December 27, 2015

Good Plans, Hard Road

As Christians one of the more important things we believe about God is that He is good.  It would seem to make sense, then, that we should expect that His plans for us should be good from start to finish; that as long as we are on track with His plans then everything will be going well for us.  If only, right?  You see, although we are absolutely correct about God’s goodness, we sometimes forget to factor in the fact that the world is still broken by sin and further, that God brings His goodness to bear not necessarily by eliminating the brokenness and our experience of it (the time for that will come, but it’s not here yet), but rather by working His good plans to completion in the midst of it.  After all, which is the more glorious thing?  Wiping away the brokenness with a grand display of power; or coming down and from the inside out redeeming the brokenness and transforming it into wholeness?  The former may seem to make for a better show, but you know as well as I do that the latter is the more powerful power.  I mean, it’s one thing to wipe any opposition away before it has a chance to actually oppose you.  It’s a totally different thing to have the odds stacked so high against you that you can’t see the top and then achieve victory anyway.

Hollywood directors know that makes for a better story too which is why in the best epic films—like Star Wars which finally released to the delight of fans (and the studio execs who will be cashing the biggest movie check ever) last weekend—the good guys are constantly playing catch up to the better equipped, better informed, and seemingly more powerful bad guys until they beat them.  But this doesn’t just make for good storytelling.  Stories like this are so compelling because they reflect the grander story of history being written by God and of which we are all a part.  We see this over and over again in the Scriptures—Abraham being called from obscurity to go to some unknown place and start a new nation; Joseph sold into slavery, falsely accused of rape, left to rot in prison, and rising to second-in-command in Egypt; Moses confronting the emperor-god of the most powerful nation in the world and eventually walking out with as many as more than two million former slaves; Jesus preaching a message of peace, being put to death as violently as possible, raising to life again on the third day, forever defeating death and sin, and opening the doors to eternal life for all who would receive it.  This is the grand story of God working to redeem the earth, to make His blessings known far as the curse is found as the great song puts it.

We do serve a good God who does work His good plans to completion for our benefit, but by coming to work with, in, and through us those plans are often beset by the brokenness of a world who’s defeated and powerless prince will nonetheless stop at nothing in his attempts to derail those plans and cause as much collateral damage as possible in the process.  This is the case for every single story of God working His good plans for the benefit of His people.  Every single story…including His own coming.

This morning we are in the second part of a two-part series called The Greatest Story.  In this series we are simply taking a fresh look at the story of Christmas.  So often at this time of year we spend so much time bogged down in the details of the season that we forget almost entirely about the story that made it all happen in the first place.  We get much more tied up in the secular celebration of nostalgia than we do in the thing we’re getting nostalgic about—celebrating the birth of Christ.  And so three weeks ago we took a look at the story of Jesus’ birth as told in the Gospel of Luke.  We saw then how in Jesus’ birth the ordinary that we all know in one way or another became infused with the extraordinary of God’s kingdom and the two became one.  In the next couple of weeks after that we were treated to retellings of the story from the adult choir and from our kids and weren’t those both great shows in their own ways?  Then a couple of days ago on Christmas Eve we took a look at a story about the story and the tasty symbol on which it is borne.  This morning we are going to take one last look at the story, this time from the Gospel of Matthew.  The story here takes on an entirely different flavor than it did in Luke’s Gospel.  A big part of the reason for this is that Matthew and Luke were telling it from different perspectives and for different audiences and so included different details.  The result is that Matthew’s story is as violent and disturbing as Luke’s was peaceful and serene.  The characters on whom Luke shines the brightest spotlight celebrated what God was doing and took an active part in making it happen.  In Matthew’s telling they puzzle over it and take an active role in trying to prevent it.  In the end, though, we see that the stronger strength of God prevails.  How it happens is both amazing and heartbreaking, but more than that, it’s a story worth hearing.  Find a copy of the Scriptures, find your way to Matthew 1, and let’s take a look at this.

