God Goes Where He’s Wanted
James C. Denison
The Golden Compass opened on Friday. Starring Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig (the new James Bond), the movie is a spectacular fantasy on the lines of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Chronicles of Narnia. But unlike the classics by J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, The Golden Compass was written by a man who says, “my books are about killing God.”
Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass and son of an Anglican clergyman, long ago left the faith of his father. The Golden Compass is the first volume in a trilogy which ends with the death of God and the “liberation” of humanity. The film downplays the anti-Christian elements of the first book, intending to make enough money to produce the second and third novels with all their explicit anti-Christian content. When the trilogy ends, “God” dies, dissolving into thin air, and we are free to set up a “Republic” of human self-fulfillment on earth.
Unfortunately, Philip Pullman is not the only person who wonders if the Christ of Christmas is who we say he is. If God really came to earth in the flesh, why isn’t the world a better place? There was conflict in the Middle East when Christmas came; there is still today. The global economy was prone to highs followed by “corrections” and recessions; it still is. If God really relocated to our planet, why is life the way it is?
Do you need Christmas to be more than a holiday in your marriage and family? Your health and finances? Your career or school?
Bestselling author Philip Yancy: “As I travel, I have observed a pattern, a strange historical phenomenon of God ‘moving’ geographically from the Middle East, to Europe to North America to the developing world. My theory is this: God goes where he’s wanted.” Let’s see if he’s right, and why the answer matters so much to your life and soul this Advent season.
Who is Gabriel?
Last week you heard from Isaiah, the prophet who predicted the coming of Christmas. Today we’ll hear from the angel sent to announce that the time of Advent had come. His name was Gabriel, which means “God is my warrior.”
He was an “archangel,” or a chief angel. Michael and he are the only angels named in the holy Scriptures, though Jewish tradition named Sariel and Raphael as the other two archangels. Ancient Israelites wrote their four names on the shields of their soldiers in battle. They thought of them primarily as warriors, as God often granted them the power of life and death.
But Gabriel came in peace on that fateful day in Nazareth. On that day God sent him on the strangest of all missions–to go to a peasant teenager in a remote little village and enlist that girl in God’s plan to save the world.
Mary would be in the seventh grade in our society today. Understandably, she was “greatly troubled” by Gabriel’s coming (v. 29). She certainly didn’t understand how she could be the mother of the Messiah and yet a virgin (v. 34).
Now she must decide: would she surrender her life, her body, her family, her future to this strange and confusing word from God? Would you have done it?
You know what she told the archangel: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said” (v. 38). She called herself the Lord’s “servant”–a handmaid or slave girl, one who must do the bidding of her owner and master. “May it be,” she said, an expression of absolute and total submission. She yielded her life completely to God that day. And history would forever be different because she did.
Now, think of all those God could have chosen to be the mother of his Son–a daughter of the High Priest or member of the Sanhedrin, or one of the families of wealth and influence down south in Judah. Why her? Was it because of how she looked? Her popularity? Her possessions? Her abilities? Why was this peasant girl so “highly favored” (v. 28)? And how did God know she would submit to his will in this way?
She had already surrendered her body to God. She was indeed a “virgin,” as she claimed to be (v. 34). This was a surprising fact in first-century Nazareth.
Their village was constructed on a hillside, with a popular trade route below. This road, which connected Tyre and Sidon with Jerusalem, was crowded with Roman soldiers, Greek merchants, and travelers from around the world. Many of the village girls dressed and acted so as to attract the men traveling along this route, seeing them as their way out of Nazareth to the larger world. But not Mary–she kept herself pure.
She had surrendered her mind to God as well. Remember the song she sang upon meeting her relative Elizabeth after the Messiah had been conceived in her womb (vs. 46-56). It is one of the finest psalms of praise in all God’s word, composed from passages in Exodus, 1 Samuel, Psalms, Isaiah, and Micah. This seventh-grade girl had memorized these parts of the word of God, and used them to worship her Lord and God. She knew the word and will of the Lord, through years of study and devotion. She had surrendered her mind to God.
She would surrender her future to God also. To become pregnant when she was only engaged could cost her everything. Who would believe her story about an angel and a Son of God?
She was willing to give up her parents and family, to be abandoned by them. To give up Joseph, the man who would be her husband for life. To give up her future and even her life, for she might be stoned to death as an adulteress (cf. Deuteronomy 22.23ff.). As long as she and the child lived people would question her morals. And yet she was willing to do the Lord’s bidding, to surrender her future and all her ambitions to God.
