Anticipation, Part 4: Trust & Obey (Matthew 1:18-25)

Luke tells the story of Christ’s birth largely from Mary’s perspective, while Matthew tells it largely from Joseph’s. No attempt is made to bring them into alignment in an artificial way. Instead, each provides historical facts from a different point of view. And yet, both accounts are needed to get a fuller depth and perspective on the whole story. What’s common to both accounts—among other things—is the virgin birth of Jesus. That’s the non-negotiable for each writer. As the Apostles’ Creed says:

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.

It’s a reminder that God still does the supernatural. The surprise, however, is that he uses ordinary people to carry out his extraordinary plan. According to rabbinic tradition, Mary would have been about 14-16 years old at her engagement, and Joseph would have been about 18-20. They were two ordinary young people. Godly people, to be sure, but ordinary just the same, made of the same “stuff” as everybody else.

All through the Bible, we see God using the most unlikely people to do his best work. Sometimes we miss it because what God does through them is so extraordinary, we just assume he does it through extraordinary people: Moses parting the Red Sea with just a rod. David dropping Goliath with just a rock. Elijah calling down fire from heaven with just his voice. Next to these folks, we might feel like underachievers. And we might be tempted to say, “How could I ever be like any of any of those people? What’s the use? I’ll never amount to anything in the kingdom of God.” 

What we often miss is that it was God who did the extraordinary deeds, not his people. It was Godwho parted the Red Sea, not Moses. It was God who guided the trajectory of that sling stone, not David. It was God who sent the fire to Mount Carmel, not Elijah. Not only that, in between the mountaintop experiences of those people’s lives, we miss the struggles they had in the valley—the wavering, the uncertainty, the self-doubts, the frustrations, sometimes even the deep depressions and wrestlings they had with God when pushed to their limits. 

Mark it down: God can use ordinary people to carry out his plan. So, don’t ever look at your life and think, “I could never be used by God. I don’t have the gifts, or skills, or talents that others have.” Absolutely not. God is not attracted to your abilities, nor is he distracted by your inabilities. What’s important to him is your availability.

Joseph made himself available to God’s plan. He trusted God’s Word and obeyed God’s word, even when it was hard. In many ways, Joseph is the unsung hero of the Advent. What would have happened in history had he not obeyed the Word of the Lord? Would Christmas have happened at all? His life reminds us that God’s people prepare for Christ’s coming by trusting and obeying him. So, let us prepare well for the Lord’s return.

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

The Calm before the Gospel Storm

I appreciate this portrayal of Christ’s Nativity by Gari Melchers, a 19th-century American artist who captures a rare moment in the life of the holy family. 

Before bug-eyed shepherds burst through the door to gawk at the mangered infant, before Magi from the East come kneeling in homage to present their costly gifts to the tiny Christ, before a nervous King Herod dispatches hardened thugs on a murderous rampage to commit deicide in Bethlehem, there’s a quiet moment of peace and stillness. 

Mary is exhausted from her labors of love. Joseph is contemplating the mysteries of all that has happened and all that lies ahead. Before them both is the baby who will change everything, not even aware of his own sacred identity and the heavenly glory that was his just nine months ago. It’s the “dawn of redeeming grace” and a moment for all to breathe. Indeed, it’s the calm before the gospel storm.

I also appreciate that the scene takes place in a house, which is likely where the incarnation happened (see my article, “Why Lies He in Such Mean Estate?”), though that’s not an issue to quibble about. Jesus came, and that’s all that matters.

Karl Whiteman has said, “I love the fun and excitement of Christmas, but I cherish the quiet moments to stop and gaze at the baby.” Amen. May all of us find moments to reflect on this profoundest of all miracles in such a busy time of year. 

Tomorrow I’ll post my own Christmas reflection for 2021, called, “Here’s Your Sign.” After that, our own church services and family celebrations will be set in motion. In the midst of it all, I’ll be looking for true peace from the Prince of Peace. How about you?

Lord Jesus, help us meet with you in the midst of all our Christmas activities, preparations, and festivities. Without you, there is no Christmas. With you, everything changes. Amen.

