I can imagine Mary, about to give birth, between contractions, forcing back the tears and saying, “It was not supposed to be this way! I was not supposed to have to give birth in a barn.”
We sing, “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright . . . Sleep in heavenly peace.”
And yet it was not a silent night, it was not all calm and bright, and it was not all heavenly peace. Rather it was disappointing and depressing and hard. We all know that life can be disappointing and depressing and hard. This past year – for everyone – life has been disappointing and depressing and hard.
Our Savior’s birth came through and during a situation that must have been disappointing and depressing and hard. He was born not in a hospital, not in an inn, and not even in the guest room of Joseph’s family’s house. Rather He was born in a cave where animals were kept. A feeding trough was His first bed.
But in the middle of all the disappointments and hardships that Mary and Joseph had to endure, in the middle of all the ways in which it was not happening as Mary and Joseph had hoped, God was at work to redeem the world. What do we see here? God is able to use every circumstance of life – even the oppressive decree of a pagan emperor – to serve His saving purposes.
The trip to Bethlehem was not a journey that Mary had wanted to take. The circumstances of Jesus’ birth were not the way she had imagined it and had wanted it to be. But this was not the last unwanted journey that Mary was going to have to take. Shortly after Jesus’ birth, Herod tried to kill the child. So she and Joseph had to take baby Jesus and go on another unwanted journey. They had to flee to Egypt and live there as refugees. Thirty-three years later she had to take another unwanted journey down the Via Dolorsa as she followed her Son to Calvary.
We all have to take unwanted journeys. The entirety of this past year for all of us has been an unwanted journey. One person told me that he plans to stay up until midnight on New Year’s Eve not to welcome the new year, but to make sure that the old year comes to an end.
For many the journey has been made even worse because of sickness and even death within the family. Many have suffered unemployment and/or other financial crises. Some are struggling with major mental health issues. Yes, life has its moments of major disappointment, overwhelming sorrow, and intense pain. We wonder whether, how, and when it will end.
We today are able to see what Mary was not yet able to see as her contractions kept getting closer and closer together. She could not hear the angels. She could not yet see the shepherds, who would come running to the cave. She did not yet know that Magi would arrive with gifts to honor the new-born King.
And so, during this Advent and Christmas season, I urge you to believe that – just as He did for Mary – so God can take all of your adversities, disappointments, heartaches, and pain – all of your unwanted journeys, including the unwanted journey of 2020 – and use them for His purposes.
Romans 8: 28 is just as true as ever during this year of COVID. All things still do work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purposes. As Mary and Joseph were on their unwanted journey, as Mary must have been thinking, “It was not supposed to be this way!” they were about to learn that God’s greatest work often comes out of and during the journeys we do not want to take. God has a way of bringing hope out of despair, good out of bad, and great joy out of disappointment, suffering, sorrow, and pain. That is what Mary and Joseph came to see again and again. And that is what we can come to see as well.
And so – during this Advent and Christmas season – I urge you to look back over your life, especially back over this year of COVID. Can you see how God has been with you, watching over you, and blessing you even when you have been on one of those journeys you did not want to take?
Trusting God to be with us even on all of our unwanted and unexpected journeys,
Dennis D. Nelson
Executive Director of Lutheran CORE