The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem surely was uncomfortable, unpleasant, and frightening for Mary and Joseph. In Mary’s time, women died in childbirth with a frequency that led to an average life expectancy of only thirty-five. The trip Joseph and Mary were making was filled with frightening possibilities.
They set out for Bethlehem reminded once more that they were living under Roman occupation. I suspect Mary left in tears, saying goodbye to her family and hometown at the moment she needed them the most. This was a journey that neither Mary nor Joseph wanted to take. It was forced upon them.
The situation that Mary and Joseph faced is emblematic of what often happens in life. At times, all of us find ourselves on journeys we don’t want to take. Sometimes, as with Mary and Joseph, the journeys happen because of someone else’s decisions or actions (in this case, it was the emperor). The journeys may be painful, and we may find ourselves brokenhearted or deeply discouraged along the way. We might even think that God is punishing us or has abandoned us. But God promises to sustain us, even though we may walk through the darkest valleys. God tells us to turn our burdens over to him, and he can make something beautiful of them.
Throughout Scripture we see journeys that people don’t want to take, and much of the Bible is about God using and working through those journeys. There’s Noah on his ark, and Abraham and Sarah uprooted in retirement and sent by God to the Promised Land. There’s Ruth and Naomi grieving the loss of their husbands, and Daniel thrown into the lions’ den.
Most of the really remarkable people I have met, people who are having an impact on the world, have been on journeys they didn’t want to take.
Have you ever been forced on a journey you didn’t want to take? It may have been your parents’ divorce, or your own. Maybe it was an illness or a move or the loss of a job. Maybe it was the death of someone you loved dearly. I’m not suggesting that God caused these things to happen or that they were God’s will. They are simply part of life. But God goes with you on these journeys, and God’s providence has a way of bringing good and beautiful things from the pain, heartache, and disappointments we face in life. That’s what Mary and Joseph discovered.
Did you know that nearly half of Luke’s Gospel is devoted to telling the story of Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem, where he would be crucified? Where did Jesus learn to walk the journeys he did not want to take, trusting that God was with him? Perhaps it was from hearing Joseph talk about the difficult journey he and Mary took in faith and about what God brought forth from it. Just as Joseph had known somehow that God was with him, Jesus on his final journey knew somehow that God would redeem his suffering and use it to transform the world.
All of us go on journeys we don’t want to take. In the midst of them, if we open ourselves to God, we can see God’s hand leading us. When you find yourself on an unplanned and difficult journey, recall these words from the prophet Isaiah, who was writing to encourage the Jewish people during their own difficult journey in exile:
The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He doesn’t grow tired or weary.
His understanding is beyond human reach, giving power to the tired and reviving the exhausted.
Youths will become tired and weary, young men will certainly stumble; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength;
they will fly up on wings like eagles;
they will run and not be tired; they will walk and not be weary.
I don’t know what journeys you’ve been on that you did not want to take, or what journey you may be on now. I know that God walks with you. I know that God will strengthen you. I know that God redeems life’s painful journeys.