MARY AND JOSEPH
Once again, Merry Christmas. Though this season is always a hectic one, I trust we are all able to take at least a few moments from time to time to remember what all the decorations and lights and parties should proclaim, which is that 2000 years ago, Jesus came. That He was born among mankind, then lived among people, teaching by word and example how to live in ways that are honoring to God and best for us. Then becoming the perfect sacrifice for sins. A sacrifice that, for all who believe in Him, allows sins to be forgiven, which brings blessings now and the promise of Heaven later. Heaven is where Jesus now is, preparing a place for us.
What a beautiful season this is. A season started here last Sunday when we considered angelic messages associated with Christmas, including a message given to Mary and one given to Joseph. It is their responses to the angelic messages that we will think about in this message.
Let’s begin with Mary.
To quickly review, Mary was a virgin who lived in the city of Nazareth in the province of Galilee. She was betrothed to Joseph. One day, Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel, who had a message for her from God.
The message, recorded in Luke 1, beginning with verse 26, was this. She was favored by God. She was so favored that God had selected her to conceive and give birth to a son, who was to be called Jesus. That all this was to happen before the betrothal became a marriage. That this would occur divinely as the Holy Spirit would come upon her and the power of the Most High would overshadow her. And that her son would be great, authoritative, and have a kingdom that would never end.
Much if not all the message given to Mary made no sense to her, including the parts about her being favored by God and the part about her giving birth to a Savior. What an massive responsibility that would be.
Plus, being pregnant before she was married was bound to create all sorts of problems. How would she ever be able to explain to her family, to her friends, and to Joseph that the conceiving had happened divinely?
What Gabriel told Mary about God’s plan for her did not make sense. What she was asked to do was scary. So how did she respond?
Verse 38. She identified herself as “the handmaid of the Lord,” which means Mary knew her role was to be obedient to whatever her master - to whatever God - told her to do. She added, “Let it be to me according to your word.” According to what Gabriel had told her.
Wow. Talk about being willing to fit into God’s plan. Mary was ready to take on the task - the responsibilities - God had for her.
With Mary’s words, Gabriel’s mission was complete. As soon as she answered, Gabriel left. Not long after that, the Holy Spirit did come upon Mary and the power of the Most High did overshadow her. I do not have a clue how either of those things happened, but they did. The result was that Mary did conceive.
Shortly after that, Mary traveled from Nazareth in the northern province of Galilee to a town near Jerusalem in the southern province of Judea. She went to visit a relative named Elizabeth. Elizabeth was also pregnant. She had conceived six months earlier. Maybe Mary wanted to visit with another woman who had been directly affected by God. Elizabeth’s pregnancy was also God-directed. Mary went to visit Elizabeth.
Upon arriving, Mary greeted Elizabeth. It is recorded that at the sound of Mary’s voice, the baby in Elizabeth leaped. That caused Elizabeth to say more than hi to Mary. She exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you, Mary, among women.”
Elizabeth expressed why Mary was blessed. It was because she had agreed to God’s plan. That she believed there would be a fulfillment of the plan announced by Gabriel.
Elizabeth added, “Blessed is the fruit of your womb,” which was confirmation Mary’s son was not to be an ordinary baby, but someone as great as Gabriel had described.
How did Mary respond to that? She responded by making a number of statements.
First, she said her “soul [magnified] the Lord” and that her “spirit [rejoiced] in God [her] Savior.” Her whole being was happy that she had been chosen by God to give birth to the Son of the Most High.
Second, Mary admitted her low estate. Her low position in the world, which was accurate. She was young and she did live in a small city in the northern province of the homeland, far away from the importance of the capital city of Jerusalem.
By admitting her low position, Mary expressed that she did not feel worthy of being chosen by God to give birth to the one who would have a kingdom that would never end.
But then she praised God for being mighty. Might shown, not only by exalting her, but also, she said, by “humbling those who were powerful.” Maybe that referred to other women being much more important, but not having the honor Mary was given. Maybe it referred to those who misused their power. But Mary proclaimed that God humbles those who are proud.
