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the POOR HAVE THE GOSPEL PREACHED TO THEM. 23 “Blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.”

John knew about the power of God (Lk. 7:18) and John HOPED that the promises were true and found in Jesus (Lk. 7:19-20), but he was uncertain (7:21-23; cp. Isa. 8:13-15). Jesus explained that His identity should be recognized based on the promises of God’s Word and the evidence of His walk before men! (7:21-23; cp. Isa. 8:13-15).

Why is this story tucked into this passage? Is it because a messenger approached Jesus just after he encountered the widow at Nain? Perhaps…but that doesn’t seem to be true based on the cross references of the other Gospels. It appears the point Luke was making in the organization of the stories together was this: John was under arrest. His desperation wasn’t from loss of a son or sickness of a servant as the other stories – but rather the loss of his personal freedoms and the fear of his own future. John’s life was all about one thing: Proclaiming the message of God. When he pointed people to Jesus as the Lamb, was he mistaken?

We have seen that humility attracts God’s hand, and brokenness move His gentle touch – but what about desperation and uncertainty? Does God withdraw from one who cannot trust Him fully? The answer is NO! God understands our deep connection to the physical world and to our own preservation. He knows what we fear most – and much of it relates to leaving this world. God’s answer to the “doubting desperate” is to offer more truth –more evidence of Himself. Honest doubt in the face of desperation doesn’t repulse God – it draws Him in.

A fourth story was joined to these…

Religious leaders as opposed to repentant businessmen (7:24-35).

Luke 7:24 When the messengers of John had left, He began to speak to the crowds about John, “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 25 “But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Those who are splendidly clothed and live in luxury are found in royal palaces! 26 “But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and one who is more than a prophet. 27 “This is the one about whom it is written, ‘BEHOLD, I SEND MY MESSENGER AHEAD OF YOU, WHO WILL PREPARE YOUR WAY BEFORE YOU.’ 28 “I say to you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.” 29 When all the people and the tax collectors heard this, they acknowledged God’s justice, having been baptized with the baptism of John. 30 But the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purpose for themselves, not having been baptized by John. 31 “To what then shall I compare the men of this generation, and what are they like? 32 “They are like children who sit in the market place and call to one another, and they say, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not weep.’ 33 “For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon!’ 34 “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Behold, a gluttonous man and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ 35 “Yet wisdom is vindicated by all her children.” 36 Now one of the Pharisees was requesting Him to dine with him, and He entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table.

The next story Luke paired with this set of remembrances was Jesus’ encounter, first with the crowds to pose a question about John – and then to two groups who heard John. On the one hand were those who followed John’s message – guilty cheaters who saw the need to repent and be baptized by John – acknowledging their sinfulness. On the other hand, there were some trained men that were proficient at using information and debate to deflect heart truth. They heard John, but his message of repentance meant nothing to them – for they saw themselves as righteous by virtue of what they KNEW. Jesus cut through the layer of theological objections to deliver a set of four powerful truths! These truths were targeted as a caution to those who had considerable knowledge of God’s Word, but little faith to walk in it!

The first truth was people want something that is REAL, not simply something that is highly polished. Not as many are faked out by religious nonsense as the religious may think. Jesus began His time before them with a question: “Why did you all go out to see John in the wilderness?” (7:24a) He offered several possibilities:

• Did his commitment draw you? (7:24b).
• Did his “sophisticated and polished look” draw you? (7:25)
• Were you perhaps seeking God’s truths? (7:26)

Next, Jesus affirmed that John was presenting the truth and preparing the crowd for Messiah (7:26b-27) as He explained the role that John played in prophetic truth (7:28). He was the announcer, the introducer – the pointer.

Jesus offered a second statement: When people encounter the truth and are powerfully changed by it, they are ready to take a stand for it! The many in the crowd that had been at the great revivals of John affirmed Jesus’ statements with an “Amen!” (7:29) but the theologically trained Pharisees withdrew (7:30).

A third truth became apparent: Real leaders see changes in their followers as truth is offered, while fake leaders moan about real ones! Jesus offered this observation about the religious leaders: “They lead, but they complain that no one follows” (7:31-32). “They reject the power others have found encountering God’s truth, and offer nothing but complaints about the externals” (7:33-34).

Finally, Jesus ended with this parable: “Life-changing God-given truth evidences itself unmistakably in the lives of those who follow it!” (7:35). Real truth has measurable fruit. Real wisdom transforms. Why is this story included here?

We have seen that humility, brokenness and desperation draw the tender response of the Lord… but here that truth is contrasted with those who repulse God. God is drawn to those who allow Him to transform them, but moves away from those who choose to know ABOUT HIM without surrendering TO HIM.

God isn’t seeking highly polished theologians – He seeks surrendered saints. He is looking for those who WANT Him to work in them, strongly desire Him to sculpt away their desires and leave them with a greater hunger for His touch.

There is still one more story…

A woman with gratitude, who found love and acceptance in the Savior’s presence (7:36-50)

Luke 7:37 And there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that He was reclining at the table in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster vial of perfume, 38 and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he replied, “Say it, Teacher.” 41 “A moneylender had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 “When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. So which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him, “You have judged correctly.” 44 Turning toward the woman, He said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 “You gave Me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. 46 “You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume. 47 “For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 Then He said to her, “Your sins have been forgiven.” 49 Those who were reclining at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this man who even forgives sins?” 50 And He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

The story reminds us that the woman presented was a well-known sinner. Perhaps it was her dress, perhaps her speech or manner – but it was clear that she was a woman with a past. Luke described her: She was filled with shame and guilt from the past, but took the most precious thing she has and offered to it Jesus to express deep gratitude that she could be made whole (7:36-37). She poured out both her earnings and the pain of their heart, finding solace in merely being allowed to touch Jesus’ feet and find His acceptance. She was unconcerned about how she appeared to those who thought they had life together. She loved that God forgave her, and she cherished forgiveness with overwhelming gratefulness (7:38).

Some people you meet don’t really sense their need of God so easily. For people like that, God may need to provide a lesson to help them understand their need – by observing the advantages of brokenness in someone else. People with a brokenness about their past are often used by God as a lesson to others – and that is the gift we have in them! Consider this:

• Even those who know something of God’s love and power can misunderstand His heart. They want justice for others, but mercy for themselves. God shows that He knows how to love in spite of sin (7:39).

• Jesus wanted to teach even the self-righteous of His own mercy, that they might experience mercy (7:40).

• God is not unclear. He knows we all owe Him – none are worthy! (7:41-42).

• Jesus wanted the self-righteous to become as the broken – to acknowledge his own unworthiness (7:43)!

• Jesus desired an “exchange of eyes” – as the self-righteous discover their neediness (7:44).

• He contrasted the extreme love of the broken woman as a model to the stayed dignity of the self-righteous (7:45-46).

• Self-righteous men and women can be shocked by how the broken, guilty and shame-filled people are able to shed the need to look good in the hope that someone can love them and accept them – and God lovingly pulls them to Himself (7:47).

God draw near to the heart filled with gratitude, but withdraws from the haughty heart. Think about it this way:

Gratitude presupposes we know we are forgiven. Jesus openly claimed the right to forgive the sin, as well as remove the shame and guilt to those who trust Him (7:48). We need to trust His word. We must gauge forgiveness by God’s Word, not by other people who are also guilty. People are not as forgiving as God is, and they will resist the cleansing of one who has acted shamefully (7:49). Don’t forget, we need to be released from the bondage of shame and guilt, so that we can LIVE for Jesus! In this story, Jesus wanted this woman to know forgiveness and acceptance so that she could go out and LIVE, not cling to Him reliving her guilt over and over (7:50). Gratitude fills us when forgiveness is truly recognized.

The simple truth is that inside each of us we wrestle with the ego that hinders us from continual surrender – and for much of our life that is our single greatest foe. Humility before God, brokenness before God, honest desperation of heart, a hunger to surrender all the dark corners of the heart within, and gratitude for God’s forgiveness and intimate companionship draw Him in. That is the message of the five stories of Luke 7.

There are many people who have stories like the five we have encountered in this lesson. They have been burned by life, and the fires have scarred them and left them hurting. Yet, God wants to use them. Consider this, as we draw this lesson to its close:

Sequoia National Park is a reserve in the southern Sierras of California, in the United States. The park was established in 1890 and spans more that 400,000 acres. It is covered with a variety of trees – some of them are a very resistant kind of pine. These “Lodge Pole pines” were created by God to withstand incredible opposition. Seeds within the pine cones of these trees are not easy to break, like some of the other pine cones we find around our yards. Can you guess when the seeds come out? The cones lay dormant and open only under extreme heat, such as what happens in a forest fire. If you place “Lodge Pole” pine cones in a campfire they pop loudly as they open and expose their protected seeds. The true value of the cone is this: the crisis of a fire, the testing of extreme heat brings the release of the life-giving seeds that will spur reforestation in a fire that destroys other trees.

Maybe your life has been tested by fire. Maybe you feel broken by pain. You should know this: that is exactly when God moves in. It is pride that dismisses Him, while trust, humility and brokenness invite Him.

God draws near to one who opens their heart, but withdraws from one who refuses Him entrance.

Following His Footsteps: “Rising Star” – (Mt. 4, Lk. 4, Jn. 4)

risingstar1“The hardest part was at the very beginning!” said the young pop music star. “I came along before there was an ‘American Idol’ show, but just after the big record labels were already losing to the digital market of iTunes and Napster. That window was very hard to get started in this business!” the young woman complained. Truthfully, I didn’t know who she was, but her interview caught my attention on the TV set above my head. Of course, the fact that my flight was going to be delayed and my sandwich was utterly uninteresting may have also had something to do with my interest in her interview. I watched the whole exchange and then my mind drifted. Getting started… sometimes that really IS the hardest part. My mind faded back to my home:

My hedges need clipping, but to do it I’d have to get the clippers and the cord out and drag them through the hot backyard in the Florida summer sun… I think that can wait!

I really need to start this diet and drop off these extra summer pounds that came from writing for hours in a chair, but to do that I have to get the stuff to make those morning breakfast shakes in the cupboard, and besides… there is a pan of brownies in the kitchen that shouldn’t go to waste…

I need to paint the woodwork upstairs, but in order to do that I will need to check in the garage on the pan and brushes, and that garage is a mess. I am not sure where the paint is, and that is going to be another fiasco to get the right color…

Anyone who wrestles with themselves to get things done knows that starting isn’t easy. It takes commitment, and you have to believe that it is both important and able to be accomplished. Today’s lesson is about the beginnings of the public ministry of Jesus – the “getting started” in crowd teaching, healing and shepherding. Jesus was stepping out of the shadows into center stage in some Galilee villages. After Nicodemus was taught by Jesus to see life in a new way, and the Samaritan “woman at the well” in Sychar found that her life was not empty and useless – Jesus made His way back to the western lower Galilee, to the region where He had grown up years before. The first interviews were concluded, and Jesus was now working with growing crowds and a handful of disciples that John sent his way. Jesus needed to make His message known, and back it up with significant works to show His power. Four short passages recall this time of ministry, and each offers a view that includes different problems and different reasons to believe in Jesus and His message.

Key Principle: Though some ignore the Savior’s true message in favor of a religious control or a self-directed life, those who trust Jesus find Him to be the answer God promised long before His coming.

The short passages found in both Matthew’s Gospel and that of the Gospel of Mark tell us the same thing about the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry – it began with public preaching. Jesus was not simply some philanthropist – He was a public preacher.

Preaching: Preaching repentance and Kingdom preparation (Mt. 4:17; Mk. 1:14b-15).

Note the two records and what they offer us about the message of the Savior at the outset:

Mt. 4:17 “From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Mk. 1:14 “…Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”

First, Jesus’ preaching was, from its beginning, about BEHAVIOR, not simply about Pharisaism or “world peace.” That is a more important point than we may have believed in time past, because people in our country have been consistently told otherwise. Listen to the words of the text – Jesus said four things if the two accounts are taken together:

The time had come: God has a plan, and He unspooled events to coincide with His purposes. God chose a time when a portion of Judah had been returned to the ancient homeland of Israel. He chose to send Jesus into a time when a singular language gripped much of the western world. He offered His Son when the Roman Empire – a politically contrived power – was blending many languages, cultures and cultic worship forms into one cohesive unit around the Mediterranean. He picked a moment in the timeline of human history that He knew would work the best for His plan.

Repentance was necessary: Meeting God is always on His terms. Jesus didn’t tell people to “fix themselves”, but rather to turn away from their self-determined path and follow Him. That “turnabout” is the meaning of the word “repent” (meta-noeo). The implication is that change must come. As long as one believes they can apprehend God by their own seeking, the need for a Savior is tiny. If one doesn’t see themselves as “lost” they seek no Savior. The requirement of repentance was this: Know you have a need and that you cannot find it within, or in any religious system you currently possess.

The Kingdom was near: Where the King goes, the kingdom follows. The Jesus of the New Testament was the “Eternal Son of God” involved as the very agent of Creation (Colossians 1:16-17). He is the “expressed image of God’s person” (Hebrews 1). Because He was the promised King that would one day sit on the throne of David, the Kingdom was near. It would be enacted, first spiritually and later physically… but God always delivers His promises.

It was time to believe in the Good News: The coming of the “Perfect Lamb” that John the Baptizer made clear “came to take away the sin of the world” was very good news. The system of atonement was never-ending with death and bloodshed – a graphic reminder of sin and the payment in blood and death. The message that Jesus’ sacrifice, as gruesome and horrible as it was made, was the total payment was very good news. Sheep and goats applauded along with their human owners! His death was their life – and that was good news.

As long as people believe they can earn God’s forgiveness through religious or philanthropic deeds, they will maintain their own control over their spiritual destiny, and therein is the lie. God has a plan, and God provided the Lamb when it suited Him to do so. The message came with the King – the Kingdom was coming next.

Power: Healing long distance (John 4:46-54).

During the early days of His preaching, Jesus returned to Cana (sometime after He had turned water into wine at a wedding). People were excited to have Him back, and I am sure He had plenty of invitations for upcoming parties! John’s Gospel recorded:

John 4:46 Therefore He came again to Cana of Galilee where He had made the water wine. And there was a royal official whose son was sick at Capernaum. 47 When he heard that Jesus had come out of Judea into Galilee, he went to Him and was imploring Him to come down and heal his son; for he was at the point of death. 48 So Jesus said to him, “Unless you people see signs and wonders, you simply will not believe.” 49 The royal official said to Him, “Sir, come down before my child dies.” 50 Jesus said to him, “Go; your son lives.” The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started off. 51 As he was now going down, his slaves met him, saying that his son was living. 52 So he inquired of them the hour when he began to get better. Then they said to him, “Yesterday at the seventh hour the fever left him.” 53 So the father knew that it was at that hour in which Jesus said to him, “Your son lives “; and he himself believed and his whole household. 54 This is again a second sign that Jesus performed when He had come out of Judea into Galilee.

