God's Inadvertent Ways

God's Inadvertent Ways

December 24, 2020 • Rob Fuquay

A little girl was Christmas shopping with her parents. She was excited and skipping as she walked through the stores, singing to all the carols she heard being played, wide-eyed and marveling at every display. The experience of the parents, however, was a little different. They discovered an important gift they needed had just been sold out at one store, necessitating their adding more stores to their stops. Traffic backups meant they would have to forego some plans they made for that evening. A flat tire made matters even worse.

All along, however, the girl sat in the backseat singing. When they got home the irritable parents ended up getting into a fuss, and perhaps to drown out the noise the daughter sang Christmas songs even louder. Finally the father said, “Stop singing and go to bed.” As the little girl was walking up the steps she opened a window and looked out. The father barked at her, “Why did you open that window and let the cold air in?” She said, “I thought I heard angels singing.” The father said, “You didn’t hear any angels, now go to bed!”

The girl took a step or two, then paused. She said, “Daddy, if you want to hear angels sing, you have to listen with your heart.” She went over, gave him a hug and went to bed.

That story is perhaps more relevant in a Christmas when we aren’t quarantined, when we are busy running around Christmas shopping and attending events. But it’s not really a story about busyness. It’s about the way setbacks, disappointments, and obstructions can tune out to the music of the season. It requires a deliberate kind of listening. If you want to hear angels’ singing you have to listen with your heart.

Think about the story behind the most famous of all Christmas hymns, Silent Night. This hymn was first sung in 1818 in the small village of Oberndorf, just outside of Salzburg, Austria. Since that time the hymn has been translated into 140 languages. Think of its power. It was Christmas Eve 1914. German and English soldiers were hunkered down in trenches separated by “no man’s land.” They were depressed, cold, and homesick. Both sides thought the war would end quickly, but here they were spending Christmas Eve in trenches. As night fell the shooting ceased. Then someone was heard on the English side whistling “Silent Night.” Then through the darkness you heard German voices singing Stille Nacht. Suddenly soldiers started climbing out of the trenches. In an unofficial cease-fire they met midway. (pic) They exchanged cigarettes and began a game of soccer. For one night, Christmas Eve, there was peace. Think about the power of that song—Silent Night.

The reason we have this song today is because of a really big problem. Josef Mohr was the assistant pastor at the St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf. It was December 23 and he planned to go to the church to hear a group of traveling actors perform the Christmas story, but the church organ had broken. So the group performed in a home. Mohr was quite moved. He decided not to walk the direct route, but instead followed a path where he could look out over the snow-covered town.(pic) He remembered a poem he had written a few years before about the Christmas story and the silent, peaceful night Jesus was born. He thought it would make a nice song for the congregation to sing the next night, but he had no music.

The next day he went to see the organist, Franz Gruber, to see if he could come up with a tune. Again, there was a problem, no organ. (pic) But Gruber played guitar, and in just a few hours he came up with a melody and that night at the church they sang Silent Night for the first time.

Think about this. The reason we have one of the most beloved Christmas hymns today was because something went wrong, something that could have left a pastor and organist wringing their hands and saying, “Well, Christmas just won’t be the same this year.” Instead, they listened with their hearts and God gave them music that has blessed the world ever since. How many of us hold as one of our most anticipated moments of the year, the end of the Christmas Eve service when we hold a candle and sing Silent Night? We look forward to that. It feels as if no matter what has happened in our lives, in that moment God is there, and things are okay in the world.

And for many, it’s probably a reason of added discouragement this year that we can’t be in the sanctuary and have that moment. And of all years, we need that moment more now than ever. But remember what led to us having that hymn in the first place. Can’t you imagine the first Silent Night was sung to a lot of disappointed people? (pic) I can imagine there were folks in that little village who said, “I can’t wait for Christmas Eve and being in church and hearing the organ play with the soft candle light and singing.” And when they got there and heard a guitar, I can imagine they were tempted to say, “It just didn’t feel like Christmas this year.” But instead, they were the first ones to experience one of the greatest gifts of Christmas worship.

Here’s a big question for us this evening. This is an important question that can change the whole meaning of Christmas for us. What if our disappointments are not always detours from what we believe God has for us, but are part of our story just the way God wants to tell it?

Isn’t this what the Christmas story teaches? While all the details of the Christmas story today get told with fondness: Mary and Joseph accepting the call to bear God’s son before being married, then a global census requiring them to trek all the way to Bethlehem from Nazareth, only to discover that the nearest shelter is a stable, and that would be the night Jesus is born, and the only place to lay him down was in a manger. These are all cherished elements of Christmas to us, but they had to be anything but that for Mary and Joseph.

They accepted this life-changing assignment without any script. They had no narrative to follow that told them whether they were doing things exactly right. Surely they must have wondered if they made the right decisions? Surely they did some second-guessing, because after all, if this is what God wanted, how on earth could God’s son be allowed to be born in a stable? They had to place their child in a trough next to cattle slobber and manure.

(pic) I like this image of Mary and Joseph. I think it captures more realistically what they could have been feeling. You can see them both lost in their thoughts. They aren’t smiling. They look serious. Can’t you imagine them saying to themselves, “What did we do wrong? This can’t be God’s plan for us.”

But how must it all have looked from God’s perspective?

Years ago, when my father-in-law was bishop in Arkansas, he used to write a little devotion from time to time for their conference newspaper. I still have a copy of the one he wrote the Christmas that Susan and I got engaged. He shared an article written by a friend of his, an Episcopal priest named Morton Kelsey, titled, Where Was Christ Born? He wrote:

Where was the Christ-child born? Where I ask you? In a palace amid the splendors of servants and the comforts of ease? Was he received on a silken pillow and adored by all the glittering household? No, he wasn’t born in a palace and I am glad for it; for had he been born there I could not hope that he could be born in my life; in my soul, because my soul is no palace.

