Did Elizabeth and Mary Earn their Special Place in the Christmas Story? Do We Earn Our Place in God’s Story?

God was up to something big at Christmas. Elizabeth and Mary were chosen to participate in very important ways. Why were they chosen?

We might write a sermon on how they earned their special place in the Christmas story. Elizabeth has a fine resumé:

In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. Luke 1:5-6 (NRSV)

Elizabeth is a descendant of Aaron, so has a good family lineage. She is righteous and blameless according to the Old Covenant law. She is also married to a priest, which as anyone married to a pastor will know, means she must be a saint. Elizabeth is a very good woman. She ticks all the boxes for being top of the list for earning God’s favour.

What about Mary? Mary does not get the same build-up from Luke in his Gospel account as Elizabeth, but we can point to her humble character and her willingness to follow God’s lead:

Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Luke 1:38 (NRSV)

We might therefore write a sermon about both Elizabeth and Mary earning their special place in the Christmas story and encourage everyone to earn divine favour. But I won’t. Why? The message “we are good, therefore God was good,” was not a sermon Elizabeth or Mary would preach.

Consider Elizabeth’s response when she conceived:

“This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” Luke 1:25 (NRSV)

Notice what she did not say; “being good has paid off. I was good, so God was good.” Elizabeth does not put the spotlight of her own goodness, she highlights God’s goodness. Notice further her response when Mary comes to visit:

She exclaimed with a loud voice, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child in your womb! 43 And who am I that the mother of my Lord should come and visit me? Luke 1:42-43 (NET)

Elizabeth’s attitude is not, “I have earned this privilege,” but “who am I that I should have such a privilege?”

Let us also consider what Mary has to say:

And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” Luke 1:46-55 (NRSV)

Mary praises God, not herself. She does not say “he looked on the goodness of his servant,” but “he looked on the lowliness of his servant.” Throughout the song, God is spoken of as doing great things for others, especially the “lowly” and the “hungry.” He acts according to His promise, and not according to Mary’s perfection. In this song, Mary sees herself as being an example, not of perfect obedience and righteousness, but of weakness. In this song God does something special, not because people are perfect and deserve better, but because people have needs and God is good.

Neither Elizabeth nor Mary get overly religious. We are being very religious when we think that our own goodness leads directly to the experience of God’s goodness. When we experience blessing, we think it is because we earned it. When we don’t experience blessing, we think we have failed to earn it. Mere religion puts the focus on us, and what we do or don’t do. Truth is more important than religion. Truth is, God is good. His goodness to us does not flow from the building up of our merit, but the outpouring of His love. Our goodness follows from the goodness of God, it does not lead to it.

Religion has a nasty habit of putting the spotlight on us. We humans have a nasty habit of enjoying that spotlight. Christmas puts the spotlight on God. God has done something amazing, regardless of the goodness of the people involved. Neither Elizabeth nor Mary focus on their own goodness, or their lack thereof. Both point instead, to the goodness of God. Christmas causes us to stop thinking of ourselves for a moment, of how good we are, and instead to focus on God, how good He is.

A spirit of entitlement comes from one’s religiosity. “I am so good, therefore God must be good to me.” Elizabeth and Mary don’t say that.  A spirit of humility comes from one’s grasp of reality.  “God is so good! Who am I to receive a blessing?” Elizabeth and Mary do say that. Do we, through our goodness, earn a place in the story of God? A spirit of truth will bring our focus where Elizabeth and Mary’s was; on the goodness of God. God makes us a place for us in His story because God is good.

 

When We Face Lions. Being a Christian in Canada.

When facing the lions means facing the antagonism of society against Christianity, what do we do? There is no doubt that Christianity has held a privileged place in Canadian society from our nation’s beginning. But now? Not-so-much as church attendance drops to new lows, and traditional Christian values are dropped from the law books. The lions we face are nothing compared to the lions faced by the early Christians or the persecution felt by Christians around the world today. Nevertheless, many have a sense of fear that things will only get worse in our not-so-Christian-anymore society. How do we navigate the new and ever-changing normal? Daniel will help us. Daniel was a person of deep faith in a land where you could be threatened with lions. Let us pick up on some lessons from Daniel, chapter 6, when Daniel faced the lions.

