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Reflection Sunday: The Goodness of God and the Futility of the Wicked
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Good Friday 2019
A Relentless Activity
The Motivation to Forgive
Love Precedes Life Change
I've done that now three times today and I can't wait to do it again at 5:00 and again at 11:00. It's amazing what it does to strengthen my heart, to just rehearse and remind myself of the miracle story of Christmas. You need to understand, it's not just a story. This isn't a fable. It's history. History that we're recounting. History of God revealing himself and unfolding his love for us, people in whom he is well pleased.
One of the things I try and do as I go back every year to this particular time where we focus on God piercing into the darkness and bringing us hope is I try and spend time, I always do, in Matthew 1 and Luke 1 and 2, specifically, where the birth story is told and where we're understanding the miracle of at the fullness of time God chose to reveal a little bit more of who he was.
The goodness of God is his glory. Goodness was seen in this moment like none of us even dared imagine. Even though the prophets told about it, the people who studied the prophets missed the amazing miracle of what we call the incarnation, that God would be veiled in human flesh. I think about who I might relate to in that story, and I try and put myself in different characters. Specifically, I've tried to place myself in the position of Mary.
Now that might seem weird to you that a 50-some-year-old guy would imagine himself as a teenage girl, but that's how you stay culturally relevant these days. I think about exactly what it must've been like. Honestly, as I was reading Luke 1 this year and as I was thinking about what it would've been like to have been like Mary, I had a deep sense or, if you will, the whisper in my soul that I recognize often as the kindness of God showing me something where he just said, "Hey, Todd. That is your story. You are like Mary."
As I thought about that a little bit more, a lot of us kind of go, "Wait a minute, man. That's a little bit of an audacious statement." Especially because we know that in certain circles Mary is venerated, frankly in a very unhealthy way. Mary was never to be worshipped. Mary was never to be understood as divine.
That is a perversion of the gospel narrative often displayed that way within Roman Catholicism. It was an idea that was adopted later. It's not in the Scriptures. Sometimes I think those of us who are not of that tradition because we don't want to put Mary in an unhealthy place, we don't put her in the proper place that Mary should be seen in, but Jesus did. Right?
There were people who even came up and around Jesus, and in Luke, chapter 11, verse 27 they said to him, "'Blessed is the womb that bore You and the breasts at which You nursed.'" Jesus responded, "On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it."
Jesus himself said, "You want to know who is blessed? It's not my mother." There was no immaculate conception as it relates to Mary. That's the false teaching that exists in some churches that Mary was conceived without sin, but no. Mary understood that the Savior who she delivered would soon deliver her because she needed a Savior again. I know I do.
As I studied the story of Mary again and I looked at what God was showing us in the story of Mary, I saw more and more of myself, and I think you'll see some of yourself in this particular story. Let's just visit it together. It's in Luke, chapter 1. It says, "Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth…"
You go, "What do you mean the sixth month?" It's the sixth month of the story that had just preceded that. A relative of Mary, we don't know exactly their relationship, but a relative of Mary, Elizabeth herself, had become pregnant in a rather miraculous way. She was advanced in years. She was barren. Everybody was pretty convinced she wasn't going to have a child. Lo and behold, she did become pregnant.
Six months into that pregnancy, we have the encounter that shows up now in verses 26 and following. The same angel Gabriel who had visited Elizabeth's husband now appeared, "…to a virgin engaged [not married yet] to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin's name was Mary. And coming in,[the angel]said to her…" Stop right there.
What do you think the angel is going to say to this little girl in this little two-bit town of Nazareth? Nazareth was a town that if you lived in it, you were not considered to be a spiritual person. Spiritual people didn't live in northern Israel. Spiritual people lived down there around Jerusalem, around the holy city, around places where the Word of God was taught and covenants were anticipated, not up in the place where you went to make money, where all the Romans lived.
The Roman garrisons were there. People in Nazareth were not renowned for their attention to the prophets. "Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?" Again, I wonder if Mary ever wondered if anything good could come out of her. Because no matter how wonderful she was, Mary knew that she herself didn't keep the Law and the Prophets.
There was something about Mary that caused God to choose her, but we too often think it was because Mary was this saint as opposed to God being as good as he was. What do you imagine God would say to you if, in the moment of your darkness and sin, not being concerned with spiritual things, he showed up in your life? I want you to think about that for a second.
