The Lord Works in Mysterious Ways

Luke 1:26-38

People sometimes use what they think is a biblical quote, but it really is not. It goes like this: “God works in strange and mysterious ways.” Though you would be hard-pressed to find this quote in Scripture, it is truth. People have been saying it about God for centuries.

Years ago a man named William Cowper wrote a hymn:
“God moves in mysterious way, His wonders to perform. 
He plants his footsteps in the sea and rides upon the storm.”

Isaiah the prophet expresses amazement at the mysteries of God, when he says,  “Truly, O God our Savior, you work in mysterious ways” (Is. 45:15).

He also says,  “Who has known the mind of the Lord? Who has been his counselor?” (Is. 40:13).

The Apostle Paul stood in awe of God’s mysteries and wrote,  “How unsearchable are his ways!” (Rom. 11:33).

Such is the case as you consider today’s story about Mary. The Lord works in mysterious ways. Just think about it. The world needed a Savior from sin, so God devised a plan, which is rather mysterious and out of the ordinary. He decided to send His Son, Jesus, as a baby, God incarnate, God in the flesh, who will eventually die on a cross to pay for the sins of the world. Mysterious.

Even more mysterious is the reason why He would do that for me knowing the kind of person I am inside and the depths of my sin. This love of God is mysterious.

If you were in charge of sending this Savior, where would you choose to have Him raised? Surely a kingly palace would have been a smart thing. A place where He would be safe and secure and receive the best. After all, He is the Savior. Or perhaps a priestly, educated family could fill Him with knowledge and show Him the way around through Israel’s religious system. How about a mature family who is practiced in raising children, known amongst the community for how well they do with kids? They can make Him safe and secure and keep Him healthy.

It makes sense to us, right? But not to God. He instead chose Mary, a teenager – probably 14 or 15 years old – with little status in the ancient world. She was probably uneducated, from a little backwater town named Nazareth of which sophisticated Jewish folks would say, Can anything good come out of Nazareth? They’re a bunch of hicks! She was engaged to a carpenter who was barely able to eke out a living. One has to wonder how good he was at his business. After all, when they gave an offering after the circumcision of Jesus, they offered two pigeons, which is what only the poverty-stricken were instructed to give. Still God chose Mary to bring the Savior, the Son of God, into this world. God works in mysterious ways!

Why, you may wonder. First of all, the response would be because He is God. His thoughts are not our thoughts. His ways are not our ways. He sometimes chooses to use the weak to lead the strong. Perhaps His grace was behind this. He wanted to show us how He can take ordinary people and use them in great ways. Or it might be about His mind. As He does His way, we learn we can trust Him, and He really knows what makes things work. We give   the glory when it goes right instead of giving ourselves the credit.

Yes, God knew Mary’s heart, her faith in Him, her willingness to submit to His plan. We can’t know for certain. All we know is this – God called Mary. The rest is history. She responded with a few questions such as, How can this be? I’m a virgin. After it was explained to her, “Power from the most High will overshadow you,” she responded, “Here I am, your servant. Let it be to me according to your word.”

Have you ever stopped to think of how brave those words are? She did not know what difficulties and complications lay ahead for her, but still she said “Let it be to me . . .”

I love a little article in a book by Frederick Buechner about biblical characters. He writes about Gabriel the Angel who made the announcement to Mary. Listen to his words:

“Mary struck the Angel Gabriel as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child, but he’d been entrusted with a message to give her, and he gave it. He told her what the child was to be named, who He was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her. ‘You mustn’t be afraid, Mary,’ he said. As he said it though, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath his great golden wings, he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of creation hung now on the answer of a girl. ‘Let it be to me,’ Mary said. And it was.”

Jesus was born. The Savior of the world. It was not an easy call. She didn’t know, she couldn’t have planned for the things she would go through – how much rumor, innuendo, and castigation Mary would suffer in her village with this pregnancy since she was not married yet. How hard it would for her to deliver in Bethlehem as God planned. She surely didn’t know – no mother would be around to help, no room even to have this child. But Scripture says Mary pondered these things in her heart.

