Week 3: Who's Your Monkey?
Pastor Rick Henderson December 16-17, 2023
Welcome to week three of our Christmas series. If you haven’t been able to join us yet, this is something we’ve been saying.
Christmas isn’t an escape. It’s an INVASION.
What does that even mean? I know it sounds like a slogan for a mashup sci-fi, Christmas movie. Something like this.
This is a real movie. But that’s not what we mean.
Christmas isn’t an escape. It’s an INVASION.
We don’t need anyone to make the case that the world isn’t quite right. We know. And if we get honest with ourselves, we don’t need anyone to make the case that we’re not quite right. Yeah, that includes the kind of moral choices where we know we’re in the wrong. But it also includes experiences like shame, anxiety, longing for control, insecurity and the list just keeps on going. There’s lots of stuff out there, and there is stuff in you and in me that can be summed up in a single word…
Christmas isn’t a time to pretend. Christmas isn’t a season to try and temporarily escape the darkness in the world and the darkness in us. It’s much better than that. It’s a time to remember that the light has come to invade and even overcome the darkness. It’s the very reason Jesus said this.
JOHN 8:12 I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.
I want to walk in the light, and I want life that is truly life. I want it for me, and I want it for you. Before we turn our attention to that, can we first be honest about one of the ways that we experience darkness? If I can be blunt with you, the thing I want to talk about is getting worse. It’s not going to get better on its own. It’s not going to just go away. What I’m talking about is the rise of loneliness.
RISE OF LONELINESS:
We don’t have time for me to give an exhaustive list of contributing factors. Let’s set the table by looking at two.
- We are becoming more tribal in the harmful ways and less tribal in the healthy ways.
As a people, we are losing our ability to happily associate with those who see the world differently. As a people, we are becoming less curious. We’re growing more and more unwilling to seek to understand people on the other side of whatever issue or ideology. Differences have evolved into walls of division. Please hear me—agreement is a pathetic and anemic foundation for unity and community. Only being with the people who agree with us is a fast track to loneliness.
But we’re also losing the healthy ways of being a part of a tribe by being pushed more and more into individualism. Here’s one example. The older you are, the more likely you will learn a needed skill from someone who loved you and knew you. That could be anything from how to bake a turkey to how to change an alternator.
The younger you are, the more likely it is that you learned that needed skill from YouTube. I’m not dogging that. I learned how to change my truck’s oil on YouTube. But then I had my daughter change it with me. Girl dad. That’s just one of the ways that a healthy tribe is slipping away and one of many causes of the rise of loneliness.
- We can be connected to everyone without being connected to anyone.
Digital connection is a real experience, and it has amazing benefits. I love it. And yet, a digital connection is a hollow substitute for the real thing. Did you know that there are recent studies that show a decline in anxiety for people who attend a religious service each week? But check this out. For those who attend just as frequently, but only online, there is no observable decrease in anxiety.
This isn’t an anti-technology or anti-social media message. But, c’mon. You are smart, and you are savvy. You know all the same facts about it as I do. There is a mental health epidemic among teenage girls, and the boys are tracking just behind them. Anxiety, depression, and loneliness are becoming normal.
The people who are in the know, the people who study this, are telling us that loneliness and all the mental health concerns that come with it are on the rise for teenagers, young adults, and those in a lower income bracket. Overall, the rates of loneliness have gone down from the spike we saw in 2020. But the levels of loneliness for all demographics are still too high. An honest look at loneliness in America is pushing us to admit that darkness is settling in. And it’s not going to just go away.
How exactly does Jesus bring light to that darkness? How does this transition from nice words that we say at church to real experiences in the messiness of your life and mine? We’re going to see it in the true story of Christmas.
Grab a Bible or use your phone and turn to Luke 1.
There are three things we all need. Together they create a kind of vaccine against loneliness.
This is when someone is truly aware of us and knows what’s true about us. This is a big deal. We all want to be seen, but it’s not enough.
We also need to be understood. We don’t just need people who see us and who know what’s true about us. We need people who know the why behind the what. They know more than the pieces that make us who we are. They know why and how all the pieces fit together the way they do. This is when someone really gets us.
This is what we all want. When someone knows us, understands us, and accepts us, that’s our deepest desire. But it also creates one of our biggest fears. How do you get over being known, understood, and then rejected?
