“God Breaks In”
Luke 1:67-79 and others
December 20, 2009
God breaks in to give a heart of wonder . . .
I. through Comparision
II. through Paradox
III. through Elaboration
God Breaks In
So how’s your heart doing this Christmas? This advent we’re trying to embrace heart attitudes that are displayed in the Christmas stories and needed by God’s people. So we’ve talked about a heart of thanksgiving, of submission, and of celebration. Now it’s time for a status report: how’s your heart doing?
We’re still five days from Christmas day, but I hope your heart is celebrating already. I hope there have been moments of joy and wonder, enjoying those around you and rejoicing in what God did in the incarnation. But I suspect, if my heart is any indication, that at times we’re further away from a heart of wonder than we’d like to be.
When I look into my own heart I find some evidence I’m just going through the motions. Most of us here have done Christmas time after time after time. We’ve done decorating, gift-idea generating, shopping, cooking, cleaning. And our hearts have found some satisfaction and even wonder in the rituals of Christmas, except for the cleaning. But after a while do maybe we just go through the motions: we shop without trying to find gifts that will bring joy to our loved ones, we decorate without trying to celebrate, and the words of the same old carols and Scriptures do little to penetrate our tired busy hearts.
Isaiah talks about a people walking in darkness, living in a land of deep darkness. Darkness is a biblical metaphor for the despair and brokenness of sinful people in a sinful, fallen world. And there is darkness around us: darkness in our culture, darkness that attracts the sinful heart and darkens our relationships, our families, and especially our own attitudes and responses.
The thing we sense about Christmas, the thing maybe we’re missing in this same- old-Christmas is that there should be some light coming into the darknesses. We’re waiting for light to break through, we’re longing for the sense of joy and wonder a child feels at the foot of the Christmas tree. We’ve felt that in the past, we’ve been moved by the carols and the worship and the words of Scripture, but we’re waiting for it to break in again, to dispel the darkness; we’re waiting for God to show up in our consciousness this Christmas.
I want to suggest to you this morning that finding a heart of wonder is not actually that mysterious or nebulous a thing. We don’t have to just go through the motions. We don’t have to wait for something to happen to ignite our imaginations. We can actually pursue a heart of wonder in the Christmas narrative and in the Scriptures, no matter how many times we’ve read them.
I believe that if we do so, even with a very few minutes of our time, God will be faithful to break in to our calloused hearts, to break in to our darkness, to awaken our souls at Christmas or any other time. What I’m saying is that a few very practical habits of thought can make a huge difference in having God break in through his Scriptures to give you a heart of wonder.
As I read through the Christmas stories this week I was struck by the sense that so many people were waiting for God to break in. Zechariah the priest and Elizabeth his wife had been waiting for years for God to provide them with a son, but their story is a picture of the whole nation waiting for God to speak again, to break the long silence since Malachi with a new prophetic voice, with rescue and restoration.
When John the Baptist is born and Zechariah gets his ability to speak back, it is so he can praise God for finally breaking in: "Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come and has redeemed his people. 69He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David 70(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago.)” Zechariah isn’t focused on his own baby, who was from the tribe of Levi, but on the salvation that would come from the house of David, the tribe of Judah: in other words, from Jesus. God’s ancient promises are being fulfilled, and that calls forth joyful praise.
So Zechariah and Elizabeth have really been waiting for God to break in with rescue. In Luke 2 we find Simeon and Anna waiting for the same thing, so that when Simeon sees Jesus he says: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. 30For my eyes have seen your salvation, 31which you have prepared in the sight of all people, 32a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” This is what we long for at Christmas: that our eyes will see his salvation in Jesus, that coming of his light will reveal his glory and bring us joy and wonder.
Simeon had waited years to see this light. The widow Anna had waited as well. Luke says “She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37and then was a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.” She was waiting for God to break in, so that when Jesus came she was ready to rejoice, and ready to share that heart of wonder with others who were likewise waiting for God’s redemption.
The wise men, off in a distant country, were also watching for God to break in, looking for signs in the heavens that only God could place there. It’s likely these were Jewish scholars, or at least influenced by the Jewish scriptures: when they saw a sign in the sky they associated it with the a new king of the Jews. So they came all the way to Jerusalem with the goal of worshipping him. The heart of wonder knows joyful praise or awed-to-silence worship.
Even Mary, though certainly surprised out of her course of life by the arrival of the angel and the power of the Holy Spirit, relates what God is doing inside her to the promises he’s made: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” for he “has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful 55to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.” God has broken in to keep his promises, and Mary rejoiced and treasured these things up and pondered them in her heart, a heart of wonder.
