Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Christmas, Part 1 - Mary


Christmas spirits are down every five years or so in the 21st century, as typified by the down years of 2002 and 2007. War and more rumors of war are in the air, unemployment is up and stocks are down, hearts are anxious and worried.

In 2002, more than two years of economic insecurity and instability wrecked havoc to many workers and their families. Many churches’ offerings were down 10-20%.

In 2007, fire threatened southern California, housing prices were down across the country and the mortgage crisis was felt throughout the world. Fortune magazine reports that the best minds – top banks and brokers - on Wall Street lost untold millions and billions as a result:
J. P. Morgan Chase - $339 million
Bear Stearns - $450 million
Bank of America - $527 million
Lehman Brothers - $700 million
Credit Suisse – 948 million
Morgan Stanley - $3.4 billion
Merrill Lynch - $7.9 billion
Citigroup - $9.4 billion (‘Wall street’s Money Machine Breaks Down,” Fortune, 11/26/07)

The first Christmas was marked by uncertainty, unease and uprooting. The Jews were unhappy under the new political realignment. The strength and influence of the Greek rule and culture horrified, dismayed and repelled the Jews. The age was as good as any age for the Messiah’s coming, but His coming did not usher in an era of conquest. The Jews’ problems did not end with Jesus the Messiah’s coming. The enemies were not defeated, an army was not raised and an uprising did not occur.

Why not? What characterizes the Messiah’s coming? What kind of Prince is Jesus and what kind of kingdom does He rule?

Christmas is the Advent of God’s Peace.
26 In the sixth month, 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 favored! The Lord is with you.” 29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. (Lk 1:26-30)

A study on ‘worry” was carried out on more than 1,600 men ages 40 to 90. At the start, they were given personality tests. They were tracked for 17 years to see how a trait called neuroticism affected survival. Those who score high in the neurotic trait are “worrywarts” who cope poorly with stress and tend to be highly anxious or depressed, says study leader Daniel Mroczek of Purdue University. “They don't let things roll off their backs.”

Among men who were high in this trait at the start and became even more so over time, half had died 17 years after the study started. Among those who were high in neuroticism at the start but didn't increase - the less neurotic, 75% to 85% were still alive. The good news: “People can change,” Mroczek says. “If you learn to worry or fret less, you may add time to your life.” But the findings apply only to men, he emphasizes.

Women are more likely than men to overthink, says psychologist Susan Nolen-Hoeksema of Yale University, who has studied rumination for years. Women brood about things that make them sad or anxious; men are more likely to stew about anger, she says. And you don't have to be an adult to suffer bad health effects. In her latest, four-year study of adolescent girls, she found that girls prone to ruminating were more likely than the others to develop eating disorders, alcohol problems and depression. Future chronic ruminators often were anxious little kids, Nolen-Hoeksema says. “It's not the stress that kills us, it's how we respond to it.” (“Brooding Weighs on Mind and Body,” 5/8/07 USA TODAY)

Peace is not the absence of trouble, but the presence of Christ in times of trouble.

The social implications of the angel’s announcement, without doubt, crossed virgin Mary’s mind. “Greatly troubled” (diatarasso) occurs the only time in the Bible. You can say nobody knows the trouble she’s seen. Motherhood seemed to be an insurmountable problem, an unbearable burden and an overwhelming responsibility. The disclosure was way over her head. It was way too much for her, and she was way too young. Her fiancée was about to leave her, the wedding was about to be cancelled and a child out of wedlock was about to be her fame, but her life did not spiral out of control. She did not have a nervous breakdown, cry at her misfortune or ask the angel for time to think, reconsider and decide.

