Christmas - Week 5
Well, it is finally time to start looking at the truths of Christmas by exploring the book of Luke. Today, we will be focusing on points from Luke 1 so please take your Bible or App and read that as you get started today and keep it handy so you can further reference certain passages as noted below.
Thus far we have looked at what Christmas means. It means spiritual light from God; it means reconciliation and peace with God by grace; it means God taking on a human nature and it means that He is truly King. In short, we have been looking at what God gives us in Christmas. Now we should consider how to respond to what He gives or said another way, how we can receive what He gives. Why does Luke tell us so much about how Mary responded to the incarnation? Tim Keller, in his book Hidden Christmas, tells us he believes it is largely to hold up Mary as a model of what responsive Christian faith looks like.
The passage in Luke 1, beginning with verse 26 and extending through verse 38, relays the beautiful account of the angel appearing to Mary telling her that she is “highly favored” in verse 28. There is so much in these two words and so much more than what we can go into today. There is a reason this is the longest chapter in Tim Keller’s book. You may also remember the first sermon that Bishop Dr. Mark Kariuki delivered to us here in Paris on one of his trips from Kenya to the CF Churches in the US. Bishop Mark delivered a powerful sermon taken from these two words.
As the angel appears, verse 29 tells us that Mary is “greatly troubled” and “wondered at this greeting” of “highly favored”. The Greek word here for wondered actually means “to make an audit”. It is an accounting word and it means to be adding things up, weighing and pondering, to be intensely rational. This young, probably 14 or 15-year-old girl that is held up by some religions as most holy, is in essence asking, “How can this be”? Mary doubted, she questioned, she used her reason, just as we must today on our journey of faith. Verse 34 shows us how Mary questioned, “How can this be, since I am a virgin” and verse 38 shows us how Mary answered, “May your word to me be fulfilled”.
Earlier in Luke 1, we see the story of the same angel, Gabriel, appearing to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. Verse 18-21 tells us that Zechariah was much more doubtful than Mary in his response. What we see here is that the Bible’s view of doubt is wonderfully nuanced. In some circles today doubt is considered critical to helping you breakthrough to a truer understanding of God. In others though, any “doubting” is thought of as bad. Someone may tell you “You just have to have more faith!”
What you have in the Bible is neither view. There is a kind of doubt that is the sign of a closed mind, such as that of Zechariah. And there is a kind of doubt that is the sign of an open mind, as with Mary. Some doubt seeks answers and some doubt is a defense against the possibility of answers. There are some people like Mary who are open to the truth and are willing to relinquish sovereignty over their lives if they can be shown that the truth is other than what they thought. And there are those like Zechariah who use doubts as a way of trying to stay in control of their lives and keeping their minds closed. Honestly ask yourself right now and through this note today, which kind of doubt do you have about what is going on in your life and what you believe God is telling you?
It is dangerous to standardize the Christian experience. Many a person has been driven from Christ and others falsely led to think they have what the old preachers called “fire insurance” by standardizing the approach to faith. The Puritan preacher and author John Bunyan, who wrote the famous Christian allegory “Pilgrims Progress”, first published in 1678, struggled in great agony for over a year before finally breaking through and receiving God’s salvific grace and love. The Philippian jailer though heard the gospel and there was a flash of recognition and he was baptized immediately. It should be comforting to all of us that Mary is not like Bunyan, nor is she like the jailer. She shows us that conversion and acceptance come at different speeds to different people. We cannot standardize when and how that should happen. And yet by looking at Mary’s process we can learn much for our own journeys. Let’s look at three key points about Mary’s journey.
First, Mary responded with measured skepticism. The first time she heard the gospel message her response was “How can this be” in verse 34. That is a polite way of saying “this is totally crazy – impossible!” If you have ever really looked at the gospel, even being brought up in a Christian home, and not thought something similar, you may not have ever really understood it. “God becoming a baby”. “A virgin giving birth”. “God dying for you as a free gift”. “Jesus rising from the dead”. All of these concepts seem ridiculous, impossible and inconceivable when really pondered. Mary finds this all hard to believe but she does not stop the conversation. She asks for more information.
