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Hope - 2019 Advent #1


A bit more than 2000 years ago, in northern Israel - in the province of Galilee - in the small town of Nazareth, there were, among the 400 or so other people in that town, a young woman named Mary and a man named Joseph.

When we meet Mary and Joseph early in the New Testament, they were betrothed. That was a relationship somewhat similar to the engagements we have today. However, it was a more formal relationship. One that could be ended only by divorce. Which was of course not on the minds of the couple.

I want to say young couple, but the ages of the two are not recorded in the Bible.

According to the customs of that time, Mary was probably in her early teens. Joseph’s age we do not know since sometimes it was older men who got married to first-time brides and other times it was younger men.

However it was, Joseph already had an occupation. He was a carpenter. He was, early in the New Testament, in a binding relationship with Mary.

Again according to the customs of that time in that culture, the betrothal had probably been arranged by the parents of Mary and Joseph. However, knowing they would be married, I think - I hope - they at least liked each other. I hope the liking had or was at least on the way to being love. The Bible makes it clear they at least respected one another.

That was the case as they used the year of betrothal - that length of time was also the custom of the time - to make their plans to be married.

What plans they made is not part of the Biblical record, but I imagine the plans included where they were going to live in Nazareth, how they would handle friendships with others after they were a married couple, how they were going to handle relations with their respective families, maybe how they were going to handle the money earned from Joseph’s carpentry work.

Living in Nazareth, the plans certainly did not include living in luxury. Nazareth was a small town. It was located in the disrespected province of the country, far away from the capital city of Jerusalem. The hope was no doubt that Joseph would earn enough for he and Mary to be comfortable, but that was it. I am sure neither of them planned to be famous. Their hope was for a comfortable, quiet life.

And yes, they probably talked about children - how many they hoped to have, how they would hope to raise them, the comfort any parent would hope to provide for their children.

Like any other couple of that time and any couple today, Mary and Joseph each had hopes for the future. As mentioned, for them it was no doubt for a quiet, comfortable life with family.

That was what Mary and Joseph hoped for. What they planned. Interestingly, God had a different plan for them. For that, let’s turn first today to the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, where Mary is the first one of the couple to learn of God’s plan. God’s hope for her.

We pick up the report in verse 26 of Luke 1.

One day, Mary, while I assume she was doing a normal daytime activity - maybe laundry or perhaps some cooking, cleaning maybe, and no doubt thinking about her future life with Joseph, doing so alone, I think alone - an angel named Gabriel appeared to her.

That must have been a shock, both because the appearance was sudden and because of what Gabriel said. His words began with, “Hail, O favored one, the Lord is with you.” 

Favored? What was so favored about being a young woman in the small town of Nazareth in the disrespected province of Galilee.

The Lord with her. Being part of the Jewish race, of course God was with her. He was with all the Jewish people. But it seemed Gabriel was referring to her being in a special relationship with God. What was that about?

Mary was shocked. “Greatly troubled” is the way it is worded. That caused her to “consider in her mind” - to think about - the greeting Gabriel gave.

Mary just thought about Gabriel’s words. She did not respond to what she heard. But sensing her questions, Gabriel continued. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.”

Mary continued to wonder about Gabriel’s words, this time thinking how she, a young woman in Nazareth of Galilee, could be thought of as having special favor from anyone, except maybe Joseph, but especially from God.

Mary wondered. She was confused That was increased by what Gabriel said next. “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus.”

Remember she and Joseph had no doubt been talking about having a family, so having a son was not earth-shaking news. Except for one thing, which will be addressed in a moment. But having her son already named did not make sense.

And listen to what Gabriel added. 

“Mary, your son will be great and be called the Son of the Most High.” Son of the Most High. The Most High is God. Mary had to have wondered what it meant that her son would be the Son of God.

“He will have the throne of His father David.” A throne of any kind. Really? But the throne of David refers to a religious position. Really?

“He will reign over the house of Jacob.” Really?

“Of His kingdom there will be no end.” What was that supposed to mean since everyone will die sometime?

Mary did not understand any of what Gabriel said.

And there was something else. There was something in Gabriel’s words. Something that would be life-changing for her. Something about how Gabriel said what he said that indicated the conceiving was to happen right away, as in before her betrothal to Joseph became a marriage.

For the first time, Mary spoke. She had a question. “How shall this be since I have no husband?” Purity was very important. She would not have relations with Joseph until they were married, and she was committed to Joseph. She certainly was not going to be with any other man. Mary asked, “How shall this be?” 

