Hardhearted and Tightfisted

generosity

Please read Deuteronomy 15:1-11 in your Bible.

A highly successful businessman was once asked to make a substantial donation toward an urgent charity appeal. The businessman listened to the case presented then said, “I can understand why you approached me. Yes I do have a lot of money, and yours is an important cause. But are you aware that I have a lot of calls upon my money? Did you know my mother needs 24 hour nursing care?”

“No we didn’t” came the reply.

“Did you know my sister is struggling to raise a family of eight on her own?”

“No we didn’t” came the reply.

“Did you know I have one son in a drug rehab clinic and another doing voluntary work overseas?”

“No we didn’t”

“Well, if I don’t give them a cent, what makes you think I’ll give it to you?!”

CONTEXT = The book of Deuteronomy is Moses reviewing the law with the Israelites prior to their campaign to occupy the Promised Land.  It is a collection of teachings in no obvious order, so context is not as important as it is for other parts of the Bible.  However, this section joins with 14:27-29, which identifies the needy persons requiring support: the Levites (assistants to the priests), aliens, fatherless, and widows.

Prosperity is given to empower & reward generosity.

  1. God attached a promise of prosperity to the 7 year cycle of debt forgiveness.

This command is one aspect of God’s commands to observe a “Sabbath Year” every seventh year.  Other aspects of a Sabbath Year include the release of slaves and allowing the land to rest (planting crops was forbidden; only what grew “volunteer” was to be gleaned for food).

Here in Deuteronomy 15, God commanded debt forgiveness of loans made to fellow Israelites (1-3).  Throughout the Old Testament law, God’s people were to give one another special treatment.  The language is a little ambiguous whether this was a permanent forgiveness of debt or a temporary one, just for the duration of the year.  Either way, it was to be a demonstration of faith in God and generous love to needy countrymen.

God’s gracious gift of prosperity was given to empower their gracious generosity.  Verse four states God gave them the LAND AS AN INHERITANCE.  Combine this with the promise of prosperity in v. 6 and we see their prosperity as a gift from God to be shared, not a personal achievement to be hoarded.

On the surface it appears verse 4 contradict verses seven and eleven. Verse four states, THERE SHOULD BE NO POOR AMONG YOU while in verse seven we read, IF THERE IS A POOR MAN AMONG YOUR BROTHERS and verse eleven says THERE WILL ALWAYS BE POOR AMONG YOU.

The way I see it, verse four is a promise: if this statute is observed, poverty would be eliminated.  It is a conditional statement: this effect would be achieved by a combination of the people’s obedience and generosity and by the Lord’s blessing.

On the other hand, verses seven and eleven are a prediction that the Israelites would NOT observe the statute and so poverty would continue.   Verse four reflects optimism, verses seven and eleven show pessimism or realism.  We see both these perspectives in other statements Moses made, so it is not at all out of character to see both of them here.  It is worth noting that in the Gospels Jesus agreed with the realistic tone of verses seven and eleven when He said, “THE POOR YOU WILL ALWAYS HAVE WITH YOU.”  The situation had changed so much that an observance of Sabbath years was impossible and the cure for poverty unavailable.

Had this system been followed, it would have limited the centralization of wealth in the hands of the few.  The cancellation or suspension of debts would have put money back into the economy and eased the oppressive burdens of indebtedness.  As God promised it would work, I have no doubt it would have eventually eliminated poverty from Israel.  To observe the Sabbath Year as it was commanded would have been an act of trust in God and a huge faith-building experience.

Verses five and six develop God’s promise of future prosperity.  This is Moses assuring the people that if they follow these rules even though they appear to have no business sense, they do not need to fear poverty.  They can count on God to reward their faithfulness with fruitfulness.