Mary’s second stage of her journey is simple acceptance. She says, “May your word be fulfilled” in verse 38. She is not saying, “It is all so clear now. I get it”. Nor is she saying, “I love this plan and I am excited to be part of it”. She is saying “It does not all make sense to me but I will pursue, I will follow”. Some people will make no move toward Jesus at all unless it all comes together for them – rationally, emotionally, and personally. For them it is either rapturous joy in God or nothing at all. But sometimes you can only do what Mary does – just submit and trust despite the fears and reservations. That gives you the very important foothold for moving forward.
Finally, Mary’s third stage shows her eventually coming to exercising faith from her heart. It is only when Mary visits her much older cousin Elizabeth some time later, who is pregnant with John the Baptist, that it all comes together for her. The knowledge and insight from Elizabeth through the Holy Spirit confirms to Mary what the angel had said and this gives her a deeper assurance of faith. It is at this point she burst into praise as recorded in verses 46 - 55. Now she can declare, “My soul glorifies – my spirit rejoices” in verse 46 and 47. She then makes the great point our Father wants us to all come to in verse 48. She declares how grateful she is that “He has been mindful” of her. He has bestowed favor upon her, a humble young teenage girl. She is giving her whole heart joyfully due to what He first gave her – favor or grace. In the end, faith always moves beyond mental assent and duty and will involve the whole self – mind, will and emotions.
Why does faith take this kind of time and follow so many different paths? It is because true faith is not something that you simply decide in yourself to exercise. It is not a process of which you are in control. I realize many may disagree with that concept based on what you may have been taught your entire life in church. But if you have sat in one of the classes I have had the gracious opportunity to lead for many years, then you have heard something like what Tim Keller mentions in his book. The human psyche fights this concept for the human mind must feel as though it is in control. The human mind must feel as though “I am in charge”. In the end though, only God can open your heart and help you break through all of your doubts and fears. One of the marks of real Christian faith is a sense that there is some kind of power outside of you putting its finger on you, coming to you, and dealing with you. It shows you things you find incredible, helps you see that it is true, and then enables you to rejoice and give yourself to Christ as Lord and Savior. It is then you as a “favored child of God” can sing as Mary did with your soul glorifying and your spirit rejoicing. You have been “born again” by the power of the Holy Spirit of God and not by anything you have done. It is a gift you have been favored to receive.
The author of the book we are studying makes a further point about the awe Mary experiences at the favor God has bestowed upon her, the mindful awareness the creator of the universe has expressed toward her. The author states that if you think Christianity is mainly going to church, believing a certain creed, and living a certain kind of life, then there will be no note of awe and surprise about the fact you are a believer. However, if Christianity is something done for you, and to you, and in you, then there is a constant note of surprise and awe and non-ending gratitude.
The term “favor” expressed by the angel to Mary is a term that I love to discuss with those willing to examine it. I could never give it the same justice that Bishop Mark did in that sermon a few years ago but I still love pondering just what God has done. Was Mary the most self-righteous of all the young 14 to 15-year-old girls in all Israel and that is why the angel came to her to be the mother of His Son or did God choose to bestow favor upon this young woman that then resulted in her becoming righteous? Your answer to that question changes how you approach the miracle of the salvation. This same point of favor is brought up very early in the Bible. Genesis 6:8 states that “Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord” prior to saying Noah was a righteous man in verse 9. Some translations use the word “favor” here and some use the word “grace”. Did a self-righteous Noah earn God’s favor/grace or did God show favor/grace to Noah that then brought him righteousness? When God called Abraham out of the land beyond the Euphrates and told him to leave that land where his father and brother worshipped other God’s, do you think Abraham was not doing the same thing (Joshua 24:2-3)? Or, do you think God showed favor to Abraham and got him out of there for the sake of the eternal plan He had set in place? All through history, God has been showing favor toward His children and toward His plan and He still works the same way today.
Open your eyes today to see the amazing favor God has bestowed upon you in calling you to be one of His children. This will change how you too sing praises to your God for what He has done FOR YOU, IN YOU, and TO YOU. May this note of “favor”, added with the previous four notes on Christmas, open your eyes to an even more blessed Christmas this year and a New Year in 2022. May you see and experience the things of God more clearly than ever before in your life as you continue your journey of faith and Look Unto Jesus, the author and finisher of your faith.
Next week, “The Shepherd’s Faith” from Luke 2:8-20.