Sometimes it seems like so much is wrong, so many things are not the way they are supposed to be. It feels like the world is spinning in chaos, out of control. But God is still in charge. He is working out everything according to his plan, and that is good for all who love God. During that first Christmas, it seemed like nothing was working out the way it was supposed to. But God was powerfully working all things according to his plan.
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This is not the way it was supposed to be. Not still. Not at Christmas. I don’t know when you’ll read this sermon, but you probably won’t hear it on Christmas Eve, gathered together in the same place with your church, the way it was supposed to be. Here in my church, we’re supposed to be gathered all in our big living room, a little crowded. The fire is supposed to be crackling, warm and orange with the smell of woodsmoke and winter. Candles and Christmas lights are supposed to illuminate the faces we have come to know and love. Our voices are supposed to rise in three dimensional sound all around us. We’re supposed to share stories and snacks and laughs as we hang around afterwards and talk.
Instead we’ll have Christmas Eve via Zoom. This, this looking at each other on a flat screen, tinny voices playing through computer speakers, never shaking a hand, never patting a shoulder, never hugging; this distance is not the way it was supposed to be.
It may surprise you to learn that Christian History is full of “this is not the way it was supposed to be’s.” Abraham and Sarah weren’t supposed to be so old, and they thought they were supposed to have more than one child. Jacob wasn’t supposed to marry Leah. Joseph wasn’t supposed to be sold as slave, and later he wasn’t supposed to be thrown in prison too – he deserved none of it. The people of Israel weren’t supposed to be slaves in Egypt. The twelve tribes weren’t supposed to be oppressed by the surrounding peoples. The shepherd boy wasn’t supposed to fight the giant warrior. The anointed King, David, wasn’t supposed to have to run for his life in the wilderness. The prophets weren’t supposed to be rejected.
I’m sure a lot of the people involved in the very first Christmas might have felt the same way. Let’s hear from some of them, and imagine how they might have been thinking:
(Zechariah and) Elizabeth: We were supposed to be parents. We would have a house full of laughing, running children. Little girls that I would teach to sew and cook and clean. Little boys that Zechariah would teach to care for the animals and the house. Boys and girls both that we would teach the Law and the Prophets. Instead, now we are old. It is a joy, I am sure, to have a child, even now, but we were supposed to be young and fit. We were supposed to run with our children, and take them on picnics, and journeys to the temple, and play. But now, our bones are old, and we need our rest. This is no time to have a child. This is not how it was supposed to be.
Joseph: This was not the way it was supposed to be. On my wedding night, I was to be the man of the hour, honored, celebrated. I was supposed to be serenaded by the wedding party outside my house. Then we were supposed to process through town singing songs and laughing and joking, and then we’d arrive at Mary’s house. She would come out, radiant, beautiful, perfect. We’d join hands and parade joyfully back to my house, the toast of the town, and then the feast. We would laugh and dance and eat until our stomachs and hearts were full to bursting. Then, we would go to the marriage bed, pure and uncomplicated, and consummate the joy of God’s gift of marriage.
Instead, we had to leave Nazareth under a cloud of shame. No procession, no singing, dancing or feasting, just contempt and disgust on the faces of our friends and families. Mary’s young body is already stretched and changed by a child, and I’ve never even so much as kissed her lips. Instead of a parade of laughter and joy and singing, we are on this journey of cold and hardship and not much to eat, going to a town I barely remember from my childhood, a town where no one knows us enough to take us in, a town where we can’t even find paid lodging at an inn.
And then this! This birth. Mary heard from the angel, and I heard from the angel, and at least we knew this child was to be special. This is God’s own king, the promised Messiah. But there is not even a cradle or bed for him. We have to make do with an animal’s feed stall. No kings or princes are here, only plain shepherds who are even worse off than ourselves. Surely this is not the way it was supposed to be.
We all have those moments: It wasn’t supposed to be like this. This wasn’t supposed to happen. One of the most powerful scenes in Forrest Gump (my favorite movie of all time) is when Lieutenant Dan Taylor pulls Forrest out of bed in the middle of night. Taylor has just lost his legs in combat. He feels that his destiny has been stolen from him, and with that he has lost not only his legs, but everything that matters in life. He says in despair. “This wasn’t supposed to happen. Not to me.” And later: “What am I going to do now?”
My own life feels like it has plenty of “this was not the way it was supposed to be” factors. I wasn’t supposed to be facing the rest of my life with grinding, unrelenting pain. My son wasn’t supposed to be diagnosed with a serious lifelong illness, nor another of my children with her physical struggles. Our church wasn’t supposed to do life together through a computer screen.
I’m sure each one of you could list all sorts of this is not the way it was supposed to be’s for your own lives. I can think of several big ones for some of you. Sometimes it seems like the whole of 2020 is one giant “this is now how it was supposed to be.”
The ultimate: “This wasn’t the way it was supposed to be,” occurred almost two thousand years ago now. The God of the universe wasn’t supposed to come into the world, and he certainly wasn’t supposed to die, certainly he wasn’t supposed to die like that, because of injustice. He wasn’t supposed to be the victim of a cruel, tortuous murder.