That was how Mary responded to God’s call on her life. Discussions of which no doubt continued for as long as Mary stayed with Elizabeth, which was three months, at which time Elizabeth’s due date approached, meaning it was time for Mary to return home.
By which time, Mary’s pregnancy was visible for all to see. When she had left, the conceiving had just happened. Now, three months later, the pregnancy was visible for all to see. Including her family, who might have been angry. Including her friends, who must have laughed and giggled or frowned and rejected her, at least behind her back. Including the city’s religious leaders, who no doubt openly scorned her. Including Joseph, to whom Mary was still betrothed.
Mary was pregnant. Upon her return from her visit to Elizabeth, that was evident. Anger, laughter, scorn, rejection were likely what Mary faced.
What about the response of Joseph?
By the way, I found a recent devotional in Our Daily Bread intriguing. It includes the teaching to be careful what we say. I think it can be made to fit into this message.
The author is a husband who tells of a time he was upset with his wife. They were traveling and had planned to spend the last evening of their trip at a very famous restaurant before catching a plane for home.
Unfortunately, they could not find the restaurant. They spent so much time looking that even if they did find it, which I do not think they ever did, they would not have had time to eat and make it to the airport on time.
What did the husband do? He berated his wife for failing to check the directions to the famous restaurant. He forcefully criticized his wife’s poor planning.
Later, he regretted his words. First, he had been too harsh. Second, he realized that he could have got directions himself. Third, his wife had perfectly planned the other seven days of the trip.
The man was sorry for his words of anger and frustration, which brings to mind the teaching to watch our words. To control our words so we do not say things we probably do not mean and will very likely regret later.
In a much more serious set of circumstances, think of Joseph. Three months earlier, he might have thought it strange that Mary had gone to visit Elizabeth, especially since she was gone for three months. He might have thought it strange, but at the time she left, there was certainly no indication something divine had happened to the one he planned to take as his wife.
Now, Mary returned. It was evident she was pregnant. Imagine Joseph’s shock. He had not been with Mary before she had left. She had been gone three months. Apparently right after she had left, she had been unfaithful to him and been intimate with someone else. Or maybe a Roman soldier had taken advantage of her, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy.
Either way, Mary’s baby was not Joseph’s baby. How could he be expected to marry someone already pregnant with a baby who was not his?
All of which he could have put into words more cruel than the ones used by the husband in the story a moment ago. He could have accused Mary of being immoral, doing so in a nasty way. He could have shamed her for being unfaithful. He could have said she was not worthy of anyone loving her, including him. He could have called her all sorts of names. Or he could have berated her for not being more careful when Roman soldiers were near. He could have said that any hopes she had of ever having a good life with anyone, including him, were over.
Joseph could have said any or all those things and no one would have blamed him. However, he said none of those things. He did decide to divorce Mary, which would end their betrothal. Their relationship would be over, which would, a few months later, leave Mary an unwed mother. But the decision was to divorce her quietly so as to avoid public shame at that time.
When the decision to divorce Mary was made, Joseph fell asleep. While he slept, he had a dream, in which an angel of the Lord appeared to him, giving him a message from God. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the baby she is carrying was conceived by the Holy Spirit. The baby will be a boy. You shall call Him Jesus. He will grow up to save His people from their sins,” His people being those who would accept Him as the Savior.
After the dream, Joseph woke up, whereupon he must have been bothered by the dream he had just had. Joseph was a poor man from the small city of Nazareth in Galilee, the disrespected part of the Jewish homeland. And that part of the dream about Mary’s baby being conceived by the Holy Spirit. What did that mean? And the baby was going to save people? What did Joseph know about raising someone that important.
Joseph must have had some misgivings. However, right away he responded to the task God had for him
His response. It was not in words, as it had been with Mary. Joseph’s response was by his actions. He did as the angel commanded him. He stayed with Mary, continuing their betrothal, eventually marrying her, but keeping her pure until after the baby was born. He further completed the mission by naming the baby Jesus.
