English service (Christmas service) on December 23, 2018
Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
“The God Who Disrupts”
As the end of 2018 approaches, what do you think you will remember about 2018 after, say, 10 years have passed? I think for me it is the unexpected changes that came my way. I do research as part of my job, and in recent years I have been going to the U.S. for that, collecting documents, and then writing articles about them after coming back to Japan. I was planning to do that this year, but my university asked me to go to Australia with a group of English students. That wasn’t my plan, but it turned out to be a great opportunity. Then I thought I’d go to the U.S. in the summer, but later it was decided that I would go with a student volunteer group to Thailand for a week in the summer. That was a great experience, but it left enough time for only a very short trip to the U.S. A typhoon came close to cancelling that trip but did not. Then the day I was leaving for the airport, the big earthquake hit and all flights were cancelled. I still have not made that trip to the U.S. Oh, well. . . .
Thinking of unexpected turns of events, as I read the Christmas stories again this year, I am impressed by how often the work of God is very disruptive. At times He will put people in situations that change their plans and set their whole lives in new directions. Today’s Bible reading tells us how He does this in Mary and Joseph’s lives (vv. 18-20,24), but the Lord does this same type of thing in the lives of many others before and after them in Bible.
For example, God speaks to Abram when he is living in Ur and tells him to relocate his family to a place he will discover only by continuing to listen and follow the Lord’s leading (Genesis 12:1-2). Obeying God means the loss of a home, but through this Abram becomes the father of a faith that even now continues to give strength to many millions of people around the world thousands of years later.
Joseph’s life is disrupted in dramatic ways in Genesis 37:2b,18-20,28 when his brothers sell him as a slave and he is taken to Egypt. Yet God works through the loss of family, freedom, and more to use Joseph as a government leader who helps large numbers of people survive a famine. Again, God turns disruptions, including a natural disaster, into His tools for a great work of salvation.
Moses (Exodus 3:9-10) is working taking care of sheep on the back side of a desert and seems to be giving up on the dreams he once had to help the oppressed Hebrews in Egypt. But God speaks to Him from a burning bush and gives him a vision and command and spirit that will lead not only Moses but the Hebrew nation to freedom in the Promised Land. This is the God who intervenes.
David also is taking care of sheep when God through the prophet Samuel chooses him to be the next King of Israel (I Samuel 16:10-13a). Along with great honors and opportunities, this choice will bring danger and temptation to David many times, and he will not always pass life’s tests. But God, knowing this, chooses to change the course of his life and set up David as Israel’s greatest King and an ancestor of Jesus, the Messiah.
For Elisha (I Kings 19:19-21), following the life-transforming leading of God meant exchanging his career as a farmer for that of a prophet.
For Saul, later named Paul, encountering Christ on the road to Damascus led to a loss of deeply held beliefs and temporary blindness (Acts 9:3-6). Yet through this crisis, God led him to be the key figure in the message of salvation in Christ going into the continent of Europe, changing it forever.
These are famous figures from the Bible, but ordinary people like you and I today also find many disruptions of the same types in our lives. There is a theme to God’s work across the generations and around the world: God has the right to disrupt the lives of His people to accomplish His work in us and through us. He does this. And when He does, in His own way and time, God blesses His people through the disruptions He brings.
How can we describe the disruptions God brings into the lives of His people? (a) They are often painful. (b) They are designed to bring salvation to people. As such, they are, at their core, signs of His love. His loving-kindness is not only for people who believe in Him but often for others who do not yet know or seek Him. (c) God’s disruptions are designed ultimately to show His glory.
Let’s look at the example of Mary in more detail. She is a good teacher for us as we seek to know her Son and God’s Son, Jesus. We see the pain of God’s disrupting her life when she probably goes through the humiliation of people knowing she is pregnant before getting married—a big taboo in that culture. Remember, she is following the plan for her that the angel announces as a great honor from God in Luke 1, but in doing so, she also has to travel on foot or maybe a donkey a distance like Sapporo to Asahikawa to get to Bethlehem. Then after the baby is born, she and her family have to travel overland even farther to escape to Egypt.
Then when her Son is grown, she has to see Him die with her own eyes. Through the unspeakable sorrow of that experience, she knows the full meaning of the words the prophet Simeon told her (Luke 2:34-35) when she and Joseph had taken the baby Jesus to the Temple for His dedication ceremony. “This child is going to cause many people in Israel to fall and to rise. God has sent him. But many will speak against him. . . . A sword will wound your own soul too.”
Watching her Son die on the cross, Mary hears His last words to her before dying. John 19:26-27 tells us:
Jesus saw his mother there. He also saw the disciple he loved standing nearby. Jesus said to his mother, “Dear woman, here is your son.” He said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” From that time on, the disciple took her into his home.
Yet in Mary’s story, too, God’s disruptions are a part of His good plans for people’s good and His glory. The Lord’s greatest work through Mary came in Christ’s death. His interrupting her hopes and plans to make her the mother of the Messiah became her life’s greatest blessing and a priceless gift for many others through her throughout history.
