Long ago someone made the astute observation that “Climbing the ladder of success only works if your ladder is leaning on the right wall.” That’s true How many people have lived out the wrong goals and have given themselves to a struggle that won’t help them get, in the end, what they most wanted from life? Far too many, I suppose. Charles Dickens saw it.
In fact, every Christmas I am able, I make it a point to watch Ebenezer Scrooge learn that lesson again. Dear old “Jacob Marley” warned him that misery comes to one who lives for the wrong dream. Let me ask a question then: “What is the RIGHT DREAM?” What purpose of life is truly worth pursuing?
Strange as it seems, the Bible’s answer can be clearly seen in the story of a young woman, set in the first Christmas season. She learned a lesson so profound and so important – it is well worth rehearsing every year at this time. Mary, the mother of Jesus, learned this truth according to the Gospels…
Key Principle: Life isn’t about God fulfilling our dreams; it is about discovering and fulfilling God’s purpose for us.
If you don’t know the God of the Bible, that is a hard truth to hear. If you do, it is a thrilling prospect. I was created for something great, something beyond my own dreams and ideas. I was created for His story! That is at the heart of the story of Jesus’ coming to earth. He came to pluck us from the evil one in a hostile takeover, soul by soul, back to our Creator’s story.
Christmas, of course, is a story about a birth, but it is also a story about a “God interruption” of a cast of characters caught in an invasion from the Heavens; and a story of interrupting one young girl’s life in particular. Though the tale is set in a place on the other side of the globe and in a time long past, Christmas isn’t simply a story of “a long ago and faraway land filled with mythical characters”. This is a sober story about the struggles of real people, each facing a turn in the road they didn’t expect. Every one of the key characters met God by surprise, and Mary was no exception..
The talented singer Nicole Nordeman made that point as she stared at a Nativity scene of small figures and sang words to remind us of Mary’s interruption in her song entitled “Real”:
“Frozen statues in the cold, washed in moonlight, blue and gold. Mary’s babe in plastic hay, quiet wonder on her face… Mary you look so serene, far too pretty; much too clean! We might think we know you well, but what stories would you tell… Of all the dirt and dust and shame, with your body, burning labor pain? And as I turn to walk away, I hear you say: “I am real! Don’t turn me into memory or myth. Let me be real, real…And I’ll show you what it means to love like this, to be real.”
The artist wanted to draw us back to the story of REAL people. Let’s do that! Let’s see the story again – sitting in the little village long ago, and following Mary from an angelic announcement to her baby’s delivery in her ancestral home of Bethlehem a distance away…
Let’s begin our journey in our mind’s eye back some two thousand years, to the un-walled and unevenly sloped village of Nazareth in the Galilee. From archaeology, we know the lower homes of the town included a number of tiny “cave style” homes that were built against the slope covering natural grottos and caves. Each tiny hovel closed over the cave and had a small rock half-wall projecting from the home’s entrance which acted as an outdoor pen for a few goats or sheep. The small area was closed in, and in a few there were a few plants of spices and herbs in small pots that could provide additional flavor to the family’s meals.
If you sat outside the houses, some gnarled olive trees grew out of the chalky soil and offered a bit of shade near the houses, but not much. Beside the terraces of the main village, a flowing spring ran southward into a valley a few hundred feet north of the village’s edge. Some water was collected in settling pools that sat beside the few terraces that shared space between fig and olive trees, a pathway for shepherds and some meager barley fields.
This was likely a town of the Galilee region with mostly poor folks. They may not have had the resources to build aqueducts to bring water close (as their city neighbors in nearby Sepphorus had done). There appear to have been a few of the families on the crest of a hill that were people of means, but on the whole, this town required its women to get water each morning, with a jug perched upon the head of each of the women of the village. As best we know, Nazareth was not more than a few dozen families, but was large enough to have the requisite ten “heads of households” (a minyan) to have local synagogue prayers. At least one chalky road wound into town from the large valley of Jezreel to the south and continued north of the village to connect Nazareth to the villages of Cana and Capernaum further north and east, as well as the larger Galilean cities of Sepphorus (to the northwest that was still under reconstruction) and Ptolemais by the coast.
