Thursday, 8 December 2016


Mary: A Call to Provide
Luke 1:26-38

Just last week I got a telephone call from my grandson Sam. We had our usual conversation “Hello?”

“(awkward pause) Is gramma there?”

“Yep here you go.” And with that I pass it over to Ruth.

Normally Sam’s conversations are 5 minutes long, but this time it went on and on and on.  When Ruth eventually hung up I said “So … what was that call all about?”

“Oh,” she said “He was just calling in what he wanted for Christmas.”

I am sure that every one of you are going to either make one of those calls or receive one of those calls yourselves this year. Maybe you’ll do both. But let me tell you this God has call for you this Christmas. That call might be different for each and every one of us here but God will be calling you this Christmas. Indeed He has been calling to people since the very first one.

God’s first call was to a priest, a very holy man, in the city of Jerusalem, God’s Holy City, who was working in the Temple, the place the called the House of God. If we were to think about who or where God was going to call to someone we are certainly not surprised He called to a holy man, in the Holy City, working in the holy temple. But that is not the only place God calls. 

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And
the angel departed from her.” Luke 1:26-38

This message from the angel was unbelievable news from the lips of Gabriel to the ears of Mary was a call to provide. Every Jewish girl prayed and dreamed of the privilege being the Madonna … the mother of the Messiah of God’s people. The thought of being chosen to be a part of the plan that would provide the rescuer, redeemer, and savior for Israel was a hope and a future any young Jewish lady would be honored to experience. And it’s just like God to extend the Call of Christmas to come forth from the place, person, and circumstances that we see in the story.

Verse 26 sets the stage for us.

“In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth,” Luke 1:26

The city of Nazareth is quite a contrast to the city of Jerusalem that is the staging ground for the earlier section in chapter 1. If a city was to provide a carrier for the Messiah, it seems like Jerusalem would be much more of a natural option. Jerusalem was the center of the Jewish world. Nazareth was off the beaten path. It was accessible to trade routes, but one had to want to go to Nazareth to get there. Jerusalem was seen as significant; Nazareth seemed insignificant. John 1:46 records the contemporary Judean opinion of Nazareth.

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” John 1:46

And the region of Galilee was such a contrast to the region of Judea. The former was out in the country; the latter had a wilderness but was known for the big city. Galilee was rough around the
edges and anything but Kosher in their kitchens. Judea was much more polished, prim and proper and followed all the religious rules. But at the end of the day, God sends an angel both to Jerusalem to give a message to a priest in the temple just as quickly as He seeks out a quaint town on the outskirts of the country hills in Nazareth for a visitation. All real estate on the earth is an equal opportunity for God to do something great and place a call to provide for the next part of His plan.

No matter if you live in the big city or the big country, on the right side of the tracks or the wrong side, in the high tax bracket neighborhoods or below the poverty line, God knows where you are and how to send a message your way. He is calling you this Christmas!

Wherever you are this Christmas, God can use you to be a part of His plan and to do His will. You never are off the grid when it comes to God and his location services. He is aware of your whereabouts and has plans for you regardless of where you come from or where you live. Verse 27 goes on to tell us about the one with the womb who would be called upon to provide the savior would be a most unlikely candidate in the eyes of the world. God sent Gabriel

“to a virgin betrothed to a man who name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.” Luke 1:27

The fact that it states Mary was “betrothed” to Joseph meant they were not merely engaged. A Jewish engagement resulted in a marital status which, though unconsummated, was as sacred as marriage itself. The consummation would come later, but the commitment and covenant were just as strong beforehand in the eyes of that culture and time. The fact that she is signified as a virgin harkens back to the prophecy of the Messiah from Isaiah that all Jews would be aware of in that day.

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a
son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Isaiah 7:14

Luke is writing details that tie back to Old Testament prophecy in such a way as if to say to all his readers: “Here’s your sign!”

