DashHouse.com

The Blog of Darryl Dash

This blog is about how Jesus changes everything. He changes:

Our relationship with God

Our relationship with others

Our vocations - how we live and work in this world

Our ministries

This blog exists to explore some of the ways that Jesus changes everything. It provides resources and articles that will help you think about the ways that Jesus can change every part of your life.

The Lord himself invites you to a conference concerning your immediate and endless happiness, and He would not have done this if He did not mean well toward you. Do not refuse the Lord Jesus who knocks at your door; for He knocks with a hand which was nailed to the tree for such as you are. Since His only and sole object is your good, incline your ear and come to Him. Hearken diligently, and let the good word sink into your soul. (C.H. Spurgeon, All of Grace)

In the Flesh

One of my favorite foods to eat in the winter is chile con carne. Anybody here like that? It's pretty much the perfect thing to warm you up when it's really cold outside.

It's only recently that I learned what the "con carne" part means. Does anybody here know? It means "with meat" or, you could say, with flesh. When you order chili con carne, you are ordering chili with meat.

One of the most amazing things about Christmas is that God came to earth with flesh. He came in a human body. You could say that Christmas is the story of God con carne.

Dawna just read for us:

Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. (Luke 2:10-12)

Another Gospel says, "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us" (John 1:14).

The heart of our message is that God didn't wait for us to come up to him in heaven, which would have been impossible. He came to us. He lived on our turf. He went through everything that we go through. He started out as a baby, just the same as all of us do. He was hungry. He had to learn how to walk. He got colds. He got tired. He got excited.

He became God con carne, God with flesh.

There's a lot that we could say about this, but I want to just think of one for a few minutes this morning. There's a big word that people use that means transcendence. Anyone know what that means? That means that God isn't limited the same way that we are:

We're limited to one spot. We can only be in one place at a time. God is everywhere.

We don't know everything. Anybody here forget anything? All the time. God never forgets a thing.

We can't do everything. I've tried. There are lots of things I can't do. I can't lift some things. I can't change the weather. I can't see into the future. God can do anything.

God isn't limited. We are.

There really aren't any problems with transcendence - well, except for one. God being free from all the limitations of this world means that there is a gap between us and God. It means that he is something that we are not. He can seem distant. There is a huge gap between us, because we are so limited and he is not.

In fact, one of our prayers is that this gap would be closed. If you've ever prayed the Lord's Prayer, you know this one phrase: "Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." This is really a prayer that the barrier between heaven and earth would be bridged; that earth would look a little like heaven looks.

It's a prayer that a little bit of heaven would come to earth; that the gap between heaven and earth would be a little bit smaller.

That's exactly what God did on Christmas morning. He sent his kingdom in the form of a baby.

Have you ever felt that God is really distant? You don't need to anymore. God isn't distant anymore. He is here. He came as a baby. He came to us because it was too far for us to come to him.

Have you ever really hoped for something? Ever really wanted something as a present? I remember lying awake at night longing for something. One year I really wanted a telescope. I asked Santa for a telescope. I was kind of disappointed because I got a letter from Santa saying that they were all out of telescopes that year and he hoped I would understand. I did understand, but I have to admit I was disappointed. I really did want a telescope.

Imagine my surprise when Christmas morning came and there, under the tree, was...a telescope! It turned out that Santa was able to locate one after all.

That's what happened with Christmas. That which people had longed to receiver from God, that for which they had given up hope, they received that morning, in the flesh. He was a Savior, a Messiah, the Lord, in the flesh. He came as God with flesh.

Close your eyes and imagine every longing of the prophets fulfilled: people living in harmony with one another, God, and the world; no enmity, greed or hunger; you have what you need, and so does everyone else. That isn't just pie in the sky. Everything that you have hoped for is lying there, wrapped in clothes and lying in a manger.

Quite a long time ago, Charlene and I were watching the news. Lady Diana was in town. She was a princess, and princesses don't get to Toronto very often. On top of that, she was a celebrity.

We saw that she wasn't far from her house, and if we left right away, we might catch a glimpse of her. We didn't have any kids back then, so we hopped in the car and drove to the dock where the royal yacht was moored. We made it in time, and from hundreds of feet away we were able to barely see this person, who I'm told was Diana, go from her car to the boat. It all lasted just a few seconds, and it was terribly exciting. Not really!

That's about as close as I can ever hope to get to royalty. They live on the same planet, and they are just ordinary people. I can tour the Queen's palaces, and I can see where the Queen has been, but I can't really expect that I'll get closer to royalty than I did that day.

That's about as close as you could expect to get to God as well...except God didn't wait for us to come to him. He came to us. And instead of letting us see him from a distance, he came up close, close enough to be held. He came and moved right in, living with us, not just for a brief glimpse. He made this earth his home, had a family. He became one of us. And everything that God's people longed for came true in him.

