Although we look forward to the joys of the Christmas season, the holidays can be pretty intense for many of us. During this time of the year it seems like you’re riding an emotional roller coaster.
1. Christmas Can Be Difficult
December can be stressful, with not enough time to get everything done. Adding to the stress can be year-end pressures on the job. For those who have health problems or whose loved ones are in ill health, the season can be something less than cheerful. For those who have lost loved ones recently, the holidays can be depressing, since we especially miss them at this time of the year.
In addition, we have uncertainties about the economy. According to a recent poll, about 70% of adults plan to spend less on Christmas presents this year. Maybe you are one of those who plan to cut back this year. You may be feeling bad about it, even though you know that Christmas is much more than just presents.
2. Christmas Can Be Uplifting
On the positive side the season is known for good will and pleasant times with friends and family. There are beautiful Christmas decorations to lift the spirit, and we hear from old friends through Christmas cards. Most people are generally cheerful despite the pressures of the season. It can be a joyful time, especially when we remember the reason for the holiday. If you are facing challenges and riding an emotional roller coaster, think of the range of emotions and difficulties faced by Mary and Joseph. That first Christmas 2,000 years ago was no walk in the park.
II. Joy and Disgrace
Mary, a teen-aged girl living in the small village of Nazareth in the back-water province of Galilee, was visited by an angel one day.
1. Good News and Joy for Mary
The angel informed her that she was to bear the Messiah, every Jewish girl’s dream, but this child would not be conceived in the usual way. In obedience to God, Mary accepted it, even though she must have known it would raise questions. The angel also said that her cousin Elizabeth was expecting in her old age. In her joy Mary took off for Judea to help Elizabeth with her pregnancy. When she got to Elizabeth’s house, Elizabeth exclaimed (Luke 1:42b-43):
Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? NRSV
Mary, filled with joy at this confirmation that she was carrying the long-awaited Messiah, praised God by exclaiming:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” (Luke 1:46b-49, NRSV, “The Magnificat”)
2. Bad News at Home
This indescribable joy soon disappeared when Mary returned home to Nazareth. While the Bible doesn’t go into detail, we can imagine what happened once she arrived back in Nazareth. We get a hint of the situation in the Gospel of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth (Matthew 1:18b-19):
She was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. NIV
Since she hadn’t yet married Joseph, her condition became an instant scandal, subjecting her to gossip, ridicule, and disgrace.
3. Joseph’s Dilemma
Moreover, this pregnancy put Joseph in a difficult position, since he would have been humiliated by this unexpected turn of events. However, God intervened by sending an angel to Joseph in a dream. Just as Mary had been obedient, so was Joseph, and he agreed to marry her and raise the child as his own.
III. The Trip to Bethlehem
Because of the Roman census, Joseph had to travel to his ancestral hometown of Bethlehem to register. However, it is unclear whether Mary was required to go since the husband probably could have registered the family.
1. Escape to Bethlehem
If she wasn’t required to go, it’s quite possible that she made the trip when she was 9 months pregnant to get away from the situation in Nazareth. The 4 day trip to Bethlehem on foot must have been tough for her, and then to make matters worse, there wasn’t much relief when they got there. Can you women imagine walking 70 miles, part of it uphill, when you are in your 9th month?
2. Bethlehem No Refuge
As it turned out, there was no place for them to stay, although the couple was directed to a cave where animals were kept, where she gave birth. Fortunately the cave gave her some privacy, which she wouldn’t have had in an inn. So they had a scandal in Nazareth, difficult trip on foot, no place to stay in Bethlehem, and the birth taking place among the animals.
IV. Off to Egypt
1. Visit of the Magi
Some time after the birth of Jesus, they received some unexpected visitors. The visit of the Magi bringing gifts to honor the newborn Messiah must have been a pleasant break from all that they had been through. Their visit must have been a powerful reassurance to Mary and Joseph that this child truly was the Messiah, despite all the obstacles they had faced.