So there is a pattern in these biblical accounts. People are waiting for God to break in. When he does the response of their hearts is wonder, which expresses itself in words and acts of worship and praise. And I believe this is the pattern we long for at Christmas: for God to break into our darkness, our weariness, so our hearts can respond with wonder, joy and worship.
But it’s not going to happen. At least, it’s not going to happen the same way. The incarnation was a unique and wonderful event in which God broke into the darkness in a world changing way. But on this side of the incarnation he breaks in in a different way. It’s not that he doesn’t break in, and it’s not that we can’t have hearts of wonder now. But most of the time, for you and me, he is going to break in through some form of the Scriptures: some words, some music, some drama that repeats and amplifies the truths of Scripture.
I. through Comparision
What I’m saying is that if we’re going to experience wonder anew this Christmas, or next Christmas and again the one after that, we should seek to find that wonder in the text of Scripture. That’s where the wonder is, that’s where the truth is, that’s the vehicle that God wants to use to break in to your life and mine, at Christmas, and on any other day. I believe these Christmas texts, and much of the rest of Scripture point us to three profitable practical practices of thought. The beauty of these is they engage the brain to touch the heart: simple observations of Scripture can foster a heart of wonder.
So, God breaks in to give us a heart of wonder when we engage in comparison. Some of you will remember that I’ve said this before, fairly often. I learned it from J. I. Packer in his famous book, Knowing God: “if you want to see the greatness of God, compare him to things you consider great.”
Scripture does this in several ways. Sometimes very directly: Isaiah 40:25-26 “To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?" says the Holy One. 26Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.” God is greater than anything and everything that we can see or experience.
But often Scripture does indirect comparisons to show us God’s greatness, simply by saying God is such-and-such – and you’ve got to notice these. Psalm 18 “I love you, O Lord, my strength. 2The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge. He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.” In reality God is neither a rock nor a fortress, nor a shield nor a horn nor a stronghold. But God is like all of these. David is magnifying God’s greatness by comparing God to things considered great: or steadfast, or faithful, or loving. We find wonder when we see that God is greater than anything we can think of, human or natural.
John’s prologue uses this approach to describe the incarnation. He calls Jesus the word, the life, the light – but in every case, he is superlative. He’s ‘the true light that gives light to every man.’ We’ve seen in him the glory of the One and Only, who could only come from God the Father, full of grace and truth.. The first words John the Baptist says are to assert that Jesus surpasses him. He came, John says, to make the unknowable known. Do you see what’s going on here? You begin to feel the greatness of what God has done when you being to think Scripture’s thoughts.
So the heart of wonder sees God breaking in through comparison. Every title of God, every attribute of God, every perfection of God is a comparison to some human characteristic or created phenomenon, and God is greater. If you want to wonder at God yourself ‘how is God being shown to be greater here?’ whether here is Isaiah, or the Psalms, or the last chapters of Job.
II. through Paradox
Second, God breaks in to give a heart of wonder through paradox. A paradox is an idea that seems contradictory or even absurd but expresses important truth. There are great paradoxes in the Christmas story. As far back as Isaiah God made his promise in a paradox: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” She’s a virgin yet pregnant. He’s an infant yet a king. He’s ‘God with us’ and ‘mighty God’ and ‘everlasting Father.’ By these wonderful paradoxes God can break in to the darkness and weariness of any Christmas.
Max Lucado is a master of wonderful paradox. Let me read a little from a chapter called “Just a moment.” “It all happened in a moment, a most remarkable moment. As moments go, that one appeared no different than any other. If you could somehow pick it up off the timeline and examine it, it would look exactly like the ones that just passed. It came and it went. It was one of the countless moments that have marked time since eternity became measurable.
“But in reality, that particular moment was like none other. For through that segment of time a spectacular thing occurred. God became a man. While the creatures of earth walked unaware, Divinity arrived. Heaven opened herself and placed her most precious one in a human womb. The omnipotent, in one instant, made himself breakable. He who had been spirit became pierceable. He who was larger than the universe became an embryo. He who sustains the world with a word chose to be dependent upon the nourishment of a young girl. God as a fetus. Holiness sleeping in a womb. The creator of life being created. God was given eyebrows, elbows, two kidneys, and a spleen.
“God had come near, not as a flash of light or as an unapproachable conquerer, but as one whose first cries were heard by a peasant girl and a sleepy carpenter, The hands that held him were unmanicured, calloused, and dirty. No silk. No ivory. No hype. No party. Were it not for the shepherds, there would have been no reception. And were it not for a group of star-gazers, there would have been no gifts.” Through that moment, God had come near.