What does Christmas mean? It means that God came in the flesh, to close the gap between heaven and earth. He came to become one of us.

Not only was God present in the flesh back then, but Jesus still has flesh today. Not only that, but his presence is even closer today. He takes up residence in his people. When he left, he said, "Surely I am with you always" (Matthew 28:20).

That's why they call it good news. That's why they say:

Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.
(Luke 2:14)

God came close to us because we couldn't get close enough to him. He became one of us. And he's still present today. So let's praise him.

Christmas for Unbelievers (Luke 2:25-35)

There are a lot of controversial topics that could create tension between a church and its community. One of them is homosexuality. A church in Illinois recently decided to spend a Sunday morning on the topic. It became a very memorable Sunday, not just in that church's life, but for the whole community.

You need to know a little about the community. It was known for its open and affirming attitudes. The village president is a lesbian, and several members of the school board are openly gay. There is a large homosexual population.

So when the church sent out 40,000 mailings saying that the topic at church was going to be same-sex marriage, they knew that they would be getting a reaction. They may have got more than they bargained for.

The local gay and lesbian association announced they were going to stage a silent protest at the service. They announced in advance that they would show up to bear witness to a "bigoted sermon". A hundred protesters showed up to church. The first three services went fairly well, with only one man creating a disturbance. Things got a bit uglier at night.

Listen to a newspaper account of what happened:

Waving placards and shouting through a microphone, dozens of demonstrators marched outside an Oak Park church Sunday evening voicing their anger with the evangelical congregation's stance against same-sex unions and railing against a guest speaker who describes himself as a reformed homosexual. Protesters chanted "Shame!" and "House of Hate!" as parishioners of Calvary Memorial Church entered the service.

So there you have the type of conflict that can sometimes take place between the church and the world. I am going to return to what happened in this church later, but I want to pause for a minute and ask: What does glorifying God look like in that situation?

Let's expand the situation a little. There are lots of times that Christians may believe certain things that aren't popular. There are also lots of times that we're in situations in school or at work in which people are acting in ways that we don't think are right.

What I'm getting at are the times that there is a clear difference between those of us who follow Jesus Christ and those who don't. When this difference becomes clear, in terms of what we believe and how we act, what should we do? What brings God the most glory?

  • Do you withdraw from them, so you don't get mixed up with what they're doing?
  • Do you confront them and tell them where they're wrong?
  • Do you compromise and try to fit in?

What brings God the most glory when we're in contact with people who are opposed to our beliefs and lifestyle?

A Case Study

I want to look at a case study that I think answers this question. In this passage we're going to encounter some of God's faithful people. They faced this situation as we do. They were outnumbered by those who didn't share their beliefs and their lifestyle. They faced the same choices that we do. Do they stand up for their beliefs? Do they withdraw? Do they just mind their own business?

The people were the Jewish faithful, who against all odds were faithfully serving God after hundreds of years of foreign oppression. It was incredibly hard to stay faithful. Almost six hundred years before, things began to go seriously wrong for the Jewish nation. The nation had been exiled; Jerusalem had been destroyed and rebuilt; for hundreds of years, Jews had been under foreign rule.

The Jewish faithful were outnumbered in every way. The Roman Empire was a massive world empire. The language of the day was Greek, not Hebrew (the language of the Jews). The Jewish faithful longed for the Messiah to arrive to free them from the Romans. There were revolutionaries ready to take things into their own hands and to overthrow the Romans. So you could understand how frustrating it was, how easy it would be to hate the Romans and to want them God.

What would bring the most glory to God if you were one of the Jewish faithful surrounded by Romans?

  • Do you withdraw from the Romans and try to serve God while ignoring them?
  • Do you confront the Romans and plot against them?
  • Do you try to blend in and compromise?

So let's look at what the main character in today's passage has to teach us about how to glorify God when we're outnumbered. Let's look at what happened in Luke 2.

The main character's name is Simeon. To give you a bit of background, Jesus was about forty days old, and it was time to dedicate him in the Temple and to complete the rites of purification. So Joseph and Mary take Jesus to the Temple, and it's there that they meet this man named Simeon.

Verse 25 introduces us to Simeon: "Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him." Here we learn two important things about Simeon. First, he's righteous and devout. Second, he's waiting for the "consolation of Israel". This is a term that goes back to some of Isaiah's prophecies, that spoke of Israel's comfort after the exile. Simeon was looking forward to the time when Israel would receive its promises of salvation and peace once again. He was anxiously longing for the Messiah.

So in other words, Simeon is a man who has good reason to hate the Romans, and to hope that God will judge them and save him.

Then, in the story, you have this amazing God thing happen. You can't explain this except to say that God did it:

It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required. Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying... (Luke 2:26-28)

So this has been exactly what Simeon has been waiting for. Picture him. He's holding baby Jesus in his arms, and realizing that this is the one that had been prophesied for centuries. After all these years, this is the one who is going to put things right, and bring comfort and peace to Israel. This is the one who will deliver Israel.

