Last week, I talked about how ultimate happiness comes from meaning. If you find meaning in life, you have happiness. The meaning of life comes from usefulness. So, when you make yourself useful, you find life meaningful, and you harvest the fruit of joy and happiness.
Some of us may be thinking, “I’m getting old and useless.” It’s not true. Usefulness can be both active and passive. If you are young and strong, you can be actively useful. If you are old and feeble, you can be passively useful—such as praying frequently for the church, family, community, and the world. The power of prayer is highly underrated.
So, don’t be discouraged by diminishing physical ability. There are many creative ways to serve.
A more important question is, who would you rather serve? It reminds me of a thought-provoking story told by Zhuangzi, the great philosopher.
Zhuangzi and his disciples traveled through a forested hill and passed by a huge tree. He was surprised to see the loggers ignore such a majestic tree. So, he asked a logger why they did not cut this beefy tree down and made a lot of money. They told him that the tree was useless. You couldn’t make anything out of it. No carpenter or builder would buy it.
Zhuangzi remarked to his students, “This is the value of uselessness. People only understand the value of usefulness but not the value of uselessness. See, just because it’s useless, this tree gets to live to the full extent of its life.” His disciples took note of that observation.
They stopped to visit a friend on the other side of the hill. As a lifelong admirer, the host family welcomed the sage warmly and enthusiastically asked them to stay for dinner. Immediately, the host asked the servant boy to kill a goose to treat the guests.
The boy asked, “Sir, which one should I kill—the one that honks or doesn’t.” (In case you don’t know, just like dogs, house geese can guard the property by honking when strangers or thieves approach. Like dogs, they even attack suspicious strangers.) The host said, “Kill the one that doesn’t honk.”
The smart students of Zhuangzi heard it and noticed it contradicted what their master had taught them on the way. The next day, the disciples challenged their master, “Master, you told us back on the hill that the tree gets to live long because it’s useless, but why then did the useless goose get killed?”
Zhuangzi said he didn’t say uselessness is always good. You need to know the situation. There are times you better be useless and times you better be useful. Then, he gave them a long lecture on knowing when, where, and how to be useful and useless and, most importantly, how to be useful for a higher purpose.
This story stimulates a self-searching on who you want to be useful to. Do you want to be a useful employee to be exploited by a cunning company—like a useful tree getting chopped off by the loggers? Or do you want to be a good steward, guarding a good owner’s property like the honking goose? Who do you want to serve?
When our son asked me what I thought about him joining the army years ago, I told him if you wanted to be a soldier, it would be a great honor to serve a country like the U.S.
On the contrary, you would rather be useless if you live in a totalitarian nation that goes to war for vanity, exploiting its soldiers. We have two major wars going on right now. If you were in any of those countries, would you rather be useful or useless?
We are born to be useful. When we are young, we seek to be useful to our parents, siblings, friends, and teachers. As we grow older, we seek to be useful to society by pursuing a meaningful career. As we grow more mature, we want to be useful for a greater purpose, such as to be useful to God and fulfill a divine dream, because that gives us the ultimate joy and happiness.
Confucious said people discover their divine purpose when they are 50. I think it’s sad that we have to live half of our lives before we discover our divine purpose.
But there are instances in the Bible where people discovered their calling when they were young. For example, Joseph in the Old Testament knew his divine dream since he was seventeen. Mary received her divine calling when she was only about fifteen. Jesus wants us to seek our divine purpose as our top priority. He said,
“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” (Mt 6:33).
Everything falls together when you do this one thing. If being useful to God gives you the greatest meaning and highest joy in life, how do we become useful to God?
Since it’s Advent season, we can explore this question by looking at Mary, who made herself available to God to carry “God in human form” to earth as a baby and accompany him all the way to the cross and become the greatest woman in human history. So, let’s begin!
[Hi, in case we haven’t met yet, I am Sam Stone, the Lightkeeper—you are the light of the world, and I am the keeper! (No pun intended). It’s my calling to help you shine your brightest so that God is glorified in you and you are satisfied in God.]
The Scripture lesson for today, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, is from the Gospel According to Luke 1:26-38. [Listen to the Word of the Lord!]
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”
29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36 And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”
38 Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her. (Lk 1:26–38).
[Blessed are those who delight in God’s word. Thanks be to God!]
The story begins by telling us the time of the year,
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.” (Lk 1:26-27).
What does the sixth month mean? According to the Syro-Macedonian lunar calendar, which Luke was referring to, the sixth month is around March and April in our Gregorian calendar.
If we wonder whether Christmas is really around December, “the sixth month” gives us a clue. Since Mary was pregnant in March, Jesus was likely born in December. We know it’s not December 25th, but it’s not that far off based on what Luke reveals to us.
Mary was just a young peasant girl from an obscure town of Nazareth, where people commonly believed, “Nothing good could come out of Nazareth.” It makes you wonder why didn’t God use someone more influential, like King Herod’s daughter, a princess, to carry God’s child. Jesus would have been popular from birth, influential, and a legitimate future king of Israel.
Before we discover why God chose Mary, we must know God’s purpose because the message determines the messenger.