Verse five conveys in two phrases the condition that predicated the fulfillment.  Firstly, IF ONLY YOU FULLY OBEY. In the Hebrew language, this is an “infinitive absolute construction indicating intensity” which is a fancy way of saying the original language stresses the condition of obedience more than we can in English.  Secondly, IF ONLY YOU…ARE CAREFUL TO FOLLOW ALL THESE COMMANDS, especially the Sabbath year laws of this section.  The Old Testament  law teaches us that God blesses complete obedience, not grudging obedience or faked obedience or partial obedience.  In order to do right by God we must obey completely, which includes body and soul.

Verse six is a promise of prosperity and security = THE LORD WILL BLESS YOU AS HE PROMISED.  Prosperity is promised in this phrase: YOU WILL LEND TO MANY NATIONS BUT WILL BORROW FROM NONE.  National prosperity would be one of the means God would use to end poverty in Israel.  Security is promised in the words, YOU WILL RULE OVER MANY NATIONS BUT NONE WILL RULE OVER YOU.  Economic prosperity would certainly be part of how this promise would be realized, but that does not exclude military or political means.

These promises came to their greatest fulfillment during the reign of King Solomon.  Israel enjoyed fantastic wealth and held the preeminent place among the nations of the world. However, as they did not keep this command and observe the Sabbath years, the wealth stayed in the hands of the minority and poverty remained.  We know from history that God clearly kept His part of the covenant but Israel did not keep her part.  As a consequence, Solomon’s sons divided the kingdom and the fortunes of both nations fell over several generations, ending in both nations being conquered by foreigners.

  1. God commanded generosity to the poor.

God condemned having a bad attitude toward the poor.  Verse seven forbade being HARDHEARTED and TIGHTFISTED.  Note this is a condemnation of both attitude and action that results in a person who could help refusing to help.

Verse nine goes a bit further, condemning WICKED THOUGHTS about abusing the Law and the poor.  After all, a businessman might, in year six, decide that he does not want to wait twelve months or more for repayment to start, and refuse to make a loan.  God appealed to the spiritual side of His people and condemned this selfish attitude as a sin.  There is a word of deterrent here in verse nine; help the poor lest they appeal in prayer and God declares the miser guilty of sin.  This is the only place a warning of this type is found in the Bible.  In the Old Testament, a miser is depicted as a sad and lonely figure while a generous person is shown as happy and social.

God commended generosity.  Verses eight and eleven command being OPENHANDED in order to meet needs.  Righteous and happy people are generous people.  While they exercise caution and give in an orderly fashion, they are nonetheless gracious in their giving.  Be aware of God’s grace and generosity to you and then follow His example.

In verse ten, Moses commanded the people to GIVE GENEROUSLY…AND WITHOUT A GRUDGING HEART.  Thoughtful and careful use of one’s resources is a part of wisdom, but that is not an endorsement of miserliness.  Hoarding and withholding from the needy is condemned as a sin.  A generous heart is indicated by the habit of thinking of the needs of others ahead of your own.

Prosperity is given to empower & reward generosity.

          I suppose economists would look on this regulation with horror.  So much of our economy is based on credit and loans earning interest, debt forgiveness would seem to them like rewarding slackers and creating poverty.

It’s possible the ancient Israelites shared this perspective on the Sabbath year laws.  We have no evidence these laws were ever observed.  Sadly, people with money and power are unwilling to release it and apparently their will triumphed.  Which is too bad for a host of reasons not least among them is that it would have been wonderful to see this economic system demonstrated and an actual end to poverty achieved.

In his 1964 State of the Union address, President Lyndon Johnson declared “war” on poverty.  His methods of war predictably involved expanding the federal bureaucracy.  The four pillars of this effort included an expansion of Social Security, food stamps, job agencies, and educational programs. We’ve been at this war for just over 55 years.  Are any closer to winning?  What’s really needed is what God’s law decreed in Deuteronomy 15; a heart of generosity and grace toward persons less fortunate than one’s self.

RESOURCES:

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (#3), Earl S. Kalland.

The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Deuteronomy), Peter C. Craigie.

https://storiesforpreaching.com/category/sermonillustrations/generosity/

 

2016 is a Year of Jubilee

(Please read Leviticus 25:8-22.  I used the NIV to prepare these remarks.)