So it's a little surprising what Simeon ends up saying:

"Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel."

The child's father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: "This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too." (Luke 2:29-35)

The most surprising part of this is in verses 31-32:

which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and the glory of your people Israel.
(Luke 2:31-32)

Here's what these verses say:

First, it says that Jesus is a light to Gentiles. Here, Gentiles are the enemy. Gentiles are the Romans who are keeping Rome captive. They are the people who worship idols and gods, who have lifestyles that are ungodly compared to the faithful Jews.

Today, you could say the Gentiles are those who are not among the faithful who are serving God. Jesus is the light to those who don't know God. He is the light to the homosexual community who are protesting at a church. He is the light to the guy at work that always has a dirty joke. He is light to anyone who isn't a follower of Jesus Christ.

This is surprising. You'd expect Simeon to say that Jesus was judgment to the Gentiles, that he will crush them and destroy them. Instead, Simeon says that Jesus is light. He will illuminate their darkness. Instead of crushing them, he will give them just what they need. They will not only see Jesus, but they will participate in the salvation that he brings.

Second, these verses say that Israel's glory is in bearing the Messiah. Jesus is called a light to the Gentiles, and the glory to the people of Israel. According to Simeon, if you asked what Israel's greatest accomplishment was, it would be this: that Jesus came into the world through the Jewish nation. He was born with Jewish blood. It was through them that the incarnation of Jesus took place.

In other words, their greatest glory is that through them, Jesus was incarnated in a way that others could see the light of Jesus.

What brings God the most glory when we're in contact with people who are not Christians? What brings God glory is when we incarnate Jesus so that his light shines into their darkness.

If you can incarnate the presence of Jesus wherever you go, even among people who want nothing to do with God, then you are bringing glory to him.

It's easy to get sidetracked with a lot of approaches to those who are not Christians. According to Simeon, what brings God glory is when we incarnate Jesus among them, so that his light shines into their lives.

The Incarnation of Jesus

I want to spend a few minutes thinking about how this might look, because incarnation is a hard thing to get down. The three approaches that we're most used to are probably withdrawal, confrontation, and compromise.

We withdraw when we avoid people who aren't Christians. I talked to a youth pastor recently who's spent years teaching his kids how to share their faith with those who aren't Christians. One day he realized the problem. His kids didn't have any friends who weren't Christians. That's true of a lot of us. We don't have any deep relationships with those who aren't Christians because we've withdrawn from them.

Some people try the confrontational approach. That's certainly what the homosexual community expected to hear from the church when they went to protest. People expect to hear what we stand for and what we stand against. We become like a lobby group that's known for being against a lot of things.

Some people end up choosing compromise. They go undercover. I've been in a lot situations where it's tempting to blend in, and nobody even knows that you're a follower of Jesus Christ.

So these are the usual ways we act: withdrawal, confrontation, and compromise. In the life of Jesus, we see a fourth way: incarnation. Jesus modeled this for us.

When Jesus is incarnated, there is no withdrawal. Jesus did the opposite of withdraw. He came. He didn't avoid sinners. He became their friends. He attended parties with them. He liked them and they liked him.

The key word here is relationship. You can't have a relationship from a distance. If God is glorified when we incarnate Jesus, then God is glorified when we have relationships with sinners.

I like how somebody put it: "If you want to win this world for Christ, you are going to have to sit in the smoking section. That is where lost people are found." (Neil Cole, Organic Church)

When Jesus is incarnated, there is low confrontation. This statement may seem controversial, and I don't want you to take my word for it. Jesus could be quite confrontational. The thing is, he was usually confrontational with those who were religious leaders. When Jesus was friends with sinners, there really aren't too many times when he confronted them. Here's why: not because he didn't care about sin, but because he wasn't surprised when sinners sinned. That's what sinners do. Jesus knew that when he became a friend of sinners, he was going to see some sin taking place. And he, who was purely holy, didn't seem to do a lot of confrontation when he was friends with sinners.

It's like what Paul said later. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth and told them:

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world...What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? (1 Corinthians 5:9-10, 12)

So don't withdraw, and go easy on the confrontation.

When Jesus is incarnated, there is no withdrawal, low confrontation, and there is also no compromise. Jesus was holiness personified. He never compromised himself once. Yet pure holiness, when he was in human form, was loved by sinners.

How do we bring glory to God when we're surrounded by unbelievers? Not by withdrawing. Not by confronting. Not by compromising. We bring glory to God when we incarnate Jesus, so that his light shines into their lives.

The Incarnation Continues

So that's Simeon's message. Israel's glory is that Jesus is incarnated through them. And our glory is that Jesus continues to be incarnated through his people. Jesus calls his church the body of Christ. We continue to incarnate his presence today.

