December 6, 2015

When God Visited

Have you ever held a story as really important without really knowing the whole story?  Let me take you back a couple of weeks ago and give you a seasonal example.  We’ve already heard the story of Thanksgiving and believe that it’s at least relatively important.  But have you ever heard the whole story?

It begins not with the Pilgrims, but several years before with a young man named Squanto living with his tribe near the Massachusetts coast, and some English traders.  Although they rarely actually made landfall, English traders had been sailing those waters and doing business with the locals for several years before any permanent settlements were erected.  On one of these trips, Squanto was sent out to the traders’ ship with some other members of his tribe.  They were all taken captive by the traders, taken back to Europe, and sold into slavery in Spain.  As it happened, Squanto himself was sold to a Catholic Bishop who treated him well, taught him Spanish, and introduced him to the Gospel which he embraced.  He was later freed and made his way to England where he sought work at some docks in hopes of finding passage on a ship heading to the New World.  And while he learned English during his time working here his hopes remained rather dim as finding a ship heading to the New World then was about like finding a ship heading for the moon is today.  Nevertheless, eventually his hopes were made sight and he survived a second perilous journey across the Atlantic.

When he arrived back in the New World he immediately headed for the clearing where his village had been.  To his great dismay, though, the place was a ghost town.  Small pox had wiped out the entire population.  He joined with another tribe in the area and lived his life with a skill set and belief system that looked to profit him almost nothing.  It would profit him nothing, that is, until he heard word of some settlers from England who were struggling rather mightily and would probably not make it.  Unaware of any of this backstory, the English settlers, all committed followers of Jesus, had been praying desperately to God for help in their increasingly bleak situation.  Something either had to give or else they were going home which was not a terribly encouraging prospect for a number of reasons.  And then one day, these two stories collided and the ordinary became infused with the extraordinary.  A native man came walking out of the woods confessing Christ, speaking English, and ready to teach them the skills they needed to survive another winter in this unexpectedly harsh environment.  The rest, as they say, is history.

So yes, the Thanksgiving story is important as you have perhaps always known, but in knowing the whole story you can see just how important it is.  There are a lot of stories like that.  In fact, shifting gears back to the season we are currently celebrating, the story of the coming of Christ is recognized by many as an important one, but perhaps not as many really know the story.  They know some generalized details—whether they believe those or not is another story—but that’s about it.  But when we really know the story we can see that it’s not just generally one of which most people should have a passing familiarity, but rather one capable of and even intended to impact the way we understand the world, the way we understand the God we profess to serve.  For He does not change and if He could do that kind of thing then, He could still do it today.  What is “that kind of thing” you ask?  Well, you’ve got to know the story to find out.  To that end, this morning and on the Sunday after the kids’ Christmas program, I’m going to tell you the stories of Christmas.  We’ll start this morning in Luke and then shift gears to Matthew in a few weeks.  With that said, grab a nearby copy of the Scriptures and turn or thumb your way to Luke 1 and let’s take a look together at this story that has changed the world dozens of times over.

The story doesn’t actually begin with Jesus at all.  It begins before anybody even knew He was coming.  It begins—as many of God’s stories seem to begin—with a man and his wife hoping for child but whose hopes were growing dim at the hands of time and years of infertility.  And while today we might shake our heads in sorrow for them—especially for couples who have struggled with fertility in any way—that’s about it.  We gloss over something like this because we have so many alternative ways to conceive a child today, but also because our culture does not value parenthood to anywhere near the degree theirs did.  For us, a couple who either cannot or even simply struggles to conceive for some reason is to be pitied, but most other folks don’t even give them a second thought.  In the first century such a couple, and the woman in particular, were considered cursed by God.  There was something wrong with her.  She wasn’t a good wife.  She couldn’t manage to do the one most important thing that wives were supposed to do.  In a culture in which women were already considered nearly valueless, barren women were even lower.