Message – God commanded a Year of Jubilee as a special Sabbath. We can do this in our own way.

  1. What the Year of Jubilee meant to Israel.

It meant freedom for indentured servants with the forgiveness of debts (39-43).  God did not free His people from slavery to the Egyptians (see the book of Exodus) only to make them slaves to one another.

In this culture, the “safety net” for poverty was for the head of the household to sell himself and/or family members into slavery.  We might call it “indentured servitude” to differentiate is from the other kind of slavery.  Indentured servants were countrymen and were generally assigned household chores.  Slave were Gentiles, became slaves by being conquered in war, and were not freed by the Year of Jubilee.  This allowed the man to work off his debt and when that was accomplished, everyone regained their freedom.

While this system his may sound cruel to our ears, I think it has some points to commend itself versus our system of welfare.  The indentured servants were provided a home, food, and work to do to restore their homes.  They were to be treated respectfully – as fellow countrymen – by their masters.  Our system creates a cruel dependency and a massive bureaucracy, both of which have been proven to be toxic to our social and political life.

While each approach to poverty has its strengths and weaknesses, the point is that the exception to this rule was the Year of Jubilee.  In this case, the debt that created indentured servitude was simply forgiven.

It also meant a second consecutive year of rest for the land (11-12; see Exodus 23:10-11).  It can be a little confusing because the term “Sabbath” is used in a variety of ways.

– The seventh day of the week was designated as the weekly Sabbath.

– The seventh year was designated as a Sabbath Year.

– I suppose you could say the Year of Jubilee was to be a “Sabbath of Sabbaths;” observed every 50 years, occurring after seven Sabbath Years were held (8).

In every case, however, a Sabbath is a rest from work, replacing work with worship and prayer. The term literally means “solemn rest.”  As God rested from His work of creation, so are His people to rest from their works.  But this was also a rest for the land.  The people were not to raise crops, but to trust God that He would provide for their needs through what grew on its own.  Imagine an entire year devoted to God!  What would 365 Sundays feel like?

I’m no farmer and have a black thumb, but I understand that land which is tilled and planted loses its vitality.  That’s why crops are rotated and occasionally land is left idle; to renew it.

The Year of Jubilee also required restoration of lands to their ancestral owners (10, 13).

This means that the land – the PROMISED Land – could not be sold permanently.  V. 23 = THE LAND MUST NOT BE SOLD PERMANENTLY, BECAUSE THE LAND IS MINE AND YOU ARE BUT ALIENS AND TENANTS.  This is the true theology of stewardship; everything belongs to God and He has appointed us as caretakers over it.  Our possessiveness, materialism, and pride are false and sinful because we don’t truly own a single thing.  How wonderful that every seventh year the people of God would get a powerful reminder not to put their hopes in money or earthly goods of any kind, but to trust in God instead.

The Year of Jubilee had practical as well as spiritual benefits.

– It emphasized the ties of family and brought them back to their origins: EACH ONE OF YOU IS TO RETURN TO HIS FAMILY PROPERTY AND EACH TO HIS OWN CLAN (10).

– It controlled inflation by resetting real estate prices every 50 years. (Today we use dollars in the way we used pennies 50 years ago and our purchasing power is diminishing.  Imagine how much better off we’d be with a 50 year reset!)

– It kept people from getting too far in debt. We know debt is hard on relationships.  (These days people are taking EIGHT YEARS to pay on a car, say nothing of 30 and 40 year mortgages!)

– Most importantly, it reinforced the essential truth that THE EARTH IS THE LORD’S (see Psalm 24:1).  This stops us from being selfish & materialistic.

By now you may be thinking of the ways in which the Year of Jubilee might be abused.  Notice that this passage required scaling prices according to the number of years until the next Jubilee (14-16).  This was a practical way to avoid abuse of the system.

Verse 17 provided a theological way to avoid abuse by forbidding abuse in principle: DO NOT TAKE ADVANTAGE OF EACH OTHER, BUT FEAR YOUR GOD.  I AM THE LORD YOUR GOD.  This is exactly what GRACE is all about.  It risks abuse and misuse in order to make exceptions and aid others.

