This week we finally wrap up our Advent – and now Christmas – teaching series, The World Turned Upside Down. All this month we have been taking a journey through Luke’s telling of the story of the birth of Jesus. It has been a powerful journey, and there have been several new things to learn from these old and familiar stories. This week is no different. While the stories of Jesus’ birth and other heroes of the faith are flashy and impressive, we live most of our lives in the mundane. The trick is: so did they. Their ability to have the giant impact they had came out of their faithfulness in these mundane moments. Let’s dig in and talk about it together. As one more note, this will be the only post for this week. I’m taking this week off to spend extra time with my family. I look forward to being back together with you again in the New Year.
Big Things from Small Places
Have you noticed lately how few truly new television shows there are? The same thing goes with movies. Now, don’t get me wrong, many of the remakes and relaunches and revivals they have done have been terrific. Nostalgia is a terrible god to worship, but it makes for some really fun media content to enjoy. Season 4 of Cobra Kai comes out this week on Netflix and I am about as excited as I can be for that one. If you haven’t seen it, it’s basically a modern day continuation of the Karate Kid story from the super popular 1980s film franchise. Now, as a bit of a warning before you go check it out if you haven’t, the language of the series is pretty awful, but the redemption element of the story and the way the writers keep weaving in Gospel concepts has been pretty cool to see.
Every now and then, though, we do get something new. It could be a totally new idea, or it could be simply a new concept of an old one, but these stories often do pretty well. One example of this is the 20-year old series, 24 starring Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer. (And let me also add just how depressing it was when I realized the show is 20 years old.) The idea of a law enforcement drama as 24 basically is obviously isn’t new at all. But what 24 did was to make the time length of each season a single day, told one hour at a time. The result was a gripping, heart-pounding story that you couldn’t afford to miss a single episode of. Fortunately, my college roommate at the time had this revolutionary new technology called TiVo, so we didn’t have to.
In any event, what got me thinking about 24 this morning is something Jack Bauer said near the end of the first season. The whole season was a litany of complicated twists and turns and double-crosses and triple-crosses. Honestly, I don’t remember most of it. But this one bit of dialogue has stuck in my mind. Jack was talking to another character who was facing a decision of whether or not to bend the rules a bit for the sake of convenience. He was tempted to look the other way on something that wasn’t right for the sake of compromise. Jack’s response was intriguing. He said, “You can look the other way once, and it’s no big deal; except it makes it easier for you to compromise the next time, and pretty soon that’s all you’re doing; compromising, because that’s the way you think things are done. You know those guys I busted? You think they were the bad guys? Because they weren’t, they weren’t bad guys, they were just like you and me. Except they compromised…once.”
What Jack was talking about here is the path by which someone becomes the kind of moral monster who needs to be stopped by law enforcement for the sake of everyone around them. In cases where we’re not talking about someone who is genuinely psychotic, the person didn’t become a “bad guy” over night. He didn’t wake up one day as a moral monster. It started with a single moral compromise that gradually grew into something entirely worse than it looked at first. As much as that may be true for someone we might identify as a “bad guy,” the reverse is true as well. The most righteous people you know right now did not become that way over night. They didn’t wake up and were suddenly the kind of sterling moral example that could encourage and inspire others to a similar end with their own lives. No one does. That’s not how sanctification works. Instead, righteousness comes by a series of good decisions in seemingly insignificant moments.
This morning finds us at the end of our Advent – and now Christmas – journey, The World Turned Upside Down. All this month we have been working our way through the story of Jesus’ birth as told by Luke. I don’t know about you, but this has been a really fun journey for me. There is much worth to be found in studying back through stories in the Scriptures we thought we already knew so well. God has a way of revealing more and more of Himself to us every time we go. It’s like a miner digging for gold going back to a shaft that had looked picked clean and discovering a whole new vein to mine. Along the way this time, we have been reminded that when God gives us the opportunity to join in His work, we need to take it. We’ve been encouraged by the fact that God doesn’t just cheer for the underdogs, He helps them win. In the story of John’s birth we were comforted by the fact that even though life may have us on the sidelines for a season, the game isn’t over. Finally, last week, we were forced to reckon with the news of Jesus’ birth. The news of Jesus is simply something you can’t ignore.