By including this short episode, John offered us the opportunity to observe the happenings in Cana, and recorded a story that can easily be broken into three simple parts:

The Encounter with Jesus (4:46-50a): the official left Capernaum and traveled up the steep climbing road to Cana. He met Jesus and explained his need, and Jesus obliged and told him the child was healed.

The Trust in Jesus (4:50b-52): the second half of verse fifty began with the simple statement that “the man believed”. The truth of that belief was illustrated in his journey home.

The Full Grasp of Belief (4:53-54): as the healing of his son was made plain, the man knew how to connect his son’s change to Jesus’ words.

Let’s move into the verses and examine the “encounter with Jesus” (4:46-50a). Though the man was a “royal official”, he was also a father. This desperate dad heard of the reputation of Jesus and sought out a rescuer for his child. We know three things about the man. First, the man knew of Jesus and what others claimed He could do (4:46a). Second, the man was faced with a heart rending problem he could not care for (4:46b). Third, the man reached out for Jesus and begged Him to have mercy and deliver him from the clutches of the terrible need (4:47).

The troubles of his son led the man to abandon any sense his self-sufficiency and seek Jesus. He was an official, but he was unwilling to mask his vulnerability. In a way, his son’s plight became the source of a great blessing from God, but it was found only when desperation opened his heart and made him willing to take his need to Jesus, abandoning self-reliance. The man had to traverse both the steep upward path from Capernaum to Cana and the humility of the social difference in status between Jesus and himself. Under normal circumstances this reach “downward” would have been unthinkable. This nobleman had to “lower himself” to seek help from a humble Jewish villager and now roaming preacher.

It is worth remembering that when we speak to people who are “at the top of their game” that there is no home into which pain, sickness and sorrow cannot enter. The most accomplished athlete, the most popular celebrity – every person lives within fragile bodies and in a fallen world. Our power, glory and strength can be reduced in the turn of a single news cycle of events. With the wrong word, we can watch our popularity recede faster than our hairline. When a person speaks in arrogance, it is often because they are not yet far enough along the journey – but their day will come. Troubles and pains, sickness and death – these realities humble every man or woman who isn’t senseless. It is for that reason we should look beyond arrogance and anger, and see a person within.

Jesus met the official, and listened to his need (4:47) but His initial response did not seem helpful. Jesus said that Galileans only seemed to believe what they could SEE. (4:48). Is that strange? Jesus’ reaction did not sound loving at all – is seemed cold. He said (apparently to the crowd around Him): “Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders you will never believe.” Why take a seemingly desperate man and hold out on him like that? The answer is not as complicated as it may appear. Remember, this is another story in the string of John’s narrative, like Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman – and each illustrate an earlier statement of that Gospel: “Jesus knew the heart of man” (John 2:24-25). Jesus knew how manipulative people can be – especially those who have been in positions of power. Most of us can readily admit that we will move heaven and earth to achieve what we want. When the miracle is something as pure as healing for a child or when the miracle or God intervention is something else. The sad truth is, though, when it’s done we will show no commitment to Him or His message – but will move through life in our own plan and strength. Many of us need to admit we use God to get what we want rather than allow the struggle to lead us to full submission to God.

God has an objective in the troubles of our lives – but it may surprise us. His objective is our trust in Him in all times and circumstances. People say: “If God is a healer, then why are there sick children in the world? If God is peaceful, then why do wars happen? If God loves, then why do bad things happen to good people?” Behind these questions there is the desire to see God prove himself by taking these evil things away so that we will all believe in Him and live ‘happily ever after.’ The problem is reframed and God’s goodness is questioned – not our submission to Him based on what He has already done. In this scenario, God left Himself cloaked and refused to do what was necessary to make us believe. Our disbelief then, is HIS FAULT… but the problem is framed over false logic. Think about it: There are plenty who have enough to eat, aren’t struggling with the effects of war, a roof over their heads. Yet many of those people have no relationship with God. There have been many good times in our lives that did not yield surrendered lives. Our relationship with God cannot be simply based on his ability to heal us or perform other miracles for us. Our faith must leave this world’s way of thinking and take on a Biblical world view, solely based on surrender to the Word of Jesus.

Why didn’t Jesus make it easy for the man? In our modern American lifestyle, we often act as though life should be easy. Ease, in fact is not always what is best for us. A faith that requires no effort is a faith that is not worth having. Faith takes effort because it requires a change on our part. It comes from God, Ephesians tells us – and not from within us. A new king sits upon the throne only after a pitted struggle removed the former king!

Jesus told the man that he could trust the Word alone – “Your son is made well.” (4:50a). What is clear on close inspection is that the man changed when he encountered Jesus. Panic fled away. The ‘need to trust only what he could see’ left him… as he exchanged panic for trust (4:50b). How do I know? Let’s take a closer look…Jesus spoke to the man at one o’clock (the seventh hour of the daylight – 4:52b) and yet did not return the same day. The text is clear the man encountered his slaves “the next day”. How could this be? He came with panic in his heart and yet stayed from one o’clock in the afternoon until the next day to journey down the five and one half hour path to his home? The key to the change is the word “BELIEVED” in verse 50.

The man believed. The man trusted the word of Jesus. He rested in the promise of Jesus overnight. He “ceased striving” to find a way to care for the need because he believed the need was already met.

Sometimes, it even takes time to find out if the surrender is real: A young woman had become critically ill and her prognosis was grim; she would likely die within the year. Her family had a nominal “Easter and Christmas” commitment to the church, so the discussions in the hospital between this young pastor and the family always ploughed new ground. The woman challenged him – if Jesus healed in the Bible, He should be able to heal me today. If not, what use was He? So she begged and bargained. “If only” God would show mercy, the family urged, they would completely recommit themselves… This earnest young pastor prayed with all his heart. He refused to join the ranks of those who said, “If it is thy will.” It was God’s will that she be healed, he concluded. Then to his amazement, God healed her—completely. And with the physicians shaking their heads, she was sent home from the hospital. Next Sunday, the entire family was there in the front pew, dressed and sparkling. The young woman gave her testimony, praising God for his goodness. The following Sunday, the family was there again. In four weeks, it was only the woman and her husband. And after that, attendance was sporadic until they dropped into their previous pattern. Before long, the woman rationalized the entire incident. She had experienced the most dramatic sign God could give her: healing, bathed in prayer and surrounded by the church. But after only two months, its power dimmed to nothing. (Adapted from Source: sermon central illustrations).

Her surrender was not real, though her amazement was. She was amazed at first that God could and would act on her behalf. If our encounter is with amazement alone, it will fade. If our encounter led us to true surrender – we will ever be changed and marked by our walk with Jesus. Jesus is looking for surrender to Him, not an applause line from an amazed admirer. In the royal official, He got a surrendered heart.

Problems: Facing hometown rejection (Luke 4:16-31a).

Luke 4:16 And He came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. 17 And the book of the prophet Isaiah was handed to Him. And He opened the book and found the place where it was written, 18 “THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED, 19 TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD.” 20 And He closed the book, gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on Him. 21 And He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 And all were speaking well of Him, and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips; and they were saying, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” 23 And He said to them, “No doubt you will quote this proverb to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we heard was done at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.’ ” 24 And He said, “Truly I say to you, no prophet is welcome in his hometown. 25 “But I say to you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land; 26 and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27 “And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” 28 And all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage as they heard these things; 29 and they got up and drove Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city had been built, in order to throw Him down the cliff. 30 But passing through their midst, He went His way. 31 And He came down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee, and He was teaching them on the Sabbath;

Four observations struck me in this story:

First, it is interesting that the Holy Spirit led Jesus to conflict (Matthew 4:1-13) and ONLY THEN to fame, when the temptation to fulfill a mission for self-motivation had been clearly defeated. (Matthew 4:14). Jesus was not taken off His mission or message by the affirmation of the crowds, but He understood the need to remain on message regardless of the response (4:22-24).

Second, Jesus established a reputation of teaching that caused others to take him seriously (4:15), but only after they had observed His life (cp. 2:52). His life was marked by the commitment to worship and the Word (4:16).

Third, Jesus’ understanding of both His mission and of the crowds was bathed in His knowledge of the Word, and the examples of Elijah (cp. 1 Kings 17:9ff) and Elisha (2 Kings 5:1-14; 4:25-28). He framed the situation and the response to it from Biblical examples – because that was the source of truth.

Fourth, Jesus responded to opposition with strength and surety (4:29-30) neither harming the opposition, nor acquiescing to them. It is not necessary to “win” a discussion that uncovers people in conflict with God (or even the notion that He exists). You must strive only to be clear and not be derailed. We should concentrate on speaking Biblical truth with grace and show patient love toward the dissenting voice. It isn’t our job to make people believe in God or the goodness of His plan, but to show how belief works out in the practice of our life. Their heart is ultimately their responsibility.

Prophecy: Settling down by the Kinnereth (Mt. 4:13-17).

There is yet one more short passage that captured the landscape of the start of Jesus’ preaching, and it is found in Matthew 4:

Matthew 4:12 Now when Jesus heard that John had been taken into custody, He withdrew into Galilee; 13 and leaving Nazareth, He came and settled in Capernaum, which is by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali. 14 This was to fulfill what was spoken through Isaiah the prophet: 15 “THE LAND OF ZEBULUN AND THE LAND OF NAPHTALI, BY THE WAY OF THE SEA, BEYOND THE JORDAN, GALILEE OF THE GENTILES – 16 “THE PEOPLE WHO WERE SITTING IN DARKNESS SAW A GREAT LIGHT, AND THOSE WHO WERE SITTING IN THE LAND AND SHADOW OF DEATH, UPON THEM A LIGHT DAWNED.” 17 From that time Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

The summary statement in verse seventeen was at the heart of the first part of this lesson – that Jesus came “out of the gate” with a message of repentance. Our second story reminded us that submission was a non-negotiable point in Jesus’ work. His time in Nazareth illustrated that Jesus was undeterred in His presentation – He would not be led by family or follower – but by His Father and the mission given to Him from above. This last portion reminds us that the mission was not a new innovation, but a long expressed prophecy. Jesus was following a path that was revealed to prophets long before His birth in Bethlehem.

What appeared to be a REJECTION in Nazareth was a signal to move to Capernaum near the Kinnereth (Sea of Galilee). Matthew 4:14 made clear this was NOT a simple choice – but the fulfillment of a designed work that was already stated. Think about that for a moment. God made a plan, and even the choice to move “home base” was a part of that plan.

Was not the arrest of Jesus part of that plan? How about the striking of the face of the Savior by wicked men? Was the Cross itself part of that plan? Listen to words about the Savior written seven hundred years before His birth:

Isaiah 53:3 “He was despised and forsaken of men, A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; And like one from whom men hide their face He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. 4 Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried; Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, Smitten of God, and afflicted. 5 But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, And by His scourging we are healed. 6 All of us like sheep have gone astray, Each of us has turned to his own way; But the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all To fall on Him.”

Here is the point: What looked like a spontaneous rejection of his neighbors was part of a bigger plan. What appeared to be a failure to reach people with a message of love was also part of that plan. Jesus’ life was pre-scripted and pre-revealed in prophetic narratives. His earth ministry wasn’t about self-choice, but about following His Father’s plan… and so is yours. You have few plans to make… you have paths to follow. You do not know what they are – so you must trust the One who does.

There is an old story about a potato farmer who had a son. The farmer was old, but the son young and strong. The son was accused of theft and thrown in jail – and the old farmer was heartbroken. It was time to break up the hard ground to plant the potatoes – if he didn’t do it soon the year would be lost to the crop. He wrote a letter to his son and expressed anguish that hard times were at hand. His son wrote back: “Dad, don’t dig up the potato field…that is the place where we stashed the loot!” Within hours, a team of policemen were digging the entire field searching for the proceeds of the theft. Finding nothing, they went home. The next day, the young man wrote from his cell: “Dad, that was the best I could provide to get the ground broke up, and as I have said all along, I didn’t steal anything. I hope they got the place ready for you.”

The young man cared for his father’s need in a way that no one expected – but he was working a plan. That was the same story we read in the Gospels. There was a man accused as a criminal, beaten and executed…but that wasn’t the story. The truth was that God provided something they didn’t understand in a way that they didn’t expect. That is the kind of God we serve.

Though some ignore the Savior’s true message in favor of a self-directed life, those who trust Jesus find Him to be the answer God promised long before His coming.

• Jesus is the answer. He created me, and He insists that I yield to Him – and He is right.
• Jesus is the answer when those closest to me are hurting, and I take their need to Him.
• Jesus is the answer when people want to use Him to fix their problems, but want to deny His right to choose when, where and how He works.

He was the answer when His coming was announced three thousand years ago, and He was the answer when He came two thousand years ago. He is still the answer today.

Jesus will be the answer when believers are assaulted by academics, scoffed at by cynics and beheaded by evil men. He will be the answer when the church is hated, and when it is removed. He will be the answer when Israel is brought under the full weight of human hatred. He will be the answer when He comes in the clouds and they “look on Him Whom they have pierced”. He will be the answer when His mouth opens and destroys the best weaponry of the world’s military machines. Jesus WAS, IS and IS To COME – as the answer to the human need.

Following His Footsteps: “The First Thanksgiving” – Luke 2

thanksgiving-q-a-turkey-500Our nation, despite attempts by more modern historians to suggest otherwise, has a long history of offering thanks to the God of the Bible. In 1621, the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag Indians shared an autumn harvest feast that is acknowledged today as one of the “first Thanksgiving” celebrations in the colonies. For over two centuries, days of thanksgiving appear to have been celebrated by individual colonies and nascent states, but it wasn’t until 1863, amid the Civil War, the weighted President Abraham Lincoln looked at his broken country and proclaimed a national “Thanksgiving Day” to be held each November. It is an increasingly uncomfortable part of our history to the modern secularist – but it endures in the American landscape.

Yet, I would suggest the first thanksgiving in the Bible was not a day of national celebration, but a story of seven people, tied together in a story of celebration of thanks in the face of the news of the birth of the Savior. Yes, the first Christmas was actually the setting of the “first thanksgiving”. I am not suggesting no one had ever been thankful before. What I am suggesting is the record of the birth of Jesus was the first structured attempt in the Bible to reflect on a uniform response to God’s hand at work in the redemption of the world. Luke is the first author that placed into systematic writing a treatise of thanksgiving – as he reflected on how each person came to recognize what God was doing.

In our last study, we attempted to delve into the Joseph story found in Matthew’s Gospel. We noted that both Matthew and Luke recorded genealogies, but after that they seemed very different in their perspectives on the “Pre-ministry” they disclosed:

• Matthew focused on how God directed Joseph.
• Luke focused more on thankful responses to the wondrous message that God sent Messiah.

Here is the question we are posing to the text of Luke today: “What does the Scripture tell us was the proper response to the coming of Messiah?” The answer is at the heart of our lesson…

Principle: The proper response to the Good News of Messiah is thanksgiving and praise, filled with JOY!