Mary had peace because the Lord’s presence with her (v 28). Christmas does not mean the absence of danger, trouble and adversity but the presence of God’s peace in times of danger, trouble and adversity. The angel could not stop repeating the root word of “grace,” or charis in Greek (v 28). The first greeting from the angel was the word “grace,” (“greetings” in NIV) and the next word in Greek - “highly favored” - is also a modified version of the word “grace.” The first two Greek words are “Grace” and “highly- favored” - the linking verb “you who are” is missing in Greek. She had peace, wonderful peace, because of the presence of Christ our Savior (Titus 1:4, 3:6) and Lord (1 Tim 1:2, Jude 4, 25), the Lord of all (Acts 10:36) and God over all (Rom 9:5), and the Prince of Peace (Isa 9:6) in her life. God’s peace transcends all understanding (Phil 4:7) and is perfect to those who trust in Him (Isa 26:3).

Christmas is the Advent of God’s Promise.
31 You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name 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 the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Lk 1:31-33)

Once upon a time, there was a far-away land that was ruled by a vicious king. His iron hand reached into every corner of his subjects' lives. Every corner - except one. Try as he might, he couldn't destroy their belief in God. In his frustration, he finally summoned his advisors and asked them: “Where can I hide God so the people will end up forgetting about him?”

One suggested hiding God on the dark side of the moon. This idea was (vigorously) debated, but was voted down because the advisors feared that their scientists would one day discover a way to travel into space travel and God would be discovered again.

Another suggested burying God in the deepest part of the ocean. But there was the same problem with this idea, so it was voted down.

One idea after another was suggested and debated and rejected. Until finally the oldest and wisest advisor had a flash of insight. “I know,” he said, “why don't we hide God where no one will ever even think to look?” And he explained, “If we hide God in the ordinary events of people's everyday lives, they'll never find him!” (Thomas McMillen)

Lost to hustling, bustling and unsuspecting folks, the confirmation of God’s promise of the Messiah was to be fulfilled in a strange, unorthodox, but ordinary way.

Did God forget His promise of a Messiah to Israel? The promise sometimes seemed to hang by a thread. Centuries, kings and empires had come and gone, and yet the Messiah did not come with his army to rescue the Jews. In 722 B.C., the Assyrians carried away ten tribes, and in 586 C.C., the Babylonians exiled the last two tribes. The promise was alive again when an empire change occurred. Seventy years after the exile, the Persian king Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild the city. Nothing happened for over the next 500 years. Even the prophets had not spoken for 400 years. The Chinese say, “Wait till the neck is long, the hair is white, or even the mosquitoes sleep.” Many gave up hope, and many missed the point.

But God’s promise never fails. It is perfect, exact and timely. Delay is man’s vocabulary. God’s promise came eventually; yet the Messiah did not bring a sword or an army, but peace on earth and goodwill to man (Lk 2:14). The name of Jesus, meaning salvation or deliverance, was given because the Messiah will save His people from their sins (Mt 1:21) and not from the city of Rome, the Gentiles, or their enemies.

The Messiah’s mother was a perfect choice. Mary was a direct descendant of David, but the Messiah’s hometown was an unlikely choice – Nazareth in Galilee. Nazareth was an obscure place and unloved town 75 miles northeast of Jerusalem. Nathaniel echoed the sentiment of outsiders toward Nazareth when he quipped, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46). The town was located in Galilee, the northern region of Palestine that was also dismissed by the Pharisees who said, “No prophet comes out of Galilee” (John 7:52). The gloom, negativity and indifference over Nazareth and Galilee were understandable due to the stigma over its nickname: Galilee of the Gentiles (Isa 9:1, Mt 4:15). Isaiah predicted glory, instead of gloom, for Zebulun and Napthtali: “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan (Isa. 9:1).

The Gentile population grew when an appreciative Solomon gave twenty towns in Galilee to Hiram king of Tyre (1 Kings 9:10-12). The presence of Gentiles in Galilee was complete when the Assyrians who captured and deported the northern kingdom to Assyria (2 Kings 15:29). Galilee also bordered Israel’s enemies and so they were often the first casualties of war. Galilee was known for her Gentile people, heathen temples, and pagan idols.

In Jesus’ time, Galilee was home to the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali. Neither Zebulun or Naphtali was an esteemed tribe in Israel or son of Jacob. Zebulun was the youngest of six sons bored by the unloved Leah, Israel’s founder (Gen 35:23), and Naphtali was the youngest son of Rachel's handmaid, Bilhah (Gen 35:25).