But for many, many folks, this is life.  This is ordinary.  Tens of thousands of couples struggle to bring a child into the world.  Lisa and I have walked that road.  We have three wonderful boys, but we have four children.  We’re going to have to wait until Jesus returns to hold the fourth.  Come, Lord Jesus, come.  And I won’t do a survey of hands because this isn’t something everybody feels comfortable sharing, but we’re not the only ones in this room who have more children than we can lay eyes on and put arms around.  Yet we can speak of the blessing of our three boys.  For a couple named Zechariah and Elizabeth, their pain remained acute and their hope was nearly expired.  They knew one of the tragedies of the ordinary and lived it every day.  Making their pain even more acute is that they were a righteous couple.  Luke describes them in v. 6 like this: “And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.”  They were Job.  Righteous by all accounts including God’s and yet facing tragedy without explanation.

But then everything changed.  Stay with me at v. 8: “Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.  And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.”  This was all taking place in the Temple in Jerusalem.  The heart of the Temple was the Holy Place, the room in which it was believed the very presence of God dwelt.  Once a year a priest would enter the Holy Place and make an offering of incense to God.  In Zechariah’s day the various groups of priests served in an active-duty capacity in the Temple once a year on a rotating basis.  This happened to be the time for the special incense offering and Zechariah got the winning straw.  This was all part of the ordinary routine of the religious life of the nation of which he was very much apart.  This time, though, the extraordinary broke into the scene.

Verse 11: “And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.  And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him [which is Bible-speak for “he was scared out of his mind and figured he was done for”].  But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.  And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord.  And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.  And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.’”

Now, we might hear that and think, “Wow!  What a message.”  Trust me, Zechariah’s amazement would have gone many orders of magnitude beyond this for he understood very well that this angel was announcing the beginning of the sequence of events that would lead directly to the arrival of the Messiah, the figure for who Zechariah and all those like him had been eagerly waiting for their entire lives.  Dozens of generations had come and gone in hopes of seeing the Messiah come and restore Israel and Zechariah was receiving the message that the unfolding of these events was not only about to begin, but would begin with his barren wife conceiving and bringing to term a child who would grow to be the forerunner of the Messiah.

He was no doubt entirely dumbstruck which is probably why he couldn’t think of anything better to say than, “How is this possible because my wife and I are too old for her to get pregnant anymore?”  For his disbelief, the priest, who should have known better, is struck mute until the child arrives.  Meanwhile, outside the curtain separating the Holy of Holies from the main sanctuary of the Temple, the crowd waiting for Zechariah to return was growing awfully nervous.  Had God struck him down for some infraction?  Were they going to need to use the rescue rope to drag his body out?  Was there even a body left to pull?  If God was unhappy with Zechariah was He then unhappy with the rest of them?  Should they all back up a bit in case lightning bolts started to fly?  When he finally emerged from behind the curtain he couldn’t tell them what had happened—which was probably a gift from God if you really think about it—but they knew something had happened by virtue of his sudden inability to speak.  God was doing something and they were going to have to simply wait and see what it would be.  True to the angel’s word, though, Elizabeth was soon pregnant.  For reasons we are not told but at which we can direct any number of good guesses she keeps the news to herself for five months.

Meanwhile, life went on for everybody else like it always did.  The ordinary rolled on unhindered.  Life was ordinary in a village some distance to the north called Galilee where a young girl named Mary was betrothed to a man named Joseph who was likely many years her senior.  This was ordinary.  As soon as girls hit puberty they were married off so they did not unproductively drain away the limited resources their fathers and unmarried brothers managed to generate to sustain the rest of the family.

Yet once again, the extraordinary was about to break in to the ordinary.  One day—about six months after Elizabeth discovered her pregnancy—Mary was going about her ordinary routines when Gabriel, the angel who had announced John’s birth to Zechariah, made another appearance.  His news for Mary, though, was even more difficult to swallow than had been Zechariah’s.  Look at this with me at v. 30: “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.’”

As with Zechariah’s news, our first reaction here is, “Wow!” but think a bit further about just what Gabriel said.  His message was not: “Hey Mary, sometime after the wedding you are going to turn up pregnant.”  She already knew that.  Her job once the marriage was finalized was going to be to have babies and raise them.  That’s it.  But that’s not what Gabriel said.  His message was: “You’re going to get pregnant now, before the wedding; before the circumstances which could result in a pregnancy will manifest themselves for you.”  What Gabriel had announced to Zechariah was miraculous, but within the realm of possible things.  This was not.  And Mary knew it.  She may have had a pre-scientific worldview living in the first century, but she knew where babies came from.  It takes two and this angel had just told her it was going to happen with one.  And his explanation was very simply that this was something God was going to do.  Oh, and by the way, if she wants some support she should probably go see her cousin who is also pregnant in spite of circumstances that should have prevented such a thing from happening.

