God Goes Where He’s Wanted

God Goes Where He’s Wanted

Luke 1.26-38

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.

Why Mary?

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.


Soulhacking

Soulhacking

Luke 2:8-20

James C. Denison

I learned a new term this week: “Lifehacking.” This is the word being used in the computer world to describe programs which are supposed to make our lives easier. Software to organize our to-do lists, programs to prioritize our priorities, reminders set for all hours of the day and night, files set to pop up on our PDAs or cell phones to tell us what to do next, and how. All this because we are living in the fastest-paced, highest-stress culture known to human history.

My father could expect to change his employer three times; my sons can expect to change their vocation, their careers, their life work, seven times. The global economy means that a downturn in China today affects your stocks and retirement tomorrow.

For every disease we seem able to eradicate like tuberculosis and polio, we are afflicted with new diseases like AIDS and the bird-flu scare. To say nothing of global warming and the future of our planet, with predictions that the seas will rise and the glaciers will melt and life will change drastically in coming generations.

How can a holiday like Christmas be “good news of great joy” in a day like ours? When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the light bulb was 1883 years away.

If today were Christmas, Edison’s invention would be announced in the year 3890. Columbus wouldn’t “discover” the New World until the year 3495. That’s how old Christmas is. How can a holiday which predates the Middle Ages by 500 years and the Declaration of Independence by 1780 years possibly be relevant for our problems and questions today?

The answer is that it can’t. At least, not without a decision only you can make today. Let me explain.

Hear “good news of great joy”

The angels brought “good news of great joy” to the shepherds, and such news indeed it was. On that day we learned that “a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (v. 11). This news is “for all the people,” for the Christ has been “born to you.” If to them, then to us all.

You know their story. First-century shepherds were thieves, stealing from their masters’ flocks. They were liars, so that they could not testify in court. They were ritually unclean, living out in the fields for up to six months at a time, so that they could never be allowed into a synagogue or the Temple. And yet Christmas came for them, because God loves all of us.

No other religion makes such a claim. Zeus and his pantheon loved those who obeyed them. Hindus and Buddhists have no concept of a personal, loving God. Muslims base God’s acceptance on our obedience, the degree to which we keep the five pillars of Islam.

Every other dimension of life is conditional and performance-based. You are what you do, how well you perform, how many people you impress. I am this sermon; you are your work, your school, your achievements.

Except with God. This promise is for shepherds everywhere, you and me included. What is the promise? Why is it relevant? It applies to your life only if you need help with your past, your present, or your future.

Christmas says that God forgives us, no matter what we’ve done. What have you done that you’re glad we don’t know about? Guilt leads to low self-esteem, anger at yourself and others, the inability to forgive yourself and others, depression, anxiety, panic, and even suicide. The shepherds knew what guilt was about. Modern-day shepherds still do.

To people like us, “a Savior has been born to you.” Literally “one to save us.” No other religion has a Savior. No one else has someone who will forgive your sins and failures and remove your guilt from your soul and life. No one. Because of Christmas, God can forgive you.

Will anyone else forgive you like this? Will anyone else forgive us, no matter what we do? There are crimes you and I could commit which would be unforgivable. Child abuse, torture, 9-11 terrorism–who could pardon such sins? Only God can. That’s “good news of great joy.” Who needs such forgiveness today? Well, this news is not enough. Before this forgiveness is relevant to our souls this morning, there’s something left for us to do.

Christmas says that God delivers us, no matter what we need today. This Baby is “Christ,” the Lord. Christos, the Greek word for Messhia, the Messiah, the Promised One who would deliver God’s people from slavery into freedom. This was “good news of great joy” for a people enslaved by the pagan Roman Empire.

Because of Christmas, God can deliver you. Can anyone else deliver us, no matter where we are? There are diseases which no doctor can cure, lawsuits which no lawyer can win, battles which no army can survive. Only God can deliver us, wherever we are today.

That’s “good news of great joy.” What problems need God’s solution in your life? What burdens need his strength? What despair needs his hope? Why do you need deliverance today? Well, this news is not enough. Before this deliverance is relevant to our souls, there’s something left for us to do.

Last, Christmas says that God directs us, no matter where we need to go tomorrow. He is Christ “the Lord.” Kurios in the Greek, the Master, the Boss. The Romans used this word for their Caesar; Christians used it for their Christ. This was “good news of great joy” for a people subjected to a man in Rome, to know that the true ruler of the universe was their God and that he would guide their lives.

Because of Christmas, your God rules the universe and is ready to guide your life. Can anyone else guide us, no matter where we need to go? There are problems no counselor can resolve, decisions no wisdom can help us make. Only God can guide us, no matter how dark or bleak the future, no matter how perplexing and confusing the day.


