Presented on The Lutheran Hour on December 21, 2014 By Rev. Gregory Seltz, Lutheran Hour Speaker (God Told Me?) Copyright 2014 Lutheran Hour Ministries
Text: Luke 1:26-38
Christ is risen, He is risen, indeed, and the grace and joy of the Christ Child can be your Gift this Christmas, now and forever. Amen.
Surprises; life is full of surprises, isn't it? I love the story that was told about this grandmother who was surprised by her 7-year-old grandson one morning. He had made her coffee and brought it to her with the biggest smile on his face you'll ever see. But as she began to drink it, she noticed that it had an unusual taste. In fact, truth be told, it was one of the worst cups of coffee she had ever tasted. But, because it was made with love; she drank it down to the last drop. But, surprise, surprise, that wasn't the end of it. When she finished, she noticed that there were three of those little green army men at the bottom of the cup. So she said, "Honey, what are these army men doing in my coffee?" Her grandson said, "Grandma, just like it says on TV, 'The best part of waking up is soldiers in your cup!'"
Surprises, sometimes they make us laugh; sometimes they make us cry; sometimes they are so important that they're the difference between life and death. And that's the point today. We are not talking about soldiers in your cup, or Folgers in your cup, we're talking about God's grace in life, God's grace even in your heart this Christmas.
Surprised? Do you realize that the whole Christmas message is one big glorious, gracious, God-given surprise to the world?
The Bible isn't about Karma or we would all be Karmalized. The Bible isn't about religion or we would all be religiously inadequate. The Bible isn't about man's greatest and best, letting the good guy or gal in you shine through, because that always leads to hopelessness, helplessness, and hurt, even death. No, the Bible's message is one, big, grace-filled surprise that God Himself promised and delivered in the Person and work of Jesus for each one of us.
The angel says it loudly and clearly: "Mary.... (you will) give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great. He will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."
Surprised? Well, Mary was surprised not because of the why, just the how. She knew of God's promises to bring grace and mercy to the world. Surely she had heard the Old Testament stories; the very promises of grace given to Adam and Eve, in spite of their sin and rebellion. And, yes, to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David; event after event after event God's gracious love to people who were undeserving, even unappreciative at times. Mary didn't need to be reminded of that. She would hear the promises of God recounted again and again in the temple, in the synagogues. What would surprise her was that God would be so clear about His grace for her, in her, through her. Wow!
That first Christmas began with a huge surprise. The Angel Gabriel comes to her, delivers a message of grace to her, calms her fears, reminds her that God is with her. What an amazing message of the God who created the heavens and the earth being concerned, not just with the powerful and privileged, but with the poor and the imperiled. She knew full well that if God is willing to bring His grace and favor to someone like her, He can bring it to everyone in this world. And, my friend, that includes people like you and me.
Who could have imagined this "out of this world, for this world" message?
But, even such good news it troubled her, it caused her fear. Mary was surprised by such an overwhelming, undeserving grace from God. And you would have been too, because grace and graciousness, especially from the powerful, are so rare in the broken world in which we live. Or when it happens, there are usually strings attached or ulterior motives, right? An angel of the Most High God wishes to speak to you; this can't be good, right?
Think about it. Have you ever even been at work in the midst of a crazy time of year and had your boss approach you in the hall to ask, "Can I speak with you for a moment?" If this ever has happened to you, can you remember how your heart started to beat a bit faster, how your mind started to race as you wondered, "Is this going to be good news or is this going to be really, really bad news?"
Apparently, Mary had similar thoughts. After all, if the Almighty Lord of the Universe was taking the time to have an angel break into her day, there must have been some sort of trouble brewing. That's what happens when out of the blue; the boss wants to speak to you, right? It's true. The first thing about being surprised by grace; is to know that you don't deserve any of this grace. And Mary knew that. As a poor, peasant girl, she barely had the attention of those who loved her, let alone people who were the big shots in the world of her day. If God wanted her attention, this couldn't be good news, could it?
