Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Christmas Hopes - God's Good Enabling

Preached on the Second Sunday in Advent, December 6, 2015
Scripture readings: Exodus 4:1-17; Luke 1:26-38

A fireman was telling an elementary school class what to do in case of a fire. He said, “First, go to the door and feel the door.See if it’s hot. Then get down on your knees. Does anyone here know why you ought to get down on your knees?” One of the kids said, “Sure, to start praying so God will get us out of this mess.”
Photos around Crab Creek, WA
November 2015
Mary and Moses share one thing in common. They both see something coming where they will need a lot of help, or else they will end up in a big mess for sure.
When we meet Mary, in the Gospels, she is engaged, or betrothed, to Joseph. In her time and place, Mary would have been betrothed about the age of twelve, or maybe a year or two older, and the period of betrothal would have lasted for a year, no less, and not much more.
If Joseph were just starting out in life, at this point, he would have been about sixteen or seventeen. Most boys would have been pulled out of the synagogue school at the age of ten or twelve, in order to start serious work, either working on the farm, or the fishing boat, or in a trade or a craft as apprentices. After several years of training and practice, a boy should have enough experience to pull his own weight and support a family on his own.
Betrothal was just as binding and exclusive as marriage. If Joseph had died during their betrothal, Mary would have been considered a widow. But the caution was that absolutely no physical contact between them was allowed during the betrothal. Mary and Joseph lived in a culture nourished by the Old Testament scriptures, which were very strict about this.
There were high expectations of sexual purity and holiness, because all men and women are the image of God. If Mary were found to be pregnant, with Joseph having nothing to do with it; she would have been executed by the villagers, who would have dragged her to the edge of town and stoned her. Or else she could have been stabbed or strangled by a relative in either Joseph’s or Mary’s family. This still happens in that part of the world.
If Joseph claimed to be the father of a child that was conceived during the betrothal, they would both become sources of shame for their families and they would have a rocky life, wherever they lived, if anyone knew about the timing of this child. People would whisper about this child and make snide comments that the child would hear, especially if they did like what the child was doing.
Every normal girl in Israel dreamed of being the mother of the Messiah, the Christ. But something was wrong with the timing of this birth. The angel’s message seemed to put the conception of this child, and the resulting pregnancy, out of sync with the time set for her marriage. 
The angel’s message frightened Mary, because it seemed to her that God was requiring two things of her. First, God was announcing her part in something that would put her in extreme danger. Second, God was announcing her part in something that was either impossible or unthinkable. And so Mary asked the angel: “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
She was asking, “How will God make this happen? How will God work in order to enable this thing to work out? How will God help me? How will God help me?”
The angel says: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the Holy One to be born will be called the Son of God.”
This simply means there will be a miracle. The Lord will make things happen by the power of his Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is, in part, the personal presence of the life-giving power of God.
The angel means that what will happen with Mary will be the same as what happened in the creation of the universe. In the first chapter of the book of Genesis, the scriptures talk about the Spirit of God hovering over the unformed universe. The power of the Holy Spirit overshadowed the work to be done. The Spirit enabled the miracle of the creation of the universe.
So with Mary, the Holy Spirit would overshadow her with the living presence of the life-giving power of God. This would produce a life within her that was truly her child, and yet not the result of any human action, or wisdom, or preparation. God would enable her to be part of something impossible by the conventional wisdom of human beings.
Then the Lord would enable another miracle, of a different sort, to happen. The Holy Spirit would enable Mary and Joseph to raise this child. This would be especially challenging in light of the fact that everyone who knew about the timing of this birth would look down on the child, and on them.
They would be able to do it with God’s help. This also seemed impossible, in the sense that it seemed impossibly unfair. But nothing is impossible with God.
The angel told Mary, “Nothing is impossible with God.” This is what I want us to think about, just a bit. We have taken some time to look at Mary’s situation. And I think it is simple to understand that she was suddenly aware of her tremendous need for God’s help. Here was something that almost made her knees buckle to think of.
Only God could make this work. It was God’s enabling that Mary was looking for, praying for, and hoping for.
I think we learn in life to be afraid of hope: even of this hope that God will enable us. Rather than learn to hope more, we learn to hope less. Christmas is one of God’s antidotes to the loss of hope.
Christmas is one of the two greatest miracles. One miracle is the miracle of Easter. God, as a human just like us, died as a human and conquered death, and now he shares his victory with us. The other greatest miracle is Christmas. God became human and God took humanity into himself. In Jesus, God is one of us. This is what Christians believe.
It is one thing to think of a supreme being supernaturally present with you, or in you, who is completely different from you. To think of Christ (God as a real human being) being with you, and in you, is something entirely greater.