One time Mary and Joseph lost Jesus in Jerusalem. They had been at a festival with the family and thought He was with His friends. But once they were out of town, they realized He wasn’t with them. Can you imagine what Mary said to Joseph. “Honey, we lost the Son of God!” Searching, they found Him in the temple and after chewing Him out, Jesus said, “Didn’t you know I’d be here in my Father’s house?”

Scriptures say Mary treasured these things, and pondered them in her heart. What have I gotten into? she must have wondered. She wound up as a refugee, fleeing to Egypt to keep Him safe from Herod the king who ordered the death of all the infant boys around Bethlehem. She watched Him grow in wisdom, divine and human favor.

Then there was the heartbreak of watching Him leave home to go on the road to do this “Gospel ministry,” as He called it, about a kingdom. Or hearing people with authority talking badly about Him. He is a crackpot, a blasphemer, a troublemaker. At one point she was so worried He was cracking up, she went to fetch Him home only to be told His response to her arrival, “My real mothers and brothers are those who do God’s will.” How it must’ve broken her heart.

She watched Him die on a cross, “A sword shall pierce your own soul too,” was the line that must’ve gone through her head. It was the line from the prophet Simeon that she had heard when Jesus was a baby. She felt like a sword pierced her.

And the wonder of Easter! He’s alive! But why didn’t He come home first and show Himself to me, His mother! Afterward, the ascension and Pentecost in the Upper Room. What an amazing journey her life turned out to be as God used her in a most amazing way to work out His plan for salvation.

Mary drops out of the scriptural picture after that, and the Church was left to wonder what do with her. She’s never been forgotten over the centuries. She even made the Apostles’ Creed, and so we talk about her every week in worship. Somewhere along the way, the Roman Catholic Church saw fit to raise her to a status that Scripture doesn’t really support – to include her as someone to be worshiped. I don’t buy that option.

While I know God is the only hero in the Bible, Mary is quite heroic. She was an obedient, submissive daughter of the God who loves us, and while she does not deserve our worship, she deserves our admiration and applause and even our emulation. She deserves a “Well done, Mary!” She said yes to God’s call, and God used her in an extraordinary way. Mary, you are amazing! You are an amazing, godly woman, would have been our response to Mary.

Mary’s story also holds a valuable lesson for you and me to consider. If you are a follower of Jesus Christ listen closely: God oftentimes chooses to use the ordinary to do extraordinary things for His cause. 

This truth can also be found elsewhere in the New Testament. When Jesus began His ministry, He called to Himself twelve disciples who were very ordinary individuals. They had no theological training or great pull in their communities. He trained them, and then at the end of His ministry told them to “Go make disciples of all nations; be my witnesses” (Matt.28:19). Let your light shine before others, and you’ll change the world. And, by golly, here we are in 2017 talking about the same risen Jesus who gave that commission on the mountaintop.

I think of Saul who hated Christians and Christianity. He eventually became Paul when he was chosen by God to bring Christ to people who were not Jewish. He turned the world upside down.

All kinds of ordinary people throughout the New Testament were willing to say, Here am I – servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to Your Word. God used them to do extraordinary things for Him as well. You find even more stories like this in the Old Testament. God uses the ordinary to do the extraordinary in Scripture.

Now, according to Scripture, we believe God is unchanging. So obviously, He must still like to use ordinary people to do extraordinary things – those who will commit and submit to serving His cause when He taps them on the shoulder. It doesn’t matter what your age, your gender, your talent, your place in the culture or any other circumstance in your life for that matter. He can use you.

I’ve been reading a book called 7 Women and the Secret of Their Greatness by Eric Metaxas. It’s about Christian women who had a big impact on the world. One of them was Rosa Parks, the woman in 1955 who refused to move herself from a seat in a bus and go to the back of the bus. She was arrested, and thus began the civil rights movement.

Did you know Rosa Parks was a committed Christian who had been taught the values of Christianity – that all people are valuable and no one should be treated like her people were being treated? When she did that great act of courage, she leaned on her faith in God.

I think of another story about a woman named Agnes who wanted to dedicate her life to God at the age of 12. She eventually became a nun at the age of 18 and was shipped off to India where she was teaching middle-class Indian children. Yet her heart was what she saw outside the walls of where she was teaching – in the streets where people were dying of starvation, nobody there to help them. One day she was in the street and saw a woman dying with rats gnawing at her. So she grabbed the woman and carried her around until she could find a place to give her attention and help her die in a dignified manner. Thus began the ministry of Mother Teresa.