One of the best ways for us to bring glory to God is to live incarnationally, so that Jesus is present through us. That sounds like a lot, but it boils down to this: don't withdraw. Become friends with those who aren't Christians. Go to their homes. Invite them in your home. Go to parties with them. Take them out for dinner. Be their friends.

Don't confront. Don't be shocked if a sinner sins. Don't let it destroy the relationship.

Don't compromise. Don't pretend not to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Trust that if your relationship with Christ is real, that it will show up and that he will show up and work through you. You don't have to figure it out. You can trust God to work through you.

Here's how the church I talked about at the beginning did it.

First, they refused to withdraw. It would have been easy to speak about homosexuality with nobody present who disagreed with them. Instead, they invited interaction with those that they knew would disagree with them. Of course, relationships and friendships would have been even better.

Second, they went easy on the confrontation. Listen to part of the sermon from that day:

Every person who is born on the earth is made in God's image regardless of race, color, nationality, gender, age, or physical condition. Everyone who hears my words is made in God's image. Everyone who lives in Oak Park—black or white, young or old, male or female, gay or straight—everyone is made in God's image. We know that each person has worth and value because he or she is made in the very image of God...

Before going any further, I want to comment on the "Us vs. Them" mentality that some people felt this Sunday. We know we have members of the gay and lesbian community who not only came to protest, many also who've come inside the sanctuary for the worship service. In moments like this, it's easy to think that it's Calvary vs. the gay community. But it's not that way and it's never been that way. If you look beneath the surface, you can see that we have a lot in common. All of us are: highly valued, deeply fallen, greatly loved.

We're all in the same boat. No matter who we are or where we come from, we're all sinners desperately in need of God's grace. Our sins may not be exactly the same, but we are all sinners nonetheless.

They also refused to compromise. They were clear on what they believed, but the pastor wrote, "There were many conversations, lots of smiles, and even some laughter. Despite our deeply held differences, we were able to talk together as friends and neighbors. And we all felt, ‘This is how it ought to be.'"

How do we bring glory to God in our relationships with those who not Christians? By refusing to withdraw, confront, or compromise. Instead, to build relationships with them and incarnate the very presence of Jesus in their presence.

Christmas for Outsiders (Luke 1:51-53)

I've been to a few concerts this Fall, and I have to tell you that if I wasn't a pastor, I think I might want to be a set designer. I enjoy music, but what impresses me more is the show.

In September I went to a U2 concert. They had this pixel curtains and they did all kinds of amazing graphics on them. I'm fascinated by the lights and the way they incorporate all kinds of media into the show. I absolutely love it.

Then I went to a Passion Worship experience the other week. The evening opened with an amazing video that set the tone for the evening. I began thinking about the work that went into capturing the right ideas, expressing them creatively, and then presenting them for maximum impact. I love that stuff.

So imagine for a minute...

Forget designing a rock concert. Forget even doing design for a worship experience. Picture hearing that God is going to make his boldest move in centuries. He's on the move, and you've been given the job of showing God's greatness in one of his most important actions.

U2 and Passion have limited budgets and limited technology. Even U2 can only spend so much before they go broke. You've been given unlimited money, and God has unlimited power. You can do literally anything to draw attention to God's greatness.

You say, "What's been done before?" You think back to other times when God has acted. The Exodus - plagues and a wall of water and a dramatic rescue. The giving of the law - clouds and smoke and lightning. You think of the times that God has shown his glory to people, and it's overwhelmed them. God has always been impressive. He's always been more than able to show his glory when he acts.

So the sky is the limit and you have all the angels at your disposal? God is going to take one of his most important moves on earth. He's about to send his Son to earth to be born as a baby. God himself is about to be born as a baby. Here is what I would plan.

Some great things - I would do some research and find out the most impressive birth that had ever taken place. Then take it up a notch. I'm thinking scouting out the most impressive locations - maybe a palace. There would be lights and maybe some pyrotechnics. Angel choirs and quite a bit of pomp and circumstance. I'd maybe get Moses or Elijah to put in an appearance. Perhaps lightning or an eclipse or something.

Actually, the sky is literally the limit. Earthquakes, shooting stars, eclipses, lightning. Stuff that's never happened before. There would be lots of fanfare. It would have to get noticed. If God is going to get glory, I'd want to make sure that everyone knew and recognized that it was God.

Some great people - I would try to scout the best people to use for the event. God has used some powerful people throughout history. There have been people like Abraham and Moses and David and Elijah.

It would be a little like casting for a film. Hold auditions. Do homework. Send out invitations to those you're considering. Except even better. You could have God custom make the type of person you'd like involved, and have them placed in just the right position for the big event. God is good at that. He managed to get Joseph in Pharaoh's household. Same with Moses. Come to think of it, same with Esther and same with Daniel. God is good at taking ordinary people and maneuvering them into places where they are in high positions of power.

So imagine what you would do for a minute if you were given the job of planning the arrival of the Messiah. Your only restriction is that it has to show God's greatness. The sky is the limit. What would you do?

