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Fourth Sunday of Advent
Light of Christ Anglican Church
The Rev. Jeffrey O. Cerar, December 20, 2015

The Blessing of Believing

Text: Luke 1:39-49

Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her
will be accomplished. (Luke 1:45)

Luke begins his Gospel with a series of stories that lead up to the birth of Christ. It’s interesting that the first three stories are about visits. The first story involves Elizabeth and Zechariah, a couple whom Luke describes as righteous and faithful. They were advanced in years, and Elizabeth had never been able to have children. And for this, she was reproached by her friends and neighbors, for barrenness was regarded as a sign that God’s favor was not upon this couple.

Zechariah was a priest. One day Zechariah was performing an incense ceremony at the Temple. He was alone in the inner sanctuary when the Angel Gabriel appeared to him. He told Zechariah his wife would bear a son, and his name was to be John. Zechariah was a little incredulous: “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man, and my wife is well along in years.”

Now, it doesn’t say the angel was angry; but he said to Zechariah,

I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time. [Luke 1:19-20]

For the next nine months, Zechariah couldn’t speak. But he still could perform his husbandly duties. And his wife Elizabeth did become pregnant, just as the angel had said.

Six months later, the second of the three visits occurred. The Angel Gabriel paid a similar call, this time to a young virgin in Nazareth named Mary. Mary was engaged to a man named Joseph. The Angel greeted her in a surprising way. He said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored. The Lord is with you.” (Luke 1:28) He told Mary she was going to become pregnant. She would bear a son, who would be called the Son of God. (Luke 1:31-35)

Mary was taken aback, and she answered, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And Gabriel explained to her that she would conceive through the power of the Holy Spirit. Mary’s response was, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be to me as you have said.” (Luke 1:38)

Now Mary was the cousin of Elizabeth. The Angel Gabriel let Mary in on the news that Elizabeth was six months pregnant herself. So Mary rushed up into the hill country to visit her. This was the third visit in Luke’s Gospel, and the one we read about this morning. The minute Mary walked in the door, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leapt for joy!

Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit when this happened. She was able to see with extraordinary insight. She knew that Mary, too, was pregnant; and she knew that the baby Mary was carrying was the Lord. Just imagine these two women being overwhelmed by the gravity of what God was doing. Elizabeth began to gush:

Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! 43 But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!"

This beautiful encounter between two cousins, both of them pregnant, is a story of God’s enormous grace. I want to focus on one aspect of that grace with you. I want to focus on the faith God gave them: faith to understand what God was doing and to act joyfully in the certainty of it.

Recall what Zechariah said when the angel told him his wife would bear a son. He said, “How can I be sure of this?” Gabriel knew Zechariah didn’t believe him.

Now think about what Mary said when Gabriel told her she would bear a son. She said, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” I must say, the two responses sound quite similar. But apparently, their responses were not similar at all. For the Angel Gabriel knew that Zechariah didn’t believe, and that Mary did. He did not strike Mary dumb; he simply explained to her gently that the Holy Spirit would overshadow her, and she would be pregnant, even though she was a virgin.

You see, the angel perceived that Zachariah was saying to him, “Show me and I will believe.” And he perceived that Mary was saying, “I believe. Show me.” What we are talking about is faith—faith, the ancient blessing that God gave to Abraham so that, in the absence of understanding or proof, he could believe and become the instrument of God’s will. God’s invitation to Mary was the same invitation He made to Abraham: “Believe and I will show you.” Abraham’s ability to believe God was recognized as a gift from God. And Mary’s ability to believe God was likewise recognized as God’s gift of faith. “Blessed is she,” said Elizabeth, “who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”

These are the words from Luke’s Gospel that ring out for me today: “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”

Let us think about why it is a blessing for Mary to believe.

• The first reason is that when we believe God, it sets our hearts and our minds and our spirits at peace.

• Second, this faith gives us the courage to take the next step in God’s plan for us.

• And third, there is great joy in serving the Lord, no matter what the circumstances.

The Bible says,

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 4:6-7]

What prompted Elizabeth to say Mary was blessed by believing that what the Lord had said to her would be accomplished? I can’t help but think it had a lot to do with the way Mary looked. I imagine not only the glow of new pregnancy about her, but a look of peace and serenity—a peace that comes to those who know beyond the shadow of a doubt that God is holding for them something that is wonderful beyond all imagining. That was part of Mary’s blessing. She knew in her heart that, as hard as life was, she belonged to God, and God had wondrous gifts for her. She couldn’t have known that if she had not believed.

