(Part 4 of 4)
The Ultimate Gift
In one of my favorite thought-provoking movies, Howard ‘Red’ Stevens, a famous billionaire, dies. His best friend and lawyer, Theophilus, calls all of the family to be present at the reading of ‘Red’s’ will. All the children arrive with one thought on their minds: how much money they are going to receive. As the lawyer hands out small portions of estate and money to each of the millionaire’s kids, there is complaining and arguing and finger-pointing; all of the kids leave dissatisfied, bickering with one another over what they received.
One person is late to the reading of the will and that person is ‘Red’s’ grandson, Jason, a known playboy who has lived an incredible life of privilege. He also comes to the table hoping for a huge handout and when nothing seems forthcoming, turns to leave.
Theophilus stops him with a word and tells him there is something for him. Through video presentations from Red before his death and with the help of Theophilus and his assistant, Miss Hastings, Jason is presented with a quest. He opens an envelope and in it is an address. He is told that if he follows the quest to the end, he will receive the ultimate gift.
With grand visions of dollar signs dancing in his head, Jason goes to the address and arrives in the middle of a huge Texan ranch where he is asked to dig fence posts from dawn to dusk…for two months. In those two months, he learned the value of work.
Envelope after envelope lead him on a chase toward the elusive ultimate gift and on the way, he learns about many gifts: the gift of money by having his all taken; the gift of friends by needing to produce one true friend; the gift of learning by traveling to a town in South America where the library is constantly empty because people crave knowledge; the gift of problems; the gift of laughter; the gift of having dreams; the gift of giving, family, love, gratitude and the perfect day.
After the series of envelopes comes to an end and he returns to the lawyer’s office, he is not the same spoiled brat. He cares deeply for people, even going the extra mile to please a young girl, Emily, with the perfect day. Emily’s mother, Alexia, has become very dear to him and he comforts her in the aftermath of Emily’s death due to cancer.
His last task is to spend 100 million dollars for a good cause so he goes to work building a complex for families of cancer patients. He proposes his plan to a board, oversees the work and completes the project. Theophilus and Miss Hastings join him in cutting the ribbon on this hugely expensive venture.
The next day he finds himself back at the lawyer’s study after finding himself through this intriguing journey of discovery. He realizes that he has changed in the ensuing year. He no longer has the same friends. He no longer wants the same things. He has passion and drive to help people and in that important moment, Theophilus hands him the final envelope. Within that envelope lies the entire financial kingdom of ‘Red’ with Jason as its new CEO.
‘Red’ had to know if the person who would take his place as CEO had the integrity of heart to manage people and that much money. The quest that he sent Jason on was because he saw the potential in Jason; he just needed to cultivate that inner life.
All those gifts were paradoxical in their appearance. Having all of his belongings taken so he could learn friendship and responsibility. Realizing why his father died so that he would not make the same mistakes. Working hard in order to appreciate the ability to do so. These were paradoxical but in the receiving of those gifts, Jason adjusted his mindset, his behaviors, but mostly, his heart. He became a different person through these sets of paradoxical gifts. And not only did his adjustment change him, it changed the landscape of his family, his friends, and a financial empire.
This Wednesday, my eldest son returns from college in the States to spend Christmas with us. I am excited to see what God has been doing in his life in our absence, how God is moving into fatherhood in place of his parents. And I am so thankful that we will still be together as a family this Christmas because there will come a day when David will not be able to come home over this season. Family at this holiday time is such a gift.
And as we move toward Christmas Day, I am increasingly mindful of the importance of this earth-shattering event. In the words of our pastor today, “The Incarnation is the biggest miracle in history.” This Gift in the manger changes everything: the world’s history, our eternal future, our hopeless past, our hopes and dreams and redemption. We would be nothing, have nothing, be able to do nothing, without this Gift.
Because of this truth, I have urged you to anticipate this preordained Gift, adore this priceless Gift, and accept this proffered Gift. But today’s devotional thoughts are perhaps the hardest to write about and truly live out. The Gift is paradoxical in many ways, yet it requires an adjustment in the heart. We will move one time more through the stories of these Christmas characters to find parallels in our own lives, so that we can move into the Holy-Spirit adjustment we are called to.
What Is A Paradox?
Robert and I had a discussion this past week about what a paradox really is. I shared some things in the Christmas story that I felt were contradictory and he said, “Mom, those are just ironic.” Ultimately, we got into a discussion about words, so I wanted to lay out my introductory thoughts about my title with a clear definition.
A paradox is a “statement that seems contradictory to common sense and yet is perhaps true” (Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary and Thesaurus). Synonyms to the word ‘paradox’ are absurd, self-contradictory, inconsistent and incongruous. It may even be a statement that, despite valid reasoning from two different premises, leads to an apparently self-contradictory or logically unacceptable conclusion.
Here are some examples of paradoxical statements. “You have to save money by spending it,” meaning that sometimes buying a bit more at the outset will save you in the long run. This is the essence of buying in bulk. “Standing is more tiring than walking.” I have found this to be true, especially in the couple of hours it takes me to put together a supper meal. Or how about this one: “global warming is going to lead to the next Ice Age.” Does that even make sense? Not to this layman, but I am sure that scientists have a reason to make such a contradictory statement.
Maybe the most famous example in literature comes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Hamlet’s mother marries a man, who, the reader later finds out, was the murderer of Hamlet’s original father. He plots to kill his new father to protect his mother and his famous words, “I must be cruel to be kind” show a paradoxical statement. The two contradictory statements show that he believes killing his step-father would be cruel, but in the end, it is the greatest kindness he can show his mother.
Thus ends the language lesson, but wait, there’s more; the language lesson springboards us into the spiritual lesson.
Christmas’ Paradoxical Statements
So many statements that Jesus made are paradoxical to our finite minds. “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25). “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). “I tell you that everyone who has, more will be given, but as for the one who has nothing, even what he has will be taken away” (Luke 19:26). “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). And I could go on and on.
Jesus often spoke veiled messages through His statements and understanding what was at the heart of those statements, reveals what is at the heart of God. Saving one’s life is not surrender; God values a surrendered heart. Loving family more than God equates to a distinct heart issue, one that builds a wall between discipleship and idolatry. Using one’s gifts is important to God. Sitting in church and never ministering to the Body indicates a lack of value of the spiritual gifts that have been given. Loving enemies and praying for them makes you more like Christ, God’s ultimate goal anyway. The enemies may never be affected, but in the adjustment to the gift of an enemy, one’s own heart is changed to be more like Christ.
The Christmas story is also full of paradoxical statements, two seemingly contradictory thoughts that are placed together to make a truism. As we look at a few of these paradoxes, I pray that we will also discern what is important in God’s kingdom. These paradoxes shine a light on God’s heart-felt priorities.
1. Holy “unholiness?”
Before Mary and Joseph consummated their marriage, she was “found to be with child through the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18). How can a child out of wedlock be holy? Why would God place this young virgin in such a compromising position? Her reputation was at stake as well as her future marriage. Putting the Holy Spirit in the same context as such an unholy situation seems paradoxical, if not downright ungodly.