We do not know what time of the year it was, but the Bible says that an angel appeared to a young unmarried virgin girl in that village, named Miriam. She was quite young, no doubt, but old enough to have gained a reputation of integrity and tender mercy that reached past the doorstep of the Heavenly palace. She was no one of consequence in her world – that is, until God came knocking and gave her a call that would change all of us!
Consider the way Dr. Luke shared her story:
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. 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.” 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.
Sketch it out in brief. A young woman was busy living a life of integrity, and God interrupted her to show her something HE wanted to accomplish through her. Can you see it? For a follower of God, this is thrilling. For a stranger to God, this is terrifying. Let’s look at how the story reflects a woman who understood the truth about a life worth living…
A God of Invitation
Go back to the beginning. Mary had a dream about her life, as most young women do. She thought she knew what she wanted, and she thought she was on the way to getting it. God’s angel interrupted her regularly scheduled programming with a message from on high.
Luke 1:26 Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth.
Mary’s Sovereign God sent a message. It is worth recalling that though we live as though we own our lives, we really don’t. We live as if all of what we will be is in our hands, but it really isn’t. Consider this: you already had nothing to say about the time of your birth, the home you were placed into, the gender God provided you, your race, the wealth of your family – none of that was YOUR CHOICE. From the beginning, if we really looked at our lives we would see fingerprints of the Divine on us; for God has been executing a sovereign power over a carefully timed plan.
Note the text records that “Gabriel was sent”. This angel was mentioned by name only four times in Scripture, each time to designate something about God’s future plans for His people, Israel:
• In Daniel 8:16, Gabriel interpreted a vision of earthly kingdoms for the prophet;
• In Daniel 9:21, Gabriel explained the timing of Messiah’s coming to Daniel at the direction of God;
• In Luke 1:19, Gabriel announced the coming of John the Baptizer to an unbelieving priest named Zacharias;
• Finally, here in Luke 1:26 Gabriel announced to Mary the child she would carry would come to set people free from sin and darkness.
Gabriel didn’t think up the plan; he was sent. This was God’s plan. We are used to seeing angels as beings that serve God, but less familiar with looking at men and women of earth that way. Jesus’ prayer “as in Heaven, so on earth” hasn’t quite made a personal dent in many who recite the prayer the Savior taught. They miss the point. In Heaven, all who dwell before God know they are made by Him to serve His story. On earth we must begin to learn this lesson as well.
God sent Gabriel, and then God sent Jesus – because God is BOTH Sovereign and Personal! He is not removed and aloof, but desires a close and personal relationship with you and I. I remember a picture that helped me understand the extension of power into personal relationship:
“When John F. Kennedy was President of the United States, Life magazine published photos of his children, John Jr. and Caroline, playing with their toys on the floor of the Oval Office. Those images captured the hearts of the American people like nothing before or since. Why? I think it’s because it bridged a gap between two thoughts: Kennedy was the President of the United States, but he was also a father. He held ultimate political power in the Free World, but playing at his feet were two little kids who called him Daddy. I don’t think your kids would have been allowed to do that. Nor mine. But his kids were. Why? He was their father. He was not only President of the United States; he was also their dad. In the same way, God is both our Father and the Lord of glory. We can approach Him confidently in prayer because we are His dearly beloved children, but we must never forget that He is also the Sovereign of the universe.” David Jeremiah, Prayer, the Great Adventure, pp. 89-90.
In times past, Christians were encouraged to understand and recognize the sovereignty (the absolute righteous rule) of the Lord. We must remember that Jesus didn’t come just to be King of Kings, but King of me. The first fact is easier to swallow because it is theory to me. The second requires submission, and that never comes easy.
When Martin Luther stood before one of the Papal Delegations who came to him they asked “Where will you be when all of your supporters desert you?” His reply, “Where I’ve always been, in the hands of the sovereign God.” Believers that recognize God’s Sovereignty, don’t feel beat up by life’s apparent uncertainty.
