God’s Unexpected Ways

December 18, 2016 sermon
By John Ulrich, Senior Pastor

Luke 2:1-7

We’re coming to the end of 2016, and as we come near the end I have a question: How would you describe your 2016? If you had to put it in just a word or two – what word would you use?

For some of you – maybe you would say the word for my 2016 is “great!”: Maybe you had a year with new life or new beginnings! A child – a grandchild – a promotion – and maybe you had a few bumps – but the year went according to plan – and turned out well. A great year.

For some of you – maybe if you were honest, you would have to say the word is “bad”. Maybe you’ve had a year that you’d like to forget. I read one person who said “if 2016 was a person, I’d sue him for pain, suffering, and lost wages.” Maybe it was a bad year.

But for many of us – I think the word for 2016 would really be – “unexpected.” We were at Julie Cooper’s house the other night for dinner and as we got ready to ask the blessing on the food – Julie said “I think most of us – myself – my family – even John and Kelley – didn’t expect 2016 to turn out the way it did.” And she’s right. For many of us, this has been an unexpected year. I think of some of us, along with Julie, who have lost loved ones. I think of some who unexpectedly lost jobs – or gained them. I think of the political scene in our nation – that has been unexpected. I think of us – gathering here to worship in this building – none of us expected that – at the beginning of 2016.

It’s been a year of the unexpected. A year where many of us have had to wrestle with an unexpected situation – and maybe ask ourselves what God was up to. Maybe that’s you. Maybe you’ve had to figure out what God was up to as you wrestled with the unexpected in a job – in a relationship – in your circumstances. Maybe you’re still wrestling. Maybe a few of us feel close to giving up. What do we do with the unexpected in our life? How do we regard it?

Today I want us to look at a passage from the Christmas Story that relates to the unexpected. It’s a well-known passage from the Christmas story – probably one of the best-known passages – that tells us how Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem.

Today we are going to look at this passage that is actually the fulfillment of a prophecy that was written 700 years earlier relating to the birth-place of Jesus. As we look at it today, we are going to do two things – we’re going to look at:

  • The Old Testament prophecy itself in its original context
  • How the prophecy came to be fulfilled

As we do both of these, we are going to see what this prophecy and its fulfillment teach us about the unexpected things in our lives.

This well-known passage from the Christmas Story:

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. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.  – Luke 2:1-7

Friends – if you are facing the unexpected – whether it’s a crisis – or the cares of life – or just change – even good change! If you’re wondering what God is up to – or if you know someone else who is – this sermon is for you. I’m not necessarily going to give you the answer to your situation. I’m not sure the passage really does that. But what I am going to give you from this passage is perspective – perspective on how God works – that can encourage us as we deal with the unexpected.

God makes unexpected promises

He does this. Sometimes they are unexpected because they are so big that they can seem unrealistic. Sometimes they are unexpected because they are so contrary to human wisdom. But God makes promises that are completely unexpected in human terms.

We see this in this story of Jesus’ birth. This little piece of the Christmas story that I just read to you is actually the fulfillment of a 700 year old prophecy – a 700 year old promise that God made to Israel, and it was an unexpected promise.

To really understand this promise and how unexpected it was, we need to go back to the original Old Testament prophecy and look at its historical context. Because we tend to think of this Bethlehem story as a joyful Christmas story, and it is – but the original prophecy was far more unexpected than we might think. So turn in your Bibles to the book of Micah, chapter 5 (right before Nahum – 25 pages before the New Testament.)

This is where the promise is made. Now – to help us understand what’s being promised here – let me kind of set this promise in its historical context: This prophecy was probably written in the middle 700’s BC. This was a time when the nation of Israel was divided into two Kingdoms: The kingdom of Israel in the North and the kingdom of Judah in the south. Micah is prophesying from the Southern Kingdom. At the time he prophesies, both Kingdoms are under threat from the Assyrians.