2. Run for Your Life
Just as they were feeling comfortable, their world was once again turned upside down. An angel told Joseph in a dream (Matthew 2:13b):
“Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” NRSV
So off they went to Egypt, with their lives once again disrupted. Fortunately they had the gifts from the Magi, which I suspect they used to finance their trip to Egypt.
So what do we learn from these adventures of Mary and Joseph? Here they were, chosen by God for a very special task and they we obedient to God, and what happens? Everything seems to go wrong for them. I think there are several messages for you and me in these Nativity events:
1. No One Is Immune
The first lesson we learn is that no one is immune from the trials and tribulations of life, even those called by God for his work. Mary, God’s chosen instrument, suffered pain, both early on, and later when she witnessed her Son’s passion and death. We get hints in the Gospels that the stigma of her questionable pregnancy haunted her for the rest of her life. Listen to the response of the people when Jesus began to teach in his hometown of Nazareth (Mark 6:3):
“Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. NIV
In those days people would have referred to Jesus as “Joseph’s son” (bar Yosef) but instead they referred to him as “Mary’s son” (bar Miriam). Jesus himself suffered as well during his time on earth, and endured the full range of human emotions and experiences. So the first lesson we learn is that you and I will also experience trials and pain, no matter how good a Christian we may be.
2. Even If in God’s Will
The second lesson we learn is that even obedience to God’s will won’t protect us from problems. Mary and Joseph were obedient, but look what happened – they still faced difficulties and hardships. We want to be obedient to God for any number of reasons, but we have to realize that obedience doesn’t guarantee a trouble-free life. As a matter of fact, Jesus informed his disciples they would be persecuted because of him (Luke 21:12):
“But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.” NRSV
Jesus told his disciples, and us, in John 16:33: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” NIV
3. God Was with Them
That leads me to the third lesson we learn, that God is with us during times of trials. Notice how God was directing events for Mary and Joseph, either through dreams instructing Joseph or by other means. God gave Mary the strength to make the difficult journey to Bethlehem, allowing her to get away from Nazareth. God directed them to the cave where she could give birth with some degree of privacy. God encouraged them and cheered them with Elizabeth’s greeting to Mary, and the visits of the shepherds and the Magi. God got them out of harm’s way when Herod wanted to kill the Christ-child, and even provided the funding for the escape. That’s a reminder to us that God is our provider, which we need to keep in mind during these uncertain economic times. We aren’t immune from the world’s troubles but God is with us every step of the way.
4. We Can Bless Others
In addition, God can use us, often as wounded healers, to bless others who are facing difficult situations: health, relational, economic, emotional. Walt Whitman wrote in a poem entitled Song of Myself: “I do not ask the wounded person how he feels; I myself become the wounded person.”
This is what the incarnation is all about: God came into this world, wore our flesh, and thus knows and understands how we feel. No other religion in the world offers what Christianity offers: An all-powerful and all-loving God who willingly took on the limitations and suffering of His creation.
Although we may be hurting because of our own trials or because of challenges faced by those we love, we don’t lose hope. The fact that Jesus came to this earth some 2,000 years ago shows that God did not sit idly by and watch us suffer in isolation. I read a quote recently that says:
“For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is – limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death — [God] had the honesty and courage to take His own medicine… He has kept His own rules and played fair. [God] can exact nothing from man that He has not exacted from Himself.”
So what, then, is Christmas all about? It is about you and me embracing the Savior, and allowing the words of the angel to become personal to us: “A Savior has been born to you”. When Jesus becomes your Savior, you are given the strength to endure, the peace to be able to give and receive comfort, the hope of a glorious future in heaven, and the faith to see the blessings even in pain.
So if you are in pain this Christmas, I hope you will receive comfort from the Nativity story as we’ve looked at it anew. So as we go into the New Year, let’s try to keep these lessons in mind. I wish you a blessed and peace-filled Christmas and God’s blessings and abundant grace for you in the New Year.