Take away any one of these three needs, and the darkness of loneliness sets in. But do you know what it is when we experience all three together? That’s what it means to be loved. That’s how Jesus brings light to the darkness. I want you to see it in the true story of Christmas.
I don’t know if you’ve ever really seen it before. But once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
LUKE 1:126-28 In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
She was highly what? What do you think that means, she was highly favored? Does this mean that God did a scan of all the potential moms in Israel to see who was the best? I don’t mean to make it weird. But was God on the lookout, evaluating and searching for someone good enough to be Jesus’ mom? Is that what this means? I think it’s easy to think about it like that. If that’s been what you thought, or that’s what you casually assumed, you’re not alone. That’s how it was presented to me growing up. But we don’t have a single good reason to think of it that way.
This was originally written in koine Greek. In that language, highly favored is just one word. It’s a verb form of the word grace. The message was quite literally, you are highly graced! The Lord is with you! Let’s be clear about what grace means.
Grace is UNDESERVED kindness.
I don’t mean to imply that there was something wrong with her. Take a serious look at Mary and you will see a young woman with gutsy faith and a backbone. You will see a young woman with high resilience and deep theology. She clears a bar that I don’t know that I’ll ever clear. To be highly favored or highly graced was a declaration that she was…
…by God. For his own reasons, God looked at her and declared, “I see you. I get you. I want you.” She was highly graced. But I’m sure that’s not what it felt like at first. Let’s keep reading.
LUKE 1:29-37 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He 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, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
What is she asking? She’s asking, “Do you really understand who you picked? Do you really understand who you think you know? If you really understood me and what my life is like the kind of choices I make or don’t make with men—you’d understand that this isn’t going to work.
It felt like a key piece was missing. How many of us know what it’s like to come to the realization that someone close to us knows us but doesn’t really know us? What I’m talking about is the friction between being known, but not understood. What does it feel like when a would-be friend or partner knows you but doesn’t get you, doesn’t understand the real you? What does it feel like if you have to hide part of your true self to be accepted? That’s a version of loneliness, and it feels like a rejection because their acceptance of us is based on misunderstanding us.
I bet some in this room aren’t letting people know the real you because it feels safer to get acceptance based on the fictional version of you than face rejection of the true version of you. Could that be a part of Mary’s question, “How can this be?” Am I highly graced based on a misunderstanding?
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”
The response that the angel gives flips it back on Mary. In this matter-of-fact, polite way he communicates, “I know that you think you’re the one who isn’t understood. The truth is that you don’t understand.” God didn’t choose Mary based on her ability. He chose her based on his ability.
I don’t know if you noticed this, but twice in this short conversation it’s declared to Mary that she is highly favored. Let me say it again if you didn’t hear it the first time. Mary, you are highly graced.
I want to talk to all of you. Do you know that your heavenly father knows you, understands you, and accepts you? He loves you. He doesn’t love us for our lovability. He loves us because he is love. God can do anything he wants to do for us and with us. Maybe the biggest thing that gets in the way of embracing that we are wanted and accepted by him is the fact that we misunderstand him.
There’s something else we need to see. Who else did the angel talk about?
Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month.
Here’s the quick back story. Elizabeth was married to a priest named Zechariah. They couldn’t have kids and were at the age where everyone knew it wasn’t possible. And yet, God did what God does. She got preggers. All babies are special, but she was pregnant with John the Baptist. This is the guy who God used to get people ready for Jesus.
Let yourself see it. This angel shared a double-barreled message of being highly graced. You’re not alone because God is with you. But you’ve also got someone else who can understand you better than anyone else. Your relative, Elizabeth, is also miraculously pregnant. You are not alone. God is with you; you’ve got a ride-or-die partner in this too. It was after hearing that that Mary was able to say this.
LUKE 1:38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
You know what I find fascinating? The angel could have said, “Don’t worry. I’m going to have a talk with your fiancé Joseph. He’s going to be so cool with this.” That’s a detail that would have been helpful. For whatever reason, that was left out. I don’t have an explanation for that. I just have an observation. Mary’s ability to be at peace was only expressed after being reassured that someone else knew her and understood her and would accept her and have her back. I had a professor in college who used to say this.