The Competition

That's not all. I didn't mention the competition. If you are going to show God's greatness, you need to be aware of how others who are obviously not as great are showing their greatness.

God's modus operandi has always been to show his power in comparison to those who think they have power. Think of Pharaoh. Pharaoh thought he was in charge, but God taught him otherwise. You might assumer that God would want to show up whoever is in power, so let me introduce you to the competition.

Exhibit A is Caesar Augustus. You've heard of him before. He is the first and one of the most important Roman Emperors to have ever lived. He rose to power against impossible odds, and ruled with almost unlimited power. He gave Rome forty unparalleled years of peace and prosperity, known today as Pax Romana or Roman Peace. He was popular and successful beyond imagination. If you go to Rome, you can still see a monument they built to this era in celebration of the peace that Caesar Augustus was able to bring about.

When the Messiah was sent, Caesar Augustus was at the height of his power. He was head of the mighty Roman empire. He proclaimed that he brought peace and justice to the world. He declared his adoptive father to be divine, and he called himself a "son of god". Poets wrote songs about him. They told the story of his rise to greatness. People said that Augustus was "savior" of the world. Some people actually worshiped him as a god.

On his birthday one year, they talked about his birth being "good news" or gospel:

Providence … has brought into the world Augustus and filled him with a hero's soul for the benefit of mankind. A Savior for us and our descendants, he will make wars to cease and order all things well. The epiphany of Caesar has brought to fulfillment past hopes and dreams.

So the arrival of the Messiah should out-great the great Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus.

Then there's Herod the Great. Herod is a much lesser power than Caesar, but he's still a force to be reckoned with. Herod was ruthless, even to members of his own family. Herod killed so many of his sons that Caesar Augustus said that he would rather be a pig than Herod's son.

It's said that just before Herod died, he realized that there would be no mourning. He summoned notable Jews from all over the land and locked them up. He commanded his sister to kill them upon his death so that there would be mourning in the land when he died. Fortunately, his sister let them all go, but this shows the kind of man that Herod was.

Herod was ruthless but he was also successful. He rebuilt the Temple. He was a good administrator, and he brought Judea into prosperity. He founded cities and led many projects.

So if you're wanting to make a splash, these are the two guys you have to keep in mind. Both are egomaniacs. One is a megalomaniac. That's a big word for someone who has delusions about power. One - Caesar Augustus - claims to be the son of god, the savior of the world.

How is God going to show his greatness? I would think he's want to put Caesar and Herod in their place. God would have no problem showing that all the power of Caesar is nothing compared to a fraction of God's power. As Isaiah said, "Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales" (Isaiah 40:15).

So here's how I would show God's greatness if I was in charge of preparations for the arrival of the Messiah. It would outclass Caesar and Herod. I would show God's greatness by doing great things - choirs and shooting stars and earthquakes - involving great people. It would get noticed, and everybody would realize that the Messiah had arrived to set things straight.

That would be how I would design things if the sky was the limit.

How God Shows His Greatness

We know that's not what happened. Caesar lived for years after the birth of Jesus - at least 15 - and chances are that he never even heard about the arrival of the Messiah. Herod did, but he responded with force and tried to eliminate the threat of the Messiah. The birth of the Messiah didn't exactly make a splash.

So how did God chose to show his greatness?

I said that God should show his greatness by doing great things through great people. It turns out that God did neither.

Great things - I would have expected God to do great things when he sent his Son, the Messiah. Instead, the most powerful person ever to have entered the world was born in total simplicity and humility. No fireworks, no eclipses, very little attention. Not how I would have done things.

I can imagine the fanfare in heaven as Jesus came to earth. On the other end - nothing. Even the place where Jesus was born must have been surprising. I read this week that Bethlehem at that time probably had a population of around 200 people. Even today it's a relatively small place. You don't get more humble than Bethlehem. His birth was like any common birth.

Great people - This is where the arrival of the Messiah is most surprising. God didn't exactly choose to use great people in the arrival. No great people even knew about it.

We've been looking at the Gospel of Luke. The shocking thing about the Gospel of Luke is that it's told from a woman's perspective, from the perspective of Mary, Elizabeth, and Anna. That isn't shocking today, but it was certainly making a statement in that day, when it wasn't common to do so. The Gospel is good news for those who have been robbed of a voice, those that society says aren't as important. It gives them a voice.

God's choice of a woman to be the mother is shocking because it's a bit of a stretch to even call her a woman. We call somebody Mary's age a girl these days, not a woman. She may have been as young as 10 years old, certainly not much older than 14. Would you trust the Messiah as a baby with a 10 year old girl? When God sent his only Son, he did. He used a young, unmarried girl who was just getting started in life.