The Assyrians were a nasty, violent people that lived far to the Northeast of Israel. Every year when the rains stopped, they would gather their troops and march off to war. They come across the North from East to West and then turn south. Every year. Every year they get closer to Israel in the North and Judah in the South. So at the time Micah writes this , all of Israel both kingdoms are wondering if these foreign invaders are going to make war on Israel – and if they might possibly make it all the way down to Judah, and the city of Jerusalem. That’s the background of Micah’s prophecy. Now let’s read the actual prophecy:

Marshal your troops, O city of troops (that is Jerusalem), for a siege is laid against us. They will strike Israel’s ruler on the cheek with a rod. (That’s a sign of humiliation. And Micah is saying: “it’s going to happen. The foreign invaders are going to come – they are going to lay siege to Jerusalem – they are going to defeat us – and they are going to humiliate our King.” Now here’s the Bethlehem prophecy). But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” Therefore Israel will be abandoned until the time when she who is in labor (that is Jerusalem) gives birth and the rest of his brothers return to join the Israelites. He (the ancient ruler) will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they (his flock) will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth. And he will be their peace.  – Micah 5:1-5

Now that was an unexpected promise. First of all, it’s unexpected because it’s so big that it doesn’t seem at all possible. Think about what Micah is saying: He’s saying that after the defeat and exile of Israel and Judah God is going to send them a King. But not just any King: This guy is going to be someone who has existed for centuries. “His goings forth” the Hebrew says “will be from ancient times.” The Hebrew word is used to describe things that happened before the earth was formed, so this guy’s going to be really old! Not only that, but he’s going to rule Israel for the glory of the Lord and with the care of a Shepherd. They are going to be totally secure because his greatness will reach not just to Judah, or Israel, or Assyria, but to the ends of the Earth. It’s not just that he will make peace, he himself is their peace. Now that is a big promise! I don’t know anyone who fills that job description!

Maybe even more than that, it’s a promise that is contrary to human wisdom. Because the place where this great King is going to be born is a little fly-speck on the map in the foothills of Judea. The town of Bethlehem was really small! If you look at verse 2, first Micah has to identify which Bethlehem it is, because there were two towns by that name and neither one was of any size. So he clarifies that it is Bethlehem Ephrathah which is about seven miles south of Jerusalem in the hill country. Look at what he says: The New International Version has “though you are small among the clans of Judah” – but I actually think a better translation is “you are too little to be among the clans of Judah” To be listed among the defensive clans of Judah – a town had to be able to muster 1,000 able-bodied men. Micah is pointing out that Bethlehem was too small even for that.

The point that Micah is making is that this doesn’t fit the way we think. He is contrasting the bigness of this ruler with the smallness of Bethlehem. It’s contrary to human wisdom. Human wisdom would say if you are going to produce a powerful, renowned, world-influencing King – let him come from a place of power – from a capital city – or a center of learning – a place where he can gather the wealth to gain control – or the education to sway people – or the relationships to influence people of power. Don’t raise him up in some place of insignificance – some agrarian outpost. Let him come from Jerusalem.

That’s what human wisdom says. So this prophecy seems strange to us. It’s contrary to our way of thinking. But listen – this is the way God does things: He uses the small – the humble – the broken – the least likely choices – to do mighty things.

Maybe you’re here today – and as you’ve gone through the Christmas season with all its big lights, and happy faces, and parties, and celebrations – maybe you’ve felt your smallness. Maybe you’ve felt your brokenness – your humble-ness – maybe you feel completely insignificant.

Can I just tell you that God doesn’t look at you that way at all? He doesn’t think the way the world thinks. Scripture tells us that God doesn’t choose many mighty – many wise – many of noble birth. Rather, he chooses the foolish things to shame the wise and the weak things to shame the strong.

He’s always done it this way. Think of the Bible Stories:

  • Think of Gideon: When God came to Gideon and said “You are going to deliver Israel from the Midianites, Gideon was hiding from the Midianites! He said “Who am I to deliver Israel? I come from the poorest family – in the weakest clan – in one of the smallest tribes in all of Israel. Who am I?” God said “You are the one I’m choosing.” He called him a mighty man of valor.
  • Think of Moses: He had a problem with his temper. He had been in hiding from the Egyptian authorities for 40 years. He had a speech impediment! God said “You’re the one I want to be my mouthpiece to Pharaoh. I’m choosing you.”

He’s always done it this way. I know it seems strange, but this is the way God operates. He makes unexpected promises. He chooses unexpected people. He speaks unexpected words of blessing over the least likely of recipients.

In fact, this very prophecy in Micah’s day in his book was a play off of God’s unexpected ways. Because Bethlehem wasn’t just a tiny little city in the foothills of Judea, it was also the origin – the starting point – for someone else who had been given one of God’s unexpected promises.

You may remember the story of David: God told the prophet Samuel to go to the home of a man named Jesse to anoint one of his sons as King. Jesse brought all seven of his other sons out. But David was so young and insignificant and unexpected, Jesse didn’t even bring him out as a possible choice but he was the one that God chose.