Gabriel answered. “Mary, the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

Huh? What was that supposed to mean? Mary did not know, but Gabriel finished his part of the conversation with the explanation that “the child to be born would be called holy. The Son of God.”

Actually, Gabriel added a few more words. Words to explain that what seems impossible to us is possible with God. 

But consider what had just happened. As mentioned, Mary had her life pretty much mapped out. Her life was to be the wife of Joseph, she and he and probably some children leading a quiet life in Nazareth. Comfortable, but nothing stupendous in the eyes of the world. That is what, on the morning of the day recorded in Luke 1, Mary had hoped for.

But suddenly, her plans were changed. At least, it was God’s hope Mary’s plans were changed. God’s hope was that Mary would answer the call to conceive in a supernatural way, then give birth to the Son of God.

Did Mary change her hopes? Yes, she did, displayed in her answer to Gabriel. “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.” She was willing to be the Lord’s servant. That being the case, she added, “Let it be to me according to your word.”

*       *       *       *       *

It strikes me as important that while Mary’s words to Gabriel represented her initial reaction to God’s plan, her willingness to be used by God did not change over time, that represented sometime after her meeting with the angel.

As mentioned, even now no one knows how Mary conceived - how the Holy Spirit came upon her or how God overshadowed her. But it did happen.

Sometime after that, Mary left Nazareth to visit a relative named Elizabeth, who lived in Jerusalem in the southern province of the nation.

As soon as Mary arrived at Elizabeth’s house, Elizabeth knew Mary was pregnant. She knew Mary’s baby was special. She told Mary what she knew.

Listen to how Mary responded, which was with words of confidence. There was no second guessing on Mary’s part. No wondering if her agreement to God’s plan was the right thing to do. Not even any consideration of how she was going to explain her pregnancy when she would return to Nazareth, including to Joseph, who would know he was not the father of the soon-to-be-born baby.

Mary said confidently, “My soul magnifies the Lord. My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

Mary then acknowledged she did not deserve the right to have a part in God’s plan. She knew she was of low estate, socially and economically. But she embraced her place in God’s plan. A place that would result in her being “called blessed” through all generations. 

Mary went on to summarize how great her child was going to be. He would grow up to scatter the proud. He would dethrone the mighty who did not do a good job of ruling. He would send away empty all the rich who misused their wealth. At the same time, He would help the hungry and those in need of mercy.

Mary was willing to change the hopes she had for her life. How good that she chose to follow what God hoped for her. A choosing she was happy about, as expressed to both Gabriel, then Elizabeth.

*       *       *       *       *

Mary stayed with Elizabeth for about three months. It was then time for her to return to Nazareth.

Of course, being a third of the way through her pregnancy, it was starting to become evident Mary was with child, which made her return at least interesting. Probably scary. I do not read Mary’s mood as ever being sorry she had agreed to God’s plan, but what kind of reaction would she receive in Nazareth when she showed up pregnant before she and Joseph were married?

Remember a point made earlier in this message that Mary was alone when Gabriel met with her. That is important because it means she was the only one who had heard the angel’s message from God. We know what she heard was true. She of course knew that as well. But can you imagine Mary telling her family and her friends, “Guess what. I’m pregnant and God did it.”

Such a statement can sound funny, but it was no laughing matter in Nazareth. Standards of purity were very strict. Failure to follow the standards had very dire consequences. Mary could have been kicked out of her parents’ home, and maybe was. She most certainly would have been rejected by the other young women of Nazareth, many of whom, three months earlier, had been her friends. That is what greeted Mary when she returned to Nazareth.

And what about Joseph, the one to whom Mary was betrothed? How would he react, especially since he knew he was not the father of the baby. 

When Joseph saw Mary, he must have wondered if she had been unfaithful to him, either right before she had left for Jerusalem or while in the big city. Or maybe she had been attacked while she had traveled, either by bandits or by Roman soldiers. Such attacks were not unheard of. And just like Mary’s parents and friends would not - could not - have understood some crazy claim “I’m pregnant and God did it,” neither could Joseph be expected to accept such an explanation.

What about Joseph, whose hopes for a comfortable, quiet life with Mary and hopefully children of their own were now gone? What about Joseph?

For that, the first chapter of Matthew.

The passage, which starts with verse 18, begins with the reminder Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but that before they came together, she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit.

