Have you ever made plans only to have them fall apart? I suspect you have. That’s part of life. Sometimes, though, when our plans fall apart, it isn’t because we’ve done anything wrong. It isn’t because anyone else has done anything wrong either. Instead, it’s because God has His own plans and He’s interrupting to make sure His plans happen. This kind of thing can be monumentally frustrating, but as we’ll see in this next part of our Advent series, All Planned Out, this always works out for our good. Thanks for joining me as we talk about how God makes sure things happen all according to His plan.
All According to Plan
There’s a pretty well-known children’s book that starts out like this: “I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be…” If you know the book, say the next line with me: “…a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.” Now, what poor soul experienced all of that bad luck before breakfast? Why, Alexander, of course. The book is entitled Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
As far as children’s literature goes, it’s actually a pretty depressing read. I suspect the point is to help kids see that even their worst days could always be even worse—like Alexander’s—thus giving them a reason to be optimistic no matter what is happening, but if you’re only five and not so literarily astute, it’s just funny that all these terrible things keep happening to this poor kid.
The book itself was popular enough that it got made into a movie a few years ago starring Steve Carrel and Jennifer Garner. The movie version obviously expanded greatly on the book, but it did something else too. In the book, Alexander finally reaches the end of his terrible day and not a single good thing has happened. His mother simply kisses him, reminds him that kids in other parts of the world have bad days too, and you close the book. That’s it. There’s no redemptive element to the story which is exactly what the film adds. By the end of the movie, although everything that could possibly go wrong has and in spectacularly hilarious fashion, the family that was fairly disparate and disconnected, has been drawn together by the love for one another that has held them together through the craziness.
The question this raises in my mind is this: Why do this? Why not stay true to the book? Well, no book-inspired movie stays true to its source material, so there’s that. The real reason, though, is that we are wired for redemption. We look for it in all of the stories we tell. If we don’t see it, we really don’t gravitate to the story in the first place. Perhaps the book version of Alexander’s terrible day is an exception, but, perhaps we can think of the mother’s closing reminder that people in all kinds of places have bad days as the element of redemption. It’s not much, but it’s something. The movie just changed and expanded on it.
Well, this morning, we are going to take a look at the story of a family who went through not just a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, but a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad season. For them, though, the redemption element didn’t just make their story better. It has made every story since better. At the end of this one—which we really don’t come to for a few more months—things didn’t just turn out good. They turned out the best they could possibly be.
This morning we are in the third part of our Advent journey, All Planned Out. The whole idea for this series is that Christmas wasn’t something thrown together by God at the last minute. It was the result of God’s careful and intentional planning down through the annals of human history from almost the very first moment it started unfolding. Our journey has been one of exploring how those plans have taken shape.
Way back on the first Sunday of Advent, we saw that His plans were always for our salvation. Even when we blew things right out of the gate, His first words and actions were to point us forward to the time when He would make all things right once again. Then, last week, as we tracked with His plans through the wild stories of Jesus’ family tree, we were reminded that no amount of trouble or tragedy in our own stories can keep God’s good plans from coming to pass. Your hardest story can’t stop God’s good plans.
This morning we are in the fourth Sunday of Advent, the Sunday before Christmas. The next time we gather like this we’ll be on the other side of the celebration. It is only appropriate, then, that we give our attention to the story toward which all these other stories have been pointing. Find your way with me to Matthew 1.
Starting in v. 18 we are introduced to a man named Joseph. Joseph was engaged—betrothed, really, which was more like marriage-lite and could only be ended by a divorce certificate, but it wasn’t really marriage yet, so most translations just go with “engaged”—to a young woman named Mary. Sometime before the wedding, Joseph discovered Mary was pregnant. Matthew puts it like this in v. 18: “The birth of Jesus Christ came about this way: After his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, it was discovered before they came together that she was pregnant from the Holy Spirit.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but if I discover my fiancée is pregnant before the wedding, the excuse that it was the Holy Spirit who did it is going to carry about as much water as the pasta strainer in my cabinet at home. Talk about having a set of great plans and then watching them crumble into dust. This couple was planning on a long, happy life together. Now they were both scrambling, trying to make sense of the chaos that had descended into their midst. And let’s be clear that both of them were scrambling.
For Joseph, this discovery would have brought incredible shame to him in the community. His bride had been unfaithful. What kind of man would allow something like that to happen? His prospects for marrying again would not have been good as he would have been considered damaged goods. The rift between his family and Mary’s family would have been enormous and even possibly violent. For Mary’s part, there would have been talk of dragging her before the priests to be stoned. In that culture, a woman’s purity was a really big deal. Losing that reputation would have marked her out as sinful for the rest of her life. She would not have been welcome in polite society any longer. She would have become like the woman at the well. She might have even lost the support of her family.