Have you ever felt that way? Felt like your life was in God's hands but you were actually worried about that? That's what happens when people stop playing games with God. That's what happens when you take an honest look at yourself in full view of His Majesty, His holiness and power. After all, you know what you are like in your heart. You know you've let others down, let yourself down; you've missed the mark in so many ways that you've lost count. Maybe you too are thinking a bit like Mary; what could God want with me, if He wants me at all.
Well, most importantly today, with such a repentant heart, God wants you to keep listening. The angel had more to say and Mary listened to every word. And God has so much more to say to you today my friend. You will not be the one to bear the Messiah to the world, but you can be His chosen one for grace and mercy today. You can be not only a recipient of that, but a conduit of that grace too. This message of grace, surprised the world of its day, but it changed it too, one person at a time.
And that's why the Lutheran Hour keeps proclaiming this transforming, surprised by grace message of God year after year. We want you to know it too. Did you know that this program is the longest-running radio broadcast of God's grace in the world? We've been at this over 80 years; count it, 80 years. Walter Maier, as the first Lutheran Hour Speaker, was as well known in his day as Billy Graham, or some of you might remember Oswald Hoffman. But the power of this program for you is not the measure of the speaker; it's the measure of the message of grace alone in Jesus Christ for all who believe. That's a transforming measure for you; just as it was for Mary, Joseph, shepherds, Wiseman, blue-collar workers, white-collar workers, people of every tribe and culture, young and old.
That's Christmas. That's the joyful opportunity to be surprised by God's grace, alive in His blessing by faith, and empowered by His promises!
Thank you, Mary, for showing us what that looks like in a believer's life!
But, I'm still a bit astonished that Mary received the angel's news and its implications on her life and she didn't run away in terror. Amidst all of this, she, a young teen, she trusts God as the One who cares for her. This message, which would have been unsettling for sure, this message, also was the source of her hope and salvation too. Jesus died for the world, but He died for His mother, Mary too!
Mary, like us, would need to learn this over and over and over again; but at this moment, she had the promises of God's favor laid over her and that was enough. She would ponder, she would think, she would trust, and believe, and move forward in those promises. She would ponder when Jesus grew so quickly into a Boy beyond His years. She would ponder when she saw Him in action caring for people, healing people, forgiving people. She would ponder when she saw this Holy Child hung on a cross for deeds He didn't do and a rebellion He didn't lead. But she would ponder, trust, and believe in the One who was not only miraculously born, unfairly crucified, but miraculously raised from the dead granting all who believe in Him eternal life. Mary, you will give birth to a Son, call Him Jesus. But wait until you hear what He will do for you, for all. Of His kingdom there will be no end.
Mary wasn't just surprised by the promise, she was held by the promise.
When God makes a promise, things change! When God says, "You're Mine," nothing in this world can change that. When God says, "Your past is forgiven because of My work for you," nothing in this world can take that away. When God says, "Your future is in My hands," you can begin to act with confidence and certainty about that right now because God has the capacity, the veracity, and the tenacity to fulfill all that He has said for you and for all.
Mark Lowry, a Christian comedian, observed that Mary's silence at the cross of Calvary always amazed him. He noted that if he were being crucified in the middle of town, his mother would have "pitched a fit," but Mary never said a word, she pondered, she trusted. Lowry wondered if maybe what made the difference for her was remembering back to that first Christmas; remembering touching His little hands and feet and counting His fingers and toes.
More seriously, Lowry says of that first Christmas: "I wonder if she realized that those were the same fingers that had scooped out the oceans and formed the seas. This was the One who was worshipped by the angels. That those little lips were the same lips that had spoken the world into existence. When Mary kissed her little boy, she wasn't just kissing another baby - she was kissing the face of God."
