Monday, November 28, 2011

Connecting the Dots at Christmas(2011Nov27)

Series: Advent M1 11 11 27
Title: Connecting the Dots at Christmas
Speaker: Ken Shigematsu
Text: Galatians 4:4; Luke 1:26-38
BIG IDEA: We are called to entrust ourselves to the sovereign story of God.
Haddon Robinson, a professor of mine at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, who spoke here several years ago, tells the story about a married woman from the mid-west who decided to take a trip on her own around the world. She was planning to fly from North America east to London, then to Paris, on to Rome, Vienna, and so on. When she got to London, she phoned home to ask how their dog Lucky was doing. Her husband said, “Lucky died.” The man’s wife started weeping, then got angry. “You thoughtless, insensitive brute! Why did you have to tell me Lucky is dead!”
Her husband said, “What was I supposed to tell you?” She said, “Well, you could have told me that Lucky was walking around on the roof. When I got to Paris, you could have told me that Lucky fell down from the roof. When I got to Rome, you could have said that Lucky is not feeling very well. And when I got to Vienna, you could have said, ‘Lucky died’.” Then his wife asked, “How is mother doing?” “She is on the roof.” The woman thought that her husband’s timing in telling her the news about her dog being dead was bad.
Have you ever felt that something in your life had bad timing? Or some person or circumstance entered your life at the wrong time?
Today marks the first Sunday of Advent. And I wonder if Mary, who would go on to become the mother of Jesus, ever thought that the timing of her pregnancy was bad. Some of our best biblical scholars say that Mary was probably only 14-15 years old when the angel Gabriel approached her to tell her that the Most High would come upon her and that she would become pregnant with the Christ, the Saviour of the world.
Malcolm Muggeridge has pointed out that if Mary had become pregnant today the baby inside her womb would likely not have been allowed to live and experience birth. Mary was a teenager when she got pregnant. She was poor. The father was unknown. All of these factors would have made Mary an obvious candidate for an abortion today. People now would say, “Mary, you cannot raise a child. You are a teenager. You have no money. You have no education. Stop talking about being impregnated by the Holy Spirit or you are going to get a one-way trip to the psychiatric ward.”
As Kristen Rumary pointed out in her wonderful sharing a couple of a weeks ago, when we together addressed the theme of being single and spiritual, because Mary lived in a much more traditional time, and for her to become pregnant during her betrothal period when it would have been considered scandalous for her to be perceived to having had sex during that period would have mired her in an avalanche of shame, and if the letter of the law was followed exactly, even the death penalty. To make matters worse, Mary’s pregnancy occurred during a massive Roman census which required the Jewish people to travel to their places of birth to register. Even a pregnant woman would be required to travel. So Mary, who was expecting a child, and Joseph were forced to travel to Bethlehem to register as part of the census.
That trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have been over 100 kilometers. It would have been a trip further than Vancouver to Whistler. Remember that is on foot, perhaps with the aid of a donkey.
You know the story in Bethlehem. Because there so many people crowded in the small town for the census, there was no room for them in any hotel or motel. They didn’t even have any friends or family with available floor space, and they were forced to find shelter in a cold cave, with the stench of the cattle and the sheep in their nostrils.
If we focus the lens of our camera on Mary alone, we can easily conclude that given her age, the fact that the census would force her as a pregnant woman to travel, the fact that she would find no suitable place to give birth once she got to Bethlehem, we can easily conclude that Mary’s pregnancy was ill-timed. Maybe at times Mary whispered, “God, are you sure about the timing of all this?”
Have you ever had an experience where you felt like saying, “God this is bad timing!”? When my friend Sam Rima who was staying with us last weekend sensed God calling him to attend seminary, he was in his early 20s, fairly recently married, without much money and no medical insurance and then three weeks before he was going to enroll seminary in Southern California where he and his wife new no one--his wife Sue announced, “I'm pregnant.” About three weeks before we were to leave for seminary, Sue found out she was pregnant! San cried, "How could you do this to me!!" Sue’s dad said to Sam, "Surely you won't be going down there now – you could probably get your old jobs back." Have you ever experienced something felt like bad timing?
