December 20, 2009

The Life of a Servant

So a couple of weeks ago we looked at the story of Gabriel’s announcement to Zechariah that his barren wife would conceive and give birth to a son. In this we saw that God’s promises are not fulfilled solely by the boldly miraculous or the faith superheroes, but instead are made manifest when God moves in the lives of people very much like you and me. I have to think that the story of Zechariah’s encounter with Gabriel in the Temple would have spread pretty quickly. I mean, as far as we know, God had not spoken in a public way to His people in about 400 years at that point. Let’s be honest, we have trouble imagining 400 years. Four hundred years is longer than there have been permanent, successful colonies of Europeans in North America. Yes, it is a short drive from here to Jamestown where we can go see the remnants of that first settlement in 1607, but it took two or three hard years before it was what anybody wanted to really call a successful establishment. Or how about this: think for a minute about the apocalyptic fervor that gets generated every few years in our time. There were many who were convinced that Jesus was coming back in the year 2000. Now the buzz is all about 2012. I’ve lost count of all the television specials I’ve seen advertized on the “evidence” that the world is going to end in 2012 (including a movie release with enough time to make a tidy profit in DVD sales before the end.) In fact, I think the exact date on these latest predictions is December 21, 2012, so as of tomorrow you’ve got two years to get everything important done. But imagine the fervor generated if something really did happen that was undeniably in line with the prophecies in the book of Revelation. People would be going crazy. Well, the mindset of folks in the waning years of the first century B. C. (granting they didn’t know how close they were to the years of Our Lord) probably wasn’t all that different from this, particularly when word started spreading about the appearance of this angel in the Temple in Jerusalem. The six or seven months from Gabriel’s announcement to our story today would not have cooled things much.

Ah, but that would have been speculation mostly done by the wealthy folks in Jerusalem who had time for such endeavors. The “real” folks in the rural villages who worked hard every day for their living wouldn’t have had time to pay much attention to such conjecturing. Life there would have been going on normally. Mary would have been going about her days quietly helping her mother with the various household duties to keep things moving in their family. As a young person who would have not been privy to the discussions of adults concerning rumors of angels in the big city, I don’t know if we can overemphasize her shock at the appearance of that very angel to her in the process of her daily routine. Imagine further her wonder at his greeting: “Rejoice, favored woman! The Lord is with you.” The text describes her reaction as “deeply troubled” or “thoroughly shaken.” Yeah, you think. As she was sitting there trying to wrap her mind around what was going on the angel continued with the more common “don’t be afraid.” That would have been nice to have at first. And then the angel repeats this thing about her finding favor with God. There’s pretty much no question that he had her attention by then. But nothing, not even the recent religious speculation about God speaking again to His people, could have prepared her for what came next. I’m not sure what, if anything, she was expecting the angel to tell her, but I am pretty confident it was not what Luke spells out in v. 31 and following: “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will call His name 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. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” Now, someone might try and claim that Mary understood the angel as saying she was going to get pregnant once she got married, but this idea is shot to pieces by her response to Gabriel: “But how? I’ve never slept with a man.” Mary understood exactly what Gabriel was saying and it pretty well blew her mind. And while she obviously heard enough of what the angel said next to be able to report it to Luke years later, I have to think her eyes glazed over a bit as she started thinking through the ramifications culturally and physically of turning up pregnant before her wedding. Life as she knew it was about to totally, irredeemably change. How would you have responded to all this? Most of us would have asked for some time to pray and think about all this before agreeing to it (which is often an excuse to procrastinate in hopes that a problem just goes away on its own). Some of us would have flatly said no. But Mary has this incredible response: “Yes, I see it all now: I’m the Lord’s maid, ready to erve. Let it be with me just as you say.”

We all know this story is going to this place. Mary is incredibly faithful and makes herself a servant of the Lord and blah, blah, blah. Let’s get on to the real story of Christmas. But have you ever stopped to think very long about what exactly it means to be a servant of the Lord? I mean, we know that Mary is pretty fondly remembered by the church today and even has lots of churches and schools and hospitals and streets and boats and a variety of other things named after her, but have you ever looked very closely at what we know about her life from the rest of her appearances in the Gospels? Because, to be a follower of Jesus means being a servant of the Lord. The two are inextricably linked. Being a good Christian means being a good servant. But what does this mean. What does it mean to be a servant of the Lord? With our remaining time this morning I want to look with you at a few episodes from Mary’s life to see what kind of an answer we can find for this incredibly important question.

