When All Goes Wrong

Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. ~Luke 2:1

Have you ever had one of those weeks when nothing seems to go according to plan? Have you ever had a time - whether at work, or at school, or with your family, or with your friends - when it seems like nothing you do is right or that circumstances are just stacked against you? Have you ever had a time when you are trying to do the right thing but everybody around you seems to misunderstand you and may even punish you for doing what you know to be right?

We have all experienced periods like this and it can be frustrating and stress us out - times when it seems like nothing is going the way it supposed to go. It is in times like these, when the whole world seems to be actively working against us, that we are the most prone to doubt ourselves and to doubt our God. 

Usually we think that if we are right with God and living in His favor then the rough periods in our lives will somehow be smoothed out. We tend to run on the assumption that if God loves us then he will give us good things and keep us from all trouble and difficulty. While it is true that God does love us and does look out for us, being in God's favor rarely means that life will be smooth and easy. Usually it means precisely the opposite.

There is a story of a couple in the Bible that were very much in God's favor yet their lives were anything but smooth. Here is a story of a young man and young woman who were so favored by God that they, of all the people to ever live, were hand-picked by God to be entrusted with His son. Mary and Joseph were highly favored by God yet their lives, from their perspective, were a picture of chaos.

We look back at the Christmas story and see a sweet and charming tale of angels, shepherds, sheep, wise men, a bright star, and virgin holding a baby and placing Him in a manger. It is all very quaint.  But take a minute to picture what this time must have been like from Mary and Joseph's perspective. 

Here you have a young girl from a simple and small village engaged to be married to a poor carpenter. One day an angel appears to her and tells her that she will conceive a son even though she is a virgin and that this child will be called the son of God and is the Messiah that has been promised to Israel for thousands of years. Then - *poof* - she's pregnant. 

She then goes on a three month trip to visit her cousin who is also pregnant.When she gets back from the trip she has to tell her fiance that she's pregnant but not to worry, it is from God. What are the chances that Joseph believes her? In Matthew 1:19 we see that Joseph planned to divorce her after he found out she was pregnant but changed his mind when an angel appeared to him and explained the situation. 

For a woman to be pregnant out of wedlock in this culture was a very big deal and would have been a disgrace to Mary and to Joseph. Mary's family likely would have disowned her and Joseph would have had his reputation ruined. They most likely would have tried to explain to everybody the truth of the situation but it is extremely unlikely that anybody would have believed them. Would you believe them? If I am honest, I have to admit that I wouldn't.

After having been ostracized from their community and families the situation only got worse. When Mary was nine months pregnant, the ruler of the world at the time gave an order that every man had to go to the city of his ancestry to register for a census. This meant that Joseph and a very pregnant Mary had to pack up and travel by foot and by donkey 70 miles in the heat of the day and the cool of the night to Bethlehem.  This trip would have taken at least three days. 

That means three long days of walking and three nights of sleeping on the hard ground for a woman about to give birth. The timing could not have been any worse. From Mary and Joseph's point of view this must have seemed like the worst possible timing imaginable. Once they complete the journey and finally make it to Bethlehem, they have got to be exhausted and dirty and just ready for a little rest but the situation is only about to get worse.

Because of the census, the little town is flooded with travelers and there is no place to stay. Picture yourself in Joseph's sandals desperately trying to find a place for his wife to rest and being told there is no room. Then - and this is Biblical imagination - as he is trying to find a warm place and being turned away, Mary goes into labor. Panicked and frightened, Joseph brings Mary to the first place he can find: a stable.

In his Bible study called the Christmas Experience, Kyle Idleman makes the point that this seems like an awesome time for God to pull out one of His blessings. This seems like the perfect time for the couple that had reserved the honeymoon suite at the inn to cancel at the last minute just at the right time for Joseph and Mary to come and take it. We tend to expect that, if we are in God's favor, that God will smooth these things over for us.  But that's not what happened with the birth of Jesus. Joseph and Mary didn't get the executive suite at the inn. They got a nice spot in the stable.

Have you ever been in a barn? Do you know that barn smell? The reason for that smell is because the animals in the barns aren't too particular about where they do their business. It is likely that, as Mary screamed in labor, Joseph would have been shoveling a place a trying to lay down clean straw for her to give birth. This was anything but an ideal situation and must have looked and seemed like a complete train wreck to the two of them. 

Here they were promised to bring into the world the very son of God. They were being obedient and yet they likely had to endure the scorn of their family and community. They were following God's instruction and yet every situation seemed to be working against them. They were trying to be faithful and yet they found themselves in a strange town, alone, giving birth without help, amidst dirty animals, in a filthy barn. When Jesus was born they nothing to lay him in but a feeding trough. 

Everything seemed to be going wrong and yet we know now that all of that was for God's perfect plan and in His perfect timing. While Mary was giving birth thinking all was going wrong, angels were proclaiming the coming of the Savior of the World to some shepherds in a field and praising God. 

Have you ever had a week when nothing seemed to be going according to plan? It is through those times when we feel most lost and most alone that God is doing his greatest works both in us and though us. When we look around at our lives and think that everything is going wrong, it may be precisely these times that angels are watching our lives and proclaiming the glory of God and praising Him for His work through us.