– The Year of Jubilee was to be 365 days of GRACE! WOW!!

– It was to be a whole year of trusting God to provide for you, not you busting your chops to grab all you can for yourself; a year of FAITH.

This sounds like crazy talk to worldly ears; utter foolishness.  Faith and grace have that effect on worldly-minded folk.  Grace is impractical and risky.  It has its own kind of logic that frequently opposes what the world says is reasonable.  The Year of Jubilee was also a practice run for the Kingdom of God, the ideal situation that will exist after the Day of the Lord.

The sad fact is that there is no biblical record of a Sabbath Year being observed, let alone a Year of Jubilee.  Apart from it being commanded in Leviticus and Numbers, it is never mentioned again in the Bible.  What a shame!  This wonderful command of God, so full of grace, was never adopted by the people of God.  What an opportunity wasted!

  1. What this Year of Jubilee will mean for us.

Freeing the captives and forgiving debts can be accomplished in our lives by our forgiveness of grudges and reconciliation of persons.  Forget about monetary debts; let us solve the relational problems in our lives by forgiveness.  We don’t need “drama and trauma” in our relationships.  God has called us to something far better: love.

One gauge of your spiritual life is the number of relationships that bring you joy compared to the number that are associated with negative emotions.  The more joy, the more spiritually mature you are.

An equivalent to resting the land can be taking rest from the tyranny of the ordinary and familiar.  Traditions and rituals exist to provide context, not constraint.  Spiritually mature people balance context with creativity and flexibility to follow the Spirit’s leadership.  Changing everything and changing nothing are ridiculous extremes and are scarcely worth mentioning.  Again, balance is key.  As human beings, we find joy in variety and familiarity.  This should balance should be sought as we make decisions together and live with one another.

In this, we can take as our example Jesus’ teaching on the Sabbath.  God created the institution for people, not people for the institution.

Being restored to our ancestral lands can take place by the restoration of our church’s place in our neighborhood and our attitude toward the people who live next to the place we call home.  I realize that the so-called experts say that neighborhood churches are a thing of the past, that everyone drives to church these days.  So what?  Be a neighborhood church!  Should any one of our neighbors die without receiving Jesus as Savior, let it not be because we failed to reach out and share the Gospel.

HOW WE GOT HERE – Pastor Dwayne and I were having a staff meeting, conversing about how difficult 2015 has been.  We decided to claim 2016 as a year of grace, of fruitfulness, and the fullness of God’s blessing.  “Let’s call it a Year of Jubilee,” we decided.  Something about that struck a chord, and we googled it.  We were surprised to find out that Pope Francis had already had this idea and announced it as such!

But we were even more surprised when we found that it we are already in an official Year of Jubilee according to the Hebrew calendar.  That is the traditional lunar calendar that is currently in year 5776!  According to that calendar, the Year of Jubilee began on September 23 of this year and will continue until the Day of Atonement next year.

SO, even though we’re a little late to the party, we’re going to adapt this biblical command to our church in the coming year!  I mentioned this later that day at the Nehemiah Prayer Group and we ran with it there too.  Since there are nine months left in the Year of Jubilee, we’ll emphasize one of the nine Fruits of the Spirit each month.  We pray that this emphasis improves church life and extends our outreach to our community.

High Altitude Attitudes – the Beatitudes

A preacher was walking to his office one sunny day when he noticed a very little boy on a porch across the street.  The boy was jumping, trying to reach the doorbell of the house to ring it, but it was situated high enough to be out of his reach, even when jumping with all his might.

The preacher stopped to watch the boy’s efforts for a bit and then decided to offer his help.  He crossed the street and got the little fellow’s attention.  “I notice you can’t quite reach that doorbell, son.  Can I help you?”

“Sure,” he replied.

The preacher rant the doorbell then stooped over to get on the boy’s level.  “And now little man,” he said with a smile, “What happens now?”

