When you are FORCED out of your comfort zone - God is teaching you!
The book of Matthew tells us that Jesus spent part of his childhood in Egypt. Matthew doesn't go into much detail about these years, but he tells us enough to help us understand how God was at work in Jesus' life, and how he can be at work in our life too.
• ABOUT KING HEROD
This is the story: When the wise men left Bethlehem without returning to Herod as they had been told to, Herod became furious. He realized he had been outwitted. Since he didn't know specifically which child they had visited, he decided to kill all the children in Bethlehem under two years of age. He didn't care about taking innocent lives; his only concern was to eliminate a perceived threat to his throne.
This is the kind of man that Herod was. Human life was cheap to him. He didn't hesitate to kill anyone who stood in his way. When he first became king, he killed all the members of the Sanhedrin, which was the "supreme court" of the Jews. He later killed 300 officers of his court. He also murdered his wife, his mother-in-law, and three of his own sons. In fact, the Emperor Augustus once said sarcastically that it was safer to be Herod's pig than his son.
Killing helpless children meant nothing to Herod. Based on the size of the population of Bethlehem, there were probably 15-20 (perhaps as many 30) children who were brutally slaughtered in this massacre.
Shortly before Herod's soldiers stormed the town of Bethlehem in search of children, an angel of God appeared to Joseph and told him to take his family out of Bethlehem and escape to Egypt. Next, the Bible says...
(v. 14-15) So he [Joseph] got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Out of Egypt I called my son."
• UNDERSTANDING OLD TESTAMENT PROPHECIES
Several times throughout the gospel of Matthew, he refers to an event in the life of Jesus as being the fulfillment of prophecy. I want to take a closer look at Matthew's tendency to do this, because it confused me when I first began studying the Bible.
When you look at the original prophecy that Matthew points to in the Old Testament, it sometimes seems to be taken out of context, and doesn't appear to be referring to Jesus at all. For example, this verse that Matthew cites—"out of Egypt I called my son"—is taken from Hosea 11:1, and is actually referring to how God delivered the nation of Israel from bondage and slavery in Egypt, during the days of Moses.
Does that mean that Matthew is misusing the Old Testament by trying to get it to say something it doesn't really say? No, not at all. But you have to understand how first century Jews interpreted the Old Testament, and how Old Testament prophecies work. Many Old Testament prophecies have a dual application, one that applies to an Old Testament event, and one that applies to a New Testament event. The story may be about something else, but there are verses in the story that apply to the life of Christ.
It's like Matthew was saying, "The Old Testament says that God called his spiritual son, Israel, out of Egypt, and isn't it interesting that God called his only begotten son, Jesus, out of Egypt as well."
Here's an example from modern times that might help make sense of the way Old Testament prophecies were interpreted. The Bob Dylan song, "It's All Right Ma" contains a line that says...
Even the president of the United States sometimes must stand naked.
The song was written in 1965, when Lyndon B. Johnson was president. However, in 1973, when Bob Dylan sang these words at Madison Square Garden, the crowd stood on their feet and cheered. In the light of the Watergate scandal, they had become especially meaningful. When Dylan wrote the song, he wasn't predicting Watergate, but his words became prophetic because they applied in a unique way to Watergate. The same could be said about the former Clinton administration. And, in fact, Dylan's words could be interpreted more literally. (This doesn't mean that Bob Dylan is a prophet; it's only an illustration.)
In the same way, when Matthew makes reference to the fulfillment of prophecy, he's not attempting to distort the meaning of the original verse; he's saying "There's a dual application for this verse. See how the events in this Old Testament story apply also to the events in the life of Jesus."
• LIVING IN EGYPT
So, Jesus, Mary and Joseph lived in Egypt until the death of Herod—a period of probably 3-4 years. This means that Jesus spent the formative years of his childhood in a foreign country. There were a number of Jewish colonies in Egypt at that time. Jews frequently found themselves under persecution, and it was common for them to seek refuge in Egypt. This means that Jesus would have grown up in a dual culture. In his neighborhood he would have associated with other Jewish people; in the community at large he would have interacted with Egyptians. Some of his playmates could have been Egyptian children. Joseph probably did carpentry work for Egyptian customers. As the family shopped in the marketplace, they would have done business with Egyptian merchants. In his childhood years Jesus gained a perspective on life that wasn't limited to what he would have seen if he had lived exclusively in a tiny Judean village.
When King Herod died, God appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him to bring his family back to Israel. Since Herod's son (the one that survived Herod's madness) was reigning in Judea, Joseph took his family to Galilee and they made their home in a town called Nazareth.