Yet, Mary adjusted to this paradox in her life. I believe part of that adjustment came because Gabriel re-labeled her unholy circumstances; He called them holy: “So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Jesus would not be born out of wedlock in deep shame because God renamed her state, her situation, and her future.
Peter struggled with holy ‘unholiness’ as well. He had an incredible dream where a large sheet was let down to earth. In it were all kinds of impure animals and he was told to kill and eat them. Peter responded by saying, “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” And the voice said, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 10:11-15). Of course you know that the trance was indicative of God’s new gospel direction. He was opening up the Good News to the Gentiles, but it took some holy persuasion – a holy paradox – to refresh Peter’s spiritual vision and cause an adjustment in his belief system. The unclean was named clean and this holy pronouncement opened the door for you and me to participate in the Gospel message.
In this reversal, this adjustment, we see an incredible principle of God’s kingdom: what God pronounces holy changes everything. It consecrates seemingly unholy beginnings, sanctifies unholy decisions, and purifies unholy behavior. When God pronounces you holy, you are holy indeed. When He takes the time to rename you, He will wash you clean and pure and you will be newly adjusted in your heart.
2. Righteous Divorce?
Joseph is described as a righteous man and yet he had it in my mind to divorce her quietly (Matthew 1:19). “I hate divorce,” is one of the last memorable statements coming from the Old Testament, yet here Scripture clearly states that this righteous man was going to do something that seemed to be against God’s will.
That is exactly the moment God intervened. Scripture says that as Joseph considered these things, an angel appeared to him. That word “considered” means to “be inspiritied, ponder, think, bring to mind, revolve in the mind, to deliberate.” But it is not a root word. The two roots making up this word are en, a “preposition denoting a fixed position” and thymos meaning “passion, fierceness, indignation, wrath” (ESV Strong’s). According to these root words, Joseph was passionate to the point of wrath and was fixed in his mind already. I actually believe that his considering describes a fixed decision.
We will look at Joseph’s story more in detail later on, but for now, I think it is important to see that Joseph adjusted to the angel’s words. What helped his heart change was the news that what was conceived in Mary was from the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:20-21). He could not argue with the heavenly angel stating a heavenly prophecy. The Holy Spirit was a righteous enough yardstick for the righteous Joseph and he acquiesced to God’s will. And so the prophecy came to fruition in his bride’s heavenly-inspired pregnancy.
I think God would say that righteousness in His eyes is not the adherence to a list of rules. Joseph was righteous because he followed the Torah, but later God asked him to move outside the Torah and embrace a woman thought to be an adulterer as his own wife. Following a set of rules does not make you righteous; it makes you a Pharisee in God’s eyes.
Christ indicted the Pharisees for their obvious adherence to every law of God and some 400 more that they had created. He told them “You give a tenth of your spices…But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former” (Matthew 23:23). Righteousness is not always about following every jot and tittle of a rulebook; it is more about godly justice, showing mercy, and acting in faithfulness, all of which God required Joseph to do. In God’s kingdom, mercy is valued much higher than judgment (James 2:13).
3. Poor King?
In Matthew 2, the Magi come to Jerusalem seeking the one who has been born king of the Jews. This statement is a stark contrast to the birth of Jesus. Jesus was wrapped in cloths instead of royal robes. He was placed in a manger instead of a royal cot. In the “house of bread” – Bethlehem – there was no room for the Bread of Life at all.
No wonder the Jews missed Him. They were expecting the Lord to fight against their enemies, to bring freedom from the Romans. They were thinking of a King who would stand on the Mount of Olives and cause it to split in two, who would attack by plague and fight for Jerusalem. They wanted a King who would punish their oppressors and cause all their enemies to worship at one temple in Jerusalem (see Zechariah 12-14 for these incredible promises).
But God chose to come as a poor baby on the first Advent. He was a king and yet He was humble. I believe this shows us that more than pomp and circumstance, more than glory and honor, God values humility and servanthood. Humility is the glory road.
Those people in the Christmas story that adjusted to this shift in beliefs saw more than a baby; they saw the Messiah. Elizabeth was honored to have the mother of the King in her home. Zechariah prophesied about the future ministry of the King. Mary housed that very King in her belly. The shepherds witnessed about the King to all who would listen. The Magi worshiped the kingly baby as did the widowed Anna. Simeon held the King in his elderly arms and Joseph fathered the King at his carpenter’s bench. Eight incredible people adjusted to this divine paradox and held both a human baby in the arms and the Incarnate King in their hearts. And so should we.
4. Worshipful murder?
Matthew 2 details the reception of the Magi’s news by Herod the king. He was troubled, Scripture recounts, and all Jerusalem with him. And they had good reason to be troubled. Herod was known for his murderous anger, since history tells us of him killing his favorite wife, Mariamne, her two sons, her brother, her grandfather, and her mother to remove any threat to his throne (www.britannica.com).
The paradoxical statement comes in verse 8 of Luke 2. He told the Magi, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.” Surprisingly, the wise men were not wise to that statement and therein lies the paradox. A murderous king could fool three wise – who could read anomalies in the sky, who had enough Scripture know-how to realize the connection between the Old Testament prophecies and modern-day happenings, who could travel directly toward the receiving of the next part of their journey, who could follow another star right to the doorstep of the very king they sought – with his pretense at worship. It took a dream from God warning them of Herod’s true intentions to move them out of Herod’s clutches and on to the safety of their own homes.
Again, Jesus spoke about this kind of worship, the kind that deceives men, “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain…” (Matthew 15:8-9a). It is possible to have murderous thoughts in your heart and disguise it with passion. It is possible to say adoring things to God and and have people think you are the most godly of Christians. It is possible to fake your worship through church service after church service, but friend, God knows the heart.
True worshipers, God says, worship the Father in spirit and truth (John 4:22-24). There can be a religiosity on the outside and a paganism on the inside. You can fake adoration before men, but be filled with idolatry before God. There is One who knows the heart and His kingdom agenda shows itself in this Magi-Herod paradox: the Lord knows and seeks spirit-filled, truthful worshipers (John 4:23). After all, He sent an angel to warn those wise men in a dream so that they would be wiser. He intervened through a miracle to protect His true worshipers. Worship is only worship if the Christ of the manger is your one and only true Gift.
5. Blameless Unbelief?
Zechariah was touted to be a priest from a godly line who was upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly (Luke 1:5-6). Yet in the Christmas story and besides the heathen Herod, he was the only one who could not believe God’s words (Luke 1:20).
How is it possible that a person can stand as a priest before God and not believe the God he serves? How can a person observe all of God’s commands like “love the Lord your God with all your heart” (Mark 12:30) if he doesn’t even believe God’s words? How can a person be called blameless and yet be full of doubt? This is a paradox to me and even Gabriel was quite perplexed at this contradictory behavior Zechariah displayed (see Luke 1:19).