Look at the players that are mentioned in Luke and note their responses to the revelation that Messiah was finally coming to the world:

1. Elizabeth (1:41-43; 45) – representing the longing women of the Jewish world!

Most every woman in the ancient world desired to bear children – because it was the single act that gave them universally understood significance. In some cases in Scripture, as with Leah of old, it was a way to keep a husband’s favor. The telling reality of how deeply this was felt is expressed in the woeful weeping of Hannah, mother of the prophet Samuel, before her womb was opened. Elizabeth was clearly among the women who felt “shamed” by her barren state, and because jubilant at the news that God remembered her tears and cries. Six months into her pregnancy, Elizabeth was visited by her cousin, Mary – who was also pregnant. This is the familiar exchange:

Luke 1:41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 And she cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed [are] you among women, and blessed [is] the fruit of your womb! 43 “And how has it [happened] to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? …45 “And blessed [is] she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.”

Elizabeth exclaimed words of praise immediately when she saw Mary. They were LOUD praises, according to Luke! She called Mary “blessed”, she called the baby inside Mary “blessed” and then made the humblest of remarks. She asked: “Why would someone as important as the mother of my Lord come for a visit to my little home?” Yet her final words were the most significant and encouraging: 45 “And blessed [is] she who believed…” The pregnancy happened TO Mary, but the belief was her choice.

One of the aspects of the JOY of the news that Messiah has come is the continual celebration that reminds a culture and a nation that many have believed, and in believing they found life! We must admit that even that truth is quickly becoming a battle for the soul of our nation. I heard from another preacher friend some time ago:

A school teacher in the Midwest was told to remove her “Jesus is the reason for the season” pin when she entered the public school where she taught. She refused and was brought to the school principal, her immediate supervisor. According to her handbook she had the right to speak to the school board at their regularly scheduled meeting in the even that disciplinary measures were pending – and she opted to do so. Before the school board she asked: “What was offensive about the pin?” A school board member said: “This violates the establishment of religion clause of the Constitution – because we are a state-sponsored public institution in a pluralistic country.

• The teacher replied: “When, last Autumn, I wore a statement by a Christian minister – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.- concerning the inalienable rights of all men given by God for the whole month of black history, no one complained I was promoting Baptist causes.

• When in the winter I wore on a pin the words of Mother Teresa concerning the call to truly care for the hurting, no one complained that I was promoting Catholicism.

• When I wore for a whole month the words of Mahatma Gandhi “about peace within shown by peace without”, no one thought that I was promoting Hinduism.

Why is the simple fact that my pin states that we celebrate a winter holiday in our culture because of the birth of the baby Jesus now considered “an establishment of religion”? Since we teach our students each November that Pilgrims first arrived to allow the free practice of their Christian faith, why is Jesus singled out to be dismissed from public view? The board dismissed her from the meeting with an apology, and she kept the pin on for the duration of the Christmas season.

The modern push to change the memory of our nation belies the truth of why we are here and how we got to be what God made us to become. We have been blessed, and the practice of joyful celebration over the coming of Jesus is one of the opportunities we have to show our faith as tender, human and compassionate. It is a time we can pronounce the goodness of God – not leaving broken man in darkness. Our remembrances of Jesus’ birth offer a positive and reinforcing practice that helps us keep our faith in the public eye in America. It is for that reason the observation has come under attack; and it is for that reason we must joyfully and lovingly keep that engagement going!

2. Baby John (1:44) – representing all unconscious creation!

In that same visit scene, I skipped over the baby John’s little tumble in the womb of Elizabeth:

Luke 1:44 “For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy.

I see two important applications here, and I hope I am not drifting too far from the text:

• First, am I stretching the point to say that the coming of Jesus also affects the REST of creation? Consider the words of the Apostle Paul to the Roman believers:

Romans 8:18 For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. 19 For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. 23 And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for [our] adoption as sons, the redemption of our body.

The baby in the manger was the invasion of God from the spiritual world into the physical world. It was part of the battle plan to regain that which was stolen away… but it isn’t completed yet. God is taking back His world, but the full redemption of it hasn’t happened until He calls for an end to the fight. Those who walk in rebellion look strong in this hour – but they are not equal to His mighty hand. His great patience with men make them think He is unable to silence them – but they are wrong. Creation waits for the completion of redemption, and John’s little partially formed body could not hold back from joining the chorus of excitement on behalf of all creation!

• Second, not to press the point too far – but is it not ironically true in our day that those who truly believe in Jesus as their Savior represent some of the most ardent advocates for an unborn baby who is yet in the womb?

A literal approach to the Bible yields the sense that God is at work in a child before the time of their delivery and self-sustained life on the planet. The very breath of God is within them as living beings, and God has therefore given them intrinsic worth. I*t is for this reason that believers are so ardently PRO-LIFE. The fact that our GOD became a baby, and was delivered into our world by the means all of us came into it, makes our story unique and compelling – but it also reminds that even the birth process is a created and God-ordained action.

If all creation awaits final redemption, if the fallen and broken systems of this world are anticipating the time when they will be fully free of the effects of the “Fall of mankind”, should we not JOYFULLY and THANKFULLY celebrate the reality that Jesus was sent here to save mankind? Must we not press to keep that celebration at the fore of our calendar?

3. Zacharias (1:67-70) – representing the doubting but now convinced!

We noted in the previous two lessons some thoughts about Zacharias, but it is worth mentioning his role here, because Luke does:

Luke 1:67 And his father Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied, saying: 68 “Blessed [be] the Lord God of Israel, For He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people, 69 And has raised up a horn of salvation for us In the house of David His servant—70 As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from of old…

The celebration of God’s goodness at the Advent Season is a renewal that God kept His promises delivered through the prophets. Skeptics attack, but many thinking skeptics are changed by what they see, both in the study of the Scriptures AND in the testimony of those who uphold the truth of the Word! Sir William Ramsey sought to prove Luke an inaccurate historian and ended his days in defense of the Gospel. The sheer weight of the archaeological evidence and geographical detail convinced him. Yet, for Lee Stroebel, it took watching other believers and the way they remembered Christmas.

Lee, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune and a self-professed atheist was sitting at his desk on Christmas Eve. A slow news day he found himself reminiscing about the Delgado family that he had featured while writing a series of articles about Chicago’s neediest people a few days earlier. The Delgado’s were comprised of a grandmother named Perfecta and her two granddaughters, Jenny age 13 and her sister Lydia 11 years old. He remembered how unprepared he was when he walked into their two room apartment on the west side of Chicago for the interview; bare halls and bare walls, no furniture, no rugs, nothing but a kitchen table and a handful of rice in the cupboards. He learned during the interview that Jenny and Lydia only had one short-sleeved dress apiece, plus a thin gray sweater that they shared. On cold days when the girls walked the half-mile to school, one of the girls would start with the sweater and then give it to the other at the halfway mark. It was all they had. Perfecta wanted more for her granddaughters and would gladly have worked, but her severe arthritis and age made work too difficult and painful. Since it was a slow news day Lee decided to check out a car and drive to Chicago’s west side to check up on the Delgado’s. When Jenny opened the door he couldn’t believe what he saw! His article on the Delgado’s had touched the hearts of many subscribers who responded with furniture and appliances, rugs, dozens of coats, scarves and gloves. The girls wouldn’t have to share a sweater any longer. There was cartons and cartons and boxes of food everywhere. They had so much food that the cupboards and closets couldn’t contain it. Someone had even donated a Christmas tree, and under it were mounds of presents and thousands of dollars in cash! Lee was astonished! But what astonished him the most was what he found Perfecta and her granddaughters doing. They were preparing to give most of it away. “Why would you give so much of this away?” Lee asked. Perfecta responded, “Our neighbors are still in need. We cannot have plenty while they have nothing. This is what Jesus would want us to do.” Lee was dumbfounded. After regaining his composure he asked Perfecta another question. He wanted to know what she and the girls thought about the generosity that was shown to them. Again, Lee was not prepared for the answer. She said, “This is wonderful, this is very good.” “We did nothing to deserve this; it’s all a gift from God. But,” she added, “It is not his greatest gift, Lee. No, we celebrate that tomorrow. Jesus.” Lee was speechless as he drove back to the office. In the quiet of his car he noted a couple of observations. He had plenty and along with it plenty of anxiety, while the Delgado’s despite their poverty had peace. Lee had everything and yet wanted more, but the Delgado’s had nothing and yet knew generosity. Lee had everything and yet his life was as bare as the Delgado’s apartment prior to the article running. And yet the Delgado’s who had nothing were filled with hope, contentment and had a spiritual certainty. Even though Lee had so much more than the Delgado’s, he longed for what they had in their poverty. (From a sermon central illustrations quote by Bryan Fink “Christmas is for all the Lees/Leighs of the World” 12/25/2008)

4. Mary (2:10) – representing those to whom God has made a personal promise – and then delivered EXACTLY as He said!

Mary’s story is so well known, we need only touch it here:

Luke 2:1 Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. … 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn…17 When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.

The memory was hard. Mary wasn’t accepted by the whole family, and gave birth in the room at the rear of the cave in the three-room cave style home. She listened to the shepherds, and she pondered what God was doing. She would suffer the pain of loss later, but for now she could lay quietly and drift along between thought and sleep… Did not God do exactly as He promised? Yet, in the days to come, the world would make that gift about their own gifts, and that day about everything BUT the Savior that came to rescue a lost mankind.

We shouldn’t be surprised… that is what the world does when God shows Himself through the lives of men and women – they shift the subject!

“Valentinus was the name of a young man who lived in Rome during reign of Claudius II (Gothicus) during the third century, when Christians were being persecuted. Though Valentinus did not claim to be a Christian himself, he was instrumental in helping early believers. For that he was imprisoned. From that dank holding cell he surrendered his heart to Jesus Christ and was later condemned to death. He was beaten with clubs, stoned and finally beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate (near modern Piazza del Popolo) on February 14, 269 CE. After his death, this gate was known as Porta Valentini, but that name faded into history. While he was in prison he sent messages to his friends saying, “Remember your Valentine!” and “I love you.”

Can you imagine the story moving from God’s “agape” love from a believer to “eros” and modern Hallmark cards for lovers? Of course you can. It is what people do with the testimony the church doesn’t insist is kept alive in our culture!

Here is the truth: If believers don’t hold on to the truths of the events of our faith – the world won’t do it for us. The USE our faith to make more products and get more wealth. Those who know what God said must make a priority out of keeping the truths of God’s Word a part of our celebrations, and allow the world to observe how these things have changed us.

5. Shepherds (2:8-20) – representing a caring few!

We can all remember the shepherds and their involvement on that strange night:

Luke 2:8 In the same region there were [some] shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; 11 for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 “This [will be] a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” 15 When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds [began] saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.”…

Look at the way the Heavenly army framed the coming of the Savior. They offered a Savior, a sign and a song – and off they went. Did they go with anticipation and joy, or solemnity and sorrow? I think of the words of Charles Haddon Spurgeon:

It is joy to all nations that Christ is born, the Prince of Peace, the King who rules in righteousness…Beloved, the greatest joy is to those who know Christ as a Savior…The further you submit yourself to Christ the Lord, the more completely you know Him, the fuller will your happiness become. Surface joy is to those who live where the Savior is preached; but the great deeps, the great fathomless deeps of solemn joy which glisten and sparkle with delight, are for such as know the Savior, obey the Anointed One, and have communion with the Lord Himself…you will never know the fullness of the joy which Jesus brings to the soul, unless under the power of the Holy Spirit you take the Lord your Master to be your All in all, and make Him the fountain of your intensest delight.

6. Simeon (2:28) – representing anxious believing Israel!

On the eighth day, Jesus needed to be named and circumcised. Joseph and Mary took him to the Temple in Jerusalem, where He first shed His blood for the covenant with Abraham.

Luke 2:21 And when eight days had passed, before His circumcision, His name was [then] called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb. … 25 And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to carry out for Him the custom of the Law, 28 then he took Him into his arms, and blessed God, and said, 29 “Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace, According to Your word; 30 For my eyes have seen Your salvation, 31 Which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 A LIGHT OF REVELATION TO THE GENTILES, And the glory of Your people Israel.” 33 And His father and mother were amazed at the things which were being said about Him. 34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this [Child] is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed—35 and a sword will pierce even your own soul– to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.

Imagine standing on the south porch of the Temple that day! You moved into the line at the Mikveh (the ritual bath) and emerged from its chamber with a ticket that said “cleansed”. You made your way into the Hulda gates, your ears catching portions of the crowds singing as they entered the Temple of the Lord. Up the stairs you climbed, and onto the open space of the Gentile court. You turned back, and the crowd was gathering around an old man who was prophesying. He was proclaiming that what God said in the PAST WAS COMING TRUE and what God was promising for the future would also be upon them people in the days to come. The celebration of Messiah’s coming was seasoned throughout with people who proclaimed God’s faithfulness to His prophetic word!

In his book Science Speaks, Peter Stoner applied the modern study of probability to eight prophecies regarding Christ. He offered these words: “The chance that any man might have …fulfilled all eight prophecies is 1 in 10 to the 17th power. That would be 1 in 100,000,000,000,000,000″ (one hundred quadrillion). Stoner suggested by way of illustration that “if we take 10 to the 17th power in number of silver dollars (which we could not do) and lay them on the face of Texas (which because of the value – we WOULD not do!)… they will cover all of the state two feet deep. If we were to mark one silver dollar and mix the mass thoroughly… and if we were to blindfold a man and tell him he can travel as far as he wishes, but he must pick up [that one marked silver dollar.] What chance would he have of getting the right one?” Stoner concludes, “Just the same chance that the prophets would have had of writing those eight prophecies and having them all come true in any one man,…providing they wrote them in their own wisdom.” – Peter Stoner, Science Speaks.

7. Anna (2:38) – representing the people God redirected!

If there was ever a case of God’s redirection, it was in the life of Anna. She learned a critical lesson: God may call upon you to reset your personal expectations to be of best use to His service:

Luke 2:36 “And there was a prophetess, Anna (shortened: Channah, or “Grace”) the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years and had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers. 38 At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Anna was very old by the time we are introduced to her in the Word. She was widowed after a marriage that lasted only a brief seven years. Now eighty-four years old, Anna learned patience and dependence upon God. She fasted and prayed day and night, never leaving the Temple. She was not like most women of her time. She chose a different path. Instead of finding her identity in a second marriage and raising children – she heard God’s direction and went a different way than people expected. She chose to serve the Lord. Her expectations, probably the same as other women of her day, were dramatically altered by God’s superintending in her life. She learned to move through the terrible pain of losing her husband, relying on God to financially and emotionally meet the needs of her life.

The people who have encouraged me the most were the people who over the long haul of life have learned to drink from the well of satisfaction from the Lord even when their life circumstances were not ideal. Sixty-five years of waiting is incredible patience to wait for anything – much less a baby to mark the redemption. God is in no hurry! We will not experience instant depth, instant passion, instant deep praise. Genuine change of heart takes time. Genuine weaning of self-satisfaction to God’s purposes requires time and a painful transition as I leave the throne of my heart and He takes it.

