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Friday, December 25, 2015

To One and All, A Mary Christmas

“… the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”
(Luke 1:35)

“So this is Christmas, and what have you done?”

So sing the children in John Lennon’s wretched ditty. I really don’t know why he bothered himself about Christmas when he also wanted to “imagine there’s no Heaven”. But each to his own. I’m sure he’s thought better of that since.

At Christmas time, I can’t imagine a more dismal question. Another year over, Lennon accuses, and you haven’t done anything. The poor are still starving, the world is still at war. When are you going to get off your haunches and be worth something?

Ah, there’s nothing like Christmas pudding and the sounds of self-flagellation to improve the seasonal mood.

Seasonal Malaise

Still, there’s something in the sentiment of that first line that’s quite common. It’s the lingering anxiety that one has not done what one ought to have done.

As it happens, Christmas rolls around at the end of the year. The days are dark and short and the nights are long. After the rush of festivities there is, perhaps, time for reflection. As the New Year approaches, we think of what we have done — and what we have not got done.

Ah, this world with its aspirations. In youth we dream of living life large, of achieving things in a big way. But by middle age many of us are feeling at least a touch sad and disillusioned: we haven’t come up to what we had hoped. The richer, more intense life we foresaw for ourselves hasn’t, perhaps, entirely come about, and we can no longer see ourselves quite in the role of the brash young adventurer. In the future, we wonder, what prospect is there for a reversal? Should we imagine that in middle age we will suddenly burst forth into that style of life we failed to achieve in our youth? Our prospects are less, not more. And as we consider those ahead of us in age, we catch our first intuitions of how the human lot inevitably plays out in old age …

Merry Christmas.

The Christian Equivalent

The Christian has his (or her) peculiar form of this malaise. It goes like this. We who have been saved and cleansed by the blood of the Lamb, who have been restored to fellowship with God and given his Spirit, who have his word to guide us and his gospel in our charge … what have we done? We look at our lives, and for most of us, we don’t see any achievements concomitant to the blessings we have been given.

We are so blessed. We live in the developed West where education is free, health care is readily available, money is plenteous and opportunities are abundant. We have every resource we could want, every tool to hand for the doing of whatever God may ask of us … and yet, what have we done? Have we returned to God the investment he has put into us? Even in part?

Are we a disappointment to ourselves? And then, we wonder, how much more might we be a disappointment to him?

Turning the Corner

There might be something profitable in this sort of dismal reflection, but I doubt it’s much. It’s natural to get a little down on ourselves when we add up our lives in this way. But it’s also not particularly helpful. John Lennon may have thought he was being motivational, but really, he was just a drag. Self-doubt is a very poor inducement to do better. So let’s buck up.

Much of our reflective sadness is really caused by this: that we set expectations for ourselves that God never set for us, and when we fail to live up to these expectations, we imagine that God feels the same as we do. But it’s just not so, I think. I think God expects, no less, but other than we expect from ourselves: and it is only by walking not in the standards of our flesh but in the light of God’s real will that we find ourselves becoming what we should be.

God loves the humble and lowly. He is not impressed by what humans see as grand, ambitious or spectacular. Our achievements are not his.

Now, catch this: our job on this earth is not to satisfy ourselves that we have reached our own best standards; it’s to be ready and willing to be used of God in any way or capacity he may choose. It may be grand or it may be entirely obscure: but God’s most wondrous work is always done not with those who are ambitious and active, but with those who are listening and obedient.

So if you want to be great, and if you want your life to be something characterized by victory and not regret, do this: focus your heart on listening and obeying. Make those your two prime activities, and let God lift you as highly or use you as secretly as he may desire. Humble yourself under the hand of the Lord, and let him exalt you in due time.

An Anecdote

I remember having a conversation with an elder servant of the Lord. What I knew about this man was this: that he had been used mightily all his life in the Lord’s service. He was not a proud man, but in every place I went I met people whose lives he had touched with his service to the Lord. And he said to me once, “If I have been of any use to the Lord at all, and if I’ve achieved anything in my life, it’s because of this …”

I pricked up my ears, because I knew I was about to hear something important.

He continued, “… that every morning, before all else, I gave the first part of my day to the Lord in reading, meditation and prayer”.

“That’s it?” I thought. That’s all it takes to become the kind of servant this man had been? Well, I’d better listen, then. And since that time, I have made it my rule to do as he did.

My life has not attained to his. But this I can also attest to: if there has been any good done in my life — if I have achieved anything for the Lord, if I have grown in knowing or loving him, and if I am any better off at this age than before — it is for precisely the same reason.

The Punch

It’s this simple: be listening, and be ready to obey. That is your work as a Christian. To say how high you will go, or how obscure you will remain is up to God. Your work is to be in a ready state, whatever he may ask of you.

The Example

Let’s take our seasonal remedy. At this time of year, we often go over the Christmas story in its various parts, from the prophecy of John’s birth all the way up to the journey of the wise men. Today I just want to take a short piece out of the middle of all that, and draw our attention closely to what it says.

