“We are defined by Christ in us”
Is this what you expected?
Did you think – I’ll follow Christ and then at some point in my life a world wide pandemic will hit and and nothing will feel or be the same.
On Christmas, we celebrate the incredible miracle of God humbling himself to take on the form of a newborn, a tiny human. We sing about how all is calm, all is bright. Christmas Eve might lead us to believe that following Jesus means that all will be peaceful and still in our lives.
I wonder if Mary and Joseph thought that life would be easy, peaceful, perhaps even luxurious when they answered the call to be Jesus’ parents.
Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she would become pregnant by the Holy Spirit and deliver a son who would be great. Gabriel told her, “He will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” Similarly, Mary’s husband Joseph was told in a dream that Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit and that the baby Jesus would save all people from their sins.
I wonder if they thought that Mary would give birth to Jesus in a huge palace, wrapped in fine linens, with fresh clean water and royal handmaids by her side.
But we know that Mary did not give birth in a palace. When she was 10 months pregnant. When she could hardly bend over. When she was tired all the time and could barely move, Caesar called for a census which meant that Mary and Joseph had to walk for days back to their hometown of Bethlehem. After all that travel and walking, Mary goes into labor as they reach Bethlehem and they find that there are no available rooms in any of the hotels in Bethlehem, so they find a manager, which was essentially a damp, dark cave where Mary gives birth to Jesus with Joseph at her side. There were no fine linens, no water, no midwives.
Is this what they expected when they agreed to carry and deliver “the son of the most high, whose kingdom will never end”?
Is all this that is going on now what you expected?
Shortly after Mary gives birth, shepherds come to honor Jesus and wise men bring him gifts. It is not at all what they expected, but it is mysterious, calm, bright, and profound.
Then not more than a couple days or a week later an angel comes to Joseph in a dream and says to him, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”
We hear in the text that Joseph does not delay at all. Matthew tells us, “Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.” It is clear from the text that Joseph in no way doubted the dream. It sounds like the dream woke him up and he was certain it was a warning from the Lord. The text also makes it clear that this was not something Joseph could do later. He could not sleep through the night and then leave in the morning. We hear that Joseph immediately wakes up Mary and Jesus and leaves “by night” to Egypt. Joseph packs their belongings onto the donkey, wakes up Mary and tells her they need to flee to Egypt, a foreign land because King Herod is searching for their newborn Jesus to kill him.
I cannot imagine the stress and strain on Mary and Joseph and little infant Jesus.
This was Mary’s first child and she had no woman around her to help her with nursing. If Jesus was anything like a normal newborn he likely was up every three hours. They must have been incredibly sleep deprived. We know that women really should not exercise as much in the weeks following delivery. Mary was really not physically ready to go on another three day walk while caring for and nursing Jesus. And of course who knows how they were feeding themselves … there were no grocery stores or organic fruit pouches.
In addition Mary and Joseph were not embarking on a three day journey to a resort in the Bahamas, nor were they even just traveling to the comforts of their own home where the nursery was all set with the basinet and the rocking chair. They were urgently waking up in the middle of the night to escape a threat on the life of their new, perfect little child.
There is not one thing about this that was easy, peaceful, or calm about the first weeks Jesus’ life. This was stressful and hard and physically painful. It was exhausting and absolutely terrifying.
In the first weeks of his life Jesus shows us that following him does not mean that our circumstances will be calm, silent, and peaceful.
So if following Jesus does not mean that all will be calm, what does it mean?
Jesus parents became refugees in the first weeks of Jesus’ life. After Herod died an angel tells Joseph that they can return to Israel. As they make their way back to Israel an angel appears again to Joseph warning him not to go to Bethlehem, but instead to go to Nazareth. Mary and Joseph knew the threats on Jesus’ life, yet this did not define Jesus.
Even later when the threat on his life became abundantly clear, Jesus did not let this define him. Jesus was not defined by the circumstances around him. Jesus was defined by God’s call on his life.
Are you defined by the circumstances that rage around you? The pandemic. The isolation. The chaos. Are you defined by the storms of this life or are you defined by your identity in Christ?
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that we read this morning, Paul says that through Christ we are adopted children of God. Paul then prays that we understand what this means for us. He prays that “with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which God has called us and the immeasurable greatness of God’s power for us.”
Later in Ephesians, Paul tells us that Jesus working in us can do far more than we can ever ask for or imagine.
We are not defined by the circumstances that surround us, we are defined by Christ in us.
Jesus was not defined as a man on the run. He was defined by God.
What else does Jesus show us in the first weeks of his life?
Herod was set on destroying Jesus. He was powerful and had a large army determined to seize the infant Jesus. But no matter how powerful the enemy was, God’s mission and purpose for Jesus was not overcome by any enemy. Angels repeatedly appeared to Mary, Joseph and the wise men to reassure them, guide them, and protect Jesus.
There is no enemy strong enough to snuff out God’s purpose and mission in this world… no pandemic… no frustration… no fear. No enemy strong enough to destroy God’s purpose this world.
What else do we learn from Jesus’ first weeks of life?
Life was not at all what Mary and Joseph imagined. Mary and Joseph were not in a palace with the newborn king. They were refugees raising an infant on the run. At this point, Joseph easily could have given up on Mary. Jesus was not his child. He could have left her. Even Mary could have left Jesus fearing for her own life, but Mary and Joseph were not shaken. They remained calm in the stress and the strain and the pain. They continued in their faith, they continued to pray, they continued to look for guidance from God. Their peace was not shaken even though life was not at all what they must have imagined it would be.
As Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians, Jesus gives us a peace that is far beyond what we can understand. Jesus gives us the peace of God that guards our hearts and our minds no matter what is whirling around us.
Mary and Joseph were not shaken. The peace of the Lord was not in an easy, luxurious life. The peace of the Lord was within each of them.
As we continue to fight this pandemic, all may not be calm, peaceful and bright around us. Life still may not be as we expected it would be. But remember what Jesus shows us in the first weeks of his life.
We are not defined by the circumstances around us, we are defined by God.
Enemies may appear strong, but nothing will overcome God’s purpose and plan.
The Peace of the Lord is within us no matter what whirls around us.
So in the week ahead and whatever quarantine brings you …
Do not let your circumstances define you, look beyond the pandemic to see how God defines you.
Know that this pandemic will not erase God’s purpose in your life and do not look for peace out there. Look for the unexplainable calm, the majesty, the peace of God that is already within you in Christ Jesus.