Some of us don't have to think back that long to a time when we were not part of the promises and covenants of God, where we weren't interested in spiritual things, where we were focused on what the world could offer us in our Nazareth. All of us have moments in our lives where we're pretty sure if God showed up unannounced, it wouldn't be a warm greeting.
What do you think God is going to say to Mary? I'll tell you this. What you imagine God would say to you if he kicked in the door, if you will, of your life in the midst of your sin says everything who you imagine God to be. Let me repeat that to you. As I was just thinking about this and God was just showing me more of his character and his nature and reminding me of what Christmas is all about was this.
He said, "Todd, what you imagine I would say to you if I kicked the door in in the midst of your sin and your most horrible moment says a lot about who you imagine me to be, but I want you to stop imagining who I am and listen to who I am." See, too many of us think that God said to Mary the words that he was about to say to Mary, because Mary was somehow special. No.
God said what he is about to say to Mary because God is better than we could ever imagine. He is kind "…and gracious, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness [full of grace] and truth." Here's what he said. He said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you."
Because the Lord is with you, because he left the glory of heaven into the cradle on the earth because he was coming to fulfill his promises, there's going to be peace on earth, and there's going to be goodwill toward men. There's going to be a chance for you, so I don't know what you imagine God to want to say to you in the midst of your sin, but would you just look at Christmas?
"But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." Christmas didn't happen because the world had evolved into righteousness. Christmas happened in the midst of silence and sin and doubt and despair and the distraction of Nazareth, and still God came because that's what God does.
He longs to present favor and kindness to you. Look at the exchange. In verse 29, it says, " [Mary] was very perplexed at this statement…" Wouldn't you be? Aren't you a little shocked? God says, "I want you to do what Mary did. I want you to keep pondering, 'What kind of salutation is this? What kind of God gives that salutation to somebody who is by definition a sinner?'"
"The angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary; for you…'" And completely apart from you because of who God is, "…you have found favor…" What you believe about the basis of your favor with God is a tell on whether or not you understand Christmas. What you believe about the basis of why God would grant you favor is a tell on whether or not you understand Christmas.
The reason that Mary received favor is not because she was God's favorite but because God is more wonderful than you can imagine. God doesn't show favor to you because you tithe, because you come to a Christmas Eve service, because you haven't been immoral in 2019, because you promise you won't be immoral in 2020. God comes because God is kind. His favor is never deserved. It is a gift, just like Christmas. He says,
"'And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. 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; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.' Mary said to the angel, 'How can this be, since I am a virgin?'"
Now this is where the story gets even a little bit more interesting. I want you to think about this. If I had told you that you were going to be in an encounter with God, and the encounter with God was going to start like this, knowing everything he knows about you, "Greetings, favored one; the Lord is with you," you would be like Mary: you would be perplexed.
God would have to say to you again, "Hey, don't be afraid, for you have found favor with God, and behold, you are going to conceive new life inside of you." The question might be begged right there, "Well, how in the world is new life going to come inside of me, because God, I've told you a number of times I would never march toward death again, yet again and again and again I go back to the exact same trouble of which you have delivered me from?"
Well, the answer for you and me is also found in the answer that God gave to Mary, but watch this. I want to say one thing. Just like it's a miracle that God would allow a virgin to conceive a son, it's just as impossible for a sinner to conceive of sin and righteousness and judgment as it is for a virgin to conceive a child.
Let me say this to you again. Left to yourself, you would never ever do what the Bible does. The Bible is a very God-exalting, man-deprecating book. The message of this Bible is not, "Be good or you're in trouble." The message is, "You're in trouble, and there's nothing you can do about it because you, like Mary, have been born into a race that has rejected the goodness of God, mocks the Word of God, and goes your own way."
This is not a book that tells you how to work your way back to God. This is a book that the center of it reveals God running toward you, revealing himself toward you, and rescuing you in darkness and sin. If you think it's a miracle that a virgin can have a child, you're right, but you need to know there's another miracle that God is in the business of wanting to do.
That is to conceive inside of you a new life that you would be born again. That's never going to happen because of human interaction. It's going to happen because the Holy Spirit will come upon you. It'll happen because God is going to do a work that could never, ever happen by your own effort.
Women don't wish to be pregnant and on their own become pregnant, especially without the seed. The seed which leads to new life in us is the seed of the Holy Spirit, which the Scripture says convicts us of sin, of acknowledging that we are not who God designed us to be, of righteousness.
