Twenty-five minutes on the Sunday before Christmas from https://twitter.com/WelshRev at https://www.facebook.com/TyrBugail for https://www.facebook.com/Grace.Wales.online , https://welshrev.blogspot.com/and https://yGRWP.com
• Introduction - the issue: WHO is writing the script?!
I was being interviewed in an after-church meeting by a good man I know who was the chair of the missions committee.
He had taken my prayer letters for ages and in fact knew me as a very new believer … a friendship that has gone on for decades.
He was a high flying civil servant in Wales and managed a huge staff within the organisation.
He’d obviously been a bit puzzled for a while and was genuinely concerned about how I managed the range of things my prayer letters referred to.
So - trying to get me to see (no doubt) the craziness of my regular work schedule - he asked me in front of the crowd that had turned out about what strategies I used to manage my time.
Now, that’s a no-no for me.
I do have a plan for each day … but I have to be able to respond to crises and fresh issues of people’s need.
I’m afraid I made a witty response to him and diverted attention away from the issue.
Here’s the thing.
I have to live with the fact that I have choice, and the fact that I am NOT in fact the master of the universe, able to control my life as I chose.
There is my plan, and then there is THE plan.
Of course, then, in common with most people alive, I have a problem at the radical edge of the intersection of my plans and God’s, my choices and what appears to be my destiny.
Now, where my time management is concerned, I’ve had to resolve it along the lines that I’m working on His time not mine … He is the One Who ‘pays my wages’, and He controls whatever comes across my path each day … and yet I also have some responsibility to ensure that I take every chance to serve Him as I’m working on His time.
There’s a huge human yearning going on here which the real Christ of Christmas addresses for us.
So on this the last Sunday before Christmas, we’re going to open up the issue that we’re addressing, set it in the context of our identity as human beings and then look at a well-worked example of how it is resolved in the experience of Mary and the Angel in Luke 1.
Here’s the question for today then - it’s very simple: my life can be thoroughly confusing, just exactly who is writing the script, and what about putting in ad libs?
Who IS in control in my life?
We know that there are various agencies at work in this internet age to influence the way we feel, think and react.
Psychological Operations people have, we’re told, been working on our response to the pandemic from offices in Downing Street … just to cite a probably benign and helpful example.
Is it even POSSIBLE to live without serving a master of some sort?
Would we WANT to?
On the one hand we WANT to be in control of our lives, possibly THINK we are in control of our lives and probably manage and manipulate things so that we create at least the illusion that we are in control …
But is there a way to be in control, or am I actually under the control of something or somebody else?
People are often bugged in the background of their thinking by this, and the issue becomes markedly more critical at times of life-crisis.
This is the fourth ‘magnetic point’ that both Hermann Bavinck and Dan Strange identify as deep longings of the human soul that lead us on to yearning for what the authentic Christ of Christmas addresses for us:
The way we control it and by it are controlled.
The thing is … Destiny isn’t really an ‘it’.
From the very beginning of human experience, God gave humans a unique responsibility as stewards of His Creation … to care for it by shaping it, working with it (not just living ‘off’ it) and to make a home out of it using the imagination and creativity we’d been given when we were created in the image of God.
That’s great … but we’re only stewards.
God is the owner.
He is in charge, He is (as we say) Sovereign.
We have responsibility, but it is a delegated responsibility.
He gives us the blueprint to work from and the framework to operate within.
However, as we know, humanity has fallen foul of the temptation to go freelance.
More than that … not just freelance but freestyle, redrawing the blueprint we were willing to work to and attempting to go it alone with our own plans, plans that were not anything like a ‘world as-built’ drawing.
They don’t match the realities here and so our re-drawn plans do not fully work.
Dominion over Creation got replaced by domination and trust in our Creator got replaced by over-dependence on created things.
But deep down … we can see it isn’t working.
So, humanity seeks structure, meaning, significance, role … in other things.
As Dan Strange puts it in that book I’ve been recommending throughout our run-up to Christmas:
“The problem with these alternative sources of meaning is that they don’t give us the control we want … and so when these ultimate explanations don’t give us the big picture meaning and security we need, our reaction is to assert our mastery in the little things, and over things we know we can control.”
In a world that OUR plans don’t completely fit, the fruit of all of that doesn’t taste or smell particularly good at all.
So here we are, thrashing around in a sense of unease about just who (or what) is writing the script.
