Yesterday’s message …
- Featured an altered title and a changed bottom line from the original. The changes happened on Thursday of the week, which almost never happens;
- Reminded the people of the church that Luke is an investigative journalist (as Luke 1:1-4 makes quite clear), and his detailed reporting results in the captivating language of Mary’s “call” story in 1:26-38;
- Invited people to respond to their call to ministry;
- Landed at this bottom line: God shakes you up to send you out.
Can I tell you about a text message I got this week that just got me kind of furious?
So I have a GS friend who sends me inspirational texts every day. Just this week I got one that said: (AV): SOME PEOPLE NEVER SUCCEED BECAUSE THEY NOT WILLING TO SAY GOOD-BYE TO THE FAMILIAR.
And if you know me at all, you know why I got so offended at that text. I like familiar. I love routine. I thrive on PREDICTABILITY. And if something unsettles that schedule or shakes up my expectations, I am a wreck. Jack Nicholson may have said YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH but, frankly, I CAN’T HANDLE THE SURPRISE. Elvis might have been in love when he was all shook up, but shake me up and I don’t fall in love, I just fall apart.
And I bet I’m not alone. I suspect that are a bunch of you here who thrive on predictability and despise having your routine or your life or your expectations unsettled in any way. Here’s something else I know: a good chunk of you are quite content with the status quo in your life , even if the status quo is not that great. And a deep part of you believes that if a church is doing a nice series with a nice title like God With Us, then for sure God’s “with-ness” would be all about comfort, it would soothe you in your routines and it would make you feel better about the ways you prefer the certainty of misery to the misery of uncertainty. You might even be mad about the text, too!
Which is probably the kind of thing that, deep down, Mary believed. Yes THAT Mary, who is the object of this odd visitation from an angel named Gabriel as Luke unfolds the Xmas story. Now: you need to know that Luke is a journalist. He told us this at the very beginning of his Gospel, where his declared purpose is to write an orderly account, an account that he gets with a heavy dose of investigative reporting. He is an ancient Woodward & Bernstein, yet his purpose is not to bring a President down but to lift a Savior up. Luke’s investigative precision explains the remarkable level of detail he gives us in the run up to Jesus’ birth. Look at 1:26-27:
26 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
Oh, I love that. There is a time, a place, and a breathtaking conclusion with a person … “the virgin’s name was Mary.”
And this Mary, who was engaged, was very likely living an uneventful, peaceful life. Yes, she was engaged, but so was everyone else in their teens in ancient Israel. Arranged by her parents. So she is in the middle of saying YES to the dress and scheduling bridal party weekends in Nashville or Austin. All this was normal, peaceful in its very predictability. No reason for Mary to expect anything out of the ordinary, and as a teenage girl at that time, no reason to expect anything would interrupt those plans or disturb her peace.
You know what that’s like. You have a plan, have a routine, and expected order of things and that utter predictability is a source of peace. I know that I have fewer greater joys that a day off in which everything I plan actually happens. I don’t have to accomplish anything; things just have to go according to plan. Then I can go to bed that night completely content and thoroughly euphoric. (And a lot of you are thinking, ‘what a lame way to be happy!’) When I know what’s next, I have peace in now. It’s Mary, it’s me, it’s at least some of you.
And then the story continues. Look at 1:28a-b:
The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored!
Highly favored! Yet, as Mary will quickly discover being favored does her no favors. Then the promise that is at the heart of the series:
The Lord is with you.
That’s what we want, isn’t it? God with us, not against us, alongside us not behind us. It’s the ultimate comforter.
Except to Mary. Look at 1:29:
29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.
Greatly troubled. The promise of God’s presence and you’re TROUBLED? Not delighted? As I have thought about, I realize that fear and uncertainty is a very typical response in the bible when people see angels … they must be hideous looking! But beyond that, I realize that God’s presence in lives then and lives now is as much disruptive as it is comforting. God’s “with-ness” often seems to unsettle. Like that man I knew who had been called into ministry, he knew that’s what he was supposed to do, yet he ran from that call. God pulled and he resisted. Finally, there was the time when God’s presence felt so looming and so invasive that he had to turn around and ask “What do you want?”
So how’d I know this guy? He became a preacher, that’s how.
So this unease that Mary feels, the trouble she endures, is something that I believe still operates today. Look at 1:30: But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. Again, finding favor is not the same as doing a favor. Not at all. Then the angel gets serious in 1:31-33:
31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
READ. OMG. What a marvelous level of detail again; the language is high, higher, highest. And all of a sudden, Mary’s predictable life has been thrown irrevocably off course. Her peaceful world has imploded, and her role in the planet’s business has all of a sudden become indispensable. Her role in life is no longer manageable but God-sized.
