Excerpted from The Journey by Adam Hamilton Copyright © 2011 by Abingdon Press
Several years ago I preached a series of sermons inspired by a line from Andrew Peterson’s song “Labor of Love,” in which he sang, “It was not a silent night.” This was not a silent night. Our Christmas carols sometimes miss the reality of what Mary was experiencing that night. We sing, “All is calm, all is bright round yon virgin, mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild,” but it was not like that. It was disappointing and depressing and hard. Life can be that way. And the long-awaited Messiah’s birth came in the midst of the messiness and disappointment and pain. He was born, not in a hospital, not even in a guest room, but in a stable, among the animals, with a feeding trough for his first bed.
In the midst of the hardship that went with Mary and Joseph’s journey, amid the deferred dreams and dashed hopes, God was working to redeem the world. God forces every circumstance, including the oppression of the Roman government, to serve his purpose.
This was not a journey Mary wanted to take. It was not the way she imagined it would be. And of course this was not to be the last of Mary’s unwanted journeys. A short time after Jesus’ birth, Herod would try to kill the child, and she and Joseph would take the infant Jesus and flee to Egypt as refugees. Thirty-three years later, there would be another journey she would take with her son, this time down the Via Dolorosa as she followed him to Calvary.
We will each take unwanted journeys in life. I think of those I know who have been laid off work; those who are battling cancer; a family whose child has struggled with drug addiction; people I see each week whose spouses have left; parents who have lost children. You know plenty of others, I’m sure. Life will have its moments of disappointment, its times of overwhelming sorrow and intense pain. But the good news of Scripture is that God not only walks with us on these journeys; God redeems them and brings good from them. The Bible is filled with such stories.
Jacob’s son Joseph was sold as a slave by his brothers, then wound up in Egypt, falsely accused and thrown into prison. But that was not the end of Joseph’s story.
David fled into the wilderness when King Saul tried to kill him. He stayed among the Philistines for a couple of years, writing psalms that asked God, “Why do you allow my enemies to prosper? When are you going to save me?” He did not want to take this journey. But that was not the end of David’s story.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were told to bow down and worship the Babylonian king’s image; if they refused they would be thrown into the fiery furnace. Surely they did not wish to take this journey to the fiery furnace. But that was not the end of their story.
The people of Judah were taken captive and marched to Babylon, where they would live in exile for fifty years. But that was not the end of their story. And the child who would be born in a stable in Bethlehem would walk to Calvary. But that would not be the end of his story.
All of us take unwanted journeys, but God always walks with us on these journeys. God works through them and redeems them, and these difficult journeys will never be the end of our story!
In hindsight, we can see what Mary couldn’t as she entered that stable, her contractions getting closer and closer together. She couldn’t yet hear the angels singing, couldn’t see the shepherds running to the stable, couldn’t know that the magi were already on their way with their gifts to pay homage to the little king. And she certainly couldn’t see that you would be reading her story two thousand years later, reflecting upon its meaning for your life.
Zechariah the prophet spoke to the people of his day who were themselves discouraged with how hard their journey had been. They were ready to give up hope. But he reminded them that one day God would send a king who would deliver his people. Then he called God’s people something interesting. He called them “prisoners of hope”:
As for you also, because of the blood
of my covenant with you,
I will set your prisoners free
from the waterless pit.
Return to your stronghold,
O prisoners of hope;
today I declare that I will restore
to you double. (9:11-12)
I love this line. We are all called to be prisoners of hope—captured by hope, bound by it, unable to let go of it.
Hope is a decision we make, a choice to believe that God can take the adversity, the disappointment, the heartache, and the pain of our journeys and use these to accomplish his purposes. This is precisely what we see happening in Mary’s story—in the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem and in giving birth in a stable among the animals—where we see hope born in the midst of disappointment. We want to whisper to Mary, “Don’t cry. God is here, even among the animals, and people will draw hope from your story until the end of time.”
I invite you, regardless of the journey you are on, to trust, to have faith, and to hope that your difficult journeys will never be the end of your story, because God is by your side. Invite God to use your disappointments to accomplish God’s purposes. It was just such hope, I believe, that kept Mary going on that long, difficult journey to Bethlehem.
The Journey by Adam Hamilton Copyright © 2011 by Abingdon Press