The Unfolding Plan of God

Sermon from Luke 1:26-38

Upon being told by the angel Gabriel that she was going to bear the Son of God, Mary’s response was profound. She said:

Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.

Luke 1:38

The more we study the Scripture, the more we see that it is a unified story. The plan of God begins in Genesis and ends in Revelation, but it is one story with one master plan of God that unfolds throughout. At our place in history, we are able to see that a lot of it has already unfolded, but many of the people we read about in the Bible understood much less about God’s plan than we do today.

Consider how limited King David’s understanding of his own life would have been. In 2 Samuel 7, David was told that he was not the one intended to build the Lord’s temple, and he understood that to mean that it was his son, Solomon, who would be the one to build the temple. However, in the larger scheme of redemptive history, we understand now that it is Jesus, God’s Son, who was the ultimate temple builder. In his flesh, he became the temple of the Lord in order that God’s children could themselves become a spiritual house to be the dwelling place of the Spirit of God. So David’s understanding did have merit, but it was only a very small sliver of the larger unfolding of the plan of God. We have indications from David’s writings in the Psalms that he understood small glimpses of what was to come, but he could not have grasped the full plan of God.

In the same way, what Mary manifested in her person was the willingness to say yes to God even though she could not possibly understand the depth of what was unfolding. We can contrast Mary’s humble acceptance to Zechariah’s doubt just a few verses earlier in Luke 1:18: “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” This proves that even priests don’t always have superior understanding of God’s plan!

It is wonderful how God chooses the humble, lowly, and ordinary to accomplish his wonderful plan. Mary was just a normal, ordinary teenage girl from a small town. But it was her attitude, humility, and faith that made her able to be used so marvelously by God. “Let it be with me.” She completely committed to God’s will over her own. Looking back now, we consider her to be a highly favored one, blessed, exalted above other women. However, at the time, she was just a young lady like all the other young ladies. But she submitted herself to God’s plan, and she was used for an exceptional task.

May we submit ourselves to the unfolding plan of God the same way that she did, and may we be used for extraordinary things the way she was. She was the only one to physically give birth to God’s Son, but all of us are God-bearers (Greek: Theotokos), bearers of God’s image in this world. Just as she did, may we also say, “I am the Lord’s servant; let it be to me according to your word.” This is what it means to be a Christian, a “little Christ.”

Paul illustrated this in his letter to the Romans:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Romans 12:2, NIV

Just like God had a good, pleasing, and perfect will for Mary, he has a good, pleasing, and perfect will for each of us. We only need to respond, “Let it be to me according to your word.” How can we know what God’s plan is for our lives? It’s simple. First, we must be willing to do whatever he wants. Second, we must listen for his voice and search the Scriptures for his word. He will marvelously use those who are completely submitted to him.

Not all of us can be a Blessed Virgin Mary. Not all of us can be Dr. Billy Graham. But we can all be used by God to marvelously impact those around us and work his unfolding plan of salvation in this world.

The First Witness

Sermon on John the Baptist

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.

John 1:6-7

John the Baptist was the first believer and receiver of the Gospel. He was sent by God to be the first one, the first to believe in Jesus and the first to bear witness about him. The word “witness” is a legal term, someone who gives testimony in court. Those who came to John expected him to give true witness of who he was and what he believed, and he did so with no hesitation.

In that day, there were a lot of prophecies flying around about people who had gone before and those who were to come. The Jewish people thought about these frequently, longing for a deliverer to come and rescue them from their oppression under the Romans. However, John gave no illusions – he was not the Messiah, but rather the one sent before him to prepare the way (John 1:19-23).

A witness is someone who speaks not about themselves, but rather someone else. Many classic depictions of John the Baptist are like the one below – he is pointing away from himself. John knew very well that ultimately, “It’s not about me.” He knew that he came to draw attention to someone other than himself.

St. John the Baptist (oil on canvas), Titian (1540) / Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice, Italy

Everything about John’s witness was true. He was a man of integrity. He was not afraid to say tough things to those who needed to hear them. He did a faithful job bearing witness and preparing those in the region to receive the coming Christ. Like the friend of the bridegroom – the best man, John says to the wedding party, “Here comes the groom!” (See John 3.)

John said that he pointed to the light. This is a powerful thing to ponder, even in our times today. We are discouraged and oppressed by all the darkness around us. We are full of sickness, grief, political uncertainty, economic uncertainty, and relational conflicts. Many people think that they have to leave this world to escape the darkness, that they won’t see the true light of God until they get to heaven. However, that is not the testimony of John. John said that the true light of God was coming into the world (1:9), coming to us rather than us having to go to him.

He encouraged those of us surrounded by darkness to focus not on the darkness, but rather to look to the light. The light of God can be found in this world, and he will show us the way.

He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.

John 1:7

The word “might” in the verse above is significant, because some are not going to believe in the light, believe the testimony of John. Many approached him with skepticism, asking questions about his motives and authority. Those who are captivated by darkness do not want to receive the light or even believe in it.

However, the Greek word that is translated as “witness” in verse 7 is martyria, where we also get the word “martyr.” This kind of witness is someone who is so devoted to the truth that they will die for it, just like John did. In the same way, those of us who bear witness to Jesus Christ can also expect persecution. Although there are some who will reject and persecute our witness, there are also some who “might believe.”

