Many people do that at this time of the year. They look back on the past year and try to assess how it was for them. I talked to someone the other day and he counted five in his family who passed away in the last year. That’s tough. Some years are certainly more difficult than others.
It was a tough year for Joseph and Mary as well. They had certainly had a “challenging” year to say the least. A number of very stressful events had taken place in their lives — an unexpected pregnancy, a long, arduous trip toward the end of that pregnancy, and then only to find that there was “no room in the inn.” Not long after, the little family had to flee Bethlehem for Egypt to escape a murderous edict from King Herod which threatened the life of baby Jesus. Joseph and Mary must have also breathed a sigh of relief when they finally got safely back to their hometown of Nazareth.
Yet through all their challenges, it is remarkable that they saw what had happened as all a part of God’s plan. They were people of faith — that’s all that’s to it! When Joseph received the word that Mary was to have a baby and that he was to name the baby “Jesus” because he would save his people from their sins, he believed. He trusted that God knew what he was doing – that “a virgin would conceive and bear a son” who would be called “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.”
To me, that name “Emmanuel” is so powerful. God was there with Joseph and Mary and the baby Jesus. God was guiding the whole process. Was it easy? No! It was hard. But God would be with them through the ordeal. He would make it all come out all right. And he did!
Just think about how humble and unassuming God was in this whole process. God’s visit to earth in Jesus took place in an animal shelter with no attendants present and nowhere for this divine visitor to lay his head but in a manger, a feeding trough. In fact, there were most likely more animal witnesses to Jesus’ birth than human witnesses. God’s coming to earth was as the Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” has it: “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.” No big fanfare, no pomp and circumstance, no big deal. Only it was a big deal!
The whole Christmas story tells us of a God who is approachable – a God who reaches out in grace and love to people – and that includes you and me – who are not always so lovable. If we are honest we would have to agree with the prophet Isaiah who said, “All we like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him (Jesus) the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53: 6) People often have an aversion to God because they fear the worst: accusation, judgment, and condemnation. But what could be less scary than a tiny little baby! And this baby, when he was grown up said this: “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)
This is often what we see in the Bible: God using what the world sees as insignificant or unimportant — shepherds, fishermen, a young girl, a little baby. I once heard it said that God is the God of the underdog. And let’s face it — most of us are underdogs. We are ordinary, average human beings. But the Beatitudes tell us that those are the kind of people God blesses and uses! “Blessed are those who are poor in spirit,” he says, and in addition, those who mourn, those who are meek, those who are persecuted and those who are insulted. (Matthew 5: 3-12)
Christmas is a huge subject to digest and to wrap your mind around. I hope you have spent some time in this season reflecting on the meaning of Christmas. But you can’t stay put stuck in your thoughts and ruinations. A new year will soon be here, and we have to go forward. There is much work still to be done! The African-American author, philosopher and educator, Howard Thurman, has put it well:
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins.
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To teach the nations,
To bring Christ to all,
To make music in the heart.
Time to get to work!
— By the Rev. John Koedyker, Tribune community columnist and pastor of Congregational Care at First Reformed Church of Grand Haven.