Wrong Place

Third in the “A Mixed Up Christmas” Series,
Delivered December 12, 2004 by Rev. John Schmidt.

Sermon Text:
Luke 2:1-5

Sermon Notes are at the end.

Well, Christmas is a holiday that focuses in on home. I am particularly talking about the way we celebrate it here in the United States, and in most western countries. You know we think about it being in a time that we enjoy good times with friends and family. We kind of think of a Courier & Ives print or Thomas Kincaid painting when we think about Christmas. You know, the streets are covered with snow. There are people outside and they are doing something really wholesome. They are singing carols or riding in sleighs. I see that all the time in Baltimore now that I am up here you know. And then if you see a house, the house edges are softened by the snow and there is a light coming out of the house and it puts a warm glow over the snow and it’s always sort of dusk in the picture. And then inside, you might even be able to see a Christmas tree or some decorations on the wall, and that’s the sort of image we have about Christmas. That’s the sort of feeling we like to have about Christmas. We are at home and we are happy.

But it wasn’t that way for the first Christmas family. It wasn’t that way for Mary and Joseph. We just had a reading of that passage, because here’s this family and right at a critical time for them a census is required by their governor. And everybody had to move to a place where their ancestral history was so they could take the census and figure out how to tax people, and so they had to get up and leave Nazareth, go to Bethlehem. And then Joseph and Mary go there to register and then while they are there it becomes time for her to give birth. Mary’s pregnant. It’s a bad time for travel like this. We always have this picture of Mary riding a donkey, but the fact is we really don’t know. As poor as they were, and the fact that they were an urban couple and not necessarily landed people, she might have walked the whole way. So walking to a strange town where you have no family that you know of, no friends and you get there and it is too crowded and you end up in a stable, it’s not the sort of thing that fits our image of everything being at home, everything being happy, everything being just right at Christmas.

Of course, to them, Bethlehem seemed like the wrong place. You’ve got to be able to see that, that for Mary and Joseph, without our perspective, to have to move at that particular time to go to another town for a period of time at just the wrong period for them, it had to feel wrong. Now, we know from our perspective that Bethlehem was the right place because prophecy tells us that the Messiah had to be born there. So, maybe Nazareth was the wrong place. But the fact is, God uses a family from Nazareth, moves them to Bethlehem at this particular time and this had to be a very hard thing for Mary and Joseph. They are far from family and friends. They can’t even find a bed and they are sleeping in a stable. Now the fact is, even though we have this incredible image about what Christmas is, for many of us our experience of Christmas doesn’t fit that holiday image. We’ve got this image that everything is going right. Everything feels good, but the fact is that sometimes when it comes around Christmas, we feel like we are in the wrong place too.

Next week we are going to Louisiana for our daughter’s marriage. We are excited about that, but the fact is we are having to go to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Our daughter is coming from Vancouver, British Columbia. Our son is meeting us there, and as soon as the wedding is over we are all going in our separate directions, and on Christmas none of them will be here. So on some level, it doesn’t feel right. And for many of us out here because we are scattered, when the holidays come it doesn’t feel quite right because the right people aren’t here, and if they are somewhere else maybe this feels like the wrong place. Christmas card Christmases get interrupted by distance, by sharing kids with other families, by strained family relationships and maybe the people are here, but it still doesn’t feel right because of the kinds of strains in our relationship. It tarnishes the image and so this doesn’t feel right. Maybe where we are right now in life, where we live, what we do, whether we are married or not, maybe there is an illness that we are dealing with in the family, maybe there is a recent loss. Whatever it is, there on some level we are feeling dissatisfied and we are feeling grief, and it doesn’t quite feel like home right now for us.

Now, it’s just not Christmas that we feel this, it’s just that when a holiday comes like Christmas, we feel it even more; this dissatisfaction, this feeling like we are not in the right place. It gets stronger. And so, at a time like this we are either looking back to what was to some time that we felt more at home. So where we are in life may be because of a loss that we experienced and we are thinking about before we had that loss, and we are longing for those good old days. Maybe for somebody like Debbie and I, we are thinking about the time when our whole family was still together for Christmas. Or maybe we are in the position where we are looking forward. There is something about our current situation that we don’t like and so we are thinking about the future, about what would change in our lives to make this better and we are kind of hopping over every obstacle possible to get to that new future.