A Young Woman of Character
Every time I read of Gabriel’s visit to Mary, I am reminded anew that God does not choose as men choose (based on influence). He isn’t impressed by popular, wealth or station, but He does notice PURITY. God notices people who quietly make the tough choices of honoring HIM in their life. Note the way she is introduced by Luke:
Luke 1:27 “to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.”
First, note that God chose a woman of character, not of position.
Her tenuous position (an unmarried woman who was engaged) was the first thing noted about her. The term “engaged” is also translated elsewhere “..to an espoused virgin” because the term “parthenos” is a combined word based on “para” – from, of, at, by, besides, near and the word “theion” which is related to cultic incense. In the Greek world (from which the language of the text was derived) the ancients believed that burning brimstone was regarded as having power to purify, and to ward off disease. Here is the point: Though she was considered of great value to her loved ones, but of little influence in society. No matter, God has a different measure than our society.
The call was not as shiny bright and obvious as the plays of Christmas seem to record. It was not bound up in a snowy white angel or the rumbling of an earthquake. It was a visitor that brought her the declaration of God’s call. Though in hindsight she knew it was an angel, at the time the visit likely fell somewhere in the range between “I must be dreaming” and “Who is this that drops in on my life to share these words?” We know she took some time to believe the words, for the Bible records that the original greeting, “You are highly favored of God” caused her to be agitated and hesitant (Greek: “tarasso” means to be stirred and agitated as a pot of water, v. 29).
Over the years of teaching, I have told this story twice, but I will never let it go. I love it for its simplicity and power. I love it because I have seen it captured in my autistic brother Devon. It illustrates well the notion that sometimes we have to become simple in faith to grasp God as He truly is – all through the eyes of a young challenged man named Kevin. The writer shared:
“I envy Kevin. He thinks God lives under his bed. One night he was praying out loud in his bedroom, and I stopped to listen, “Are you there, God?” he said. “Where are you? Oh, Under the bed…” I laughed & tiptoed to my room. My brother Kevin’s unique perspectives are often a source of amusement. But that night something lingered long after the humor. I realized for the first time the very different world in which Kevin lives. He was born 30 years ago, mentally disabled due to problem in labor. Apart from his size (he’s 6-foot-2) there are few ways in which he’s an adult. He reasons and communicates with the capabilities of a 7-year-old, and always will. He’ll probably always believe God lives under his bed, Santa Claus fills the space under the Christmas tree and that airplanes stay up in the sky because angels carry them. I remember wondering if Kevin realizes he is different. Is he ever dissatisfied with his monotonous life? Up before dawn each day, off to the workshop for the disabled, home to walk the dog & eat his favorite macaroni/cheese dinner, and later to bed. The only variation in the routine is laundry, when he hovers excitedly over the washer like a mother with her newborn child. He does not seem dissatisfied. He lopes out to the bus every morning at 7:05, eager for a day of simple work. He wrings his hands excitedly while the water boils on the stove before dinner. He stays up late twice a week to gather our dirty laundry for his next day’s laundry chores. And oh, the bliss of Saturdays! That day my Dad takes Kevin to the airport to have a soft drink, watch the planes land, and speculate loudly on the destination of the passengers. “That one’s goin’ to Chi-car-go!” Kevin shouts as he claps his hands. His anticipation is so great he can hardly sleep on Friday nights. And so goes his world of daily rituals and weekend field trips. He doesn’t know what it means to be discontent. His life is simple. He will never know the entanglements of wealth of power. He doesn’t care what brand of clothing he wears or what kind of food he eats. His needs have always been met, and he never worries that one day they may not be. His hands are diligent. Kevin is never so happy as when he’s working. When he unloads the dishwasher or vacuums the carpet, his heart is completely in it. He does not shrink from a job when it is begun, and he does not leave a job until it is finished. But when his tasks are done, Kevin knows how to relax. He’s not obsessed with his work or the work of others. His heart is pure. He still believes everyone tells the truth, promises must be kept, and when you are wrong, you apologize instead of argue. Free from pride, unconcerned with appearances, Kevin’s not afraid to cry when he’s hurt, angry or sorry. He’s always transparent, always sincere. He trusts God. Not confined by intellectual reasoning, when he comes to Christ he comes as a child. Kevin seems to know God – to really be friends with Him in a way that is difficult for an “educated” person to grasp. God seems like his closest companion. In my moments of doubt and frustrations with my Christianity I envy the security Kevin has in his simple faith. It is then that I am most willing to admit that he has some divine knowledge that rises above my mortal questions. It is then I realize that perhaps he is not the one with the handicap, I am. My obligations, my fear, my pride, my circumstances – they all become disabilities…when I do not trust them to God’s care. Who knows if Kevin comprehends things I can never learn? After all, he’s spent his whole life in that kind of innocence, praying after dark and soaking up the goodness and love of God. And one day, when the mysteries of heaven are opened, and we are all amazed at how close God really is to our hearts, I’ll realize that God heard the simple prayers of a boy who believed that God lived under his bed. And Kevin won’t be surprised at all!