Joseph did what anyone in his sandals would have done. Well, not quite anyone. Joseph wasn’t just your run-of-the-mill, average Joe. Matthew tells us that he was a righteousness man—someone who actively sought to be right with God and with people. “So her husband Joseph, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her publicly, decided to divorce her secretly.” He couldn’t bear the thought of being with her any longer, but he didn’t want this to spell the end of her future prospects for life and happiness. Not many guys would do what he did there. Still, this wasn’t his plan. But it was God’s. And God’s plans always come to pass…even if He has to give them a little nudge.
So, nudge He did: “But after he had considered these things, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what has been conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’”
Have you ever had God come in and mess up all your plans? What do you do then? That’s a tougher question in practice than it is in theory. In theory, we just go with what God says. After all, He’s God and we’re not. In practice, though, we are generally pretty committed to our plans. That’s why we made them in the first place: we wanted things to happen that way. If we had wanted them to happen in a different way, we would have planned them to go that way. No, in practice it takes a lot of humility to give up our plans and adjust to the reality unfolding around us.
There’s another challenge here, though: God’s changes to our plans don’t usually get announced like Joseph experienced here. More often they come in the form of our plans falling to pieces and our trying to figure out what to do next. Even more: we’re left trying to figure out what exactly God’s plans are. For Joseph’s part, that seemed clear at first after God’s intervention. He was supposed to marry Mary, and everything would work out. Thus v. 24: “When Joseph woke up, he did as the Lord’s angel had commanded him. He married her…”
But you see, Matthew leaves out something Luke includes, and which adds yet a bit more intrigue to the story. Once Joseph and Mary decide to move forward in spite of this unexpected challenge, they figure they’ll be able to settle down and have their nice, quiet life together. Then this from Luke 2: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole empire should be registered. This first registration took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So everyone went to be registered, each to his own town.”
Once again, God’s plans were not their plans. They thought they had their hearts and minds wrapped around life again just in time for things to be all shaken up by this imperial edict which, for Joseph, meant traveling to Bethlehem in Judea. What’s more, this came when the time for the arrival of Mary’s baby was growing close. They arrived in Bethlehem, couldn’t find a single place to stay, and had to set up camp in a stable that was probably a cave without much ventilation.
So, here was the couple: delivering their baby in a cave, far from home, and no doubt feeling very much alone in the world. Were these really the plans of God? They certainly weren’t their plans. Well, here’s the thing: Our plans aren’t God’s plans. We plan for things to be easy and simple. We plan for them to be convenient and untroubled by needless concerns. God’s plans, though, are bigger than simply what we think is going to be most beneficial for ourselves based on a limited set of data and perspective on the world at large. His plans are for His glory and our good, but they accurately take into account human brokenness. Do you factor that into your plans? And because His plans factor in our brokenness, they often don’t look anything even remotely like what we might sketch out if we were the one designing the route. God’s plans take twists and turns and often plunge right through the most dangerous roads imaginable. They do this because He can see the whole map in ways we can’t even conceive.
At the end of the day, though, His plans come to pass. The question for us is whether that is a hopeful truth or a threatening one. The answer lies in whether we are willing to let our plans go in favor of His. There’s one last thing about God’s plans that we haven’t really covered yet: they are always for our good. No matter how God’s plans may seem along the way, they are for our good. Our plans may seem to be for our good, but let’s be honest: we’re not always the most careful planners in the world. We can’t see all the possible problems we might encounter. We can’t anticipate the places we’ll have to stop and double back. And, frankly, we don’t know exactly what our highest good is. We think we do in our pride, but how many times have we been wrong? Actually, let’s not try to answer that one…I don’t think we’ll like what we find. But God’s plans? Always for our good. So then, we have a choice: God’s plans or ours. Ours may not happen and may not really be the best thing for us. God’s plans always happen, and they are always for our good. God’s plans happen, and they happen for our good.
And if you really want evidence for this, look no further than the story of Jesus’ birth. Nothing in this story went the way the people living it expected. Not a single part of it. Things went haywire from the start and there were so many twists and turns I’m surprised no one got motion sickness from it. But at the end of the day, there was a tiny, baby boy being cradled in his mother’s arms; a baby who would one day open the doors of salvation and a right relationship with God to the entire world. Like I said: for our good. God’s plans happen, and they happen for our good.
So then, have you submitted yourself to His plans? Have you experienced some of the goodness He has in store for you? It won’t come in the ways you expect, but it’ll be better than you’d hoped. God’s plans happen, and they happen for our good. He’s been working in even the most minute details of human history since its beginning and He’s not done working yet. He is ready and waiting to work in your life if you’ll let Him. He has plans to expand His kingdom through you. You’ve only got to be willing to set aside your agenda and take up His.
This is a big decision, I know, but I can guarantee you two things if you’ll make it. First, it’ll be harder and more painful than you expected going in. I know that may not be the guarantee you wanted, but I’d rather be honest with you than leave you to get hit by something you never saw coming. And besides, Jesus Himself told us that one. Second, though, and this is better, you’ll be glad you did. God’s plans happen, and they happen for our good. God’s plans happen for your good. They did in Christ, and they have every day since. If you’ll come back next week as we wrap up this series, we’ll talk about exactly what those plans are.