But the one thing we agree about is that the wrong place is where we are right now. There’s a lot of different reasons that we feel that way, but a lot of people in this room right now feel like they are in the wrong place and they feel that way because it’s the place they are in right now. There is all kinds of definitions about being in the wrong place. The house is too small. We are in the wrong school district. My job is boring. It doesn’t pay enough. I’ve got a bad boss. I’ve got a worse commute. We are not with the people we love or we are too close to people that we struggle with. We know we are in the wrong place. We feel it. We smell it everyday.

And we know what the right place is. The right place is the next place. To build this scenario what could change and if we just change that thing, when we get to that next place it’s going to be the right place. And that’s where all the blessings of God are going to come together and we are really going to come into our own and we are going to feel right. And so this next place is almost always bigger. It’s almost always more expensive. It’s farther out in the country or it’s in just the right spot in the city. The job has higher pay and it’s loaded with people who appreciate us. That’s the right place. And one of the things that has really hit our culture strongly is that we all assume, now I say all, and I know it’s not everyone, but so many in our culture assume that we have to leave where we are in order to get to the right place. In other words, no longer do we have this sense of continuity, that if we just stick it out here and do things right and make incremental changes that we will move forward into a better place. We’ve lost that sense and instead we feel like we’ve got to cut out the present, we’ve got to move to a new job, a new community, a new church and sometimes people feel like they have to move to a new family in order to get to that right place.

Let’s take a look back at this passage for a moment. Luke, Chapter 2.

“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone went to his own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem, the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.”

Now, we didn’t read the last two lines of this passage, but we know what’s there. When the time comes for the baby to be born, he’s born in a stable because they have no place to stay. There they are in Bethlehem. What makes Bethlehem the right place or the wrong place for Mary and Joseph? Ultimately, what makes it the right place or the wrong place? Well, first of all when we look into something like this we know that it’s not a matter of Mary and Joseph’s likes and dislikes. Whether it is the right place or the wrong place has nothing to do with whether Mary and Joseph like it, because we can assume that they are not really happy about this situation. It’s not explicitly pointed out in scripture, but if they are human and they are put into a situation like that, we have a 99% chance.

So, it’s not a matter of their likes and dislikes and it’s not a matter of whether they go through any hardships, because here they are in a very hard place. This woman is pregnant, on the edge of giving birth and she is having to move from city to city, possibly on foot, and has no power of that situation. It’s not a matter of liking it, it’s not a matter of whether it’s easy or not, what makes this the right place is that God is present in it and God chooses to work there. Ultimately, in that stable Emmanuel will come. God with us. What hallows that wrong place, what makes it a right place, what makes it a place of God’s blessing and mercy is that God is there and God chooses to work there. And that’s something we all have to face if back in our minds we have this sneaky suspicion that right now we are in the wrong place of life. It’s a natural thing if you are thinking that, but what you have to confront is that even in the wrong place, God can make it the right place because he is present and because he is at work there

I am sympathetic with people who feel like they are in the wrong place of life. When I look back over my work history, about half the time I felt like I was in the wrong place and for a smaller period of that, I was praying daily that God would get me out of my situation. So, I know what it’s like to really want to leave a situation. But the fact is, even in those kinds of times, I knew then and I know now that God was at work in those situations and that God wasn’t looking at me and saying, “You know what John, you don’t like this. It can’t be my will for you, because you are dissatisfied. My goodness, what a mistake I made.” That conversation didn’t happen. Even if I didn’t like it, even if I was asking to get out of it, there was a sense that God was still there and God was using it in ways that maybe he couldn’t use other environments. So here I was in the wrong place, but God was there and God was doing the right things.

In these few verses we see God working mightily in a place that had to feel so wrong for Mary and Joseph. And for a Bible study sometime around Christmas, you should sit down and read all the passages that lead up to this point and to get a feel for what just Mary and Joseph did know and what they didn’t know, and then in your minds eye, kind of picture them having to leave Nazareth at this critical time and coming into Bethlehem. And imagine what their prayer would be as they found out that there was no place to stay. And sit down with your journal, and with your Bible open and write out that prayer from Joseph or from Mary. Kind of unload what you think they would be praying to God about. I think you will find in that sort of prayer a lot of insight about the kinds of feelings that we carry around in our situations.

They are people just like us and in their lives and what God is doing in their lives; we get some insight in to our own. Something felt so wrong and yet God was at work and God was present. And it’s not just in Mary and Joseph. We can see it in other people, Joseph in the Old Testament. Just about his whole life seemed to be in the wrong place. He finds himself in all kinds of compromising situations. He finds himself in prison and yet God is at work in that, not just to shape Joseph, but to protect an entire nation from famine and to set a foundation for them for the future.