For a short 33 years later, she's standing on a hillside watching blood pour from His veins, from the side of her own Son... and she didn't open her mouth. She pondered, she trusted a testimony that Jesus wasn't just a great Prophet; wasn't merely a Preacher or Teacher, He was the virgin born son of God. He was our Savior. He didn't just die for us, He even died for His own mother; He died for all.
That Baby she had delivered on that first Christmas was now on a cross delivering her. That's not a Hallmark card message; that's a Crossmark surprise gift for all.
Writing Christmas cards is one of those special things we do at this time of year, isn't it? I can tell you that those years when we've been able to get those cards out cards to our friends, family, and church family....those have been some of the best Christmas celebrations ever. This story today in Luke, chapter 1, I think it would make a great Christmas card. It would speak of the great surprise of God's grace at Christmas, the great surprise of God's favor for all in the Babe of the manger. It would be a message of hope and joy and peace because it proclaims that God is real. God is at work in this world to save real people like you and me. That simple, yet powerful truth can change a person's life! I'd love to get that in the mail, that's for sure! How about you?
I just recently read a story that a pastor who was working the mean streets of one of our cities in America; he told about a teenage girl who came from a solid, loving family, but she was lured into drugs through her friends at school. In spite of the best efforts from her parents and professional help, this girl kept going back to the drugs. She left home. She dropped out of sight for a while; then showed up again at Christmas, more depressed and confused than ever.
One night, her mother went into the daughter's room and told her again how much she loved her. Mom also told her how she was praying for a miracle that would save her. A little while later, the girl left the house and she returned about midnight.
The next morning, the mother woke up to find her daughter making breakfast. She had a smile on her face, and she looked like a brand new person. Her mother could not believe her eyes.
Then that young woman told her mother about the long, desperate walk she took that night. She came back ready to take her own life, because she felt she had failed her parents, failed her God, and failed herself.
She sat in her room figuring out the best way to do it. But as she sat there, she found herself looking at a Christmas card someone had sent to her. Her Mom had left it on her bedside table.
The daughter opened the card and saw a painting of Mary responding to the news of the miraculous Baby who would be named Jesus. The young woman held this card to her chest and began to cry out for help to God.
She said she heard a voice saying, "Why didn't you ask Me for help long before this? I've been here all the time." And she spent the rest of the night walking the floor, while she talked to God and held on to that Christmas card with the picture of Mary saying "yes" to God.
All at once a peace and a release came over her. Her life turned a corner and began that process of change that continued to grow to this day. What a surprise!
That's what the "yes of faith to God" can do for you too. Mary's yes to God that first Christmas was merely an answer of faith to God's yes to her in the covenant of grace made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. She was graced by the gracious One, the Lord who loved the world with an everlasting love. And this surprise moment in Mary's life would be such a blessing to the world, as all of God's yeses of grace were being brought to the world in the Person and work of the One she would bear as her Son. Such grace was a powerful word of blessing to her. Such grace was a powerful gift to the world. Such grace is received by faith. Such are the gracious surprises of the Christmas story!
Like Elizabeth, Mary's cousin, she never expected to have a baby in her old age. Yet, John the Baptist came as a complete surprise and John's message of repentance came as a surprising preparation for the world to get ready for Jesus.
Like Mary, what a surprise. God would favor her to be the mother of Jesus, as someone said, so that "Jesus would be 'The heavenly Son of an earthly mother ... the earthly Son of a Heavenly Father'" to save the world from sin and death.
Like Bethlehem, a nowhere, little town that would become the home to the King of Kings!
Surprised? Maybe a little bit; but, as you read the Bible more and more, it really shouldn't surprise you; why or how God comes to bring His grace to sinful people like us. We need His grace and mercy, and so He loved the world that He gave His only Son to be our Savior. That message began with a surprise visit of an angel to a virgin who would bear a Child named Jesus. It shouldn't surprise us that God comes to nobodies to bring salvation to everybody, with a message that anybody can be somebody special to God, graced by God in Jesus Christ. Don't just be surprised by that grace this Christmas; believe it, believe in Him.