Mary takes Gabriel’s advice and goes to see Elizabeth.  The cousins [and this was probably more of a Dinwiddie definition of “cousin”] delight in each other’s company and share both the burden and the joy of the news they had received.  Elizabeth feels John move rather dramatically when Mary arrives which she attributes to his delight at being in the presence of his Lord.  The two women whose ordinary lives have been infused with the extraordinary lean on and minister to each other for three months at which point Mary returns home and Elizabeth prepares to have a baby.  For Mary, her adventure is just getting started.  She has many challenges yet to overcome before her baby even arrives.  Elizabeth’s maternity journey is about to end.  At long last she gives birth and celebrates with all of her friends and family.  Zechariah officially names the child John and receives back the ability to speak.  The story of this couple spread throughout the region and left many people wondering what the Lord was doing.  For his part, Zechariah offers this incredible word of praise to God and prophecy about his son’s future.  At this point, as Luke writes in v. 80: John “grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.”  His story is not done, but his life for the next several years will be consumed by the ordinary.  And, contrary to what you might think, with but a few exceptions, so will Mary’s.

We’ll talk more in a couple of weeks about how the next six months went for Mary, but as she was nearing her due date she and Joseph got some rather unfortunate news.  Haven’t you been there before?  Your plate was already as full as you could handle and then suddenly a load got dumped on you that made it ten times worse.  That’s ordinary, isn’t it?  I don’t know how many times life has exercised some muscle on Lisa and I and our first response in the moment was a somewhat despairing, “One more thing…”  I’ll bet you’ve been there too.  I mean here was Mary, about 14 years old, nearly 9 months pregnant, under a constant pall of suspicion from friends and family who were convinced she had been unfaithful to the man who was inexplicably standing by her, and no doubt deeply burdened by the thought that she was being entrusted with the care of God’s Messiah.  And then this: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.  This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.  And all went to be registered, each to his own town.  And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.”

What comes next is the single verse summary that Jesus was born.  It’s treated almost like an afterthought and as far as births then went was completely ordinary.  But think for a minute about this trip, this “one more thing” in their lives.  It was about 80 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem…if you traveled directly from one to the other.  But in those days you couldn’t.  Sitting in between Galilee and Judea was Samaria.  Jews didn’t go through Samaria.  That wasn’t a safe trip.  There was a lot of bad blood there.  Joseph and Mary would have had to travel an extra three to four days out of their way meaning they had over a week of travel ahead of them.  Now ladies, if you have been through the journey of pregnancy, do you remember those last three or four weeks?  How much did you feel like getting on the road for a week in those days?  Would it change anything if you knew you were going to be riding on a donkey or else walking the whole time?  Anybody?  Yeah, that’s about what I thought?  So not only would the travel be hard, imagine what the thought of it would have done for your mood in those days.  I’m sure this was just a peach of a trip for these two.  No arguments.  Totally peaceful.  No bad attitudes.  Nothing like that at all…or something like that.  Let’s not even mention the fact that when they finally got to town they couldn’t find any place to stay except what would have undoubtedly been a smelly cave that doubled as a barn.  And yet, that’s life.  We stroll along figuring we have about all we can handle and then all of a sudden life rises up to bite us in the tail and we are so overloaded we’re not sure how we’re going to make it.  Yet forward through the mess is the only way to go.  And so we push onward, not because we can, but because don’t have any other choice.  Ordinary.

This is exactly what the young couple did.  They had a very ordinary birthing of their infant son and for reasons we do not know, rather than returning to Galilee, set up shop in Bethlehem and stayed there for a couple of years.  What they did not know, however, was that the extraordinary was breaking into the scene yet again on the outskirts of town.  There were some shepherds gathered there watching over the flocks they had been hired to guard.  Now, we like to glorify the shepherds, but theirs was not a very good lot in those days.  Nobody liked shepherds.  They smelled bad, they weren’t good in polite company, you weren’t ever sure if you could trust them, and the list went on and on.  They were on the outskirts of town in part because nobody wanted them any closer than that.  These shepherds were huddled down together—probably in the midst of the sheep for warmth—and were biding their time until morning when suddenly another of God’s messengers made an appearance.  Like Mary and Zechariah before them they were terrified and were first told to fear not.  Then came this message in Luke 2:10: “…I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

If this wasn’t enough to blow their hair back, in the next instant the entire sky was filled with brilliant light as a whole chorus of angels appeared and as a group praised God together: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”  They dropped everything, risked a severe reprimand from the owner of the flock for deserting their duties, and headed straight for Bethlehem.

