12 Dec The Miracle of the Method
The Miracle of the Method
Isaiah 12:2-6 and Matthew 1:18-25
December 13, 2020
Calvary Presbyterian Church
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One of the mysteries and miracles of Christmas that fascinates a lot of children—and some adults, too—is the question about how it is possible for Santa Claus to deliver toys to every boy and girl in the world and accomplish it all in just one night. Over the decades, numerous theories have been offered. One newspaper cartoon in Finland has suggested that Santa uses a special hourglass on Christmas Eve that stops time. Some people point to the obvious speed advantage that flying reindeer give Santa. In Ernest Saves Christmas, Ernest’s answer involves a good bit of physics mumbo-jumbo. One December issue of a children’s science magazine responded to this question with a theory involving wormholes.
No matter which of these ideas resonates most with you, clearly Kris Kringle’s methods are different from ours. He is not limited to the same time-space continuum or the same physical realities that you and I are. And that is even more true of God as we enter the real story of Christmas, the story of God becoming Incarnate in order to dwell with us.
This is our third Sunday in Advent and over the past two weeks we’ve looked at the Miracle of the Moment and the Miracle of the Message. This morning we look at the Christmas narrative from the perspective of the Miracle of the Method. Part of the miracle of Christmas is that God’s methods are beyond our comprehension; they are truly miraculous. In his letter to the church in Rome, the Apostle Paul writes, “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments and untraceable his ways!” (11:33). Paul begins this doxology of praise by focusing on the greatness of God and on how absolutely wonderful God is. God’s riches, wisdom and knowledge are great beyond any measure. God’s methods are beyond our understanding. When you really think about God’s methods throughout human history, and in particular in the Christmas event, it makes about as much logical sense as the explanations of how Santa Claus delivers so many toys to so many children all over the world on Christmas Eve.
If we were writing the script for the redemption of humankind, we almost certainly would have written it differently than God wrote it. From the depths of an infinite love, God wanted to reveal Godself to us in a way we could understand. Instead of coming in splendor, making a grand entrance to call attention to himself, God came into the world as a helpless, defenseless baby. God chose to be born to humble, poor parents. He wasn’t born in a palace but in a stable. He was born to a young couple whose hearts were pure but who had not one iota of worldly influence. They were plain, ordinary, obscure individuals. Yet they were the ones God chose to be the parents of Jesus.
The prophet Isaiah penned some profound words that capture the heart of God’s methods: “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways,’ says the Lord. For as heaven is higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.’” God’s methods are fundamentally different than our methods.
We shouldn’t be surprised by this. God chose Abraham to leave his home and travel to a place of promise that would be shown to him. He chose Joseph, the next to youngest son of Jacob, to become the savior of his family. God chose Israel, the least significant nation, to be the people through whom God’s redemption for the world would come. He chose David, a shepherd boy, and not any of his older brothers to become the king of Israel. God chose Bethlehem, a small, obscure spot on the landscape of Israel, to be the birthplace for God’s Son, the Messiah.
Do you notice the pattern in these choices? Over and over again, God chooses plain, ordinary people through whom to accomplish God’s divine, extraordinary work—exactly the kind of people we are most prone to overlook and dismiss as having little or nothing to offer. God looks at the heart; we focus on externals. God is impressed with purity; we are impressed with pedigree. God’s wisdom transcends all earthly categories, the very categories we cling to in order to separate ourselves from others. No wonder it is so impossible for us to understand God’s thoughts and methods!
In Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, he tells us that Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem to register for the census. While they were there taking care of their civic responsibility, Mary went into labor and her son was born. She wrapped the baby in bands of cloths and placed him in a feeding trough for animals, because that was the closet thing to a crib that was available in the barn where they were staying. I’m guessing that Joseph did his best to clean out the trough, put some clean straw in it, and move the manure away from where they were resting. But it was still a barn. They couldn’t even manage a Motel 6!
Perhaps as miraculous as the transcendent nature of God’s methods is the fact that despite our very human limitations, God chooses to use us and include us in those methods. When Jesus was born, heaven could not contain its joy. The sound of angel’s voices filled the skies, announcing the arrival of God’s Son and celebrating with songs of praise and glory. Bursting with delight, to whom do the angels go with their news? Not kings and queens, not the priests serving at the Temple’s altar, not the rich and well-heeled, not the politicians or military officers. They shared the news with shepherds. God chose to make this most grand of announcements to simple shepherds doing their duty by taking care of their flocks. The more you think about it, the more jaw-dropping the whole story of Christmas becomes. It’s almost unbelievable because part of the miracle of it all is the miracle of the method. God used—and uses still—ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things.