My point isn’t that Mary was somehow simple-minded, but that her TRUST in God was a grand attraction point for her USEFULNESS by God. Is that really hard to understand? God uses most completely those who trust Him most fully. He can use anyone – but not everyone delights in the idea. Those who trust Him more fully do.
Next, note she was seeking God’s favor but not men’s flattery.
Mary wasn’t immediately comfortable with the words of the angel for a good reason – she didn’t feed on the attention of others. Luke recorded:
Lk. 1:28: 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.
Look at her reaction recorded in verse 29, and you will note a skeptical and cautious Mary. She was not simply flattered into a new venture, she was careful to measure the words of this visitor. She felt a churning in her heart, an agitation. There is always a temptation to buy into flattery. At the same time, there is an even greater problem for the less mature among us. We need to learn not to form our self-image based on the affirmation of others alone. Our hunger to be affirmed can drive us, or we can settle ourselves in God’s affirmations.
Again, don’t hear the extreme in theory and cut off the practical application. We all love to be complimented – but we dare not live for the responses of others. My two girls both can pre-wired to “put on shows” and perform for people as children. I remember them standing of the coffee table as children and putting on shows and dances for us. They waited to see us smile, laugh, and of course, to clap for their marvelous dance. They wanted us to enjoy them, and they wanted to be the center of attention. As we grow, each of us needs to put off that need and look more intently to God for His approval. If we don’t, we will find ourselves seeking more and more attention of others. It is no secret that Mary, at the age we meet her in the story, could have been that kind of girl. The fact is she wasn’t, and it showed in her healthy distance from fast flattery.
Third, notice that God knew what He was getting with Mary.
Look back to verse 28, and consider that God was knocking on her door to do something marvelous. She wasn’t going to be the first “miracle mom” – even though her miracle was substantially different than that of Sarah or Hannah. She was going to be the first caretaker to the Savior. Could she do it? Gabriel exuded confidence in his words. We must remember that God will never call you to do what He cannot accomplish through you as you yield to Him. When the angel greeted Mary, he shared that God knew her character.
It is worth remembering at this moment that we are not unknown to our Heavenly Father. God knows our failings, our victories, our hopes and dreams, our very personality is fully grasped by God long before He calls us to do something in His name. He is aware of every shortcoming, but He knows every potential much better than we. Moses need not have told God of his speech problems, God already knew. Elijah need not have moaned about the lack of others to share the ministry load, God already had a full head count of the faithful. It is important that we remember that God wants us to be productive, useful to Him, and fulfilled in so doing. At the same time, it is important to remember that God knows what He bargained for when He bought us with His Son’s blood. He knows us well. Where God guides, God provides. If we are part of His provision for a situation, He will supply to us and through us what is needed.
A Task of Incredible Magnitude
Continue reading the words of the angel and imagine for a moment that God called and commissioned her with an immense work.
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.”
Perhaps this is the point in which you will say: “Here is where you lost me. God wouldn’t ask me to do anything nearly so grand as this story!” Stop and think about Mary the DAY BEFORE Gabriel’s visit. Ask her at the well about herself. She would likely say: “My life is exciting! I am going to be married to a wonderful man, and begin my life with him soon.” I doubt she would have even dreamed of the size of ministry God had planned for her. I doubt you can either.