I tentatively approach this subject because I am aware that many believers struggle with this inner contradiction. Disciples of God want to believe, but they are filled with fear, or doubt, or the worries of this world. Folks, two paradoxical truths cannot occupy the same heart. That is why James calls unbelieving believers, double-minded and unstable in all that they do (James 1:8). If there is doubt or anger or fear or any other number of obstacles to truth, there cannot be fully-fledged faith.
What changes doubt to belief? Zechariah adjusted to the truths God gave him, but it took him nine months; nine months, mind you, where we do not see the process of change God wrought in him. We only see the result, so let me take you to another passage that shows the operation the Surgeon worked with His capable hands.
Jesus met a woman at a well and engaged her heart. Through a convoluted and incredibly insightful conversation, Jesus took her from unbelief to adoring belief. He piqued her curiosity. He answered her questions. He brought her to deep thirst. He engaged her sins and then He revealed Himself to her as the Messiah (John 4:6-26).
The woman adjusted from drought to the Spring of Living Water; so much so that she told the townspeople about the man who had told her everything she ever did. She pitched out the question, “Could this be the Christ?” and all the people came to find out. Many of those gawkers became believers because of that woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.” They urged Jesus to stay two more days in that town and “because of his words many more became believers” (John 4:39-41).
But look at their words to the woman, for in this sentence is the answer to the question, “How do I move from doubt to faith?” They said, “We no longer believe just because of what you said; now we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this man really is the Savior of the world” (John 4:42).
Do you see it, the first footstep to adjustment? The key is revelation. The witness is extremely important in traversing faith bridges; hence, those who came to belief because of the woman’s testimony. But hearing God’s words from God’s mouth; now, that is life-changing. Faith really does come from hearing the message and hearing by the word of Christ (Romans 10:17). Revelation of the Word made flesh takes the paradox of head-faith and heart-unbelief and eclipses the doubt. Revelation marries the head and heart so that a person is no longer double-minded; he is full of God-centered and single-minded belief.
This adjustment came about in Zechariah’s life, but it took nine months of suffering in silence along with nine months of watching his old wife’s belly grow. Somehow in those ensuing, quiet-filled weeks, the revelation that he had received from the angel eclipsed the doubt he had previously harbored and he wrote, “His name is John,” bringing faith to bear on his paradoxical circumstances (Luke 1:63).
In God’s kingdom, there can be no doubt. So the Christ of the manger patiently, persistently, and powerfully works to reveal Himself to us. He piques our curiosity. He asks us many questions. He increases our thirst. He convicts us of sin and He reveals His Person. All of this to bring us into a kingdom mindset. Doubt and belief cannot really coexist in a kingdom-minded believer. Doubt and fears must be dealt with and released to the God who eclipses them all and in that paradoxical surrender, God’s kingdom comes to us (Matthew 6:10).
6. Secluded Pregnancy?
After Zechariah finished his priestly service, he returned home and it was not long before Elizabeth became pregnant. Imagine the paradox of her actions. Years of praying for a child without a single acknowledgement from the Lord. Years of watching her monthly cycle turn into broken dreams. Years of questions from friends and family regarding the presence of sin in her life. Years of disgrace due to her inability to provide an heir. Years of watching little children grow up around her, but never being able to bear one child to fill the void inside of her.
All those years of seclusion due to shame and then she acts in a paradoxical manner: she chooses to seclude herself yet again, but at the very moment of her pregnant triumph (Luke 1:24). At the moment that she becomes aware that her dreams have come true. At the moment when she could rub her pregnancy in everybody’s nose or garner their accolades and congratulations.
Why does Elizabeth act in such a paradoxical manner and what does this behavior show about God’s priorities? For five months Elizabeth hid herself away (v24). Do you realize that this is about the time it takes for a first-born mother to really begin to show? Could it have been that she was scared that she would lose the baby before its birth? Was she scared of people’s comments if she indeed could not carry that baby to term? These thoughts may cross any older mother’s mind, as they did mine when I became pregnant at 43, but I do not believe this is why she secluded herself for that long.
Luke 1:25 lists three incredible statements she made in her secluded time: the Lord has done this thing for me; in these days He has shown his favor; He has taken away my disgrace among the people. What does she mean by these statements? What possibly could be going through her hormonal mind?
I believe her statements show that she secluded herself unto her God. These three statements resound like specific answers to prayers that she had prayed over the years and until that baby began to show, I think those five months became a fast of pride, a fast of boasting, and a fast of societal favor. She made a conscious decision to replace obvious flesh behaviors with God’s pride, God’s boasting, and God’s favor.
This seclusion was Elizabeth’s prayer closet, where she went to pray and to praise. She embodies, for me, Christ’s later teaching on prayer. She did not stand in public where people could see her; she prayed in seclusion. She went into a private place and closed the door for five months, praising a God who was unseen because she knew that in the unseen places, God was doing a miracle in her. She did not babble like the pagans, thinking she would be heard because of her many words. She praised God for three things and by doing so, steeped her words in God’s hallowedness, His kingdom, and His will. (Matthew 6:5-13).
The paradox of Elizabeth’s choice to seclude herself at the time of her granted pregnancy speaks volumes to me of Kingdom quality. She believed whatever Zechariah had been able to “sign” to her when he returned from the temple. “(She) did not waver through unbelief regarding (this amazing) promise of God, but was strengthened in (her) faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had the power to do what He had promised” (Romans 4:20-21). Her seclusion was a statement to God to act in faith, which is an incredible lesson to me.
Coming away from our sorrows, away from our triumphs, even away from our answered prayers, and secluding ourselves in God’s presence, shows that we love the Gift of God more than we love the gifts He bestows. This seclusion taught Elizabeth humility, and that humility opened the door for the Holy Spirit to fall upon her with power. She prophesied over Mary and that prophecy is filled with praise and blessing, “Why am I so favored that the mother of my Lord should come to me?…Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished” (Luke 1:42, 45).
Elizabeth’s example of self-imposed seclusion, however paradoxical it may seem, shows what God considers important: humble dependence and sincere, personal prayer. I am so taken with this dear woman who had the inside scoop on an amazingly sequestered intimacy with the Lord and as a result, experienced the Holy Spirit’s power in her life and an amazing opportunity to speak out of a secluded heart to bless another’s young faith. God loves men and women who seek Him as the ultimate Gift.
7. Troubled Favor?
Gabriel was sent to a virgin in Nazareth to tell her some good news, but his greeting does not have the desired effect on Mary, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:27). Mary’s response was very paradoxical. She was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be” (Luke 1:29). Troubled at words of favor? What is really going on?
I am going to flesh out Mary’s story a little later, but for now, let me just say that I do not think Mary thought of herself as very special. She could have been quite a young teenager at this time, trying to figure out who on earth she really was. Like every other young woman in Jewish culture, she hoped that she could carry the Messiah, but probably could not even believe that she was highly favored by God. She might not have felt God’s presence with her. She didn’t act out of unbelief, but she was stressed by the paradox of the angel’s words (see v 29).