The boy giggled and replied, “Now we RUN!”

There are an unlimited number of ways we can bless one another, isn’t there?  But moments like that one can discourage us from trying.

We must not neglect the power of blessing.  God entrusts us with an unending supply so we can exert the power of blessing in our homes and community.

The power of blessing is beautifully expressed in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  There our Lord described nine examples of how we can exercise a ministry of blessing.

Today we’re going to start a series of messages on the Beatitudes.  In each case, we will compare:

Our Attitude: what is typical to human nature and often expressed in human cultures as desirable or valuable.

Jesus’ Beatitude: virtues that are expressed in the character of Jesus.  They become real in us through the Holy Spirit.

The Adjustment: the means the Spirit uses to change us from attitude to beatitude.

The Reward: God authorized motivation by means of desire for reward by offering a reward for each of these changes.

High Altitude Attitude Adjustment – Spiritual Poverty (3).

            Our attitude is pride, which should be understood as every manifestation of self-sufficiency, every act of trust in something other than God.  For example, Pride is trusting in any worldly riches.  In Matthew 19:23-24, Jesus observed how hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Jesus beatitude is humility.   This is NOT humiliation or self-abasement.  Those are still acts of self-sufficiency, exercising our will.  Instead, humility is possessing an accurate self-understanding; seeing ourselves as God sees us:

– In need of His salvation by grace.

– Individuals w/ strengths and weaknesses.

– Its inward truth, not outward appearance

The adjustment is the experience of being POOR IN SPIRIT.  True holiness requires ruthless honesty.  To be honest is to admit one’s sin and complete dependence on God for salvation.  It’s no shame to admit to poverty when one is poor.  And spiritually speaking, we are all poor.   Our very best behavior falls short of God’s standard (see Isaiah 64:6). We have no hope apart from God’s grace. Changing our attitudes is something we can’t do on our own – we depend on God. The Bible honors those who are poor in terms of what this world offers, but are faithful to trust and obey God (see Psalms 149:4 and Isaiah 49:13; 61:1-2; 66:2).

The reward is experiencing the KINGDOM OF HEAVEN now and in the future.  In order to enter the Kingdom, we must submit to the authority of the King and accept His work of salvation. The POOR IN SPIRIT experience the KINGDOM OF HEAVEN in two ways.

– In the PRESENT, we experience the KINGDOM OF HEAVEN by the work of the Holy Spirit (prayer, worship, fellowship, etc.).   (See MTW 11:11-12; 12:28.)

– In the FUTURE we will experience the KINGDOM OF HEAVEN by being in heaven; living eternally in the presence of God and with His people.  (See Matthew 7:21; 8:11; 19:23-24; 26:29).  This is the most fundamental change, so it comes with the greatest reward.

High Altitude Attitude Adjustment – Mourning (4).

            Our attitude is frivolity.  (I struggled with this choice of words.  If you can think of a better one after reading how I define it, I’d happily receive a suggestion.) Human nature wants to avoid sorrow. Two mistakes we make under this attitude I’m calling “frivolity:”

– We busy ourselves in activity, working and playing hard, attempting to avoid dealing with sorrow.

– Or we bury ourselves in alcohol or drugs or other addictions in the same doomed quest for avoidance.

The Jesus beatitude is ­­sobriety.  We tend to think of “sobriety” only in terms of not being drunk or high.  Actually, “sobriety” is the virtue of being serious when mature, balanced behavior is needed. It avoids t extremes of goofy immaturity one hand & taking things only or overly serious on the other.  It is the virtue of appropriate behavior based on sensitivity to one’s context.

Jesus calls us to neither seek nor shirk suffering; but instead to use it, when it comes, to become more mature ourselves or helping others to find more maturity.  It is worldly to seek to be entertained every waking moment.  The believer seeks God’s Kingdom first, finding the true joy of service. It is a vice to treat sin lightly; believers sorrow over sin and ignorance of God. It’s a mistake to make happiness our goal.  Those who love Jesus seek holiness before happiness.