Luke goes on to unfurl what God’s messenger, Gabriel, said to Mary upon his arrival in verse 28.
“And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” Luke 1:28

The more things change, the more things stay the same. While this salutation from the angel looks unique at first glance, it is very similar to the way the angel of the Lord greeted another unsuspecting individual with a mighty call to provide for the people of God. In the book of Judges, we see God call a man named Gideon to a great task that would save his people from the oppressive Midianites. In chapter 6:12 the scene is recorded.

“And the angel of the Lord appeared to him and said to him, ‘The Lord is with you, O mighty
man of valor.” Judges 6:12

The message from the angel for both Gideon and Mary includes the reminder that “The Lord is with you.” And the name stated in Isaiah’s prophecy we just noted from 7:14 for the coming Messiah was Immanuel. The meaning: God with us. The Lord is with you. The Call of Christmas is a reminder that the Lord is with you. The call of Mary is a call to provide. Only a favored one in the eyes of God would be given the privilege and the call to provide the Christ-child who soon would be with us in the form of a baby from her womb. The fact that she was a virgin would mean God would have to be the one to create inside of her this one she was being called to provide for the salvation of the world.

Such a call to motherhood in this fashion would be frightening to consider. But the appearance and speaking from an angelic visitor would cause one to be full of fear as well. Verse 29 and following confirms such an emotion.

“But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’” Luke 1:29-33

Names are indicative of parental hopes, and this name certainly would stir the hopes of God’s people. The name, ‘Jesus,’ means “the Lord is salvation.” She was being called to provide the womb and nurturing motherhood for the salvation that would be put in her provided place from the Lord. She was not the one who was the source of such grace as some have supposed. It was God who chose to put His favor on her and create the salvation source in her that would be provided through her because of the goodness and favor from God.

The theological truth being: Mary by herself could not produce a son, but God could give her one
whose name, Jesus, means “God saves.” This, in essence, is the gospel: humans cannot produce their own salvation, but God can and has chosen to accomplish it for all of humanity. He just desired for the Call of Christmas to come through the womb of a virgin from a remote country village. Mary’s call was a call to provide what God had decided. She provided herself, and God would do the rest.

As Mary is processing the message from the angel she did so by asking a logical question. She knew that she had not been with Joseph yet, or any man in that regard, that possibly could have led to such a conception in her womb.

“And Mary said to the angel, ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?’” Luke 1:34

This was not a statement of unbelief. Rather, it was a question of trying to understand. God never
gets tired or frustrated with our honest questions. He invites us to stay curious as we seek to
understand who He is and what He wants us to do and become in our lives.

Mary was going to have to trust God with the details. A promise was being made to Mary that only could come true to fulfillment if God provided the details. Mary was being called into the promise; her part was to provide the womb that would lead to a legacy of salvation from sin, death, Satan and hell. God provided the details. Mary provided her life as real estate to be claimed, developed and turned into a home base for the fulfillment of the promise to take place. It was a call to provide. And only God had the power to do it and make the promise come true. Mary had the opportunity to join God in the call of Christmas.

Gabriel explained God’s plan to Mary’s question of ‘how?’

“And the angel answered her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most
High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.’” Luke 1:35

As Luke writes of this conversation, he mentions the Holy Spirit just as he did earlier in verse 15 and as he does six more times in his first two chapters: (1:41, 67, 80, 2:25, 26, 27). The reason this is so important is that Luke does not want his readers to forget that the Call of Christmas is wrapped in the activity and working of the Holy Spirit. Verse 35 references that not only will the Holy Spirit come upon Mary with this incredible detail of how this promise is going to come to fruition, Luke also notes that God’s power is going to “overshadow” Mary in the process.

The word for ‘overshadow’ in the original language is episkiazo and carries the sense of the holy, powerful presence of God. The same meaning from this word is how the cloud that covered and overshadowed the tabernacle when the tent was filled with the glory of God from the Old Testament story in Exodus 40:34-35.

“Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.” Exodus 40-34-35

The same imagery and feel from how the presence of God is described in the Old Testament reference above is the same imagery and feel with the word “overshadowed” here in the details of Gabriel’s message to Mary. God’s presence through his Holy Spirit is going to be thick and at work in such a way that it is clear something holy is happening in our midst.

There are places on the earth where the moment you walk into it there is a sense that you are standing on holy ground. The great Cathedrals of Europe that cause a person to look up and feel small as the massive arches ascend towards the heavens can have this effect. When a choir fills the cavernous space with angelic voices that reverberate throughout, a person can have a feeling of being overshadowed, episkiazo, by the presence of God’s Holy Spirit.

The word episkiazo is used again in all three accounts of the Transfiguration to describe the overshadowing of the cloud in Matthew 17:5 cf., Mark 9:7 and Luke 9:34.

“He was still speaking when, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the
cloud said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” Matthew 17:5

In each account the voice comes out of the cloud identifying Jesus as God’s Son, a striking reminder of what Luke states in 1:35 where the life that results from the enveloping cloud is identified as the Son of God.

Biblical scholar William Hendriksen notes that the overshadowing or covering which Luke speaks of here in verse 35 is not static but active. It is creative and productive. It causes Mary to conceive a child. Such activity by the Spirit of God moves back to the creation account in Genesis 1:2 where the Spirit of God is stated as being present and hovering.

“The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Genesis 1:2

Life soon abounds where the active Spirit of God was at work. The same connection is seen in other places throughout the Bible such as Psalm 104:30.

“When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground.” Psalm 104:30

The overshadowing Spirit, therefore, not only protects but also creates. It brings about conception in Mary’s womb that she provides. The Call of Christmas for Mary is a Call to Provide. N.T. Wright goes on to suggest, “The Holy Spirit will come upon Mary, enabling her (as the Spirit always does) to do and be more than she could by herself. But at the same time, the ‘power of the Most High’ will overshadow her. This is something different: God Himself, the Creator, will surround her completely with his sovereign power.”

God’s power from outside, and the indwelling Spirit within, together result in things being done which would have been unthinkable any other way. At the same time, God supernaturally is providing the details of how the Messiah will be born by Mary, notice the kindness of God in how He provides someone to walk alongside Mary during this unique time of her calling.

“And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Luke 1:36-37

Experts of that time and culture suggest Mary likely suffered embarrassment and loneliness as a result of being the person picked by God to be the mother of God’s Chosen One. The angel not only delivers God’s message with a sign to her regarding her immaculate conception while still a virgin, but also suggests a confidant with whom she may share her strange and wonderful experience in her relative Elizabeth. It always is better to walk through unique and challenging seasons of life when we have someone by our side to help experience the journey. God knew this. And God provided for even the smallest details and every emotional need that Mary would experience along the way.

Robert Dean notes many interesting parallels between the angelic announcements to Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, and Mary found in Luke 1. In each case the angel Gabriel appeared and announced the birth of a son who was to play a crucial role in God’s plan; a son who was named by the angel and who was to be born under unusual circumstances. However, in spite of the parallels, there are at least three significant differences.

First: Messenger and Messiah. John was to be the prophetic Messenger, and Jesus was to be the Messiah.

Second: Old Age and Virgin Birth. John was born to an old couple beyond normal childbearing years. Jesus was born of a virgin. The language of Luke 1:35 is that of Genesis 1, where the Spirit of God was active in creation. John’s conception has Old Testament parallels in Isaac, the child of promise born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age from Genesis 21; but the conception of Jesus has its parallel in the miracle of the divine creation. Jesus was born to a virgin, but he was born.

Third: The Priest of God and the Servant of the Lord. Different responses to Gabriel came forth from Zechariah and Mary upon receiving their respective messages and calls to Christmas. Each initially was troubled, afraid and questioned how such a thing could be. However, there the similarities end.