In every other instance when Gabriel approached a character in the Christmas story, he stated their name. I believe this is a significant part of his revelation to them, but he does not speak Mary’s name and this is key. The name Mary comes from a derivative of Miriam, which surprisingly, means “rebellion” (ESV Strong’s). People were named for their character in biblical times. Mary might have been named after the great Miriam, sister of Moses, but still in its essence, her name branded her as rebellious.
God is omniscient, meaning that He knows all things. In other words, He knew how Mary would react to this incredible news. Before the world began, He knew Mary was a vessel that would not act in rebellion, like her namesake, and so I cannot help but believe that Gabriel’s words to her reflect God’s high favor of how she would believe and surrender. When Gabriel said, “You are highly favored,” it had nothing to do with her name, her lineage, her family’s reputation; it had everything to do with how pleased God was with her inner life. Whether she felt His presence within her or not, she was a woman after God’s own heart. Gabriel’s greeting demonstrated the pleasure God had in this woman He had chosen to house His Son.
Mary’s paradoxical reaction turned to quiet acceptance. She adjusted to this news because the angel stated again that she had found favor with God (Luke 1:30). She came to realize that favor with God is a strong Kingdom value and surrendered to God’s will for her by resting in that favor.
8. Tradition Defied?
After John was born, neighbors showed up to circumcise the baby. They wanted to name the child after his father Zechariah, because that is according to Jewish tradition. Elizabeth quickly spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John” (Luke 1:60). They argued with her, saying that there is no one among her relatives that bear that name and even signaled to the father to find out what he would like to name the child. In a tradition-defying, paradoxical move, Zechariah wrote down on a writing tablet, “His name is John” (Luke 1:63).
The paradox of this whole scenario is that God would ask this devout couple to defy tradition in order to make a point. You might be interested to know that the name John means “Jehovah is a gracious giver” (ESV Strong’s). When Zechariah first received the news that he was going to have a son and was to name that son John, God was giving him truth: He was a gracious giver. Zechariah refused to accept this truth and it cost him dearly. But when he spoke the truth about God out loud, finally the growth in his previously deadened faith was expressed. Through the succinct words of John Blase, Zechariah came to realize that ‘truths unlived are not truths at all” (Touching Wonder: Recapturing the awe of Christmas, p. 38).
In God’s economy, tradition is often overthrown, cultural barriers are often crossed, rules often seem to be broken, but for a very good reason. God’s kingdom is built on seemingly insignificant moments of hesitant stumbling through darkened avenues of truth. When you and I receive a little bit of light through God’s Word (Psalm 119:105) and and refuse to take a step, that truth remains virtually an un-truth to us. It is only when we come to a crossroads and look, ask where the good way is, receive our truth, and begin stepping in it that we will find rest (Jer. 6:16). When we declare God’s word to be real, we have to demonstrate that faith by action or it only remains a figment of our belief system.
Tradition defied, in this instance, became a trumpet call announcing God’s nine months of interior work in Zechariah’s faith and it caused a tidal wave of glory to be given to God. Zechariah’s tongue was loosed. He began praising God. The neighbors were filled with awe. People began talking about these things and everyone wondered about John’s future, for they could see that God was with him. Zechariah was filled with the Spirit and he began to prophesy (Luke 1:64-67).
9. Glorified Shepherds?
After the birth of Jesus, Luke switches his attention to an inconsequential field outside the momentous birthing place of the Messiah. “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks by night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them…” (Luke 2:8-9). Do you see the paradox? God did not do the expected thing, allowing kings and important politicians to witness His Son’s birth. Instead, He shone His glory around a group of smelly outcasts.
“In Christ’s day, shepherds stood on the bottom rung of the Palestinian social ladder. They shared the same unenviable status as tax collectors and dung sweepers” (Randy Alcorn, Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus, p. 85-89). No one would ever have expected that shepherds, marginalized by the social and religious elite, would be the ones chosen to break the silence of centuries by announcing Christ’s birth.
What does this switch-up show us about God’s priorities? We have spoken in weeks past about the shepherds’ role of watching and caring for their sheep. They were faithfully caring for their flocks, doing their jobs without complaining, and God saw them. God often shows His glory to those who are faithfully doing what God has called them to do. Moses herded sheep for forty years and God revealed Himself and His plan. Joshua faithfully fought a battle and the Lord showed up and elongated the day. Daniel continued to pray, as was his custom, and the Lord showed up and stopped the mouths of lions and I could go on and on.
Faithfulness in duty from a surrendered heart seems to be very important in God’s eyes, important enough that He would call His Son the good shepherd (John 10:11), the Great Shepherd (Hebrews 13:20), and the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:4). Not only that, but he charges pastors and layman today with the job of shepherding His people.
There was nothing inherently special about being a shepherd that God would share His glory with them and yet, there was. They were faithfully doing the very task God called His Son to do: shepherding their sheep and even being willing to die for them (John 10:11). And in that momentous paradoxical burst of glory light, a Kingdom value was displayed. God shines His glory around those who are faithfully watching over those under their care.
10. Consecrated Jesus?
One final paradox stands out to me in the Christmas story and that occurs after Jesus is born. Luke tells us that after Mary and Joseph circumcised their child, they named Him Jesus, “Jehovah is salvation” (Luke 2:21 – ESV Strong’s). After their time of purification was completed they took Jesus to Jerusalem to be presented to the Lord because “every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord” (Luke 2:23). The NKJV says that the act of consecrating is really calling a person holy unto the Lord. Doesn’t that seem paradoxical to you?
The holy Son of God that filled Mary’s womb and slid into a pile of hay was circumcised to show covenant with a God with whom He had already lived in perfect covenant for all eternity. He was named Jesus, announcing God’s intention for the world: Jehovah is salvation. This same holy One went through a time of purification even though He was already perfectly pure. He was made to follow the very law that His Father created and that He had come to fulfill and later eclipse to create a new law of the heart. He was presented before the Lord; His own Father, mind you, and called consecrated and holy in the Law’s eyes, even though His very character was holy. All of these ironic movements of earthy protocol belied His very essence.
Why all the pomp and circumstance for a holy child? Why would God require these seemingly paradoxical actions of the parents of His Son? I believe God was demonstrating His Kingdom values. Christ did not come to throw out the Law God had created, but to supercede it by His obedience. God was able to bring many sons to glory by making Jesus perfect through suffering. “Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers” (Hebrews 2:10-11). Jesus shared in their humanity in every way, including following every jot and tittle of the law, so that He could free those in slavery to the law. In becoming like His brothers in every way, He is able to become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God and help those who are tempted (Hebrews 2:14-18).
Jesus was circumcised to identify with our covenant with God. He was named Jesus so that we would know that He came to save us from our sins. He was purified so that we would have a pure advocate. He followed the law to become a faithful high priest for you and me. He was presented as holy to the Lord thirty-three years before His final holy presentation of death so that you and I would have a perfectly pure and all-encompassing sacrifice.
