The Bible makes clear many times that Jesus did not have an easy life. What we don’t stop and think about a lot of times is how hard his life was right from the beginning. We don’t think about how hard Mary and Joseph’s life was at that time, either, or why it was that way.
As we continue our sermon series, “Beyond the Manger”, looking at the early life of Jesus, we pick up the story right where we left off with it last week. The wise men had come to see Jesus. Herod had told the wise men to come and report to him where the young Jesus was, but the wise men were warned in a dream not to do that, so they went home a different way.
As you might guess, that made Herod pretty upset. Herod was the king, and he did not want to hear about some other king who might come some day to claim the throne. So, Herod decided to take care of the problem before it came up. Herod knew, from what the wise men had told him, that the new king was no more than two years old. So, Herod decided to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were age two or younger. That way he’d be certain to get the new king. He’d get a lot of innocent kids too, of course, but Herod was not concerned about that. All he cared about was that he make sure there was no other king around who could take power away from him.
Of course, it did not work. An angel appeared to Joseph and told him to take his family to Egypt, where they could get away from Herod. So, in the dead of night, Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, who probably was about two years old at this time, left Bethlehem and headed to Egypt.
It was probably a hundred miles or more that they had to travel. They most likely walked the whole way, carrying what few possessions they took with them. Probably carrying Jesus, too, because again, he was only two years old or so. It was definitely not an easy trip.
And the thing is that when they got to Egypt, things probably did not get any better. We’re not told anything about their time there, but think about it. They were in a foreign country. They had no particular rights there. They probably did not speak the language. They had no knowledge of local customs. And most likely, they had not money, either, and very few possessions. What do you do, if you’re Joseph? How do you take care of your family? And in case you’ve forgotten, that family happens to include the new king, the Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior of the world.
Now, Joseph and Mary were good people. But they had to be wondering what in the world was going on, don’t you think? I mean, here they were. A few years ago they were just two ordinary people living in Nazareth. Two ordinary people planning to live an ordinary life. They’d get married, they’d have some kids. Joseph would make a good living for the family as a carpenter. They’d be good people, well thought of in the community. They’d live in Nazareth and probably die in Nazareth, hopefully after many long, happy years together. A simple plan, but a good plan. A plan for a good, quiet, happy life.
And then God comes along. And all of a sudden first Mary, and then Joseph, find out God wants them to be the earthly parents of the Savior. And they’re a little bit skeptical at first, but they say yes.
And then, all of a sudden, their lives are turned upside down. They have to leave Nazareth and go to Bethlehem. They can’t find a place to stay, and the Savior is born in a barn. Finally, they get things together and they start to make a life in Bethlehem, and now they have to literally run for their lives. They have to take this long, hard, treacherous trip, because that’s the only way their son will survive. They have to go to Egypt, not knowing the language, not knowing anyone there, not knowing what in the world they’ll do when they get there.
We’re not told how they felt about any of this, but it seems like they must have been scared to death. Their plan for a good, quiet, happy life together was shot to smithereens. They’ve had to endure all this hardship, all this misery. They’ve had to be on the run, scared for their lives. And none of this was their fault. None of it was because they’d done anything wrong. In fact, it was because they’d done things right. They were in his mess precisely because they had chosen to follow God.
Think about that for a minute. If Mary and Joseph had chosen to disobey God, to ignore the angel, none of this would’ve happened to them. If they’d told the angel Gabriel to get lost, to go pound sand, to find somebody else, they would not have had to go to Egypt. Most likely, they’d have been able to live that good, quiet, happy life they’d planned for themselves in Nazareth. Their lives were going exactly the way they wanted them to go before God came along. Then they surrendered their lives to God.. And life became a big, complicated mess.
Now, don’t get me wrong. As far as we know, Mary and Joseph were faithful Jews before all this happened. They were not bad, sinful people, or at least no more so than any of the rest of us are. They were good people. They did the best they could to live good lives. But their troubles came about when they went from just doing their best to live good lives to specifically trying to do what God wanted them to do. Their troubles came when they stopped just trying to be “good people” and started trying to surrender every aspect of their lives to God.
Which is precisely why so many of us have trouble so many of us have trouble doing that. See, when our goal is just to be “good people”, we retain control over our lives. We decide where we’re going to go, what we’re going to do, and when we’re going to do it. But when we go beyond that, when we surrender every aspect of our lives to God, we give up that control. We do what God wants us to do when God wants us to do it. And that scares us. If we surrender every aspect of our lives to God, who knows where that might lead? It might do what it did to Mary and Joseph. It might turn our lives upside down and make them a big, complicated mess. We don’t want that.
Understand, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being a good person. God wants us to be good people. But that’s not all God wants. God wants more from us than that.
When we look in the gospels, we can see that just being a good person is not enough. In Mark Ten, Jesus meets a guy who wants eternal life. And the guy says, I’ve done the things I’m supposed to do. I’ve kept the commandments: don’t murder, don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t give false testimony, don’t defraud, honor your father and mother. I’ve done all that. But what do I need to do for eternal life? And Jesus tells him he needs to give up everything he has, to give up keeping control of his life, and follow Jesus.
In Luke Eighteen, Jesus tells about a guy who fasts twice a week, and gives a tenth of what he makes to the temple. And Jesus says, that’s not enough. It’s not enough for him to be a good person. The guy needs to ask for God’s mercy. He needs to give up control. He needs to surrender his life to God.
Again, we should be good people. But we should not settle for just being good people. And it’s so tempting to do that. I do it all the time. It makes things so much easier if we just focus on trying to be good people, rather than focusing on surrendering our lives to God.
What if Mary and Joseph had done that? What if they had just settled for being good people, rather than surrendering their lives to God? They probably would’ve stayed in Nazareth. Eventually, Joseph would probably have been one of the town elders. He’d have been respected in the community. So would Mary. Everyone would’ve thought they were good people. But they would not have been the earthly parents of the Savior. We would never have heard of them.
Did you ever think that maybe, just maybe, the angel Gabriel might have gone to someone else before going to Mary? Maybe, possibly, Gabriel asked someone else to be Jesus’ mother, and they said no. The Bible does not say that, but the Bible does not specifically say that it did not happen, either. Is it possible that someone else had the chance to be the earthly mother of Jesus, but refused? That person was probably a good person, but they were willing to settle for being a good person. They were not willing to surrender their life to God.
We often pray that God will help us open our hearts and our souls so that God’s Spirit can come in. This is what we’re talking about when we pray that. We’re praying for God to help us go beyond just being good people. We’re praying for God to help us go where God wants us to go and do what God wants us to do. We’re praying for God to help us do that even when the road God leads us on is a hard one. Even when it leads to a place we did not want to go and never would’ve gone on our own. Even when it takes us on a long trip where we don’t know whether we’re going to get there and have no idea what we’re going to do when we do get there.
Being a good person is important. But if we truly want to call ourselves Christians, we need to follow Jesus Christ. That means being a good person is not enough. If we want to call ourselves Christians, we need to give up control of our lives and surrender them to Jesus.
It’s not easy. But we can do it. Mary and Joseph were ordinary people, and they did it. With God’s help, we can do it, too.