What if Anna decided not to come in on Tuesdays because she was feeling lazy? What if she accommodated her feelings of disobedience and thought: I don’t feel like looking for the Messiah this morning – I will go in latert? The blessings of being obedient far outweigh the temporary satisfaction of placating my wants and desires.

Luke 2:38 At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

Others are defined by their roles – Anna’s role was stripped from her and THEN God defined her real purpose. God used her in spite of being the definition of poor and hopeless. She was not forsaken, she was being set up to accomplish her life’s purpose!

One after another, the people of Luke’s account gave PRAISE to God for what He did in sending His Son! Can we not do the same?

In the midst of the moral collapse of our generation, can we not ask: “What happened to our JOY as believers?”

I recognize the need for sobriety in these days. I see the same news you do. Yet. GOD invaded the planet. His salvation is now freely available – regardless of my background and any of my past failings. I can KNOW GOD, I can WALK WITH GOD… and all of that happened because Jesus put on skin and took my place in the penalty of my rebellion.

He came to set men free! We can hang our long faces as much as we choose to – allowing the enemy to make those who have been set free weep like the world is still bound in chains… but it IS NOT! The Son has come to dispel the darkness, to break the chains, to lift the fallen, to crush the enemy. The Savior has become our Rescuer, and our lives need not be dominated by the momentary issues of the flesh. We CAN celebrate. We SHOULD celebrate. Our world will be nothing but dreary if those set free by Messiah succumb to living like they are still in chains. Truly, the proper response to the Good News of Messiah is thanksgiving and praise, filled with JOY!

Following His Footsteps: “Changed by the Pain”- Luke 1

pain3Pain changes you. I was speaking the other day to a friend who has been caring for his wife through a recent cancer surgery. He was encouraged at her progress, and she is doing well. As he spoke, he reminded me that this was her third cancer surgery – and that she had learned some important things that she passed to her husband. She called cancer “the great clarifier”. When the treatments were a memory and the pain had mostly passed – she was able to see her life more clearly than she ever could before. It was the trouble of her life, the threat to its continuance here on earth that gave her a different perspective. She was changed by the pain. She was transformed by the threat, the discouragement, the questions toward God and the world – and she emerged a different woman.

I am glad that I had that simple encounter the other day, because her simple lesson encouraged me to think about life in deeper terms. In the business of the daily, the broader picture of things can be obscured. Thank God He places people in our lives to cause us to pick up our heads from the task before us, and think about the distant horizon and where we are going.

As I work with believers of all ages, I think I begin to recognize some of the wisdom of God in placing us together in the local body of believers. Some among us have passed through enormous pain – the loss of a dream, the loss of the love of our lives, the loss of our health and physical stability. Sitting beside them at any given meeting are others who believe deeply, but have experienced little. They are not to be belittled, for their zeal and their energy are essential to the progress of God’s church – but they really don’t have that much experience, thankfully, with deep pain and disappointment.

Tucked between the two groups are “game changers”. These are people that have both experienced the pain, and kept the optimism and belief. They are the un-jaded sufferers among us that help all of us keep things together. They know what it is like to be discouraged – they have visited that address, but they have refused to move in and live there. They have felt the searing pain that comes with living in a fallen world, but they have found God’s balm of healing, and have moved on. They are the heroes and heroines of our story – and they have found a voice in Luke’s recorded story of Elizabeth. Here is the lesson…

Younger and older believers need each other. Some of the most learned believers are in the process of growing past their troubles while some of the most uninitiated can profoundly speak – but they haven’t been tempered by the troubles ahead.

Key Principle: God uses the one who has been changed by the pain to teach others to move ahead with Him.

For the Bible students among us, I would like to take a moment and see if I can make clear how I came to the conclusion that this was the key truth at the heart of Luke 1. If you read through the entire chapter, you will notice if falls into three “natural” parts:

The story opened with the angel Gabriel foretelling of a son to a Senior Priest named Zecharias at the Temple. He was accomplished in ministry, but operating with a whole in his heart when it came to vibrant faith. (Luke 1:5-25). In a sense, Zecharias was jaded by the long trail of troubles unanswered in his life and he silently returned home to the encouragement of his loving wife at the end of the segment of the chapter given to his announcement.

Luke recorded yet another story of a similar announcement – a message of an exciting coming birth. The angelic announcer was the same. The conditions were the same – she was working on her daily tasks with no thought of anticipation. The key difference was the attitude and experience of the hearer. (Luke 1:26-39) Mary was tender of heart, but also very young and lacking the experiences of pain. Her scene ended with a trip to the very same encouraging woman Zecharias went home to live with.

Both scenes have their representative song – an anthem about God and His fulfillment of promises. Mary’s song flowed from her heart went Elizabeth encouraged her firm belief (Luke 1:46-46). Zecharias’ song took longer, because it came from beneath scars of trouble, and didn’t come until his faith was fully restored (Luke 1:57-80).

When you look at the whole of the chapter, you quickly note some similarities in two stories of the same chapter:

1. Two people who knew and served God were living their lives and doing their daily duties.
2. Both received an astounding visitor from Heaven that came to give them exciting news.
3. Both got a promise of an addition to their family.
4. Both were promised that the coming child would change the world.
5. Both got a prophetic song that was so important, it was included in the Scripture.
6. Both got their encouragement from the same lady (Elizabeth) – an experienced woman who both loved God, and knew pain.

At the same time, you cannot read this chapter and not notice some startling differences in the two people who encountered God’s messenger:

1. One went through years of pain and doubt before the message, and couldn’t just accept it when it came; he demanded proof, and needed time to be encouraged to see things differently.

2. The other spoke joyously of the promise, but didn’t yet know how difficult it was going to be to live through the pain of that promise. She had no clue what the snickers at the well of town would feel like, or how hard it would be to tell her fiancé of the promise.
The most exciting person in the narrative wasn’t the angel that encountered both people – it was Elizabeth. She encountered both of them, knew them both very well, and had passed through the pain in a way that would help both of them gain a proper footing to be used mightily by God. God uses the one who has been changed by the pain to teach both.

With that overview in mind, let’s take a few minutes in this lesson and look at each of the three sections of the story, and see if we can recognize what Elizabeth took away from her pain that can help all of us:

Zacharias and the Problem of Jaded Faith (Luke 1:5-25)

You don’t have to be walking in rebellion to have a faith “cooled” by the pain of disappointment. Look at the way Zach is introduced…

Luke 1:5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord.

How do I know they weren’t perfectly happy then? Because the rest of the story makes clear that their home was filled with a hole – a pain that bothered both Zach and Liz…

Luke 1:7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years…24 After these days Elizabeth his wife became pregnant, and she kept herself in seclusion for five months, saying, 25 “This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when He looked [with favor] upon [me], to take away my disgrace among men.”

The text reminds that Liz felt “disgrace” over being barren. The term “óneidos” means “defamed, reproached, censured, and even blamed”. Don’t you wonder what was behind that loaded word? In any case, “disgrace” is not a term you use for a happy feeling in an idyllic home. Liz was an embarrassed wife, and she was married to a disappointed husband. Her aging priestly husband prayed and prayed that God would give them a son – but God didn’t answer the way Zach wanted Him to respond. Zach wanted a baby – and so did God… but God’s plan was much bigger. It always is when God says “No!”

God never refuses to give you what you want because He is mean or doesn’t love you. He only refuses to give you what you want if it is too small for His plan for you. God wanted a “miracle baby” that would profoundly change the people’s hearts – beginning with the heart of his dad. Zach just wanted to feel normal. His request was far too small for God’s big plan.

Enter providence – the word that has been replaced in a pagan culture by “coincidence”… God was about to put “points on the score board”:

Luke 1:8 Now it happened [that] while he was performing his priestly service before God in the [appointed] order of his division, 9 according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering. 11 And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense.

The priestly job given to Zach was to represent the prayers of the people of God in the Temple. All Jerusalem awaited on the time of the incense to loft their prayers up to God. Ironically, the guy who felt the worst about prayer was given the task of representing the prayers of all. God not only noticed… He pre-planned the whole event to get Gabriel the angel into the room, and make clear what the next part of the plan would be for Zach and his wife… and the whole of the nation!

Gabriel related in Luke 1:12-17 that Zacharias’ wife would have a baby, that it would be a boy, and that Zach was to name the child “Yochanon”: (The Lord has been gracious). That baby was going to grow up, be used by God’s Spirit, and challenge the whole nation of Israel. He would come in the place and power of Elijah in announcing Messiah… This boy was going to be like a prophet of old….How exciting! Yet, the next words out of the mouth of the old priest showed like a clean window the jaded color of his heart… He asked for proof…

Luke 1:18 Zacharias said to the angel, “How will I know this [for certain]? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.”

Look carefully at what Zach said. Had they “thought” on a few occasions that Liz was pregnant, only to have that hope crushed? Besides, Zach was no fool. He knew his own age, and he knew his wife’s potential for having a child had long left… He knew what we all know when God wants to do something incredible….”WE CAN’T!”

We can’t make life from old bones. We can’t fight physics, aging or science. We are stuck with what is… unless God wants to re-write the script. What we forget is that God is not bound to the rules of the world – He is the Ruler of it all!

Stunned, Gabriel didn’t get it. Angels don’t really always know what to make of men. He came from Heaven, and brought his message… end of story. What kind of being doesn’t get that God can do whatever suits His plan? In two words, jaded believers. When you have asked and asked – and hurted with each rejection – you start to think God isn’t looking out for you at all. In those dark hours, it never occurs to you that God is the one that put you where you are, because He has a plan at work.

Luke 1:19 The angel answered and said to him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 “And behold, you shall be silent … 23 When the days of his priestly service were ended, he went back home.

The believer who cannot believe God needs to keep his mouth shut. He isn’t going to be obedient in proclamation, nor encouraging in delivery. He is going to whine and doubt – and that helps no one. God made it clear to everyone that He was at work – that God had spoken… and then God took Zach’s voice for a time – to get the point across to HIM before God used him to get it to anyone else. Zach wanted proof – and he got it. He was mute. Everyday he couldn’t speak he would recall that meeting with Gabriel wasn’t an apparition – it was an event. Then his mind would recall the message of that meeting. God was about to do something…

What I find interesting is that he went home to an encouraging, believing wife. She KNEW God was going to remove her disgrace long before her belly swelled. She heard and believed, anticipated and celebrated. He was quiet because the jaded heart was being recolored by a miraculous God.

Mary and Naïve Faith (Luke 1:26-56)

Move to the other main story of Luke 1 – that of the familiar meeting in Nazareth between Mary and Gabriel. The time for this lesson is tight, and the story familiar, so let us look at the high points to grab the main truth of this incredibly rich and cosmos changing event. The story can be broken into three parts:

• Gabriel’s announcement to Mary (Luke 1:26-38);
• Mary’s encouraging visit to Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-45);
• Mary’s song of celebration called the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46-56).

In the meeting story of Luke 1:26-38, we are dropped into the scene as Mary encounters the angelic messenger…

Luke 1:26 Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord [is] with you.”

Beyond the startled nature of the appearance, Gabriel explained that God was going to fill the womb of Mary with the One that was long promised. Messiah was to be born in her, as God had promised through prophetic voices of the Hebrew Scriptures…Look at Mary’s response:

Luke 1:34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God. 36 “And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. 37 “For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

Mary offered no doubt that God COULD do these things, only that she didn’t understand the mechanics. Was she being told to DO something? Gabriel was clear – she needn’t worry about the conception – God was handling that issue. She offered consent beautifully.

Now wait… this begins to sound like Zach was the old crusty and jaded priest, and Mary was the pure-minded, always obedient servant. That’s fine. It fits the flannel graph and matches the history of church art. Mary the pure, Zach the deficient…but is that REALLY FAIR?

Is it fair to say that Mary had not lived with snickers at the well like Elizabeth did? Is it fair to say that Zach had much more experience in trying to be encouraging to a humiliated life partner than Mary ever could have understood? My point is this: Mary quickly embraced God’s vision for her – but was far too naïve to really understand what pain she was buying into. Zach may have hesitated much more, but he had much more history behind him. Let’s not be so hasty to paint perfectly adorned togas on the good guys in the Biblical story. The jaded had the pains that left the cloudy marks on their heart.

Stop for a moment, and go to the pivotal character of the whole story – the woman that suffered pains but clung to her faith…

Elizabeth and Firm Faith (Luke 1:25,39-42)

Follow Mary to the meeting with Auntie Liz…

Luke 1:39 Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, 40 and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 And she cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed [are] you among women, and blessed [is] the fruit of your womb!

Listen to the sound of encouraging words that came from her mouth. Elizabeth was EXPERIENCING God’s interruption of grace in “real time”, when Mary stepped through the door. Before the Magnificat was sung, the senior believer, scarred with years of disgrace, was singing the celebration of a GOOD GOD!

Freeze the scene and remember what Elizabeth went through to get to that place in her heart.

1. Neighbor after neighbor celebrated their pregnancies with gifts from Elizabeth’s hands – but there was never any such celebration in Zach and Liz’s home.

2. Morning after morning Liz made her way with the other women to get water from the nearby spring for their daily needs. All the while as the women walked they talked, “How little Eli is growing” and “What to do about Miriam’s bed wetting”. Liz kept silent, and held back tears because God evidently didn’t think she needed… or worse… deserved children. The water she brought back in her pot was nothing compared to the tears that stained her face when she finally got back inside.

3. Month after month she begged God for a baby, but with each month’s passing, she felt both more helpless and more forgotten. Was Zacharias angry with her? Even if he didn’t SEEM like it, did he hold HER to blame inside?

Look at the way she handled the news that God heard her prayer:

Luke 1:24 After these days Elizabeth his wife became pregnant, and she kept herself in seclusion for five months, saying, 25 “This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when He looked [with favor] upon [me], to take away my disgrace among men.” Later, when Mary came, you hear her voice again…43 “And how has it [happened] to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? 44 “For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. 45 “And blessed [is] she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.”

Here is the Elizabeth picture sketched out:

• She knew pain, but still believed God was good, and would deal with her in grace.
• She knew the impossible was made possible when God decided to touch her body.
• She knew it wasn’t coincidence, because she took seriously the Word of God and the prophetic promises God made.
• She encouraged belief in Mary.
• She trusted that God was good, and that her rescue was because of His goodness.
• She refused to let the pain determine her view of God.

Let me ask you something…”Who are you most like in the story of Luke 1?” Are you working for God but deeply jaded because He isn’t doing things the way you want them to play out in your life? Are you anticipating great things, and just “don’t get” why some of those who have known God for a long time aren’t more enthusiastic and excited about what the Master is doing right now? Could it be that you may even be the one who has been tempered by God in trouble, and right now God is nudging you to get busy helping those around you see God’s faithfulness in spite of troubles.