But not just well-known names. I think of my friend Mary. She wanted to lead her friends to Jesus Christ, but she was a 10th grader and didn’t know how to do that. So she came to me and said, “Would you train me how to witness for Jesus with my friends?” She was my first trainee in Evangelism Explosion. She’s led many people to Jesus since.

Marin Pedersen was a junior high girl in my congregation who started visiting the elderly in a nursing home. She played music for them and befriended them. She has made an impact in the name of Christ.

I think of Jesse who is now a senior in high school this year. For the past five years I’ve watched her touch the lives of children in our Sunday school. She spends more time working with kids in this church than you ever could imagine. She’s making a difference.

I think of a woman named Krista Algore who has just returned to us after four years of working in Cambodia for a Christian organization called Agape, which fights sex trafficking of young women. At the sacrifice of her own health, she has impacted hundreds of young women for Christ by giving herself away.

The truth of the matter is, when you become a follower of Jesus Christ, you have a commission. You have a mission field, your own sphere of influence, your little corner of the world. And when you say, Hear am I, the Lord’s servant. Let it be according to Thy Word, you never know what might happen next. Extraordinary things. It might be a neighbor who lives next to you and needs a friend. It might be a lonely person you bump into at a nursing home, or a cause that strikes a passion deep within you – like kids, or feeding the hungry, or some other need in your community. Perhaps a troubled kid needs some guidance or a mentor. It’s not always going to be easy or convenient. In fact, it can be downright scary at times. I’m sure Mary had her moments when she was scared and tired and confused. But there was one constant – God was with her, still caring, still carrying her. The mission was accomplished. The ordinary did the extraordinary.

I have a personal question for you today. Would you describe your faith as exciting? Does following Jesus keep you at the edge of your seat in constant prayer, asking for help? Are you alive with anticipation as to what God is going to do with you next? If not, God would love to have a crack at your life beginning today. It’s a matter of simply submitting to Him and courageously saying, Here I am, your servant, Lord. May it be to me according to your Word. That is music to your heavenly Father’s ears. Amen.

Steve Kramer

God’s Vision for Your Life

Philippians 2:5-8

Recently, I heard a speaker ask this question, “What you want people to say about you at your funeral?” Two things came to mind when I thought about that question. First, an amusing story I’d read about a funeral.

The deceased’s wife and two sons were seated in the front pew at the funeral. The songs had been sung and the preacher began to talk about the departed brother.

“He was a man’s man!”

“Amen!” said the congregation.

“He was a man who worked hard!”

A few people said, “Amen!”

“He was a man the bottle could not control.”

“Amen,” said one or two mourners.

“He was a man who loved his home, and his wife and children.”

“Amen.”

“He was a man who paid his debts and told the truth.”

(No amens, this time.)

The poor wife couldn’t stand it any longer so she said to one of her sons, “Joe, go look in the casket and see if that’s really your daddy he’s talking about.” ☺

The other question that came to mind is, Is this really the right question to be asking? I propose to you, if you’re a follower of Jesus Christ, that the most important question is not what I want people to say but what God wants people to be able to say about me. You see, God has a plan for folks like you and me when we place our trust in Christ. This God of ours is in the shaping business. We are His projects, His masterpieces when Christ steps into our lives.

Scripture tells us that those whom God foreknew, He predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son in order that He might be the firstborn within a large family (Rom. 8:29). Paul is telling us that God wants to shape us and conform us into the image of His Son, Jesus Christ. It’s kind of like a sculptor chipping away at us in order that we might be His masterpiece.

I am reminded of the story of Michelangelo pushing a big granite rock up a hill. Someone said to him, “Michelangelo, what are you doing? What’s going on here?” He replied, “I am pushing this up to my home. I want to chip away at it in order to free the angel within it.”

It’s kind of like that for us. We are God’s masterpiece, a work in progress.

This begs the question: What does Jesus look like? Paul gives us a good answer to that question in the book of Philippians. He quotes an ancient Christian hymn they used in worship as he says, Have the mind of Jesus. He goes on to say – here is what Jesus was like – “He emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.”

So what does Jesus look like? According to what Paul is telling us that Jesus is a humble servant.