Jesus’ obscure birth reveals that God didn’t come to create a superficial change but a profound change. Mary’s pregnancy with God’s child also symbolizes God came inside humans to transform us from the inside out.
Selecting the unpopular town of Nazareth also indicates God doesn’t want prominence and popularity, which could become a distraction to God’s purpose. Ultimately, the fact that Jesus was born humbly in a lowly manger reveals God went all the way to obscurity to change the world from the bottom up rather than the top down.
If you look at Jesus’ ministry from this perspective, you will see Jesus came for a spiritual reformation rather than an intellectual, political, or social reformation. Surely, the government was corrupted, religion was depraved, and society was oppressed. Everyone was looking for a Messiah to replace the government and liberate them from oppression.
If God only removed the oppressive government, another form of oppression would soon replace it if people didn’t change. We have seen many instances around the world, including Burma, Iraq, and elsewhere, caught in the endless cycle of oppression and dictatorship. As the late Dr. Norman Vincint Peale said,
“Our mission is not to change the government but to prepare the people. If the people are ready, the government cannot stay the same.” ~Norman Vincint Peale
Of course, God’s purpose is much bigger than toppling an oppressive government. God wants to topple the evil force that rules our minds and keeps us victimized. But, it cannot be done from the outside in but inside out.
We usually have a government we deserve. To be governed by God in God’s kingdom, we must be transformed from the inside out through God’s grace. That’s why Jesus said, “The kingdom is within you.” (Lk 17:21).
I call it Spiritual Reformation. Paul said,
“You are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” (2 Co 3:3).
There are many verses in the Bible indicating Jesus came for Spiritual Reformation. For example, God said through Prophet Ezekial,
“A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.” (Eze 36:26).
By the way, do you know the distance between heaven and hell? Some of you know because I’ve told you before. Remember, the distance between heaven and hell is about 18 inches away—the distance between your heart and your head. It means head knowledge doesn’t change people; only the renewal of the heart does.
If Jesus introduced a spiritual reformation to the world, how similar is Christianity today to Jesus’ teaching? Today’s Christianity is the outcome of the 16th-century Reformation, which is more of an intellectual reformation than a spiritual one.
History shows intellectual change doesn’t change people. The Pharisaic reformation (the Pharisees’ movement) was an intellectual one. That’s why, if you look carefully, Christians today look more like the Pharisees than Jesus’ disciples.
I am not talking about you; I’m talking about some others out there because, in our church, we follow Jesus’ spiritual reformation. I am just kidding. We must be humble to be spiritual. I just want to remind us to avoid repeating the history of the Pharisees.
The Pharisees belong to a “Back to the Bible” movement of the 5th century BCE. They were very intellectual and highly faithful to the intellectual interpretation of the Bible. But they were so spiritually bankrupt in Jesus’ time, as we see in the Bible. They knew the Bible but missed Jesus. Jesus said,
“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Mt 5:20).
According to Jesus, righteousness is loving God and loving people, nothing more and nothing less. That’s why the heart of the matter is the matter of the heart.
Now that we know why Jesus came, let’s find out why God chose Mary. The answer is simple: availability and readiness. She made herself usable to God. Of course, Mary was frightened at the beginning when Agnel Gabrial appeared and greeted her. Luke says,
“But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.” (Lk 1:29).
The word “perplexed” was translated from the Greek word “διαταράσσω [diatarasso],” which literally means she was “scared to death.”
She felt comforted when the angel told her not to be afraid but then he told her that she would conceive God’s son. Her fear turned into an intellectual concern,
Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Lk 1:34).
Then, the angel explained how she would conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. I am sure she didn’t understand the whole thing, as we cannot fathom it to this day. But the angel assured her at the end,
“For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Lk 1:37).
For her, it must sound like a reminder rather than new information. She had political concerns. Intellectual concerns. Social concerns. Reputation concerns. Relational concerns. A myriad of questions must be floating in her head. But to be useful to God matters to her more than all her concerns.
Mary may be young, but her ambition is immense, offering herself to be useful to God and becoming a woman who transformed the world like never before or after. Since the angel had reminded her that nothing would be impossible with God, she said,
“Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Lk 1:38c).
It reminds us of the Beatle’s song, “Let it be,” which came from Mary’s response to God’s calling. “Let it be” makes us useful to God. “Let it be” is Mary’s word of wisdom, simple but profound. “Let it be” turns this peasant girl from an obscure town into the mother of “God in flesh” to kick off the Spiritual Reformation for generations to come. She became the mother of the king whose kingdom never ends.
“Let it be” is the same as “let go and let God.” These five beautiful English words are so simple yet so profound. What do you need to let go? Like Mary, let go of overthinking. We are not ready to be used by God because we carry too many burdens and concerns in our heads.
We must let go of the overthinking to let God use us to continue the Spiritual Reformation. So, let’s make ourselves useful to God by saying, LET … IT … BE!
That’s it for today. I hope you find this message illuminating as much as I enjoy receiving it from the Head Office. Until we meet again, keep your light shining brighter and broader, and harvest the fruit of profound freedom, purpose, and happiness.