Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister




“How God Get's Things Done”

Second Sunday of Advent

Sunday, December 5, 2010




Rev. Dean Snyder

God Uses the Inconvenient

Luke 2: 6-7

I doubt that Joseph and Mary’s plan to become parents included a stable and a manger. The circumstances of Jesus’ birth were, to say the obvious, inconvenient.

The way Luke tells the story, even Mary’s pregnancy was inconvenient since it happened before she and her husband-to-be had slept together.

Then late in Mary’s pregnancy there was the order for Joseph and her to travel from their home in Nazareth to Joseph’s town of origin, Bethlehem, a weeklong trip by donkey. A weeklong trip by donkey late in Mary’s pregnancy. Sort of inconvenient timing for a weeklong donkey ride.

Then when it is time for Mary to give birth there is no room in the inn.

I noticed something this time when I read the nativity account in the Gospel of Luke that I never noticed before – the hundreds of other times I’ve read it before.

We translate Luke 2:7 like this: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn.”

When we say – “because there was no place for them in the inn,” the Greek word we translate them is “aujtovß.” “Aujtovß” really means the last person referenced. So a literal translation would be: “She gave birth…and laid him in a manger because there was no place for the same in the inn.”  Or “there was no place for him in the inn.”

I found a biblical scholar who picked up on this – John Nolland – who thinks the problem was that births are messy so Mary was consigned to the stable where animals were kept because there was no room in the inn where the owners would allow a birth to happen.  

The problem wasn’t that there was no place for Mary and Joseph in the inn, but that there was no place for Jesus in the inn. Management didn’t want a baby being born in their inn. It was an inconvenient place for Jesus to be born. Jesus was the inconvenience.

I want to make what I think is a very important distinction. Jesus being born in a stable was not a tragedy. It was not a tragedy. Lots of babies have been born wherever their mother could find a dry place for them to be born especially during the time Jesus lived.

A baby born in a stable was not a tragedy. We never suggest to anyone who has experienced a tragedy that the tragedy was God’s will. Awful things happen in our world that are not God’s intentional will.  

Inconvenience is different. When inconvenience comes into our lives, we ask ourselves whether somebody up there is trying to tell us something. The inconvenient makes us ask ourselves whether we are on the right path in life or not. Inconvenience can be a grace.

During Advent this year we are asking the question of how God gets things done in the world.

We assume that God has an intention for creation, the universe, and humanity.  God has a dream. God’s dream is reconciliation…it is shalom…it is peace…it is justice…it is wholeness and health…it is inclusion…it is beauty…it is joy…it is love.

We assume that God is doing things to move us toward God’s dream and intention for us. We assume that God is active in the universe and the purpose of what God is doing is to move us toward God’s good intention for us.

So the question we want to ask this Advent season is how God gets things done. How does God act in the world so as to move us toward God’s intention for us?

The theological name for the way God gets things done in the world is the Doctrine of Divine Providence.

How many of us have been to Providence, Rhode Island?

Roger Williams was an English nonconformist pastor who immigrated to Boston with his wife Mary in 1631. Because he was a nonconformist, he was invited out of Boston by the established church leaders.

He was invited to become the pastor of a church in Salem until the authorities back in Boston heard about it and intervened. He was invited out of Salem.
He moved to Plymouth. His religious and political views got him in trouble in Plymouth. He was invited out of Plymouth.

He tried to move back to Salem, but that didn’t work. He was invited out of Salem again.

He bought some land from the Massasoit Indians, but when he and his little community tried to settle there, the Massachusetts authorities told him the land he bought was still within their territory.

So he moved again. He crossed the Seekonk River into the wilderness where absolutely nobody could claim that he was within their territory. He bought land from the Narragansett Indians and started a settlement.

He named his settlement Providence because he believed that it was the hand of God that had brought him there. He believed it was the hand of God that disrupted all of the other efforts in his life to settle down somewhere else and took him to the place he called Providence. He believed God inconvenienced his life so that he would keep moving and searching until he got to Providence.

So the topic we are discussing this Advent and Christmas is the Doctrine of Divine Providence and the textbook we are using is the Gospel of Luke’s nativity account.

The reason the Doctrine of Divine Providence is a difficult topic is because God is hidden. The 17th century French genius, Blaise Pascal, said that a religion which does not believe that God is hidden is not true. If you can see your god, your god is an idol.

Because God is hidden, the hand of God is hidden. We cannot see the hand of God acting in our world through our ordinary senses.

So how does God act in the world so as to push and pull the world toward God’s dream for us?

The nativity story in the Book of Luke suggests that one of the ways God acts in the world is to inconvenience us…to foil our plans…to throw us off course…to disrupt to frustrate…to disorganize. The great organizer Saul Alinksy said that all organizing is disorganizing. God disorganizes.

It is a fairly consistent biblical theme. Almost at the very beginning of the Bible is the story about the Tower of Babel. It is one of Genesis’ primal stories: Humanity wants to build a city with a tower reaching up into the heavens so we invented bricks. (Gen. 11:1-9) In the story God confused humanity’s language as a way of disrupting our plans because apparently we were not yet civilized enough to deploy the technology of civilization.

I’ve been part of lots of projects where exactly the same thing has happened. We had a great idea, but God confused our language to slow us down because we were not mature enough to manage what we wanted to create.
One of the way God acts in the world is to inconvenience us…to slow down and mix up our plans and our ambitions. It is a relatively consistent biblical theme.

Jesus is an inconvenience. Jesus is pretty much always an inconvenience, even today. There is no room for his messy birth in the orderly inns of our lives. There is no room for his messy birth in our orderly life trajectories, in our orderly career plans, in our orderly family planning, in our orderly political platforms and agenda.

Of course, because God is hidden and the hand of God is hidden, we can never be sure whether a specific inconvenience is God’s doing or not. Sometimes an inconvenience is just an inconvenience.

But one of the questions that spirituality teaches us to ask is, when our plans aren’t going the way we think they should, when our lives are not following the paths we had planned, is God trying to tell me something.

Jesus was laid in a manger, Luke said, as a sign to certain poor shepherd. An angel says to the shepherds: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12).

Mary and Joseph’s inconvenience was a sign to certain poor shepherds that God had not forgotten them…that God was present in their world at the margins of society. Jesus lying in a manger has been a sign to people at the margins ever since.

Craig Barnes, a Presbyterian pastor, says: “I have yet to meet an adult who is living the life he or she planned.”

Maybe that’s a sort of definition for God…that God is the One who makes it inconvenient to live merely the lives we have planned.



John Nolland, Luke 1-9:20 Word Biblical Commentary (Word Books), 105-6.

M. Craig Barnes, When God Interrupts: Finding New Life through Unwanted Change (InterVarsity Press), 9.