Sunday, December 24, 2006

What's Different About Being a Christian?

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Church of Amelia, Ohio, during morning worship--celebrating the Fourth Sunday in Advent--on December 24, 2006.]

Luke 1:39-55
Recently, I read about a pastor who took aback the members of his congregation by asking them, “What have you done today that nobody but a Christian would do?”

When I thought about that question when I first read it and considered my day, I realized that I’d done a lot of good things: I’d done my work dutifully, volunteered in the community, cared for my family, said hello to my neighbor, paid my bills, done the banking.

But how many of those were things that only a Christian would do?

What about the way I lived that day indicated that Jesus Christ was my Lord and highest priority?

What have you done today that only a Christian would do? My answer to that question shames me. I realize that sometimes, whole days go by in which what I do has very little about it that’s distinctively Christian about it.

And we Christians are meant to be distinctive. The term the Bible uses for this distinctiveness is holy.

Holy people are those who have been saved from sin and death by confessing their sins, turning from them, and entrusting their eternal lives to Jesus Christ. Being holy, very simply, means letting Jesus Christ enter our lives and rule over us.

Notice what being holy doesn't mean. It doesn't mean being perfect. It doesn't mean looking down one's nose on others.

Our Bible lesson for this morning tells us something about a young girl named Mary. The Bible teaches that Mary, like other believers in history, wrestled with doubt. Mary had all sorts of experiences confirming that the child she was bearing was the long-promised Savior-Messiah. But in spite of all these signs, Mary’s human sinfulness--our inborn penchant to think that we are the universe's highest authorities and this world is all there is to living--would lead her to deny Who Jesus was.

Once, when Jesus was twelve, you know, Mary, Joseph, their friends, and their extended family went to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. As they headed back to Nazareth, Mary and Joseph assumed that Jesus was with someone else in their party. But after they discovered that Jesus wasn’t with them, they hurried back to Jerusalem. Mary said scornfully to Jesus, “Child, why have you treated us like this?” But Jesus, reminding her of Who He was, responded, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

Later, after Jesus had begun His public ministry, He started to encounter opposition and death threats. And even Mary and her biological children seem to have entertained doubts about Jesus. When others questioned Jesus’ sanity, they tried to get him away from the crowds, maybe as a way of sparing Him the death which He had come to endure for us all. In this instance, too, Mary allowed her fears and her sin to overcome her faith.

But we shouldn’t be too hard on Mary. Saints, holy people, are sinners who believe in Jesus Christ and so, receive forgiveness as a free gift from God. In this, Mary is a good model. She was among the first to believe, however hesitantlly and imperfectly, that Jesus was the Savior of the world. She was the first to welcome Him into the world. (In her case, welcoming Jesus into her very womb!) Like most people of faith, she wrestled with unbelief. And like all people of faith, she looked forward confidently to spending eternity with the Lord born in a barn Who lived, died, and rose for us all.

Our lesson recounts what happens when Mary, the virgin pregnant with Jesus, visits Elizabeth, the post-menopausal wife of the priest Zechariah who is to give birth to the prophet who prepared the world for Jesus’ arrival, John the Baptizer. At the end of it, Luke records the words of Mary, spoken to Elizabeth, words patterened after those of an Old Testament figure, Hannah, spoken by her after she learned that she would become the mother of the priest, judge, and prophet Samuel.

In Mary’s words, called The Magnifcat, for the first three words of her speech in its Latin translation, Mary rejoices in three things. I hope that they're three things in which you will rejoice as you celebrate Christmas this year.

First: God blesses us even in adverse circumstances, sometimes through them. In the years that followed, Mary would endure the gossip of those who claimed that Jesus was an illegitimate child conceived in the usual way. She would also watch her son being murdered for the sins of the world, a punishment He didn’t deserve, accepted on behalf of a world that didn’t appreciate Him...and which to this day, doesn’t appreciate Him. Mary must have been filled with dread as considered what pain and grief lay ahead of her. Yet, in today’s lesson, Mary called herself blessed because she was given a role in God’s plan for the world.

You and I have roles in God’s plan, too. And our roles are just as important as that of Mary. I learned recently of a couple in our community. The husband is fighting cancer. They go together regularly to a local hospital where the husband receives his treatments. The staff are amazed by this couple because they use the treatment times as an opportunity to tell others about how Christ is helping them through and to invite them to worship with them. Mary welcomed Jesus and all the problems He brought to her, something only a Christian would do. And only a Christian invites others to follow Christ, the way this couple is doing.

Second: Mary’s song affirms that God is for us. More than four-hundred years had passed between the last prophecy of the Messiah and Mary’s pregnancy. But generations had dared to believe that the God Who acted in the past would act again and He would act for all who believed in Him. They believed, as Mary affirms, that God especially works to bring down the arrogant and to lift up the humble.

Our call is to let the world know of God’s preference for those humble enough to know they need God to fill them and God’s condemnation of those too proud to admit their need of God. You and I are called to lift up those laid low by sin, by poverty, by injustice, by loneliness. You and I can find many opportunities to do things that only Christians can do when we fight against these ills and let others see Christ in us.

Finally: Mary’s song shows us the beauty and the power of a life given over to service to God. A peasant girl from a Third World country gave birth to the Savior! In 2007, you can follow Mary’s lead and strive to give yourself to the cause of Christ completely.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote, “This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one: the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap, and being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

Shaw almost had it right, I think. We can reduce ourselves to feverish, selfish little clods. We can be pathetically self-absorbed. I know that I can be.

But Christians know that God will never throw us on the scrap heap, though hell will be filled with people who turned from Christ and so, voluntarily threw themselves on the scrap heap.

We know too, that, with the power of God’s Spirit, we can be more than a force of nature; we can be supernatural weapons of an eternal God.

And we know that God can use us for a cause greater than all!

Mary learned that the life of a Christian, a holy if imperfect life devoted to Jesus Christ, isn’t always easy.

But it’s blessed, it’s joyous, and it’s filled with the peace and assurance that comes from knowing that we belong to God forever!

It’s a life filled with prayer, worship, service, and witnessing in the Name of Jesus Christ are four things which only Christians can do.

These are the things that Mary did. They're the lifestyle components of everyone who has ever confessed belief in Jesus Christ. Absent these elements, our lives are really indistinguishable from the rest of the feverish little clods who complain that the world doesn't bow to them, their desires, and their whims.

You can tell that a forgiven sinner is walking with Jesus Christ when, in Jesus' Name, they...
  • pray
  • worship
  • serve
  • witness
Only Christians do these things in the Name of Christ. Only Christians do these things with the strength and grace of Christ involved in them. In the power of the God we know through Jesus Christ, let’s do these things that only Christians can do. When we do, we’ll live Christmas the whole year through!

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