First,

Soon Daniel distinguished himself above all the other presidents and satraps because an excellent spirit was in him, and the king planned to appoint him over the whole kingdom. 4 So the presidents and the satraps tried to find grounds for complaint against Daniel in connection with the kingdom. But they could find no grounds for complaint or any corruption, because he was faithful, and no negligence or corruption could be found in him. Daniel 6:3-4 (NRSV) 

Daniel is known for commendable service to king and country even though Darius is not his king, nor Babylon his country. When we first met Daniel as a teenager in Daniel, chapter 1, he had concern for his Jewish identity, but was also willing to serve the Babylonian king. Now that he is in his early eighties, he has served a few Babylonian kings and is still serving well. Daniel had a commitment to serve people who keep, and threaten people with, lions. Are we willing to serve Canada and Canadians no matter how threatened we might feel?

Second,

The men said, “We shall not find any ground for complaint against this Daniel unless we find it in connection with the law of his God.” Daniel 6:5 (NRSV) 

Daniel’s colleagues are aware of Daniel’s faith. Daniel’s service to king and country is impeccable, so the jealous men are not able to find grounds for Daniel’s destruction. They know, however, that Daniel is a man of deep faith and conviction in his God. They know that he is man of prayer:

All the presidents of the kingdom, the prefects and the satraps, the counselors and the governors are agreed that the king should establish an ordinance and enforce an interdict, that whoever prays to anyone, divine or human, for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be thrown into a den of lions. Daniel 6:7 (NRSV) 

Are people aware that we have deep conviction that God loves humanity in Christ? Do people know that we pray?

Third,

Although Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he continued to go to his house, which had windows in its upper room open toward Jerusalem, and to get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise him, just as he had done previously. Daniel 6:10 (NRSV) 

Though Daniel has been squeaky clean in his service to king and country, the time has come for deliberate defiance. The time had come to make a choice between devotion to the king, and devotion to the King of kings. Daniel had the courage to keep walking the walk, even when threatened with lions. Would we have had that courage?

We should note here that Daniel’s defiant attitude only arose when his own ability to walk according to his faith was threatened. He was not demanding that all Babylonians pray like he did. Courage for the Canadian Christian in our day does not mean having the courage to enforce Christian values upon all Canadians. But it does mean the courage to follow Jesus as a Canadian, even though it may bring us into disrepute. Do we have the courage to walk the walk and talk the talk? How Canadians live is not our number one priority. How we live is. Enforcing Christian values through Canadian law is not the goal. Helping people know Jesus is.

Fourth,

When the king heard the charge, he was very much distressed. He was determined to save Daniel, and until the sun went down he made every effort to rescue him. Daniel 6:14 (NRSV)

Back in chapter 4, Daniel was distraught over Nebuchadnezzar’s looming troubles. Now the tables are turned and the current king, Darius, is distraught over Daniel’s looming troubles. If we were rounded up and taken to prison for our faith, would our neighbours care? Would anyone beyond our church community even notice? Perhaps the king was disturbed by Daniel’s troubles because Daniel was the kind of person who would be disturbed by the king’s troubles. When people are troubled around us, do we notice? Are we prepared to serve, defend, and care for people who are very different from us? Do we care for people who hold very different values, who live very different lifestyles? Do we get the point of Jesus’ Good Samaritan story? The point is not that we become Samaritans, but that we become good. We should be the priest who actually crosses the road to help someone no matter how “unclean” that might make us feel. Daniel was known for what he is for, and not what he was against. Daniel was known to be for king and country. In choosing the lions he was known for his devotion to God. What are we known for as Christians today?

