I don’t know what plans you had for Christmas this year but the chances are that you have had to make some adjustments.
At the beginning of the year most of us would have assumed that there would be a short Christmas Day service organised at the church building just as we have been doing regularly now for many years. The fact that you’re following this recorded service is a clear indication that those plans didn’t quite work out as expected. Of course a lot has happened since the beginning of the year and we had long ago given up on the idea of physically meeting together on Dec.25th. But even our more recent plans have had to undergo significant change in just the last few days. I for one should be 100 miles away from where I actually am and those visitors you were expecting to receive are having to stay away too.
It all goes to show that however carefully we might prepare our plans – and it is certainly right for us to make such plans – seeing those plans through to completion is something that is beyond our absolute control.
The Scottish poet, Robbie Burns, put it in a line that has since been frequently quoted:
“The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.”
Many centuries earlier the Bible had already made the same point in a couple of proverbial statements:
Prov.16:9 “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.”
Prov.17:21 “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand.”
The apostle James writing in the first century of the Christian era developed this further as he cautioned a bit more realism and humility to be shown by men and women as they laid out their plans for the future:
Jas.4:13-15 “Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with making plans, the problem comes when we forget that God has his own plans and ours will never over-ride his!
The events concerning the first Christmas are all part of God’s plan and it was a plan that he was determined would be carried out to the full. Sometimes that would involve the unwitting collaboration of individuals, sometimes with their willing consent and sometimes in the face of outright hostility.
This plan was first formulated in eternity past as Jesus himself taught:
Mt 25:34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
Paul also wrote of how God had long ago chosen those who were to be his holy and sanctified people:
Eph.1:4 “he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love”
The apostle John too referred to the purposeful plan of God which existed before anything else was created when he wrote about the book of life, a book that was written long ago:
Rev.13:8 “and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slain.”
And when God establishes a plan he intends to fulfil it. Man’s fall into sin in the Garden of Eden couldn’t put an end to it and we find, even at that early stage in humanity’s history, God’s loving declaration of intent: a deliverer will come!
Gen.3:15 “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.”
The rest of the OT presents us with the progressive unfolding of this plan, the details of which even include the place where this Saviour would be born – a backwater village by the name of Bethlehem.
Fast forward to the NT and it is time for this divine plan of salvation to click into action and it does so in some pretty unexpected ways.
Willing Participants – Mary and Joseph
Mary and Joseph were planning to get married and they were serious about it. The legal documents had been signed and their agreement was sworn – they were now betrothed. I guess they were beginning to plan their life ahead together just like any other new couple approaching their marriage. Where would they live? What they would do? What sort of family they might like to have.
And then their plans were so severely shaken.
Mary was the first to find out.
Gabriel, one of the few named angels in the Bible, met her and gave her a staggering message. She was to be the mother of the long-promised deliverer who lay at the heart of God’s plan. But her baby was not going to be conceived in the normal way at all but as a direct result of divine intervention.
Mary’s response was astounding. She humbly accepted what the angel had to say and willingly accepted to play her part in God’s plan.
It was hardly surprising though that almost as soon as the angel left her that she took herself off to visit her relative Elizabeth. Now Elizabeth was possibly the only woman capable of understanding and supporting Mary at that time because she too had recently experienced a visit from the same angel Gabriel and she too had been granted an important role in God’s developing plan.
If Mary was looking for encouragement she certainly got it. The moment Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting she was filled with the Spirit of God and the words she spoke testified to importance and status of the baby Mary would bring into the world – he would be Elizabeth’s Lord, a divine baby!
Joseph’s response was impressive too. After he got over the shock of finding his wife-to-be was pregnant and knowing he wasn’t responsible he too had angelic visit. The account was the same. Mary was pregnant because of direct divine intervention but Joseph too had his role to play in what happened next. But he’d better get used to the idea that his plans for an ordinary life might need some alterations. When God is at work things just don’t go on as before.
There was a problem however. Mary and Joseph lived up north in Nazareth and the Messiah was to be born as we have seen in Bethlehem.
But this was no problem to God. According to the author of Proverbs:
Pr.21:1 “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.”
Well, he could just as easily written the emperor’s heart was in the hand of the Lord for the Lord turned his heart just where he wanted it to go. How do you get the messiah’s family to undertake a lengthy journey late in the woman’s pregnancy? Well one way is to have a census organised. And that is just what happened!! At just the right time Caesar Augustus decided he wanted to know how many folk were living in his empire. The best way he could think of organising such a census was to require people to register in their family home town and that meant Joseph had to head off with his wife to Bethlehem. What a coincidence!! Did you know that coincidences of that kind often tend to happen when God is at work? You might even be tempted to think that it wasn’t a coincidence at all but that God actually had planned it all beforehand. And God’s plans are always good ones, plans that are fully thought out!