Nevertheless, she keeps her feet on the ground while reaching for the stars and asks a logical question in 1:34. (Now if I was to give an answer to that, I’d say, ‘honey, if I told you you wouldn’t believe me, so just go with it.’) But Gabriel gives an answer in 1:35-36:
35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[a] the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month.
Followed by the double barreled conclusion in 1:37-38:
37 For no word from God will ever fail.”
38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
READ. “No word” – God’s faithfulness is at the center of all this. He means what he says and does what he promises. Mary’s reponse: that word fulfilled in me. I’m here for that. I do not understand it but I believe it. I can’t comprehend it but I’m gonna follow it. My faith will embrace ti.
And all of a sudden it’s clear, this presence of God, this surprising and unsettling turn of events that is the direct consequence of “the Lord is with you!” The consequence may not be comforting but it is certainly thrilling. Here it is: God shakes you up to send you out. God knew that Mary’s peaceful life and predictable routine needed to be interrupted. He knew his mission required her participation. He knew her continued peaceful easy feeling might lead to a life or relative insignificance and that he had to shake her up to send her out. REFRAIN
And I firmly believe that nothing has changed. Now: the miracle we’re looking at is neither scalable nor repeatable. No one here will conceive as a virgin and give birth to a sinless Savior. But the method IS scalable and repeatable. The more I dig into Scripture and the more I allow its INSPIRER to shape me, the more I realize that God is in the business of disturbing the peace. Unlike us, he won’t get arrested for it! He might be annoying, he might get in our face (if we’re looking), but he knows that FOR OUR OWN GOOD and FOR THE SAKE OF HIS MISSION we often need to be unsettled so we can be unleashed.
Years ago, I was praying on a Saturday night for the sermon the next morning. I do this. And in the middle of those prayers, God quite literally interrupted me and said in a near-audible and completely unmistakable voice: Don’t ever preach without praying like this. Gulp! It was a warning AND a promise. I needed to be knocked out of my stupor of praying because you pray and my faith in a God who is my lifeline and without whose power I am utterly a wreck needed to be unleash. I was so unsettled by that interruption that I wrote it out on a small piece of paper and tucked it in the corner of my office. Don’t ever preach without praying like this. And I haven’t. God shakes you up to send you out.
Because what I am talking about is not self-confidence. It’s not about faith in faith. It’s not about trusting in you. Faith saves not because you have a lot of it but because you place it in a lot of God! And you place the faith you have in a lot of God and the next thing you know, you’ll have a lot of faith. Because really, what kind of God do you have, do you believe in?
Does what you expect of God fit in this thimble?
Or have you upgraded your expectations to this bucket?
Or have you right-sized your anticipation of God to the barrel? (Bring all of them).
My god, I feel so many of us bring thimble kind of faith to our barrel sized God and when we’ve settled in and settled for that, God is obligated to unsettle us. To disturb our peace and overturn our tiny expectations. God shakes you up to send you out.
Here’s why it matters. We pray that “Lord be with us!” while failing to realize that he already is, he always is, and he’s trying to get you to pay closer attention. He realizes that when it comes to faith and even church a lot of us are like those ppl in Jakarta Indonesia where the traffic is so bad there is a law you can’t drive in a car solo. So what has the entrepreneurial spirit done? Developed PROFESSIONAL PASSENGERS, people who, for a fee, will ride along so the driver can drive. And church has some professional passengers and the Lord has to disturb us out of that stupor. Because some of you here, when it comes to your marriage, have become comfortable in your dysfuction. You’re AT PEACE with your constant STATE OF WAR, mostly because you don’t know any better. And God is bothering you TODAY so he can bless you tomorrow, so you’ll start taking the steps to make it whole. God shakes you up to send you out.
Others, it’s that family you have who is not saved. There, I said it. And you’ll see them this Xmas. And God is calling you not to dread it, not just to get through it, but to be purposeful today in sharing faith with lost family. It’s their only hope. God shakes you up to send you out.
Others, it’s the fact that the bible is like a foreign language to you. You have longevity around faith but not maturity in it, and that’s because you’ve expected some Rosetta stone to show up and read the bible for you. Nope. Familiarity comes one massively small step at a time, one not always glamorous chapter a day. God shakes you up to send you out.
And then several are being pulled into some kind of domestic ministry or overseas mission. It kills me that there might be a lot more ppl at the church designed for ministry and I just haven’t bothered you about it enough. Guess what? Today I am. You’ve settled for ignoring, your peace is avoiding it, and I have been praying for a long while that God would use these words to disturb that peace. God shakes you up to send you out.
Because remember that text that made me so "mad"? "You have to say good bye to the familiar"? Maybe, just maybe, when you're not willing to say good-bye yourself, God has to step in and say it for you.