Christmas is the Advent of God’s Power.
34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon 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 barren is in her sixth month. 37 For nothing is impossible with God.” 38 “I am the Lord's servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her. (Luke 1:34-38)

One of my all-time favorite movies is the Lord of the Rings. The main character in the trilogy, Frodo, volunteered to bear the ring to the elves’ stronghold, where the Great Council will decide the ring’s fate. Upon arrival, he learned from the council that the ring could only be destroyed by the fires that made it. When a quarrel broke out over who should return the ring for destruction in enemy territory, Frodo reluctantly volunteered to break up the argument.

At the end of the first part of the trilogy, a lot of lives were lost or sacrificed because of the evil forces’ desire for the ring. Frodo, too, sacrificed a lot to return the ring to its place. To save Shire from attack and destruction by evil forces, Frodo had to leave his beloved Shire, the place where he was born and raised and the only place he had known and lived. Two of his three friends from Shire with him on the trip were captured by the evil forces.

New friends he had made risked and sacrificed their lives to save Frodo. Also, people were not who they were around the ring. Frodo’s mission was to destroy the ring and stop the madness caused not only by freaks, monsters and killers but his own fears, weaknesses, and temptations. At the end of the first part of the trilogy, Frodo regretted his association with the ring, but recalled the advice his friend and mentor Gandalf gave. Frodo pitied himself for the burden he had to carry on behalf of all when he confided to Gandalf, “I wish the ring had never come to me.” Gandalf responded kindly, “So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given you.”

Not enough credit has been given to Mary. Even though God chose Mary, Mary had a choice – not just be a bearer or carrier, but a servant (v 38). She did not just loan her body, but she offered her heart, mind, soul and everything. Not only was she prepared to leave her fiancée, she was prepared to leave her town and life behind. She left for Bethlehem when she was with child (Lk 2:4), fled to Egypt when the child’s life was in danger (Mt 2:13-14) and returned to remote Nazareth only when it was safe (Mt 2:23). G. Campbell Morgan said of Mary: “In our rebound from the false exposition into which the Mother of our Lord has been lifted by the Roman Church, we have too often neglected, we have been unfair to her, we have consigned her almost to oblivion.”

Mary was the first believer and bearer of the good news. The Bible, the disciples, and the early church know her as the mother of Jesus (Matt 1:18, 2:11, 13:55, Luke 2:34). Mary was one of the founders, historians, eyewitness, sponsors and pillars of the early church (Acts 1:10). She was the mother of Jesus and the mentor of the apostles. God chose Mary to be the mother of the Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. But how was that possible, she asked the angel. (v 34) The angel answered, “For nothing is impossible with God.” (v 37)

Having the son of God for one’s child was not the easiest and simplest task. How do you teach, raise or mother someone who is perfect, sinless and holy? The three names describing him (v 35) - the Son of the Most High (Mark 5:7), the Holy One (Luke 4:34), and the Son of God (Mk 8:29) – refer to his authority over demons specifically, but not excluding his authority over man, things, and nature. What could a simple peasant girl offer to the son of God when he was a kindergartner, a teenager or a grown man? The growing pains were unbearable for any sane parent. As Simeon predicted, “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 2:34-35)

Mary’ and her husband were not among society’s wealthy, prominent or elite. They did not have much. Mary and Joseph could not even afford a lamb sacrifice at the temple, so they sacrificed a pair of doves or two young pigeons (Luke 2:24, Lev 5:7). To the eyes of the world, Mary and the likes of her were not to be envied or emulated, but they did not know her strength and power. Of course, a parent’s work is never done. The power of God enabled Mary to be all that was necessary of her – a mother, a servant and a disciple.

Conclusion: Our problems do not go, fly or stay away at Christmas. Christmas means that the presence of Jesus in giving us the peace, promise, and power to face all our problems. Job says, “Man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7) Christmas means that God cares so much that He came down to experience the pain, suffering and life with us.


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