Zechariah was struck dumb by his unbelief. Mary, by contrast, believed. The angel told Mary of Elizabeth’s conception in her old age in verse 36 and used words reminiscent of God’s words to Abraham and Sarah; “With God, nothing will be impossible.” (cf. v.37 and Genesis 18:14 “Is anything too hard for the Lord?”)

Mary responded with trust and submission to God’s will in verse 38 because she believed what the angel reminded her of in verse 37.

“For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’ And the angel departed from her.” Luke 1:37-38

The fact that nothing is impossible with God is one of the most hopeful statements of reality found in the entire Bible.

So I ask you, what is your “impossible” this Christmas that the Lord wants to remind you is not impossible with Him?

Is your “impossible” a situation at work, at school, with your finances, your marriage, a strained relationship with your kids that seems all but lost? Is your “impossible” a slate of responsibilities that feels crippling and consuming? Is your “impossible” a never ending debt payment that soaks up all you make and leaves you with little to live on without taking on more debt?

What if your Call of Christmas is a reminder that nothing is impossible when the Savior is on the

What if your call is like Mary’s: a call to provide God space to take up residence within your life and begin to work?

What if God wants you to provide space in your life that can be overshadowed by Him as His Holy Spirit goes to work on you, in you and through your life circumstances? The process may be painful but necessary for something new to be created. It may require counseling. It may include a total budget rework. It may be cause for confession and a request for forgiveness. But whatever God may lead you to do in your “impossible”, know that you will not be asked to walk alone. He is with you. He is Immanuel. He is Jesus. The Lord is salvation.

All you need to do is provide the Spirit of God space in your life to take up residence and being a new work in you. Mary did. And her call of Christmas was a call to provide her whole self to grow the Son of God inside her womb.

What might you ask God to produce in you and your life as you answer His call this Christmas?

Tuesday, 6 December 2016


A few weeks ago I received a note from a young member of our congregation stating that they had a friend who has, up until now, had a pretty terrible life. During a conversation with that friend, the friend said the fact that they had had a terrible life is proof that there is no God. The young person who contacted me said that they didn’t know  how to respond and so was reaching out to me to provide them with some wisdom. I responded to that young person directly but in case any of you have been in that young person’s place and didn’t know how to respond or have been in their friend’s spot and have had you faith shaken, I have jotted down a few notes that you may find to be helpful.
The question "Why me?" is a natural one when suffering and tragedy come our way. It is also a natural question to ask when good things happen too; for example, when you survive a cancer that others with the same kind of cancer don’t, or when you live through an accident but other do not, we also ask, "Why me?"

Suffering and death can seem random and senseless. The Columbine High School shootings -- in which some people were spared and others lost—is a vivid example of this, but there are plenty of others every day: from casualties in the Syria uprising to victims of motor vehicle accidents. Tsunamis, tornadoes, household accidents—the list is long. As a minister, I’ve spent hours with suffering people crying: “Why did God let this happen?” In general I hear four answers to this question—but each is wrong, or at least inadequate.

The first answer is, "This makes no sense—I guess this proves there is no God." First of all, this is a very arrogant statement – just because I don’t know the answer to “why?” doesn’t mean that there isn’t an answer. Putting this aside, the problem of senseless suffering does not go away if you abandon belief in God. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, said that if there was no higher divine Law, there would be no way to tell if any particular human law was unjust or not. If there is no God, then what makes anything Hitler ever did wrong? If there is no God, then why have a sense of outrage and horror when suffering and tragedy occur? If there is no God all we have is nature. When you look at nature and see the strong dominating the weak in the never ending cycle of Darwinian's natural selection then, without God, you are left saying “The strong eat the weak—that’s life—so why not?” When Friedrich Nietzsche heard that a natural disaster had destroyed Java in 1883, he wrote a friend: “Two hundred thousand wiped out at a stroke—how magnificent!” Nietzsche was relentless in his logic. Because if there is no God, all value judgments are arbitrary. All definitions of justice are just the results of your culture or temperament. As different as they were in other ways, King and Nietzsche agreed on this point. If there is no God or higher divine Law, then violence is perfectly natural. So abandoning belief in God doesn’t help with the problem of suffering at all. It doesn't help you understand suffering. It doesn't help you heal from suffering. It doesn't help you handle suffering. All it does is remove many resources for facing it.