This all reflects what God told Joseph about Mary in a dream in Matthew 1:21. “She is going to have a son. You must give him the name Jesus. That is because he will save his people from their sins.” The meaning of the name “Jesus,” as Matthew 1:25 tells us, is “The Lord is salvation.” Through stepping into Mary’s life and leading her a way she probably never imagined she would or could go, God showed His great unchanging love and provided salvation for her and many others. This is what we celebrate at Christmas.
So this is the way we see God working in the disruptions He brings into Mary’s life. But let’s look a little more at her side of things. She is not a passive bystander in this process. There are things she does to cooperate with God’s work, and we can learn from her at these points in particular.
When the angel announces that she will be the Messiah’s mother, after some shock and questioning, she makes up her mind and replies (Luke 1:38). “I serve the Lord,” Mary answered. “May it happen to me just as you said it would.” This is the kind of response God wants from you and me, too, when He asks us to face the disruptions that come into our lives. He calls us to open our hearts and minds wider, use a holy kind of imagination, discover His greater plans for us, our part to play in His salvation story, and follow Him in the adventure of the work of His Kingdom.
Mary learns to do this. When Jesus is grown up and beginning the work recorded in the Bible, one day at a wedding party, the wine runs out. Mary has some words with Jesus about what to do and what their relationship is. But in the end, she says, (John 2:5b), “Do what he tells you.” Again, good words from Mary. God calls us to learn from her and choose obedience. He asks us to trust Him to lead when we can’t see all the reasons for it and cannot understand why we are in the circumstances we are.
Acts 1:12-14 gives us the last picture of Mary we see in the Bible stories. Jesus has just returned to heaven from the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem. The writer lists the disciples of Jesus and then notes (v. 14), “They all came together regularly to pray. The women joined them too. So did Jesus' mother Mary and his brothers.” Mary and the other Christ-followers are devoting themselves to prayer. Through speaking with God this way, she is continuing to do what she was doing when Jesus was still a baby. Luke has told us earlier (2:19) that after the shepherds came to see the newborn Jesus and then left, “. . . Mary kept all these things like a secret treasure in her heart. She thought about them over and over.”
Thinking deeply and quietly about how God is working in our lives and talking with Him about it regularly in prayer. How would our lives look if we always did that? Much the same as they do now? Very different? What is your answer?
When I was young, I thought about doing a lot of different things with my life. I loved sports and thought about being an American football or basketball coach. I liked school, but the one thing I never wanted to be was a teacher. After years of searching, I came to believe God was leading me to come to Japan and do the work of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Some of that has been in connection with the church, and other parts have been through Christian schools. I haven’t ever been the kind of person to develop a master plan and try really hard to execute it. But there have been quite a few unexpected changes, and some things have not worked out the way I wanted. Still, looking at the whole picture, I have been amazingly blessed. By simply going through the doors God has opened, I have found wonderful opportunities to know the powerful love of God and share it with many others through the life He has given us together.
Now I am about five years away from retirement age, so I think sometimes about what to do after that time comes. Should I go back to my first home country? Stay here in what now feels like my second home country? Talking and praying with Chieko, we so far have felt that it’s too early to decide. There’s too much we don’t know about health and where our children will live and so on. But in the process of thinking about plans, I think I do hear God saying something. If I’m hearing correctly, it’s along the lines of this:
Jim, in the end, it doesn’t matter that much whether you are in Japan, the U.S., or another place. It matters the kind of person you are and the spirit you take with you wherever you go. Your willingness to live in fellowship with Me as your Father and go each day where I guide you is what counts the most to me. Don’t worry about the place. I’ll let you know when it’s time for a move.
That’s my case. What unexpected changes have you faced before? What disruptions might you be struggling with now? If you have not encountered any stressful ones yet, you can be sure that you will in the future. So what does a good response to disruption look like to you? How is God calling you now to set your mind and spirit so that disruptions will become not just things to avoid but the occasions of His work of grace and salvation in your life and others’ through you?
The British Christian writer C. S. Lewis is often quoted as saying, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done’ (Ok, have it your way) . . .” When we commit ourselves to going God’s way, we find not an easy, convenient life with few problems but a life of great meaning and purpose—a life that is wonderfully “worth it.” But when we insist on going our own way, we miss the greater meaning and purposes of our lives and the blessings God wants to give us through our free choice to follow Him day by day. So let’s go to Him in prayer and ask for a willingness to be disrupted in all the best ways.
God, we pray today for hearts that see as you see, love what you love, and seek what you seek. Make our minds open, ready, willing to accept disruptions when they come. Free us from the stubborn spirit that insists things go according to our plans. Help us to hear your voice and see your face in all the disruptions that come into our lives. Teach us to see the many ways you are constantly at work using them for your glory, the good of many people, and our blessing. And when we cannot see your hand at work, help us to trust you anyway, as Mary and so many before us have. In this way, through this Christmas season and always, grow our faith, we pray. In Christ’s name, amen.
Lewis, C. S. (2000). The Great Divorce. Chapter 9. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins, HarperOne.