The adjustment is the experience of mourning.  What causes us to mourn?  The most obvious example is death, but there are a lot of other things that cause us to suffer, experience sorrow, or feel a sense of loss.

The word MOURN meant “to bear sorrows.”  Sorrows are a result of God’s choices, our choices, the choices of others or more likely a combination.  There are real and imagined sorrows.

The reward is being comforted by God.  This isn’t simply a matter of going around with a long face, unsmiling, unhappy, or in tears.  If it were just those behaviors, we’d be earning our salvation, right?  Again, it’s a matter of trusting God, not self.

The word “comfort” means to be fortified.  It describes an outcome of faith that finds security in knowing that God is in control and He’s working for our good.  Part of God’s purpose in mourning is to make us stronger in our faith, more spiritually mature. Another purpose is to make us more sensitive so we can help those who MOURN as we have. A third purpose is to strengthen our faith in the best way possible – by surviving and overcoming.  (Two examples: Paul in Romans 5:3; 8:37-39 or John in Revelation 21:4.)

High Altitude Attitude Adjustment – Meekness (5).

            Our attitude is self-centeredness.  The more we dwell within ourselves and ignore others, the more we are prone to hurt them. It can be in our nature to be competitive, stubborn, and vengeful, all of which are attitudes that reduce the value of other people, making them objects to be used or enemies to be violated and defeated. The world values success and excess; it sees self-reliance as a virtue, even when taken to ridiculous extremes.

The Jesus beatitude is gentleness.  To be gentle does NOT mean to be a door mat.  Two of the greatest achievers in history were called “gentle:” Moses in Numbers 12:3 and Jesus in Matthew 11:29.

To be gentle is to do the right thing without doing harm.  This takes great intelligence, courage, and patience; all of which the Holy Spirit provides.  A gentle person never insists that the ends justify the means or that principles have greater priority than people.

The adjustment is meekness.  Meekness starts by placing God’s will and the good of others ahead of self-interest.  Putting God first helps us do t right thing.  Putting the good of others ahead of self helps us do the right thing in the right way at the right time.  Meekness is a virtue because it was part of the character of Jesus.  When He was being tried by the authorities Jesus suffered their accusations in silence.

The reward is inheriting the earth.  In biblical language, to INHERIT something was to

receive it as a gift from God.  (See Psalms 37:11, 22, 34.)  THE EARTH refers to all creation.  In both testaments, God promises His people that they will reign with Him as “kings and priests.” The irony is that those who reject worldly standards of power shall be given power.

Because we who believe know the end of the story, because we trust God to keep His promises, we can relax.  We can afford to be generous and gentle w/ others. Logically, we don’t have to be greedy in this moment because we know eventually we will inherit all of it!

“According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statics, the average [American household spent] $50,486.”  Of that amount, $2,827 or 5.6% was spent on “entertainment.”  “Entertainment costs included audio and visual equipment and services; pets, toys, hobbies and playground equipment; fees and admissions; and other entertainment spending.”

<Retrieved from http://visualeconomics.creditloan.com/average-american-spends-on-entertainment/#ixzz3OLpfG8lh  on 1/9/15.>

            Even under that very narrow definition, we spend a lot of time and resources on doing nothing more than being entertained.  We are a people who prize happiness, sometimes to the point of misidentifying it as a virtue.  This is the frivolous lifestyle to which I referred earlier.

            Let me give you a quick example as we close.  The song “Happy” by Pharrell Williams.  I love this song.  It is catchy and hearing it makes you smile.  But it’s as weighty as styrofoam and about as useful in mass quantities.        The song was written for the animated movie, Despicable Me 2, but was much more popular than the movie, becoming a world-wide pop culture phenomenon.

Williams, the song’s writer and performer, made these comments about Happy: “The creation of the song was fun, but it was the tenth song after nine songs didn’t work for what the movie company described as a pivotal moment in the film.  It’s just been wonderful to see how the universe has rewarded us, my whole entire team. I’m surrounded by greatness.  It’s essentially changed my life and changed the tune of how I look at things, my perspective,” he says. “Me and my wife, we were just jumping around because I got that song in that film. We didn’t think it was going to turn into this.”