Fifth,

So Daniel was taken up out of the den, and no kind of harm was found on him, because he had trusted in his God. Daniel 6:23b (NRSV)

Consider the people who would have first learned about Daniel’s experience with the lions.
Those experiencing exile along with Daniel would have felt like they were living out a lion’s den experience. Would they survive? Would their faith survive? Would God abandon them there in the pit? Daniel trusted God and he came out of the pit alive. God’s people would be encouraged by that to keep trusting in God’s promises. The exile will end, they will come out of it alive. God’s people would face other lion’s den experiences once the exile was over. In later chapters, Daniel prophecies about difficulties the nation would face under Greek rule and rulers. Keep trusting, God will lift his people out of that lion’s pit also. Just as the story of Daniel in the lions den does not end with Daniel being eaten by lions, there is no storyline which ends with God’s people being destroyed. God has made promises. He can be trusted.

We may feel like the Christian Church in Canada is entering a lion’s den. We may feel like it may someday face extinction. There is no storyline where Christianity is destroyed. That is not how this story we live in will end. God has made promises. We can trust him.

What is true for Christianity is true for the Christian. There may be lion’s den experiences in our lives. We may feel like we have entered the lion’s den when we enter a doctor’s office to receive a diagnosis, or a counsellor’s office to work on a significant but hurtful relationship, or a workplace office to receive a pink slip. Daniel came out of the lion’s den alive. Jesus came out of the tomb alive:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. 21 For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; 22 for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. 1 Corinthians 15:20-22 (NRSV)

In Christ, there is no future where you do not come out alive. God has made promises. We can trust him.

To summarize, though we think we may face lions here in Canada, let us keep serving all kinds of Canadians, even those who keep lions. Let us keep walking the walk, and talking the talk. Let us keep trusting in God for the future.

(This “Shrunk Sermon” is from a series on The Book of Daniel called “Outnumbered. The Book of Daniel and Living As Christians In A Not-So-Christian Society.” The series begins here)

Helping People Connect with God in an Increasingly Godless Society.

How can we help people connect with God in an increasingly godless society? Fewer Canadians are calling themselves Christians. Fewer are committed to attending church. Fewer people turn to churches in times of spiritual seeking. People now look for wedding officiants instead of pastors. People now desire a celebration of life rather than a Christian funeral. There is no doubt that Canadians have been turning away from Christianity. With this being the trajectory, are we able to help Canadians connect with God?

In Biblical times Babylon was more godless than Canada. King Nebuchadnezzar makes Prime Minister Trudeau, President Trump, and President Putin, all look like angels. Yet in Daniel, chapter 4 we see something remarkable:

Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble. Daniel 4:37 (NIV)

Nebuchadnezzar, a far-from-godly king over a truly godless empire made a God-connection! God’s people were very much in the minority, so we cannot give credit to prayer in schools, or Bible based laws. Church attendance was at an all time low! There is therefore hope for Canadians. If Nebuchadnezzar can make a God connection, anyone can. There are lessons for Canadian Christians in Daniel, chapter 4.

First, note Daniel’s heart:

“Upon hearing this, Daniel (also known as Belteshazzar) was overcome for a time, frightened by the meaning of the dream. Then the king said to him, ‘Belteshazzar, don’t be alarmed by the dream and what it means.’
“Belteshazzar replied, ‘I wish the events foreshadowed in this dream would happen to your enemies, my lord, and not to you! Daniel 4:19 (NLT) 

Daniel’s heart broke for Nebuchadnezzar. There is no doubt about Daniel’s heart for God. However, Daniel also had a heart for Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel was moved by what he knew would happen to the king. Keep in mind that this is not a good and godly king. This is a not a friendly empire. This king had thrown Daniel’s friends into the fire. This king had threatened to destroy all the wise men, including Daniel, when they were unable to discern his dream. This empire had invaded Daniel’s homeland and taken people, including Daniel, as captives. Yet, it touched Daniel’s heart that Nebuchadnezzar was about to experience misfortune. Daniel was loving the enemy long before Jesus taught us to do so.

