Introduction – Boxing great, Jake LaMotta, said of his old friend boxer Gerry Cooney: “There’s nothing I won’t do for him and nothing he won’t do for me. So we go through life doing nothing for each other.” Tragically, that’s the way we sometimes look at our responsibility to serve others.
Bishop James Lightfoot was a fine 19th century scholar whose commentaries on Paul’s epistles are classics. He famously told his students as they prepared for ordination: “Forget me, forget the ordination services of tomorrow, forget the human questioner. Transport yourselves in thought from the initial to the final inquiry. . . . The Chief Shepherd, the universal bishop of souls is the questioner. . . . The ‘Wilt thou’ of the ordination day is exchanged for the ‘Hast thou’ of the judgment day.” That’s true for all of us. Very shortly, the “will you,” of God’s call on our life, will become “did you?” Not did you retire comfortably or get all the gusto you could – but did you fulfill your eternal purpose?
So, as we approach this wonderful passage of the Annunciation – the announcement to Mary of her eternal purpose, I would like to focus our attention on what service is all about. Years ago, one of the finest pastors I ever met gave an unforgettable definition of service. He said, “Service is little people, doing little things in a fine way for a great God.” That’s our outline for this passage, and we will also learn a lot about God’s character.
I. Little People
We violate this principle of two ways. First, some are proud – of abilities, accomplishments, position – whatever. This attitude usually builds over time. It’s what happened to Saul. He started well, but in time he decided that the rules didn’t apply to him. Not satisfied to be king, he took on the role of priest as well, offered sacrifices and thus lost his kingdom. Uzziah, near the end of 55 good years, fell victim to the same malady. The point is, if you’re a big shot in your own eyes, God can’t use you. When we get to the point that any task is too small for us, then God’s blessing departs.
The other end of the spectrum – by far the more prominent – is those who claim inability. They are not gifted enough, don’t have time, aren’t qualified. Too small. Filled with excuses. Unacceptable excuses. If that is you, God has an argument with you. You are negating His gifts -- making His calling of no effect. Those who are His long to express gratitude for His grace in their lives. If you feel unqualified, you’re in! God uses little people.
God could have sent His Son into any home in the world. But He sent Him into a home that wasn’t even a home yet – to two of the poorest people on earth. He sent Him to a humble carpenter and his 13 or 14 year old wife-to-be, Mary. Let’s read beginning in Luke 1:26, “ In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you! 29But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.”
This announcement was a thunderbolt on many levels. It was a Jewish girl as expected. But everything else was wrong. The Messiah is not coming to some elite family in Jerusalem. He is coming to Nazareth? You couldn’t get any more humble than that. Nazareth was a small village, hidden away in the hills west of the Sea of Galilee, 65 miles north of Jerusalem. It overlooked the Esdralon Valley to the South which contained a major east-to-west road. Roman soldiers were housed there and it had a reputation for vice and immorality unequaled in Palestine. But Jesus came to seek and to save the lost – and God chose a mother from Nazareth.
Mary would have been between 12 and 15 at the time of her betrothal. The engagement was as binding as marriage and could be broken only by divorce even though the couple did not live together until the marriage was finalized – usually after about a year. We know she was poor because according to Luke 2:24 when Joseph and Mary came to the temple in Jerusalem for the purification rites for Jesus they brought a sacrifice of either turtledoves or pigeons – a concession for those too poor to afford a lamb. But we really see Mary’s mindset in Lu 1:28-29, “And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you! 29But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.” This incredible encounter left Mary very troubled. Not because she was seeing an angel – but because he called her “favored”. That just blew her away. Mary had never been called a favored one. This language was totally foreign to her. She may be an icon to many today, but believe me, when God chose her she was an ordinary Jewish girl with nothing outwardly extraordinary to commend her. She was a little person.
Learning was revered in ancient Palestine. That’s why the Jerusalem elite had unmitigated contempt for the “hillbillies” from Galilee, and no place was more despised than Nazareth. That is why when Nathaniel was told that Jesus came from Nazareth he commented in John 1:46, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” “You’re kidding, right?” He was reflecting the attitude of his place and time. So, imagine the reaction to the idea that the virginal mother of Messiah of Isa 7:14 would be a 14-year-old Galilean girl engaged to the town carpenter in Nazareth. Some in Israel would have given up their faith rather than accepts such a scenario. But, that’s exactly what happened because service involves little people – like Mary, you and me.