Dear one, this Christmas season know this: God often acts in very paradoxical ways in your life. If you can look past the seemingly confusing methods of God into the very heart of God, you can begin to see that God truly has a good plan. He is working that out even in the paradoxical and confusing methods of tradition-thrashing, culture-clashing, love-shattering, reputation-smashing and law-abiding ways. God’s plans for you are good and not for disaster. They are to give you a future and a hope even if they do come to you in extremely confusing, strange, and paradoxical wrappings (Jeremiah 29:11 – NLT).
Fear’s Paradoxical Lessons
In studying these stories these last week, I was struck by the instances where fear is introduced. Four characters or groups demonstrated fear: Zechariah, Joseph, Mary, and the shepherds. Since we are exploring how to adjust to paradoxical gifts, I wanted to take a bit of time to flesh out this universal subject.
All believers struggle with fear. God is aware of this because over and over in Scripture, He instructed His people not to be afraid. In the Bible, people feared because of their horrible circumstances or because of great doubt. They feared death, a stained reputation and the unknown. God met those fears head-on and usually with that injunction, He also gave the reason why; something concrete on which to hang their proverbial fear-hat on. The Christmas story describes four of these commands not to fear, all of which are given by the angel delivering the news.
Since we are talking about adjusting to paradoxical gifts, I can see no more universal area of needed adjustment than in this one we call fear. Fear paralyzes our forward movement and blocks our view of God’s power. Fear keeps us in a perpetual state of doubt and like a contagious disease, infects those who follow behind us on the path of life. God knows the destructive tool fear is in the hands of the Enemy so He seeks to undermine Satan’s power to wield this weapon of mass destruction. As we look into the Christmas story, we will gather some God-given tools that will help break this power of fear in our lives as well as help us move from a lifestyle of fear to a lifestyle of adjusting faith.
I have spent a lot of time already this devotional fleshing out the paradoxes of each of these events so I will focus mostly on the tools needed for our adjustment. We begin with Zechariah…
The Fear Of Being Let Down…Once Again, Luke 1:5-22 and 1:57-79
As Zechariah went about his duties in the Holy Place, an angel appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw this heavenly apparition, Scripture says that he was startled and gripped with great fear (Luke 1:12 – NIV).
This word “startled” means “to stir or agitate (roil water)…to cause one inward commotion, take away his calmness of mind, disturb his equanimity, to disquiet, make restless…to strike one’s spirit with fear and dread, to render anxious or distressed, to perplex the mind of one by suggesting scruples or doubts” (ESV Strong’s). That word ‘fear’ is the Greek word phobos from where we get our word phobia, indicating “alarm or fright, terror…” (ESV Strong’s).
It is not surprising that Zechariah was frightened. Most every other encounter in Scripture with an angel leads to fear or knee-bowing reverence of some kind. Gabriel, knowing this, said, “Do not be afraid,” and then he gives the reason why: Zechariah’s prayers have been heard (Luke 1:13). I want you to notice the personal nature of God’s revelation. What Gabriel was saying is that God saw Zechariah’s need. He heard his repeated prayers and he chose to act in the right time. This concept of personal care and attention is of utmost importance in the journey of adjusting from fear to faith.
Now if you had prayed all of your married life for a child and an angel showed up to tell you that he was there because God had heard your prayers, wouldn’t that encourage you to believe? It sure would for me, but the angel did not just stop there. Look at this list of tools God used to help Zechariah adjust his fear:
- He addressed his fear (v13). This shows personal and intimate knowledge of Zechariah’s inner life.
- He calls him by name (v13). Zechariah means “remembered of Jehovah” (ESV Strong’s). Gabriel links the injunction not to fear with the essence of who Zechariah was: he was remembered by YHWH. This hints at a bold promise of God to answered prayer as well as Zechariah’s position in God due to God’s grace.
- He tells him that God has heard his prayer and will give Elizabeth a son (v13). This is a promise to Zechariah that will come to pass.
- That son’s name is to be John (v13), meaning “Jehovah is a gracious Giver” (ESV Strongs). Again we see God’s personal promise to Zechariah; He will give a son.
- John will be a joy and delight to them and many would rejoice because of his birth (v14). God’s pleasure is a huge motivation for adjustment.
- John would be great in God’s sight (v15). Notice here God’s mentioned pleasure as well as a huge promise.
- Zechariah is told that John should never drink wine or another fermented drink (v15). This was, in essence, a forced Nazarite vow of consecration and holiness to the Lord and indicated John’s position of righteousness before God.
- He would be filled with the Spirit from birth (v15). Again we see a promise to come true and God’s pleasure in and provision for John.
- John will turn many Jews to the Lord God (v16). Here we see a huge purpose outlined for John’s future ministry along with another promise.
- John will go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah to turn fathers’ hearts to their children, the disobedient to wisdom, and to make ready a people prepared for the Lord (v17). These are huge promises, coupling a great provision of power with his ministry purpose.
After this huge arsenal of tools made ready and handed to Zechariah on a silver platter, he had the audacity to doubt God. “How can I be sure of this?” he said. “I am an old man and my wife is well along in years” (v18). I love the different translations of Zechariah’s unbelief. How can I know this for certain (NASB)? How can I know that what you say is true (NCV)? How can I be sure this will happen (NLT)? Do you expect me to believe this (MSG)?
Zechariah refused point blank to believe the angel. His words and the angel’s reaction tell us that the spirit in which he questioned God’s words was sinful. In essence, he asked for a sign, but with an incredibly belligerent unbelief.
Gabriel answers Zechariah’s unbelief with these words:
- I am Gabriel and stand in the presence of God (v19). Do you see the power behind this statement?
- He tells him that God sent him to speak personally with Zechariah (v19). “I was sent to speak to you,” he says.
- He was told to bring this good news (v19), a news of pleasure on God’s behalf.
- He promises that Zechariah will be silent until his boy’s birth because he did not believe. He then states that his words will be fulfilled in their time (v20). Here is another promise.
- Things happened just as the angel said. Zechariah lost his voice and had to make signs to people when he exited the temple (v22). God’s promises are always fulfilled.
I want you to see that after he got home, Elizabeth conceived just as God had said (v24). She adjusted to this amazingly personal and pleasurable gift without doubting. Instead she praised God (v25).
That is not the end of Zechariah’s story, however. When his son was born, he cast the deciding vote on the boy’s name, writing, “His name is John” (v63). This was a momentous occasion for Zechariah. Somehow in all of the silent months, he had time to adjust to all the words of God. In a moment where doubt could have reigned, he demonstrated his inner surrender to God and wrote as he was able, this boy is named ‘Jehovah is a gracious giver.” In that moment, we see a promise fulfilled.
Immediately his mouth was opened and he began praising God (v64). The ESV says that fear came upon all of the neighbors who witnessed this event (v65), but this fear led to witnessing and wondering and anticipating the good gifts God gave.
Finally, we see the fruition of Zechariah’s adjustment as he was filled with the Spirit and began to prophesy himself. I am particularly interested in one phrase for it demonstrate the process of adjustment Zechariah had undergone, “Praise be to the Lord…He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David “as he said through his holy prophets of long ago…to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (vv6a, 69, 70, 74-75).
