“For the announcement of Jesus’ birth shows that wonderful things come in surprising packages. God does not always do things the way we would do them.”[i] That is an understatement. God often does surprising things and chooses surprising people to accomplish His purposes. Think about the first Christmas season. Rather than take the capital by storm and announce to the world what He was about to do, God sent an angel to a small village in a backwater province of the Roman empire noted for its poor reputation. The angel was sent to an ordinary teenage girl that He had chosen to be his means of coming to us. It’s that event that we celebrate each year called Christmas.
What is amazing is Mary’s response to God’s calling, and it is something that we can all learn from. When God asks us to do something difficult, what will be our response? Will we obey God? What we need to understand is that obedience to God’s message is the essence of faith. Faith is acting on what God reveals to us. So let’s review that moment in history all over again. Let’s look at the angel’s meeting with Mary and her response, which I’ve entitled ‘Mountain Moving Faith.’ It’s a faith that comes from hearing God’s word and acting upon it. Mary models for us the way we need to respond to God’s message to us.
When Mary said yes to God’s purpose for her life, she began a journey that would not only bring great joy and honor, but also great pain and misunderstanding. What is true of Mary is also true for each of our lives. The greatest things are often the most challenging things. This doesn’t just happen to a few of God’s people, rather this is a general plan for most of us. God has a plan for us. God will put before each of us times of incredible challenge that we either choose to embrace or we will allow fear to keep us in a state of spiritual underdevelopment. God’s appointments to spiritual service generally goes to obscure and unknown people. People like you and me. God works through ordinary people.
The apostle Paul reminds us of this truth in his letter to the Corinthians:
Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.
But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.
God chose the lowly things of the world and the despised things- and the things that are not- to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.[ii]
When God chooses the least and the weak things of the world it is in order to confound the wise and strong. When the rulers saw what the apostles were doing after the resurrection of Jesus, they realized that it wasn’t done apart from their amazing relationship to Jesus. We could easily point out that their courage and actions didn’t occur until after the day of Pentecost when they were filled with the Holy Spirit. “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus (cf. Acts 4:13).”
Our lives should point people to Jesus. So, how are we responding to God’s call on our lives? Who really is calling the shots in our lives? Maybe the most important question is, How are we going to respond to God’s call in our present moment? There are generally three elements to God’s calling in our lives.
GOD’S CALLING IS DETERMINED BY OUR RESPONSE
What is our first reaction to a great challenge? What is the first thing that pops into your mind? It might be exhilarating. But it can also be very disturbing. For many fear and anxiety arises. ‘How can I do this? What if I fail?’ Maybe the bigger question is about God’s choice.
A. Why would God choose me?
It can be overwhelming. ‘Now what am I supposed to do?’ The same was true for Mary. A young, seemingly insignificant person in a small town in Galilee. It was one of those places where nothing significant ever seemed to happen. You may feel that about your life. ‘My life feels stagnant and ho-hum.’ But as we turn the pages of our Bibles, we notice an interesting turn of events. God zeroes in on an obscure person to hand out one of His greatest assignments. I wonder what Gabriel the angel assigned the mission of telling Mary thought. Obviously, angels are unquestioning in their obedience to God, but in our human reasonings we would be questioning. “Gabriel, you are going to a little town called Nazareth to a young woman named, Mary.” Did I hear you right, Lord? While we look at the big, the best, the obvious, God sees something we can’t. God sees the heart. So many of God’s heroes are people who really don’t see themselves that way. They are the ordinary people of life. In the first Christmas story, we see the cast of characters like Zechariah, who was an aged priest, with in elderly wife Elizabeth. Then we are introduced to Mary and Joseph who will parent the child Jesus:
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.
The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.[iii]
When Mary, a young woman engaged to one of the town’s carpenters, has an angel show up with a greeting of esteem, it troubles her. It seems that it’s not so much the presence of the angel, but the words that are shocking to her. It’s a greeting of Divine favor. She felt apprehensive. She will also wonder about how she, a virgin, will have a child. What had she done to merit this honor? The answer is: Nothing! Yet God was about to choose her for a very significant role in His kingdom. It is God’s love and grace that drives His call in our lives. That’s how God comes to each of us.
B. It’s not so much what we do for Him, rather, it’s what He does for us.
He comes to us and chooses us. “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit-fruit that will last – and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you (John 15:16.”
God has something in mind for our lives. The great tragedy is that so many people never discover this amazing truth. How does God’s message of salvation by grace affect you? You may say I don’t deserve it. I don’t feel worthy. Notice how our focus is usually on ourselves. We are right when we realize that we are not worthy. We never will be worthy. That’s not the issue. God comes to us before we merit any consideration. Our problem is that we look at ourselves. We look at our sinfulness, our inadequacies, our unloveliness and say, Why would God want to mess with me? The answer is, He can’t help Himself. He’s a lover. He loves us! The vast majority of believers feel like they will never measure up. Let me put those anxieties to rest. We serve God not to find acceptance but rather out of acceptance. God accepts us and then works powerfully within us transforming us into His image. We need to learn to enjoy God and embrace what he has for us. Let us be thankful, realizing that it is God who is now living in us and working through us.