Well, speaking of that, the story of Jesus’ birth, like nearly all the stories in the Scriptures, involves people we consider heroes of the faith. The thing is, though, they wouldn’t have considered themselves in those terms. They were simply living life and when they were given the opportunity to be faithful, they took it. Now, sure, sometimes those decisions happened to take place in incredible circumstances, but more often not. As we wrap up our series this morning, I want to take a look with you at three boring stories. It’ll be a great way to end our journey together.
If you’ll remember back a couple of weeks, Zechariah was invited back into the game from the sidelines on the day when his son, John, was named and circumcised. This was a standard Jewish ritual that is still practiced by orthodox Jewish families today. On the eighth day after a child is born, he is named and circumcised. In the first century and years prior to that there was also a sacrifice that was a part of this series of rituals which took place 33 days later. All of this came out of the Law of Moses. Let me take you to Leviticus 12. The first few verses talk about a 40-day period after a woman has a baby during which she was to be considered ceremonially unclean. The language of this section sounds weird to our ears and for good reason, but the net effect was that new moms were basically told to lay low for about six weeks after giving birth which sounds a whole lot better than the kind of language they used for it.
In any event, the next part of the text here is what I’d like to draw your attention to for just a minute: “When her days of purification are complete, whether for a son or a daughter, she is to bring to the priest at the entrance to the tent of meeting a year-old male lamb for a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. He will present them before the Lord and make atonement on her behalf; she will be clean from her discharge of blood. This is the law for a woman giving birth, whether to a male or female. But if she doesn’t have sufficient means for a sheep, she may take two turtledoves or two young pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering. Then the priest will make atonement on her behalf, and she will be clean.”
Okay, so what is all of this almost mind-numbing ancient legalese? It’s background so you can better understand what happens next in our story. Come with me to Luke 2:21 and look at what Luke tells us takes place after Jesus was born. “When the eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus–the name given by the angel before he was conceived. And when the days of their purification according to the law of Moses were finished, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (just as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every firstborn male will be dedicated to the Lord’) and to offer a sacrifice (according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons’).”
This is one of those passages that’s really easy to skip over because it doesn’t seem to matter. And, in the grand scheme of things, that seems to be a pretty safe bet. This was Mary and Joseph going through the regular rituals of everyday life as directed by God in the Law. Big deal. Except…it kind of is. But before we talk about why, let’s take a quick look at what happened when they got to the temple.
Luke tells us in v. 25 that “there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, looking forward to Israel’s consolation, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he saw the Lord’s Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, he entered the temple. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him up in his arms, praised God, and said, ‘Now, Master, you can dismiss your servant in peace, as you promised. For my eyes have seen your salvation. You have prepared it in the presence of all the peoples–a light for revelation to the Gentiles and glory to your people Israel.’”
And as if that weren’t enough, “There was also a prophetess, Anna, a daughter of Panuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was well along in years, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, and was a widow for eighty-four years. She did not leave the temple, serving God night and day with fasting and prayers. At that very moment, she came up and began to thank God and to speak about him to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.”
Now, those two encounters had to be incredible, didn’t they? I mean, put yourself in Mary and Joseph’s sandals for just a minute. Here you are, minding your own business, doing what you do, and these two strangers come up and start praising God because of your son. What a powerful moment of reassurance this must have been for them that they really were on the path God had for them. But while these two encounters are typically what get all the attention in these verses, there’s something else here that I want us to not miss this morning. As with some of the other things we’ve uncovered this month, this one is hidden a bit in the details, but that doesn’t make it any less important for us to see.
