Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Crooked Path to Christmas

Hello. My name is Joseph. I realize it may be a bit of a surprise hearing from me, as not many people think much about me in light of the far more important people in the story I’m known to be a part of. But I was there – I was a part of the story that I understand you call the Christmas story. In fact, I believe you have a day in your calendar called Christmas on which you celebrate the birth of Jesus. I could tell you a thing or two about that birth, for as I said, I was there. And it was all quite unforgettable! But it did not seem very festive at the time. No, quite the contrary.

The truth is, the path that Mary and I took to the first Christmas (as you call it) was a very crooked path – which took me off guard, actually – you know, given the importance of what the angels told Mary and I.

You see, I've got this idea in my head that if an all-powerful God has a big and important Plan (one so important, he sends angels to explain it in advance!), then He must intend to accomplish that Plan the way an arrow takes a straight and steady path toward its target. And you’d think that when almighty God sets out to achieve His Master Plan to do with the Messiah, it would happen with such great deliberateness that it would firmly push through any and every obstacle, straight as an arrow, with immediate effect!

And the coming of Jesus was God’s Master Plan – the most important of all God’s plans for the human race! The coming of Jesus as that little baby represented God’s greatest expression of love ever expressed. It was all about how God was going to save us from the power of sin in this world – how God was going to re-unite us as God’s children with our heavenly Father – and how God was going to reveal His glory in the greatest demonstration of mercy and grace that the world had ever seen! The coming of Jesus represented God’s Plan with a capital “P” – the Master Plan of the Great Creator for uniting God the Father’s family with God the Father! It was God’s loudest “I LOVE YOU!” of all time!

I mean seriously, when the great God who created all things sets His will to do something so incredibly important, how can any created being -- human or otherwise -- hinder Him, right?! It'd be like little flies trying to push that arrow aside!

So that’s why it strikes me as strange that an all-powerful God’s Master Plan would happen on a road that wasn’t all that smooth and straight, despite the infinite greatness of its Author and the supreme importance of its objective. I say this because it was a road that included disappointments for Mary and I. It was a road that included unanswered questions – things that God has never sent any more angels to explain to us! And it was a road that felt confusing at times as we travelled that road.

I’m sure that surely you’ve seen turmoil or disappointments or unanswered prayers in your life as well – twists & turns on rocky roads. And you’ve probably wondered the same thing I did: Couldn’t God have made this path a little straighter?!

Well, even though the path to that first Christmas was a crooked one – and your path to this Christmas might be as well – I can tell you from experience: God wants to use those twists and turns to express how great He is and how great His love is toward us!

So perhaps you’ll allow me to share a little about Mary’s and my crooked path to Christmas, and perhaps it will be a help to you on your path.

A man named Luke recorded this small but important part of the story I want to talk with you about… “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

There were so many twists and turns that created turmoil on that path to the very first Christmas…
·         A pregnancy before marriage (Luke 1:31-35),
·         A marriage about to be called off (Matthew 1:19).
·         A marriage plan restored, but amidst the public disapproval of a pregnancy before marriage (Matthew 1:24).
·         Then an unwelcome donkey ride in the last days of Mary’s pregnancy (Luke 2:1-6).
·         Then a dirty stable is all God reserved for the baby's birth (Luke 2:7)
·         Then Mary and I and Jesus had to flee for our lives to avoid King Herod's sinister plot (Matthew 2:13).
·         King Herod then murdered all the male babies of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16).
·         And finally, though all seemed well to return from Egypt, Mary and I were afraid to dwell in Judea because of Herod’s relatives, so we had to return to Nazareth to live among the people who knew Jesus was conceived before marriage (Matthew 2:22-23).
Turmoil.  Discomfort.  Fear.  Tragedy.  Disruption. …Crooked lines. And rather than looking at all of those circumstances, I just want to talk with you about two of them… What I’ll refer to as…
·         A poorly timed summons in the mail…
·         And an example of…“How much more can I take?”

I’ll start with the Poorly Timed Summons in the Mail… I’ll never forget that day! Mary was in the last month of her pregnancy, feeling very uncomfortable, and suddenly our entire region receives a pronouncement from ROME that we must all return to our home towns IMMEDIATELY for a census!

How could the timing have been worse?!  We lived 120km away from my home town of Bethlehem! I immediately wondered resentfully why God couldn’t have arranged that better. But there was no choice in the matter – and it was beyond our control to change it. It was inconvenient and it was uncomfortable. Have you ever ridden a donkey? It’s not very comfortable! But no matter how bad the timing seemed – no matter how difficult the journey would be – we eventually realized that God was in this, because the Scriptures actually taught that God wanted the Messiah to be born in Bethlehem!

And when we realized that Jesus being born in Bethlehem was part of God’s plan – as foretold in ancient prophecies – we had to then conclude that the awkward – difficult – uncomfortable and unwelcome journey to Bethlehem was actually a part of God’s plan.