I doubt seriously that Joseph's first choice would have been to move his family to Egypt. I'm sure he would have preferred to raise his son in his hometown of Bethlehem, where his citizenship resided, with family and friends close by. But it wasn't to be. God had other plans. Joseph and his family were forced out of their comfort zone, and for a number of years they lived life on the run, so to speak. They journeyed approximately 125 miles from Bethlehem to Egypt, where they stayed for a few years, then they left Egypt and moved 200 miles north to live in Nazareth—again, not Joseph's first choice (2:21).
• THE SHAPING OF JESUS' CHARACTER
These events shaped the character of Jesus. They helped make him into the man God wanted him to be. The Bible says that as Jesus was growing up...
[He] grew in wisdom and stature, in favor with God and man. (Luke 2:52)
The book of Hebrews says......he learned obedience from what he suffered. (Hebrews 5:8)
He learned obedience. He grew in wisdom. For some people, it's hard to imagine Jesus learning, because he was perfect. He was sinless. He was God in the flesh. That's true, and it's also true that he was a man. He came into the world to live as a man. He learned as we learn—how to be a carpenter, how to clean his room, how to read the Scriptures, and on and on.
God used the events of the early years of Jesus' life to prepare him for the work he had called him to do. He led Mary and Joseph to move beyond their comfort zone, to be uprooted from their home for a period of time, because he knew these events would shape the life of Jesus, and would help him grow in wisdom, and would help him learn obedience, and would prepare him for the work he had come to earth to do.
It works the same way for us. When you find yourself forced out of your comfort zone, you can be sure God is preparing you for something. You might not be able to see it immediately, but he can see it, and he knows where he's leading you.
You might take a new job, and it doesn't go the way you thought it would. Or you might move to a new community, and you don't fit in like you expected to. Or the children start school, or move away to college, and you don't know what to do with your time. Or you may find yourself suddenly and unexpectedly single again, due to a death or divorce, and it isn't clear what God has in store for you. There are times in life when we're forced out of our comfort zone, and we find ourselves fleeing to Egypt in the middle of the night, facing challenges we're not prepared for. God uses these times to teach you three things. First of all...
1. God leads you outside your comfort zone to stretch your boundaries.
Jesus spent some of the formative years of his childhood living in a foreign country. Their skin was different, their language was different, their customs were different. He and his family were in the minority. Jesus saw, from an early age, that the world is not a tiny place where everyone looks alike and thinks alike and acts alike and talks alike. As he began his ministry, he understood that he had come to the world to bring everyone to God—not just the Jews. Those years in Egypt helped Jesus see the world from God's perspective.
That's what God wants to do with you. When he moves you out of your comfort zone, he wants to help you see things differently than you might have seen them otherwise. He wants you to see the world through his eyes, through his perspective.
I have a friend who is a youth pastor in an affluent church in Memphis. Every year he takes his youth group on a missions trip to the Appalachians, where they spend a week ministering to people whose lives are very much different than their own. They see families who live in poverty, children who have never played a video game, or have never even owned a pair of new shoes. This experience helps them realize the world is much more than what they experience in their upper-class suburb back home.
I have another friend who is a pastor in a church in a small town in Tennessee. He has challenged everyone in his church to take a mission trip to an orphanage they help sponsor in Guatemala. Those who take the trip come home changed; they've learned to see the world through new eyes.
A few years ago I began a ministry that was outside my comfort zone. Previously, I had served as a youth pastor, and then as an associate pastor in a metropolitan church made up primarily of young families. Then I became a pastor of a church in rural West Tennessee. I felt like a fish out of water. Most of the people in the church were older than me, and they were nearly all farmers, or they worked at the local co-op, or they were retired and spent their days tending gardens large enough to feed a small nation.
Their former pastor was in his sixties. He had grown up in that community and he, too, had farmed all his life. During a typical week he might help one member slaughter a hog, and go fishing with another member, and help another member pull weeds in their tomato patch. During these times he would counsel with them, pray with them, and give them spiritual leadership. He was a good man, and a tough act to follow. It didn't help that my agricultural experience was limited to the time I put a seed and some dirt in a Styrofoam cup for a second grade Sunday school project.
They were good people, but I had nothing in common with them. It was difficult to preach to them. Their interests were different than mine. If I had mentioned, for example, Bob Dylan in a sermon illustration, one of them might have approached me afterward and said, "Son, if you had ever watched Gunsmoke, you would know that Marshall Dillon's first name was Matt."
