…not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.
To read scripture is to encounter a way of thinking that stands in stark contrast to that of our world.
Recently I read through Luke’s Gospel. I noticed something in the opening chapters that I hadn’t noticed before.
I noticed the kind of people God chose to be key players in the stunning drama of the incarnation.
Mary: a peasant girl. John the Baptist: a wild, wilderness-dwelling, misfit of a man. Shepherds: a despised, lowly class. Simeon and Anna: the elderly temple-worshippers. Zacharias and Elizabeth: afflicted by the terrible social stigma of childlessness.
It struck me that the angel flew past the centres of power – political and religious – from the temple to the palace and everything in-between. He flew past the noteworthy and reputable somebody’s of the day.
He sought out a nobody. So insignificant as to be otherwise anonymous. So unendowed with greatness as to have nothing to offer in a worldly sense. He sought out Mary to usher in the greatest era of history ever known.
Despite all the glory and might of so many things and so many people, the Angel had his eye on a peasant’s home in the little hamlet of Bethlehem, because God had picked her.
Like the other participants in the drama, Mary had “found favour with God.” Of Zacharias and Elizabeth it was said, “they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly.” Of Simeon it is said, “this man was righteous and devout.”
This was the difference: they stood in contrast to a world, described by Isaiah in the context of Christ’s birth, as “a land of deep darkness.” Their holy lives stood out amidst “a people who walk in darkness.”
As Zacharias sang once his voice returned, “the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”
In the incarnation, God identified and exalted those things which really matter.
He doesn’t merely demonstrate that in Luke 1. Throughout scripture, every affirmation and condemnation of God is character-based. One only has to look at the “Blessed” of the Beatitudes – the poor in spirit, the merciful, the hungry and thirsty for righteousness, the meek, the pure in heart… Or to the things the Lord hates from Proverbs: a lying tongue, a heart that schemes wicked things, feet that run to evil…
On the other hand, the disregard for office, status, nobility and power is almost as noteworthy.
One of the strongest demonstrations of this is seen in the biographies of the kings of Israel and Judah. It matters not how high their status, how long their reign, how vast their kingdom, or how comprehensive their policy agenda. Every king, no matter his circumstances, is described by this epitaph: “He did what was right in the sight of God” or “he did that which was evil in the sight of God.”
The boasting, self-confidence and satisfaction of power is a formidable weapon against the kind of character that God values.
Poverty of spirit, meekness, or a hunger and thirst for righteousness outside of yourself require an acute sense of need, humility, and self-emptying.
That is why His very program of salvation sees “not many” wise, powerful or mighty in the kingdom of God. That is the testimony of scripture.
It really is the heart that matters.
I wonder, therefore, whether we know and examine ourselves nearly enough.
We are forever examining the world. Our daily read of the political news results in plenty of finger-pointing. As we observe injustice and disaster, we know where the blame lies. If things are to improve politically, socially or spiritually we seem to know all-too-quickly who and what needs to be fixed.
But what if I need to be fixed?
G.K. Chesterton felt it. His famous response to The Times’ question, “What’s wrong with the world today?” was the simple answer, “I am.”
The Apostle Paul understood it. As he described his own struggle against sin, he burst out, “Oh wretched man that I am!”
Jesus told us to be lights in the world and salt of the earth – to change our society – but not before He gave the most profound description of a changed heart. In fact, the light shines and the salt draws its flavour from the character that Christ seeks to fill us with. That is the character described in the Beatitudes.
It is easy to underestimate just how counter-cultural this line of thinking is.
We live in a time when the prevailing belief is that injustice, evil and oppression are due to external causes. The belief is that they need to be righted primarily through education programs, better conversations, and government intervention; through fixing other people and other things.
Safe schools and respectful relationships will solve gender-based violence and inequality. Quotas will solve leadership deficiencies. Conversations with kids about sex will stave off disaster.
But what if the primary answer was not outside-in, but inside-out? What if it was less environmental and more personal?
Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “The terrible, tragic fallacy of the last hundred years has been to think that all man’s troubles are due to his environment… It overlooks the fact that it was in paradise that man fell.”
The primary answer is a change of heart.
But even now you’re falling into the trap – stop thinking about their hearts. Think about yours.
Consider the way God used Mary, John the Baptist, Zacharias, Elizabeth, Simeon… And myriad other saints of godly, meek character.
God values character, and He uses it. He does not use power, influence, status, or any other thing without it.
It is the light that shines and the salt that flavours, according to Jesus in Matthew 5.
Growing in Christ’s character makes us ultimately useful to God. A wise friend of mine observed recently that one of the central themes of scripture is God intervening in the world at dark times, to turn it upside down and bring light in darkness. How? Typically, by the faith of one righteous man… Or, as in the case of the incarnation, woman…
It seems that, in our own “land of deep darkness”, an age-old solution lies close at hand…
Let us each examine our hearts and pray that they will be changed.