<Retrieved from http://radio.com/2015/01/05/grammys-behind-the-song-pharrell-williams-happy/ on 1/9/15.>

“In Momma’s Hands”

(Please read Luke 1:39-45, NLT.)

Thesis – God trusted His plan of salvation to two mothers.

A few months ago I wrote that 85 people control as much global wealth (about 1 trillion dollars) as the poorest HALF of the world population (about 3.5 billion people).  As far as I know, that situation hasn’t changed a bit since I first reported it to you.

You’ve heard people talk about the “One Percenters.”  I’ve learned that between 1979 and 2007 the richest 1% of Americans saw their income rise 275%.  In contrast the poorest Americans saw only a 20% increase in income in that same period.

What I have learned since then is that Warren Buffett, the third richest person in the world, has been quoted as saying, “Through the tax code, there has been class warfare waged and my class won.  It’s been a rout.”  I’m prepared to believe him.

If the Affordable Care Act continues to unroll, this situation will worsen as the employer’s mandate provision amounts to a tax on full-time employees.  More people will be forced to work multiple part-time jobs.

Don’t worry.  I’m not here this morning to advocate revolution.  I mention all these figures to you for two reasons.  One, the growing divide between rich and poor is a social justice issue.  It is something the Church must address in a positive, redemptive way, seeking constructive change.

Two, to show that there are a lot more of us ordinary folks than there are rich folks.  Today we’ll look at a couple of gals who, by all accounts, were not One Percenters.  Just the opposite.  Mary and Elizabeth were two ladies who were pretty average in the ways the world looks at people.

But of course, God knows better.  He knew their hearts.  He saw qualities of faith and righteousness in them that were ideal for His plan.  He had put them in circumstances that were perfect for His purposes.  What He needed from them was obedience.

And, as we know, that is what they offered Him.  Combining their obedience and God’s glorious power, these two moms became essential, pivotal figures in human history.  We’ll see today how God entrusted His plan for eternal salvation to a couple of moms.

Background information on Elizabeth can be found in Luke 1:5-25.

          What we know about Elizabeth starts with her marital status: She was married to Zechariah, a priest in the order of Abijah.  Elizabeth herself was a descendent of Aaron (v. 5).  This was quite a pedigree!

Both of them were RIGHTEOUS IN GOD’S EYES, being CAREFUL TO OBEY ALL of God’s laws (v. 6).  Even so, the two of them had not been blessed with children.  At this time, they were too old for that apparent sign of disfavor to change.  In our culture, childlessness can be a troubling experience.  But in that culture, it was a stigma; people assumed it was a sign of sin and God’s punishment of the sinners.  That was certainly how Elizabeth saw it.  She exclaimed in v. 25; “HOW KIND THE LORD IS! HE HAS TAKEN AWAY MY DISGRACE OF HAVING NO CHILDREN.”  Luke took pains to tell us that this assumption was incorrect, especially in the case of these two godly older people.

On the day when Zechariah’s career as a priest reached its proudest moment, the angel Gabriel appeared and told Zechariah that the impossible was going to happen: he would be a father (vs. 8-15).  More than that, the baby would exercise power akin to that seen in the greatest OT prophet, Elijah.  He would be the forerunner of the Messiah (vs. 16-17).  Zechariah found this hard to accept, lost his voice, and found it again when it came time to name the baby John as the angel had instructed, and then sang a song of praise (18-25, 57-80).

The message to us is clear: God uses people the world deems least qualified.  If you feel inadequate to do God’s will, that’s a good place to start!

 Elizabeth was John the Baptist’s mother and a Spirit-filled prophetess: Luke 1:39-45.

          Let’s recap last week: Mary had just been visited by Gabriel & A FEW DAYS LATER she HURRIED to Elizabeth’s house (39-40).  This was a journey of 100 miles; an immense undertaking, especially for a young, unmarried woman. Why did she go there?