But the wonder of paradox is not limited to the Christmas story. You can find it all through Scripture – and it does your soul good. I encourage you, it you want God to break in to your daily busyness and darkness, take some time to look at these. For example: Isaiah 57:15 “For this is what the high and lofty One says-- he who lives forever, whose name is holy: "I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.” The theologians have fancy words for this: God is transcendent; God is imminent. But they don’t understand it any more than you do. Isn’t it wonderful that this transcendent God has chosen to be near to you and me?
1 Corinthians 1:22 “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Christ is at one and the same time the power of God to save men and the stumbling block over which they trip to their own destruction. He is both wisdom and foolishness, a wonder to those who believe but foolishness to those who don’t.
How about 2 Corinthians 5:21? “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” The sinless becomes sin-full so the sinful might become sinless. Is there any paradox more wonderful than that? If you play with it, if you toy with it, if you meditate on it, engage your brain to think about it, I don’t see how it avoids impacting your heart. This is what I’m trying to get across: God breaks in through Scripture to bring wonder to our hearts of darkness, our hearts of weariness, our hearts of dullness, our hearts of waiting.
III. through Elaboration
God breaks in for us when we compare him to things we consider great, when we play with the paradoxes that encompass his character, and finally, when we elaborate his acts. The Christmas story abounds in this; listen to Zechariah again: “He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David 70(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), 71salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us-- 72to show mercy to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, 73the oath he swore to our father Abraham: 74to rescue us from the hand of our enemies, and to enable us to serve him without fear 75in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” Zechariah isn’t content to tell his hearers just once what God is doing: he repeats it in four or five different ways for emphasis and for wonder.
Mary does the same thing in the Magnificat: “His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. 51He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. 52He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. 53He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” Notice that this is actually elaboration of paradox: he brings down rulers, he lifts up the humble; he feeds the hungry but sends the rich away empty. For her own sake and for ours Mary says the same thing several times in different ways in order to glorify God in her mind and in ours.
The Psalms do this as well. Psalm 145: “I will exalt you, my God the King; I will praise your name for ever and ever. 2Every day I will praise you and extol your name for ever and ever. 3Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom. 4One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts. 5They will speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty, and I will meditate on your wonderful works. 6They will tell of the power of your awesome works, and I will proclaim your great deeds. 7They will celebrate your abundant goodness and joyfully sing of your righteousness.” The truth breaks in as we allow Scripture to elaborate it to our hearts, and as we elaborate it in our prayers.
My Puritan friends were good at this. I’ve told you before about this book of Puritan prayers Gail gave me. I think after half a year I’m learning to speak their language. One of the things they do is to take a thought about God, and elaborate it in detail. For example “O Lord God, Teach me to know that grace precedes, accompanies, and follows my salvation, that it sustains the redeemed soul, that not one link of its chain can ever break. From Calvary’s cross wave upon wave of grace reaches me, deals with my sin, washes me clean, renews my heart, strengthens my will, draws out my affection, kindles a flame in my soul, rules throughout my inner man, consecrates my every thought, word, work, teaches me thy immeasurable love.”
How do we pull all this together? We started by saying that sometimes we’re just going through the motion of Christmas, waiting for the sense of wonder and awe we know we should have. Sometimes we feel we’re the ones walking in darkness, needing to see the great light of Jesus, the wonder of his love. In this we’re not so different from the people in the Bible’s Christmas accounts. They too were waiting in darkness, some hopeful, some probably not.
But they experienced the wonder of God breaking in. “When the time had fully come God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.” Zechariah and Elizabeth experienced God’s wonderful intervention in their lives. Mary the village girl met the angel and her life was changed forever, and so she learned wonder; she treasured these things and pondered them in her heart. The wise men saw God break in through a star, traveled hundreds of miles to worship, to experience the one born King. Simeon and Anna had been waiting forever for God to keep his promises, and God broke in for them in the form of a seven day old baby.
God breaks in; God restores wonder; God touches both our minds and our hearts. But in our day and for us he does it through his Word. It might be his Word spoken, it might be his Word creatively sung, it might very well be his Word quietly read on one of these dark cold mornings we’ve been having. And my contention to you today is that you can use your brain to engage your heart by looking in Scripture for the magnification of God: he’s great compared to anything human or natural. Look for the paradox of Jesus; being in very nature God he humbled himself and took on the very nature of man. And finally, look for the elaboration of God’s acts; nearly everything he’s done is worth saying twice, or three times, or every year at Christmas.
As I was finishing this sermon Joanna sent me a text message linking to this video. I had no intention of ending with this, but I enjoyed it so much I decided I had to. It does show a group of people paying careful attention to a text that does use comparison and paradox and elaboration to offer wonder, but in a fun way. It’s called ‘The Silent Monks Sing the Hallelujah Chorus.’ Yes, the Silent Monks. Here they are.