As we focus the camera lens on Mary’s life, we could conclude from our human perspective that the timing was off. But when we read Galatians 4:4 and with the benefit of hindsight, we can understand: 4But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law (Galatians 4:4 KJV).
In the fullness of time, God sent forth his Son. What does the expression “fullness of time” mean? It means that there was a perfect time for Christ, the Saviour of the world, to be born. Learning from the beginning of time, if you scroll way back to the first book of the Bible, the Book of Genesis, God says to Adam and Eve, after they sinned in the Garden of Eden, “I am going to send you a Saviour.” Later in Genesis, Chapter 12, God approaches a Middle Eastern nomad named Abraham and tells him to leave his country, his relatives, everything that was familiar to him, and to go to a land that God would show him. God promised that through Abraham’s seed all the nations of the world would be blessed. The seed that God was referring to would be Jesus. God promised to one of Abraham’s great-great-great-great grandsons David that he would send a Saviour trhough his family line, and through the prophet Isaiah God promised that a Saviour would be born miraculously of a virgin. The prophet Micah foretold that the Messiah would be in Bethlehem.
From the very beginning of human history God had whispered that he would send someone who would fulfill “the hopes and dreams of all the years.” And God always knew when the fullness of time would be to send his Son, Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the world.
As we look back from the perspective of history, we know that the timing of Jesus’ birth was perfect. It was the right time politically for Christ to be born. The Roman Empire in many ways was at its Zenith. The empire, of course, had many flaws. But it had some virtues too. One of its virtues was that it was fairly tolerant of other religions. The Roman Empire had conquered many different nations with people of different races and religions, and the Roman Empire for the most part was fairly tolerant of different religions as long as they would proclaim that Caesar was God. This worked for most of the ethnic groups, but there was one exception--the Jews. The Jews said, “We worship only Yahweh.” The Jews were so adamant about this that they would not change, even after decades of being intimidated and, in some cases, martyred. So the Roman Empire finally said, “We will grant an exemption for the Jewish people.” The Romans did not require the Jews to declare Caesar as God.
During this privileged position where they did not have to proclaim that Caesar is God, a freedom that was present at the time of Jesus’ birth, and was present in the world until the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the Roman Empire did not force the Jewish people or the Christians (they assumed that Christianity and Judaism were the same thing), they did not force Christians to proclaim that Caesar was God.
In this environment of freedom, Christianity, for this and many other factors, spread like wildfire.
Jesus was born into a time of relative peace. When the emperor Julius Caesar was assassinated there was great civil war in the Roman Empire. As his reign closed and Caesar Augustus came to the throne, which was about 25 years before the birth of Christ, peace broke out throughout the Roman Empire and there was relative peace for the next 200 years. Because of this time of peace, the Roman men were not tied up in battles, so they were free to build roads throughout the Roman Empire. Travel was safe. People could travel with ease. Hence, the expression was coined: “All roads lead to Rome.” In this environment the gospel was free to spread to the known world.
It was also the right time culturally. Because of the time, conquests of Alexander the Great before Christ was born, 350 BCE, many people spoke Greek. Greek language and culture brought an element of cohesion to society. More people were being educated and more people than ever were able to read than ever before. So when the New Testament was written, it was written in Konie Greek, the language the majority of the people understand. Because it was culturally oriented, the message of Jesus spread more quickly.
And it was the right time spiritually--there was the spiritual openness. Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle had done a wonderful job raising questions about the meaning of life. Some people say that Greek philosophies plowed the fields and Christianity came and sowed the seeds of meaning.
The average Roman citizen was tired of the same old religions. The mythological gods of Greece and Rome were losing their grip on many people. Everyone was hungry for something more. It was a time when people were longing for a relationship with God that was real, and more than just about keeping certain rules.