LUTHERAN HOUR MAILBOX (Questions & Answers) for December 21, 2014 Topic: God Told Me?
ANNOUNCER: How does God speak to us today? That's our question for Pastor Gregory Seltz. I'm Mark Eischer.
SELTZ: Wow, Mark, I'm intrigued.....
ANNOUNCER: This came about some years ago; a mother killed her children and she defended herself in court by saying God had told her to do it. Could that even be true? How does God talk to people?
SELTZ: I think I remember that case. What she did was horrible and certainly not God's will. Apparently she pleaded in court that God had told her that the world was ending and that to prepare, she needed to kill her children.
ANNOUNCER: She had seen signs which she interpreted as being messages from God. The jury did eventually acquit her by reason of insanity....
SELTZ: That's another Q&A....but the nature of her claim and the horror of her actions sure beg the question, "How does God communicate His will today?"
ANNOUNCER: And how do you sort through all sorts of different claims, especially when people say, "God told me to _____fill in the blank____"?
SELTZ: Mark, I think that Hebrews, chapter one, can help us here. It explains a change in our relationship with God because of Jesus Christ as it concerns the way God has chosen to communicate to us. It explains, "Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son" (Hebrews 1:1-2).
ANNOUNCER: The Bible says there were times when God spoke directly to people through prophets or He might have used angels as His messengers.
SELTZ: It does, but even there....there was an authority that determined the faithfulness of the prophet or the angel. In the Bible, there has always been a biblical theme from the very beginning that guides us in determining true prophets from false. In the Old Testament, it was God's Word of promise that He made to save the world, it was called the covenant, and that covenant had themes of Law and of Grace.
ANNOUNCER: But that Hebrew passage that you mentioned earlier marks a change.
SELTZ: Yes and no. I would say that in the New Testament, everything becomes even more clear as compared to the old. As Hebrews says, everything we can know about God's will, what pleases Him, what angers Him, what He has planned for the future, it's ultimately seen in the person and work of Jesus.
ANNOUNCER: So, the Bible is an authoritative resource for us and our experiences because of its unique message of the Old and New Testaments, especially as it contains Jesus' words and the writings of those who were present with Him.
SELTZ: That's right. So, people were moved by the Spirit to write and report what they had seen and heard in Jesus' life because they had seen His unique message and authority. In fact, such writings often got them into trouble. But the authority of these words, again, is rooted in the person and work of Christ. He is the One who instructed the disciples to teach all that He had commanded; promising the Holy Spirit who would bring to their remembrance all that He had spoken.
ANNOUNCER: So the Bible is a special book, with a special message, and special authority.
SELTZ: It is. Just read it, compare it to other writings, and you'll see. So if somebody were to come up and tell me that God told them to do something or that God answered a prayer in this or that sort of way, I would evaluate their claim based on what the Bible says about God's will.
ANNOUNCER: Getting back to our original illustration; if that mother had been in her right mind, she would have known from the Bible's explanation of right and wrong, what Christ had to say concerning life, concerning murder; and she would have known that what she was hearing was not from God.
SELTZ: I would say that's true. In fact, many people's gut-feelings, or feelings that God has confirmed something in their life, it's best to compare them to the words and the work of Jesus, as well as the Bible that testifies about Him. And even there when it comes to reading the Bible, understand the Bible as the Bible wants to be understood.
ANNOUNCER: Right. It's not a wax nose that can be pushed into whatever shape you might want. You can't have five people look at a passage and come up with five different messages.
SELTZ: Absolutely! Well, that's another Q&A, not for today. But, again, back to the Bible and Christ's Words; that's the way to be confident about God's voice in our lives.
ANNOUNCER: And in our world today, we need to take God's Word even more seriously.
SELTZ: Right. It's the authority about what God wants you to know for life and salvation and how to live right now.
ANNOUNCER: Thank you, Pastor Seltz. This has been a presentation of Lutheran Hour Ministries.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
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