Think about how consistent God’s methods are. Following Jesus’ resurrection from the tomb, he appeared first to a group of women. Which, in a first century context says it all. He didn’t show up at the Temple and boast before the Pharisees and all the religious leaders who thought they had won, who thought nailing Jesus to a cross would be the end of him. There’s no “I told you so!” from Jesus. From a human perspective, we would write the script so that Jesus rises from the dead and then heads straight back to Jerusalem to prove to his accusers that he was right.
But God’s plan was different. Following his resurrection, Jesus revealed himself to his followers and gave them the responsibility to go tell his story and make disciples all over the world. To that small band of followers, Jesus entrusted the entire Gospel message, the Good News of Salvation, the news that God loved the world so much God would stop at nothing to reach us. Would you have done what Jesus did? Would you put the salvation of the world into the hands of that motley crew of disciples—those simple, ordinary men and women who half the time were squabbling over who Jesus liked better? How impossible it is for us to understand God’s wisdom and God’s methods!
Paul commented on the miracle of the method—the reality that God uses ordinary people to accomplish the extraordinary—when he wrote: “Brothers and sisters, consider your calling: not many are wise from a human perspective, not many powerful, not many of noble birth. Instead, God has chosen what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen what is weak in the world to shame the strong. God has chosen what is insignificant and despised in the world—what is viewed as nothing—to bring to nothing what is viewed as something, so that no one can boast in God’s presence” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).
Here’s the thing we need to hear and to take hold of this morning: God’s methods haven’t changed! God still uses ordinary people to accomplish God’s divine, extraordinary work. Our abilities are not as important as our attitude and our availability. God has entrusted to us the Gospel, the Good News of Salvation. It is a privilege and a joy—as well as a profound responsibility—that God chooses to use even the simplest of vessels to make an eternal impact.
There is one final aspect of the miracle of God’s methods to consider. God is at work in our lives in ways that we do not see and cannot fully understand. In the same way that we would have written the story differently about how to redeem humanity, we also would write the story differently to accomplish our own growth, maturity, and sanctification. The script we’d like to write is that once we begin our spiritual journey with Christ, we wouldn’t have any problems. Life would make it easy for us to love and trust God.
But, of course, that’s not reality. We do experience problems and pains and pressures. We experience struggles and sickness. We experience temptation and failure. We take one step forward in our spiritual growth and follow it with three steps back. There are victories and celebrations accompanied by doubt and defeat and despair. If it were left up to us, this is not the way we would have it.
There are no simple answers to the hard “why” questions of life, and I can’t help but wonder if that isn’t part of how God’s methods work. When we’re going through circumstances we don’t understand, don’t like, and wouldn’t choose in a million years, that is exactly when we are invited to trust that God is at work in our lives and that that work is for our good. That is when faith becomes real.
Even when the angel appeared to Mary to tell her she would be the mother of God’s Son, there was no way she could have predicted all that that revelation would mean for her. Joseph had no idea what would be involved when he obediently responded to the angel’s message not to divorce Mary but to take her as his wife. Together, they endured shame, accusation, embarrassment, and ridicule. But they also experienced the miracle of seeing God become flesh right in front of their eyes. They saw God! They held God. The cost of obediently following God’s plan was worth it, for the overwhelming joy of drawing near to God.
God is working in us to produce a beautiful tapestry. From our perspective, in the muck and busyness of daily life, we see only the back of the embroidery. We are looking at the back side of it and don’t understand why it looks so ugly, with all the knots, and threads going every which way. But the front reveals a beautiful picture. It is impossible for us to grasp the pattern that is being woven by all the different knots and colors and seemingly random directions our lives have taken.
But one day, we will finally be able to see the top side of this tapestry God has been weaving of us. Then, we’ll see how the seasons of pain wove in rich, vibrant colors to our lives. We’ll see the fullness and intricacy of the design reflected in the seasons of joy and celebration. We will see the depth of character revealed through the times of testing and trusting.
In the meantime, friends, your Advent invitation is to continue to trust God and God’s methods, even though you don’t understand how God is at work in your life. Continue to follow him, trusting that you will be richly blessed. The miracle of the method is that God uses ordinary people like you and me to accomplish extraordinary things for the sake of God’s Kingdom. We may not understand it, but we choose to trust what we know to be true because of what God has revealed to us in Jesus Christ. And in the end, we’ll see just how perfect God’s methods have been to produce in each of us an exquisite design.
Along with all the angels in heaven, we join the chorus of Glory to God in the Highest! Amen.