Too many of us have too high a view of man and too low a view of God and we think we can work our way back up and fill the gap. This book and this Scripture and the Spirit of God says, "No. You have completely fallen. You are dead in your trespasses and sins. You're unable to work your way back to God, but God being rich in grace and mercy has offered a way for you to be restored to him."
This is the gospel. This is why Christmas is such a big deal. What you think makes you favorable in God's eyes tells me what you think and understand about Christmas. Christmas is the revelation of God's full and complete rescue. The angel said in verse 35 to Mary, "This is how it's going to happen." "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason [what's born in you] shall be called the Son of God."
It's the same thing that happened to me. The Holy Spirit, in God's kindness, convicted me of my sin. I saw that the religion that I had been exposed to and defines most of what is taught in churches around the world was a lie. He said, "This is what you need to know, Todd. There is no working toward me. There is only a rescue. If you want to have a new life born in you, it's going to come when you understand sin and real righteousness and real love and real judgment and you receive the gift that I offer you."
The angel goes on to tell Mary about what's going on and says, "I want you to go visit Elizabeth, your relative. She is now barren. I know that's crazy to you, but she says…" Mary hears in verse 37, "Listen, you need to know, '…nothing will be impossible with God.'" I want to say this to you here this Christmas Eve.
At the moment that you believe that God can't change something, you are practically a nonbeliever. The moment that you believe that your story can't change, the moment that you believe that Christmas can't radically change who you are and take you from being a person who is a source of distraction to your family to becoming a blessing, that moment you are practically a nonbeliever.
Only God…only God…can do what we sing about at Christmas, and only God can do what all men long for, which is to reconcile us to him. Now here's what else is so amazing about Mary as I looked at this particular story and I saw the miracle of what God had done in my life. He had taken away the things that were there and he replaced it with a spirit of truth and a conviction of what sin was and how kind he was. Jesus says this himself.
He says, "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life." I grasped that truth. When I grasped that truth, it changed the trajectory of how I spoke, how I thought about God, and how I lived. You're going to find the exact same thing was true of Mary.
Mary, right after this, began just to sing a song of worship to God. It's a rather famous section of Scripture. It starts in Luke 1:46, and it's called the Magnificat of Mary. She is going to celebrate the amazing miracle of what God was going to do. I read it again this year. As I was reading it, that still, strong, loud voice that I recognize is from my Father in heaven said the same thing to me.
He said, "Todd, I want you to read every single one of these words, and I want you to ask yourself, 'Couldn't these words be your words?'" The answer is, "Every one of these words are words that people who have had the miracle of Christmas come to them should sing." Let's just look at it. Here we go.
"And Mary said: 'My soul exalts the Lord…'" Well, why wouldn't it? Because God has done the impossible. Why wouldn't my soul exalt the Lord? Because he has taken me, somebody destined for judgment, somebody who thought that my own good works would save me, when in fact the Bible says they're filthy rags because God demands absolute perfection because that's who he is. He showed me the futility of the dead works of men and he showed me God's provision entered in history that all of human history pivots on him some 2,000 years ago.
There was one man who lived, one tomb that's empty, one Savior who was prophesied and who has been affirmed in the context of humankind. He is saying he will save you. "My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior." There's nothing and no one else who we should rejoice in except Christ himself.
That's what I live to do. I live to tell other people about the kindness of God toward me that he has shown me the reality of the Christmas story. It's not just a warm fuzzy fairy tale. It's not something Charles Schulz captured to make some little cartoon that we would be somehow warmed by. No. It is the salvation of all men.
Verse 48 says, "For He has had regard for the humble state of…" those who he wants to redeem and in love who give themselves to him. That's what a bondslave was. A bondslave was not somebody who was obligated to serve a master. A bondslave is somebody who is so in love with their master and, if you will, almost their employer that they say, "I give my life to you. I commit myself to you. I'll never leave you or forsake you." Mary said that's who she is.
God is somebody who, "…IS OPPOSED TO THE PROUD, BUT GIVES GRACE TO THE HUMBLE." In verse 48, he says, "…from this time on all generations will count [Mary as] blessed." That's been my story. It's the story of anybody who really understands the truth of Christmas because what happens is when you begin to love as he loves and extend grace as he extends grace and forgive as you've been forgiven and lead as he leads, and as you find healing in your own life, bring healing into relationships, generations around you are blessed.