In order to get at this, think for a minute about what we know about Simeon and Anna. We don’t have anything else to go on other than what we see right here. There’s not anything you need to know other than what you can see. What does Luke tell us about them? Well, for starters, they are both exceedingly righteous. They are right with God in a way that should make the rest of us jealous. Luke also makes pretty clear that both of them are fairly well along in years. Anna is at least 84 depending on how you translate that verse, and Simeon’s praise to God was that the Lord can take him now that he has laid his eyes on the Messiah. You probably aren’t going to say something like that to God unless you’re ready to go near the end of a long life. These two would be those saintly, older spiritual giants in a church whom everyone looks up to for inspiration and wisdom and the like. These were the folks you wanted praying for you if anything was out of sorts in your life. They were closer to God than you were not simply by virtue of the fact that they were older than you. They were more righteous than you were. Their vision of life was so soaked by the Spirit that they were able to see this 6-week-old baby boy who entered the temple complex with his parents in otherwise total obscurity for who He really was. No one else saw it, and we don’t even really know if anyone else paid attention to them. But they saw it and celebrated it. And we’re still talking about it.
Here’s my question: How did Simeon and Anna come to be the people they were here? How did they become these great, spiritual giants? I’ll tell you how: They started seeking the Lord in the quiet, mundane places of life, and they didn’t quit. They sought Him day in and day out for years. Some people may have noticed, most probably didn’t. They weren’t flashy about it. They didn’t stand out from the crowd. They certainly weren’t looking for attention from it. They simply served the Lord and their stature before Him grew. It grew to a point that God gave them the incredible experience of getting to lay eyes on the Messiah before they passed from this life into His presence. It grew to the point that here we are still telling their story 2,000 years later. Yet, again, this was the end of their journey, not it’s beginning. At one point, they were just like you and me: regular people trying to do life in such a way that it pleased God, wondering sometimes if anything they were doing was really making any kind of an eternal difference. And as far as nearly everything else they did in life is concerned, we don’t have any idea. But what it did do was to put them in the positions they needed to be in for this particular moment. They experienced God’s work in this big moment in their lives because they were faithful in all the small ones that came before it.
This all brings us back to Mary and Joseph and what they were there in the temple to do in the first place. Remember what that was? They were offering the sacrifice to redeem Jesus as their firstborn son as required by the Law of Moses. This was not something that was convenient for them. They had to leave Bethlehem and travel to Jerusalem in order to do it. That meant taking a day off of work. In a day when most people didn’t have any kind of savings and the money you earned on a particular day was used to feed your family for that day, taking a day off work might have meant skipping out on a meal or two. Not only that, but they had to use what limited resources they did have to obtain a sacrifice. In this case, their sacrifice was two turtledoves. And this is why a bit of background can make some difference. Remember the passage I read to you from Leviticus a little while ago? It mentioned two turtledoves as an option for folks who couldn’t afford a lamb. In other words, Mary and Joseph were poor. Really poor.
In addition, though, to the economic burden of the thing, going to the temple like this meant standing in line, possibly for hours, waiting for your chance to appear before the priest. Have you ever tried waiting for something for a very long time with a baby? That’s no small feat by itself. Now put yourself outside, possibly in the heat, and hungry, and you have the makings of a long, miserable day. Why on earth would they do this? Because God had told them to just like He had everyone else in their sandals in the nation. In other words, this was one of those things you did to serve God faithfully. And so, they did it.
And then they went home and got on with the rest of their lives. Look at v. 39: “When they had completed everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The boy grew up and became strong, filled with wisdom, and God’s grace was on him.” The next time we encounter Jesus and His family is 12 years later when His parents accidentally left Him in Jerusalem on an annual pilgrimage up from Nazareth to worship. The scene is as humorous as it is instructive, but at its core, it is another snapshot of Mary and Joseph doing something that was an entirely normal part of their lives. We don’t see them again, then, for about 18 more years, and that’s when Jesus’ ministry begins and things get really exciting again.