It would have been easy to go back to the kind of ministry I was used to, but I realized that God was calling to stretch my boundaries. He was leading me outside my comfort zone. He was showing me that I couldn't have a one-dimensional ministry. I had to learn to communicate the gospel to everyone, not just those who fit one tiny demographic of society. During the years I served that church, I learned to minister to people with problems and fears far beyond what I could understand—those who were dying of old age, those whose grown children were breaking their hearts, those who livelihood was based on good weather, those who were afraid of outliving their money and becoming indigent, or outliving their usefulness and become obsolete.
God taught me how to minister to this congregation—how to relate to them, and how to speak to them. He took me out of my comfort zone because he wanted to stretch my boundaries; he wanted to widen the scope of my ministry.
If you are living outside your comfort zone right now, it's because God is giving you the chance to stretch your boundaries, too. He wants to lead you to a new level of usefulness. He wants to teach you to see the world through his eyes.
2. God leads you outside your comfort zone so you can experience his protection.
God sent Jesus to Egypt to protect him from Herod's soldiers. It's the same reason he sent Joseph and Mary back to Nazareth (instead of Bethlehem) when they returned from Egypt.
(v. 21-23) So he [Joseph] got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth.
God directed Joseph to Egypt, and then to Nazareth, to protect his family. It might have been easier—more comfortable—for Joseph to stay in Bethlehem where his citizenship was, but for his protection (and the protection of his family) he needed to be in Egypt, and later in Nazareth.
I have a friend named Danny who is an accountant for an oil firm. He lived a rather idyllic life in a small Texas town: nice job, easy hours, no traffic, and on and on. Then he began having problems at home; he caught his son using drugs. About this time Danny was offered a transfer to Dallas, but it wasn't an attractive offer. It was what they call in the corporate world a lateral move. Same salary, but the job was sure to be more stressful, and what's more, he hated the idea of living in a big city. But Danny recognized the offer for what it was—God was giving him a way of escape. He moved his family to Dallas and, sure enough, he hates his job. But his family is involved in a great church with a dynamic youth ministry. Within a few months of moving there, his son gave his life to Jesus.
When God leads you out of your comfort zone, he may be doing it to protect you and your family. He knows what he is doing. His way is always the best way. It may not always be the easiest way, but it's always the best way. Sometimes in order to save you, or in order to protect you, he has to take you all the way to Egypt.
3. God leads you outside your comfort zone so you can learn to depend on him.
When God told Joseph to take his family to Egypt, he also said,
(v. 13) Stay there until I tell you.
Joseph knew his time in Egypt would be temporary. He also knew the only way he would know it was time to leave was if God told him. The plan was not for Joseph and his family to go to Egypt and establish a new life there. The plan was to go to Egypt and listen for further directions. Joseph and his family were far away from home, and they were totally dependent on God. Joseph was in a position in which he had to put all of his trust in God, and remain focused on hearing God's voice.
There's something about being out of your comfort zone that teaches you to trust in God.
I recently saw the movie Cast Away starring Tom Hanks. It's a pretty good movie, but there's one aspect of it that I thought was entirely unrealistic. As you probably know, Tom Hanks is in a plane crash at sea and ends up on a desert island (I don't think that will spoil the story for you, the name of the movie is Cast Away). Anyway, here's the unrealistic part: Even after Tom Hanks survives the plane crash and washes to shore on this uncharted desert aisle, he never prays. He never asks for help; he never thanks God for saving his life; he never even shakes his fist in anger at his horrible predicament. This is completely unrealistic. Something I have learned about human nature: whether a person is religious or not, when they find themselves thrown for a loop, they call on God. Whether or not they actually turn their lives over to him is a different matter, but I would venture to say that the overwhelming majority of people in the world would call on God for help if they found themselves stranded on a desert island.
In 1965 Howard Rutledge was captured by the Vietnamese and held in prisoner of war camp for 7 years. When he was captured, Captain Rutledge was only marginally religious, but once inside the "Hanoi Hilton" the focus of his thoughts were directed to God. He called out to God for help, and God was there for him. During those years in that dreadful prison, he learned to depend on God, and he experienced the presence of God in his life in a way far beyond what he had imagined possible before his imprisonment.
During those times that we are forced out of our comfort zone, we have the opportunity to hear God's voice more clearly than ever before, to experience his presence more powerfully than ever before.
If you've been pushed out of your comfort zone, it's because God is giving you a chance to learn to depend on him...to learn to hear his voice, and obey his voice.
At some time or another, we'll all be called out of our comfort zone. When we're forced outside the comfort zone we expand our boundaries, we learn to see the world through God's perspective. When we leave our comfort zone, we also experience God's protection, and we learn to depend on him. The time spent outside our comfort zone gives God the opportunity to shape our character, and make us what he wants us to be.
- Level 3