When You Wish Upon a Star

When You Wish Upon a Star

Matthew 2:1-12

James C. Denison

Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre died and went to heaven. God was showing him around, and they came to a modest little house with a faded Packers flag in the window. “This house is yours for eternity, Brett,” said God. “This is very special; not everyone gets a house up here.”

Brett felt special indeed, and walked up to his house. On his way up the porch, he noticed another house just around the corner. It was a three-story mansion with a blue and silver sidewalk, a 50 foot tall flagpole with an enormous Cowboys flag, and in every window, a blue star.

Brett looked at God and said, “God, I’m not trying to be ungrateful, but I have a question. I was the league’s all-time leader in pass completions and a Hall of Famer.” God said, “So what do you want to know, Brett?” “Well, why does Tony Romo get a better house than me?” God chuckled and said, “Brett, that’s not Tony Romo’s house. It’s mine.”

Whatever God’s house looks like in heaven, he changed locations dramatically when he came to earth. Jesus Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, chose to be born in a cow stall and to be laid in a feed trough. He chose field hands to be his first worshipers. He chose to be raised by peasant parents in a tiny, obscure village. But along the way, he did arrange for one very special set of visitors.

As we will see today, the Magi are more like us than anyone else in the Christmas story. What they did to find the hope and joy of Jesus is exactly what you and I must do today to find him this Christmas week. The next time you wonder if life makes sense, if the Lord is really in charge, if God knows what he’s doing, remember the Magi–and choose to be one. Let’s learn how.

Preparing the Magi

Nearly everything in our traditions about the Wise Men is wrong. We think there were three, since they brought three gifts, but they usually traveled in groups of 12 or more for safety. We call them kings, but they were actually priests and religious scholars.

Medieval legend says that Thomas went to Persia and won the Magi to Christ, and that they became evangelists. In the fourth century, pilgrims claimed to have discovered their bones. In 1162 they were supposedly moved to Cologne, Germany, where they are enshrined today. But none of this is really true.

Here’s what we do know about them. They were “from the east” (v. 1), the ancient civilization of Persia. They would be Iranians today. As Gentiles, they would never have been allowed into a Jewish worship service. They practiced magic and sorcery, skills forbidden by the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 18:14). They believed in two gods, breaking the First Commandment (Exodus 20:3). But by God’s grace, they became the first Gentiles in all the world to worship the Christ. Because they could come to Jesus, we can come to him.

They were the most learned people of their society, scholars in philosophy, medicine, and science. They were wealthy, of such independent means that they could leave their homes and families for a journey lasting more than two years, and afford the finest gifts for the Child when they found him.

Above all, they were religious men, much like the Levites of ancient Israel. In fact, no sacrifice could be made unless one of them was present. Their supreme god was Ahura Mazda, meaning “All-Wise Lord.” They believed that he dwells in eternal light, explaining why they would identify a star with a divine king.

Worship for Persians is an essential duty in venerating their creator. No animal sacrifices were made, but gifts were brought as offerings. Thus they brought gifts rather than sacrifices to Jesus.

They were waiting for a last Prophet or Savior to come. He would bring the resurrection of the dead, the general judgment of the entire world, the burning of the existing universe, and the eternal destruction of the evil spirits. All this they learned from their pagan religion.

The rest of the story came from the Jews.

Remember that the Jewish people had been enslaved in Babylon six centuries before Christ; more stayed than returned when the Persians liberated them. Jewish synagogues persisted in Persia through the first century to the present, so that as many as 30,000 Jews live in Iran today.

When they were exiled to the region, the Hebrews elevated their expectations of a Messiah who would liberate them. And so their teachings regarding a coming Messiah were known to the Persians, and especially interested the Magi.

They knew that a Messiah was coming, a Liberator who would be the King of the Jews. He would be part of the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:19), the line of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1) and the house of David (Jeremiah 23:5). And so he would reign in Jerusalem, the capital of Judah and the city of David.

To sum up, the Magi were waiting for a Savior to consummate history. They believed that a great Light would show us the way to him. When a star announced that the King of the Jews had been born, they set out for Jerusalem, the capital city of the Jews, on a journey which would change their history and ours.

God arranged all of this, beginning centuries before his Son entered the human race. When you wonder if he is the God of the nations, the Lord of the universe, the God of history and humanity, remember what he did over seven centuries to prepare the Magi for Christmas.

Bringing the Magi

Now watch what he did to bring them to Bethlehem. First, under his sovereignty, the Emperor issued an edict that all the world must be taxed. This edict forced Joseph to bring Mary and her unborn child from Nazareth to Bethlehem.