'Let It Be To Me': The Upside Down Kingdom of God


On Tuesday, Feb. 5, I spoke in chapel at Ouachita Baptist University for its Christian Focus Week. The theme of the week was “Here am I.” I graduated from OBU in 2005, and it was such a special, surreal opportunity to be back at my alma mater declaring God’s Word. I’m grateful to have had this opportunity. Below is the full message I gave to the Ouachita students. I hope God will continue to use it to encourage and bless you. Thank you for your prayers for me.

“For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.’” Isa. 57:15

This week’s theme is “Here am I,” and what an aspirational phrase it is! Many or perhaps most of us in this room aspire to do great things for God. We want to be able to say “Here am I,” which implies a “Use me. Send me. I am yours.”

But just so that we don’t misunderstand how this phrase should be taken biblically, let me begin by saying what it isn’t. The Christian “Here am I” is not meant to be self-serving. It’s not a statement about me and what I am able to offer to God as if God is fortunate to have me on his side in his employment. It is also not, and perhaps even a more frightening prospect, a statement to the world, as if I possess something divine that the world needs. Pop psychology seems to always say the same thing: what the world needs more of is you, your true, authentic self.

Rather, a biblical or Christian understanding of “Here am I” is that it is the proper response of an individual to God’s calling initiative. You see, our “Here am I,” is only made possible because the great I AM has come. Our here I am is a response to the I Am who is here, the I Am Who I Am who took on flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth. We can only say “Here am I” to God because God first says “Here I am” to us.

We can only say ‘Here am I’ to God because God first says ‘Here I am’ to us.

So this morning I want to tease out from Scripture what it means to say “Here am I” to God and what it looks like in the kingdom of God. If you really want to do great things for God, then what will that mean?

Well let’s take a look at our passage this morning which was beautifully read for us. I want us to look at this passage and specifically at Mary because I believe Luke leaves her story in his Gospel in part as an example for us to follow. Moreover I believe Mary shows us what true Christian discipleship looks like. Sadly, Mary has been overlooked by many Protestants in the past reserved only for a Christmas play because we either see her as a heroine for feminists or as someone to be prayed to by Catholics. But Mary doesn’t belong to just one or any group. She is the first disciple of Jesus, the first one to experience the promised outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the mother of the Son of God. By God’s providence and desire, Luke includes her story, her inspired words, and her song all to the glory of God. So let’s turn there now.

Mary is not who the readers and listeners of Luke’s Gospel would expect. And, if we’re honest, she is not the kind of person we would expect for God to use to do great things. Unlike Zechariah in the passage prior who ranked higher in society than Mary and had the credentials of someone you’d expect for God to use (he was an ordained priest!), Mary was at the bottom of society. She was a female, which ranked her lower than men. She was very young, between the ages of 12 and 14. She was poor and of humble estate. To be honest, from all we can tell, she is an ordinary girl, insignificant really, nobody special, from an insignificant village called Nazareth. Nazareth is north of Jerusalem nestled in the Galilean hills. In Mary’s day it was so small and unimportant that the we don’t find any mention of the town outside the New Testament until the 3rd century after Christ. Today, it’s a bigger place and of course is now of greater importance; I’ve been there. But during Mary’s day it was nothing special. I imagine that it could be likened to a small mountain town we might find in the Ozark Mountains here in north Arkansas. And let’s not forget what Nathanael said in John 1 when Philip came to bring him to follow Jesus, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” The expected answer is no!

If I were to ask you this morning to describe what a person whom God uses for great things looks like or the kind of person you aspire to be, how would you describe that ideal candidate? Would that description look more like Mary, like Zechariah, or like a certain Christian celebrity? The first two publishers I pitched my book proposal to came back with almost identical responses: “This is a great proposal and a good idea for a book. There’s nothing out there like it. However, you don’t have a big platform. Your name is not recognizable, and you don’t have the credentials we believe of someone who should write this book.” Basically, they were affirming what I already knew and had been telling God—I was a nobody. I didn’t fit the mold of a female Christian author; I wouldn’t make them any money.