Zechariah praises the Lord and he speaks about believing prophecy given about the Christ child, but most importantly, he shows his inner adjustment. He praises God, who through the coming Messiah, enables him to serve without fear all of his days.
The tools have been highlighted for you: they are God’s personal revelation and pleasure in you; your position in Christ; God’s promises that He gives and then fulfills; prophecies about your future and purpose; all of which lead to our praise and adoration. Zechariah changed throughout the course of his wife’s pregnancy. He accepted the gifts God gave and adjusted his heart to God’s course for his life and in the process he exchanged fear for fearless service, unbelief for holiness and righteousness, and a short-lived perspective for an eternal one.
Dear one, fear was eclipsed by the revelation of God’s love.
The Fear Of Breaking the Law, Matthew 1:18-25
Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant and his world shatters. He is a righteous man, meaning that he follows the laws of God; he keeps the commands set out in the Torah. Because of his righteous lifestyle, he knows he is at a crossroad. He cannot marry a woman who is an adulterer or his own integrity will be questioned. He could divorce her publicly before a court of law, where she will be shamed and disgraced or he could divorce her quietly before two other witnesses. Whatever he chooses to do, he knows he has lost a good woman as well as the dreams he had of a marriage and family.
He has basically chosen in his righteous mind to divorce Mary quietly. He can do nothing else without breaking a law. And that is when the angel appeared to him in a dream. The monologue that follows reveals tools that can lead Joseph from fear to faith:
- The angel speaks his name, “Joseph,” meaning “let him add” (ESV Strong’s). Notice the personal nature of God through this angel to Joseph (v20).
- He calls him “Son of David” (v20). If he had his righteous wits around him, as I believe he did, Joseph would have connected that epitaph with the law and prophecy that he knew. 2 Samuel describes the Lord’s promises to David, that his house would endure forever; his throne would be established forever (2 Samuel 7:16). Psalm 132: 11-12 also mention this prophecy, “The Lord swore an oath to David, a sure oath that he will not revoke: ‘One of your descendants I will place on your throne – if your sons keep my covenant and the statutes I teach them, then their sons will sit on your throne for ever and ever.’” Nowhere else in the Christmas story is there mentioned a ruler that would come from the line of David, except in this address to Joseph. God was connecting Joseph in a personal way to David’s covenant.
- He tells him not to be afraid to take Mary home as his wife (v20). Do you see the personal nature of God? He knew the exact problem that David was wrestling with and he addressed it outright.
- He tells him that Mary is not an adulterer, that the child in her belly was indeed conceived by the Holy Spirit (v20). In one fell swoop, God engaged the problem and gave the possibility of hope to this poor man. Hope came from the power of God.
- Mary would give birth to a son (v21), an amazing promise of God.
- Joseph was to give Him the name Jesus (v21), which means “Jehovah is salvation.” The dots are not connected yet that Jesus is the Messiah, but God was lining them up. Here we see a purpose given to Joseph as well as a promise.
- Lastly, the angel tells Joseph that Jesus will save his people from their sins (v21). Boom! There is the ultimate promise and prophecy to be fulfilled. The angel basically told Joseph Jesus’ purpose, which named Him as the Messiah.
An aside is given before Joseph woke up and it is not clear whether this prophecy was spoken to Joseph or not. But in it we see once again that prophecy is being fulfilled, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” – which means, ‘God with us (v23). And in that last phrase we again see the personal nature of God; Him desiring to dwell with us.
The personal nature of the revelation, the amount of promises delivered, the prophecy coming to pass, and the purpose being stated, both of Joseph and Jesus, went the distance in moving Joseph from fear to faith. Immediately upon waking, he did what the Lord commanded and took Mary home as his wife (v24). Matthew is clear to tell us that she gave birth to a son, whom Joseph called Jesus (v25).
Seeking one, fear was eclipsed by the revelation of God’s love.
Fear of Not Finding Favor, Luke 1:26-38, 39-45 and 46-56
Mary was visited by Gabriel as well. He told her that she was highly favored and that the Lord was with her (v28). We explored her response a little earlier, that she was troubled (agitated greatly) and wondered what kind of greeting this was (v29). That word ‘wondered’ means to “reckon thoroughly, to deliberate, to reason…think…revolve in one’s mind” (ESV Strong’s). In other words, she was troubled to the point of fear and worry about what was being said to her; agitation filled her mind. Let’s follow the move she made from fear to faith:
- The angel told her not to be afraid (v30) and then he finally spoke her name, “Mary.” This personalized the greeting to her, also getting to the bottom of her feelings, showing God’s tender care of her.
- His response to her fear is to mention again that she has found favor with God (v30). Notice this is not just personal; God is actually showing His pleasure in her. He takes the time to give her the tool of His pleasure in order to eclipse her fear of not finding favor.
- She is told that she will be with child and give birth to a son (v31). These are two promises of God that she can bank on.
- She is to give that child the name of Jesus (v31). Again, like Joseph, this indicates a godly purpose.
- Jesus will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord will give him the throne of David and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end (vv32-33). These sentences are full of God’s promises and prophecy that will be fulfilled. God is also indicating His pleasure in His Son, in His position and in His purpose.
Mary asks, “How will this be, since I am a virgin” (v34). The word ‘virgin’ here is not translated virgin; it literally means “to know” (ESV Strong’s). What she is asking is, “I have not slept with a man. How is this even possible? Many have contrasted her response to Zechariah’s response. His was blatant unbelief; her response was childlike innocence. Her question was actually full of wonder and faith (http://www.jesuswalk.com/lessons/1_26-38.htm).
The angel, surprised at her childlike faith, gave quite a bit more faith-building tools:
- He said that the Holy Spirit would come upon her (v35). That is heavenly power.
- The power of the Most High would overshadow her (v35). Again, there’s the power, but look at the personal nature of God coming on her, moving in her, and overshadowing her.
- The holy one would be called the Son of God (v35). Here is a promise and a fulfillment of prophecy.
- She is then told that Elizabeth in her old age had conceived and was six months pregnant (v36). Again, this personal information was something Mary did not know, for Elizabeth had remained in seclusion for five whole months. God linked Elizabeth’s story with Mary’s in a deeply personal way.
- She was told that nothing was impossible for God (v37). Notice here the divine power described.
Mary does not need any more tools. She answers quite simply, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said” (v38). The personal revelations of God, His pleasure in her, His promises to her, his prophecies fulfilled in her and His power for her were magnificently received. She truly believed the angel’s words and became the vessel to house the Son of the Most High.
I do want to speak of how God used Elizabeth to continue this faith adjustment in Mary. She called Mary blessed among women (v42). This reflects God’s pleasure once again, reinforcing God’s tool over her fear of being unfavored. Elizabeth even uses that same word ‘favor’ in describing how she feels to have the “mother of my Lord” come to her house (v43). Do you see the pleasure of God for Mary erupting out of Elizabeth’s mouth by way of the Holy Spirit? She talked about the baby leaping in her womb for joy (v44). Again, lots of pleasure. And lastly, she blessed Elizabeth’s faith in believing what the Lord had told her would be accomplished (v45). This was a prophetic word for Mary had not yet even gotten a word out to Elizabeth.