For the first episode, turn over a page or two in your Bibles to the story of Jesus’ birth. Though this was only a stop along the overall journey of her life, everything that had happened to Mary thus far culminated in this moment. This was part of the fulfillment of the words the angel Gabriel had spoken to her. Yes, the journey to this point had been difficult, but the payoff was so worth it. Sometimes being a servant of God means we get to experience incredible joys. Think about this for a minute. Many of you know the joy of holding your newborn baby for the first time. There are few things that can compare with that experience. Now take that and add to it the exciting events surrounding the birth of Jesus. When we serve the Lord there are seasons when He allows us to get a glimpse of the fruits of our labors. We get to see the look on the face of someone at the receiving end of our serving and experience for a moment true, deep gratitude. But, as we have said about serving before, whether we get to see it on their face or not, when we serve someone else we get to know the joy of a job well done for the benefit of another. Those of you who have gone on the youth trip to Impact or who went on the mission trip to Mexico a few years ago know exactly what I’m talking about. In fact, we were made to serve others like this and aren’t going to be fully filling our given function unless we are serving. We are kind of like a classic violin in this regard. There are some violins which are made to be works of art as much as they are musical instruments. Because they are wooden, however, they are instruments designed to be handled. When wood is handled regularly it shows little wear and tear. The oils in our hands help to preserve it, like a well-used wooden spoon. The great Italian violinist Paganini gave his famous violin to his city of birth, Genoa, when he died on the condition that it never be played. Not being played, however, the violin quickly began to decay and today is worth little more than a relic of a once-great musician. We are that violin. When we aren’t serving adequately, our lives lose their meaning. So the first answer to our question is that being a servant of God means sometimes experiencing the full weight of the joy of our service. Indeed, all creation rejoiced with Mary on that fateful night. A group of shepherds, sent there by the full heavenly host, came to rejoice with her personally.

Yet not all service seems joyful in the moment. Sometimes the blessings come later. We can see this in the next episode of Mary’s life. As complete as the joy of a newly born baby seems in the moment, at about the third night of no sleep, the excitement has cooled some. And as warm and fuzzy as singing songs like Away in a Manger that talk about baby Jesus not making a cry feel, he would have been a normal baby in every sense of the word. He kept them up at night crying, he had messy diapers, they were worn out, and they were in a place where there was no family around to help. You have to think they thought at least once during that first week something along the lines of: “How can the Son of God produce such awful odors!” Well, according to the Jewish custom and law of the day, parents had to dedicate their firstborn child to God and in the Temple at Jerusalem if they were close enough to do it there. I can imagine that the couple was dragging a bit as they made the journey up to Jerusalem from Bethlehem. They may have even snapped at each other once or twice on the journey. You can almost see the relief on their faces as they entered the Temple yard and then a man they’d never seen before in their lives but who had a look of holiness about him came up to them and took their baby in his arms. Before they could protest the man broke into an intriguing prayer and then spoke an incredible, though, mysterious blessing. And then, as he was saying these things, an old woman came up behind him and began singing a beautiful song of praise to God.

These two saints spoke their blessings and moved on before the couple really had a chance to react or even fully take in the words they spoke. Yet what an awesome blessing this would have been for the parents and Mary in particular when they stopped to think about it. When they asked around as to the identity of these two strangers the blessing would have only increased as they learned more about these two holy people who were surely well known at the Temple. It would have been the words which the old man spoke (that we will look at in more detail next week) that would have left them pondering the hardest. Surely his words were a blessing, but what a mysterious blessing. It may have been many years before they really started to understand the nature of this blessing. You see, sometimes, being a servant of the Lord means experiencing these unexpected and mysterious blessings. How many of you have been through an experience that pulsed with blessing, but which you didn’t fully understand until much later. These blessings can come from all kinds of sources, but somehow God always makes sure we have the encouragement and strength we need to go on when we need it. Think of the woman who used what little oil she had left to make the prophet Elijah a small loaf of bread. Feeding such a holy man would have hummed with blessing, but the exact nature of the blessing would have remained elusive until she went to make bread the next day and every day after always having enough. A man at my parents’ church lost his first wife in a head-on collision with a drunk driver at Christmastime. It took five years before he had the strength to put up a Christmas tree. Yet when he did, this was the catalyst to experiencing real healing from God. Being a servant of God is challenging, to be sure, but He will always make sure we have enough strength to take the next step.

In spite of this, though, there will still be times that will make us think seriously about throwing in the towel and going home. Can you imagine Mary and Joseph’s frustration when after worrying themselves sick over their missing child (“You lost the Son of God!”) found Him in the Temple curious as to why they were concerned? There are times when being a servant of God means experiencing the maddening frustrations of things not going the way we expected them to go. I’m sure that Mary and Joseph didn’t plan on having to return to Jerusalem looking for their son. While I’m sure this is going to come back to haunt us (sorry, Honey), I liked to hide when I was a kid and I was pretty good at it. One time when we were on vacation I convinced my sister that we should hide from my parents when we got to our hotel for the evening. They were about to call the police when we popped out. Much to their credit they didn’t kill us but rather calmly explained how much the thought of our going missing terrified them. Let’s be honest: Mary and Joseph were probably basket-cases by the time they got back to Jerusalem. It was probably good they found Jesus in the Temple because had they found Him somewhere else they might have killed Him prematurely. The Message translation captures their mood pretty well in 2:48: “Young man, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been half out of our minds looking for you.” The point here is that being a servant of the Lord doesn’t mean things are always going to go just like we envision they should. Even the most flexible of folks can get a bit perturbed when things don’t go their way, especially if they were really counting on things going a ertain way. This is all part of being a servant. Servants are necessarily not in charge.