Then you have some shepherds show up. Shepherds were usually young boys as well. They worked long days and nights in incredibly lonely work. To entertain themselves, they would talk to the sheep until the sheep recognized their voice. Think about that. God chose boys who spent their days and nights talking to animals all by themselves. Nobody grew up thinking, "When I grow up I want to be a shepherd!"

How does God show his greatness? Not by doing great things with great people. God shows his greatness by doing great things in humble ways. God shows his greatness by working with anyone on the street who is willing to be used by him. God uses anyone - young or old, male or female, any race, any background, people who are respected and people who aren't - God uses anyone on the street who is willing to be used by him.

How does God show his greatness? Mary sang a song of praise to God, and in it she explains how God reveals his greatness. It's not by using great people to do great things. Quite the opposite:

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
(Luke 1:51-53)

I Repent

So I wonder what the person looks like today that God might use to make a move.

My life sometimes feels a little like a game of Snakes and Ladders. Did you ever play that game? If you're lucky, you get to climb the ladders and get to the top. If you land on the wrong spot, you get a snake and slide back to the bottom. The goal is to get to the top and to win. The person on top always wins.

Actually, my life feels like a lot of board games. The Game of Life, in which the goal is to get to the end of the game with the most money and investments. Or Monopoly, in which you get ahead by accumulating. The one who owns the most and controls the most wins.

I confess that I am constantly maneuvering my life so that I hit the ladders and miss the snakes, so that I get ahead and end up on the top rather than the bottom.

In a lot of ways, I can relate to the dream of Caesar Augustus and of Herod, because their dreams are alive and well today. The story of Caesar is of a man who started at the bottom and rose to the top. It's the story of the self-made millionaire, the successful man or woman.

I can sort of relate to Herod, who has a take no prisoners approach to life. We may dress it up a bit nicer, but we all know people like him. Maybe we are him. We're ruthless. We sacrifice our families, maybe not as literally as Herod, but perhaps just as real. Remember the statement, "I'd rather be a pig than his son"?

I confess this is true even in churches. I've been in a lot of churches in my life. In every one there's been a church up the road that is doing better. Why? Because in every church, there's always another one just up the road that is doing better. I sometimes have been guilty of church envy. It's always tempting to try to become the church where the action is, to try to maneuver my life to where I think God can use it.

I'm not alone. Bigger incomes, more influence - it's the North American dream. We try to angle ourselves so that we make it.

But how does God show his greatness? Not by doing great things. The things that God does are often undercover. They don't get a lot of press. God acts in secret places and out-of-the-way locations, in places where nobody is looking. If we compiled a list of the top 100 churches in Toronto where we thought it was likely that God would show up, it would be just like God to pick a church that didn't even make it to the list. God is like that. He's always showing up where you least expect him.

God shows up and works with anybody on the street.

He uses the old barren woman, the one whose life is all but over.

He uses the ten-year-old kid we may not even trust to babysit our kids.

He uses a bunch of kids in dead-end jobs who talk to animals to witness his actions.

God always goes to great lengths to identify with the humble people of the world. God is unpretentious. He consistently comes to those who are the least likely. God shows his greatness by working with anyone on the street who is willing to be used by him. In the game of Snakes and Ladders, he overlooks the people who have made it to the top, and uses people who are barely on the board.

Derek Webb sings:

i repent, i repent of my pursuit of america's dream
i repent, i repent of living like i deserve anything
of my house, my fence, my kids, my wife
in our suburb where we're safe and white
i am wrong and of these things i repent

Mary sang:

He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
(Luke 1:51-53)

He Remembered (Luke 1:5-25, 57-80)

A few years ago, when Christina was younger, I took her to the doctor for an appointment. The appointment was for her, but all of a sudden I wasn't feeling so well. The doctor looked at me and said, "Enough about Christina. How are you doing?"

I went home and recuperated for a week from the worst case of strep throat I've ever had. I didn't have time to be sick, but I didn't have a choice. I slept for about a week. Even the most basic task was beyond me, and I had to wait it out.

Has this ever happened to you:

  • Something in your life has gone seriously out of whack. I mean your health, or a relationship, or your job. Something major that affects your whole life.
  • You can't do anything about it. You're powerless to do anything but wait.

November of last year, Colin McCartney, the executive director of Urban Promise here in Toronto, was on his way to Australia for a sabbatical after a very rough year. Two deaths connected to Urban Promise - a murder and a drowning - had brought Colin and his family close to the breaking point. They were excited to be on their way and recuperate.

Colin had a stopover in Hawaii on his way to Australia. That morning, Colin remembers praying for God to speak to him. Later that day, he went boogie boarding.

A wave drove me headfirst into the ocean bottom and snapped my neck. I remember sinking to the bottom of the ocean floor and telling my body to swim but I couldn't move a finger. I literally watched my arms float from in front of me to my side while my brain was telling them to swim!  I was paralyzed and because of this I was also drowning.