The next words Mary utters are full of praise. In the nine verses detailing her song, I am reminded of how her namesake, Miriam, sang and danced by the Red Sea. Almost every line Mary speaks is from Scripture, verse after verse of promises that God spoke over the psalmists and the prophets. Her adjustment was complete when she acquiesced to the angel’s words, but her faith was made stronger by recounting God’s revelation in history. The Magnificat is an incredible journey in song detailing the adjustments in faith made by people accepting paradoxical gifts all throughout the Old Testament.
Precious one, fear was eclipsed by the revelation of God’s love.
The Fear of Bad News, Luke 2:8-20
The shepherds were watching their flocks when an angel appeared to them. They were terrified, Scripture says (v9). This is the same word for fear that has been used throughout this Christmas story. This, then, is what the angel used to move them from fear to faith:
- He told them not to be afraid, for he brought good news of great joy (v10). Instead of fear, the angel told them of God’s great plan and pleasure.
- This good news was for all the people (v10). Here we see God’s provision and personal nature. All the people meant them as well.
- He called Bethlehem the town of David (v11), alluding, I believe, to prophecy.
- He said that a Savior had been born to them. That Savior was Christ the Lord (v11). These were weighty statements of a personal nature. They also blatantly explained Jesus’ purpose in coming to them.
- He gave them a sign to help them find the baby (v12). This was God’s provision for them. I find it interesting that signs are mentioned five times in Zechariah’s story. In essence, he asked for a sign to believe; he was given a sign in his child’s name, the sign of his unbelief was muteness, he made signs to the worshipers outside, and his faith was demonstrated after signs were made to him. All that signage for a priestly man who doubted and here, the angels received a sign freely. This shows me that God felt much pleasure in them.
- A heavenly host praised God giving Him pleasure and talking about His pleasure toward men (vv13-14).
That was all it took for the seeds of fear to be replaced by faith. They spoke out that they were going to see the fruition of what God had promised (v15). They hurried and found everything the way God had said (v16). This was a fulfillment of a promise. They spread the word and all were amazed (v17-18). And they returned praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, “which were just as they had been told” (v20). They shared their pleasure at experiencing God’s promises fulfilled.
Treasured one, fear was eclipsed by the revelation of God’s love.
Mephibosheth’s Gift Adjustment
Last week I introduced the topic of accepting the proffered gift through the story of David and Mephibosheth. David desired to show kindness (here is godly pleasure in a personal way) to a relative of his friend, Jonathan, and a crippled Mephibosheth was brought before him. After he bowed down to pay him honor (2 Samuel 9:6), David spoke one word, “Mephibosheth,” meaning “dispeller of shame” (ESV Strong’s). I believe this indicates a godly position. Mephibosheth answered, “I am your servant” or slave. You see, he was full of fear and could not accept this personal touch, this pleasure in him, this position afforded him.
David saw to the heart of his concerns and said, “Don’t be afraid for I will surely show you kindness for the sake of your father Jonathan. I will restore to you all the land that belonged to your grandfather Saul, and you will always eat at my table” (v7). Here we see God’s heart exemplified: pleasure in him as a person and promises of restoration and fellowship.
Look at his response, “Shuffling and stammering, not looking him in the eye, Mephibosheth said, “Who am I that you pay attention to a stray dog like me” (2 Samuel 9:8 – MSG). Why did he shuffle about and stammer? Why would he not look David in the eye? Why did he struggle with David’s loving intentions? Why would he call himself a stray dog?
I believe that Mephibosheth had a shame problem. It began when he was five years old. The news of Saul’s death and his own father’s death came from the battlefield. His nurse picked him up at that horrible news and fled, but as she hurried to leave, she dropped Mephibosheth and he became disabled (Different versions: lame (ESV), crippled (NCV), maimed (MSG) (see 2 Samuel 4:4 for the whole story).
From that moment until David summoned him to the palace, he had had to depend on others to care for him. He was a cripple, an outcast, a person unable to care for his son, Mica, or to be productive in society. So he carried himself like he was worthless and David saw this and proffered yet one more gift.
He summoned Ziba, Saul’s former servant and told him that he had restored all of Saul’s land to Mephibosheth. He ordered Ziba and his fifteen sons and twenty servants to farm the land and bring in the crops so that Mephibosheth would be provided for (2 Samuel 9:9-10). There would be no groveling, no humiliation, no shameful disgrace. He would not be dependent on David; he would be a rich landowner with servants and a means of income.
Not only did David restore land to Mephibosheth, he restored honor and glory and dignity. This restoration can be seen in the last verse of this chapter, “So Mephibosheth lived in Jerusalem, for he ate always at the king’s’ table. Now he was lame in both his feet” (2 Samuel 9:13 – ESV).
In the beginning of the story when Mephibosheth’s feet were described, the author used the word crippled, meaning “smitten, maimed or (figuratively) dejected…contrite, stricken (ESV Strong’s). At the end of the story, his feet are described with a different word: lame, from a root word meaning “to hop, (figuratively) skip over or spare; by implication, to hesitate; also, (literally) to limp, to dance.
Do you see the change in his invalid description? Visibly, he went from being crippled in body to merely limping and invisibly, deep within his soul, he moved from being dejected and stricken to being able to pass over or skip over the shame. He hopped from being mortally wounded inside to emotional dancing…and all because of the proffered gift of a loving, sensitive man called “Beloved.”
Mephibosheth accepted the gifts. He would have been foolish not to, but fools have been known to turn down love before. Thankfully, he did not and in that acceptance, there was a major soul shift or adjustment in his life. He stopped being fearful. He accepted the land and all the servants that came with it. He accepted living in palace and joining with the king for every meal. He accepted this new path set before him and it changed him in the process. In the end, his acceptance paved the way for his inner adjustment and he shared fellowship and intimacy with the king.
Just like Mephibosheth, we have been given some paradoxical gifts. Accept these gifts as God’s good plan and prepare for the adjustment that will come in your inner world. That adjustment will also open the door for you to step into the presence of the King of all the earth. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14).
Cycles of Adjustment
Like Jason from The Ultimate Gift movie, the journey of paradoxical gifts proffered to us can literally change us inside, if we accept them and then adjust to their purposes. Jason learned that many gifts come in very strange wrapping paper, but as he engaged each of them – from work to bankruptcy to fulfilling a dream – his core beliefs morphed. The adjustment process literally changed him from the inside to the outside.
Every Christmas character that was proffered gifts, paradoxical or otherwise, had the choice to accept them or not. One did not accept nor adjust and died in his folly – that was Herod. One chose to disbelieve the proffered gift and was severely disciplined. That discipline, itself, became a gift, for in his forced adjustment, he learned great faith. But all of the rest of the receivers accepted the gift and adjusted their very lives in the meanwhile.