But when we turn to Scripture we see that while publishers, conferences, churches, and maybe us in the pews are looking for celebrities—people with big personalities, who make us laugh, inspire us, and who seem to buck the system—God is looking for the nobodies of this world!

When we start listing the people God used in Scripture, their combined resumes go something like this: murderers, adulterers, stutterers, slaves, too old, too young, persecutors, shepherds, fishermen, uneducated and females. (I include females in this list because of the significance of using females in a patriarchal culture.)

You see, God is building his kingdom one underdog and one nobody at a time. “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit!” Do you want to be great in the kingdom of God? If so, the answer is counter-cultural. The answer is not popular, antithetical to the flesh. You must humble yourself.

God is building his kingdom one underdog and one nobody at a time.

Jesus said, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Mary, who had no credentials, who ranked low, who we would not even had paid attention to if she were alive today, found favor with God. “Greetings, O favored one. The Lord is with you.”  The word “favored one” is related to the word grace, and can be translated as someone who has received divine grace. God saw Mary when no one else saw her. She may have been overlooked by the world but not by God.

And unless we miss the significance of finding favor with God, let’s briefly turn back in our Bibles to Exodus 33.

After the Lord said to Moses that it was time to depart Sinai, the place where the people had rested after leaving Egypt, Moses appealed to God about who will go with him. Moses said, “You say to me, ‘Bring up this people,’ but you have not let me know whom you will send with me. If I have found favor in your sight, please show me now your ways, that I may know you in order to find favor in your sight.’ And God said, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” And Moses said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people?” The Lord said to Moses, “This very thing that you have spoken I will do, for you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” And he said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name The Lord. And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” Then God hid Moses in the cleft of a rock and covered him with his hand as his glory passed by.

How does Moses know that he had found God’s favor? By the promise of God’s presence with Moses and the people. God’s favor equals God’s presence, and God’s presence equals God’s favor. But God’s glory is such that Moses cannot even see the face of God and live. The way God’s presence, then, was to dwell with this sinful people was in the tabernacle. Exodus 40 ends in this way: “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.”

Returning back to our passage now, we see that Gabriel came to Mary with the same promises that were given to Moses. “Greetings, O favored one.” How do we know she is favored? “The Lord is with you.” Why is the Lord with Mary? The words to Moses should echo in our ears: “Because I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and I will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. For you have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.” The emphasis here is not on Mary but on God’s attributes and character. Mary is just a sinner like you and me, but because God is a gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Ex. 34:6-8), and God knows Mary by name. Theologian Karl Barth says correctly, “The presence of God is thus the grace of God.”

Yet it gets even more incredible! Whereas Moses, who could not see the face of God and live, who could not enter the tabernacle when the glory of the Lord had settled on it, Mary, this nobody of a girl, experienced the overshadowing of the Most High, the coming down of the Holy Spirit upon her, and within her womb she carried the Son of the Most High. Moses couldn’t see the face of God, but Mary held the face of God in her arms and hands. “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known” (Jn. 1:18). Mary herself became a tabernacle for the glory of the Lord, and in this way she is a unique individual in history. But Mary also represents what God does for the rest of us, who like her, are sinners.

She shows us that we cannot manipulate God and his favor like we can manipulate our phones, watches or apps. God sees through our filters, our pictures and our fake identities and accounts. But let this be good news for you today. If you feel that no one sees you, if you feel that you will never live up to those standards of the Christian celebrity culture, of your church, of your family, or even of the Ouachita culture, we serve a God who sees those who no one else sees. We serve a God who loves and redeems sinners. We worship a God who dwells with the lowly. No we cannot earn or manipulate God’s favor, nor would we want or need to, because God’s favor has been given freely out of his unrestrained love to us who are in Jesus Christ.

God’s favor has been given freely out of his unrestrained love to us who are in Jesus Christ.

Hear the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians: “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. 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. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

What Mary experienced, the gift of the Holy Spirit, the presence of God with her, the reversal of her status from a nobody to favored, are the first fruits of what all Christians receive in Christ! If you are in Christ, then God’s favor and grace have come upon you, his face shines upon you, and he has made you his temple where his presence dwells by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19).

If you are in Christ, then God’s favor and grace have come upon you, his face shines upon you, and he has made you his temple where his presence dwells by the Holy Spirit.