We’re stuck between on the one hand some sort of recognition of dependence on the will and the mastery of another and on the other hand the rebelliousness that leans across from the passenger seat and seizes the steering wheel, without access to the pedals and all the other things it takes to properly get control of the car.
So here humanity sits, striving to be in control, but without the means to take it up fully, wondering WHO on earth is writing this script.
And that’s where Mary, just before first Christmas, has got a thing or two to teach us …
The hugely famous incident with Mary and the angel Gabriel in Luke 1 contrasts the human experiences of independence and dependency.
Mary has a will of her own, but so does the Lord Who speaks through the angel … and how these are to be reconciled is a major theme of what is going on.
• An unwanted Providence, vv. 26-29
“ 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. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.”
29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.”
We’re really familiar with those words, of course, and it’s easy then to miss the shock-value of what had just taken place.
· Mary’s situation
Mary’s place in society is not a prestigious one.
Here’s a young unmarried woman.
She is not said to be of any particularly prestigious family line … and she’s from a backwater in Palestine … a small town in a part of the Roman Empire that was in itself quite a backwater.
And an ANGEL very suddenly turns up.
This is a major disruption to her quiet little world.
She’s already disturbed by the visit she’s received and the words of an ANGEL telling HER she is highly favoured (by implication of course, highly favoured by God).
This rocks her world.
And then that angel’s reassurance has some very unsettling content to it …
• An un-assuring reassurance, vv. 30-33
“But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favour with God. 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.”
Don’t be afraid?
That, under the circumstances, is a very big ‘ask’!
Even Zechariah … experienced priest of mature years … has needed reassurance when he met an angel in a similar way in Luke 1:13.
You are going to have a baby
When that message came to Zechariah and Elizabeth, no doubt it was a very welcome promise.
For Mary … a betrothed virgin and a godly girl … this is just too much to bear!
He’s going to be a very great person
Mary lived at a time and in a place under a violent repressive invader when keeping your head down and living quietly was most desirable.
It’s the nail that sticks up that gets hammered (in the words of the Chinese poroverb) and under the repressive Roman regime in first century Palestine, ambition wasn’t a very good trait to nurture.
But look … the angel told Zechariah that John the Baptist was going to be somebody great.
Here Gabriel expands substantially on that for Mary’s baby.
Your baby will be the Messiah
Isaiah 9:7 has already spoken of the coming Messiah in these terms as Mary would very well know:
“Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.”
And as all those thoughts kicked off in her head Mary is well aware of the verse that comes before it …
“For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Mary … this girl who grew up in Nowheres-Ville is getting told she’s going to get caught pregnant and the baby she has will be the prophesied Messiah-Saviour, King of the Kingdom of God.
Significantly for us please notice this.
Mary is NOT being asked how she would feel about this, as if this were an option she might consider, or as if she were being offered an audition for the part.
She’s been told she is going to fall pregnant when pregnant was NOT something she wanted to be … betrothed but not yet married?
Pregnant is the LAST thing she wants to be!
The reassurance of the angel is sounding quite un-reassuring!
In fact the message is totally outrageous.
So even though she’s been told something very authoritatively from the mouth of the Angel Gabriel, Mary’s going to dare to raise her voice in faithful objection …
• A faithful objection, vv. 34-37
Mary’s OWN will kicks into action … here it comes:
““How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
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 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. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”
Mary’s a good girl, but she knows her biology.
Now look, those who don’t like the thought that God can circumvent the so-called ‘laws’ of chemistry, physics and biology try to make out that the word for ‘virgin’ here, and especially in Isaiah’s prophecy, can also simply mean ‘a young woman’ haven’t dealt with the context of this verse.
In fact, it’s a bit clearer than that.
… since I “have not known a man”, says Mary.
The expression in the Greek text is a euphemism for sexual relations.
Mary seems to have sensed that the angel’s declaration had an element of immediacy to it which excluded the possibility he was describing her having a child with Joseph.
What we’re saying is that while many modern translations of this passage have this phrase “since I am a virgin,” the Greek word for virgin is not used in the text.
This is all about Mary having a baby NOT in the usual way.
But our point is this … what’s being proposed to Mary is something that her own will would resist and cry out against.
She really isn’t that sort of girl, the responsibility she’s being given is really burdensome and the potential trouble it would bring her in first century Palestine was something to be avoided like the plague.
How do you reconcile it when you thought you were in control but then you are NOT in control, when you seem to have the right to make your own choices in life, but then it seems you do not?