Matthew’s storytelling here is pretty straightforward: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.”  There’s pretty much no doubt what’s going to follow.  Rather than giving us the story from Mary’s perspective as Luke does, Matthew turns things around and lets us look at them from another perspective: Joseph’s.  And think about how this all would have seemed to Joseph.  Here he was, a righteous man, somebody who was right with God as far as the Law was concerned and right with other people as far as the culture was concerned, recently betrothed to a beautiful young girl named Mary, and she turns up pregnant.  Talk about turning his happy little life on its head!

Now, you need to understand something of the ancient practice of betrothal to really get a full sense of the emotions here.  Betrothal was kind of like engagement is for us, but a lot stronger.  It would probably be more accurate to place it somewhere between engagement and actually being married today.  It was a legally binding contract usually entered into between the parents of the future couple.  This was no doubt an arranged marriage situation as that’s the only kind there was back then.  In any event, they probably had little if any time alone together.  The whole thing would have been very structured.  Joseph would have been able to visit Mary regularly, but that was about it.  Breaking off a betrothal would have required a certificate of divorce.  And one more thing: any non-conjugal relationships would have been considered adultery for which the punishment was death by stoning.

So here Joseph was, happy as can be figuring the rest of his life is set and then this in v. 18: “…before they came together [Mary] was found to be with child…”  Now, the next part of the verse is a prepositional phrase attributing her pregnancy to the Holy Spirit, but that would have been both unbelievable and largely irrelevant to Joseph.  The point was: Mary was pregnant and the child wasn’t his.  Now, how she was found to be with child we’re not told.  It could be that she told her parents and then Joseph and his family about her experience with Gabriel.  It could be that she returned from her one trimester visit with Elizabeth larger than three months’ worth of good cooking could explain.  We don’t know.  However it happened, though, Mary’s pregnancy was discovered and Joseph’s world exploded.  The problems here would have been manifold for him.  Relationally it seemed his betrothed had been unfaithful to him—this would have been a bit like noticing at the altar that your nearly-wife is pregnant and you didn’t have anything to do with it.  Economically he had probably paid at least part of the bride price to Mary’s father which would not have been cheap.  Socially he would now forever bear the stigma of being the guy who’s betrothed had cheated on him before the wedding and what was wrong with him to make her want to do that?  Culturally he was now damaged goods and getting married again would have been difficult.  Legally he had to decide whether or not to pursue official charges against her and as the chiefly offended party he would have been expected to cast the first stone meaning her life was literally in his hands.  Religiously he was no doubt asking the kinds of questions any of us would have been asking had we been in his shoes: “God: here you set up this great situation for me and now it’s been blown to bits…what gives?”

So almost out of the gate God’s grand entrance story had the odds stacked against it.  Culturally speaking there was no expectation that Joseph would have reacted as he did.  He could have come at Mary with guns blazing in light of this perceived injustice, but he didn’t.  Verse 19: “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”  He couldn’t bear the thought of being with her anymore—as far as he could tell she had been unfaithful to him because no other explanation made any sense—but he wasn’t willing that she experience the full weight of what she had done.  I mean, there was this whole Holy Spirit thing she kept insisting on and so maybe God had something to do with this.  Because of that and that alone he was going to just keep the whole thing quiet and blessings to her as she took part in whatever it was she thought God was up to…but he didn’t want any part of it.  He could hardly look at her anymore.

But then just as he was about to set his plans into motion, he had a dream.  Verse 20: “But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’”   Or perhaps to put that another way: “Hey Joseph, I’ve got some plans unfolding and I’d like to include you in them.  I know things don’t make a lot of sense to you right now, but if you’ll trust me you’re going to be a part of something really special.”