And I know it sounds odd to say it, but at this point the ordinary takes back over in the story and for at least the rest of Luke’s narrative remains in control.  Think about it: a couple had a baby and people came in from out of town to celebrate.  Ordinary.  We’ve had three babies and folks came in from out of town to celebrate every time.  Even the shepherds spreading the news of the child to everyone who would listen to them was ordinary.  I mean, how many times have you heard about a friend or family member having a baby and excitedly told someone else about it.  Come on, if you’re a grandparent you know you’ve done this.  When your grandbaby was born you pulled out your brag book to everyone who would listen and most of the folks who wouldn’t.

The simple truth is that the story of Jesus’ birth is, for the most part, an ordinary one.  Think about how it compares to the birth narratives for other gods and goddesses or even simply mythological figures.  Athena sprang fully grown from the forehead of her father, Zeus.  Apollo was born on a secret island and when a giant snake attacked he grabbed and choked the life out of it to protect his mother…as an infant.  Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman to ever live, was hatched from an egg.  There are more where these come from.  But Jesus?  You could be forgiven for missing His actual birth it is so understated.  And yet this was the coming of earth of its creator.  God was taking on human flesh to live among us.  Surely we can’t call that ordinary.  Indeed it wasn’t.  It was extraordinary.  So then which is it?  Was the birth of Jesus ordinary or extraordinary?  Both.  In the birth of Jesus the ordinary and extraordinary became one.

Now, there are a lot of things we can draw out of the story of Jesus’ birth.  We can learn a ton of things about the God we serve and His heart for us.  But this morning I want to focus your attention in on this one in particular: in the birth of Jesus the ordinary and extraordinary became one.  We live our lives each day swimming in a sea of ordinary.  And by the way, “ordinary” doesn’t mean easy or problem-free.  Because of the sin-soaked world in which we live, disease, destruction, and even death are ordinary.  Most of the time we don’t give this a lot of thought, but in our most honest moments, we quietly long for the extraordinary.  This is the case whether you are a follower of Jesus or not.  If you are you may long for God to act in one of the extraordinary ways we see throughout the Scriptures.  If you’re not, you still long for extraordinary things but simply of a different nature.  You want a break from the ordinary.

A movie came out a couple of years ago called The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.  It’s about a guy who lives an ordinary life with an ordinary job and ordinary friends who has these day dreaming spells of doing extraordinary things.  Then one day he sets out on an extraordinary adventure and bam! his ordinary life is replaced by this more exciting one.  The movie was great, but we watch this kind of thing and think, “That’s what I want!  I want to replace my ordinary life for an extraordinary one.”  But the truth is that after his adventure, his life went back to being ordinary.  It was a different ordinary than before, but it was still ordinary.

You may have an adventure or two, but your life is still consumed with the ordinary and it will always be but for this one thing: in the birth of Jesus the ordinary and the extraordinary became one.  When God entered into this world as one of us the life He lived and the life He now gives to everyone who follows after Him is one in which the ordinary has become the extraordinary and the extraordinary has become the ordinary.  In the birth of Jesus the ordinary and the extraordinary became one.  If you want your life to be more than the same ordinary that everyone else is living, the secret is found in taking part in His story.  When you take part in His story the ordinary and the extraordinary become indistinguishable.  Not because you’re doing only the things that people would easily recognize as extraordinary, but because you are doing everything with the goal in mind of seeing His kingdom advance on this world and in His kingdom the extraordinary is ordinary.

This Christmas season the extraordinary is yours for the taking.  All you have to do is let your story become a part of His story.  In fact, infusing the ordinary with the extraordinary is a central part of the reason we celebrate this season.  Because, in the birth of Jesus the ordinary and the extraordinary became one.  When you start reading your story through the lens of His you’ll experience this merger in your own life.  This season, then, may you know the extraordinary delight of transforming your ordinary as you take part in His story.