The second answer is, “If there is a God, senseless suffering proves that God is not completely in control of everything. He couldn’t stop this.”  As many thinkers have pointed out—both devout believers as well as atheists—such a being, whatever it is, doesn’t really fit our definition of God. And this leaves you with the same problems mentioned above. If you don’t believe in a God powerful enough to create and sustain the whole world, then the world came about through natural forces, and that means, again, that violence is natural. Or if you think that God is an impersonal life force and this whole material world is just an illusion, again you remove any reason to be outraged at evil and suffering or to resist it.

The third answer to seemingly sudden, random death is, "God saves some people and lets others die because He favors and rewards good people." But the Bible forcefully rejects the idea that people who suffer more are worse people than those who are spared suffering. This was the self-righteous premise of Job’s friends in that great Old Testament book. They sat around Job, who was experiencing one sorrow in life after another, and said, "the reason this is happening to you and not us is because we are living right and you are not." At the end of the book, God expresses his fury at Job’s "miserable comforters." The world is too fallen and deeply broken to issue in neat patterns of good people having good lives and bad people having bad lives.

The fourth answer is, "God knows what he’s doing, so be quiet and trust him." This is partly right, but inadequate. It is inadequate because it is cold and because the Bible gives us more with which to face the terrors of life.

God did not create a world with death and evil in it. It is the result of humankind turning away from Him. We were put into this world to live wholly for Him, and when instead we began to live for ourselves everything in our created reality began to fall apart—physically, socially, and spiritually. Everything became subject to decay. But God did not abandon us. Of all the world's major religions, only Christianity teaches that God came to earth (in Jesus Christ) and became subject to suffering and death Himself—dying on the Cross to take the punishment our sins deserved—so that someday He can return to earth to end all suffering without ending us.

Do you see what this means? Yes, we don’t know the reason God allows evil and suffering to continue, or why at times it is so random, but now at least we know what the reason isn’t—what it can’t be. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us! It can’t be that he doesn’t care. He is so committed to our ultimate happiness that he was willing to plunge into the greatest depths of suffering himself.

He understands us, He’s been there, and He assures us that He has a plan to eventually to wipe away every tear, to make "everything sad come untrue," as J.R.R. Tolkien put it at the end of his Christian allegory The Lord of the Rings.

Someone might say, "But that’s only half an answer to the question 'Why?'" Yes, but it is the half that we need.

If God actually explained all the reasons why He allows things to happen as they do, it would be too much for our finite brains. Think of small children and their relationship to their parents. Three-year-olds can’t understand most of what their parents allow and disallow for them. But though they aren’t capable of comprehending their parents’ reasons, they are capable of knowing their parents’ love, and therefore capable of trusting them and living securely. That is what they really need. Now the difference between God and human beings would be infinitely greater than the difference between a thirty-year-old parent and a three-year-old child. So we should not expect to be able to grasp all God’s purposes, but through the Cross and gospel of Jesus Christ, we can know his love. And that is what we need most.

In Ann Voskamp’s book One Thousand Gifts, she shares her journey to understand the senseless death of her sister, crushed by a truck at the age of two. In the end, she concludes that the primary issue is whether we trust God’s character. Is he really loving? Is he really just? Her conclusion:

"[God] gave us Jesus... If God didn’t withhold from us His very own Son, will God withhold anything we need? If trust must be earned, hasn’t God unequivocally earned our trust with the bark on the raw wounds, the thorns pressed into the brow, your name on the cracked lips? How will He not also graciously give us all things He deems best and right? He’s already given the incomprehensible.”