Advent 3A

December 05, 2016

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 11:2-11

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Isaiah 35:1-10

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • The Lectionary Psalms

    Luke 1:46-55

    Author: Stan Mast

    Our news media are full of stories about invasions:  invasive species, invading armies, invasive procedures, and, on the entertainment page, invasions of aliens or zombies.  Since it is about real life, the Bible is also full of stories about invasions of one sort or another.  More importantly, its central story is about God’s invasion of the earth in a most unusual way.  As C.S. Lewis put it in Mere Christianity, “Enemy occupied territory—that is what the world is.  Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.”

    Mary’s Magnificat is a particularly fitting text for this Third Sunday of Advent, because it sings the Good News of the King’s disguised invasion.  We could have used the alternative lectionary reading in Psalm 146:5-10 for our text.  Mary certainly seemed to know those verses; she virtually quotes them in her song.  But let’s focus on the Magnificat, because Mary takes Psalm 146 a step further by telling us how God has reversed reality by his “Inverted Invasion.”

    Mary had learned of that invasion through a surprise visit from a secret agent, the angel Gabriel, earlier in Luke 1.  After years of preparation, said the angel, God was going to invade the evil kingdom that had dominated the world for thousands of years, not with a powerful armada of angels, but with a single human baby who would be the Son of God.

    In this part of Luke 1 we focus on Mary’s extended response to that shocking announcement, her acceptance of the Inverted Invasion.  Her acceptance was no small thing, because Gabriel’s words turned Mary’s world upside down.  It would never be the same again.  That often happens when God invades our lives.  Perhaps it has happened to some of your parishioners.  God has invaded our lives and everything has changed.  How do we respond?  We could get bitter, or we could get better.  We could experience God’s sudden presence as a curse or as a blessing.  Mary shows us the way to blessing.

    Dr. Luke tells us how she responded to the announcement of the Virgin Birth and conception by the Holy Spirit.  She calmly accepted God’s will with these words, “I am the Lord’s servant.  May it be to me as you have said (Luke 1:38).”  Have you ever wondered what would have happened to Mary and to the world if she had just said, “No?”   What if Mary had listened to Gabriel announcing the invasion and she had said, “Are you crazy?   Listen, mister, I don’t know who you are, but that is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard.  I want you to get out of my house right this instant.”  Or if she had said, “Well, I’d like to help you out, but my fiancée won’t understand.  My parents will be furious.  My friends will talk about me behind my back.  I’m just not ready for such a thing at this point in my life.  So thanks for asking, but no thank you.”  Could she have stopped the invasion?

    I have Christian friends who might say “Yes,” because they say that God is a gentleman.  He never forces himself on anyone.  God always waits for us to open the door and invite him into our lives.  With that kind of theology, we might conclude that if Mary had just said, “No,” God would have cancelled the invasion designed to liberate the world from the kingdom of evil.

    Of course, that theology ignores the announcement of the angel.  Before Mary knew anything about the invasion, Gabriel said to her, “You will give birth to a son.”  It’s going to happen, regardless.  “He will be great; he will called the Son of the Most High.  The Lord God will give him the throne of this father David.”  Those are facts about the future.  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you; the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”  The angel announces what will happen by the grace and power of God, no “ifs, ands, or buts.”  This is not a tentative offer that depends on her acceptance; it is an announcement of what God had planned to do from all eternity.  A divine fiat, a done deal.

    But Mary’s acceptance of the plan was an important part of the plan.  That’s always the case with God’s plan of salvation.  There is always this mysterious conjunction of God’s sovereign grace and our human response. God is always the initiator; we must always respond.  In his sovereign grace, God sent Jesus while we were all part of the evil kingdom.  But we must surrender, lay down our arms, and accept that Invader as our Savior and Lord.  And if we accept the inverted invasion in our own lives as Mary did, we will be blessed as she was.

    Mary’s acceptance of God’s gracious plan for her life began with these words, “I am the Lord’s servant.  May it be to me as you have said.”  But her acceptance didn’t end there.  Luke tells us that she immediately got ready and hurried to see Elizabeth, whose Spirit-inspired response to Mary’s greeting moved Mary to sing the Magnificat in verses 46-55.  In those magnificent words, we discover what was in Mary’s heart when she accepted God’s inverted invasion of her life.

    The fact is that we can respond to God’s invasion with two very different kinds of acceptance.  At the heart of Mary’s acceptance are the words, “My soul magnifies (or, as our translation says, glorifies) the Lord….”  At the heart of the other kind of acceptance are the words, “My soul is miserable.”  Sometimes we accept God’s intrusion into our lives with a mournful resignation because we are miserable.  With a spirit of hopelessness and helplessness, we say, “I’ll just have to accept what has happened.  It feels as though the Lord has ruined my life.  There’s nothing anyone can do about it.  It’s the Lord’s will.”  With limp folded hands and bowed head, we unwillingly give in to the Lord’s awful power, like ISIS insurgents surrendering to United States soldiers.

    Mary accepts God’s disturbing will with a very different spirit.  Instead of focusing on the misery that makes her feel smaller, she magnifies the Lord.  Instead of resignation, she rejoices in God her Savior.  Instead of hopelessness because God has turned her life upside down, she shouts hallelujah because God has been mindful of her humble state.  With eager outstretched hands, she willingly surrenders to the Lord’s awesome love, like a bride embracing her husband on their wedding night.   Even though the coming invasion is going to turn her world upside down and bring her great pain and sorrow, she accepts it with a Magnificat and is blessed beyond her wildest dreams.  “From now on all generations will call me blessed.”