But little does not mean unqualified! Though a little person in the world’s eyes, Mary was imminently qualified in two ways for her task. First, she was qualified by physical birth. Lu 1:27 says Gabriel appeared “to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David.” It is probable that Joseph is the one who is described here as “of the house of David.” But, in verse 32, Gabriel announces, “And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David.” In the context, this would make sense only if Mary is also descended from David. And in Lu 1:69, Zechariah prophesies that God “has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.” Thus the Bible establishes that both through Mary and through his legal father, Joseph, Jesus was descended from David. Why was that important? Because God had promised David in II Sam 7:16, “And your house and your kingdom shall be established forever before you. Your throne shall be established forever.” The Messiah had to be the greater descendant of David who would eventually occupy his throne forever – a qualification that Mary met. Her place of birth, ethnic background, gender and lineage were all suited to the ministry God had in mind for her.
But guess what? The same is true of all of us. Psalm 139:15- 16 says, “My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. 16) Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.” This means that God formed each of us to be just what He knew we needed to be to accomplish His purpose for our life. That’s big! We don’t have time to develop this today, but it means that my height, build, looks, physical characteristics, mental capacity, innate abilities are all exactly what God intended to enable me to glorify Him. Any failure to cooperate with or appreciate the package is a slap at Him. God has equipped me for an eternal purpose. God told Jeremiah in 1:5, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” This is God saying to a flawed man, being born into a flawed universe, “Taking all that into account, you are uniquely suited to accomplish my purpose for you.” I take it then that I am perfect for the ministry that God has for me.
But this really gets good at Mary’s second qualification. Look at Lu 1:28, “And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” Mary was also qualified spiritually. She was favored, and the Lord was with her. This is the greeting that threw Mary. Her reaction is, “Who, me? Favored? The Lord with me? Come on. I’m nothing special.” But, of course she was. She was special. But why was she special? Because she was wonderful? No! Now, Mary was a gifted, sensitive, wise young woman. She was a standout for her personal, character and spiritual qualities, no doubt. Way beyond ordinary. But what made her special in this sense had nothing to do with her and everything to do with God. She was favored – that’s an act of God. And the Lord was with her – another act of God. She opened the door by her repentant heart and godliness, but she was aghast that God favored her! Who me, favored by God? She could hardly believe it.
But hang on to your seat. See the word “favored”? It’s the verb form of the word “grace.” Greetings, O “graced one.” What a privileged position for Mary – to be graced by God! Marvelous, isn’t it? Now – get this. That word is used only one other place in the NT. It’s in Eph 1:5-6. “In love 5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.” See the word “blessed”? Same word translated “favored” in Luke 1:28. So, there are two people said to be favored, “graced” in the NT. There is Mary – and there is us! Everyone who has been chosen, predestined, adopted, forgiven and redeemed – we are also favored. Mary has nothing on any of us who have been truly redeemed by her Son. The Lord has favored and is with us every bit as much as He was with Mary.
Then, Romans 12:6, “Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them.” The word grace is χαρις (charis) in Greek. The word “gifts” in this verse is χαριμα (charisma) – expressions of grace. Χαρις – χαρισμα! Elsewhere the Bible calls these spiritual gifts – expressions of grace – God’s special way of being “with us” as He was with Mary, equipping us to minister for Him. What a package. Little people, fully equipped by the presence and gifts of God to be instruments of His grace. So every believer is uniquely qualified by physical birth and spiritual re-birth to serve His Lord. In fact, that is the whole purpose for existence. Servants are not primarily those with advanced degrees and experience and personality. Servants are those allowing God to express Himself in their lives through the spiritual gifting with which He has graced them.
Recessions cause unusual circumstances in job markets. One unemployed physicist got tired of hearing prospective employers say, “Sorry, but you’re overqualified.” So, he prepared a new batch of resumes that omitted details of his educational background including his Master’s and Phd degrees. Within 2 weeks he got an engineering job. He said instead of listing his degrees under qualifications, he put them under “other interests.” Dear friends, God loves any education and experience we can get. But those are not qualifications for service. The qualification for service is “God with us” and we have that in spades by the gifting God has given us.
