Children have no problem believing in all that Christmas represents: joy, surprises, love, hope. But as we get older, we realize that this world doesn’t just bring those good things; it also brings us plenty of hard days, disappointments, and hurts; both done to us and done by us. Which is the real world? Which one should we believe in?
Christmas comes around every year to remind us that there is a story that makes the answer clear. Yes, the “real” world is full of hurt; but that is because it is a fallen world. It is a poor version of what our life was originally meant to be.
But God never forgot his original plan, to share his life and his love with us forever. From the very beginning, He put another plan in place to fix the mess that He knew we were going to make of the world. That plan became part of this reality, of this world, about 2000 years ago with the first Christmas.
Still, to understand that plan, to accept it, to receive it, it takes believing in it. And believing is a choice. Yet, it is not necessarily an easy thing to believe; especially if we have gotten used to living with the disappointments and the hardships. It is hard sometimes to see past them to what God really has in mind.
But that has been the way it is from the very first Christmas.
We start today with the story of Zechariah. He and his wife Elizabeth were relatives of Mary. (All scripture quotes are from the NIV).
Luke 1:5-17 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.
Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous–to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
So, here is the set-up of the story: Zechariah and Elizabeth are old; she is past the age of bearing children and she never had a child. In those days, children were your Social Security. They made sure to take care of you in your old age. So, it makes sense that they had prayed for a long time to have a child. But now they are, maybe, in their 70s.
Now put yourself in Zechariah’s place: An angel appears to you and tells you all this. Not only will you have a son, he will be part of God’s plan to bring his people back to him. What would your reaction be? This is what Zechariah’s reaction was:
Luke 1:18 Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
Zechariah’s answer is essentially, “Yeah, right… prove it.”
Well, when he and Elizabeth were praying for a child, that was many years ago; and they probably prayed that prayer year after year. No answer ever. Their hope was to enjoy that child while they were young. I am sure they had all sorts of plans and dreams of how life would be with children, etc. etc. But their plan never came true. God never answered. And now He answers?
It’s not hard to understand how he feels. We all have had our plans, our hopes and dreams; and maybe we even prayed about them, and yet they never came true. And then God in his sweet own time decides to come in and say, ‘Hey be happy, I was listening all along!’
Now??? Is that… right?
Sure, it is right! He is God! He knows exactly what is best for me and my life. I may have plans and dreams, but I don’t know how they would turn out if they came true. It’s what I think I want, what I think I need to be happy. But God, who knows me better than I know myself, who knows the past and the future, He really knows what I need and what will make me truly happy.
Also, it’s a bad idea to disrespect an angel…
Luke 1:19-20 The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.”
Now we go to another person in the story:
Luke 1:26-33 In the sixth month, 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.”
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 be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name 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 the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
You got the story: Mary is a young girl, probably in her late teens. She was engaged (betrothal) to be married to Joseph. In those days, among the Jewish people an engagement was much more than it is today. The groom would go to the girl’s family ask for her in marriage, reach the agreement of the money he would be giving her family for his bride, and then after the betrothal ceremony, he would go back home, and she would stay in her father’s house, for 12 months. During that time, she would be preparing for married life; they would be getting the wedding ready, telling everybody and so forth. To break the engagement, you had to get a divorce.
And yet the angel tells Mary, you are going to have a child. From the way he says it, it is obvious it is imminent. Mary takes it at face value. But she doesn’t even have a husband and she won’t have one for 12 months… Her reaction:
Luke 1:34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
Notice that there is no challenge here. She is just saying, I don’t quite understand how this is going to happen.
Luke 1:35-37 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon 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 barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”
OK, now we stop and put ourselves in Mary’s place. The angel says she is going to have a baby by a miracle of God. No man will be involved. Yes, it sounds impossible, but God who made all creation can surely make a baby. But that’s not the issue here. Remember, she is betrothed to Joseph. If she is suddenly found pregnant, while she is supposedly promised to Joseph but still in her father’s house, and supposedly waiting 12 months before being with him, what are people going to think?