Not everyone knows how to face pain and trouble – but God made some of us to help others figure it out…

One day a farmer’s donkey fell down into a well. The animal cried piteously for hours as the farmer tried to figure out what to do. Finally he decided the animal was old and the well needed to be covered up anyway; it just wasn’t worth the effort to retrieve the donkey. He invited all his neighbors to come over and help him. They all grabbed a shovel and began to shovel dirt into the well. At first, the donkey seemed to realize what was happening and cried horribly. Then to everyone’s amazement, the beast quieted down. A few shovel loads later the farmer finally looked down the well and was astonished at what he saw. With every shovel of dirt that hit his back, the donkey was doing something amazing! He would shake it off and take a step up. As the farmer’s neighbors continued to shovel dirt on top of the animal, he would shake it off and take a step up. Pretty soon, everyone was amazed as the donkey stepped up over the edge of the well and trotted off….There are a number of ways we can handle pain and trouble. It is easy to get discouraged and give up, or get angry and blow up, but if we really believe that God is in control, then we will look for a way to build our trust in Him to help us get through it His way.

Recognizing the True Hero

It is worth remembering that God’s deepest work can be done by the one who has the scar-riddled body, when that one refuses to allow scars to be torn open and become scabs. The hero among us isn’t the polished angelic messenger, nor the weathered and experienced believer – but the Faithful God each of the others represent before a lost world. He is the One guiding all of us through the journey. He has a purpose for every pain in the story He is telling – and we must trust Him through each hurt. He also has a place for the wounded – as comforted testimonies for those who come behind them. God uses the one who has been changed by the pain – provided that change has led the wounded into His arms. The story of the Bible isn’t about people who “figured life out” and “did the right thing”. The story of the Bible is about a God who wouldn’t leave broken people in the dark – and how He grabbed and holds them tightly.

Following His Footsteps: “Jesus is for Losers” – Matthew 1, Luke 1 and John 1

introducing_manToday I want to introduce the most important figure in my life. I first heard of Him as a child, but didn’t meet Him until I was in High School. He continues to be my friend, counselor and constant companion through each of the seasons of my life… but He is much more than even those words can describe. He is also my Master, my Sovereign, my King and my Lord. He has no equal – not in my life, and not in the cosmos. There truly is NONE like Him, and there is no real and lasting answer found in any other. I want you to meet Jesus, not just in this lesson, but in a whole series of what the Bible records about Him. I want to look at His life, not in bits, but rather as one story – one harmonized story of the Savior. That is what this new series of lessons is all about. That means, we will leave our normal “book study” method, and be looking at four presentations of Jesus – side by side – the four accounts we call the “Gospels”. In fact, I want to take you to three passages in this lesson – each expressing the beginnings Gospel accounts, and begin to unpack the story of Jesus.

Before I do, I have to admit something. I believe wholeheartedly that Jesus is for LOSERS. A careful study of what He said and did will reveal, I believe, that He did not come for the strong, but for the weak. He did not come for the self-satisfied, but for the bankrupt in spirit – struggling souls who know that they have shipwrecked their lives by their own choices. Those who feel they can navigate life without Him will choose to do so. Some will call them “arrogant”, but the Bible calls them simply “fools”. I am no fool, but I am a loser. I am not a loser because of what I was when I found Jesus – but rather because of what Jesus told me to DO as a result of knowing Him. I was called to LOSE… but more about that a bit later….

Jesus came to change us. He was an example – but that wasn’t His primary goal. He was a helper to the fallen and weakened, the social outcast and the religious flunkie – but that wasn’t His main purpose. Jesus came to wipe out the atonement system – the “kill a goat for God” and replace that whole system with permanent, complete and total justification. He came to set us free from sin – the Bible repeats the claim again and again. In His redemptive plan, He also came to challenge us to surrender to God our lives as He surrendered His for us. He came to move us from where we were when we met Him, to where He intended us to be – in His service. The opening verses of the Gospel accounts will help us see a truth very clearly…

Key Principle: Christianity isn’t merely a belief system, it is a movement. It requires more than mental assent to a list of facts; it requires deliberate opening of my heart to God’s transformation of my life.

The Gospel writers were very open about what they wanted to present. They offered a clear picture of Jesus, and desired to enlist a clear response. Here is the truth: the Biblical notion of faith requires surrender or it is neither faith nor Biblical. That is a fact historic believers recognized that seems to be obscured in our time. Let’s look at how the writers shared Jesus.

First, the record of Jesus was presented with a clear purpose:

Luke: 1:1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write [it] out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; 4 so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.

Our faith is built on a set of truths that were passed to us, and must be accepted (Luke 1:1-2a). Let it be clear to all who embrace the Bible and its message that our faith is defined by the text, and recorded by our earlier faith family.

Our faith came from eyewitness testimony that followed Jesus from the beginning of the story, not loose rumors and idle imaginings from centuries after the fact (Luke 1:2b). The Bible is clear, and a simple sample makes the demand clear:

• 2 Peter 1:16 says “For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of His majesty…21 “for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”

• 2 Tim. 3:16 “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness

Luke reminds us that our faith is rooted in an actual story that had both a progression of events, and evidence that these events were real (Luke 1:3). He was able to interview people, collect accounts, and gain evidences. He did his homework with a surrendered heart and the Spirit’s leading – and we have the product of his work.

Sir William Ramsay (15 March 1851 – 20 April 1939) was a Scottish scholar that undertook careful archaeological research to test the authenticity of the account of the Gospel of St. Luke. He began his work as a skeptic of the Bible, and was educated at the Universities of Aberdeen, Oxford and Gottingen, Exeter College, Oxford, and Lincoln College. In 1885 he was elevated to the position of Professor of Classical Art at Oxford, and in the next year Distinguished Professor of The Humanities at Aberdeen. He was immersed in the skeptical teaching that prevailed in his day, but forced himself to search for primary source materials and evidences that would lead him to a conclusion very unlike his peers of the day. After careful research, Ramsay astounded his fellows with the belief that the Gospel of Luke was actually written by Dr. Luke, and that it shared historically accurate information. After a time, Ramsay further concluded that the evidence he saw led him to believe the message of the Gospel of Luke – that Jesus WAS, in fact, the Messiah and Lord. He began his career as a mocker and skeptic, but closed his career as an ardent defender of the Gospel accounts.

Luke also made the point that our faith must be grasped from the text of the Scriptures, for they possess the exact truth about Who and what Jesus is (Luke 1:4). This isn’t a “I feel Jesus is this way” kind of faith. Our feelings are subject to the text – because it offers the true view of the Person of Jesus.

It is also worth noting that Luke made clear that our faith leads us to certainty about God and His work in us. Modern “scholarly mysticism” has made uncertainty into a “Zen-like” positivism – as if KNOWING makes one at least weak and at worst bigoted. It seems in the modern classroom, the only person considered a true scholar is the one who claims that “little or nothing can be truly known”. The Biblical message stands opposed to that sentiment. Note that Luke wrote that “you many know” (1:4) to a group of Jesus’ early followers. The purpose of the Gospels was not to offer a string of myths and pithy sayings that may or may not have come from the mouth of Jesus of Nazareth. The purpose of the Gospel record was to document the account and accurately record the history of a real man that walked on the earth, in order that believers would be able to fully grasp the model and meaning of Jesus’ life and work.

In times of trouble, fluffy feelings of camp Christianity won’t hold us together. In persecution, general musings about Jesus just simply won’t do. In times of searing pain, the weightless Hallmark Jesus won’t get us through the tears of the night. God offered SUBSTANCE in the “four windows into the life and work of Jesus” because He knew well that we would need carefully examined structures and principles that will help us when the world refuses the truth and the winds of culture turn coldly in the face of the Christian!

Jesus was truly introduced by the Gospel recorders with A CLEAR PURPOSE in their accounts, but that isn’t all… The record of Jesus was also presented with clear implications:

The record of Jesus MEANS SOMETHING. It isn’t simply the introduction to an ancient mythical hero like Achilles or Ulysses. This record is meant to CHANGE THOSE WHO ENGAGE IT. It forces us to look not only at the FACT of His coming, but the implications of that coming to the way that we conduct our lives. Take a few minutes to consider the ways Jesus was exposed in the narrative, and the implications will become quite clear.

First, Jesus came in the flesh, not as a simple mythical action figure of campfire stories. He is not “man idealized” as German skeptical scholars tried to cast. He came as a child into a real family, birthed from a real womb and suckled by a real woman. This tale was one of cold nights, uncomfortable journeys, near death traps, and nosy shepherds. It was the tale of a real child born into a real cave stable and warmly wrapped in cloth and placed in a pile of hay.

While we introduce Jesus in the records, we have to admit that there are TWO GENEALOGIES of Jesus presented by the evangelists – one in Matthew’s opening verses, and one in Luke 3:23 ff. Side by side, they offer some interesting and important opening notes about the record of the Savior that we don’t want to skip. Don’t flinch when you read the two accounts – Matthew and Luke – and find that they don’t agree. Remember, if the account were “doctored” by the church, every place the accounts didn’t match they would have been “edited” to do so. The fact that two genealogies are left in the text speaks to the veracity of the accounts. At the same time it begs the question: “Is one of them faulty?” Obviously, as one who believes in the historical veracity of the text, I would say a firm “No!” Yet, some explanation is necessary.

Look at Luke 3, and you will read a litany of unfamiliar names – all are offered to carefully demonstrate Jesus came as an Israelite child:

Luke 3:23b “….being, as was supposed, the son of Joseph, the son of Eli, 24 the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, the son of Melchi, the son of Jannai, the son of Joseph, 25 the son of Mattathias, the son of Amos, the son of Nahum, the son of Hesli, the son of Naggai, 26 the son of Maath, the son of Mattathias, the son of Semein, the son of Josech, the son of Joda, 27 the son of Joanan, the son of Rhesa, the son of Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel, the son of Neri, 28 the son of Melchi, the son of Addi, the son of Cosam, the son of Elmadam, the son of Er, 29 the son of Joshua, the son of Eliezer, the son of Jorim, the son of Matthat, the son of Levi, 30 the son of Simeon, the son of Judah, the son of Joseph, the son of Jonam, the son of Eliakim, 31 the son of Melea, the son of Menna, the son of Mattatha, the son of Nathan, the son of David, 32 the son of Jesse, the son of Obed, the son of Boaz, the son of Salmon, the son of Nahshon, 33 the son of Amminadab, the son of Admin, the son of Ram, the son of Hezron, the son of Perez, the son of Judah, 34the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the son of Terah, the son of Nahor, 35 the son of Serug, the son of Reu, the son of Peleg, the son of Heber, the son of Shelah, 36 the son of Cainan, the son of Arphaxad, the son of Shem, the son of Noah, the son of Lamech, 37 the son of Methuselah, the son of Enoch, the son of Jared, the son of Mahalaleel, the son of Cainan, 38 the son of Enosh, the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.

His lineage is presented in reverse order of history, moving backward from Jesus’ parent to Adam, summarizing generations. Three important observations are in order:

First, “son” in antiquity was used for “descendant” and could mean a direct son, or a grandson of any generation following the father. Therefore, Luke included forty-two names in the list, while Matthew only included twenty-six names – each are legitimate records of “son ship”. The fact that Matthew omits names can be cross checked in the passages in Kings and Chronicles easily.

Second, Luke makes the point that the genealogy is “unusual” in that Jesus’ legal father was not His actual father. Note the awkward wording of Luke 3:23 “being, as was supposed, the son of Joseph”. Clearly the genealogy, were it to be that of Joseph, had a “legal character”, but did not represent the “physical genealogy” of Jesus – for He will be clearly presented by the same author as “from the Holy Spirit” and not from the “seed from a man”. This led many church historians to believe (as I do) that this genealogy is that of Mary’s line, leading to her grandfather Eli. Early church historians recognized this possibility, though some of them (like Julius Africanus in about 240 CE) that perhaps both were of Joseph’s line – and Eli was Joseph’s legal father while Jacob was his physical father. Before we get lost in the detail of that view, let’s just simply say it this way… If Joseph’s mom married Eli, but he died without leaving an heir, Eli’s brother Jacob could have fathered a child in the place of his brother (what was called a Levirate marriage) to raise up the name of the dead brother Eli). It is nice to know that families were NEVER simple! Some early church historians thought this was the case, but I am not convinced.

Third, the simpler understanding may be that Luke presented the PHYSICAL line of Jesus through the line of Mary, while Matthew presented the LEGAL line of Jesus through Joseph – His LEGAL dad. The reasons for this view are carefully documented in Thomas and Gundry’s Harmony of the Gospel (pp. 316-317), and need not be dissected in this summary.

The bottom line of the two accounts is this: Jesus was a Jewish little boy, a son of the tribe of Judah, born through the womb of a young woman. Though conceived through a miraculous act of the Spirit, His birth was conventional and physical. This fact will be explained again and again in places like Hebrews and Galatians – because it is necessary to understand the story.

In Matthew’s account, the baby was not simply a Jewish child – but Jesus came as an heir to the Judah’s throne:

Matthew 1:1 The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham: 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers. 3 Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, Perez was the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram. 4 Ram was the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon. 5 Salmon was the father of Boaz by Rahab, Boaz was the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse. 6 Jesse was the father of David the king. David was the father of Solomon by Bathsheba who had been the wife of Uriah. 7 Solomon was the father of Rehoboam, Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asa. 8 Asa was the father of Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah. 9 Uzziah was the father of Jotham, Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah. 10 Hezekiah was the father of Manasseh, Manasseh the father of Amon, and Amon the father of Josiah. 11 Josiah became the father of Jeconiah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon. 12 After the deportation to Babylon: Jeconiah became the father of Shealtiel, and Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel. 13 Zerubbabel was the father of Abihud, Abihud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor. 14 Azor was the father of Zadok, Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud. 15 Eliud was the father of Eleazar, Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob. 16 Jacob was the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, by whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah. 17 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.

At least fifteen names off the Matthew’s list are easily identifiable as ancient kings of Judah. In the midst of the account, the claim was made three times that an even span of “fourteen generations” existed between Abraham and David, David and Babylon, and Babylon to Jesus – a claim that a modern student may find difficult because it is simply not true to the account of the Hebrew Scriptures. The issue was the indicative devise from first century numerology, common to the ancients, but lost in modernity.

In the ancient near east, much was made of the juxtaposition of names with their “numerical equivalents”. In Revelation 13:18 the “Antichrist” had a name that was numerologically determined as “666”. In Matthew, the name DAVID is the number fourteen – and the issue Matthew was driving at was that Jesus was of DAVIDIC ROYAL DESCENT. Matthew consciously chose the numerology and it was significant to early believers in Jesus, but the devise has been lost in modern generations.

Here is the point: Jesus came as KING. His was the position of RIGHTFUL SOVEREIGN – not a simple and humble teacher from the Galilee hills. He was a promised ruler, and will one day show exactly what that position means – but you must stay tuned for the Second Coming of Messiah.

Jesus came as an Israelite priest:

When we cited Luke 3, we skipped the first few words… Yet, in them is another piece of the story line…Note in Luke 3:23 the words: “When He began His ministry, Jesus Himself was about thirty years of age…”

Jesus began a “ministry” or “priestly work” when He was the age of inauguration of service for that purpose – age thirty (2:23). If He began His work at the time of a priest, could it be that His work was intended to be seen as priestly? Of course it can…

The point of all this information is this: Jesus was real child, born to a real mother, in a real village. He came as a promised king, and did the work of a Temple priest. All these truths have implications for how we respond to Him.