God’s love often comes with human fingerprints. –Jerry Windsor
This is powerful. God loves to use other people to convince us and reassure us that he loves us and that we are not alone. Keep this in mind as we read what comes next.
LUKE 1:39-45 At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”
Can you see these three ingredients in Mary’s interaction with Elizabeth?
Elizabeth didn’t just know Mary; she understood her in a way that no one else on the planet could understand. And Elizabeth embraced her and celebrated her. This is powerful. It’s saturated with the supernatural work of God all over it. Even little John, in utero, reacted. Woman to woman, and unborn baby to unborn baby. There was a divinely orchestrated love. This is light invading the darkness.
I’m going to ask you something, and I kind of hope that you’ve experienced it, but I also hope that you haven’t. Does anyone in here have any experience with being known, misunderstood, and rejected? Do you have any experience with that, but then there was someone who, in the middle of all of that, really got you, embraced you, and delighted in you?
That had to be Mary’s story. People didn’t understand what was happening with her. People would have shamed her and gossiped about her. But there was one person who really saw and embraced her. And this was Mary’s response.
LUKE 1:46-55 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me— holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.”
What we just read is called the Magnificat. This young woman was inspired by God to contribute to scripture by singing this song. It’s not some dainty, pop song. This is a theologically rich worship song sung by a lioness. Instead of making observations about what was sung, I want to make an observation about when it was sung.
Mary didn’t SING until after she was SEEN by Elizabeth.
God often uses other people to help us see just how known, understood, and accepted we are by him. God often uses other people to not only reinforce how much he loves us but also to unleash our response of delight and love for him in return.
Henry Cloud is a clinical psychologist, leadership expert, and author. I’d strongly encourage you to read anything he’s written. Let me share with you one thing I read by him.
One of my favorite studies was done years ago with monkeys, measuring the effects of relationships on cortisol levels in the brain. (Cortisol is a hormone associated with high levels of stress.) In this particular experiment, a monkey was put in a cage and exposed to a high level of psychological stress, including loud noises and flashing lights. They pretty much scared him to death.
When the monkey was totally terrified, the scientists took a baseline measure of stress hormone levels in the monkey's brain as it was exposed to these stressors.
Next, the researchers introduced one change into the experiment: they opened the door and put a buddy, another monkey, into the cage. That was it. They exposed the monkeys to the same loud noises and flashing lights, and then took another measure of stress hormones. The Result? The level of stress hormones in the brain had dropped in half. The lone monkey was only half as good at handling stress as the pair was together.
So my question for you guys… who's your monkey?!
A couple of months ago, I shared that with our staff. And I told them, “I just want to be a monkey in the cage with you.” The next day I found this on my desk. In return, somebody wanted to express to me, “I’m your monkey.”
Elizabeth was Mary’s MONKEY.
This will go down as the strangest sermon point in the history of Autumn Ridge. Who’s your monkey, and are you a monkey for someone else? You might need to tell somebody. You can even do it right now: “I’m your monkey.”
Let this hit you right in the chest. God was with Mary. She was not alone. And in his grace, he supernaturally orchestrated someone else being with her too, who knew her, understood her, and accepted her. God loves bringing light to the darkness. And he loves to do it by truly being with us and supernaturally enabling us to truly be with and for each other.
Earlier, when we read about Mary being highly favored or highly graced, I didn’t tell you that only two people in the Bible are described that way. The first was Mary. Do you know who the second person is? It’s you.
EPHESIANS 1:4-6 For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In lovehe predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.
Freely given is the exact same word in koine Greek that means highly favored or highly graced. In Jesus, through what Jesus has done, through what he freely offers you and me, we are loved and viewed as sons. Ladies, don’t be offended by that. Know that you are equally and fully honored too. In Christ, we all get the status of sons, and full heirs with Jesus.
God gave us himself, and he gave us his family. In this series, we’ve said that the metaphor of light coming into the darkness means that God is with us and for us. It also means that all who are in him are with and for each other. Do you know and understand and accept how much you are loved?
JOHN 3:16 For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
I’m going to close with this. Every time you read or hear John 3:16, maybe think of this.
BOTTOM LINE: God BLEW the budget on you, and he DOESN’T regret the bill.
There is no reason—there is no reason for anyone to ever sit in the darkness of loneliness again. Do you know and understand and accept how much you are loved?