It might’ve been to get away from Joseph to be sure that he was not blamed for her conception.  It might’ve been to escape the scorn of her family and friends as her pregnancy became increasingly obvious.  As faithful as Mary has been, the safest reason to assume is that the Lord told her to.  In this case, HURRIED is not explained as an act of panic, but an eagerness to do God’s will.

Notice what came to pass at the sound of Mary’s voice (v. 41).  The child growing in Elizabeth LEAPED WITHIN HER.  This movement was obvious; easily distinguished from an ordinary kick or shift of position.  Elizabeth knew, by means of the Spirit, that the reason for the baby’s sudden movement was JOY at the sound of Mary’s voice.  This means that JTB was acting in his role as forerunner even before birth!  In the Old Testamnet, this verb “to leap” is associated with the knowledge of salvation.  ‘BUT FOR YOU WHO FEAR MY NAME, THE SUN OF RIGHTEOUSNESS WILL RISE WITH HEALING IN HIS WINGS.  AND YOU WILL GO FREE, LEAPING WITH JOY LIKE CALVES LET OUT TO PASTURE. (Malachi 4:2)  The word for JOY here is a delight, a gladness that diffuses through the whole person.  It is profound and unmistakable.

The second thing that happened was the most significant: ELIZABETH WAS FILLED W/T HOLY SPIRIT.  At this point in history, everyone was still under the OT system, where the Spirit was given to individuals on a temporary basis.  Once the specific job was done, it was withdrawn again.  In this case, Elizabeth’s job was to confirm for Mary all that Gabriel had said would come true.  This must’ve been very reassuring for her.

The filling of the Spirit occasioned a prophecy that confirmed Gabriel’s message to Mary (vs. 42-45).

  • YOU ARE BLESSED (vs. 42+45).
    • BLESSED BY GOD
    • ABOVE ALL WOMEN
    • BECAUSE YOU BELIEVED THAT THE LORD WOULD DO WHAT HE SAID.  This explains why Mary is blessed among all women – she trusted God to resolve a situation she didn’t fully understand.
  • YOUR CHILD IS BLESSED (v. 42).
  • WHAT AN HONOR THIS IS (v. 43). This shows a humble heart and a faithful response to what the Spirit revealed to her.
  • THE MOTHER OF MY LORD (v. 43).  The Spirit had given Elizabeth insight beyond what could be seen by worldly eyes alone.  This insight covered both Mary’s unique role as the mother of the Messiah and the unique role of the unborn Jesus as the Messiah.

According to v. 56, Mary stayed with Zechariah and Elizabeth for about three months, which would be about the time for the birth of John the Baptist.  It seems logical to assume that Mary stayed until after John’s birth.  Having witnessed with her own eyes the way God did a miracle for her cousin, Mary would naturally be empowered to withstand any criticism she received for being an unwed mother when she returned to Nazareth.

The message to us is similarly reassuring: God’s will for our lives is conveyed and confirmed by a variety of means.

It’s wonderfully appropriate, isn’t it, that mothers and children take center stage at this time of the year?  In that vein…

A couple weeks before Christmas, an eight-year-old boy got home from school and announced to his mother, “Mom, I know something that Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy have in common.”

“What’s that?” mom asked.

“They’re all nocturnal,” he replied.

A Sunday School teacher was polling his students about their religious habits and he asked one little boy, “Jimmy, do you say your prayers before eating?”

“No sir,” Jimmy replied eagerly.  “I don’t have to.  My mom is a good cook!”

(The Joyful Noiseletter, Vol. 21, No. 10, Dec. 2006, p. 2.)

One of the joyous things about Advent is that God chooses the weak and despised things of the world to be His instruments of grace.  God chose moms and babies and shepherds and carpenters and professional scholars.  He chose no rulers or celebrities.  Part of Christmas is the celebration of the common folk of the world.

So be of good cheer!  Jesus warned us that this world would give us trouble, but He added that He had already overcome the world, so all is well!