Someone dragged Colin out of the ocean. At that point, even though Colin wasn't permanently paralyzed, his life was put on hold. His sabbatical was cancelled. Everything in his life was pushed aside.

Some of you can relate to that. You may not have been set aside quite like Colin, but you've experienced the same feelings. You've been sidelined, and you can't control something that you want to control. Some of you can think of a time when you've been in the hospital, or you've been at the end of your rope, close to or even past the breaking point. It could be waiting to get a job or to have a baby.

You may not be at this point today, but that doesn't matter. Chances are that you will experience it one day. It's a common experience. There is a story of St. Teresa of Avila, the great mystic from the 1500's. She was angry with God because she was trapped in a flood while doing His work while traveling Europe starting monasteries. She cried out to God; "Why are you doing this to me? I am only doing your work?"

God answered and said, "This is how I treat all of my friends." To which Teresa replied, "Well God, maybe if you treated your friends better you would have more friends."

Waiting isn't unusual for God's people. A very common prayer, found in the psalms almost a dozen times, is the honest prayer, "How long?"

What happens in this period may even seem like it's too much for our faith. Many of you probably know the name Charles Colson. He's a well-known author and Christian leader who become a Christian in prison after the Watergate scandal. He's written all kinds of books, including his latest one The Good Life. His son was recently diagnosed with bone cancer, and soon after, his daughter was diagnosed with melanoma. Then his wife had to go in for knee surgery. Colson asks:

What happens when you have relied on this intimacy [with God] and the day comes when God seems distant? What happens in the dark night of the soul?...

I found myself wrestling with the Prince of Darkness, who attacks us when we are weakest. I walked alone at night, asking God why he would allow this. Alone, shaken, fearful, I longed for the closeness with God I had experienced in the darkest days of prison.

A period of waiting and hopelessness can overwhelm our souls.

Today, I want to look at a story of somebody whose life was interrupted in a major way, who entered a period of waiting, where his life was out of control. There are two questions I want to ask as we look at this man's story. The first question is: why do these waiting period come? What's the purpose. The second question I want to ask is: what are we supposed to learn? So if you have your Bibles with you, let's look at the story and ask these questions. It's found in Luke 1.

Why the waiting times?

So the first question I want to ask is, "Why do these waiting periods come?" By waiting periods, I mean a lot of things. It could be the long wait to have a baby, month after month hoping that the pregnancy will come. It could be the wait for an adoption. It could be when you're sidelined with sickness, or stuck in a holding pattern in your life. What is the purpose of the waiting period?

There's a sense in which we're all in this waiting period. This is the second Sunday of Advent. Advent is all about waiting. The story we're going to look at today takes place as Israel had been waiting for God to deliver them from Roman occupation. Israel had been under foreign rule for hundreds of years. The Temple had been destroyed over six hundred years earlier. It had been modestly rebuilt, but it had also been desecrated - even pigs were sacrificed there. God's people were waiting for deliverance, and it was long overdue.

Advent is a time when we remind ourselves that we too are waiting for the second coming of the Messiah.

The man we're looking at today had to endure a waiting time. In a way, it was a waiting time within a waiting time inside another waiting time. He was a man who was longing for the coming of the Messiah. He was also waiting for two other things, as we're about to see. This story communicates something about the waiting times that is important for us to hear.

Who is this man? Well, his name is Zechariah. We meet him in verses 5-7:

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both well advanced in years.

So you have this older, childless couple who love God. Their life has already been characterized by this waiting and longing. In fact, they had given up waiting for one of their hopes, to have a child. There was a stigma to being childless in that day. So there is a couple who have been waiting, and not because they weren't godly.

Then something happens that shakes their world. An angel appears to them and tells Zechariah that he and his wife are going to have a baby. Verse 13 says, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John."

Zechariah did what most of us would have probably done. He asked a question. If an angel appeared to me in my old age and told me that we were going to have a baby after years of infertility, I would have asked questions too. Read what happened:

Zechariah asked the angel, "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years."

The angel said to him, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time." (Luke 1:18-20)

This began a period of waiting, and not a brief period of waiting either. Zechariah's life was interrupted for nine months. The angel said that he wouldn't be able to speak, but it looks like more happened. We read later that they made signs to communicate with him, so he may have been deaf and dumb for this period.

Imagine not being able to speak or hear anything for nine months. You couldn't talk to anyone. You couldn't even hear what they were saying. No TV, no music. No chance to say what's on your mind. You'd be trapped in your own head, just waiting, wondering when it would be over.

But we read the purpose of this waiting period. Verse 20 says, " And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time."

We can read this verse and think that Zechariah is being punished. But there's another way to look at it. Instead of a time of being punished, maybe it was a time of learning. I suggest this because, as we're going to see in a minute, it seems that Zechariah really did learn something. But I suggest it also because this is the experience of many of God's people. The time of waiting, which few people would ever choose, often becomes a time of learning something we might otherwise not have known.

