Sunday, December 20, 2015

How Christ Comes to the Open

[This was shared during worship with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church this morning.]

Luke 1:39-45
Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” 

With these words, Elizabeth, six months pregnant with John the Baptist, extols the faith of Mary, the bearer of Jesus, God enfleshed.

And Mary
is a person of great faith.

After all, when the angel told her that she was to give birth to the Messiah, Mary could have initially written the visitation off as a figment of her imagination.

Or, she could have complained to the angel--and to God--and ended by saying, “No, thanks!”

But Mary instead had said, “Let it be to me as you have said,” then went off to the Judean hill country to be with her relative Elizabeth as
she gave birth to John the Baptist.

Elizabeth’s pregnancy is almost as implausible as Mary’s. Mary’s pregnancy was the most implausible, of course. This virgin was bearing a child conceived by the Holy Spirit.

But, like Sarah and Hannah from Old Testament times, Elizabeth learned that she and her husband Zechariah were to become parents long after she’d passed child-bearing years.

And it’s to the lessons that Elizabeth can teach us today that I want to turn our attention, because while Elizabeth was right in saying that Mary had strong faith, Elizabeth’s faith was extraordinary too.

Our Gospel lesson is Luke 1:39-45, and it begins: “At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth.”

Mary seeks out Elizabeth, her relative, who is undergoing a somewhat similar experience to her own. Each of them, in their own way, will probably be victims of gossip for their pregnancies.

We can maybe understand this more readily with Mary: God has established marriage between man and woman as the place in which intimacy is to happen. Anything outside of that is sin. Few would believe Mary’s story of the angel telling her that her child was conceived by God. And while it had been some time since anyone had exacted the punishment of death by stoning, Mary could likely look ahead to years of being ostracized.

But Elizabeth would also face condemnation. Year ago, when I was about thirty, I knew an elderly woman who had a daughter a few years younger than me. Her other children were significantly older than this last child. I later learned that when she was expecting this child, she tried hiding her pregnancy for as long as she could, feeling that some people might think that older couples should “act their ages” and not be doing anything to have more children. Some no doubt gossiped about Elizabeth and Zechariah similarly.

In our lesson, other people's possible reactions to their pregnancies is on the minds of either Mary or Elizabeth, though.

They trust in God and are excited and humbled to be instruments in the plans of God for the salvation of the world.

When I set my own bellyaching about what God expects of me next to the faithful acceptance of Mary and Elizabeth of far more demanding expectations from God, I’m put to shame and have no choice but to repent for my deficient faith.

Verse 41: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” There are two things to note here. One is that John the Baptist, the child in Mary’s womb, evidently recognized the presence of the Savior Jesus through the call of Mary. There’s a mystery in this and I can’t begin to plumb its depths. It’s just worth noting.

The other thing to see is that God fills Elizabeth with the Holy Spirit. This is important for what happens next. Verse 42: “In a loud voice she exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!’”

I love this verse!

In those days and in that place, women were more or less to be “sometimes seen and certainly not heard.” But Elizabeth speaks up “in a loud voice”!

Her doing so evidences two things that happen with Elizabeth. First, she recognizes Who Jesus is. In the next verse, she’s going to call Jesus, “my Lord.” Second, she loudly and forcefully proclaims Jesus to be God on earth, the Lord of all so that others can hear; Elizabeth witnesses.

And in this simple verse, we see two things that the Holy Spirit can do in the lives of those who are open to God. The first is that the Holy Spirit makes it possible for anyone who is open to Christ to trust in Him, to believe in Him, and so, to have everlasting life with God.

Without the Holy Spirit working on us, faith in Christ would be impossible.

As Martin Luther puts it in his explanation of the third article of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, and sanctified and preserved me in the true faith.”