You're no longer ruled by anger. You're not ruled by despair. You stay with the wife of your youth. This morning, I got together I think for the twentieth year in a row with about five or six guys who I've just been gathering with. Every Christmas Eve morning, we get together. We just sat around the table and every single one of us, because of Christmas, because of what God has done in our lives, were still married to the wives of our youth.
Every one of us talked about the fact that our kids want to be with us at Christmas. Our kids love one another because they've been raised in a home where they've taught the love of Christ to one another. We're not perfect families, believe me, by a long shot, but there is a blessedness among the generations and others who would say that, "Because of the life you lived in response to Christmas, there is goodness."
That's God's destiny with those who know him. It's not always easy. Your spouse may not be faithful to you. Your kids may rebel, but you won't add to the confusion with your own brokenness and sin when you walk with God. "For the Mighty One has done great things for me; and holy is His name." I can say that.
"AND HIS MERCY IS UPON GENERATION AFTER GENERATION TOWARD THOSE WHO FEAR HIM." I can say that. "He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart." I can say that. "He has brought down rulers from their thrones, and has exalted those who were humble." I can say that.
"HE HAS FILLED THE HUNGRY WITH GOOD THINGS…" Just like Jesus said, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied." I can say that. "…and sent away the rich empty-handed." Those who don't think they need God are still looking for satisfaction in this world. I can say that.
"He has given help to Israel His servant, in remembrance of His mercy …"Just like "…He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his descendants forever," he has spoken to me. God promised Abraham, "Abraham, I will bless you and make myself known to you." "…I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed."
What Jesus later says is, "You want to know who the descendents of Abraham are? Those who believe in the promise that I gave Abraham in the same way that Abraham believed." "Then [Abraham] believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness." I can say, like Mary, that all who believe are part of that blessing.
The Christmas story is alive, and Jesus is here today. I think he is appearing to you one more time. He is just saying, "Greetings, favored one. I haven't wrapped up the world in judgment yet. That day is coming, but it hasn't come yet because I'm, '…patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance.'"
"I've left blessed, faithful ones here to declare to you the story a little bit longer. In the midst of the darkness, they are a light to you, revealing to you that something happened in the City of David. That is that Jesus was born that you might be reconciled to God if you'll just humble yourself, see his love, and become his bondservant."
The shepherds responded to that exact same story. Shepherds were not esteemed individuals. Shepherds were long-despised. They were second-class. They were not considered trustworthy. They couldn't serve as judges. They weren't even allowed to be witnesses. They were called sinners and shepherds. The words were interchangeable. Yet God went first to them.
He said to them the blessed words that we've already sung and heard tonight. "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased." Can I just say this to you? God is pleased to reveal to you again that now for 2,000 years he is revealing again the solution to your sin, to your sinfulness.
If you'll just respond to the message from an angel, if you will. The word angel always means messenger. As Gabriel stood before Mary, as the angels stood before the shepherds, I stand before you and I declare to you, "Greetings, favored one!" Peace can be found in this Christ child who gave himself for you.
The shepherds didn't forget what they had seen, but the Scripture says in Luke 2:17, "…they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child." In verse 20 it says their lives were changed. "The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God…" That's what faithful shepherds do. If you know the story of Christmas, you can sing like Mary.
If you know the story of Christmas, you should glorify and praise God like the shepherds. You can be part of the nobodies, like shepherds were, telling everybody about the somebody who was born 2,000 years ago. You can respond in faith so that others say that they're blessed to know you, part of the redeemed who have been rescued from sin and death and who aren't empty of love, but who are humble. This is our privilege.
Really, we have a little tradition here on Christmas Eve where we have taken the Advent candle and we know that there are different aspects to the Advent wreath. There are four different candles that are lit throughout the month, but then when we get to Christmas and in the middle of it, there is the Christ candle.
We've always taken the Christ candle, and from this revelation of God, this provision of God, light goes into the darkness. We've used it as a metaphor. We're going to use it again tonight, and I want you to wait. I want you to wait until the light gets to you that faithful shepherds will take the truth that they've heard and they've seen. They don't just ponder them in their heart.
They proclaim them to all who will receive the message. Not everybody received the message. Jesus says, "Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword." To divide. You have to figure out where you stand in relationship with Christmas. Not just the facts of the story, but what your faith and the condition of your heart and what's the purpose of this child.
If you know him, you're a light of the world. You're God's messenger. You're God's faithful ones who should pass it on a little bit more. Boy, this world knows it. You don't have to be a somebody. You just have to tell everybody about the somebody who is the focus of Christmas.