Simply have things not go our way, however, isn’t that big a deal. Most of us can get past that with relative ease. Jesus’ parents didn’t understand His reasoning for being at the Temple instead of at their side and they may have even grounded Him for disappearing on them, but they got over that. There are some things that aren’t so easy to get over. Few couples really recover from the death of their child. Parents simply aren’t supposed to bury their children. That’s not the way nature intended for things to happen…at least as we see the world. But can you imagine having to watch your child be executed in the most brutal fashion ever conceived by humans? In chapter 19 of his Gospel, John tells the story of the crucifixion scene as he witnessed it. I suspect that even after the resurrection Mary was haunted by nightmares of that morning for many years. As Jesus painfully declared John to be her new son, Mary probably lost whatever control of her emotions she was still managing to hold on to. Serving the Lord definitely has its joys and blessings, but even more than simple frustrations, sometimes being a servant of the Lord means suffering through heartaches and heartbreaks we are sure are going to tear us to pieces. We live in a world abjectly opposed to the ways of God. In spite of our best efforts to find some common ground between the two, the Bible makes clear that there is the World and there is God and the two are mutually exclusive of each other. If we stand up and let it be known that we are servants of the Lord, the World is going to do its level best to undermine our efforts and render us utterly ineffective. The attacks will come in a variety of forms, sometimes gentle but insistent, sometimes insidious and unexpected. But there are times when caution is thrown to the wind and the World aims both barrels in our direction and fires away. These kinds of attacks leave us reeling; wondering where God is and if we will ever recover.

You see, there’s a picture starting to form here. The question we started this little journey with was: What does it mean to be a servant of the Lord? We’ve seen that it means experiencing incredible joys, unexpected and mysterious blessings, maddening frustrations, and seemingly unbearable heartaches. The picture we gain from looking at Mary’s life of being a servant of the Lord seems to be that serving the Lord means rolling with the punches. Say what you will about how involved God is in our lives, but Jesus was born to die, and to die the way He did. God’s plans for Mary’s life, then, seem to have included things we would deem as both very good and very bad. Yet through all these times she was still a servant of the Lord. Her service did not stop because things got hard. We’ve mentioned before how ridiculous is the oft-cited idea about the center of God’s will being the safest place we can be in terms of our physical and even our emotional safety, but here it is refuted for us again. Serving the Lord means putting aside our plans and hopes and dreams and desires in exchange for His. Being a servant of the Lord means being open to His plans.

Now, I’m up for the joys and blessings, and I’ll even manage my way through the frustrations, but that last part has me a little leery, I’ll be honest with you. I get the idea that being a servant of the Lord means being open to His plans, but that’s a level of openness with which I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable. If we are going to take this seriously, it says that being a servant of the Lord means being open to God’s plans. And His plans are not always what we would envision (which is, of course, why they are His plans and not our plans). But is all this really worth it? Are the joys and blessings enough to outweigh the heartaches?

After the angel left Mary in 1:38, she got her things together and ran off to visit her cousin Elizabeth who had finally come out of hiding in the sixth month of her pregnancy because no one could accuse her of being crazy anymore. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s voice for the first time we are told that the baby in her womb leapt. This prompted Elizabeth to speak an unexpected blessing over Mary who responded with what is today often called Mary’s Magnificat (after the first word Mary says in the Latin version). She expresses her joyfulness at what God is doing for her in resplendent terms. Then she talks about all that God is doing to reverse the patterns of this world that often lead to the heartaches we talked about. Finally, in 1:54-55 she says this: “He has helped His servant Israel, mindful of His mercy, just as He spoke to our ancestors, to Abraham and his descendants forever.” In other words, God had been planning all this for a long time. Mary recognizes that God’s plans for her did not happen in a vacuum. Instead, they were a continuation of what God had been doing throughout the history of Israel, and indeed since the day the human race fell from grace in the Garden. Serving Him means taking part in these plans. Being a servant of the Lord means being open to His plans. And the hope Mary expressed through faith, we can claim with assurance as the book of Revelation gives us the end of the story. What God is doing is laying out the path by which all those who care to walk it can experience salvation. He has been planning this since the beginning. Because He has chosen to work primarily through His faithful, though broken, servants here, the journey has been a long and difficult one, fraught with opposition at every turn. There are still many miles to go and even more treacherous waters lay ahead for those who have the faith to walk with and serve Him. Things will not always, or ever, go exactly as we plan for them to go, but the truth is that being a servant of the Lord means being open to His plans, not bringing our own plans to the table for how we could achieve the same ends more easily. When Mary opened herself to be a servant at the Lord’s pleasure, she set herself on a journey that would take her through the highlands of joyfulness, the rich forests of blessing, the winding roads of frustration, and the valleys of heartache. There were certainly times she wished she had chosen other than she did. There were probably days she wished she could go back to being a fairly carefree teenager. But she stayed on the road, serving faithfully as she went. And in the end she received the prize of her journey: life, rich and deep and everlasting. Being a servant of the Lord means being open to His plans. Will you open yourselves to Him this Christmas season, risking all that you hold as familiar, to experience this abundant life; this joy, hope, peace, and love that will never end?