We are in our Advent series called “Christmas with Joseph—when things don’t go as planned.” What we’re trying to do in this series is to learn what Joseph can teach us about how to prepare for and respond to life’s unexpected difficulties.
In Boston Magazine, columnist Todd Plumber writes, “If 2020 has taught us anything it’s that we can never really know what the future holds. … [But] what we can do is to be prepared for whatever life throws our way.” Now he was talking about financial planning but the same principle holds true in all of life. You and I can’t predict the unexpected hardships of life, but we can be prepared for them when they come. This is what Joseph is giving to us. He’s giving us a crash course in hardship planning and handling the unexpected pressures of life.
(Read Luke 2:1-7)
Why, why, why? Why God do we have to journey 80-90 miles to Bethlehem? You know how hard this trip is going to be on Mary! After all we’ve been through already. The mocking and name calling has already been so hard on us. You know how many friends we’ve lost, and now this? And where are we going to stay?! The place is going to be swarming with people. Why did this decree have to come now?
We’re not told that Joseph asked any of these questions, but I would bet anything that he did. How can I say that? Because Joseph was a human being with a nature like us and because this really happened. And human suffering raises honest questions. That’s what suffering does. It causes us to ask, “Why! Why this? Why Us? Why now?”
You see what this decree would have felt like for Mary and Joseph? The worst possible thing at the worst possible time. Many of us have felt like that during COVID haven’t we? For most of us COVID-19 is THE unwanted decree that’s come into our lives. It’s THE unexpected, unwanted, and unimaginable decree that’s come at the worst possible time.
But what did Joseph do with his decree? What are we told? This is incredible. “And Joseph also went.” Joseph embraced this decree of Caesar and he went to be registered like the rest of them. Of all the people who had every excuse in the book to hide out and to somehow not follow this decree, it was Joseph. But Joseph didn’t avoid his civic responsibility. No, he embraced it because as a man of faith he trusted the sovereignty of God.
As a just man who knew the Hebrew scriptures, he knew that all the decrees of man are under the sovereign decrees of God. Perhaps Joseph would have recalled passages like Proverbs 16:33, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.” Or Lamentations 3:37, “Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it?” Or perhaps Joseph may have thought of who he was named after. This Joseph was most likely named after the Joseph in Genesis who after years of suffering said to his brothers, “What you meant for evil, God meant for good.”
What do we see here? We see a man who is trusting in the sovereignty of God. We see a man who’s surrendering the details and the days and the difficulties of his life to the sovereign decrees of God. So how do we do the same? That’s the question. I think we need to keep in mind three key aspects of God’s sovereignty. The nature, the problem, and the hope of God’s sovereignty in our lives.
The Nature or the Meaning of God’s Sovereignty
Let's start by trying to define our terms. God’s sovereignty can be a very religious and ambiguous term that is often thrown around by Christians without ever being defined. So, what do we mean by this?
This is one way we could define it—God’s sovereignty is the perfect exercise of his power, wisdom, and goodness in all things and for all time.
We need all three of those to capture God’s sovereignty because if you had someone with unlimited power to ordain and control all things but without a heart of pure goodness, then their sovereignty can’t be trusted. It’s going to be feared. Or if they have the power and goodness but without the wisdom to craft the right plan, their sovereignty can’t be trusted. Or if you’ve got someone who is always good and always wise; but limited in their power and authority to execute their plan then they’re really not sovereign to begin with something is more powerful than them.
God’s sovereignty is always a “p, w, g” sovereignty—power, wisdom, and goodness. Those are the three marks that you have to have in a sovereignty you can trust and that’s what we have in God.
But immediately, when we recognize that this is the God that the Bible presents, we have a problem. When we compare the biblical God to the harsh realities that we face on a daily basis we have a problem. You see the nature of Gods sovereignty quickly leads us to…
The Problem of God’s Sovereignty
The problem of God’s sovereignty is the reality of human suffering. In philosophy it’s called Theodicy or the Problem of evil. But it’s not just evil and human suffering that’s the problem. It’s the way we think about. It’s the way we try and reason our way through all the human suffering.
