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Portrait of an Encourager

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Intro – Read Luke 2:36-38 -- The great painter, James Whistler, once ordered some blank canvases which were lost in the mail. The postal service adjuster asked Whistler if the canvases were of any great value. He replied, “No – not yet!” The value was added by his painting. We face a similar challenge every day. God gives us a blank canvas. It is a valuable gift; but its ultimate value is determined by what we paint on it -- how we use it.

Hopefully we will be like Anna. When Mary and Joseph went to the temple for Mary’s purification and to present Jesus, Simeon confirmed that they were on the right path in rearing Jesus -- that Jesus would be great and bring salvation to all people, even Gentiles. But he also prophesied some tough times. But at that moment, Anna arrived. An extraordinary woman. An encourager, sent by God to temper Simeon’s message of suffering.

Lu 2:36 says, “And there was a prophetess, Anna.” This puts her into a special category of those who speak for God. Five prophetesses are mentioned in the OT. There was Miriam, sister of Moses, Deborah, a judge, and Huldah, who gave one prophecy for King Josiah (II Kings 22:14). None of these 3 had an ongoing prophetic ministry. Noadiah (Neh 6:14) was a false prophetess. The fifth was Isaiah’s wife. In the NT, only the daughters of Philip are called “prophetesses” with no explanation beyond that. So Anna was part of a very select group of women in the Bible sent to speak for God.

Anna is from the tribe of Asher -- one of the ten northern tribes taken captive by Assyria in 722 BC. Those tribes were absorbed by Assyria and quickly lost their identity, thus becoming known historically as the ten lost tribes of Israel. But, King Hezekiah of Judah, in the south, invited Jews left behind to come to Jerusalem, give up idols and worship the true God. The messengers were mocked by most people, but a few from the tribes of Asher, Manasseh and Zebulun came. Anna descended from those. I think it is interesting that in identifying her, the HS mentions that background. It reminds us that the Lord knows those who are His. The tribes may be lost to the rest of the world, but not to God. He always knows His own. Jesus says in John 10:14, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me.” If you belong to God, you can never escape His notice. He knows who, where and how you are. And whatever is in your life is His gracious work to refine you.

So, why does Anna come at just this particular hour? She’s giving assurance that suffering will not be in vain. Yes, pain will come, but nothing will prevent Jesus being “the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lu 2:38). In the end, He will prevail. God promises all His children “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8:18). Anna delivers that same message of hope and expectation right on time. Both her life and her message present a beautiful portrait of an encourager. And so we want to see this morning what characteristics of her life were used by God to encourage Mary’s heart.

I. Finishing Strong

It is inferred that Simeon was getting old. But it is directly stated in Anna’s case. Lu 2:36, “And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, 37 and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.” Anna was either 84 or had lived 84 years after the death of her husband, which would make her over 100 years of age. Either way, she was getting on in years but is finishing strong.

Age eats away the vigor of youth. But so often it does worse. The idealism of youth is worn away by disease, disappointment and the realities of life. Cherished hopes die, and we become resigned to things as they are – or worse we become the dispirited, bitter, disillusioned curmudgeons we once despised. Unwittingly, we see God as a failure. Our hearts die a slow death, and our influence wanes or even goes from positive to negative. Life has a way of beating us down. In seeing life as failure, we see God the same way.

Not Anna. 84 years old and going strong. Worshiping, fasting, praying night and day. God had no trouble getting her to be “coming up at that very hour.” Interesting phrase in Lu 2:38?! At just the right time, Anna arrives on the scene, an aging portrait of encouragement. She might have been like the elderly nursing facility residents who reveled in rehearsing their latest aches and pains in sessions known as “organ recitals.” But not Anna. She was about bigger things. Thus at the right place at the right time God uses her.

Did you ever notice how many of God’s choice servants failed at the end? It’s a grave warning to all of us. We don’t want to be just living out our time – feeling useless. Moses was one of history’s great leaders. But in the end, the grumbling Israelites got to him. In Exodus 17, the Israelites grumble about not having enough water. God tells Moses to strike the rock and water gushes forth. In Numbers 20, the same scenario plays out, only this time God tells Moses to speak to the rock. Then Num 20:10, “ Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” 11 And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.” God graciously provides the water, but Moses’ hostile resentment, his arrogance that he and God (we) would bring the water, and his disobedience to the Lord’s command cost him dearly. A late-life failure. David had years of great service to God only to fail the mid-term exam when his lascivious nature got the best of him with Bathsheba. Gideon won one of history’s great military victories, but later erected his own idols. Hezekiah was a good king; but when God granted him 15 more years pride took him down.