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. ~Romans 8:28 

In His Steps

Your ears will hear a word behind you, “This is the way, walk in it” whenever you turn to the right or to the left. ~Isaiah 30:21

When Jesus called His disciples to Him, He told them to "Follow Me." The call that Jesus gave to those 2000 years ago in Israel is the same call that He gives to each of us here today. More than any of the religious stuff that we do, ultimately what we are really called to do is to follow Jesus. That sounds great, but what does that mean and how exactly are we to do it?  In the passage in Isaiah we are assured that we will receive the guidance that we require - that we will hear a word behind us telling us which way to go. 

Unfortunately, at least in my experience, that voice is not an audible and unmistakable shout but rather it is a persistent and internal whisper which is way too easily ignored or brushed off as we let the hectic activities of our daily concerns divert our attention (for more on this see our post Are You Listening?). I can't tell you how often I have wished for a good burning bush or stone tablet provided from on high with some explicit and straightforward instruction on what I was to do next. As of yet, I am sad to report, I have had no such blessing. Instead I am left to faith and trust as I sometimes stumble along the path of my life. It is, however, precisely these two things - faith and trust - that are the key.  

There are two basic types of paths that we refer to when we talk of following Jesus. There is the spiritual path of growing in our relationship with God and the more practical path of what am I to do next. The spiritual path asks questions like: Do I go to church enough? Should I read my Bible more? How is my prayer life? The practical path asks: Should I take this job or that job? How can I improve myself as a husband or a father? What type of music and movies should I allow into my home? Should I make steak or Mac'N'Cheese for dinner tonight? (If you're scratching your head and wondering how that last question could possibly apply, take a look at this post.) 

A. The Popular View
A. The Popular View
These two paths - the spiritual and the practical - are deeply intertwined. Most of us, however, tend to think of them as entirely separate and distinct. Many people, most perhaps, tend to think of the Christian spiritual path as a pretty simple one time thing. Like the graph on the right, they imagine that all Christianity requires is that a person come to believe, accept Jesus, then Blammo! they're saved and they may now continue to live their life as they desire with full assurance of an eternity of bliss after they die. Sure, they should go to church and say the occasional prayer and stuff but really what matters is being saved. If we were to compare this to a marriage, this view would say that the most important part of your marriage is the proposal. Once you pop the question and she says yes, you're golden. Sure you still have to do some of the ceremonial stuff like stand in front of a bunch of people and say some vows, but once you knock that part out it's back to life as normal complete with the parties, the dating, and everything else that you used to do. After all, why should a little thing like a marriage mean you need to change anything about your life?

B. The Religious View
The opposite extreme is also very prevalent, especially in churches. This is what I'll call the religious view of our spiritual path. This view is emphatic that after the accepting Jesus we must then begin a long and studious process of purposeful spiritual growth until we reach some imagined line of spiritual maturity. We imagine ourselves to be completely useless to the cause of Christ until we have learned enough or grown enough on our own first. We go to Sunday school, read the latest spiritual how-to books, and attend endless bible study classes. We insist that our pastors have masters degrees or doctorates from the best seminaries. We say things like "I couldn't possibly go on a mission trip. I just don't know enough to answer tough questions." or "my friends that don't believe are too smart and too good at debate. I can't answer all of their questions yet." We all fall into this tendency to one degree or another. We say we want to give our best and we fear failure due to our own shortcomings. From the natural point of view this seems perfectly reasonable. In doing this, however, we place the burden of our spiritual success on our own shoulders. The truth is that Christ does not call us because of anything we have to offer or for any special skills or talent that we possess. Rather, he calls us to bring glory to Himself through our weaknesses.

C. Our True Spiritual Path
From the moment you are called to Christ you are called to service. There is no waiting period. Yes, we are to grow spiritually and to expand our knowledge. Books, Sunday School, bible studies, and seminaries are all good and proper things but our service and our journey do not wait until we are "ready". Rather we are made ready for an eternity with God through our imperfect service and the resulting growth. The true graph of our spiritual growth should look more like the one on the right. Prior to accepting the free gift of salvation offered to all only through Jesus Christ we are lost. It does not matter how "good" of a person we think we are or how righteous a life we may imagine we have lived. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:6).

Our Lord calls us to follow Him. He promises that as we step out in faith that He will direct our paths. This requires that we actually step out in faith even when we don't know or understand where that step will take us. We are to step out in faith even when our natural senses are screaming out danger. That is the point of faith: To trust and believe in God and in His will for you without any natural assurance of success. There is no distinction between our spiritual and our physical paths. They intertwine. God does not call us to an actionless faith. God calls us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12); to take the next step that we are being called to even though we fear where it might lead us and what the consequences might be.  This will lead to both successes that we couldn't have imagined and to failures that will test us. Our walk with God is one that should be full of bright shining moments as well as times of struggle through the valleys where we are left with no other choice but to depend fully on our God. This journey begins the moment we are called and continues in full force until the day our Lord returns or calls us home.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Lean not on your own understanding. Acknowledge Him in all your ways and He will direct your paths. ~Proverbs 3:5-6
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