• If He is a King – I am not his equal.
• If I am His subject – than His desires and direction for my life are more significant that my own.
• If He came as man – than God literally poured Himself into the form of human flesh for my salvation – a fact that should stop me in my tracks. The God of Wonder, the Master of Heaven cares about my lost state, and wants me to know Him!
• If He came as a priest – I have One that can take me by the hand and lead me into God’s presence and full acceptance.

It is true there was a clear purpose in the story of Jesus, and that His positions have clear implications for us, but that is not all…The record of Jesus offers a clear portrait:

Look at the rich words of John’s introduction to Jesus. The text alternates between words about John and about Jesus. I am selecting out the verses dedicated to the introduction of the Savior in 1:1-5; 1:10-18

John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. 4 In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. 5 The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it…10 He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. 11 He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him. 12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, [even] to those who believe in His name, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. 14 And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 John testified about Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.'” 16 For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. 17 For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained [Him].

Look carefully at the portrait of Jesus, because John knew Him very well. John followed Jesus, sat in warm rooms and listened to the Master’s teaching for hours on end. He stood horrified at the Cross, watching his mentor breathe His last breath. He was qualified to offer a close-up view of Jesus… Here is what he carefully shared:

First, John said that Jesus already existed before the creation of the physical world with His Father – the Creator God. He was the Word (1:1,15) for He was the One that came “and dwelt with us” (in 1:14).

Second, John claimed that His Savior was the very CREATOR of all that existed (1:2-3). John was not unaware of Genesis 1, but rather agreed with Paul’s words to the Colossians 1:16: “For by Him all things were created, [both] in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities– all things have been created through Him and for Him. 17 He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” John even adds that ABSOLUTELY NOTHING exists that He didn’t create (1:3).

Third, John made the case that Jesus brought the light of truth to a deceived mankind, and that light burned their eyes.

Max Lucado tells the story about a tribe of people who lived in a dark, cold cave. The cave dwellers would huddle together and cry against the chill. Loud and long they wailed. It was all they did. It was all they knew to do. The sounds in the cave were mournful, but the people didn’t know it, for they had never known joy. The spirit in the cave was death, but the people didn’t know it, for they had never known life. But one day they heard a different voice. “I have heard your cries,” it announced. “I have felt your chill and seen your darkness. I have come to help you.” The cave people grew quiet. They had never heard this voice. Hope sounded strange to their ears. “How can we know you have come to help?” “Trust me,” he answered. “I have what you need.” The cave people peered through the darkness at the figure of the stranger. He was stacking something, then stooping and stacking more. “What are you doing?” one cried, nervously. The stranger didn’t answer. “What are you making?” another shouted even louder. There was still no response. “Tell us!” demanded a third. The visitor stood and spoke in the direction of the voices. “I have what you need.” With that he turned to the pile at his feet and lit it. Wood ignited, flames erupted, and light filled the cavern. The people turned away in fear. “Put it out!” they cried. “It hurts to see it.” “Light always hurts before it helps,” he answered. “Step closer. The pain will soon pass.” “Not I,” declared a voice. “Nor I,” agreed a second. “Only a fool would risk exposing his eyes to such light,” said another. The stranger stood next to the fire. “Would you prefer the darkness? Would you prefer the cold? Don’t consult your fears. Take a step of faith.” For a long time no one spoke. The people hovered in groups covering their eyes. The fire builder stood next to the fire. “It’s warm here,” he invited. “He’s right,” one from behind him announced. “It is warmer.” The stranger turned to see a figure slowly stepping toward the fire. “I can open my eyes now,” she proclaimed. “I can see.” “Come closer,” invited the fire builder. She did. She stepped into the ring of light. “It’s so warm!” She extended her hands and sighed as her chill began to pass. “Come everyone! Feel the warmth,” she invited. “Silence woman!” cried one of the cave dwellers. “Dare you lead us into your folly? Leave us. Leave us and take your light with you.” She turned to the stranger. “Why won’t they come?” “They choose the chill, for though it’s cold, it’s what they know. They’d rather be cold than to change.” “And live in the dark?” she asked. “And live in the dark,” he replied.

Now we return to our opening… we who are called to Jesus are called to be LOSERS. We LOSE our own vision, and grab the hand of the Master of light. We lose self-determination of our life’s course, and we allow Jesus to take the lead. We do it because He is our KING. We do it because He is our CREATOR. We do it because HE UNDERSTANDS what life here is all about. We do it because the record concerning Him is the TRUTH!

The world persists with the claim that we follow “cleverly devised myths”. Jesus was a fake and there is no God. When we die, there is nothing else. God is a creation of the human mind. A hapless accident caused the world you see, the heavens in their expanse. Planets spin and whirl according to no particular design. The delicate web of cells that make the flowers of the field such a wondrous beauty are a cosmic fluke. There is no plan. There is no future. Man is an animal among the evolved DNA strands of the universe… yet you should behave and try to find meaning. You should do things to benefit others. You should care about how poor and suffering people live. You should try to keep the planet green. We should advance the knowledge of the species. We should live well and seek a meaningful life where – we essentially agree – there is none. Why?

The unbeliever offers a sad picture, but without a personal experience with God it is not hard to understand. One cannot see God by looking at RELIGION. In fact, religion more illustrates man’s hard heart and ego filled soul than the goodness of God. In the name of religion wars rage across the planet. One cannot see God by looking at MORALITY and CONSCIENCE for these change with the tide of public opinion in the age. No, to really understand God, you must MEET Him and have His eyes pierce your heart.

I titled this message “Jesus is for Losers” and I meant just that. We who follow Jesus are called to “lose our life” to Him. We are called to recognize that this Jesus was shared with a clear purpose, with clear implications concerning His holy work. We possess a clear portrait – but none of that makes any difference unless it transforms who we are. Mental assent acknowledging the existence of God won’t change my destiny – deliberate surrender of my life choices to Jesus will. Why? Because…

Christianity isn’t merely a belief system, it is a movement. It requires more than mental assent to a list of facts; it requires deliberate opening of my heart to God’s transformation of my life.

The Christmas Journey (Part Two) “Men and Diapers” – Matthew 1 and Luke 2

men and diapI want to talk about something that is utterly politically incorrect, and I am concerned that I may get a reaction in my inbox over the next few days. I have a reasonable expectation that my contract (if I had one) would not be cancelled for expressing it, but let me soften any such response by warning you now, I am not suggesting everyone will agree with me, because my view has been tainted by my own flaws and experiences. Here it is… I don’t personally believe that men were given sufficient, instinctive, practical tools to be good at “lone parenting”. Based solely on the men I know up close, I think babies need the practical hand of a momma. I believe if my children were raised only by me, we would visit them in our memories – because they would not have made it through their first twenty years of life. I know, I know, perhaps my deficits are more pronounced than that of other single parent homes that have only a man raising a family. In practical terms, with my limited experience, I just cannot understand how a guy could really pull off parenting. I don’t have the skills for it, and haven’t met other men who really do either. Of course, there is always YouTube and Google. I didn’t check, but I suppose there is a page for “how to diaper a baby” on the net, complete with “pee-pee tee-pee” instructions for changing little boys. I can’t imagine the net missed that engaging bit or emerging demographic!

In my humble defense, I am not the only one who thinks the way I do. Pastor Kyle Meador wrote: “Again, there’s a great deal of Internet research and revisionist thinking going on about these characters in the Christmas story. Some of have suggested that things would have been considerably different if these wise men had actually instead been wise women. And things sure would have been different. If it had been ‘Wise Women’ instead of ‘Wise Men’, they would have asked for directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts from Baby’s-R-Us, including diapers, wipes, bibs and formula. But that’s an entirely different story…” (Sermon Central illustrations).

Do you see what I mean? Men just don’t seem, at least in our culture, as equipped to raise a child. For one thing, we lack the physical anatomy to feed a newborn without modern plastics… If you will permit me to suggest that we have such a lack, I want to gently propose that we view the story of several men in the text with both humor and honesty – but I ask you to be a bit understanding toward them. They are men, and trust me, most of us do “mean well”. Each of the men in the story of Jesus’ entrance to the world was in the midst of a growing and learning experience… and though my introduction to the subject has been light, Scripture never is. It engages our heart and transforms our thinking. So with a sober smile, let’s consider a truth…

Key Principle: Because men come from diverse perspectives, they each deal with Jesus differently. Yet, how they deal with Jesus changes the kind of men they become.

Herod: Selfish men use Jesus!

Ladies, I have a news flash: Some men are selfish. I know that comes as a shock! What is more, some of them have even made it to powerful positions, using their selfishness as an advantage in a society of “sheeple” that are often found following the tinsel and that loudest voice in the room. I want to introduce you to a man we know both from the Gospel accounts, as well as from ancient historians and archaeological finds. Meet King Herod called “the Great”. He appears in Matthew’s Gospel as follows:

Mt. 2:3 When Herod the king heard [this], he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet: 6 AND YOU, BETHLEHEM, LAND OF JUDAH, ARE BY NO MEANS LEAST AMONG THE LEADERS OF JUDAH; FOR OUT OF YOU SHALL COME FORTH A RULER WHO WILL SHEPHERD MY PEOPLE ISRAEL.'”7 Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. 8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found [Him], report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.

In the passage, it is clear that Herod was King of Judea, and that he ruled from Jerusalem (2:3). He was dealing with a group of eastern men who came searching for the new king, marked by the ascension of a newly noted “star” in the heavens. Herod had authority under Rome that allowed him to call a tribunal of the local Jewish leadership, according to the text (2:4) and to pose specific questions concerning their ancient traditions, mostly found in the Hebrew Scriptures. When posed with the query about a coming King, the report paraphrased the work of the prophets like Micah (see Micah 5:2, cp. Mt. 2:6).

herod coin with starFor those who know about the physical finds from archaeology that relate to Herod, you smile when you read this passage. The symbol probably most associated with Herod in antiquity was a star. In perhaps the earliest coinage minted to signal Herod’s rise to power, the obverse of the coin was embossed with a helmet beneath a star in 37 BCE. The star was a common Octavian/Augustan iconography, and appears as a symbol of “the deification of Caesar” by the Senate. Herod later adapted the star inside a diadem crown as his own symbol – or sometimes a star inside a dotted circle. Some scholars suggest the star was from the Numbers 24:5 Messianic symbolism, something Herod co-opted from the Hasmonean rulers (Alexander Janneus) and their kin that he supplanted. The bottom line is this: Herod used stars as a symbol of ruling, and having astronomers visit following a new rising version was unsettling to him and an attack on his public mythology. Coins were the ancient version of billboards in the Roman world, one of the simplest methods of spreading a message far and wide.

Herod accepted the magi as scholars. Though much has been written about them, I believe they were Jewish sages from Babylon, left with the majority when about 50,000 Jews returned to the land of Israel after the captivity. Skilled in astronomy (probably due in part to interaction with the Zoroastrians of that place) they sought God’s guidance from His handiwork in the heavens. That may not have been the best way to find truth then or now, but in the Scriptures God often used people’s flawed methods to speak into their lives. A star got them to Bethlehem. Before we knock it, remember it has taken two thousand years to get a reliable GPS unit to do the same thing! If God could direct Moses with a cloud, He could certainly direct some magi with a star… but this star had significance in the Roman world that it did not appear to have in the Parthian world – it signified “deity” as one who “meets my needs” as Caesar did, and as Herod wanted to be known. The star stung Herod, and his reaction was predictably political…

Matthew includes the “tongue in cheek” note that Herod claimed a desire to know where Jesus was, so that he could WORSHIP Him. Of course, this came from a man who killed even his own offspring that rivaled his throne – but that wasn’t an uncommon thing for men in his position in his day. In fact, nor was his desire to gain control over the “Jesus message” as quickly as possible. News flash: politicians that can MANIPULATE religious belief, USE it to control people and win their favor. They do it for fame, and they do it for favor. Ultimately they do it for CONTROL.

The problem is that Jesus is a STUBBORN SAVIOR. Heaven isn’t so easy to manipulate. God’s standing Heavenly army of millions cannot so easily fooled, so God sent a dream to make clear to the Magi that Herod was not being genuine. God’s messaging systems in the Bible may seem crude, but His ability to invade even the dreams of our sleep should challenge us to re-think what effect texting truly is! Matthew continued:

Mt. 2:16 Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the magi. 17 Then what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: 18 “A VOICE WAS HEARD IN RAMAH, WEEPING AND GREAT MOURNING, RACHEL WEEPING FOR HER CHILDREN; AND SHE REFUSED TO BE COMFORTED, BECAUSE THEY WERE NO MORE.”

When politicians cannot control Jesus’ message, they try to SHUT IT DOWN. The kingdoms of this world will become the Kingdoms of our Lord and of His Christ – but not until the kings of this earth do all they can to fight God for control. Men WANT to call the shots on their own destiny. If they cannot, they will pretend they control what they do not. They will preach about a world without a Creator, without a purpose, and without a destiny. Yet, in all of that, they will long for meaning that is more than about good meals, a few laughs, and aging fragile bodies. One hundred years here won’t be enough, because they have been designed for more. Selfish men use Jesus – and will stop at nothing to silence Him if He threatens their right to control…even though their “control” of anything is a temporary illusion.

Consider how pervasive sin and arrogance had become: On 11 May 2000, a lady found a new e-mail message on her computer, which simply said, “I love you”. It looked innocent enough, perhaps even a bit “romantic”. Like most of us would, in hopefulness she clicked to open the message, and the so-called “Love Bug” hit its first generation of unsuspecting recipients. With lightning speed it raced around the world, bringing politics and business to a halt in several countries. It was a deadly computer virus that caused millions of computer software programs to crash. It was only a one little, but it caused so much contamination. One violator cost millions to suffer… But it’s not the first time that a single virus has caused so much grief to mankind. In fact, it’s a kind of replay of a deadlier virus that hit Planet Earth more than six thousand years ago polluting the first human couple, Adam and Eve. Despite God’s warning not to click on to Satan’s message, they did so with appalling consequences for them and through them to all mankind. That virus is called “Sin”. (From A-Z Illustrations).

Shepherds: Simple Men seek and share Jesus!

Turn to Luke’s account of the night Jesus was born. The familiar story of the shepherds offers the setting for our next observation about the men of Christmas. Luke recorded:

Luke 2:8 In the same region there were [some] shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; 11 for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 “This [will be] a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” 15 When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds [began] saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. 17 When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.

The shepherd’s story is very familiar to most of us. Luke tells us several important details about the men:

They were men of the region surrounding Bethlehem, and on a night during the dry season they were “on the job” camping outside the city with their sheep tucked in a sheepfold. The sheep weren’t out in the field – that isn’t the right way to read the text. The men were outside town in the open areas of the wilderness of Judea nearby. It was night, and sheep don’t eat on the hills at night. The men were likely sitting beside a small cooking fire, in for the night.