No matter what it looked like, God’s call is always for us to fulfill specific and measurable tasks that have an eternal impact when we yield to Him. For some, that call is more public, lauded and notable. For others, it is the quiet work of raising two godly children on modest means, or being a testimony of Jesus in a godless fabrication shop.
You are wrong if you believe God has a lesser plan for you than He had for Mary. In the tapestry of His story, every thread is essential. God has a plan, and every spoke holds the wheel in place. Perhaps your call to parent your children does not seem dramatic, and I am equally sure the call to mother Billy Graham was not to his mother and father either. You have no idea what God is going to do with your faithful following of Him! Greatness is revealed in our daily positive attitude about our walk with our God – NOT great actions taken for God (as measured by men)! The acid test of one’s character is the uninspired momentary tasks of life!
Note that when God calls, He has the details worked out.
Facing a commission with realistic problems and questions allow us to regulate our emotions. Mary expressed the problem of not “knowing a man” (1:34). Since every child ever conceived in history required both a man and a woman, it really wasn’t hard to understand why she found it hard to understand!
Luke 1:34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
There was no precedent for what the Holy Spirit was about to do. She rightly pointed out that apart from a Divine move of God this was not going to happen. She wasn’t rejecting the promise, but simply pointing out the practical side of the problem and making clear that she did not intend to involve herself in something untoward. It is not resistance we observe un her words, but common sense.
Note also that because God has the details worked out, it doesn’t mean we can easily see the whole plan.
Here is the truth: God understood her question, and God knew her heart. If the call is from Him, the supply of your needs to fulfill it will be fully met by God (1:35)! Keep reading:
Luke 1:35 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.
This was the mechanical explanation for the miraculous work. God is the ultimate Quartermaster, a supply sergeant that is intimately involved in caring for every need to get the task completed. He may offer us the answers of supply by providing a job that pays the bills. He may simply nudge someone else to aid us in the work. He may miraculously care for what we cannot do through the power of His Spirit (as with Mary’s need). In any case, He will not call us and not supply us. He calls and He equips, for it is His work.
One of the great ways to learn to trust God is to look carefully at the way He has touched others (1:36). Mary went off to see God’s handiwork and verify the words of Gabriel. Luke recorded:
Luke 1:36 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.
To Mary, the news that her once barren cousin was now with child was another confirmation of the way God was at work. For the believer today, we have lives filled with incredible examples of God’s great power. Search the Scriptures for those men and women of God that have a great track record of seeing God at work! Look into our own fellowship for stories of believers that stir us right where we live. The Spirit of God has not left the scene, and God is on the move in the lives of those who yield to Him. Getting around people in whom God is powerfully at work provides us new energy! That is why Mary made her way, at her first chance, to be with Elizabeth! (1:39-40).
The key to success in the enormous task God called Mary to live out can best be expressed in Luke 1:37. God never sends us on a mission without His thorough knowledge of the outcome (1:37). To God, the word “surprise” has no personal meaning. Luke made it clear through the voice of Gabriel…
Luke 1:37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”
He is not limited in His abilities to use you, even though you feel limited in your abilities! He can, and will get His work done. You have the opportunity to experience the awesome power of God, if you will let His strength be made complete in your weakness.” That isn’t all. Don’t forget that when the mission is clear, and the call has been made – it is time for us to trust and obey. That’s what Mary did! Luke made her words clear:
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.
We need not meet every need, God has promised to supply. We need not figure out the end plan; God is already there on the last page of the book. We need to commit to be what He wants us to BE, and He will determine what we can DO. Consider this:
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, so it just wasn’t worth the effort to retrieve the donkey. He called for 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, after a short time, to everyone’s amazement, he 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….
As you face this Christmas season, I don’t know if you feel like dirt is raining down upon you or not – but I can say this: “It could be the weight that is coming down upon you will take you to higher places, and even set you free.” God knows what He is doing, and He knows who you are. It is God that holds your future. Perhaps He is knocking right now on your heart. Can you hear Him? He is waiting for your response. He has something He wants you to do… But remember…