So we see in the Christmas story the perfect timing of God, that in the fullness of time God sent forth his Son. Some of us may say, “Well, that may be true of Jesus Christ, the unique Son of God, the Saviour of the world, but would that be true for me?” Would God's timing be perfect in my own life?
In Proverbs 16 vs. 1 we read: In human beings belong the plans of the heart, but from the LORD comes the proper answer of the tongue (Proverbs 16:1).
Then in verse 9: In their hearts human beings plan their course, but the LORD establishes their steps (Proverbs 16:9).
In Acts 17:26 we read: From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands (Acts 17:26).
This does not mean that our lives will be free of stress and suffering. As we just noted, Mary’s pregnancy as a poor, unwed teenager in a very traditional society would have brought great shame upon her, yet God was fulfilling his purpose in and through her.
For Jesus, the will of God meant going to the cross, serving as a sacrifice for our sins. And his destiny for us may be a cross as well, but as was true for Jesus God will create good out of it and find a way to bring glory to his name. We see this throughout Scripture.
In Genesis we read that Joseph’s brothers betrayed him and sold him into slavery. They told their father that Joseph had been killed by a wild beast. Joseph, who became a slave in Egypt, was unfairly accused for making a sexual advance toward the wife of his boss Potiphar and was thrown into prison. He was eventually released and worked with such wisdom and effectiveness that he became the prime minister of Egypt.
Then there was a great famine in the region. Joseph’s brothers went to Egypt to get food from Egypt. They ended up meeting with the prime minister, who was Joseph, but whom they did not recognize. When Joseph revealed himself to his brothers, and said, “Look! I am your brother,” his brothers were deathly afraid. They were terrified. They thought Joseph would have them all executed. But Joseph said to them:
4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! 5 And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you ( Genesis 45:4-5).
20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives (Genesis50:20).
In ways that we are not aware, God is guiding our lives.
If you read the book of Esther, even though the word “God” isn’t even mentioned once in this book of the Bible, we see God’s providential hand throughout. In a story similar to Joseph’s, Esther ended up being nominated and winning the Miss Persia contest. The king does not know that she is a Jew. Then one of the king’s evil pawns aspires to have all the Jewish people exterminated because one of them offends him. Esther as queen is urged by her uncle Mordecai to intervene and to plead on behalf of her people. And he says, “Who knows, perhaps you have been elevated to the position of queen for such a time as this.”
In ways that we may not be fully aware of, God is guiding our lives. As is true of Mary, as is true of Joseph and Esther, that doesn’t mean that we will be free of suffering, but it does mean that God is for us, even in the estranged and difficult times of our lives. As one pastor puts it, God is not just showing up after the trouble and cleaning it up, he is plotting the course of managing the troubles for far-reaching purposes, for our good and his glory.
It is a mystery how God uses our free choices to serve his eternal purposes. As esteemed theologian J. I. Packer puts it in his book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God: “The tension between our free choice and God’s sovereignty is a paradox and an apparent contradiction that our minds cannot fully comprehend.” Those of us who were raised in the West have a difficult time with paradoxes and seeming contradictions. But as people from Asia and developing world can fully appreciate, the Scriptures which affirm both-- as J. I. Packer puts it is an antinomy, a paradox, a seeming contradiction in terms. He points out that light has sometimes been observed as a "particle" and at other times as a "wave," yet we accept with this apparent paradox.
In God sovereignty gives us free choice and yet guides our lives to serve his purposes of history.
Last weekend as I mentioned my friend Sam Rima was staying at our house:
When Sam and Sue arrived in LA. Sue was hoping to work as a waitress (the only job she had ever had) to put them through seminary – not a promising prospect for someone who would soon be six months pregnant. They also were uninsured and realized that costs would likely be upwards of $7,000 in 1982. They were running out of money. It was during a recession and both of them had looked for over a month for work, but they received rejection after rejection. Sam says, “I remember Sue and I laying in one another's arms on our bed weeping uncontrollably...”