Or was he?
All praise to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ. Even before he made the world, God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes. God decided in advance to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. This is what he wanted to do, and it gave him great pleasure. So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us who belong to his dear Son. He is so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins. He has showered his kindness on us, along with all wisdom and understanding.(NLT, Ephesians 1:3-11, italic formatting added to some parts for emphasis)
God has now revealed to us his mysterious will regarding Christ—which is to fulfill his own good plan. And this is the plan: At the right time he will bring everything together under the authority of Christ—everything in heaven and on earth. Furthermore, because we are united with Christ, we have received an inheritance from God, for he chose us in advance, and he makes everything work out according to his plan.
So many things that seem like they weren’t supposed to happen, at least not like this. But God makes everything work out according to his plan. We are never outside of God’s reach. Even when everything screams at you that it was not supposed to be this way, God is at work.
It is good and healthy to leave room for grief and sadness about how it was supposed to be. It is not wrong to mourn the things that are lost, to be upset about the way things turned out. That’s one of the things I love the most about that scene from Forrest Gump. It gives the grief room to breathe, but sorrow is not the last word. When the grieving is done, we find that God is still at work. The world is not spinning away, flying by accident out of His reach. No. every moment that seemed like it wasn’t supposed to be that way turned out to be God working all things out according to his plan. He tells us himself that this is true:
28 And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. 29 For God knew his people in advance, and he chose them to become like his Son, so that his Son would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. 30 And having chosen them, he called them to come to him. And having called them, he gave them right standing with himself. And having given them right standing, he gave them his glory.(NLT, Romans 8:28-30)
R.C. Lenski, the great Lutheran Bible scholar, has this to say about these verses:
So here the thought is simple and appropriate: God’s loving providence takes perfect care of those who love God. The idea is just as natural as that a father should keep his own beloved and loving children…
“All things are working together for good,” all of them without exception operate together to produce “good” in the sense of what is beneficial for God’s lovers. This includes every kind of painful experience in Christian lives, all those that press groans from our lips and make us groan inwardly in unuttered and unutterable distress. Some of the things that Paul has in mind he states in v. 38, 39. The Old Testament story of Joseph is a striking example of the mysterious and the wonderful way in which God makes the evil done to us eventuate for our good. Another instance is the story of the persecution precipitated by Saul. It scattered the great congregation at Jerusalem to distant parts, it seemed to be a calamity but served only for the good of the church by planting it in a hundred new places to flourish more than ever.(Lenski’s commentary on the New Testament, Romans 8:28)
Maybe, just maybe, God is still in charge. Maybe, just maybe, when things go wrong, God is still working all things out according to his plan. Maybe, just maybe, the Bible is true when it tells us that God’s plan creates the best possible good for us.
God’s son was more innocent than the youngest, sweetest child. His life was more precious than all the children in the world together. He deserves more honor than all the heroes in history put together. Yet he was beaten, mocked, insulted, spit upon. He was whipped and nailed to one of the most horrific instruments of torture ever devised. Surely that wasn’t how it was supposed to be.
But it was.
In that horrendous moment of shocking injustice and gruesome, violent, torture, God was working out all things according to his plan. It was surely the most appalling this is not the way it was supposed to be moments that ever occurred in history. And yet it was also the moment that God used defeat evil, to allow justice and love to exist peacefully together forever.
Return again to that scene on that cold night in Bethlehem. The son of God entering the world in an obscure town in an obscure country, not even recognized by the people right next door, let alone the powerful and influential people of the world.
If we humans were setting it up, there would have been a warm, bright room in a palace in the most important city in the world, and servants standing by, and a doctor and nurses and a host of people making sure everything went just right. But in reality, they didn’t even have a proper room. No bed, no clean sheets. It seemed they were abandoned and forgotten, alone.
But in all of it, God was working out everything according to his plan. What looked like a mistake, an oversight, a failure – was actually the unseen hand of God.
God is still at work. He is working out everything according to his plan, and for the good of his people. Much as we may feel it sometimes, we are not abandoned, not alone, not forgotten. From the distance of two-thousand years we can look back at Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary, and say, “Don’t sweat it. God is in control. I know it seems weird, but actually this is exactly the way it is supposed to be. I know you can’t see it or feel it at this exact moment, but you are right in the heart of God’s plan.”
Perhaps we can see the faithful, powerful working of God that very first Christmas, and step back and say the same thing to ourselves, and to each other. It seems like it wasn’t supposed to be this way. It looks like we are alone and abandoned. But that has never stopped God. In fact, it is in the moments like this when he seems to work most powerfully.
All that was required for Elizabeth and Zechariah, Joseph and Mary, was to trust God. He said he would do it. He assured them that he had a plan, and he would carry it out. That is all that is required of us, as well. Look back at that first Christmas, a birth that looked like it happened at the worst possible time, in the worst possible way, and learn to trust that nothing is beyond God’s reach. He is working out all things according to his plan. All that we need to do to be a part of that, it to trust Him. Will you do that right now? Take a moment of silence and tell him that you do trust him, and you will continue to trust him, with his help.