What wonderful examples of obedience Mary and Joseph are. They did not understand all that God had messaged to them. They did not consider themselves worthy of what God wanted them to do. There must have been some fear about the awesomeness of raising the Savior. What a weighty responsibility that would be.
I wonder if Mary and Joseph sensed life as they knew it would end. That their plans for a nice, quiet marriage would not happen. Even if they did, Mary and then Joseph agreed to God’s plan. Six months later - six months after Mary returned from her visit to Elizabeth - Jesus was born.
Tune in next week to hear how a group of shepherds responded to a message from God given to them in another angelic announcement - an announcement given to them the night Jesus was born. For now, though, another story, this one encouraging us to stay joyful about Jesus’ birth.
A mother shares she was filled with Christmas spirit as she lugged tub after tub of decorations down her attic stairs one December afternoon. Her two youngest children began ripping off the lids to see what was inside.
Before leaving the room to do a pressing chore, she instructed the children to look, but to not take anything out of any tub until she announced they were ready to use it. Her plan was to trim the tree and decorate the house in an orderly, logical manner, one step at a time.
When the mother returned from her chore, she discovered her children had different plans. All the tubs were empty, contents scattered across the carpet. The mother describes the scene as looking like a fully-loaded Christmas tree had exploded.
“Just look at this mess,” she scolded. And hey, no criticism from me. I, too, like things orderly and logical. Nor do I approve of misbehavior.
But listen to the answer of one of the children. “Yes, but Mommy, isn’t it wonderful? It’s a Christmas mess.”
The mother looked at the child’s wonder-filled eyes. She then thought back to the first Christmas. The city of Bethlehem must have been a big mess that night with crowds coming to register for the census. Joseph and Mary were in a mess when they found that all the inns were full. And giving birth in a stable sounds like a messy situation, to say the least.
But in the midst of all that mess, a plan older than time itself began to unfold. God had looked down at a world messed up by sin and knew what was needed, that being a Savior. The Creator Himself physically entered our world through the supernatural birth of a tiny baby in a humble stable.
That is the story, but two thousand years have passed since the night of Jesus’ birth. Unfortunately, it is still easy to make a mess of things, sometimes even with our words, as was the case in the story of the couple traveling together. It is still easy to cause suffering for others and for others to cause us to suffer.
But things can get better and we can do better if we will accept and worship the one whose birth we celebrate this season. The one who grew up to be our sacrifice from sin.
Back to the mother’s words. Sometimes it takes the innocent wonder of a child to give us a fresh view of Christmas and point us toward what is really important. The mother needed the reminder that it is not a beautifully decorated tree or an immaculately-clean house or parties or dinners that go off without a hitch or shopping until we drop. While each of those things might be important, we truly experience Christmas when we look past the messes in our lives, gaze at the Child in the manger, and recognize Him as the One who was called great even before His birth.
Putting all today’s message together, is God telling you a plan He has for you? A plan that does not make sense? A plan that is maybe scary? Do you feel unworthy of God’s plan, perhaps because of some mess you are in or maybe a mess you yourself have created.
If nothing else, His plan is for you to accept Jesus and worship Him and serve Him. Know that there is one who is stronger than all your messes. Stronger than any of your fears. That one is Jesus.
Even today, make sure you have responded by accepting Jesus as the great one. The Savior. If you have not done that, do so. Like Mary and like Joseph, you will be blessed for your obedience. Blessed now and always.
The closing carol for today is Emmanuel, which is one way an angel described Jesus to Joseph. Emmanuel - God with us.
His name is called Emmanuel;
God with us, revealed in us;
His name is called Emmanuel.
Lord, thank You for how Mary and Joseph responded to Your plans for them. What wonderful examples they are, even today.
Whatever plans You have for us, help us to also be obedient, including to Your plan that we accept You and then tell others about You and the peace You have available. Hopefully peace with others, but definitely peace with Go.
Thank You for coming to be our Savior. Help us to accept that fact. Help any who do not already know You to give You the only Christmas present You want, which is their hearts.
Merry Christmas, Lord. Amen.