This is important to note, for many of us struggle with change in our circumstances, let alone Someone requiring us to change in our interior. God, through the Holy Spirit, is constantly working in us to bring us to an adjusted attitude in regard to our money, our time, our ministries, our worship, our families; you name it, it will probably be on the “naughty” list at one time or another. God loves us too much to allow us to stagnate in our mediocracy. The holy Hound of heaven comes after us, wooing and cajoling, herding and directing, our hearts toward a Holy-Spirit adjustment, both within and without.
Besides our conformity to Christ, which is one of God’s greatest goals, God is also interested in others knowing about Him. Even Pharaoh, the nemesis of the exodus, had a holy purpose, “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth” (Romans 9:17). Get this: the paradoxical gift of Pharaoh’s hard heart became the very bridge for all the known world at that time to recognize God’s power and proclaim His name.
But it all happened through a series of adjustments. Moses had to adjust to God’s paradoxical gift of unwanted leadership. Aaron had to adjust to the paradoxical gift of being Moses’ sidekick. The magicians had to adjust to the paradoxical gift of eclipsed power. Pharaoh was asked to adjust to the paradoxical gift of offering freedom. The Israelites had to adjust from being physical servants to the paradoxical gift of being God’s spiritual servants: adjusting to the gift of dependence and the gift of monotheism and the gift of the Law.
In all of these adjustments, notice that a domino effect of change began with one person willing to accept his proffered gift. Moses was that one man. By adjusting to God’s will for him, he started the stone rolling on a virtual landslide of change; change which affects believers today. If he had not adjusted, the Israelites might not have left slavery to receive the Law that Christ came to eclipse for you and me. Adjustment in the heart cycles out to impact others around you; adjustment is a gift that keeps on giving.
With that thought in focus, will you look with me one last time at the Christmas story? I want you to see how one act of adjustment made a world of difference and proffered the gift that kept on giving; that gift being more and more adjustment.
Zechariah: Zechariah adjusted to his priestly ministry which placed him in the position to receive revelation. He did not adjust but acted in unbelief, which led to his discipline. But somehow in all of that discipline, he still adjusted even to lay with his wife, who got pregnant. She believed God and secluded herself in her praise closet, but that simple act of making love led to the lifting of her disgrace. As she praised God for five months, Zechariah adjusted to the process of faith and in one tiny, but monumental act, he adjusted to his gift. This led to the filling of the Spirit, which led to being a witness to his neighbors, who then all began their own faith journeys.
Ministry → Pregnancy → Belief → Faith → Witness → Individual faith journeys → H.S. filling
Elizabeth: Somehow Elizabeth received the angel’s news, believed and adjusted to it, slept with her husband and conceived a baby. For five months she secluded herself before the Lord, causing a soul shift in her Spirit, which I believe, affected her husband’s faith. She later was also filled with the Spirit and prophesied over Mary’s growing faith, causing her to adjust further in her journey to the pinnacle of praise. After the baby was born she was the one who spoke words of faith that encouraged her husband to also act in faith. Witnesses noticed and began their faith journeys as well and she watched her husband grow in great faith.
Belief → Pregnancy → Seclusion → Growing faith → Blessing Mary → Faith Act → Witness
Mary: The angel greeted her and she adjusted to incredible amounts of unbelievable news. She went to Elizabeth who encouraged her in her belief, which led to an incredible burst of praise. On the way her adjustment probably help her future husband to adjust as well.
Angel → ”May it be” → Blessing → Praise song → Joseph’s adjustment
Joseph: Joseph heard all of the angel’s news and adjusted to it. This started him on a journey which quickly encompassed Mary as his wife. He adjusted to the census, to having no room, to hosting shepherds and to naming his son “Jesus.” He adjusted to the Law and purification rites and impacted the lives of Simeon and Anna as a result. What an adventure God led him on as he learned to depend on God through four sets of dreams. That adjustment led to the protection of the Messiah. Ultimately, his adjustment impact the wise men who traveled from another land, causing them to worship.
Angel → Obedience → Law → Simeon and Anna → witness to others → safety of child → magi
Shepherds: The shepherds were faithfully watching their sheep. They had already adjusted to contentment, when the angels came to them. They were encouraged to go and see the Messiah, news to which they adjusted rapidly. Hurrying toward Bethlehem, they found the baby and then spread the word. All who heard were amazed, while Mary pondered and treasured this news in her heart, beginning a long-term adjustment of her own. The shepherds continued to adjust by praising God.
Watching sheep → angel → went and found → witnessed → amazement/pondering → praise
Magi: A star began the period of adjustment for the Magi. They followed that star to Jerusalem causing adjustment waves in that city. Searches were made and the king was appeased and the baby was found. They worshiped and were warned in a dream to return to their country by another route. Herod’s anger then became murderous as he killed all the babies in Bethlehem under two years of age. Notice here that godly adjustment did bring strife and that is the way the spiritual realm sometimes works.
Star → journey → Disturbed king → Search → Found Jesus → Worshiped → Dream- → Murder
Personal Adjustments To Paradoxical Gifts
I come now to the most important moment of this entire Advent series. It is the point where the head and heart collide. It is the call of God on your Christmas heart. And it is the crossroads of faith for many of you. Christmas is not just about the cookies, the tree, the gifts to the poor. It is not even about giving and receiving. It is about your heart.
Do you believe – truly believe – in the Advent of Christ? Has that knowledge shifted anything in your soul this season? Do you feel the Holy Spirit tugging on your interior about some aspect of surrender?
If so, I can think of no better gift that you could give your husband, your wife, your children, your friends, your co-workers, your God, than a soft and surrendered heart. This New Year could really be brand-new for you. 2019 could be the year that God cycles something out from even this small devotional series into your personal walk with God, which would then explode into a Holy-Spirit witness to others. But my dear friend, it can only happen upon one pivotal decision: the decision to adjust to whatever paradoxical gift you have been given by the Giver of all good gifts.
Something may be holding you back from surrender. That something may be fear, as it was in Joseph’s, Mary’s, Zechariah’s, the shepherds’ and Mephibosheth’s hearts. If so, spend the rest of this Advent season pondering the personal nature of your God. Treasure the power of the Holy Spirit you have been given. Dwell on the pleasure God finds in you. Reflect on the myriad of promises you have been given in the Word. Remember the prophecies already fulfilled to bring you the Christ. Examine God’s purpose in bringing Christ to you and the purposes He has called you to.
As you ponder and treasure all these things in your heart sincerely and prayerfully, I pray that God will work an adjustment in your life. Just like the characters whose lives we have studied these past four weeks, we have been given some paradoxical gifts. Accept these gifts as God’s good plan and prepare for the adjustment that will come in your inner world. That adjustment will also open the door for you to step into the presence of the King of all the earth. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14).
Dear one, that peace on earth and favor from God are your spiritual inheritance. Sit yourself right up to the King’s table and feast with Him as a daughter, as a son, for the rest of your life. I know that will bring glory to God in the highest!