‘Contrary to Expectations’

The Greek root of the word ‘paradox’ means ‘contrary to expectations.’ A paradox is a statement that is seemingly contradictory yet is true. Writers use paradox to draw in a reader’s attention until the apparent contradiction can be resolved.

In many ways, the arrival of the awaited Messiah was written into the biblical narrative as paradox- contrary to expectations, intended to draw in the attention of millions who would read this story for thousands of years to come.

The birth of Jesus Christ was especially contrary to the expectations of those who experienced the story firsthand. Though scripture had hinted different, God’s people were expecting a mighty conquering King. They waited four hundred years for Messiah to come, end their oppression and restore their kingdom’s rule.

After these seemingly countless generations of God’s silence, an angel appeared with good news- spoken only at first to a humble young virgin who’d been chosen to bear God’s Son. Mary had been expecting a marriage and a simple life ahead. How could this be true?

Joseph had been working to ready all his family would need. What was he supposed to do?

The angel’s confirmation was sufficient for these two to set off on their long journey, filled with one paradox after another.

They headed to Bethlehem to register for the census called for of the entire Roman empire yet fulfilling precisely prophecy spoken hundreds of years before.

There was no room for them in the inn. The long-expected King was birthed into a cruel bed of hay in a cold and lonely stable.

The hoped-for help of all of Israel came as a helpless infant wrapped in swaddling clothes.

The Prince who would bring peace rested peacefully in his weary mother’s arms.

The Savior of the World who would die hung high a cross while many watched was born that holy night with the witness of only his parents and a few gazing animals.

The shepherds were out keeping the night’s watch over their flocks when an angel appeared with their unexpected news. This humble, unknown crew was ushered into the redemption story as they hurried off to Bethlehem searching for the baby.

These rough-edged sheep-keepers were the first to bow and worship before the One at whose name every knee will one day bow.

They were the first missionaries, taking the gospel good news back over their hills that would one day be heard throughout the world.

Yes, into that cold and dark and quiet night, the Light of the World made His appearance in a most unexpected way.

God Most High took on frail flesh and made His dwelling here among us. (John 1:14)

This child’s name was to be Jesus- He would save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).

He was to be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6).

He was to be Emmanuel- God with us (Matthew 1:23).

He who was to be all these things was born an infant on that first silent night.

God sent His Son.

For us.

Isn’t that a paradox in itself?

As I contemplate my life, as we often do this time of year, I can relate to “contrary to expectations.” It is quite easy to create a long list of all the ways my life has not been what I expected. Unexpected news, unexpected changes, unexpected challenges. How can this be true? What am I supposed to do?

Like Mary and Joseph, and the Shepherds, and the Wise Men who would follow after, our lives are filled with paradox. The One writing our stories uses these unexpected, apparent contradictions to get our attention, and often the attention of those around us. They draw us in to Him- so we may look to Him- until the apparent contradiction can be resolved.

This year especially has been not what we expected. Yet in this Christmas moment, the paradox of it all can be resolved by the reminder of the sweet presence and peace of the Savior of the world, filling our hearts and giving us strength to continue on the unexpected journey He’s already prepared ahead for us.

God uses the foolish things of this world to show His great wisdom.

He uses brokenness to bring His healing and wholeness.

God takes our weakness and gives His strength.

He takes what we can’t believe is happening and uses it to grow our belief in Him even more.

In my list of ways life has not been what I expected, God Himself has been ‘contrary to expectation.’ He has been so much more than I could ever have dreamed or imagined. And while that list contains things that have been less than I expected, truly it is full of many things that have been so much more than I expected.

God has been faithful, and He has been good. His grace and mercy have overflowed in my life in ways I never could have expected.

At Christmas this year, may we all see clearer this unexpected Savior and all the unexpected ways He has gotten our attention and drawn us into His story. May we allow Him to resolve the seeming contradictions- for our good and for His glory.

Mary Knew

And all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.  Luke 2:18-19

 Try to imagine this moment for Mary. Imagine the quiet and the stillness that surrounded her.

After their long and strenuous journey. After her hard and strenuous delivery. After the unexplainable visit of the shepherds and the unbelievable telling of their visit by angels.

All the sights and sounds (and smells) of the last few days had been nearly unbearable. And yet, in this quiet moment that followed, there rested Mary.

I imagine her holy newborn sleeping peacefully on her chest and Joseph perhaps off seeking a meal and his own moment of peace.

And I imagine in this moment, when all had come quiet, Mary’s breathing slowed, and her heart rested, and with a surrendering sigh, she just took it all in.

Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.

There was a stillness there- and there was a great fullness. All had come to pass just as the angel had told her. This faithful young woman surely had moments of doubt, even as this Spirit-conceived baby grew in her womb. But in this moment- in the fullness of this moment- Mary knew.

This child Emmanuel- was now with us. This child Jesus- had come to save us. This was the Messiah- come to set His people free. This was her Son- lying peacefully in her arms in that cold and crude stable.

The scripture tells us Mary treasured up all these things. To treasure is “to hold or keep as precious” or “to collect and store up for future use.” I think Mary did both. All these things she had experienced over the last nine months were precious to her. They brought joy and brought forth great gratitude and worship back to her God. I think also they were given to her to store up for future use. The mother of Jesus Christ, who would grow to serve and save the world, would need a big store of treasures for her long journey ahead.

We see this phrase used again, twelve years later after their family visited the temple. “But his mother treasured all these things in her heart.” (Luke 2:51). Mary needed a big store of treasures for all she would watch her son endure. Years later, Mary would watch this son she bore hang on a cruel cross. (What a precious moment there when Jesus entrusted her care to his beloved disciple John.)

The scripture also tells us Mary pondered these things in her heart. To ponder is “to think about, to reflect on” or “to think or consider especially quietly, soberly, and deeply.” I think Mary did all of that. In the rush of all that had happened, she hadn’t had opportunity to reflect on any of it. But here she sat quietly, soberly, and deeply pondering the goodness and faithfulness of God and the fullness of all He had done in and through her- of all He had done, and would do, on her behalf and on behalf of her family.

There were so many things in this moment and throughout Jesus’ life that only Mary witnessed. All these things given her to treasure and ponder- to fill her soul so that it would overflow with praise and glory to her God and Savior.

And Mary said, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” (Luke 1:46)

“These things” she knew filled her soul so she could endure the hard journey set before her.

We have much to learn from Mary. We need to pause- if even for a moment on our hard and strenuous days- to rest and reflect. As hard as it may sometimes be to find- in a quiet and still moment, we can take in all that God has done in us and through us- and all He has done on our behalf and on behalf of our family.

We need to treasure and ponder the glimpses of God’s glory given only to us. Hold them in tight- store them up for the hard journey ahead.

“For the Mighty One has done great things for me- holy is His name.” (Luke 1:49)

“For nothing is impossible with God.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God…For nothing is impossible with God.” Luke 1:34-37

Mary was given a very big assignment, but she was given that assignment by our very big God who promised to be with her.

A young virgin pledged to be married, whom we can imagine faithfully carrying out her daily responsibilities there in the city of Nazareth, was visited that day by an angel sent by God with miraculous news. For 400 long years of silence from God, generations of her family and all of Israel had waited expectantly for this news. Mary’s response shows us she also had been waiting for God’s Son to come and bring redemption for His people.

Mary was given very big news- unexpected and unbelievable news. With it came a big promise that the big God she served would be with her. His Spirit and His Power would bring forth this holy child in her. The long-awaited Messiah was coming to save the world through her womb.

“For nothing is impossible with God.”

Abraham and Sarah were also given a big assignment. They received unexpected and unbelievable news, that in their very old age they would bear a son, and there would begin the blessed nation God had promised.

“Then the LORD said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD?”  Genesis 18:13-14

Later, we read of Abraham’s trust in this big promise “against all hope.”

Yet Abraham did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had the power to do what He promised.´ Romans 4:20-21.

After all he had lost and learned through his time of testing, Job spoke his faith in God’s power in reply to the Lord, saying “I know you can do all things; no plan of yours can be thwarted.” (Job 42:1).

In a time of upheaval and captivity under the Babylonians, Jeremiah prophesied of the redemption of Israel- a testimony to God’s unfailing love and covenant promises far above the sinful wavering of His children.

“Sovereign Lord, you have made the heavens and the earth by your great power and outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you.” Jeremiah 32:17

Then the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah: “I am the LORD, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?”

Jesus later would be asked by a rich man how he could inherit eternal life. Jesus’ answer left he and the disciples questioning, “Who then can be saved?”

Jesus replied, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” Luke 18:27

What big assignment have you been given? What unexpected or unbelievable news have you received? Can you trust our big God to be with you and give you His big power?

As Mary was promised, so also have we been promised, that “the Holy Spirit will be with you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

In His strength, by relying fully on His power, we will see the impossible become possible.

Nothing is too hard for God. He has the power to do what He’s promised. No plan of His can be thwarted.

Nothing is impossible with God.