The choir wasn’t immediate. First, there was an unexpected visitor appeared (2:9). Like the bush that was on fire before Moses, this visitor got their immediate attention because his appearance was bright – so they were frightened! They weren’t expecting anyone, and they knew this guy wasn’t a shepherd from the next hill over.

The messenger spoke words to comfort them: “Stop being afraid! I have great news!” (2:10) He proceeded to describe in detail the coming of Messiah as a baby, and even details as to the place in Bethlehem they should look for the baby (2:11-12). He told them: “You won’t find the baby in the front room of the home, nor in the middle room of the cave or upper chamber called the ‘kataluma’ – the family didn’t allow that. You will find the child wrapped in the birthing scraps and placed in a manger in the rear of the cave of the Bethlehem home.

Just before the Heavenly Guardians appeared above them, Luke slipped in the directive given to the men to search for the child. It is so subtle, you could almost miss it! The messenger said: “You will find Him…” In other words, I am telling you about this because I want you to do something about it. I want you to go looking for Him. I want you to see what an incredible GIFT God has given man… a SAVIOR! Why? What audience did Mary need on a night after giving birth? None! Yet, God knew there were others that needed verification that the baby was more than He appeared to be, and Mary and Joe’s story had more behind it than just his and her word.

They saw the child, but they saw Him as more than a child. They heard the Word of God concerning the baby – and that made all the difference!

How like them we are, when we who believe the Savior has come stand gazing back into that manger. We don’t see a helpless baby. We don’t see shepherds bowing. We don’t think of Magi and their strange gifts… we see God’s hand giving us what we need. We see a RESCUER coming to pull us from the sweeping tide of sin that we have been drowning in.

I don’t want to take a swipe at the world – I will speak for myself. I am a selfish man. On my knees before Jesus I have found myself to be more than flawed… I am depraved. In myself, if left without the gentle touch of Jesus, I find no good thing. I could kill. I could lie. I could cheat. I could wound those who I profess to love so dearly. Do you think the shepherds were somehow chosen because they were better than all others? I KNOW that is not the case. I know it because I was chosen too – to seek Jesus, and when I found Him to recognize what God’s Word said about Him – He is my rescuer… and I need one!

People who have no commitment to Jesus will simply view Him as a cute baby that came on a selfless quest. They will enjoy the season, and think nothing more about Him when the day is passed. Sure, He was a good man. Sure, He healed sick people, and probably was a pretty good guy to live next door to. Sure, He died believing He could make a difference. If they are CHURCHED, they may even believe He rose from the dead. Yet in all this, they will miss WHO HE IS. He is the RESCUER of man whose fist has been raised in angry mutiny against God.

“I am not like that!” Many will say. Yet they will not surrender their life to the Creator. They will not acknowledge His right to demand changes in their behavior. They want the baby Jesus – the MUTE Jesus. They would like just enough Jesus to fill a manger, but not enough to make them change their selfish lifestyle. The difference between the believer and the unbeliever is usually not whether they believe Jesus came as a baby, but whether He came as a RESCUER from mutiny and the Divine penalty of it. Simple men don’t try to out-think God, they believe what He said about Jesus.

Joseph: Surrendered men value Jesus!

At long last, in our saga about men and the baby Jesus, we come to Joseph – the man close to the center of the story. Here was a guy who truly desired to follow God, but wasn’t sure HOW with all the turns in the road. His story shows up in four segments in the Gospels:

Mt. 1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. 19 And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. 20 But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” 22 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “BEHOLD, THE VIRGIN SHALL BE WITH CHILD AND SHALL BEAR A SON, AND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL,” which translated means, “GOD WITH US.” 24 And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took [Mary] as his wife, 25 but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.

The time for the census called Joe and Mary back to their ancestral home in Bethlehem. They were “married” but hadn’t consummated the marriage, so it was called a “betrothal” – the last step left incomplete. Off they went from Nazareth. Luke 2 records:

Luke 2: 3 And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. 4 Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David,

They arrived at Joe’s family home, and I suspect because the story of the pregnancy was too much for this old Jewish family to believe, they put them in the cave at the back of the house. The baby was born. The shepherds visited and let them know what the angels told them. They presented Jesus at the Temple a week later. Anna and Simeon both prophesied over the child. Time passed. Men from the east arrived when Jesus was a toddler and gave the baby expensive gifts, then left. Matthew tells the story:

Mt. 2:13 Now when they had gone, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up! Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is going to search for the Child to destroy Him.” 14 So Joseph got up and took the Child and His mother while it was still night, and left for Egypt. 15 He remained there until the death of Herod. [This was] to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “OUT OF EGYPT I CALLED MY SON.

The toddler, his mom and Joe stayed outside the realm of Herod the Great’s reach. Bethlehem families probably wouldn’t have thought highly of them if they returned and told how they were warned to leave, but hadn’t told everyone else. The weeping daughters of Rachel would have been incensed. More time passed, and so do King Herod. His death and burial outside of Bethlehem at the mountain called the “Herodion” signaled to the angel to again invade the dreams of Joe’s sleep. Matthew records:

Mt. 2:19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, and said, 20 “Get up, take the Child and His mother, and go into the land of Israel; for those who sought the Child’s life are dead.” 21 So Joseph got up, took the Child and His mother, and came into the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Then after being warned [by God] in a dream, he left for the regions of Galilee, 23 and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. [This was] to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: “He shall be called a Nazarene.

Joe bounced around more than a ping-pong ball in the hand of God! Three times in the Gospel accounts God re-directed Joe by breaking into his life and revealing truth to him that he did not already know. Each one was an essential direction, and looking back – the reasoning for each one is clearer to US – than it was when Joe received it.

Joseph’s life reads like a textbook on “lessons in resting during God’s re-direction”. If you truly read these few verses carefully – you will be HIT with a lesson that will wallop you in life.

In Matthew 1:20, God opened the door to truth when Joe’s life map got derailed by a baby announcement. He acted within what he knew, and then needed God to direct him in what he did not know. The first dream came in the backdrop of a deep interpersonal confusion. Joseph committed to marry Mary, but she appeared to be unfaithful.

If you pull aside Joe in Heaven someday, I suspect he would tell you that a BIG LESSON in his life was this: “I must understand that God can move in my life in a way that makes no sense to me at that time.” This is part of His Divine Prerogative. He is entitled as my Creator and my Master to do this, and we must not be surprised by this work. After all, isn’t the Bible filled with stories that make this truth obvious?

• Didn’t God push Noah into a building project that made little sense apart from God’s direction?
• Didn’t God lay out a “hard to believe” family expansion for an aging Abraham and Sarah?
• Wasn’t God’s call from the burning bush – a call for Moses, dressed as a Midianite shepherd to stand before a powerful prince – one that seemed mistimed and a wrongly cast part?
• Don’t you wonder if David felt uncertain about God’s protection when the bear appeared to take a young lamb? He didn’t know he was in combat training for giant slaying.

How long will it take for us to recognize that God’s call in our lives is to follow Him, not to figure Him out?

Over and over again, Joe learned a hard lesson…How we respond when we have been disappointed by another’s behavior, or even when we think we have been wronged is a water mark of our real maturity. When Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant (likely she told him after the visit of Gabriel recorded in Luke 1:26-38), any one of us would likely have backed Joe up if he stormed out angrily and slammed the door – and we would have been wrong. Who couldn’t understand that reaction? What friend, hurt for Joe, wouldn’t have consoled him that such an outburst was both normal and justified. The only problem is that our understanding would have blocked God’s lesson in Joe’s life. God didn’t pick a short-fused man – He seldom does for the delicate task. A godly person is patient, circumspect and gentle – they are not vindictive when wounded – no matter how deeply.

The bottom line on Joseph’s Christmas lesson was this: God works best with instruments that won’t wrestle Him for control, but will follow His lead. Uncooperative tools don’t get often used.

So let me ask you men: How are you doing in the SURRENDER department? Is God in charge of what you watch, what you listen to, what you laugh at, what you drink and how much, what you eat and how much? I am not asking you to BIND YOU TO LAWS AND LISTS, but to prompt you to the inner nudges of God’s Spirit in regards to your yielded-ness to Him.

You see, it it true… Because men come from diverse perspectives, they each deal with Jesus differently. How they deal with Jesus changes the kind of men they become.

Before I close, I want to mention ONE OTHER DAD – but it is not a fair comparison – for He is no MERE MAN. I want you to think about what the Father in Heaven passed through as He allowed His Son to become a baby, and deal with man’s depravity by a horrible death payment. The best way for me to explain Him, and to describe His love for you might be to end with a story…

Jeannette George tells a story about an experience she had on a short flight from Tucson to Phoenix. Across the aisle from her sat a young woman and her baby, both dressed in white pinafores. The baby had a little pink bow where there would eventually be hair. The mother was smiling, as the baby kept saying “Dada, Dada,” every time someone walked down the aisle. The mother said Daddy was waiting for them after they had been gone for a few days. She was so adorable – quiet – that all passengers enjoyed watching her. Unfortunately, there was a lot of turbulence, making the flight extremely rough, which of course was hard on the baby. But the mother had some fruit and a little Thermos with orange juice in it. Every time the baby cried the mother fed her a little bit more orange juice and a little more fruit. While this seemed like a good idea at the time, the turbulence seemed to spread from the air around the plane right down to that baby’s gastro-intestinal system, and pretty much all of the fruit that had gone down came up. However, the process of coming up was considerably messier than the process of going down had been. It also seemed to have increased in volume tremendously between the going down and the coming up, so that not only were the baby and the mother pretty much covered in it, but so were most of the passengers within a significant radius of the baby, [including Jeanette George, who was telling the story.] Fortunately for the mortified mother, all of the passengers were gracious and tried to help her and tell her it was OK. After all what could she do about it?? The baby was crying, and she looked awful. Even though they didn’t cry, her fellow passengers looked – and smelled – pretty awful, too. The mother was so sorry about it. As soon as they landed, the baby was fine and returned to calling: “Dada, Dada.” The rest of the passengers didn’t recover quite so quickly, being covered as they were in pre-digested fruit. Ms. George said, “I had on a suit, and I was trying to decide whether to burn it or just cut off the sleeve. It was really bad.” Waiting for the plane was a young man who had to be “Dada.” He was wearing white slacks, a white shirt, and he carried white flowers. Now what do you think that clean Daddy all dressed in white did when he saw his baby who had that sticky, smelly stuff all over her clothes and her face and her hair? He ran to the young mother, who handed the baby over pretty quickly so she could go get cleaned up. That Daddy picked up that baby, and he hugged her and he kissed her and he stroked her hair. As he held her close, he said, “Daddy’s baby’s come home. Daddy’s baby’s come home.” All the way to the luggage claim area, he never stopped kissing that baby and welcoming her back home. Ms. George thought, Where did I ever get the idea that my Father God is less loving than a young daddy in white slacks and white shirt with white flowers in his hand? [Jeannette Clift George, “Belonging and Becoming,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 93. Taken from sermoncentral.com]

My Father in Heaven loves me, and He sent me His Son to prove it. His Son rescued me, and I will ever be grateful!

The Christmas Journey (Part One) “A Young Woman Meets God” – Luke 1

celebrityHave you ever gotten the chance to meet a celebrity? Have you ever bumped into someone that you thought might be a TV personality? You watch them at a distance, too timid to ask, but you are just sure “it is them”! One of the most vivid images of my youth was a time I was watching a black and white television set, and viewing a group of teenagers inundating the singing group, the “Beatles”. People were screaming as though the building was on fire, and some even passed out as they passed by! Meeting celebrities must be an experience that some are overcome by!

Today, we want to share a story about a celebrity meeting of the strangest and most fantastic kind. It comes from the beginning of the New Testament, from the Gospel according to Luke, beginning in the first chapter of that story. It strikes me that each of the four Gospel accounts open differently, but they all do exactly the same thing – tell the story of how God put on human skin and met a variety of people among His creation. He went about doing good, but brought out the barbarism and inhumanity that came as a byproduct of the Fall in the Garden of Eden. In this lesson, we want to focus on the one human being that He knew most intimately of all in human history – the young woman who carried Messiah in her womb. Her story doesn’t begin exactly like any other, for no one on the planet would ever experience God the way she did. Yet, the meeting between her and Jesus, in other ways, is very similar to the ways we all meet Jesus. Not only that, but her life journey is not dissimilar to ours.

Key Principle: Our walk with God is a journey, each step defined and explained by God’s Word.

Think of it this way. Our journey with the Savior usually takes place in six stages:

First, we meet someone who is a messenger of Jesus. They show love and a stability that is uncommon. We are attracted by the nudging of God’s Spirit, though we don’t know that is what it is that drives us to look more closely. They are our burning bush, and we must draw closer to see what empowers them. We call that PRE-EVANGELISM.

Second, we hear words that don’t initially sound familiar to us. They speak of God’s love and favor for us, and we want to believe that it is so – He Who created us truly DOES care. We don’t want to live life without Him, and the enveloping of His love. We call this our GOSPEL ENCOUNTER.

Third, His messenger makes clear what He wants – surrender. God never invites us into His Kingdom on our terms. We need not pay to enter, but we must stop resisting His right to be the King. God isn’t hoarding rebels for Heaven, but refugees. We must recognize His Sovereign right to rule – not only the universe – but our lives. We call this the POINT OF DECISION.

Fourth, we respond by yielding to Him. We see His care as a GOOD thing, and His rule as a POWERFUL lifting up of our broken lives to restore us. We call this practicing FIRST STEPS as disciples.

Fifth, we learn to celebrate His work in us. We enjoy praise, and we exalt in His use of our body, life and choices. We learn to stop clinging to controls and enjoy when He does through us what we could never do alone! We call this growing in WORSHIP.

Sixth, we let Him lead us through the hard times, and trust that He knows what He is doing. As the path of life unfolds, we learn that God’s plan for us isn’t always sweetness and light, but includes His patience toward evil and allowance of pain. Hard experiences befall our lives and those around us, but we learn to lean and to trust in the face of it all – until we are gathered in His arms at the end of our days. We call this THE CHRISTIAN LIFE.

Let’s look at the journey of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and compare it to the stages of our own journey with Jesus.

I recognize that our walk won’t be exactly the same. Mary delivered a baby that grew up and delivered her from sin. She tenderly counted the fingers of hands that would one day feel the pain of nails piercing them for our transgressions. At the same time – not everything was so unusual… Remember the first stage of meeting Jesus in YOUR LIFE? For most of us it is like that of Mary – it began when we met someone who was a messenger of Jesus. Before we could hear the Gospel, we needed to see the love of someone who KNEW GOD WELL. God’s Spirit pricked our hearts with the reality that we were encountering someone with an answer to nagging questions that we couldn’t shake – “Why are we here? Does life have a purpose? Can I know what that purpose truly is?” These are the moments drawing us to Jesus and His message, and it is a time called PRE-EVANGELISM.

First, the pre-evangelism: Meet a young woman living in a small, poor village in the Galilee.

Let’s look at the example from Mary’s life. The description of Dr. Luke from his writing is small, but rich:

Luke 1:26 Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord [is] with you.” 29 But she was very perplexed at [this] statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was.

