Have you ever noticed how hard life is sometimes? Throughout this season leading up to Christmas, this season called Advent, we have been focusing on the themes of Hope, Peace and Joy. And those are all things for which we long whether we identify as a person of faith or not. We want, and perhaps we could even say, we need Hope, Peace and Joy in our lives. Occasionally, we experience fleeting glimpses of Hope, Peace and Joy, that serve as oxygen for our soul, and we treasure those memories.
But the reality is that, for most of us, much of the time, life is a grind. And the harder we try to accomplish our goals—those things which we believe will bring us more Hope, Peace and Joy—the more difficult life becomes. Our bed never feels more soft and warm than on the morning when we planned to get up and begin exercising regularly. Our children always seem to drag their feet most severely when we are trying to draw them into something that is good for them. You will never get more challenges to what and how you eat than you will when you decide to change your eating patterns for the sake of your health.
And these are just the ordinary, every-day kinds of challenges we face in life. These are small potatoes in comparison to the really big things that life can throw at us, like the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a debilitating illness, or rejection from someone you love. Major challenges like these dispel Peace, Hope and Joy and, unless these dragons are slain, they will continually lurk in the background, always radiating low levels of dis-ease, despair and discouragement… because we know that they are there.
So imagine how it must have been for Mary and Joseph more than 2,000 years ago. The land in which they live was occupied by a brutal foreign power. They were poor and marginalized and therefore it took all their efforts to try to scrape together a living for themselves. They were both trying to be faithful to God and so when they were called to be parents to the Messiah, the special one sent by God, they both said, “Yes.”
And then the emperor of the occupying forces, Caesar Augustus, decreed that everyone should go back to their home town and be counted so that the Romans could tax people more thoroughly. For Mary and Joseph, this meant that they had to travel from Nazareth, where they lived, to Bethlehem, their ancestral home village. Now such a trip was not like hopping in your car and driving over to the Canada Revenue Agency office on King George Boulevard in Surrey during your lunch hour. They would have traveled about 150 kms, the distance between Langley and Everett WA, on foot, or perhaps with the use of a donkey, while Mary was in the later stages of her pregnancy.
Now I have never been pregnant myself, but my wife, Susan, has a few times, and from what I have observed it can be difficult, while pregnant, to walk even the short distance from the living room to the bathroom. You have a giant watermelon in your belly and your back aches and nothing in your body works like it did before. And it was when Mary was at such a stage that Caesar decided that she should ride a sway-backed donkey for more than a week in the middle of winter through territory that has lions and robbers and bears, (oh my!) so he can take more of what little money her husband brings home to buy food for their table and put a roof over their heads. Mary and Joseph were working as hard as they could to merely scrap by and this is what life throws at them. Now if you or I were in Mary and Joseph’s shoes, we might think to ourselves, “Really? This is what I get for working hard, trying to do the right thing and trying to follow God when He asks me to do something. Shouldn’t things be easier than this? Shouldn’t I be enjoying life more than I am? Shouldn’t I have some Peace, Hope and Joy in my life instead of … this?”
And our attitude of ingratitude is revealing that we are missing the most important ingredient to life, the secret sauce that flips life upside down and turns even the most soul-crushing challenges in life into opportunities to give to others what we know has been given to us. That secret ingredient is Love. Love is what helps us to see the world as a place of possibility and Hope. Love is what inspires us to move towards reconciliation and Peace. Love is what helps us to trust the Deeper Magic which prompts Joy over the promise of the restoration of all things. Love is the foundation for Joy, Peace and Hope. Without Love, those things can not exist in their true form and will never be found no matter how hard we search.
It was Love that moved Mary and Joseph to keep putting one foot in front of the other. It was Love that kept them from turning back when the nights got too cold, or the dangers got too scary or the lack of accommodation got too discouraging. It was Love that prompted them to obey the inconsiderate decree of an uncaring dictator. Mary and Joseph kept going forward into the future because of Love.
They did this because Love told them two things that they knew were true. The first thing that Love told them was that they were loved. That no matter how difficult or dangerous or discouraging their challenges may be, they were loved with a pure, infinite, unconditional love that they did not deserve or earn in any way. The second thing that love told them is that they were loved by One who is greater than all the challenges of life. Mary and Joseph knew that they were loved by the God who created them and all that exists, the God who was active in the world working through events and people, the God who was working in ordinary ways through ordinary people to do the extraordinary work of providing for the daily needs of countless people. But they also knew that they were loved by the God who was also working in special ways through particular people to bring His Love, Hope, Peace and Joy into the world.
God started by picking out one particular people, the Jews, who He worked through to show the surrounding ancient world that there was one God above all others who was good and just and true. And God also gave a promise, that through this one particular people, He was going to bring forth one particular person, the Messiah, who would conquer all evil to free us from death and release us from the guilt and shame of our frequent faults and failings. Mary and Joseph were part of this particular people so they knew the Promise of God and the Love of God.
So they continued forward to Bethlehem, in spite of all the many challenges, and there, in a cave surrounded by donkeys and sheep, the greatest gift of Love the world has ever seen was born. Mary’s baby was Jesus, the promised Messiah, the One sent by God to save us from the things we really fear—condemnation, eternal shame, death and everlasting hopelessness—and give us the Love, Hope, Peace and Joy we need for our souls and for life. This baby would grow up to be a man and this man willingly took our place on a cross on a hill outside of Jerusalem and chose to suffer the worst that this world could throw at him along with all the consequences of all our shortcomings and sin, so none of those things will ever come between us and God and His great love for us.
Now Mary had some advantages that we don’t have. She did have the angel Gabriel come and visit her nine months before and tell her about the special child that she was going to mother. But you have a lot of advantages that Mary didn’t have. You know how the story ends. You know that Jesus rose from the dead on the third day after he was killed. You know that Jesus transitioned from the space-time continuum of this world into the dimension of heaven with a promise to come back and make us and all things right once again. You know that Jesus left us with instructions to love one another with the love that God has given to us. You know all these things because you have the New Testament of the Bible, something that Mary didn’t have.
So the question that I have for you this Christmas Eve is, who are you going to be?
Are you going to be a person who believes that they are loved? Are you going to be someone who believes that, because of God’s Love for you, there is Hope behind every challenge, Peace in every storm and Joy on the other side of every grief? Because here is the thing: that Love is always there for you, but you can only receive it when you trust that God really does love you no matter what. And Jesus is the proof of that love.
Who are you going to be? Are you going to be a person who believes that they are loved? And are you going to be a person who loves? The world needs love, but the kind of love that the world needs is the unconditional, infinite love that only comes from God. God has given you a network of family, friends, neighbours, co-workers and fellow students that is unique to you. You might be the only person in some of your circles who believes in God’s greatest gift of love. Rest in Jesus’ love and let Him work through you to share God’s love with others. You can be God’s one particular person that He uses to bring His love to someone else this Christmas. And it all starts by trusting in God’s greatest gift of love: Jesus. Amen.
(This message is based on Luke 2:1-20 and 1 John 4:7-16. It was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on Christmas Eve 2017.)
 For more information about Mary and Joseph’s journey, see: “A Long, Cold Road to Bethlehem,: Los Angeles Times, December 23, 1995 (Internet; available at: http://articles.latimes.com/1995-12-23/local/me-17102_1_gospel-accounts; accessed on December 20, 2017).