Joseph, her “husband…” That was the wording back then. He and Mary were not yet married, but remember the relationship of betrothal was so binding only divorce could end it. In fact, that is what Joseph decided to do. That is how he responded to the changing of his hopes. Joseph, Mary’s “husband, resolved to divorce her.”

But listen. Joseph’s intent was to divorce Mary “quietly.” That is an indication of at least respect, if not love for Mary. It was also a display of compassion. Joseph could have made a public scene. He could even have called for Mary to be stoned because of what everyone assumed had been immoral behavior on her part. That is what Jewish law called for. But he did not want to embarrass Mary or demean her or make life any more difficult than it already would be, her being an unwed mother.

One night, before the divorce proceedings could be started, Joseph had a dream. In the dream, an angel - perhaps Gabriel, who had earlier talked with Mary, but maybe another angel - appeared to Joseph, saying, “Joseph, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for the baby conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.”

Mary may have already mentioned that to Joseph. Maybe hearing it a second time, now from an angel, would have more impact.

The angel continued. Mary would “bear a son.” That is exactly the message Mary had received. “You shall name Him Jesus.” That was the name Mary had been given for her son. But notice the word “you.” “You,” Joseph, will name Mary’s son Jesus. Joseph could not do that unless he stayed with Mary. That was an early part of God’s expectation.

Then, talk about hope. The angel added, “The baby will grow up to save His people from their sins.”

What a bizarre dream Joseph had. How would he respond?

He might have thought, “What a weird dream. Dinner must not have agreed with me. I’ll put that out of my mind.”

Instead, he not only remembered the dream. He did what the angel said in it. He continued the betrothal with Mary. And when it was time for it, he married her, taking her as his wife.

*       *       *       *       *

Interestingly, there is quite a bit more in the Bible about Mary, including some of what she did as Jesus grew up, then had a ministry, then was crucified. As she predicted, she is still called blessed. But there is very little additional mention of Joseph. Yet he and Mary were both willing and able to change their plans - their hopes - to fit God’s hopes for them. For her to give birth to Jesus. For Joseph to give Jesus stability at least in the early years of His earthly life.

Let me give us a challenge.

This Christmas, let’s choose to respond to changes in our hopes. Our dreams and plans if we need to change to match God’s hopes for us. Including when the changes involve disappointments or tough moments or the changes are beyond our comprehension, which was the case for both Mary and Joseph.

Let’s choose to respond the way Mary and Joseph responded, which was acceptance of God’s hopes, knowing that even when difficult, God’s hopes end up being better than we could have ever dreamed. That is certainly the case surrounding Christmas since God’s hope is that we would or will accept Jesus, who is the Savior from sin.

In addition, let’s choose to embrace Jesus, as did Mary and Joseph, knowing that He is the key to everything that is good and important.

Each Sunday of this Advent season, the message will close with a carol that fits the theme of the day. The theme today is “hope.” The carol that has been selected for today is O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.

The hymn represents the hope the Old Testament people of God had for a Savior. For us, the hope is that Jesus will continue to draw more and more people to Him so that others will join those of us who are already Christians in enjoying His benefits.

Benefits such as, in verse 1, relief from being separated from God.

Verse 2. The opportunity to be cheerful, as represented in the dawn of each new day, that referring to the new life people have in Jesus. Having order in our lives. At least spiritual order, that given by the wisdom of Jesus. That is verse 3.

And - verse 4 - unity and peace. How good the end result of faith in Jesus will be - envy, strife, quarrels ending, at least in Heaven.

Let’s sing about the hope of God in Jesus. A hope better than our plans and dreams. And yes, let’s be like Mary and Joseph and accept His hope.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,

And ransom captive Israel,

That mourns in lonely exile here, 

Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, thou Dayspring, 

come and cheer

Our spirits by Thine advent here;

Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, 

And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, thou Wisdom from on high,

And order all things far and nigh;

To us the path of knowledge show,

And cause us in it ways to go.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel!

O come, Desire of nations, bind

All peoples in one heart and mind;

Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease;

Fill the whole earth with Heaven’s peace.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel

Shall come to thee, O Israel!

Lord, thank You that for us, the hope is no longer that You will come. You did come. You  did so over 2000 years ago, that being helped by Mary and Joseph changing their hopes to Your hopes. 

Help us to also fit into Your hopes - Your plans - so that more and more people can and will know Your wonder, Your power, Your love. As that happens, even now, what a wonderful Christmas season it will be. Amen.

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