Plans go skew-whiff
But it doesn’t always immediately look like that to us, now, does it?
I wonder whether Joseph thought on that journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem their future accommodation would be taken care of. Everything we know about Joseph tells us that he would have wanted to do the best for his bride-to-be and that surely would have involved finding a good place to stay for her confinement. But again his plans go awry.
Bethlehem was his ancestral home but if he had relatives there they don’t seem to have extended him and his heavily pregnant wife any sort of welcome. He tried to get a place at the inn but that didn’t work either. Had God forgotten to make the necessary bookings? What was going on?
How do you feel when things don’t quite work out the way you think they ought to?
Our God can be full of surprises. It is surprising that he should want to plan for the salvation of a race that had deliberately turned him out of their lives. It is surprising that he chooses to do so by entering his own created world. And it is surprising that having taken that decision he comes in such lowly humility. No, he hadn’t forgotten to make the necessary bookings it was just his choice of accommodation that is surprising – a stable with no crib for a bed, just an animal’s food trough will do for the infant Jesus.
And the time came. Mary’s baby was born. How simply this momentous event is recorded!
Lk.2:6-7 “the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son”
Mary had made her preparations. She had the swaddling cloths for wrapping her newborn but I doubt she ever expected that she would have to lay him in a manger – that was God’s plan. But she adapted to God’s planning and cared for her son with the ready and willing support of her future husband Joseph.
If Mary and Joseph were willing to cooperate with God’s plans and Caesar Augustus would unknowingly further them there were others who didn’t like them at all.
God’s plan involved a new King of the Jews and the old king of the Jews wasn’t best pleased about it. He didn’t want any new kid on the block who might cause him trouble so he set out to do his best to end this young life before it had hardly got going.
Herod set himself against God. He knew where the young child had been born and now ordered an extermination campaign - he didn’t want any potential royal rival slipping through his fingers – no, all the young boys had to go. It came to be known as the Massacre of the Innocents.
But how foolish Herod was! Did he really think he could out-manoeuvre God? Well he wasn’t the first to think he could and he wasn’t the last either. You too have probably acted in just the same way at times. You’ve convinced yourself that God wouldn’t see what you were doing, he wouldn’t be concerned by what you were thinking about. And you’ve ended up believing you could dupe the All-Seeing, the Almighty. How foolish we humans can be!
But God had his plan. And it didn’t involve his Son dying anywhere other than on a cross on a hill outside Jerusalem. Did Herod want to kill him now? Well that just wasn’t going to happen. All it would take would be another dream for Joseph and Herod’s plot would be exposed and Joseph could take refuge in Egypt until the threat Herod posed was passed and Herod wouldn’t live forever. And when Herod died it would be an easy thing to let Joseph have the news in another dream. Joseph would then be able to bring his family back to the Promised Land. An omnipotent, omniscient God would have no problem in the further ordering of circumstances to ensure that all the details of his plan would be accomplished.
And how glad you should be because your eternal salvation depends upon it!!!
God’s plan of salvation was good for the Jews and it was good for the Gentiles. The Saviour would be the Saviour of the World saving his people from their greatest enemy, sin itself with all its dire consequences of death, destruction and despair. It was a good plan too for Mary and Joseph who were privileged to be Jesus’ parents and to observe at first hand just how he grew, how he became strong, and how he was filled with wisdom. They could witness the favour of God being upon him.
And yet it was a costly business for them. Joseph and Mary would have to experience many changes to their own plans – no-one plans to be a international refugee fleeing a war zone and yet to save the life of their young child they would have to flee to Egypt. Mary was even told by the old man Simeon in the Temple that her own soul would be pierced by the things that would happen to her son.
But neither Mary nor Joseph gave up! And we read not that Mary made sure she wouldn’t forget what she had come to know and understand:
Lk.2:19 “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.”
It would appear that this became something of a habit in her too for when Jesus had grown to be 12 years old we find her at it again:
Lk. 2:51 “And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart.”
It was a good habit to have – how much of the Christmas story would we have without it? – And it is a good habit for you to have as well.
Treasure up the details of God’s wonderful plan of salvation! All those carefully arranged details tell you that “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
Make sure that you receive the gift of the Son this Christmas!