He Is Coming, Part 4: “Be Available” (Luke 1:26-38)

December is a time when many believers remind others that we need to put Christ back into Christmas. O.k., but why stop there? We also need to put Satan back into Christmas. If we take the biblical account seriously, he’s the reason for the mess we’re in today. Things like greed, selfishness, violence, injustice, abuse, alienation, and death can all be laid at his doorstep. That’s why 1 John 3:8 says, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” One of our Christmas carols contains the same idea: “To save us all from Satan’s power when we have gone astray.” Yes, Satan is real and relentless, but ultimately ruined—precisely because Jesus came. In fact, on that first Christmas, Jesus began undoing what Satan did a long time ago: enticing the human race to walk away from God and his ways. The Lord’s great rescue effort began with a young Jewish virgin named Mary.

Gabriel gives the news of her mission from God in the famous “Annunciation” (Luke 1:26-38), a text loaded with insights about Mary, Mary’s Son, and Mary’s God. Moreover, it does not go unnoticed in Christian theology that Mary is a kind of new Eve. Indeed, the fall began through the false belief of one virgin (Gen 3:4-6), and the restoration began through the true belief of another virgin (Luke 1:38). Irenaeus (ca. 130-202 A.D.) wrote, “The knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. For what the virgin Eve had bound fast through unbelief, this did the virgin Mary set free through faith.” In one sense, then, our salvation hinges on Mary’s obedient response to God’s initiative.

All true, but what emerges from the biblical portrait of Mary is also her ordinariness. She was a normal young girl from a no-account town in Galilee. What made her extraordinary was the fact that she was a true servant of the Lord, totally surrendered to doing God’s will. In this regard, she’s still a model for believers today. It has always been the case that God has a plan to change the world, and ordinary people can be a part of it. That’s why Paul said to ordinary believers in Rome, “God will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom 16:20). We don’t have to be extraordinary people to engage in serpent crushing. We just have to be available to God.

Sermon Resources

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.

The Blood Covenant, Part 6: Rescued and Released (Luke 1:67-75)

Fear is a universal sensation. Everyone experiences it at some point in their lives. Thankfully, it’s not all bad. Good fear protects us from danger and keeps us from hurting ourselves. It prevents a child from getting into a stranger’s car. It causes adults to slow down on slippery roads. It even keeps spouses from forgetting their wedding anniversary! But there’s also a bad kind of fear that we have to face in life. Bad fear paralyzes us from doing what we should be doing, and it provokes us into doing what we shouldn’t be doing. Because of sin, this kind of fear is deep within all of us. In fact, the first words out of Adam’s mouth in his fallen state were, “I…was…afraid” (Gen 3:10). From that point on, many people have gone through life like the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz. Fear dominates their every move.

When the New Covenant dawns in Zechariah’s day, the priest praises God because the Lord had remembered “his holy covenant, the oath he swore to our father Abraham: to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear” (Luke 1:67-75). Christmas happens, says Zechariah, because God made a promise a long time ago, and now he’s bringing it to pass. But it’s not just any promise; it’s a covenant promise—an oath he swore with uplifted hand to Father Abraham. One result of that covenant is that believers can now serve the Lord “without fear.” Quite significantly, all the major characters in the Advent story are given the same angelic word: “Do not be afraid.” In this sermon, we look at the various kinds of fear they experienced, and how the God of covenant love addresses each one:

  • Zechariah—the fear of disappointment:
    “It’s hard to hope again!” (Luke 1:5-25) 
  • Mary—the fear of inadequacy:
    “This is too big for me!” (Luke 1:26-38) 
  • Joseph—the fear of rejection:
    “What will people think?” (Matthew 1:18-25) 
  • Shepherds—the fear of the unknown:
    “This doesn’t make sense!” (Luke 2:1-20) 

The message for believers today is this: The more we trust God with our fears, the more we will participate in his plan to recapture the world. God says to his people, “You don’t have to be afraid anymore. I know you live in a scary world. I know you’ll have to face difficult situations, but you are not alone. I am with you. Because of covenant, we’re in this together. So, fear not!” That’s a good word for God’s people today, too. 

Sermon Resources:

Contact This New Life directly for the sermon audio file.