Scandal. Suspicion. Slaughter. Not the usual words you associate with Christmas. But because we see it through the filter of the whole story (and perhaps because we don’t want to make small children cry) we sanitise what happened. We read about a pregnant virgin and know that Mary wasn’t lying. We don’t have to worry about her being a disgraced and vulnerable woman as we know Joseph married her. We know that although there was no room at the inn, Mary and Joseph found a safe place for Mary to give birth.
But when you think about it, it’s all a bit fragile isn’t it? Anything could have gone wrong. God as a helpless baby, born in a stable without a midwife and hospital staff team on standby. If the sanitation and lack of health care wasn’t enough, King Herod was so desperate to have Jesus killed that he ordered all boys in and around Bethlehem under the age of two to be murdered. When the king wanted something it usually happened. So how would Jesus survive when he couldn’t defend himself? He might have been helpless but his Father certainly wasn’t. God warned Joseph in a dream to flee. To run for their lives, to go to a foreign land and to wait. After the emotional upheaval of the previous few months of a divine pregnancy, a traumatic journey and getting their heads around becoming parents to the longed for Messiah, they were forced to leave their own country and take refuge, fearing for their lives.
Then they had to wait until Herod died. Today we’d have our phones in hand waiting for Twitter to go crazy with the news that the King was dead minutes after it had happened. News didn’t travel quite so fast in those days. Joseph only knew Herod had died because God spoke to him in a dream. I wonder if by this time Joseph was used to having pretty specific dreams from God (having been told Mary hadn’t cheated on him in one and warned to leave Israel in another) or whether he was still pretty nervous taking his wife and young son back; if he was wrong, Jesus would have been killed.
All the way along, Mary and Joseph had to trust that it was God speaking, even when what they were hearing seemed crazy. When God spoke they acted. They trusted. God’s plans may have seemed crazy and vulnerable but what God said would happen, happened. The prophecies were spoken hundreds of years before and God brought them to pass. He moved all the pieces into place just as he had promised. But I don’t think it got any easier from there. The rest of the plan relied on Jesus being taken to a cross and killed as a criminal. Then the spreading of the gospel was dependent on a group of ordinary (i.e. as flawed as you and I) people who were persecuted by those desperate to stop them and many even killed to stop the spread of the Good News.
God didn’t take the easy route. The prophecies about the Messiah weren’t vague. A thousand things could have gone wrong but his plan was never in doubt. God said a virgin would give birth to his son (Isaiah 7:14) in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2) and spend time in Egypt (Hosea 11:1). He said there would be a massacre after his birth (Jeremiah 31:15) that he would be rejected by his own people (Isaiah 53:3), betrayed (Psalm 41:9 and Zechariah 11:12-13), falsely accused (Psalm 35:11) and crucified with criminals (Isaiah 53:12). These are just some of the prophecies, just some of the ways God wanted to show us his plans are far above our plans, his ways far greater than our ways. In a year that feels like it has been filled with shocks here in the UK and around the world, it’s good to remember that nothing catches God by surprise and that he is with us.
So this Christmas let’s remember that God is who he says he is. He will do all that he has said he will do. It might seem as unlikely and as crazy as a baby being born to a virgin – but if he has said it, he will do it. He is the God of the impossible, the God of redemption, and the God who brings light into our darkness. Most of all let’s hold on to the fact that he is Immanuel; whatever it is we’re facing he is with us. Always.