How do you reconcile human freedom and destiny?
In short just WHO is writing the script?
The angel is telling Mary some really tough things to hear.
Her older, married, childless cousin Elizabeth could welcome such news, but in her very different circumstances Mary’s human nature could be expected to rebel against this announcement of her destiny really riotously.
How does Mary reconcile the tension … now here’s the point.
This is the big point here for us.
• Faithful submission to the Father, v. 38
“So Mary said, “Yes, I am a servant of the Lord; let this happen to me according to your word.”
Then the angel departed from her.”
It all comes down to this issue … ‘Mary, just WHO do you think you are?’
And it’s going to come down to this in life for you and for me too.
Mary is confronted with a message from God conveying an unchosen and an unsettling destiny.
But Mary’s self-image is that of a servant of the Lord.
Not of herself … a servant of the Lord.
That is the self-image she embraces.
That is what Mary has actually CHOSEN to be.
And life for Mary now is a matter of working out all the consequences of that.
Really, this does seem to be Mary’s settled view of herself, because she describes herself in her famous song when the Saviour was born in v. 48 using exactly the same term, and goes on to use it again of God’s ‘servant’ Israel.
This chapter is full of Isaiah, by the way, and Isaiah’s Servant Songs about the Messiah that they prophesy are both powerful and well-known.
The Messiah Himself was to be the Servant of the Lord, and that’s definitely good enough for the young Mary too.
She bore Jesus for us … the GOOD Shepherd of the sheep.
The Shepherd is the one (in the Eastern way of shepherding) who LEADS.
What we’re saying … pretty much what Mary is saying or will say when the significance of Jesus becomes clearer … is that Jesus is the One Who calls the shots.
He leads, but we follow (that’s a choice … a back-to-Eden choice as it happens because that’s how it was when things were going well back there!)
And we chose to follow for a host of good reasons but the reason we’re not trapped by His leadership, His writing the script, is that He is the GOOD Shepherd.
So we’re not simply a nameless person in a teeming mass of humanity to Jesus.
Dan Strange puts it like this:
“Time and again in the Gospels, we see how Jesus demonstrated perfect dominion over His Creation in the miracles He performed. But He did so in a way that was not oppressive but loving.”
Strange cites various miracles of healing and deliverance from dangers both physical and spiritual in origin.
There are lots.
But that message comes across probably most clearly in that when humanity’s choices got us into horrible trouble, God sent His own Son to sort it out when we couldn’t do that for ourselves … we were powerless to so He sent the real Christ of Christmas.
That is the heart of the Shepherd, the Good Shepherd that we can therefore TRUST.
What Jesus shows then as He progresses through His earthly ministry is that the world isn’t just a chaotic and meaningless place governed by either tin-point cruel deities or a grindingly impersonal ‘fate’ making us into puppets getting our strings pulled.
Of course, the Bible demonstrates that there is a sense in which we are both in control and under control … there is human responsibility within Divine Sovereignty.
You see it (for example) in Acts 2:23 where Peter is preaching to the Jerusalem crowd at Pentecost that had quite possibly cried for Christ’s blood the previous Passover … or at least heard the cries of those who did:
““Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.”
So here’s the sort of conclusion we’re coming to about this …
The bottom line is that the simple, God-favoured girl from Nazareth that Gabriel appeared to in Luke 1 had got this enigma … one that has had the best theologians and philosophers stumped … absolutely mastered and solved.
As Dan Strange puts it “Far from needing to feel trapped by shadowy forces or a cosmic fatalism, the Christian view of destiny is liberating because we believe that our good God has an unfolding plan for our lives, and that through all the ups and downs and twists and turns, we will get to the destination He’s promised. We can trust His plan because we can trust Him.”
(Strange p. 135)
Here’s how to live in peace resting in God’s will and in our destiny.
Our destiny is to do as mankind did at first in the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve were conscious of the destiny … the blueprint, the role … mapped out for them, and CHOSE to fulfil it because it was the will of their good God for their lives.
And that’s what Mary comes back to in Luke 1:38
Here is your blessing-verse to help you through Christmas, and here is the liberating destiny (both those things) that the real Christ of Christmas now brings to you:
““I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.”
Then the angel left her.”
Why did the angel then leave her?
Because with Mary’s choosing and embracing the daunting destiny that her good God had given her, Gabriel’s job was done.
Area call: all angels to return to base.