That all happened in Bethlehem: It was there that God made an unexpected choice and spoke words of promise over a young man named David. He made an unexpected promise.

Then in Micah’s day – about 300 years later – God was doing it again. He was saying that he was going to do something unexpectedly big and he was going to do it in a place that was unexpectedly small.

I wonder this morning: What unexpected promises has God spoken over your life? What things has he prophesied about you in Scripture that you are waiting to see fulfilled? Is it one of those really big promises – like the promise that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us and will answer? Is that it? Or is it one of those promises that is so counter to our normal way of thinking that sometimes we just can’t see it? Like the beatitudes – those words from Jesus that promise us that we are actually blessed when we mourn – when we hunger and thirst for righteousness – when we’re persecuted for doing what’s right. Some of you are waiting to see the blessing in those situations. Is that it? Or maybe you’re struggling to see God’s promise that if we give up our treasure for his sake – that he will return it and meet our needs.

Maybe it’s not a Bible verse. Maybe you feel like God sort of spoke to you in prayer and told you to persevere in a situation – or gave you a certainty that he was going to act in a certain circumstance – is that the unexpected promise for you?

The first thing we see in this story – from the prophecy – is that God does that. God makes unexpected promises.

God fulfills his promises in unexpected ways

We’re going to see this in our story in just a few minutes. But first, let’s have an “isn’t God amazing” moment and start by saying that God fulfills prophecy. He does. We tend to focus on the Bethlehem part of Micah’s prophecy, and rightly so – but did you notice that that’s not all that Micah prophesied? In just those 5 verses, Micah predicted not only the birth in Bethlehem – but the invasion of Israel – the siege and defeat of Jerusalem – the humiliation of the King – the exile of Israel – and the return from exile. I just want to point out that all of these things literally happened – in 722BC – in 586BC – in 516BC (there are historical records of this!) They all occurred exactly as Micah predicted. God fulfills prophecy. He’s amazing!

For many of us, that’s not the problem. We believe that God fulfills prophecy – that He does what he says he’s going to do – that’s not the problem. Rather, the problem is in the way he goes about it. Because he often fulfills his promises in unexpected ways – in ways that are contrary to human wisdom – ways that are hard for us to see. God fulfills his promises in unexpected ways.

We see this in the Christmas story here in Luke’s gospel. If we were first century readers who knew our Bibles well – and we were reading Luke’s gospel for the first time – we would know that God made this promise in Micah, of an ancient Davidic ruler coming out of Bethlehem. We would know that Mary’s child was going to be the fulfillment of that prophecy, because in chapter 1 the angel Gabriel comes to Mary and tells her that Jesus will sit on the throne of David.

So we would know all that – but we would also know that there is a big problem: Mary and Joseph aren’t from Bethlehem. In fact, they’re not from anywhere near Bethlehem. They’re from the northern Kingdom. And Luke has pointed this out. Look at what he says:

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.  – Luke 1:26-27

Joseph and Mary aren’t in Bethlehem. They’re not even in Judah. They are almost 100 miles away in Galilee in a little town called Nazareth. This is a serious problem, because Israelites who knew their Bibles all knew that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem – not in Galilee. Jesus being born in Galilee would be a real hangup for them. In fact, let me read you an encounter from Jesus’ ministry that shows how big of a deal this really was.

Jesus was preaching the gospel to the crowds and listen to their response:

When they heard these words, some of the people said, “This really is the Prophet.” Others said, “This is the Christ.” But some said, “Is the Christ to come from Galilee? Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” So there was a division among the people over him. Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him. – John 7: 41-44

This location of Jesus’ birth is a big problem. We wonder as we read how God is going to pull it off. Because at this point in the story, it doesn’t seem to make sense. God prophesied Bethlehem, but he chose someone in Nazareth. Pregnant ladies don’t like to take 100 mile walks when their due date is around the corner! It doesn’t make sense!

That’s right where some of us are today: We’ve bought into the promise. We believe that God is going to bring about good in our lives. That it’s going to pay off to serve him – that he’s going to provide for our needs – that if we follow Jesus our burden will be light. That he really can turn grief into joy – and persecution into blessedness – that he can give us peace. That he will provide for where he has called us to go.

But right now, we’re not experiencing it. It’s hard to see it. And we wonder what’s going on? In fact, it might almost seem at times like God is against us. We wonder what’s going on here? You’re the one who made the promise! Why did you make it if you were going to work against it?