Lest we think Mary is the heroine in this passage or that my message today is look solely to Mary, then I will have failed. Mary’s life and witness of what it means to be a Christian disciple does not ultimately point to herself but to the babe she carried.

In the act of choosing an underdog, such as Mary, to be the mother of the Son of God and by taking on her flesh, God made a statement about the kind of human and the kind of king he was choosing to be. God intentionally and deliberately became the son of an underdog, thereby becoming an underdog himself, taking insignificant Nazareth as his hometown, going to the lowest of lows on our behalf.

This king Jesus, who was born of Mary, was born not in a palace but in a manger. This Son of God “had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” (Isa 53:2-3).

This is the king “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God, a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Phil. 2)

Our God, the God we have been singing to and worshipping this morning, is the God who moved toward us in a downward direction, whose Son was willing to give up—not his deity—but his majesty and wealth for a time in order to go to the lowest of lows on our behalf. As St. Augustine says, “Proud man (and woman) would have died had not a lowly God found him.”

This means that before God highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name (Phil. 2), the Son of God first went low. He went to the womb of an underdog then went even lower to a cross and then went to the lowest of lows, the grave.

No, Jesus never stopped being God nor did he ever put aside his deity. But for a time he cloaked his true identity not pretending to be one of us but by actually becoming one of us, not putting on a disguise that is easily discarded but by actually taking flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, really becoming one of us and with us, so that he cannot abandon us anymore than he can abandon his own flesh, as theologian T.F. Torrance says. You see, Jesus went even lower than his mother Mary so that he might save and raise up Mary along with all who place their faith and trust in him. Submission and humiliation precede exaltation and blessing.

The words of the hymn, “Thou Who Wast Rich Beyond All Splendor,” sum this up nicely:

Thou who wast rich beyond all splendor,

All for love’s sake became poor;

Thrones for a manger did he surrender,

Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.

Thou who is God beyond all praising,

All for love’s sake became man;

Stooping so low, but sinners raising

Heavenwards by thine eternal plan.

Brothers and sisters, how do we respond to this message of grace and love? Mary shows us how. You see to be low or humble doesn’t mean, necessarily, being poor monetarily. Rather, those who have a contrite and lowly spirit are those who have been touched and moved by the grace of God in Jesus Christ and who submit to him in humility. “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord,” Elizabeth said of Mary.

Mary believes and then asks for an explanation. How will this be since I am a virgin? What we see here in this passage is faith seeking understanding! The angel answered her, With God all things are possible. Jesus reiterated this truth in his ministry when a father of a young boy came to him and said, “If you can cast out the demon then have compassion on us and help us!” Jesus says, “If I can! All things are possible for one who believes.” Faith, which itself was a gift from God, led Mary to submission, “I am the servant of the Lord. Let it be to me according to your word.”

I still don’t understand the how but I know the Who and the I Am Who I Am is with me. I know that this may cost me all I have, especially my betrothed husband, and I can’t see the end result, but let it be to me. I am of low or humble estate, but I’m going to bow even lower and become a servant, your servant, for being your servant in your household is better and higher than any position this world has to offer.

Brothers and sisters, we worship a king, whose name is Jesus, who came down the ladder voluntarily in unrestrained, overflowing love so that he may forever be ours and us his and raise us up to life with him on high, and we will behold his glory face-to-face. Who God was for Mary is who God is for us in Jesus Christ. We might say this morning that in Christ God is turning the world upside down. But perhaps it’d be more precise to say: in Christ God is turning the world right side up.

In a Vanity Fair world where striving for what is not worth having is everything, let us respond to God, joining our voices with Mary, and sing:

Take my life and let it be

Consecrated, Lord, to Thee

Take my moments and my days

Let them flow in ceaseless praise

Take my hands and let them move

At the impulse of Thy love

Take my feet and let them be swift and beautiful for Thee

Take my voice and let me sing always, only, for my King

Take my lips and let them be filled with messages from Thee

Take my silver and my gold, not a mite would I withhold

Take my intellect and use every power as You choose

Here am I

All of me

Take my life

It’s all for Thee.