John called people to repentance in order to prepare their hearts to receive the coming light. He said in effect, the one who is coming is awesome, and we must turn away from the darkness in order to be ready to receive him.

There is a mysterious nature about receiving and believing. A preacher and evangelist can do their best to spread the truth and bear witness about Jesus Christ, but there is something that has to happen within the individual that allows them to receive the Gospel. Fundamentally, people have a hard time receiving the grace of God. We either think we aren’t worthy or that we don’t need it. It literally takes a miraculous work of God to convert the hearts of people to receive him.

This miraculous gift is something that the Holy Spirit gives, and then we have to receive it. When we do, the life of Jesus fills us from the inside out and gives us the gift of faith. Jesus himself spoke of it as a mystery like wind, which you don’t know where it comes from or where it is going (John 3:5-8).

May we open our hearts to receive the awesome gift of the true light of God, allowing him to fill us with all of his fullness.

Your God Is Too Small

Sermon from Mark 1:1-8

Whenever I read the Gospel of Mark, I like to think about how this Gospel came about. The Book of Acts, chapter 10, tells of how the Apostle Peter was in the city of Joppa and had a vision. Through this vision, Peter was told by God that he was to go to the home of a leading Gentile, Cornelius, and preach the Gospel to him and his household. Upon sharing the truth of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Cornelius and his entire household were saved and received the Holy Spirit.

Mark was a traveling companion of Peter on his missionary journeys, and he heard Peter tell the story over and over again in just this way and to just this effect. So when people asked for a written account so they could continue to think about it when Peter wasn’t present, Mark was commissioned to write Peter’s account of the Gospel, the story of Jesus. It’s a powerful message that announces a marvelous thing.

The Gospel of Mark opens with a quote from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah prophesies about the coming of another prophet, John, who will prophesy that we need to prepare the way for the coming of God himself. Then we come to find that the prophesied coming of the Lord is fulfilled in the coming of Jesus, God in the flesh.

It’s hard for us to understand the concept of God as a man. We try to fit God into some other design that fits our understanding. We imagine him to be like one of our parents, usually not a flattering comparison. Or we imagine him to be like an old man, which implies that he is old fashioned and doesn’t understand our modern world. In J.B. Phillips’ book, Your God Is Too Small, he lists several examples of the boxes we try to fit God into, but all of them are too small.

Obviously, unless the conception of God is something higher than a Magnification of our own Good Qualities, our service and worship will be no more and no less than the service and worship of ourselves. Such a god may be a prop to our self-esteem but is, naturally, incapable of assisting us to win a moral victory and will be found in time of serious need to fade disconcertingly away.

J.B. Phillips, Your God Is Too Small, 1955

Both the prophets Isaiah and John the Baptist were trying to lift our sights off ourselves and our own small, idolatrous fixations. They wanted the blow the doors off our horizons and let us know that GOD is coming! They saw that people had no idea what was coming to their very doorsteps, and no one was prepared. It’s time to wake up and see God for who he truly is!

A lax and easy-going society will probably produce a god with about as much moral authority as Father Christmas.

J.B. Phillips, Your God Is Too Small, 1955

Isaiah was writing during a time of tremendous need for the nation of Israel. They had been exiled by the Babylonians, their beautiful cities turned to rubble, and their best and brightest leaders were enslaved by the Babylonian rulers. In the middle of all this, Isaiah tells them that God is about to show up!

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
    that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.

A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.”

Isaiah 40:1-5

Isaiah goes on to elaborate how no one and nothing can compare to God. He sits enthroned over the heavens, and everything else is tiny in comparison to him. He is much bigger than we imagine.

Once again in the time of John the Baptist and Jesus, we see revealed over and over again in Scripture that God’s people had once again fallen into the idolatrous image of a too-small god. The religious leaders were concerned only with political power and public image. So John came on the scene trying to shake things up!

“After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Mark 1:7-8

He’s saying, God is so much bigger than you realize, and he’s coming! Get your eyes off of yourself, and get ready to see the Lord! Just like in the time of Isaiah and in the time of John the Baptist, we must also prepare ourselves for God to come and turn our lives inside out. He will revolutionize us, make us new. The people of this world have been too long harassed and mistreated, and he is coming to make all things right. Get ready for the coming of the Lord!

Perspective Taking

Sermon for the First Sunday of Advent

I love the approach of the Church to the season of Advent, as we compare the “gentle Jesus meek and mild” of the first Advent to the Almighty King whose second coming we anticipate. It requires some thoughtful perspective-taking.

Throughout the book of Job, Job learns that he just doesn’t understand the mighty and wonderful plans that God is working out through the devastating events that he sees happening in his own life. He learns to see things through a heavenly perspective. He says:

I know that you can do all things,
    and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. 

Job 42:2-3

Jesus also speaks about the signs of the end of the age from a heavenly perspective in Luke, chapter 21. The events he describes are apocalyptic, but he describes it as a time of “power and great glory” (verse 27). He reminds His hearers that even when we are surrounded by distress, perplexity, and devastation, Christ rules over it all, and He will hold the absolute victory. 

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

Luke 21:33

We have times and seasons in our lives that are distressing and uncomfortable. We can’t put our faith in people and institutions, but we can ALWAYS put our faith in Jesus Christ. His promises are absolutely certain and sure. Be careful to guard your heart and not turn to anything else but Him. Everything else WILL disappoint. Pray, hold your head high, and trust only in Him.