At the Annunciation, Mary had a pressing question: essentially, it was What does the Lord expect of me? It wasn’t a cynical question. She wasn’t disbelieving the angel like Zacharias was, nor was she doubting that the Lord could do whatever he might want to do. But still, there’s a huge gap between the capabilities of God and those of any other person — especially a little maid from Nazareth.

Mary just wanted to know where to start. What was her first step in obedience? Should she ... well ... try to help the process forward, sort of like Sarah did? But how could she in godly conscience do that? After all, she might have already been betrothed, but that was for the future. At present (to coin the antique phrase), she “knew no man”.

What did that mean? You figure it out. In any case, she was really asking, “Where, in good faith, do I begin in the process of obeying the commandment you have given me?” She was trying to obey; she just didn’t know how to go about it.

What was the great revelation to Mary? It was that the singular miracle that would come about would have nothing to do with her efforts. It would be enough that she was willing to be a vessel of the work of God. Everything that needed to happen would happen by his divine power.

The word “overshadow” is a pretty literal translation from the Greek. But it has the sense of removing something from view, so it could be rendered “to obscure” or “to eclipse”. The implication is that whatever was going to happen, Mary was not going to be the important agent. Her role was merely to be willing to present herself, but the power was entirely to come from on high. And it would be of such magnitude and glory that there would be no credit whatsoever due to her personally.

It was for that very reason that, as the angel declared, the One who would be born of her would be called “the Son of God”, not the son of Mary. In fact, the only people who would ever employ the latter title would be those actually contemptuous of his claims, not those respectful of him. This amazing thing would happen not because she had any power of her own, and there was simply no action she could take to contribute to it coming about: in what was to follow, she would be completely overshadowed.

O that he may increase, and we may decrease! Ours is but to be obedient. The work, the power, the achievement and the glory are all his. For when we are nothing, he is everything.

Did this mean Mary herself was valueless? Of course not. She was the means by which God would choose to do his work. Moreover, though the miracle was being announced to her, it was being announced in order to elicit her consenting response. It would come about because she was in right relationship to God and in a condition to be employed in his work. But it would never be her work, not even in part.

For Mary it was impossible. But nothing is impossible for God.

The Application to Us

Are we anxious? Do we strive for what we consider “great things”, but find that they never seem to be fulfilled at the end? Are we tempted toward despair? Do we see in ourselves a progressive record of frailty and personal failings as we review the achievements of our lives? Are we burdened with a sense of obligation failed? Do we long for some higher level of spiritual accomplishment, lest we should prove an embarrassment to ourselves, or worse — even to God himself? And do we fret ourselves over the many ways in which we have felt ourselves to be less than we should have been?

These are natural feelings. But we are forgetting: the work is of God. Our role is not to seize the map of God’s plans and read it for him, and it’s even less our role to take action and bring about his purposes on his behalf. The power is not from us: it must be only of God. Likewise the credit for all that is achieved for the honour of the Father must always find its ultimate headwaters in Christ, and its true dynamic in his Spirit. It must have come about because we were yielded and obedient, and thus were ready to be carried along by the power of God, made to achieve what mortals can never achieve on their own — the glory of God the Father.

The power of the Most High must overshadow us.

The secret of being what God wants us to be is not found in our own wisdom, our ambitious visions, our great daring or our exemplary diligence; it is in the quiet strength of our daily fellowship with God.

Did the Lord not tell us it would be like this? “Abide in me,” he said, and “Without me, you can do nothing”. And yet so often we think the secret lies in our personal power. We feel responsible for so much — even to bring about the will of God. Meanwhile, we forget the essential daily practice of fellowship with him through reading, prayer and meditation. We have such a hard time imagining that that is really as important as it is. So we lose touch with the Lord — perhaps all the while obsessed with good things, even with our responsibility to serve — and we are no longer in a condition to be found useful. In this state, we may do many things, but we do not achieve the work of the Lord. Rather, we achieve some other work, something self-motivated even if religious in tone, and miss the prime calling that can only come in quietness, to a submissive heart. We miss Mary’s blessing.

Blessed are you among women, exclaimed Elizabeth. And she was right. From that day on, all generations would call Mary most blessed. Not “highest achiever”. Not “most esteemed”. Not “most likely to succeed”.

“Most blessed”.

Mary’s greatest glory would be that when sought, she was found humble, submissive and in tune with the work with which God would bless her.

We are not all called to be the mother of Messiah. But we are all called to be found obedient. And if we are to be, it will be because we are living humbly, perhaps in a situation of no particular distinction so far, but in quiet fellowship with the Lord.

The Gift

So here’s what I want to offer you: a way to end not just the seasonal malaise, but the soul-grinding anxiety that we are not what we should be, have not achieved what we ought, and are not what God would want.

It doesn’t have to be true. To be what God wants, live in simple fellowship with him, and be ready to obey, whatever he may call you to do. And regret nothing.

It is not our job to say what our lives are worth. But if they come up to what God wants, however grand or simple that may be, then they have risen as high as they ever could. And the Lord is pleased if we simply do his will — not because we manage to satisfy our own expectations.

Freedom from self-doubt. Not a bad gift.

May the power of the Most High overshadow you.

Merry Christmas.

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