By the way, the song ends reminding us that this humble servant was exalted by God.

Now where does Paul (or whoever wrote this song) get this idea? Perhaps from Mark chapters 9 and 10 where Jesus is speaking with His disciples on the question of greatness – how to be a great person in the kingdom of God. His disciples were arguing about who was the greatest. When Jesus came upon them, He said to them, “Whoever is great in my kingdom is one who is willing to be last of all, and servant of all.” Not long after that, two of His disciples, James and John, said,  Lord, we want to be your vice-presidents when you come into power. We want the recognition and the fame and the status. We want the title, Jesus.

Jesus, in correcting them, gives His own mission statement. He says, “I came not to be served but to serve and give my life as a ransom for many.” He came to serve!

At another time, Jesus was teaching a group of people who had come to take in His wisdom. He said to them, “Come to me all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt. 11:28-30).

God’s shaping plan is to make us look like humble servants – like the servant King Jesus.

As we look at the word “humble,” we see humility is a big part of God’s plan for you and me. God knows pride is no friend of ours. It messes us up, and it messes up the relationships we have with those around us. Your real friend for real life is humility.

John Stott, a great Christian writer from the last century, wrote, “At every stage of our Christian development and in every sphere of our Christian discipleship, pride is the greatest enemy and humility our greatest friend.” How could Stott make this statement? Because the evidence is all around us in this world. Pride keeps me from loving God and having a close life-giving relationship with Him. It has been a human issue from the beginning of time as we read the story in Genesis of Adam and Eve hearing the promise from Satan, “If you eat from this tree, you will be like God.” Their pride gets the best of them, and they eat. Since that time, it has been a dominant impulse and instinct in every one of us. We’ve inherited it.

I insult God when I attempt to take control and live life my way instead of His way insisting I have better answers for living than God. Or believing, I don’t need God; He is a crutch for weak people. Maybe it’s okay to have some God in your life, but I don’t want Him running my life. Pride keeps God out as I turn my back on Him and try to take control. It is deadly stuff. It’s the top of the seven-deadly-sins list in Scripture – from it all other sins come.

God detests human pride. Why? Because pride is all about self-glorification, instead of God-glorification. You and I were created to enjoy glorifying God forever. Pride gets in the way, and our egos turn us in on ourselves.

Perhaps you’ve heard the acronym for ego – Edging God Out. That’s what we do: we edge God out of the picture with our pride. It separates us and keeps us from the close relationship He created us to have with Him. It’s what put Jesus on the cross – human pride! Not the pride of the Pharisees like we like to believe, but my pride, your pride put Jesus on the cross. He paid the debt for our pride in order that you and I could be restored to God. As I lay down my pride and put my trust in Jesus Christ, He promises me eternal life and restoration of that relationship.

As Jesus’ followers, He longs for us, then, to spend the rest of our lives learning to live totally dependent on God, totally trusting Him, totally praising Him, always giving Him the glory in everything we do and everything we might accomplish.
Pride not only keeps me from loving God, but it also keeps me from loving other people, because a person who is filled with self-interest, self-promotion, self-indulgence, self-sufficiency, and self-ambition for the purpose of self-glorification cannot truly love. He or she is more often able to use people instead of loving them. Pride leaves wounded people in its path as they get used for personal glorification and goal accomplishments.

Left unharnessed, pride has the power to ruin relationships in your family and in your church. It can make your athletic team ineffective and your work team totally unproductive.

It causes division. Pride keeps me from being at peace with others when I refuse to swallow my pride, say “I’m sorry” to someone I have wronged and admit I was wrong which is so hard for many of us to do. It does nothing but put up a wall between me and that individual. Sometimes we have too much pride to accept an apology, an olive branch of peace and say, “I forgive you.”

Left unharnessed, it can distort your personality. Did you know that? Have you ever been around someone who is always talking about himself or herself? They just can’t seem to get enough of it. Or they’re terrible at listening to others. They are always stealing the conversation back to themselves.

Sometimes people are even willing to lie in order to look good in front of others. We stretch the statistics a little to look better. Or we’ll do something to get attention, to make us feel important. We may even become a critic of others in order to make us feel better about ourselves. It elevates us. It can cause us to spend more money than we actually have to keep up appearances. It  causes the prideful person to fall.