In Christ, God experienced being one of us. God learned to be us by experience.
Christ in you knows how to be a baby. He knows how to be helpless and how to have someone else take care of him in the humblest ways. In Christ, you know how to be helpless and how to accept help.
Christ in you knows how to be a kid learning to do things, learning what not to do, learning how to cope with others. Christ in you knows how to play. Christ in you knows how to laugh and rest.
Christ in you knows how to stay true to what is right in spite of the pressure of the whole world against you. Christ in you knows how to sacrifice. Christ in you knows how to see other people, and how you can see yourself.
Christ in you knows how to pray. Christ in you knows how to work, and how to live with the knowledge that others are depending totally upon you; just as Christ had to fend for his own family’s survival (his mother, his brothers and sisters, after Joseph died).
Christ in you knows how to be hot, or cold, or hungry, or tired. Christ in you knows how to be in pain. Christ in you knows how to live. Christ in you knows how to die. Christ in you knows the way to everlasting life. He has the key.
As I look at Christmas as the proof that nothing is impossible with God, I see something I didn’t expect. I think it was only impossible for God to take a respectable, comprehensible, and comfortable approach to becoming Mary’s baby. It was impossible for God to come at the right time for Mary and Joseph. It was impossible for God not to be born in a stable and discovered by shepherds instead of respectable people.
At the humblest level, God came to help. He knew that people with our needs need a God who knows how to live and be with them when life seems impossible. It was impossible for God to let us face the impossible alone.
Most of the things I hope for are normal, easy, comfortable, respectable things. I would be too embarrassed to tell you what things those are, and you would be embarrassed to hear them. The Bible teaches me to expect something completely different from anything I can possibly imagine.
Put yourself in Moses’ position. Moses had run for his life to escape from Egypt, because he had sided with the Hebrew slaves. Then his life changed for the better. He found a niche for himself in the desert. He married and started a family and work to do. Moses found a normal, safe way of life.
Moses, after having made a life for himself, as a shepherd in the wilderness, had become happy and comfortable. He hoped that this good life would never end. Moses’ idea of nothing being impossible with God would have been to have God allow his comfortable way of life to continue for the rest of his life.
God had a different purpose for Moses, in which a different and more difficult way of living would not be impossible. In this new way of life it would not be impossible for Moses to go back to Egypt and make himself the enemy of the ruler of the most powerful nation on earth.
It would not be impossible for Moses to turn stubborn, slave-minded people to the very same way of living that God was teaching him: that nothing was impossible with God. With God it would not be impossible for Moses to speak in public so that people would listen, even though (apparently) Moses had a speech defect.
Saying that he was slow of speech means that it took Moses a long time to get words out. It means that he stuttered and stammered. In other places (Acts 7:18), the scriptures speak of Moses as being a powerful speaker, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t stutter or stammer.
One of the most powerful speakers I knew, in college, was Bob Stommel, who was born with a severe case of cerebral palsy. It took great effort for Bob to walk. People had to read for him, and write for him. Even though he had a first class brain (he really did), it was deeply buried in a hopeless body.
It was painful to listen to Bob try to talk. He often had to repeat himself two or three times in order to make himself understood. But Bob’s terrible handicap, combined with his faith, made whatever he tried to say worth listening to. With God nothing is impossible.
Moses didn’t need the healing of his speech in order to do God’s purpose. All Moses needed to do was to make himself available to God. All Moses needed was to be willing. The fact that nothing was impossible with God meant that he could be himself, and stutter, and stammer, and serve.
It was the same with Mary. Mary had no special status or wisdom, no training or preparation. She would be able to do what God called upon her to do because she knew that God would be with her, and in her. All Mary had to offer was her availability and her willingness to serve. As for the rest; there was nothing impossible with God.
It is the same with us. It is the same with the church.
Home, Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA
December 2015
All of God’s great people, along with Moses and Mary, found that God’s design for them was sometimes difficult, and dangerous, and unthinkable, and impossible: but nothing is impossible with God. And this is especially a Christmas hope.
The gospel, the good news, is about God coming into the world at its best and at its very worst. The good news is about God getting involved in the impossible, and God leading his people through it.
I found a quote by a writer named Peter Larson. He wrote this: “Despite our efforts to keep him out, God intrudes. The life of Jesus is bracketed by two impossibilities: a virgin’s womb and an empty tomb. Jesus entered our world through a door marked “No Entrance” and left through a door marked “No Exit.” (In Christianity Today, Dec. ’05 p. 62, quoting him from “Prism (Jan/Feb 2001)
The Christmas hope is about who God is. He is a God who doesn’t bother reading the signs that take away our spirit and our hope. God enables us to move, and grow, and persevere as he calls us to believe and follow him. God enables us to do this with hope. God is the best enabler.

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