    In the rest of the Magnificat, Mary describes what happens when God invades the world.  Verses 52 and 53 summarize it.  The Invader will bring down rulers but lift up the humble, fill the hungry with good things but send the rich away empty.  These are revolutionary words that might make some of us very uncomfortable.  What do they mean?  Was Mary proclaiming that all rulers and all the rich will be brought low, and all the poor and hungry will be lifted up?

    No.  If we listen carefully to this revolutionary song, we will hear Mary singing not first of all about people’s social position, but about their spiritual condition.  Listen to verse 50.  “His mercy extends to those who fear him.”  And verse 51 says, “He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.”   There are basically two kinds of people in the world: those who fear God, who have him on the throne in their lives, and those are proud in their inmost thoughts, who have self on the throne in their lives.  Those who acknowledge the Invader as King are part of his kingdom, and those who think that the “I” is king are part of the evil kingdom.

    When Mary talks about the rulers and the rich who will be humbled, she is talking first of all about those who worship the great “I.”  And when she sings about those who are poor and hungry, she means primarily those who are poor in spirit and hungry for God and who worship the great Invader.  With the coming of Christ, God was beginning to turn the world right side up, so that those who worship the King receive mercy and those who worship themselves will be scattered in their pride.  Of course, when that happens, the social order will be reversed, too.  The kingdom of Christ will invade the kingdom of evil that worships money and power, and gradually he will lift up the downtrodden and feed the hungry.

    That is going to happen.  No “ifs, ands, or buts” about it.  The angel announced it, Mary sang it, and nine months later it began. The invader came and his first public words were “the Kingdom of God is at hand.”  Jesus is turning the world right side up, and sometimes the upheaval hits our own lives.  Sometimes we are lifted up, and sometimes we are brought down.  Sometimes we are filled, and sometimes we are sent away hungry.  We should encourage our people to think deeply about their own lives.  Where has Jesus invaded your life?  Where have you been lifted up or brought low?

    Jesus is invading our lives with his grace all the time.  The question is, will we let it make us bitter or better?  Will we accept the working of God in our lives?  And how– with a mournful resignation that focuses on our misery or with a joy that magnifies the Lord because he is mindful of us and is doing great things to save us even in the turmoil of the life?

    Let’s press that question a bit more, because we want all of God’s people to be blessed.  Here’s how I would put it in a sermon.  The fact is that there are three levels of acceptance.  First, on the most fundamental level, on the intellectual level, have you accepted the historical fact of the Inverted Invasion?  Have you accepted the bare fact that, in the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, God was invading the world, was thinking of you, extending mercy to you, doing a great thing for you, saving you?

    Second, on a more personal level, the level of your heart, if you have accepted that historical fact, have you accepted that invader himself into your life?  Have you actually said to him, “Come into my heart, Lord Jesus, come into my heart today?”  Before you will be blessed like Mary, Jesus must be in you spiritually as he was in her physically.

    And third, on the level of your daily life, of your finances and your health and your relationships, are you accepting his ongoing invasion of your life?  This may be the hardest issue for some of us.  When God reverses your fortunes, lifting you up or bringing you down, filling you or emptying you, do you accept his mercy even when it is severe?  If you accept the unexpected invasion of grace as Mary did, you will be blessed.

    Those who are hurting deeply today because God has inverted their lives through seeming disasters may well respond to the Good News of our text by saying, “How can I accept God’s will when it turns my life upside down.”  The answer is, look at Mary.  Her acceptance began with these words, “I am the Lord’s servant.”  I am not the Lord; I am just his servant.  I am not in control of my life, not of my health or my wealth, not of my birth or my death.  I am simply the Lord’s servant.  I surrender.

    Mary could say that because she believed those first words of the angel.  “Greetings, you who are highly favored!”  That is the good news, God’s good word to all who accept the invasion of his love in Jesus.  “You are highly favored, the object of God’s amazing grace.”  God says to you, “I am especially fond of you.  You are special to me.  I love you so much that I would do anything to bless you.  Do not fear, for you have found favor with God.”  If we believe that good news and accept the inverted invasion in our lives, we will be blessed.

    Note: Our specific Advent and Christmas Resource page is now available for you to check out sample sermons and other ideas for the Advent Season of 2016.   You can view that material here: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/advent-2016/

    Illustration Idea

    Early in this piece, I quoted C.S. Lewis where he describes the Incarnation and the Atonement as an invasion by the rightful king in disguise.  In Advent we not only look back at that first stage of the invasion, but also ahead to the second and final stage.  C.S. Lewis helps us think about why God in Christ came the way he did and why he has waited so long to come again and finish the job of liberating the world from enemy occupation.

    “God will invade.  But I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realize what it will be like when he does.  When that happens, it is the end of the world.  When the author walks on to the stage the play is over.  God is going to invade, all right: but what is the good of saying you are on his side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else—something it has never entered your head to conceive—comes crashing in; something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left?  For this time it will be God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature. It will be too late then to choose your side.  There is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up.  That will not be the time for choosing; it will be the time when we discover which side we have really chosen, whether we realized it or not.  Now, today, at this moment, is our chance to choose the right side.  God is holding back to give us that chance.  It will not last forever.  We must take it or leave it.”  (Mere Christianity)

    Accept it like Mary and be blessed, or reject it and discover that we have placed a curse on ourselves.

  • Lectionary Epistle +

    James 5:7-10

    Author: Scott Hoezee