You’ve heard the proverb, “Pride comes before the fall.” It can bring you down really hard. It has brought down a lot of leaders. We think of King David in the Old Testament who had an affair with Bathsheba. Why did it happen? It was all based upon pride. David had gotten too big for his britches; he should have been out with his army leading them in battle. Instead he chose to stay back.

Jesus Himself, when He saw people jockeying for the seats of honor at a banquet, said, “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matt. 23:12).

I’m reminded of a story about a college football coach from years ago. His team was having a great season. One afternoon, when He was outside mowing His lawn, His wife yelled for him. He turned off the mower, and she said, “Honey, come on in. It’s Sports Illustrated on the phone for you.” His pride immediately kicked in – It’s about time I’m getting some recognition! So he ran into the house, picked up the phone and said “Hello.”

“Sir, this is Sports Illustrated. We’d like to offer you a chance to get a three-year subscription for the price of one.” The coach took a fall that day and was humbled.

I don’t know about you, but I choose to do things according to God’s plans – to pursue humility. Humility is the friend God wants to place in your life. What does humility look like? It looks like Jesus. Humility is a healthy self-forgetfulness. Humility listens instead of always talking, stealing conversations. Humility is a willingness to stay in the background and not need attention and applause. Humility is giving God glory in everything, pointing to Him, rejoicing with others’ successes, and applauding them instead of attempting to one-up them all the time.

Spiritually speaking, humility is a realistic self-assessment that I am a sinner saved by God’s grace in Jesus Christ. I am no better than anyone else. There, but by the grace of God, go I. Humility isn’t seeking applause and the adulation of others. It plays for an audience of One – our heavenly Father, just like Jesus did. He was a servant, a humble servant.

What does it mean to be a servant? It is a willingness to pour out your life into other people. I think of Jesus washing the feet of His disciples on the night before He was crucified on the cross for our sins, and how He explained His actions. He said, “You call me ‘Lord’ and ‘Master,’ and I am. If I, your Lord and Master have washed your feet, I’ve given you an example. You should wash each other’s feet” (Matt. 13:13-15).

Be willing to be a servant. That is servant work. Even when no is gratitude expressed, or the person is undeserving, or the feet smell. Wash feet. Our attitude as servants is always asking What can I do for you?

God’s vision for you and for me, if you’re in Jesus Christ, is to be a humble servant. Have you ever seen the bumper sticker “Be patient. God isn’t finished with me yet”? When I do an honest inventory of my attitude in regards to humility and being a servant, I find I have a long way to go. I admit it.

Just recently at a graduation party, I was talking with a couple about some folks who left our church to join a big church down the road, and I found myself getting more and more irritated and angry about it. When I began to assess it a little bit, I realized it was my ego, my pride speaking. That preacher must be better than me. I felt hurt by their actions to leave our congregation.

I am a mess! But I’m a saved mess – God’s holy mess in Christ. Maybe that’s you, too. Don’t despair. First, let me point you to the cross, to Him who died on the cross to forgive you and me for our silly selfish pride. He humbled Himself and sacrificed Himself for you. As you lay down your pride and come empty-handed to receive His forgiveness, He will not turn you away. Instead, He will give you a fresh, new start each time. He never, ever gets tired of extending His forgiveness.

And remember, it is not possible to change ourselves. However, we have this power within, the power the Holy Spirit. It is a lifelong process. In Scripture it says, “All of us, with unveiled faces, have seen the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord, the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18).

There you have it: The Spirit does it. The Holy Spirit uses various means to keep us moving toward that direction.

• Daily contemplating Jesus hanging on the cross, basically saying to us, This was for you! I am here because of you.
• Daily declaring dependence each morning to God and saying, I can’t make it through the day without you, Lord.
• Giving gratitude or praise for all God is doing in your life on a daily basis. Pride has a hard time growing in that kind of soil.
• Applauding people with your words as you look for the work of God in them.
• Serving others, especially in secret. Try this sometime. It is a key tool of the Spirit. Serve somebody, and don’t let them know it was you.

There you have it. What does God want people to be able to say about us when it’s all said and done? May it be said of us, There lies a humble servant of God. 

God be with you. Amen.
Steve Kramer