So that means that just like the exciting fulfillments of prophecies – or the wonderful answers to prayer – or the plans God calls each of us to accomplish – are all loving examples of God’s will for us, so too must be the journeys God chooses for us to get there – even if they include twists and turns that we ourselves would never choose.

It reminds me of when Joseph-of-old was sold into slavery in Egypt, and he summed that journey up with: “God meant it for good!” Something that terribly difficult was actually God’s will for Joseph. And he could say “God meant it for good” because he knew that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God – to those who are called according to His purpose­ – and that nothing can separate us from God’s love.  Not even tribulation or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or dangers or the sword!

Well, it’s a fact that Mary was called to a very great purpose, and that she certainly loved God, and her response to being told she’d bear God’s Son as a virgin might’ve been similar to her thoughts about the donkey ride: “Behold, I am a servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”

How about you?...  …Have you received a summons in the mail lately?... Something unexpected? Something uncomfortable? Something that feels like a mountain before you? Something beyond your control to change it? And the timing couldn’t be worse? Something from someone close to you? Or something from a doctor, or from a Roman officer? Some of the best lessons I’ve learned from the Lord have been when I’ve been stopped by the Romans. God has used fines from the Romans to send me timely messages that I needed to hear… to tell me to, yes, to slow down – to tell me to stop & spend more time with the Lord – and to tell me to listen to my wife!

But rather than reacting in anger or resentment, I suggest taking time to allow God to speak to you through the unexpected circumstances of life – because He’s fully in control of every circumstance! And if God wants to use all things for good, it’s vital that we pause before we react, and listen carefully to what God is trying to say to us, and look for God’s sovereign hand in whatever you’re going through. If you’re on a journey this Christmas, then pause, look and listen for God in whatever part of the journey you’re experiencing right now.

But now comes the “How much more can I take?” part! When Mary and I finally reached Bethlehem, it was no silent night! We found the town’s only inn to be full to the brim, and all that was left was a stable. Bethlehem was a very busy place during that census!  It was hectic!

At this point, I would’ve been able to forgive Mary if, after that long donkey ride, she lost her composure when she discovered God hadn’t saved a simple room for her to have the baby in.
I mean think about how you feel when you can’t find a single spot to park your donkey in at one of your big mall parking lots a day or two before Christmas! I’m a model of patience when stuff like that happens, but you might struggle with that!

So after 120km of donkey riding, an innkeeper tells us that, “No vacancy means NO ROOM!”
And we wondered, “How much more can we take?” Have you ever had a week where something in your home breaks, then an unexpected bill arrives, then your donkey starts making funny sounds, then you get pulled over for trotting too fast…?

I believe God has a two-fold purpose for all such situations: something to do with God’s glory and something to do with our good. And I believe that this is true for why God wanted His Son to be born in a stable. The angel who visited me in a dream told me that Jesus would save His people from their sins! Salvation at last! The mercy and grace of God! Nothing reveals God’s glory like God’s grace does!

So to make His grace abundantly clear, God made a way – through His Son Jesus – to forgive us for every sin we ever committed against Him and to be freed from the power of sin! What great grace! To accomplish this, God’s Son would have to lower Himself to the lowest place – and would start His life in the lowest of places – emptying Himself of heaven so that He could take the form of a bond-servant – and as a servant among men, He would be a substitute for every sinner when He eventually died on a cross to pay the penalty for all our sins.

That’s God’s glorious grace revealed! The glory of God revealed in a baby in a stable! But He was also born in a stable because God wanted it to be clear that His Son was to be accessible to ALL – even to the lowest in society, like carpenters like me, and to shepherds. No one should be afraid to approach Jesus, and Jesus would be willing to approach anyone.

At first, being in the stable felt like a disappointment to us, but as we gazed at that baby in a manger, we wondered at how much this baby in a stable revealed God’s glory for our good! Are you also dealing with disappointments that God has a purpose for in your life – to reveal His glory for your good? What may feel to you like a detour from God’s plans may actually be a part of God’s plan. The right response to such turmoil is trust.

A man named Jon Bloom has written that “maybe what we need most this Christmas is not less turmoil, but more trust. For God chooses stables of desperation as the birthplaces of his overwhelming grace.”

If that’s true, why would I want to be kept from the kind of challenges that Mary and I faced on that crooked journey into Bethlehem and into that stable? Those difficult circumstances happened to be God’s will for our lives.

And God is committed to not only accomplishing His plans through us, but also to lovingly accomplishing plans IN us as well – and I think He finds that crooked lines on the paths of our lives achieve that much better than straight lines.

Crooked lines teach us to listen – to trust – to obey – and to persevere amidst resistance.
And because our sovereign God is also a loving God, we can be sure that He will still be able to fulfill all that He has planned for our lives as we follow Him around every unexpected corner we face!

© 2016 by Ken Peters

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