The next week Sue was out looking for work again and after numerous rejections she sought refuge from the August 100 degree heat by stepping into the lobby of a Home Savings of America to enjoy the air conditioning (their car didn't have any) and get a drink of water. While at the drinking fountain an older gentleman asked if she was a customer of the bank and she said no. He asked, "Well what are you doing here then?" She explained her husband Sam had come down to attend Talbot Seminary, and just needed to get out of the heat. He introduced himself as Mr. Oney, a Regional Sr. Vice President of the bank and a member of the Talbot Seminary Board of Directors. He told Sue if she needed a job, he would find her a job. He took her back to an office and began making calls to branch managers throughout southern California. After a few calls, he said the downtown LA branch would give her a job if she wanted it (heart of downtown at 7th and Figeuro). The branch manager told Sue if "Mr. Oney wants you to have a job, you have a job!" On the way home Sue began leafing through the personnel packet they gave her to check out the insurance coverage that the bank’s insurance company was the only insurance company in southern California that covered pre-existing pregnancy 100% after a three month waiting period.
Here’s a picture of Sam and Sue their daughter Jill in the middle who is now an adult and mother herself…

Even if you don’t believe in personal God I believe God can still guide us.

Steve Jobs didn't believe in a personal God, but believed that some good a powerful force was guiding his life:

In a graduation speech at Stanford he said:
“I dropped out of Reed College after the first 6 months, but then stayed around as a drop-in for another 18 months or so before I really quit. So why did I drop out?
It started before I was born. My biological mother was a young, unwed college graduate student, and she decided to put me up for adoption. She felt very strongly that I should be adopted by college graduates, so everything was all set for me to be adopted at birth by a lawyer and his wife. Except that when I popped out they decided at the last minute that they really wanted a girl. So my parents, who were on a waiting list, got a call in the middle of the night asking: "We have an unexpected baby boy; do you want him?" They said: "Of course." My biological mother later found out that my mother had never graduated from college and that my father had never graduated from high school. She refused to sign the final adoption papers. She only relented a few months later when my parents promised that I would someday go to college.
And 17 years later I did go to college. But I naively chose a college that was almost as expensive as Stanford, and all of my working-class parents' savings were being spent on my college tuition. After six months, I couldn't see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn't interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.
Let me give you one example:
Reed College at that time offered perhaps the best calligraphy instruction in the country. Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn't have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can't capture, and I found it fascinating.
None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me. And we designed it all into the Mac. It was the first computer with beautiful typography. If I had never dropped in on that single course in college, the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. And since Windows just copied the Mac, it's likely that no personal computer would have them. If I had never dropped out, I would have never dropped in on this calligraphy class, and personal computers might not have the wonderful typography that they do. Of course it was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.”
Again, you can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something.”
You have to trust something….
You have to trust something….

Why not trust in the living God?
God can even use world events to shape our individual story in powerful ways.
We see in this story of Mary, Joseph and Esther, and in the lives of countless people who have looked back thoughtfully over their lives, there is a force greater than ourselves, a personal being in the universe—God—who is shaping the course of history for our ultimate good and for the glory of God.
Paul says in Romans 8:28: And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
Some of us want to be the general manager of the universe, or at least our universe. But, there is no way that our limited mind can do a better job than an all powerful God, who is running the universe. God calls us to do all that we can in our power, but then invites us to surrender or destiny to him.
Someone has said that when you come to the edge of all that you know, you must believe that there will be earth to stand on, or that you will be given wings to fly.
When the angel Gabriel came to Mary, though she knew her life would be severely disrupted forever and never the same, she simply said, “Yes, may it be as you have said.”
That’s what God is calling us to. He is calling us to say “yes” to him and “May it be as you have said.”
The reason that we can do this is because of the One that Mary would give birth to—Jesus Christ. When Jesus Christ was 33 years old, as a human being he died on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins so that we could be forgiven and reconciled to God.
The Apostle Paul says in the Book of Romans: He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all-- how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all the things?(Romans 8:32).
God’s will is being revealed to us very day, sometimes through a surprise, sometimes through an inner nudging, sometimes through an ordinary circumstance, And as we say “Yes! Yes! Yes!” to God, he will weave something beautiful in our lives.
I close with a prayer of Thomas Merton:
MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.


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