Let me give you an example. If I was Joseph, I think I’d probably be asking God something like this:
Why Bethlehem? God, why did my lineage have to be from Bethlehem? Why couldn’t it be from right here in Galilee? Oh I know, I know because there’s a prophecy in Micah 5 predicting the Messiah would come from Bethlehem. I know that! But Cmon Lord, you could have easily had Micah prophecy “from you O Galilee will come a ruler.” You know Galilee, the place that we’re already in!! I don’t get it.
That’s the problem. We don’t get it. We can’t understand the grand point and the grand purpose of 99.9% of our suffering. Sometimes we’re given a glimpse of it, but the majority of the time we don’t and it just doesn’t make any sense to us.
You know who I’m often like the little kid in The Princess Bride. Remember the kid in The Princess Bride? His grandpa‘s reading the book to him and it looks like Buttercup is going to marry prince Humperdinck. Remember what he says? “Wait, wait, stop Grandpa, you read that wrong. I’m just sure of it. You’re messing up the story Grandpa now get it right.” But his grandpa wasn’t messing up the story. The kid just needed to have patience to see how it all came together.
This is exactly where we find ourselves. We don’t have the big picture. We don’t have all the details. We can’t figure out how all this makes sense and will be worth it in the end and so what do we do? We shake our fists at God and say “You’re messing up the story God now get it right” or we may conclude that there is no grand story being read. Or maybe we conclude that there’s no divine storyteller at all. And in each case we would be wrong.
So, the problem with God’s sovereignty is really a problem with our pride. All of us are equally prone to think we know what is best and we know when is best. Each one of us in our arrogance questions God and thinks, I could have come up with a better plan and storyline than this. Maybe we wouldn’t put it like this or verbalize it like this but so many times deep down we think, God, I’m smarter than you! What is that? It’s like an ant thinking it can run the universe. It’s our natural human pride.
I was recalling to my ten-year-old daughter Hannah what it was like to put her down to sleep when she was one. We were having a good laugh over it because she hated to go to bed as a kid. It was a fight every time. I remember one night there was a show down. She was kicking and screaming and she’s just looking at me like I’m torturing her to death and I remember saying, ”I don’t know how to explain to you that you need your sleep. You just need to trust me!” But you see in that moment in her mind I was against her. In that moment I was ruining her life.
This is how we are too as God’s children in the crib of life, we can’t fathom what he is doing with us, and it feels like he’s torturing us to death because our natural tendency is to lean on our own understanding. But what does wisdom look like? What does spiritual maturity look like? “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your way acknowledge and he will make your paths straight.”
There’s an old hymn that says this, “Farther along we’ll know more about it, Farther along we’ll understand why; So cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine, We’ll understand it all by and by.” But you see, we don’t want to understand it by and by, we want to understand it now and now.
At some point it dawned on me that this problem of evil and suffering isn’t just a problem for Christians to answer. It’s not just Christianity that has to answer this problem. Every religion and spiritual philosophy is called upon to give some answer or framework for understanding the pain we face. I would submit to you that it’s Christianity that offers the most hopeful answer to the problem.
The Hope of God’s Sovereignty
Here’s how one Christian writer put it, “While the philosophers justifiably ask, ‘Why doesn’t a sovereign God do something about the evil in the world?’ The Christian can confidently respond, ‘He has!’ Through Jesus’ birth, God himself has entered the world. Through Jesus’ death he experienced its evil. And through the resurrection he has defeated it.”
You see the hope that we can find in God’s sovereignty is seen most clearly in the birth, death, and resurrection of this baby called Jesus.
Who is this baby that Mary gives birth to in verse 7? It’s none other than Emmanuel–God with us. Which means the birth of Jesus is telling us that the sovereign God knows our pain. In the death of Jesus, God feels our pain. In the resurrection of Jesus, God heals our pain.
And I get it. I know there’s at least someone who’s probably thinking, Yeah, but why hasn’t he done more to eliminate the pain and suffering of this world post-resurrection? If he has the power over death itself, why doesn’t he do more?