And she would surrender life itself to his will.
She would stand helpless and watch her boy die with nails in his hands and feet, a spear in his side, and those nails would pierce her own soul and that spear her own heart. Any of you who are mothers can understand the sacrifice she made.
She would gather with her son’s disciples at Pentecost and receive his Holy Spirit. She would serve this child as her Lord, all the rest of her days on earth, and now in heaven with him.
She said on this day, “I am the Lord’s servant.” Indeed she was, and indeed she would be.
Whose servant are you?
Now Gabriel has come to us in God’s word today. This text was preserved in Scripture, not for Mary’s sake but for ours. She already knew everything we have learned today. God’s Spirit inspired these words so that we could apply their truth to our lives this morning.
If Gabriel could speak to you and me today, what would he say? In a word, God goes where he’s wanted. He goes where he is welcomed and invited. His Kingdom comes where his will is done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). He is King where we are his servants. He goes where he is Lord. We cannot serve God and serve ourselves. We must always choose.
Mary could not have it both ways. She could not serve both God and her own ambitions. She could not be the virgin mother of the Messiah and still marry Joseph as though nothing unusual were happening. She could not raise the Messiah, the Savior of the world, and be just another family. She had to decide which she would serve: God or her own dreams. She could not have both.
But we always think that we can. Adam and Eve thought they could eat the fruit and still walk with God. David thought he could have both Bathsheba and God’s favor. Solomon thought he could worship both his wives’ gods and his father’s. The kings after them thought they could serve their own military ambitions and still have the protection of God. Each time they were wrong. You cannot serve God and yourself.
The one will always serve the other. You will either use God to serve yourself, or your life to serve God.
Some of us are here today for what we might get from God. We want God to bless us, to help us, to guide us. We want God’s favor for our lives, our ambitions and dreams, or our problems and pain. We may not realize it, but we’re using God for ourselves.
Others of us are here today for what we will give God. We want to bless God, to serve him, to please him. We want to use our time, our abilities and opportunities, our money to accomplish his purpose with our lives, whatever that may be.
Some of us are like Mary; others of us are not.
Here’s the surprise: God can actually bless the one surrendered to him far more than the one using him. God didn’t need Mary so much as Mary needed God. The Lord would have found someone else if Mary had refused to belong to him, but she would have missed the eternal fulfillment which was the result of her obedience. It is the same with us today.
The person who uses God and the person who is used by God will both have challenges, problems, setbacks. Mary endured her share of pain in life, to be sure. But through it all she had a sense of God’s purpose and direction which made her life meaningful and joyous. When her life was done there were no regrets. She would do it all over again.
Now God wants Gabriel to ask you what he asked Mary: will you surrender your life to him? Will you give to him your body, your mind, your future, your money, your relationships, your life? When last did you say what Mary said: “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you will”?
I make you this promise: not one of us has any idea what God will do with our lives when they are totally his.
Who among us would have thought God could do so much with a seventh-grade girl? That she would be the mother of the Son of God, the human instrument of the divine incarnation? That she would become the most famous woman in all of human history, and the most venerated?
Was it because of her appearance? Her possessions? Her popularity or performance? No–it was because of this simple fact: God goes where he is wanted. And he always gives the best to those who leave the choice with him.
The ten largest churches in the world are in South Korea, Chili, Nigeria, El Salvador, Columbia, Argentina, South Korea, Nigeria, and the last two in India. None are in America. Why have they become so significant? Because they want God. South Korea had not a single born-again Christian at the turn of the 20th Century. Then came the bloody, debilitating Korean conflict which ravaged the peninsula. Out of its devastation grew the Yoido Full Gospel Church, with more than a million worshippers each week. It is the same with the other churches on the list. None are in prosperous places–all are in cities and societies which know they need God. And God goes where he’s wanted.
I’ve just returned from my sixth trip to Cuba. Each time it is the same: people standing outside the packed church, listening through open windows. Pastors riding six to ten hours on the back of trucks to spend a week in intensive seminary training, many of them living on $30 a month. Their children get the worst military assignments; their families get the worst jobs; they are constantly watched and harassed by their government and society. But the joy of Jesus in their lives makes it clear that Christmas has come to their souls. All because God goes where he’s wanted.
Do you want God this morning?