Don’t you want to finish strong? Don’t you want to be strong beginning, middle and end – like Daniel, like Joseph? The July 6, 2009 issue of SI told the story of Reuben Jordan. Only 5’7” tall, he was nevertheless one tough dude -- nicknamed “Tuffy” by companions in the foxholes of WWII. He could climb the stairs on his palms – once walked 5 miles on one leg to win a nickel bet. Tuffy was tough and he passed the trait on to his two sons. No one thought he would get old, but he did and on May 1, 2009 doctors told 86-year-old Tuffy that he had cancer of the bladder, liver and colon. Nothing they could do. The family loved sports, so Tuffy decided he wanted one last round of golf with his boys at his MI home. Richie lived nearby; Barron drove up from Florida, and they headed to the local 9-hole course. It wasn’t easy. The boys took turns helping Dad from cart to tee box. They caught him after almost every shot as his balance failed. Eventually Richie carried him on his back like a toddler. But Tuffy was determined to finish the round even though he had forgotten his glasses and could barely see the holes.

After two hours, they arrived at the final hole – a par 3, 140 yard 9th. The boys hit first, then it was Tuffy’s turn. Two weeks later, Richie would carry his dad into a hospice bed and 4 days later he would die in his sleep. But at this moment, he drew back and smacked a high fade, knocking himself off-balance again. The ball carried traps in front of the green and disappeared from view. Dad turned to his boys and said, “Now there’s the way you hit the ball!” What an understatement! For when they reached the green they only saw two balls. On the last swing of his life, Tuffy made a hole-in-one. That’s what I call finishing strong. Imagine the message that sent to his boys. Encouragers finish strong – believing, trusting, obeying God – all the way, and taking other with you. What a blessing we can be.

II. Fervent in Worship

Look at the last phrase of Lu 2:37: “She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day.” Is that good or what? She’s between 84 and 104 years old – and she never misses church. She’s there night and day, worshiping, fasting, praying. How she must have delighted the heart of God! To me this is what made it possible for her to finish strong.

Now as we read this, it all seems so easy, but think with me for a moment. Anna was married 7 years and then became a widow. We don’t know whether or not she had children by that time. In that culture, she almost certainly did. Either way, it was a tragic and traumatic time for her. She faced the choice that many face when adversity, tragedy and suffering strike. Was her faith real or was it only fair-weather faith? Would she become bitter or better? Anna chose the latter. She saw God for who He really is, not for who she wanted Him to be, and it equipped her for great service for Him – equipped her to become the encourager of the mother of the Messiah.

It is not easy to live the life of faith. Max Lucado says, “Be honest. Are we glad he says no to what we want and yes to what we need? Not always. If we ask for a new marriage, and he says honor the one you’ve got, we aren’t happy. If we ask for healing, and he says learn through the pain, we aren’t happy. If we ask for more money, and he says treasure the unseen, we aren’t always happy. When God doesn’t do what we want, it’s not easy. Never has been. Never will be. But faith is the conviction that God knows more than we do about this life and he will get us through it.” Disappointment is caused by unmet expectations. Disappointment is cured by revamped expectations. That comes from accepting what that we can’t change as from Him, for His glory. This involves dying to self, doesn’t it? At some point, our cherished dreams have to be replaced by His gracious plan. Disappointment is caused by unmet expectations. Disappointment is cured by submitting to His revamped plan.

The great thing is, when we meet Him daily – conviction builds over time that our heavenly Father, will never cause His children a needless tear. Whatever He allows is intended for our best and His glory. The two can never be separated. And so our prayers become less and less about getting us out of something and more and more about living through it. And people who live like that become dynamic encouragers without even trying. That was Anna. She wasn’t into organ recitals; her attention wasn’t devoted to the trivial; she didn’t get sidetracked by secondary issues.

The story is told of a bachelor who decided his home was too quiet. So, he bought a singing parakeet. Next day when he came home from work, the bird was singing away and filling the house with music. He man was delighted, but when he went to feed the bird, he noticed that for the first time that the bird had only one leg. He immediately felt cheated so he called to complain. But the store owner brought him up short with one simple question: “What do you want, a bird who can sing or a bird who can dance?” It’s so easy to get distracted with what we don’t have, isn’t it? Not Anna. Because she was faithful in worship, her focus was on what she did have – God Himself. Anything – anything after that was just a bonus. People who are encouragers have learned an important lesson – if you have God, you have all you need.

Worship is about how we let God into our lives. Worship is far more than singing a few songs and issuing a few prayers. We worship best by how we live!