I think it was Tim Keller, in his book The Reason for God who wrote that one of the mysteries of our Christian faith is that we don’t know why God has allowed suffering to continue. But we know what the reason can’t be. It can’t be that he doesn’t know what we’re going through because he’s come into this world. It can’t be that he doesn’t care about us and feel our pain because he bore our sins on the Cross. It can’t be that he’s not in control because he’s beaten our greatest enemy death itself.
We don’t know what the answer is but we do know what the answer can’t be! That’s enough for us to have hope, to hold on, and to keep going forward with the story.
Listen to how James S. Stewart, an old Scottish preacher put it,
Imagine you're learning some foreign language and you're reading some book in that language and you're reading along - you may be able to understand a word or two or here and there, but just because you can only understand a little bit of what's in front of you doesn't mean you drop the book and say ... Oh this is nonsense; it has no meaning at all! No, you say, Ah because I recognize a word or two I am sure that the rest makes sense and one day I'll understand it all.
It's the same with the mystery of suffering. Suffering and trials are like a foreign language book and we know so little of the book but as Christians we know enough words in the book not to throw it down and give up hope.
Dorothy Sayers adds, “For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is— limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—He had the honesty and the courage to take His own medicine. Whatever game He is playing with His creation, He has kept His own rules and played fair.”
Why can we trust the sovereignty of God? Because in Jesus we encounter the suffering of God. The God that Christianity proclaims and puts forward for us to embrace is not an impersonal concept that is immune to the pains of life. The God of Christianity is not a spectator in the stands of suffering. No, in this birth and baby, God has become a full participant. John Stott, the British author and pastor, once wrote, “In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God that’s immune to it?”
Thankfully that’s not the God that we worship. Our God, the true and living God, didn’t see our pain down here and just send us a “get well soon” card and some flowers. No, the message of Christmas is that God showed up to the hospital. He entered our room, and he took upon himself our griefs and our sins.
The prophet Isaiah says , “Surely he has born our griefs and carried our sorrows. … yet we esteemed him stricken and smitten by God.” In our finite perspective we had him all wrong. But “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace and by his wounds we are healed.” But you wouldn’t have known that if you were there.
Imagine that you were at the foot of the Cross, watching the only innocent man, to ever live, go through the most terrible form of suffering that human beings have ever invented. All this in front of his own mother who bore him and raised him. If there was ever a moment where you’d be tempted to think that God has no idea what he’s doing or maybe there isn’t even a God. If there was ever a moment to throw down the book and forget it all, it was there at the Cross of Jesus.
But what does the Bible tell us? That in the darkest of tragedies, God was accomplishing the ultimate triumph of redemption. God wasn’t distant from that scene. He was there bearing the sins of the world that we might be forgiven when we turn back to him and that we might have hope in our crosses as well.
Don’t you see who Jesus is? Jesus is the true and better Joseph who didn’t just willingly go on a long journey to a town to take a census. Jesus willingly walked the hardest journey of all to a hill called Calvary to die for us. The only reason that we glory in that Cross today is because we’ve got the interpretation. We’ve got the book that tells us what all that suffering meant and was for. One day friends when we stand in glory we’re going read the book on all our crosses and suffering too. We’re going to get the interpretation on this pandemic, and on that day, all our sorrow will turn into joy.
Many of you know the name Corrie Ten Boom. She was a holocaust survivor. She was sent to Ravensbrook Concentration camp for hiding Jews and she suffered greatly. She claimed that the only way she got through it was her trust in a sovereign God.
After she was released, she would often use an object lesson in her public speaking. She would show an embroidery. From the back side all you could see was a mangled chaotic confusing mess of thread and knots. It was nothing to look at. She would say, this is what we often see in this life, but then she would flip the cloth over. All this mangled thread created a beautiful picture. She would say when we don’t understand what we’re called on to bear remember it’s only because we’re seeing the back side of the cloth, but one day we’re going to see the Great Weaver. One day the cloth will be flipped around and we will sing his praises!
Jeremy A. McKeen is the Planting Pastor of Gospel City Fellowship in Portsmouth, New Hampshire..