In his early years, David became an amazing military commander under King Saul. But we are told why in I Sam 18:14, “And David had success in all his undertakings, for the LORD was with him.” It wasn’t his charismatic personality – not his innate intelligence – not even his extraordinary boldness. God used all of those, but David succeeded for one reason -- the LORD was with him. And the Lord is with you and me too. The issue is, are we with Him? The only thing that stops us – is us. I Cor 1:26-29: “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 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; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” Service is about little people glorifying a great God. We all qualify! Little people!
II. Little Things
Lu 1:31: “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus.” Service is little people doing little things. Now you’re probably saying, Wait a minute. God is asking Mary to give birth to Messiah. That is no small thing. And it’s true that the end result is a big thing. It is a great, impossible thing. But God is not asking Mary to perform a virgin birth. God is asking Mary to have a baby. Millions of women do that every day! Have a baby! Relatively speaking, it’s a small thing. The virgin part – that’s for God to do! All He’s asking her to do is have a baby. That is exactly why Lu 1:37 doesn’t say, “For nothing will be impossible with Mary.” Is that what it says? Of course not. It says, “For nothing will be impossible with God.” That is for the simple reason that the impossible part is on God. Mary – she’s just going to have a baby.
All David did was sling a stone from his slingshot just like he had done a thousand times before. All Daniel did was lay down and sleep like he had a thousand times before. All Moses did was stretch out his arm like he had done a thousand times before. All Elijah did was pray like he had a thousand times before. The fact that Goliath fell and the lions slept and the Red Sea parted and fire fell from heaven – that was God’s part. Do you see? God doesn’t ask us to do the impossible, He asks us to do little things so He can do the impossible. We do what we can – He does the rest. Great partnership.
Guess how many souls Billy Graham has saved? Care to guess? Not one – not one single solitary one? He’s preached thousands of sermons and seen millions respond to the invitation, God’s the one who changed hearts. Beloved, God is not asking us to do the impossible. He’s asking us to do the small things that we can do so that He can do the impossible. He’s not asking you to bring your neighbors to church; He’s asking you to invite them so that He can bring them if He chooses. Do you see? God’s not asking you to save your friend. He’s asking you to tell your friend what Jesus has done in your heart so that He can save your friend if He chooses. Service is little people doing little things to unleash a great God.
Christian theologian and author Randy Alcorn spoke at a new church one morning after which a young woman came up and asked, “Do you remember the young man sitting next to you on a plane headed to college? You gave him a copy of your novel Deadline." After they talked for a bit longer, Alcorn remembered him – a young unbeliever with whom he had a brief conversation, and to whom he had given the book, praying for him as he left the plane. Then, like Paul Harvey’s, “The Rest of the Story,” the woman went on, "He told me he never contacted you, so you would not know what happened. At college, he checked into the dorm, sat down, and read your book. When he was done, he confessed his sins and gave his life to Jesus. I can honestly tell you, he's the most dynamic Christian I have ever met."
See, when we do the little things that God asks, there is always a “rest of the story” – the part we don’t see this side of eternity, but for which we will be forever grateful one of these days. We will have eternity to celebrate great victories from our time on earth, but we have only this brief window of opportunity now to win those victories. As missionary C. T. Studd said, "Only one life, ‘twill soon be past; only what's done for Christ will last." What will last for eternity? Not your car, house, degrees, trophies, or business. What will last for eternity is every service to the needy, every dollar given to feed the hungry, every cup of cold water given to the thirsty, every investment in missions, every act of help to those who need it, every effort invested in evangelism, and every moment spent caring for precious children – including rocking them to sleep and changing their diapers. The Bible says we will reap in eternity what we have planted in this life (Galatians 6:7-8).
There was a very cautious man
Who never laughed or played;
He never risked, he never tried,
He never sang or prayed.
And when he one day passed away
His insurance was denied;
For since he never really lived,
They claimed he never died!
Are we really living? If only what is done for Christ will last, is there any record of your existence in the records of heaven? Does your life count? Serving the King? Service is little but qualified people, doing little, but important things, in a fine way for a great God. Count me in. Let’s pray.