Here’s where I’m going with all of this. Mary and Joseph are rightly celebrated for their role in God’s plans for our redemption. Their willingness to trustingly obey Him even when it was going to cost them a great deal is simply stunning. But they didn’t wake up one day and from out of nowhere start moving down that path. They were invited to experience God’s incredible work in this enormous thing because they had demonstrated themselves willing to be faithful in the small ones.
We see that in these snapshots from their life. Again and again they were faithful to God in the mundane places of life. And in those mundane places where they were faithful when it may not have seemed to matter very much to anyone but God, there was something going on they surely didn’t realize. They were building a habit of righteousness. By consistently practicing faithfulness in the places that didn’t seem to matter much and whether it was convenient for them or not, they were building up in themselves the conviction and even courage to obey God in the much bigger places of life where a great deal more was obviously on the line. In other words, they were able to experience God’s work in the big because they had developed the habit of being faithful in the small.
Friends, the exact same thing is true in our own lives. Occasionally we find ourselves in places that are obviously fraught with significance. If we’re being honest, though, those occasions are pretty rare. And, we generally don’t know when they are coming. No, on most days, our lives are mundane. And by that I don’t mean they are insignificant. I mean that we simply go through our days doing the things we do because those are the things we do.
Whether by mechanical alarm or the alarm of living with a morning person in the house, you wake up each morning. After that, you probably get ready to go somewhere or see someone. That likely involves some sort of washing and brushing and dressing ritual. Then you eat breakfast. Then you go somewhere or see someone. If not that, you have a checklist of things you’re doing around the house. At some point in the middle of the day you probably eat again somewhere. Then you do some more of the things you were doing before. Then you probably eat again. And at that point you are ready to relax a bit for the evening before going to bed and starting the whole process over in the morning.
Repeat that pattern enough times and it can start to feel like none of it really matters or is making any kind of a difference. Even forgetting about making an eternal difference, you don’t feel like it’s making much of a temporal difference. It’s just what you do. It’s mundane. And yet, if you are someone who would profess to be a follower of Jesus, the call on your life is to mimic God’s character at every single point along your line of existence. Every single point. This means that during all of those moments you don’t think matter very much and that only a handful of people will ever even notice, you are called to mimic God’s character. Sometimes that’ll be pretty easy and convenient. Sometimes it won’t. Sometimes it’ll fit fairly well with how you wanted to respond to a particular situation anyway, but sometimes it will go rather directly against what you would have preferred. In each and every one of these mundane moments in your life, you are going to have to make the decision of whether you are going to live as if Jesus is Lord or you are Lord. And while making that particular decision in any one, single moment may not appear to matter very much at all, deciding in one way in one situation will make the next one a little bit easier to decide the same way. Over time, a pattern begins to emerge from the sum total of these choices and from this pattern your character is revealed. The nature of this character depends on the choice you have made along the way.
Choosing to make yourself Lord and give in to your own desires which are not reflective of God’s character may not seem like that big of a deal in any given moment, but the pattern that grows out of this will be. In the same way, choosing to make Jesus Lord and to honor Him even when it is hard or inconvenient may not seem to make much of a difference in any given moment, but the pattern that grows out of this will. A pattern of righteousness is going to put you in a place where when you find yourself in one of those occasions where God is doing something big, you’ll be able to experience the full goodness and wonder of the moment. If you want to experience God’s work in the big, be faithful in the small.
Every time you come up to a decision point, make the decision that honors Christ as Lord. It doesn’t matter if anyone notices. It doesn’t matter if it isn’t going to make your life obviously better or worse. It doesn’t matter if it is inconvenient to you or easy. Regardless of the consequences or immediate outcome, choose to honor the baby who was born for you; the baby who became the man who died for you. As you practice faithfulness in the small things like this, you’ll be ready to experience the wonder of God’s work in the big ones when those moments arrive. If you want to experience God’s work in the big, be faithful in the small. Mary and Joseph did it and we are still telling their story today. Jesus arrived in the world in the smallest way possible and lived faithfully from there. Your life can make a big difference for God’s kingdom, but that big difference is going to come out of a thousand small things. If you want to experience God’s work in the big, be faithful in the small.