Was Jesus born in the inn, in a swept and garnished room with an attendant to help the mother in labor? No! All the world knows there was no room in the inn, and I am thankful…because my soul, my heart, is not swept, comfortable and orderly. If the Christ-child needs a well-kept hotel in which to be born, then he couldn’t be born in me.

He goes on to tell about a legend regarding the stable and how strangers would come to find shelter there, how a runaway shepherd who killed his master came there to hide, how yet on another night a drunken soldier staggered there and fell asleep, and how yet another night a prostitute weary of her life went there to find escape and solitude. Kelsey concludes: Such was the place where Christ was born, and it is great consolation to me and to every honest person, for my soul is more like the stable—with animal instincts and strange inhabitants—than it is a palace or an inn.

Think about this powerful idea: that the very thing that could have made Mary and Joseph feel they were far removed from God’s Plan A, a dirty stable, was actually the way God wanted the story to unfold? That this was exactly how God wanted to come into the world, to turn the table on people’s thoughts about God, that they had to straighten up first, that getting close to God was dependent on their being good enough, and instead realize God is willing to meet us even in our filthiest? What if all the things that transpired to cause Mary and Joseph to end up in a stable were not detours, but actually the story God wanted to tell all along?

What if that is happening in your life right now? What if the things that are disappointments to you, the letdowns, the obstacles to the direction you wanted your life to take, are actually placing you right where God wants? How does that change the way you face setbacks?

In Anchor Point this past week Susan and I shared the story about Philip Brooks, the author of the hymn O Little Town of Bethlehem. He wrote that for the children’s program at the church he served for many years in Boston. He was one of the most beloved preachers in the city and indeed, religious leaders in America. (statue pic) But being a pastor of a church where he would write a hymn was not what he wanted. He had set out to be a teacher. That was his heart’s desire. But he was not denied certification and was dropped from his teaching position. (pic) He said, “I don’t know what will become of me and I don’t care much…I shall not study (another) profession…I wish I were 15 years old again. I believe I might have made a stunning man, but somehow or other I don’t seem in the way to come to much now.” He could have added “I might as well eat worms!” That’s how low he felt. But in such low estate he received a call to enter the ministry and God made a greater difference through his life than had he done a hundred other professions.

Jesus was born in a stable not because it was the best place Mary and Joseph could find, but because it was the exact place God wanted to use to show that God comes to us in lowly places!

That happens when we, like Mary and Joseph, just make a place for him in the stables of our lives. We don’t put it off. We don’t say, “I’ll turn my attention to spiritual matters once I get things in my life figured out. I really don’t have time for it now.” No, right now, with everything seemingly out of place and turned upside down is the exact time and place God wants to come. Just do as Philip Brooks wrote in his hymn, “where meek hearts will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

I want to pause here…On this Christmas Eve, wherever you are, let’s stop and pray. Oh Lord, I ask you to come into this stable of mine, my life. Come into my disappointments, my let-downs, my mess-ups, my self-centeredness, my loneliness and live in me. I trust you with my life exactly where I am right now, Amen.

Let me say, that prayer is what it means to be Christian. Its no more complicated than that—inviting Christ into your heart. If you have never prayed a prayer like that before, or if have, but tonight it is with new desire to live in that way where you listen with your heart, I want you to click on the button you see on your screen so we can connect with you and help get you connected to a community in the church so that you can fan that spark into flame in your life.

But we must understand something else, without which makes what I have said thus far, merely a half-gospel of hope. The full Gospel is that God doesn’t come just to keep our lives trouble free, and less fretful so we can get on about the business of following our Plan A more easily. No, it’s about making our lives available for God to use, and realizing that when we seek for Christ to enter every scene to be glorified through us, then there are really no wrong turns or detours. Mary and Joseph were allowing God to use them to being hope to the world. This was far from making their lives more comfortable. In fact, just the opposite. But their lives were infinitely more useful.

When we do that we aren’t as focused or worried about how smoothly everything goes. We are more focused on how God can work through whatever situation we are in. And when that happens, we are always in God’s Plan A, and ours as well.

Terri Nix is a volunteer leader in our book store and at the recent zoom Christmas party for the volunteers she led a devotion. She said some years ago she learned an acronym for the word HOPE that really changed her. HOPE stands for Help One Person Everyday. She said when she made that her goal, just to something to help at least one person everyday it gave her hope, no matter how little or big. It might be sending an email, calling someone, responding to an opportunity to help. This is what gives hope.

When we make that our aim, there really are no wrong turns, detours, dead ends in life. We will always be right where God wants us.

My friend, David Mosser is a Methodist preacher in Texas. He tells about a story that appeared in the Denver Post. A few weeks before Christmas a minister told one Sunday morning about a family have a rough time and asked if anyone would help them have a better Christmas. A young family accepted to help. The week before Christmas they loaded their truck with a fir tree, food and gifts for the family. The family lived outside of Denver and on the way a rockslide caused a boulder to hit their truck nearly demolishing it. The father was okay but the son received a bad cut. The father tried to flag down help but no one stopped. He counted 199 vehicles go by before one finally pulled over.

The couple who stopped took the father and son to the nearest emergency room and stayed with the dad until the ER doctor finished treatment. Then they drove them home, and after leaving the father realized he didn’t get their names or contact info to thank them.

On Christmas Eve, the minister called the father and said, “I know what happened and am so sorry, but we have received more gifts and food, would you be willing to try again?” The father said, “Sure.” He arrived at the home, knocked on the door, and you can probably guess who answered. The couple in the 200th car who stopped to help him and his son.

So much can happen in our lives that make us second guess the events that occur. (THIS WILL GO INTO CLOSING AND COMMUNION)