And again, this is one of those places where the text moves right along without giving any more details but where the details would sure seem to make for good storytelling.  Joseph’s response is to do exactly what God says.  He abandons his plans to divorce her, sticks with the betrothal, and when the time is right (sometime after Jesus is born) officially marries Mary.  But think about all the things that had to be going on behind the scenes.  It’s not clear how many people were privy to Mary’s untimely pregnancy, but anyone who did know about it and Joseph’s plans had to be utterly floored at his reversal.  The rumors would have almost instantly changed from Mary being unfaithful to the couple’s involvement before the actual wedding ceremony which while not as bad as adultery, was nonetheless rather deeply frowned upon in that culture.  In the eyes of everyone they knew their reputation and cultural standing would have dropped several levels.  Their whole relationship would have been viewed with suspicion of scandal.  I told you last time that Mary and Joseph stayed in Bethlehem after Jesus was born for a couple of years and that we aren’t told why.  Well here’s a guess: they left so many sideways looks and disapproving glances in Nazareth that they felt it would be better to stay out of town for a while until the whole thing had a chance to blow over.  When they returned three or more years later people had mostly forgotten about all the drama and were just happy to have them back.  Before they could go back, though, there were still more of the efforts of the enemy to put the brakes on this whole thing they had to face.

You see, Jesus’ birth coincided with some kind of an astronomical event.  There are many good guesses as to exactly what this was, but the fact is that we don’t know.  What we do know, though, is that some astrologers from Persia saw it, took it as a sign that the king of the Jews they understood from what are our Old Testament Scriptures was coming had arrived, and set out to discover where he was in order that they might worship Him.  Their search eventually led them to Jerusalem where they were received as visiting dignitaries by the regional king, Herod.  Knowing little of Herod’s character and how the news they bore would be received they arrived and unintentionally set in motion a disaster.

Check this out starting in Matthew 2:1: “Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?  For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.’  When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.  They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea…’”

Now to understand what is going on here you need to understand a little bit about King Herod.  He is known to us from history as Herod the Great.  He was not great because of his character, but because he was a shrewd ruler who undertook massive, popular building projects such as rebuilding and expanding the great temple of Solomon.  You would think that would pretty much cement his popularity among the Jewish people, but you would be wrong.  Herod was a violent and capricious ruler who would just as soon have someone murdered as pat them on the back.  He was deeply paranoid about losing his power and several times had family members—including his favorite wife—murdered because he feared (wrongly in her case) they were plotting against him.  He issued an order to his army officers to be enacted upon his death to have 2,000 prominent Jews rounded up and crucified on the day he died so the city would be filled with mourners on that day.  He was an evil guy whose only real predictable point was that if he felt his power was being threatened he would lash out violently and aggressively to put a stop to it.  When the text says that all Jerusalem was troubled with him, you bet they were.  When word got out that he was nervous about some infant “king of the Jews” they probably all wanted to hunt down and kill this kid so Herod didn’t kill all of them his place.

But, being the shrewd ruler that he was he couldn’t come right out and say this to these foreign dignitaries who might go and report back to their king about how savage and barbaric were the peoples of the Roman Empire.  So instead he took a more subtle route.  Verse 7: “Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared.  And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.’  After listening to the king, they went on their way.”

Well, with the location assistance from Herod and the Jewish religious leaders, “they went on their way.  And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was.  When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy [which is just Bible-speak for “they were really, really excited”].  And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.  Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.”

And this is that place in any good story when it seems like everything is going to go the way of the good guys.  I have watched a lot of Hallmark movies with Lisa this season.  They’re all pretty good, but they are all pretty much the same.  There’s a formula, it works, and they stay pretty tight with it.  And part of the formula is that at about the hour and twenty minute mark the couple really falls in the love for the first time and whatever the big problem in the story is hasn’t yet jumped out and bit them in the tail.  It’s still lingering in the background, but at this point in the story everything is good.  If they can just stay in this place we can jump straight to the happy ending and roll the credits…but there’s fifteen more minutes of commercials to pay for the movie so things aren’t over quite yet.

The wise men find Mary and Joseph and Jesus and worship Him and give Him gifts and it’s time for them to go home.  And then we remember Herod’s request.  “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”  Come on, even if I hadn’t told you more about the historical Herod and you were reading this story for the very first time your storytelling spider-sense perked up there and said, “No!  They can’t do it.  He’s going to deceive them at Jesus’ expense!”  So what happens?  Verse 12 happens: “And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.”

