With Us On Unplanned Journeys
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. (Luke 2:1)
Have you ever had to take a journey you didn’t want to take? Maybe you had to go somewhere you didn’t want to go or at a time that was nowhere near convenient?
My wife Laurie and I have been on one of those unplanned journeys of late. On September 30 we had a sewage backup in our basement and were displaced from our home for over two months. The District Superintendent decreed that the parsonage at Lodge Forest was no longer fit for us to live in and we needed to seek alternate housing. We spent almost 10 weeks in a hotel while we searched for a new place to call home. We finally found a house to move into (around the corner from where we were!) but this required packing and moving a few weeks before Christmas. Of all the times a pastoral family might choose to move their home, three weeks before Christmas is about the least preferred option.
The trip Mary & Joseph took from Nazareth to Bethlehem was one of those unplanned journeys. As Luke tells the story, Caesar Augustus decided he wanted the whole world counted. That meant that every man in the Empire had to travel to his ancestral home—there was no option to fill out a census form on the Internet. Thus Mary & Joseph were forced to embark on a journey to Bethlehem at a time that was nowhere near convenient for them. Mary was eight month’s pregnant! Taking a 40-mile journey in the late stages of pregnancy is tough enough today with all of our modern technology and comfort–imagine how it would have been 2000 years ago. Rome had established a good system of highways, but travel was still much more difficult than it is today. At best the young couple from Nazareth faced a long journey on the back of a donkey over roads that probably weren’t all that smooth. More likely, since they weren’t wealthy, they couldn’t even afford a mount, so they would’ve been on foot.
Stepping back a bit to take in the bigger picture, the unfolding of the Christmas Story represents an unplanned journey on a larger scale as God comes to be with us in a most unexpected way. Mary certainly never expected an angel to show up on her doorstep with news that she, a Jewish peasant girl, would become the Mother of God. Likewise, Joseph certainly wasn’t planning on receiving news that his fiancé was pregnant with God’s son but that he should proceed with his plans to marry her. God was on the move in our world and this young Jewish couple was swept up in events beyond their control. The only choice they had was whether they would accept what God was bringing them—or resist it. (And really, isn’t that the choice you and I face every single day as circumstances come our way?) What we know of Mary and Joseph suggests that they were prepared to receive what came their way because they had been walking with God their entire lives. Even though the story seemed impossible to believe, they were somehow able to see that nothing was impossible with God and receive what came to them. Mary’s response to the angel says it all: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).
The Hallmark portrayal of Joseph and Mary always makes them look so composed and serene. But I have to wonder if that’s an honest portrayal of the parents of Jesus. It makes a good “family photo” as it were, but does it match the reality of their real life together? What was it really like on that unplanned journey? Did they ever wonder, as my wife and I have many times on our own unplanned journey these past few months: Where are you in all of this God? I can’t believe we have to take this trip now? Aren’t you aware of our situation? Isn’t being pregnant with your Son enough? Why add a long trip to the equation? Isn’t this “piling on” a bit?
It must have been hard for Mary to cling to the angel’s promises in the face of the ridicule and shame from family and friends that would have resulted from her being pregnant out of wedlock. She might have questioned if she really saw and heard what she thought she did. Can you imagine the reaction when she finally told her parents the incredible news? I don’t think mom—and especially dad—would have been very happy with her… or with Joseph. I wonder if the trip to see her relative Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-45) was a way to get Mary out of town until the baby was born. (Of course Mary may have also wanted to see for herself if what she heard from the angel about Elizabeth’s own miraculous pregnancy was true [Luke 1:5-25].) And Joseph too must have asked a lot of questions. Despite the angel’s assurance (Matthew 1:18-25), don’t you think there were times when Joseph doubted his wife’s story about how she came to be pregnant—even if just for a moment? Might he have wondered along the way if it really would have been easier to simply do what he planned to do in the first place—divorce Mary quietly and be done with it?
Personally, I have much less trouble believing God is with me when the journey is smooth and uncomplicated than I do when I am forced to go to places I don’t want to go at times that aren’t convenient. I suspect I am not alone in that feeling, and I suspect it was no different for Mary and Joseph.
In those times when the journey is more difficult, I am more prone to questions and doubt—and yes, whining and complaining about my struggles. It seems I need to be reminded all the more frequently in those moments that God is still with me.
I’m learning that just because I may not “feel” God with me in a particular moment doesn’t mean that God has “left the building”. In fact my experience has shown me that even though it’s seems counterintuitive, God is often closest to me when He’s hardest to see—perhaps God is holding us so close in those moments that the distinction between us blurs. Often I realize God was in fact there with me in those moments only in hindsight when I look back and say, “The only way I could have done what I did was by God’s grace going with me.”
I think for example of the day in May 2008 when we had to say goodbye to our daughter Hope two days after her birth—an unplanned journey to be sure! I have no doubt that God was with us that day and sustained us to enable us to do what we had to do when it needed to be done. I think more recently of our 10-week unplanned journey this fall that finally led us to our new home. We never would’ve chosen this journey, but God was with us every step of the way, meeting our needs in a thousand small ways, providing a clean, comfortable place to stay in the interim, helping us find the right home for our family at the right time, and helping us get through a very difficult season with our marriage and family in tact.
There are so many other stories I could tell that testify to the fact that when God promises us that he will never leave us or forsake us, God really means it! Indeed God goes with us on all the unplanned journeys of our lives and doesn’t flinch when the road passes through the valleys of suffering and death.
And that’s really good news, because, in a way, isn’t all of life an unplanned journey? Each day comes to us; we don’t get to preview it and skip the days that we don’t like. We can only choose to receive what each day brings and struggle to find God in the midst of it all—for God is with us always if we can but train our eyes to see, our ears to hear, and our hearts to be open to receive Christ into our lives anew each day. Mary may have literally given birth to the baby Jesus at Christmas, but each of us has a chance to “give birth” to Jesus in our world in our own unique way every single day we live.
I hope and pray that in time we will all learn to see God with us in every present moment and especially on the unplanned journeys that are so much a part of this life.
Alan Ward is paid to write about Science for NASA, but his true passion is to write to further God’s Kingdom. Many of his articles discuss aspects of discipleship and spiritual formation — in particular how our life experiences shape the person we become. Read his blog here.