The time that Zechariah spent for nine months without being able to speak or hear was a time that he could do some thinking, so that some necessary learning could take place.

It's the same thing that can take place when we're in a hospital bed, or at home sick, or waiting for whatever.

Remember Colin, the guy who had an accident on his way to Australia? His accident happened on the second day of the sabbatical. Colin writes:

It was 45 minutes before we were headed to the beach for our first ever experience on a Hawaiian beach. My wife cornered me and asked me; "Colin, what do you want to get out of this sabbatical?" I replied; "Jude, I am 40 years old and I don't even know who I am. I really want to know who I am." Jude then responded by saying; "How will you know who you are?" I replied; "I don't know, God will have to take me there." Boy did He ever take me there as 45 minutes later I got whacked by that wave! God spoke to me so much and still does.

Colin began a long period of learning. His trip was cancelled, and he went into recuperation mode for the longest time. Listen to what he wrote some time after the accident:

God has been speaking so clearly to me through this ordeal and I am so blessed to have had to go through this. I am becoming much more contemplative because I have no other option since I had been basically bed ridden for two weeks and now confined to my house for very long periods of time. This has been a blessing because I have had hours to pray, read and think!

Later, Colin would say that the accident was the best thing that's happened to him, because of what he learned during that time.

Henri Nouwen says, "Waiting is a period of learning. The longer we wait, the more we hear about him for whom we are waiting."

Waiting is a time of learning. It's a time for God to get our attention, to teach us something that we might not otherwise learn.

So if you are in a period of waiting, there is a pretty good chance that God is using that time to teach you something. I don't know your situation, and it's always dangerous to try to guess what God's intentions are. But waiting is a time of learning. "Waiting is a period of learning. The longer we wait, the more we hear about him for whom we are waiting."

This leads me to my second question.

What are we supposed to learn?

Fast forward nine months, and Elizabeth has her baby. Zechariah hasn't spoken for the whole pregnancy. We read that the baby is born in verses 57-58: "When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy."

So the baby's born, and it's time to name the baby. Elizabeth suggests a name, but it's hard for everyone to believe her choice. The custom back then was to name your child after a relative. Elizabeth chose to name her baby John, which surprised everybody. This didn't make sense, so they decided to check with Zechariah. When Zechariah confirmed the name that the angel had told him. As soon as he wrote the name, look what happened: "Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God...His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied." (Luke 1:64, 67).

What follows in verses 68 to 79 is Zechariah's song of praise. I could say a lot about this song, but let me get to the core of this song. It's a song of praise to God for the birth of his son, but it's also a song of prophecy, looking forward to what God is going to accomplish through this birth and the birth of the Messiah. You could almost call this the "what I learned in my nine months of silence song".

There's a lot here. It's steeped in Scripture. But there's a way to get to the main point of this song so we can understand its central point. The song is written in something called a chiastic structure. That's a fancy word, but it's useful to understand it, because the Bible is full of it. Basically, every idea is nestled. Your first idea is your last idea. Your second idea mirrors your second last idea. You keep going until you reach the middle, and that is your central point. The Bible is full of this, and it's actually quite handy because you read a long passage like this one, and once you recognize its structure, you can get to the central point of the passage. You can usually go back and understand how the other parts relate.

So what's the main point of Zechariah's song? It turns out the center, the central theme, is found in verses 72-73:

to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham...

You look at this, and it's easy to see this theme popping up all over the song. The theme is this: God remembered, and God kept his promise. It may have seemed like nothing was happening for hundreds of years, but God didn't forget. He came through. He remembered.

That's not a bad message to learn while you're waiting. You may feel like you've been forgotten and ignored. You may be waiting a long time, wondering if God's going to come through. But we can learn, as Zechariah did, that God remembers. He always keeps his promises.

That's not a bad thing to learn. Really, it comes down to this: even when you're waiting, you can rely on God. If the waiting drives you to God, then the waiting time hasn't been wasted time at all.

Colin reflects on what he learned during his accident. Remember he was trying to figure out who he was? He said, "God will have to take me there." Here's what happened:

God spoke to me so much and still does. The first thing He said to me, after I went through all the x - rays, MRI's cat scans and was finally alone in a hospital room was this: "Colin, you are my son whom I love and with you I am well pleased." I cried. This was the beginning of God speaking to me so much, so clearly and showing me who I was.

Colin learned how to rely on God, who he was in Christ, during his period of waiting.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German pastor who was jailed and eventually killed for his opposition to Hitler. While in prison, he wrote to his fiancé:

A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes, does various unessential things, and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside is not a bad picture of Advent.

In a way, a lot of us are in prison cells, waiting. We're powerless to open the doors. The only way they're going to be opened is from the outside, and the only one who can open them is God.

It just may be that our period of waiting is here to teach us, and to teach us what is most important to learn: that God is trustworthy; that he always remembers. That God always keeps his promises.