If that’s where you’re at this morning, let me just say I can’t always tell you why. But I can tell you that God does this: It’s his way – to make a promise – and then almost seem to work against it – to go about fulfilling it – opposite of the way we would.

Think of Gideon: He’s up against 130,000 Midianites, and God promises him victory. Then what does God do? He reduces Gideon’s army from 10,000 soldiers to 300. It wasn’t because of their fear or Gideon’s lack of faithfulness. God did this! When you read the story, you wonder what on earth God is up to!

Think of Moses: God promises him success. He gives him a staff that can turn into a snake! He then sends him to Pharaoh to demand the release of the Israelites. And what happens? Pharaoh gets angry, and he says “You guys can make the same amount of bricks but now you have to go gather up your own straw.” And he persecutes them. Things get harder, not easier when Moses obeys.

God does this at times. He speaks words of promise over his people – and then at times because of circumstances – or people – or even because of his direct intervention – it’s hard to see how they’re going to be fulfilled.

As we read Luke, we wonder – how is all this going to happen? And in our story, Luke gives us the answer:

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census (read “tax”) 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
– Luke 2:1-5

Luke tells us about this world-wide tax decreed by Augustus. Many have wondered “Why does Luke’s account of the Christmas story start out this way?” It starts out this way because Luke is showing us how God fulfilled the Bethlehem prophecy in an unexpected way.

It just so happened that Joseph’s family was originally from Bethlehem. The choice of a Pagan King – to place a tax on the Roman empire – and maybe the questionable circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy in a very conservative society – worked together to cause Mary and Joseph to make the 90 mile walk away from Nazareth – away from Galilee – all the way back to Joseph’s ancestral lands to pay the tax. So that in the end, Jesus – who was actually from Nazareth in Galilee – was actually born in Bethlehem in Judea – just like the prophet Micah had predicted 700 years earlier.

It was completely unexpected. Folks – maybe that’s what’s going on with some of us. Maybe God has spoken a promise – and it’s hard for us to see it – but he is working in unexpected ways – ways we would never have thought – to fulfill that promise. I can’t tell you how, but I can tell you it is his way. Today, I just want to speak into your life the assurance – the encouragement – that God does that. He not only makes unexpected promises. He fulfills his promises in unexpected ways.

Before we quit, there’s just one more thing that I notice from the larger story of Jesus that I have to point out here, and it’s this: It kind of had to be this way. It kind of had to be this way. The way that it worked out – strange as it was – with Jesus being from Nazareth, but being born in Bethlehem – was actually the way it needed to work out.

It needed to go this way. Jesus couldn’t really be from Bethlehem. I say that because Bethlehem was only seven miles from Jerusalem and Herod lived in Jerusalem. Do you remember what Herod did when he found out the Christ-child had been born in Bethlehem? Killed every male child there two years old and younger. Herod was evil and violent, and paranoid. There’s no way he would have let Jesus grow up so close to him. Not only that – but the Jewish religious authorities were in Jerusalem – the ones who eventually had Jesus crucified. There’s no way that Jesus could have trained his disciples and accomplished his ministry so close to the center of orthodox Judaism. The unexpected way that God worked it out was the way that it needed to work out. Jesus needed to be born in Bethlehem to fulfill prophecy, and he needed to be from Galilee to be safe.

God frequently does this: He speaks words of promise over his people – words that we struggle to see fulfilled. Then he fulfills them in ways that are completely unexpected by us, but in ways that are ultimately to our great benefit – in ways that are the best.

Think about Gideon: As a result of God reducing his army to only 300 men, Gideon knew he couldn’t defeat the Midianites by fighting, so he obeyed God’s instructions precisely – and he won without any of his men getting a single scratch – all because of God’s unexpected ways.

Think about Moses: Do you know what the Bible tells us was the end result of all that extra work and persecution that Pharaoh put on Israel? It tells us that when they journeyed into the desert – they were fit. Not one of them was weak or sickly. The Egyptians pitied them when they saw the persecution and sent them out of the country with gold and silver. God was at work, fulfilling his promises in unexpected ways in better ways.

Now think about yourself: What words of promise has God spoken over you? Are you struggling to see them come true? What if God’s delay – his strange ways – his circuitous path of fulfilling his promise – is not a sign of his displeasure, or carelessness, or his inability to help his people. What if it was a testimony of his great love. That would turn out to your benefit?

This is the last Sunday of Advent: A time when we watch – and wait – and acknowledge – God’s unexpected, but gracious ways of fulfilling his promises.