Contrast that with the story of Gideon in the book of Judges. Gideon, like Mary, was a person of humble station in life. God sent an angel to him the same way he did to Mary. The angel spoke to him much as Gabriel did to Mary. He said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.” (Judges 6:12) Gideon was hiding out and cowering in fear at the time, so the greeting took him aback. And then the angel told him he was going to lead the people in a great war, and they would be victorious. Unlike Mary, who said, “Let it be to me as you have said,” Gideon’s response was to ask God to prove it. He concocted one test after another, and said, If you do so and so, I’ll know what you say is true. And then, when God did that, he made another test, just to be sure. This is not a man at peace, is it? I admire God’s patience with him. But ultimately, Gideon did as he was told, and God did what He had promised. Blessed is he who believed that what God has said will be accomplished. Gideon went on to be a mighty warrior as the angel had said, and he won many great victories.

Gideon began as a fearful man. But once he believed God, he became a man of courage. And that is the second reason we are blessed by believing God. Consider the courage Mary needed to accept her assignment from the Angel Gabriel.

• She was engaged, for one thing.

• She had to tell Joseph she was pregnant.

• She had to trust he would believe her story.

• She had to endure the disapproval of her neighbors.

• And then she was in for a long life watching her dear son be rejected and ridiculed and misunderstood.

• She had to watch Jesus being falsely accused and convicted.

• She had to watch his agony on the cross.

It was a life with a great deal of suffering. But through the Angel Gabriel, God had promised that Jesus:

32 ... will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end. [Luke 1:32-33]

Being a Christian is not easy. But for those who believe that what God has said will be accomplished, the courage to go on is always there. The courage to endure what comes at us is always there. For if Christ is for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31)

And with the courage comes joy. Now, I would never pretend that Christians don’t cry real tears like everyone else. I would never be so naive as to claim that following God is going to put us above tragedy and loss and disappointment and frustration. We all know that Jesus says, “Come and die with me.” He says, “Pick up your cross and follow me.” But there is something incredibly fulfilling in knowing that you have done what you can for the King of kings and Lord of lords. The words of Jesus’s parable of the talents ring out with truth to all of us who have followed Him and sacrificed for Him.

Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a few things. I will put you in charge over many things. Come and share in your master’s happiness. [Matthew 25:21]

There is amazing joy in knowing that what we have offered God has pleased Him. For who isn’t filled with joy to please the one you love?

Jim Conley of our congregation participates in a ministry called “Global Media Outreach.” He is one of a large number of missionaries who respond to email inquiries from all over the globe. People reach out to GMO with their questions about the Christian faith, about God, and about salvation. It has proven to be an effective pathway for people to come to faith in Jesus Christ. Jim said one day that he pictures us arriving at the gates of heaven with the people we have brought into the kingdom. And I can picture the many people whom he is able to speak to through that internet ministry. In fact, most of us have impacted the lives of people we have no way of knowing about—

• People who have watched us do acts of love;

• People who have heard our testimonies about the great deeds of God;

• People who have found forgiveness and peace through our tender care

Think how exciting it would be to see them all at the gates of heaven waiting for you to join them. What joy that ignites in the Christian heart!

And there is enormous joy in watching God work His plan, for we who serve Him know that He is at work day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, redeeming the world. That is not at all obvious to the average person on the street. But to us who believe, it stands out in dramatic relief. How do we see what others do not? God has given us eyes of faith, through which we believe and understand.

The first time a team of us went to Uganda in 2005, we visited a place called Namugongo. There is a shrine there to the 45 young men who were martyred by the king of Uganda in 1886. They had been brought to faith by the Christian missionaries, and they were serving in the court of the Buganda king, Mwanga. The king was angered that they would not do the immoral things he told them to do. So he demanded that they renounce their Christian faith. When they refused to deny Jesus, he had them burned alive.

As the world saw this, it was a huge setback for Christianity. It should have killed the missionary movement. But God had a better plan. Those who believed saw God dramatically at work spreading His truth throughout the land. In the years that followed, the example of the Martyrs of Uganda drew many people to Christ, and the church began to spread rapidly. Today, Uganda has a population of 36 Million, 30 Million of whom are Christians. Their vibrant faith is a blessing to all of us.

It gives us joy to watch God at work, taking what Satan meant for evil and using it for good.

Peace. Courage. Joy. What better provisions could you take with you on the journey of life? These are the gifts God wants us to have as we step out to walk the road with Him. And the way He gives them to us is through His grace: His grace, His free gift—not our hard work, not our careful preparation, not our street smarts, not our towering IQ. It comes from believing that what the Lord has said to us will be accomplished.

This morning, the Word brings us up close and personal with two faithful women of God—Mary and Elizabeth, both pregnant with new life, both radiant and flush with excitement, and filled with expectation of what God was going to do. It is a word filled with God’s extravagant promises for those who believe—promises of God’s forgiveness, redemption, new life, everlasting life. Promises so extravagant that only God can make them. As we go into our last week of preparation for the coming of Jesus Christ, are we flushed and radiant, like these two women of God? Are we filled with expectation of what God is going to do?

Blessed are you who believe that what the Lord has said will be accomplished, for then you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.

© 2015 The Rev. Jeffrey O. Cerar

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