Do our hearts break for those who experience disconnect from God? Nebuchadnezzar was very different from Daniel. He had a different background, grew up speaking a different language, followed a different religion, and therefore had different values. Do our hearts break for those who would seem to be very different from us?

Do our hearts break over the struggles and misfortunes of others, even perceived enemies, or do we say, “told you so”? Do our hearts break for people? Do we faithfully love others? Broken hearts will be the evidence.

Second, note that Nebuchadnezzar’s connection with God was a journey.

Nebuchadnezzar had glorified Daniel’s God before, in chapter two. That did not stop him from throwing Daniel’s friends into a furnace in a fit of rage in chapter three. Chapter four ends with a stronger connection between the king and God than ever before. Yet there is likely more distance to go in Nebuchadnezzar’s understanding of the divine and his relationship with God. The path to, and with, God can be a long journey.

A relationship with God is always a journey. In previous Kanye West albums I have heard some Christian thoughts. In his latest album, called “Jesus is King,” there are nothing but Christian thoughts. Kanye is on a journey! Yet Kanye calls into question the ability of established Christians to walk that journey with him:

Said I’m finna do a gospel album
What have you been hearin’ from the Christians?
They’ll be the first one to judge me
Make it feel like nobody love me
They’ll be the first one to judge me
Feelin’ like nobody love me
Told people God was my mission
What have you been hearin’ from the Christians?
They’ll be the first one to judge me
Make it feel like nobody love me

https://genius.com/Kanye-west-hands-on-lyrics

Helping people connect with God is a great privilege, at any point along the journey. Daniel never gave up on Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel never wrote the king off, but served him with heart. Do we give up on people? Have we given up on Canada? Do we engage with people, serving others as Christ served us? Or do we isolate ourselves? Worse, perhaps we might prefer to isolate them. Are we faithful in our journey with people, as they are on a journey in their relationship with God? Relationships will be the evidence.

Third, watch for God’s heart work.

There was an essential ingredient that Nebuchadnezzar needed for a better connection with God. He needed humility. In Daniel chapter 4, God, not Daniel, takes Nebuchadnezzar on a journey of self-awareness and God-awareness:

29 Twelve months later, as the king was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon, 30 he said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?”
31 Even as the words were on his lips, a voice came from heaven, “This is what is decreed for you, King Nebuchadnezzar: Your royal authority has been taken from you. 32 You will be driven away from people and will live with the wild animals; you will eat grass like the ox. Seven times will pass by for you until you acknowledge that the Most High is sovereign over all kingdoms on earth and gives them to anyone he wishes.”
33 Immediately what had been said about Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled. . . . 34 At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever. . . . 37 Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble. Daniel 4:29-34,37 (NIV)

Nebuchadnezzar is taken on a journey from thinking he is the best, with no need for God, to an awareness that he is, and has, nothing without God. Nebuchadnezzar does not make a vital connection with God until he is humbled. He needed some heart work, and God brought about that heart work.

People will not connect with God without some heart work. Merely sharing information won’t establish a God connection. Hearing the truth is often not enough. Daniel could say it, and he did. But Nebuchadnezzar did not learn it until he experienced it. The king had all the information he needed. Daniel put it in his head. However, the king did not have the humility to accept it until God prepared his heart. Still, it was important that Daniel say it. Are we committed to faithfully sharing the Good News of God’s love in Christ, even when we are being ignored? Are we faithful in engaging people’s minds, while we look to God to open hearts? Prayer will be the evidence.

Conclusion

Fewer people seem to be making a connection with God in our not-so-Christian-anymore society. We might despair. But there is hope. If Nebuchadnezzar can make a vital God-connection, anyone can. Daniel was involved in that connection. We can be involved also. Are we faithful in our love for people, really and truly loving our neighbour, even our enemies, as Jesus calls us to? Are we faithful in our journey with people, every step of the way, even the smallest steps, even steps sideways or back? Are we faithful in engaging people’s minds, while we look to God to open their hearts?

(This “Shrunk Sermon” is from a series on The Book of Daniel which begins here)