So why do we struggle to respond to God? Often it is because we allow the guilt of past failures to consume us. It shatters our value and worth. We need to look past who we are to who God is and what He wants to do in our lives. In Christ we are forgiven! In Christ we are favored and standing in a place of Divine blessing. Accept that, delight in it, rejoice in His goodness and then respond from that sense of being loved. Love never fails. Love transforms our lives. Let us embrace God’s love and allow it to bring change to our hearts.
C. When God calls, we often need reassurance.
Not only was Mary troubled by the visitation and initial words of the angel, she struggled with the very words of blessing. We don’t often see ourselves as being highly favored. How often like Mary, we need to be reassured and comforted. The angel told her not to be afraid, for she had found favor with God. He reminded her that God was with her.
How many of us need to be reminded that God is with us and even lives within us. Every child of God is a highly favored person. Too often we take our relationship with the Lord too lightly. There is no greater privilege on this planet then to know Him. Not only are we bewildered and troubled by God choosing us, the fact that He chooses us with great areas of responsibility is an expression of His confidence, trust and love towards us.
A number of years ago, I heard Dr. Leith Anderson preach a chapel service which I have never forgotten to this day. It had a powerful impact on me. As he shared that ‘for all the times we have been challenged to trust God, his premise was, “Can God trust us?”’ The answer is that He does. He chooses to trust us. He trusts us with Himself. He trusts us with His wonderful message of life.
To all of us He’s given a specific task to accomplish. To all of us, as believers, God has given us an incredible calling. He chooses us by giving us the greatest gift of all, the gift of His son. To know Jesus Christ is to have eternal life. To know Jesus Christ, is to have the living, dynamic ingredient to an enriched life. In receiving and knowing Jesus Christ we have a full and enhanced life. Yet we often struggle with the practical outworking of what it means to be His children fulfilling His purposes in our world. What does it mean to be called of God? How does that work out in our daily lives?
GOD’S CALLING IS DETERMINED BY TAKING RESPONSIBILITY FOR THAT CALLING
What does this mean in a practical sense? How is that to be lived out in our daily lives?
A. God’s calling is lived out daily.
We can begin to wonder how God can do what needs to be done in and through us in order to fulfill what He’s called us to be and to do. After questioning, ‘why God would choose us’, we move on to how it’s going to get done. We have all kinds of reasons why it can’t happen. This is the issue of obedience. Will we do what God is asking of us? When we look at the human side of things, it often seems impossible. We are like Moses at the burning bush explaining to God all the reasons why He got the wrong person. Mary too was filled with perplexity, but it was not from her unwillingness, but rather from trying to understand how this would come about. “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin (Luke 1:34)? The angel communicated to Mary that she would give birth to a son, and call him Jesus. This son would be the Son of the Most High. He would reign on David’s throne. He is to have a never-ending kingdom. Mary could not figure out how this was about to happen. She had every reason to question the performance of this message. What we fail to understand is that much of what God calls us to do requires miracles. Yet, God plans on helping us to do it. He doesn’t expect that it will be accomplished apart from Him.
B. What God wants to do in us and through us is beyond our abilities.
The danger is to be satisfied with good things, but miss what God wants to accomplish. The birth and development of a church may seem very ordinary and natural, but it takes the supernatural power of God. Have you ever considered how Christ builds His church? It is a complex networking of relationships. People are at different places in their spiritual journey. Some people are patient, some are impatient. What to do? how to do it?, when to do it? why we do it? What we should be doing? How can we do God’s work together? It means one thing; we must learn to trust God and love one another. It means learning to be patient with each other, while praying for one another. We are admonished to care and share with each other. The church is an extended family.
One thing that strikes me in these Christmas passages, which is equally true of our lives, is the marriage of both the natural and the supernatural that is evident. For that to happen, we need to be a willing participant, we must take on responsibilities and be faithful. Which leads to the third element involved in God’s calling of our lives.
GOD’S CALLING REQUIRES RISK
Anything worthwhile in life means that there is a cost involved. To raise kids, means you can have your heart broken at some point. To serve people means you will be misunderstood and criticized. It comes with the territory. Can you imagine living during The period in Germany’s history where the Nazi party was in power? One of the great challenges for Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor, theologian and teacher was how to live out the Christian life in such an environment. Ultimately he was executed by the Nazi’s for treason. He was born into a distinguished German family that understood and resisted the evil’s that the Nazi’s were doing. Dietrich Bonhoeffer became a double agent, as he entered the military intelligence in order to fight against Hitler, while many of the pastors he trained were conscripted to fight in the war. Many of these pastors fought for their nation, even though they were opposed to Hitler and his ideology. Some saw Bonhoeffer’s actions as confusing. It seemed like he was supporting Hitler. Yet, he couldn’t tell them he was actually fighting against him, for that would compromise not only himself but many others. Bonhoeffer was willing to be misunderstood in order to do what he knew was God’s calling on his life. There is always a cost in obeying Christ. It takes courage to do God’s will and most want to play it safe. That’s why the Scriptures teach us to be strong and of good courage. It means allowing God to shape our hearts.