R. C. Sproul tells of an elderly man who had served for decades as a missionary. Age and infirmity caught up with him and he had to retire. But he refused to give up his missionary service. Though totally bedfast, he committed himself to working for Christ by praying for 8 hours a day. He couldn’t walk; couldn’t give messages; blind enough that he couldn’t write, but he could pray. Imagine the lives he touched with his prayers. Imagine the encouragement he inspired, sometimes without even knowing it. Thankfully God has allowed most of us to be much more active than that. But that does not excuse us from the need to be fervent in worshiping Him by the way we live. We don’t have to be at church every day like Anna to have the Lord be the center of our existence. Faithfulness in worship and prayer is about how we live our lives, not about where we are on Sunday. And when we get those priorities right, we will be great encouragers, pointers to God for our families, our friends and everyone around us.

III. Faithful in Witness

LU 2:38: “And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.” Anna’s response to the gospel given by Simeon, which she apparently was on time to hear, is the perfect response. She immediately thanks God. It wasn’t hard to turn her attention to God, for that is where it was most of the time. At the news of Jesus, her heart is filled with thanksgiving.

But she is also thinking of others – and she shares her faith. She is speaking of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. In this she is a wonderful encouragement. Most people in Israel at this time were aware of the God’s promises concerning the nation, and Jerusalem in particular. Even as they were going into exile to Babylon 600 years before, God had promised in Jeremiah 33:10) “Thus says the LORD: In this place of which you say, ‘It is a waste without man or beast,’ in the cities of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are desolate, without man or inhabitant or beast, there shall be heard again 11) the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank offerings to the house of the LORD: “ ‘Give thanks to the LORD of hosts, for the LORD is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!’ For I will restore the fortunes of the land as at first, says the LORD.” They knew the prophecy of Daniel 9:24-27 which prophesied the rebuilding of Jerusalem. They knew the prophesies of Zechariah1:17, “My cities shall again overflow with prosperity, and the LORD will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem.’ But all those were 100’s of years old and meantime they had been burdened with Roman tyranny.

And now Anna is saying, “He’s promised, and now – He’s here!” Simeon had made clear that the salvation had to start in the heart. But the good news was that the one who name meant “Jehovah is salvation” had come at last. What an encouragement to be able to remind believers you have the most important thing you could ever have – you have Jesus; you have eternal life. What an encouragement to be able to tell our unbelieving friends and relatives, “Jesus loves you and He has come to take away your sin and guilt if you will just believe in Him.”

Sometime we overcomplicate sharing Christ. We are called to be witnesses. A witness simply shares what he has seen? You don’t have to be seminary trained to bear witness about Christ. The man born blind in John 9 kept it very simple: “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9:25). It was a short training course when Jesus told the Gerasene demoniac, after ridding him of his demons, ““Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mark 5:19). How hard is it to say, “I’m so thankful the Lord had mercy on me”? “I’m so grateful that Jesus took away my guilt”? “I’m so glad the Lord gave you to me as a friend”? Listen, you introduce Jesus into the conversation and you don’t know where it is going, but you know that you are bearing witness to His importance in your life. That’s all He’s asking. We don’t have to preach a sermon or embarrass anyone – we just let them know that Jesus is very real to us. He matters to us and to this world.

Roland Allen in The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church tells of a missionary in India who said that most of the converts in his ministry were brought in by illiterate fellow-villagers. He said that the villagers would look at them and say, “We know what you were, we can see what you are; what has made the difference?” These men cannot preach sermons,” he said, “But they know enough to answer, “Christ,” and the result is men are converted to Christ. God help us to be faithful in witness.

Conc -- I think there is hardly a greater calling than to be an encourager. And we can all do it. We can finish strong, be fervent in worship and faithful in witness. John Ahkwari came to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City to run the marathon for Tanzania. Unfortunately, he fell near the mid-point of the race badly cutting his knee and dislocating the joint. He was advised to quit, but after getting bandaged up, he continued the race. By the time he reached the stadium, the sun had set; most of the spectators had gone home for the day and he was practically carrying his bleeding and bandaged leg. He finished 1-1/2 hours behind the winner. But he did finish. Later film director Bud Greenspan asked him, “Why did you keep going?” Ahkwari responded, “You don’t understand. My country did not send me 7,000 miles to start a race; they sent me 7,000 miles to finish the race.”

Sounds like Paul, doesn’t it. He could say at the end in II Tim 4:7, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” I didn’t get distracted by the glitz and glamor on the sideline. I didn’t whine and complain about the conditions. I didn’t focus on what I didn’t have; I focused on what I did have. He finished strong, worshiped fervently and witnessed faithfully. The ultimate encourager. Wouldn’t you like to say that at the end? So, what are you painting on your canvas today – tomorrow – this week – this year? Let’s paint Encouragement! Together! Let’s pray.

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