The text helps us understand the young woman, and her walk in life. We learn four important factors that help explain the story, and “add meat to the bones” of the account.

Mary was a virgin (1:26-27). Her experience with a man was limited to a distant glance. She wasn’t naïve, because the agricultural life of a villager of the time was openly exposed to biological processes – as those who grow up on a farm can attest. The process of bearing a child was no mystery to her – it was a future hope when the time was right according to God’s law. Because of the day in which we live, perhaps we should also make clear that she was not feeling “left behind” other “more adult women” of her day. She looked forward to the opportunity to raise children – as women of the period, like her cousin Elizabeth did. Bearing a child was one of the highest stations for a woman in the Bible. It was not a quaint decision of a woman who “couldn’t qualify” for the rigors of the working world. It WAS her significant dream of work – and she longed to perform the work of bearing and raising a child.

Mary was engaged (1:27). In Mary’s case, it just wasn’t time yet for bearing a child. She understood the Biblical pattern: marriage commitment, then family blessing. She required a man to leave his father and mother and bring her to his own built and established home – so that he could become her husband. She was close to having the longing for a child fulfilled in her, and probably anxious about many things. What kind of husband would Joseph be? Would she bear him healthy children? In a world of high infant mortality rates and high rate of mortality among child bearing women – they faced this joy with a much greater concern for their own strength. Many women died in childbirth – something that we have thankfully almost forgotten. Let me suggest that she was excited, but also probably somewhat apprehensive.

Mary was favored by God (1:28). Like children of believing families through the ages, she had always heard about “the things of the Lord” from as far back as she could recall. One of her earliest memories was likely drawn from a Biblically commanded feast, with the joy of her family gathered near. She knew simple village life in the Galilee, surrounded by families of religious Jews that viewed the passing Gentile caravans from a distance. The messenger told her of God’s favor on her life, and she heard with JOY that her Creator was not a STRANGER.

I cannot let the opportunity pass when I read the words of verse 28. Do you recall when you first heard that God truly loves you? I don’t think there is ANY MESSAGE in the world more important to hear and grasp. Without understanding God’s love, we have no basis for eternal hope. As a thoroughly depraved individual, it is hard for me to grasp how God could love me, care for me, and WANT a relationship with me. That message puzzled Mary, and it still puzzles me.

It still doesn’t often get the headlines in the news of the church, either. We are fast becoming a people driven by the latest outrage – and wrestling with our response to it. We forget the most amazing truth is still ours – the Creator loves us. He KNOWS us. He NOTICES our life. While pausing the story, let me take a step even further from the ancient world into our world. We not only FORGET God’s love – we forget to communicate it.

Bret Trotman shared a selection from Soul Talk, by Dr. Larry Crabb a few years ago: “”Which is worse? A church program to build community that doesn’t get off the ground or one person sitting every Sunday in the back of the church who remains unknown? A Sunday school class that once drew hundreds but has now dwindled to thirty or a Sunday school teacher whose sense of failure is never explored by a caring friend? A family torn apart by the father’s drinking, his wife’s frustration, and their third grader’s learning disabilities or a self-hating dad, a terrified mom, and a lonely little boy, three human beings whose beauty and value no one ever discovers? A national campaign that fails to gain steam for the pro-life movement or a single woman on her way home from an abortion clinic in the backseat of a taxi, a woman whose soul no one ever touches?” We may notice the unknown pew sitter, we may wonder how the teacher of the now small class feels, we may worry over each member of the torn-up family, and we may feel for the guilt and pain of a woman who has ended her baby’s life. But we do what’s easier. We design programs, we brainstorm ways to build attendance, and in our outrage over divorce statistics and abortion numbers we fight for family values. These are all good things, but [NOT WHEN] we don’t TALK to the pew sitter; or ASK the teacher how he’s feeling; or INVITE the dad to play golf, or take the woman to lunch, or invite the little boy to play with our children; or let the young woman know we CARE about her soul….That response to hurting people, I would label disunity. Disunity is not just fighting over personal preferences. It’s not just leaving the church because someone hurt your feelings. It’s not just gossip that tears down other members of the body. It’s leaving needs unmet. It’s failing to love people the way God would have us love. Unity is lived out in caring concern for others.” (From sermon central illustrations, adapted).

Mary didn’t expect special things from God (1:29). Go back to Mary’s inner turmoil concerning the angel in verse 29. The text reminds: “But she was very perplexed at [this] statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was.” She may not have been a “woman of the world” with extensive social interaction, but she never heard anyone offer a greeting like this one. I suspect it was because the message was so hard to grasp. You see, Mary possessed no spirit of entitlement. She didn’t think of herself and anything special. She did right, and she was happy to do it – but she didn’t think that was particularly rare. On occasion, someone will do an uncommon act and be thrust in the “public eye”. I can think of numerous examples. The ones I draw particular JOY from are the ones where the recognized person offers some variety of saying like: “Hero? I am no hero. I was just doing what I hope anyone would in this situation!” That was Mary. She lived her life well, but didn’t expect a special reward or recognition for doing the decent thing.

Mary was met by a stranger that carried a message from God. The words were loving, and the messenger communicated clearly, and with grace. Don’t forget that is ALWAYS how the love of God and the saving message of Jesus moves out. People know YOU before they know the Jesus you serve. Be the example of a believer, and you will do the work of leading others closer to Jesus with your life. Pre-evangelism is about showing genuine love to another – not to win them to Jesus – but because Jesus made them. They aren’t an agenda or a ministry – they are a human being and as such deserve love, care and compassion.

Second, the Gospel Encounter: Watch Mary engage the strange messenger.

As Mary listened, the messenger took the next step in the encounter – the presentation of the Gospel. Jesus and His salvation was being presented to Mary. The GOOD NEWS of the Rescuer was as startling to Mary as it was when it was presented to you and I. Listen to her GOSPEL ENCOUNTER:

Luke 1:30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. 31 “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. 32 “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; 33 and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” 34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God. 36 “And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. 37 “For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Mary felt apprehensive about flattery (1:30). Notice that Mary was afraid. I suspect that some of the fear was wrapped up in her query about the identity of the messenger. Part of the fear probably related to the unexpected message that God favored her. Part of the apprehension was likely related to the embarrassment to being so directly congratulated when she didn’t feel particularly deserving of such a compliment.

The message was not unknown – but seemed misplaced (1:31-33). Unless Mary’s family hadn’t told her ANYTHING about their faith – she knew about the promise of the coming King to redeem the Jewish people from their sorry state. When you look closely at the verses, some of the promises of the King were enumerated:

He will be called “Savior” or “Rescuer”. He was the fulfillment of God’s promise in Genesis 3:15 to crush the head of the enemy through the womb of the woman. “And I will put enmity Between you and the woman, And between your seed and her seed; He shall bruise you on the head, And you shall bruise him on the heel.”

He will be exalted. The “greatness” is likely a reference to Isaiah 9:6-7, as in being distinguished in power and wisdom. 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.”

He will be called the Son of the Most High God. The one who started that rumored title from Gabriel’s mouth, later fueled it from Heaven when in Mt. 3:17 God said: “and behold, a voice out of the heavens said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.”

He will sit on David’s throne. The promise to David was a perpetual inheritor if the kings followed God, as in 1 Kings 2: [Do these things] 4 “and that the Lord may keep his promise to me: ‘If your descendants watch how they live, and if they walk faithfully before me with all their heart and soul, you will never fail to have a successor on the throne of Israel.’”.

He will have an unending dynasty that restores the household of David in Judah. This sounds like the reference of Isaiah 9:7 “Of the greatness 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.”

Mary wasn’t mystified by the promises – she knew them. What was a mystery to her was clear by what came out of her mouth next…

The method was a puzzle (1:34-37).

In Luke 1:34 it records: “Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” There isn’t anyone who would have heard this and WOULDN’T have had this question. It is reasonable, logical and necessary for Mary to have an understanding. She wasn’t resisting the WHAT of the message of God, she was questioning the HOW of that message.

Third, the Decision Point: Mary gave God her life.

The stunning point of the narrative is that this young woman named Mary appears to have already decided that God’s message was FINE WITH HER. The messenger made clear what God wanted – surrender of her body for God’s use. The angel explained that God’s Holy Spirit would come upon her, and that she would be with child without any human agency. God offered both a TRUTH, and the EVIDENCE to back it up. The simple TRUTH was this: This wasn’t hard for God. The evidence was that even her old auntie Liz was in her sixth month with child.

The fact is that God wants to be able to use us, our bodies, our hands, our feet, our choices, our lives. He invites us to surrender them to both His care and His use. We must remember it again and again: God never invites us into His Kingdom on our terms. Though entrance to eternal life has been fully paid by Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary, we cannot come into a right relationship with Him while resisting His right to be the King, and insisting on our own way. God isn’t hoarding rebels for Heaven, but refugees. God calls people who AREN’T MAKING TERMS, aren’t justifying their desires and making them equal to His Word… God calls people to a POINT OF DECISION about HIS SOVEREIGN RIGHT to rule their lives, change their nation, make or break their reputation, endanger their most treasured relationships, cause people around them to doubt their integrity… ALL OF THAT.

Why do we think God cannot call His church into a time of persecution and struggle? Is He not the same God Who called Mary into a position of public disgrace?

Yet, look at her response, because it is touching…

Luke 1:38 And Mary said, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

Mary saw herself as a SLAVE of the Most High. There was no arrogance, nor any talk of her personal rights. There was no dispute over God’s plan and her plan. His plan was the ONLY plan she wanted. Her response was simple, precious, difficult, painful obedience – I am God’s to use as He will. There is the whole struggle from the Garden in a nutshell. God sets the parameters, I live in them and serve His purpose. Adam and Eve wouldn’t… and people wouldn’t today without the intervention of God in their lives. How offensive is this truth of surrender to the modern mind! How degrading to be used in the thoughts of our lost friend. They cannot imagine the appeal of this to those whose heart beats to serve our Savior. We sing of surrender! We ask ourselves, what higher use for a man or woman is there than to be a precious tool in the hands of the Magnificent Creator? Mary KNEW IT. She understood the impulse to surrender.

Fourth, her Initial Steps begin: Mary learns from a mentor and friend.

No sooner had she surrendered to God’s call, when she began her FIRST STEPS as a follower of God. Do you remember that time! You had MUCH ZEAL but LITTLE KNOWLEDGE. Off she went on a quest to visit her auntie Liz, and see the miracle of the barren woman now growing with a child within.

Luke 1:39 Now at this time Mary arose and went in a hurry to the hill country, to a city of Judah, 40 and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 And she cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed [are] you among women, and blessed [is] the fruit of your womb! 43 “And how has it [happened] to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? 44 “For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy. 45 “And blessed [is] she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what had been spoken to her by the Lord.

Did you ever wonder WHY this trip is recorded? Do you think it was simply to tell the story of John’s womb flipping worship? Let me bother you with a thought. Where could a young woman who was unmarried travel ALONE? The best answer I can offer is “Nowhere!” What if she WAS NOT ALONE on the journey? What if she had company with her for this encounter? Could the story have helped settle her reputation in the family when another observer reported that she met Auntie Liz and heard the prophetic voice of the older woman exclaim the child within Mary to be exactly what Mary reported to her family – a child from God begotten by the Spirit?

Scripture says that Elizabeth greeted her and the Spirit empowered her voice. She told Mary:

• You are blessed and so is the One inside you!
• I am humbled at your visit and the baby within me is excited!
• You have done right to listen to the Lord’s message.

Liz knew that what Mary was doing was not easy. She learned about shame the hard way – through YEARS of celebrating the births of OTHER WOMEN’S CHILDREN. Her prayers and longings went UNANSWERED through her whole naturally fertile life – and THEN God acted. Then God heard her cries in the night. Mary did right by going to her home and hearing from her lessons. We need that kind of support to grow up in the faith.

Fifth, Praise rises: Mary shares a heart of worship!

I cannot do justice to “The Magnificat” – the celebration that poured out of Mary when she was encouraged by the words of Auntie Liz. I can only say that believers that surrender and begin to grow, learn the JOY of WORSHIP. Mary answered Liz with a beautiful reply:

Luke 1:46 And Mary said: “My soul exalts the Lord, 47 And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. 48 “For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave; For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. 49 “For the Mighty One has done great things for me; And holy is His name. 50 “AND HIS MERCY IS UPON GENERATION AFTER GENERATION TOWARD THOSE WHO FEAR HIM. 51 “He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered [those who were] proud in the thoughts of their heart. 52 “He has brought down rulers from [their] thrones, And has exalted those who were humble. 53 “HE HAS FILLED THE HUNGRY WITH GOOD THINGS; And sent away the rich empty-handed. 54 “He has given help to Israel His servant, In remembrance of His mercy, 55 As He spoke to our fathers, To Abraham and his descendants forever.” 56 And Mary stayed with her about three months, and [then] returned to her home.

So much more should be said about that song, but we must move swiftly to the final stage of her encounter with God in her life… for it is the one that many of us are living in right now…

Sixth, the Christian Walk is traveled: Mary followed God’s plan for her.

God lead her through the hard times, and she continually learned to trust that God knows what He is doing. The path of life unfolded, and this CHRISTIAN LIFE brought joy, but also pain. It brought satisfaction, but did not eliminate uncertainty. There was an uncomfortable journey to a less than receptive extended family for an uncomfortable birth.

Luke 2:1 Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. 2 This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. 4 Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, 5 in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. 6 While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

There was the strangeness of visitors and their kind but unusual words…

Luke 2:17 When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. 19 But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.

There were the hours of watching the baby breathe, of counting the little fingers and toes, of checking skin temperature and bundling to keep Him warm in the cold. Think about what she pondered…

• Did she wonder if those were the hands of a King?

• Did she recognize as she taught the boy to speak that He was the very Word of God?

• Did she wipe the tears from a little boys eyes and blood from his skinned knee and really know the preciousness of the blood she dabbed?

• Did she comb his hair and know that it would shine brightly one day when He sat again sit enthroned above the angels, with myriads shouting His name?

• Did she know as she weaved a tunic for her child that He would one day wear the white linen of Heaven?

• Did she scrub his little body knowing that she would do so to bury Him later… and wash His feet, and know how hard His journey would be, and how excruciating the nails would be that one day were destined to pierce Him?

She would SEE His painful sacrifice. The Gospels record that she was not spared this horror…

John 19:23 Then the soldiers, when they had crucified Jesus, took His outer garments and made four parts, … 25 …. But standing by the cross of Jesus were His mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. 26 When Jesus then saw His mother, and the disciple whom He loved standing nearby, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold, your son!”

Her life of following God didn’t insulate her from PAIN, LOSS and HEARTBREAK. It did help her to rest in God’s hands when life’s crushing blows would have beat her down. Mary saw her Son doing what she had done long before…Surrendering a body to God’s use to fulfill God’s plan.

She knew what she needed to know in order to remain strong… Our walk with God is a journey, each step defined and explained by God’s Word. Nothing else would have held her together, because nothing else was as powerful.