A. It’s so easy to say to ourselves, ‘let somebody else do it’.
Too many people are satisfied with someone else serving. But the problem is that when we don’t serve, we not only avoid paying the price, but also we miss the rich blessings and experiences that God has in mind for our lives. You may have heard this little ditty, but I think it has a message for each of us:
There’s a clever young guy named Somebody Else, there’s nothing this guy can’t do.
He’s busy from morning till way late at night just substituting for you.
You’re asked to do this or you’re asked to do that and what is your ready reply?
Get somebody else to do that job, he’ll do it much better than I.
So much to do in this weary old world- So much and workers so few, and Somebody Else, all weary and worn, is still substituting for you.
The next time you’re asked to do something worthwhile, just give this ready reply: If Somebody Else can give time and support, my goodness so can I.
That is too simplistic, but there is a truth in this ditty. We don’t need to say yes to everything, that would be a fatal mistake. But we better not be saying no to what God is calling us to, or one day we will be certainly be embarrassed.
So how do we know it is what God wants us to do? The only way is to develop a meaningful relationship with Him. I believe God guides His children. We cannot think that God will do anything apart from our involvement with Him. He chooses not to perform miracles unless we are willing to be involved. Our involvement is a critical element in getting things done. He will not, if we won’t. God is looking for a partnership with us.
B. We not only have to be available for God, we must be available to Him.
We must allow God, the Holy Spirit to come and overshadow our lives. This is the idea of surrendering to His will. It is a recognition that what He asks of us, what we are unable to do, apart from His empowerment in our lives. Mary was promised that this child would be conceived by the Holy Spirit. “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 (Luke 1:35).’”
What was about to happen could only happen in the power that comes from God. It would take the Holy Spirit working within Mary’s life to make this miracle a reality. The same is true for each of us. What God calls us to be and to do, can only occur as the power of the Holy Spirit is at work within our lives. How many realize all that what God’s people accomplished in the Old Testament occurred as they were empowered by God’s spirit? We marvel at their faith, yet it was God who empowered them by His Spirit. We need to understand that everything that we do is an empowerment of God’s Spirit. That’s why Jesus pointed out that we can do nothing apart from him. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing (John 15:5).”
All we need to do to bear fruit is to remain with Jesus. It is Jesus in you and me that produces what will happen in our lives. That’s why Paul told the Ephesians that the great need was to be continuously filled with the Holy Spirit. “Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit (Ephesians 5:18).” We can only fulfill our mandate of making disciples and being effective witnesses by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).”
We are the ones that limit what God can and will do our lives.
God has a way of encouraging our lives by showing us that it can be done. He does it in the lives of those we know. What God does for others He can do in our lives. Isn’t it interesting that when God was about to encourage Mary with a miracle pregnancy, the sign of encouragement was a miracle pregnancy of a woman past the age of fertility and childbearing, a near relative. Elizabeth, Mary’s relative was experiencing a similar miracle in her life. What was thought as impossible was a current reality in Elizabeth’s life.
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.
For no word from God will ever fail.[iv]
God encourages us with the impossible by allowing us to witness it, in other people’s lives. Not only do we need to have the Holy Spirit at work in our lives and being encouraged by the way God is at work in the lives of others, we ultimately must be willing to do as God calls us to do. Our willing cooperation with God’s plan and purposes is what He looks for. So, how did Mary respond? Mary embraced the risks. “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her (Luke 1:38).”
Unless we are willing to participate with the plan of God, it will not become reality. It takes the power of the Holy Spirit and a willing heart to make things happen in the kingdom of God.Mary was called to a life task. Within that very calling was the need for a miracle. The challenge is to believe what God has said.
In these two miraculous births of Mary and Elizabeth we see God’s plan and purpose unfold. When God chooses us, He is showing us His favor. God desires to utilize each of our lives in a distinct way. It is never too late and we are never too young or old for God to work in our lives as we see in the story of Mary and Elizabeth. So the question comes to mind: What about our lives? Are we willing to surrender our agendas, our lives, to see His purposes accomplished in and through us? How will we respond to His call? Are we serving God on His terms or do we have some mistaken notion that we can serve God on our own terms? What areas are we personally struggling with today? Do we believe miracles still happen? Are we willing participants? Are we like Mary, prepared to be misunderstood or criticized because we have obeyed God?
[i] Bock, D. L., Luke, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press 1994).
[ii] 1 Corinthians 1:26-29, New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[iii] Luke 1:26-29.
[iv] Luke 1:36-37.