Hurray!  Jesus is saved!  Quick! roll the credits before anything else can happen.  You’ve been in a place like this in your own life, haven’t you?  Everything seems good and whatever storm has been brewing has apparently passed.  God gave you a great assist and you’re just waiting to see how the end of the story goes.  And then the other shoe drops.  Jump down to v. 16: “Then Herod, when he saw that he has been tricked by the wise men, became furious…”  Now, you remember just how fearful was Herod’s wrath, right?  What happens next is one of those things we see occasionally in the Bible that is hard to handle.  It’s ugly.  It’s evil.  It seems to go against everything we know about God’s character.  But it’s there and we have to deal with it.  In order to make any kind of sense out of it we need to keep two critical things in mind.  First, just because something is reported in the Scriptures does not mean God liked it happening, much less sanctioned it.  Second, because of God’s commitment to redeem the brokenness of creation from the inside out (which is a credit to His goodness), these kinds of things do happen on occasion.  And sometimes “on occasion” feels pretty frequent.

“Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.”  Let us have no doubt that this was every bit as awful as it sounds.  This is personal to me as Micah would have been included in that group.  But listen: this is the prime example of the kind of brokenness that God came into our world to transform and redeem.  It is unbelievably awful that it happened as He arrived, but had He let the threat of this happening keep Him from coming in the first place there would be no force in the world that could prevent it from happening again.  No one would have come into the world in order to redeem the value of children such that a thing like this is unthinkable to us.  Because rest assured: in the minds of most observers back then, this was not a senseless loss of innocent human life, this was an entirely understandable and even legitimate effort to prevent a threat to the established order.  Jesus changed that in a way no one else could have done.  The good plans of God for His people were going to unfold.  All they required in light of the approach God decided to take to seeing it happen was for a few people to trust Him even when it didn’t seem to make any sense; to trust Him even when it seemed there was no chance the sacrifices they were making to see them happen were going to pay off; to trust Him regardless of the obstacles standing before them.  To put that a bit more simply, when we trust God, we get to experience the wonder of His good plans.  When we trust God we get to experience the wonder of His good plans.

And these weren’t just good plans, they were the best plans.  What we have been looking at for the past few weeks and which we celebrated with exuberance a couple of days ago were the plans of our heavenly Father to open the doors of eternal life to all who would enter them.  These were the plans of God for our salvation.  These were the plans of God for our freedom from the sin and death which had held us tightly in their grasp ever since the Garden.  These were the plans of God to make us whole, to restore us from the brokenness that kept sucking the life out of us.  These were the plans of God to enter fully into our world and restore it from that point outward.  These were plans, in short, that were wonderful.  But they are not plans anyone could have experienced without trusting Him.

Joseph trusted God when He gave him a behind-the-scenes look at what was going on with Mary and kept at that trust even when it stood poised to cost him a great deal of at least social capital.  The wise men trusted a God they did not even know when He called them to return home by a different route.  Joseph trusted God again when he revealed in another dream to hightail it out of town to a place he had never been before—and with a toddler in tow—to avoid the wrath of the evil king Herod.  Beyond this, Mary trusted the words of an angel and allowed herself to be led through a mess on the hope that this child of promise—and stress—was the Messiah.  The Shepherds trusted a midnight vision that could have been written off as some bad olives from dinner and went to welcome the infant king and spread the word of His arrival.  As the baby born in a manger grew and began to teach, men trust His words to bring them life; women trusted Him that their value was more than the world around them said; the sick trusted Him to bring life to their bodies; the outcasts trusted Him that they were of immeasurable worth to their heavenly Father.  The disciples would trust Jesus as He sent them out to spread the news of His resurrection and start a movement that would transform the world forever.

Was trust in any of these circumstances easy?  Never.  But when they gave it to Him anyway to a person they experienced the wonder of His good plans.  When we trust God, we will experience the wonder of His good plans.  Indeed, the God who proved Himself trustworthy in the story of His Son’s arrival and in a million other stories has not changed.  In your life and my life there are circumstances that call for trust in God.  In each of these instances exercising such trust will not be easy.  It will come with a cost.  Often that cost will be high.  But if we will nonetheless give Him our trust and stick with that decision we will yet experience the wonder of His good plans.  When we trust God we will experience the wonder of His good plans.  That trust 2,000 years ago gave us the first Christmas miracle.  It still works today.  May you give this trust, and know this wonder.