In those days, in that culture, adultery was a serious sin. At the very least her father could disown her, she would be in disgrace. But she could even be stoned to death. Mary understands this full well. And here Mary, like Zechariah, has a choice to make on how she reacts to this news. ‘I mean, really, God, do you want to put me through this risk? Isn’t there another way? How am I going to tell my parents? What am I going to tell Joseph? You don’t understand, this is serious trouble for me…’
But how does she answer?
Luke 1:38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
Why did she answer this way? My guess is because she knows that no matter how many other plans she could come up with, nothing could ever compare to God’s plan. And as the angel said, this is God’s plan, this child is going to be the Son of God, the Messiah, the one who was prophesied for so long that God would send to bring His Kingdom into our mess. Of course she says Yes!
But now someone else has a problem: Joseph.
As soon as the angel leaves, Mary leaves her home and goes to visit her relative Elizabeth because the angel told her she is receiving her own miracle. She goes to help her, remember she is 6 months pregnant and in her 70’s. And so, Mary goes and stays with them until the baby is born (John the Baptist.) She gets to see God’s faithfulness first hand and then she returns home, now herself 3 months pregnant.
People are going to notice pretty soon. So will Joseph. And doubtless Mary tried to explain the whole thing to him. But put yourself in Joseph’s shoes, would you believe it? That’s not the way babies are made… What would you do?
Matthew 1:18-19 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
So, now, Joseph has his own decision to make. He can’t bring himself to believe Mary that there is a miracle here but, instead of being angry, accusing her of adultery, exposing her to shame or even death, he decides to divorce her quietly.
Why? Because he loved her! BUT he can’t bring himself to believe this story of angels and the Holy Spirit… So, he makes his decision, the best decision he can make as a man, as a righteous man. Still, it’s not an easy decision. He is surely hurt, disappointed at Mary, maybe even angry; but he chooses to protect her the only way he can figure out.
And God honors that, by stepping in again:
Matthew 1:20-23 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
The angel tells Joseph, don’t worry about it. He confirms Mary’s story, tells him who this child is, the Savior of the world. And tells him what to do.
But now again it is up to Joseph to choose what to do. Because it is still not an easy decision…It is not just believing the dream: Remember, people already have noticed Mary is pregnant. If he goes on and marries her, what are they going to think? They were not supposed to come together for 12 months. What does Joseph do?
Matthew 1:24-25 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
And the trouble doesn’t stop there.
Luke 2:1-3 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.
This is a trip of almost a hundred miles. And Mary is 9 months pregnant. If you were them what would you be thinking? ‘God, this doesn’t seem like the best plan you could have come up with.’ But they go ahead and do it; here they have no choice.
Luke 2:4-7 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
You know the story. Not only was the trip arduous and long, by the time they get to Bethlehem all the hotel rooms are taken. They end up having to stay in a stable; and there Mary gives birth to the baby, no midwife, no other help.
If this were your life, how would you feel? Here the two of you are in a dirty stable… your wife has to put the baby in a manger just to lay down and rest. How can this be God’s plan?
But the story goes on…
Luke 2:8-20 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
And so, in the end, God confirms it again. Just like he did with Joseph’s dream.
The story for us is the same.
God has a plan. He does tell us what He wants for us; it’s here in the gospel. Jesus made it clear. But the decision is up to us whether we believe, accept it, and do things His way… or not.
It’s not an easy decision.
Because God’s plan is never the easy way out. God’s way is never easy in this world. The easy thing in this world is to do what everybody else does. The easy thing to do is to put me, myself, and I in front of everybody. Do what I want, when I want, and forget everybody else.
But if we stop and think, isn’t that what usually leads to us making a mess of our life? Doing things our way?
The good news is that we can do things God’s way. And even if things don’t seem to turn out right when we do (like Mary being pregnant, like having to travel 100 miles to Bethlehem, like having no room at the Inn) God’s promise, Jesus’ promise, is that He will never leave us alone.
He will be with us all the way.
And when we really, really need confirmation that this is still His plan, He will give it, just like he did for Joseph, and just like the angels and shepherds, and later the Wise Men, confirmed it for Mary and Joseph.