We look at the Apostle Paul and Paul spent so much of his ministry in prison. I think the first time he went to prison, probably Paul was rejoicing that he could suffer for Jesus sake, but on another level he might have been saying, “Okay God, this feels like a waste of time. Look at all those unreached people. Why am I here?” And yet we know that in his time in prisons that we get so much of what we have now in the New Testament; that because he couldn’t speak face to face he wrote letters and those letters were preserved, and that is what speaks to us now. And how about the ultimate wrong place, the cross. The most unlikely place in all imagination and that is the place where God works out the salvation of the world. God is at work in the wrong places. And so that means that God is going to use the wrong places in our lives too. Most of the time, he’s going to use those wrong places to make changes in us. He is working on us, because that is always God’s goal.

You know we focus so much of our energy on trying to make things right for us, trying to adjust our situations to make it right for us. God’s focus is making things right in us. And so sometimes that means that he shakes up our situations. So, we need to learn how to cooperate with God in those hard times, in those places that feel wrong and we’ve got to stop treating God like a taxi driver where we find ourselves on the wrong place and we say, “God here is our next destination, get me there and make it snappy.” We’ve got to stop doing that. There is a purpose of God where we are right now. Now, I am not saying that we don’t pray about God changing our lives, God moving us on, but we can’t get so caught up in moving on that we don’t respond to what God is doing right now in our lives and this is such a temptation for me. I can remember when I was planning to go on the mission field, one of my good friends, we had a prayer relationship and an accountability relationship and one of the things he said was “John don’t get so caught up in your future that you are not faithful now” and those were good words. And those are words for any of us who are struggling with the sense that what we really want and what God might want is to move us on to a new place. We need to do what God gives us to do, right here, right now and not just in the next place, because right here and right now is the only thing we can offer to God. We can’t offer to God what we were at our last stage of life. We can’t offer to God what we will be at our next stage of life. The only thing we can offer to God in service and worship is who we are right now, where we are. And so we need, how even in the wrong places, to do our best to make ourselves an offering to God.

Paul says, godliness with contentment is great gain and a huge part of contentment is learning how to see God in our current situation and learning how to accept our current situation until things change and learning how to thank God in the middle of it. It’s probably the hardest part. It seems hard, but yet it’s a lot easier than living a discontented life. Chewing on these things that bother us everyday, things we can’t change, and yet we are chewing on it trying to golly man, boy, I wish this would change. And you say it again; boy I wish this would change. Man, why doesn’t somebody change this? Why doesn’t God change this? Next morning, you are like, oh man God, why did you change it? Learning how to thank God is easier than that and I can say that because I have done both. And there have been periods of years that I have had a hard time thanking God. And those were not easier years than the times I learned how to give thanks and praise.

In most cases a right place is going to be part of Gods blessing to us, that there will be that season where the people, and the job, and the home, and church, and all of these things, will come together and there will be that sense of blessing in all the details around us. That will be Gods blessing to most of us and we can praise God for those times, but even if we are not in that time now, we are called to give thanks, because God is there and God is at work. God was present in a stable, in a strange town, a long time ago. In that unlikely place, God came to be with us. Emmanuel, God with us. In that unlikely place, God began the biggest thing that has ever happened in history, in a stable, in a manger, and so lets never let go of the assurance that God is at work and God is present in our unlikely places too.

Let’s pray. God we come before you will all kinds of different feelings about where we are in life, particularly at a time like Christmas. Lord, for many of us, that sense of things not being right just becomes more acute and we bring that hurt, that dissatisfaction, that grief before you and so Lord now we pray, we pray that you will open our eyes to see your presence even here and that we will cooperate with your work in our lives and through our lives, for we ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Sermon Outline Notes:

Maybe where we are right now in life
Feels like the wrong place.
Either looking back to what was
Or looking forward to what might be.
— Just not here and now!
We assume that we are going to have to leave this place
To get to the right place.
God is present in all our “wrong” places.
God is at work there.
Our circumstances are not the most important thing in life.
God is, and our response to Him.
God uses the wrong places of life to make the right changes in us.
Our focus is on making things right for us.
God’s focus is making things right in us.
We need to do what God has given us to do
Right now, right here.