The Holy Spirit enables us to tell God, “There are so many things about You, Lord, that I don’t understand. But I trust in You because of what I do understand: That You have come into my world. And that You bore my sins and the sins of the world on the cross. Through Your cross and Your empty tomb, I do understand that You are the God of love Who wants all people to come to Jesus and live. So, rather than worrying about what I don’t understand, I trust You on the basis of what I can understand.”

God isn’t looking for perfect people to save. He’s looking for imperfect people who are willing to be saved, not by their own power or goodness, but by Christ alone. And not by their power to comprehend the mysteries of God, but by the power of the Holy Spirit Who helps us to trust in what is humanly incomprehensible. 

As the Christmas hymn says: “No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin / Where meek souls [humble souls, receptive souls] will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

Elizabeth was willing to believe the unbelievable, that God was in the womb of a virgin, that a world entrapped by sin and death could be set free by the Baby Jesus.

And because she was
willing to believe, the Holy Spirit empowered her to believe.

And once Elizabeth believed, she was able to proclaim her faith in Christ to others.

The Holy Spirit wants to do these same two things in every believer:
  • He wants us to have faith in Christ, so that we can have eternal life with God.
  • He wants us to tell others about Christ so that they can know life with God, too.
The question for us each day is: Are we open to the work of the Holy Spirit?

And in this time of transition, having experienced recently so many miraculous acts by God in the life of Living Water--from the rapid provision of a building, to the orchestration of an internship for Dan Mershon, providing for Dan and his family as he grows toward one day becoming a pastor, to the leadership of a youth ministry team who, with your help, will ensure the growth of Living Water’s youth ministry--
are we of Living Water willing to let the Holy Spirit build within us an even more dependent faith in Christ and to let Him use us daily to tell the world about Jesus?

In verse 44, Elizabeth asks Mary: “But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

On the face of it, Elizabeth’s humility seems strange.

Why would she be humbled by a young girl, pregnant under what seems like bad circumstances, coming into her house?

Why would she be humbled by the presence of an unborn child?

The explanation is simple:
By faith, Elizabeth understands Who the unborn child Mary carries is. He is, as she says, “my Lord.”

Her humility reminds me of the Roman centurion, a powerful commander of an occupying army, who tells Jesus, “I do not deserve to have you come under my roof.” [Matthew 8:8]

These are the words of people who are grateful for the grace of God given in Christ and who realize that they don’t deserve grace, don’t deserve a relationship with the Almighty. They’re amazed that the Savior of the world would come to them, would save them, would forgive them, would care about them.

Do you have this same humble gratitude and awe before God?

Do you welcome Christ with humility into every part of your life?

My mentor in the faith, Pastor Bruce Schein, used to warn us against becoming accustomed to handling the holy, taking God for granted or feeling entitled to salvation

Yesterday morning, during my quiet time with God, after reading Revelation 15:8, I had to confess to God that I sometimes can be very unlike Elizabeth. In my journal, I wrote:
I feel that I take my sin entirely too lightly, that I buy into a cheap grace that is convenient to me, but doesn’t share fully in Christ’s sufferings...Forgive my flippancy, Lord. Help me to fully embrace Your grace by understanding how much sin, how much deserved wrath, that [grace] covers.
I never want to take Christ for granted.

I never want to fall into the trap of thinking, falsely, that God owes me salvation. God owes me nothing!
But God does give salvation freely to all who believe in Christ. And the only appropriate response to a King of such grace and love is humble acceptance of His Lordship. This is the response Elizabeth displays consistently.

At the end of our lesson, as we noted, Elizabeth says of Mary, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” But we could as easily say it of Elizabeth!
She was open to believing in Jesus as Lord and so, the Holy Spirit empowered her to

(1) believe in Christ;
(2) proclaim Christ to others; and
(3) welcome him humbly into her life and her world.
As we prepare for Christmas and a new year with new challenges and opportunities for us as individuals and as a church family, we would do well to have this same openness to God, so that we will
  • more deeply trust in Christ;
  • more consistently tell others about Him; and
  • humbly welcome Christ into every part of our lives.

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