A Prayer for Christmas: Obedience Of Mary And Joseph
Once upon a time…
There lived in a little town called Nazareth, a young woman named Mary and a young man named Joseph. The only thing we know about them is a tiny, intriguing little slice of their lives.
Their story is a story of great romance—they fell in love. They bound their hearts and lives as one, and they experienced incredible things together. Their story is a story of great adventure: angels appearing in the night sky, long and difficult journeys, bright and wandering stars, midnight births in cold stables, adoring shepherds, worshipful wise men, and, capping it all off, a last minute, frantic escape from death. But, most of all, their story is the story of how God hooked the “extra” on “extraordinary.” You see, Mary and Joseph were just ordinary people. They had nothing more to commend themselves than did any other person in their town of Nazareth. Yet, when God looked up and down the hills and the valleys of Israel for a young couple to whom He could entrust His only Son, He chose young Mary and young Joseph. What was it about their spirits, their hearts, their character, their personality that led God to select the two of them? I think the answer can be found in a single word: obedience.
In these next moments, I want us to look at Mary and Joseph and what happened on the first Christmas, and as we unfold the story, at appropriate times, I want us to sing just a single verse of several of the great carols of Christmas. Let’s begin here.
(“Joy to the World,” first verse)
Part One, Mary’s Obedience
Mary. That’s what we call her. But, that’s not what Joseph would have called her. You see, the name “Mary” is actually an English version of her original name. Joseph would have called her “Miriam.” Now what did she look like? We don’t know. Painters portray her as a beautiful brunette with dark eyes and olive skin, but we really don’t know. She would have been, in all probability, about 14 or 15 years of age. You see, in those days, if a young woman was not married by age 17, then something was wrong. In most instances, young women were married by age 13 or 14, and so, in all probability, Mary, as we call her, was about 14 or 15 years old. She was much younger than we usually imagine her to be.
The Bible tells us that an angel appeared to Mary. The angel’s name was Gabriel. Gabriel’s appearance must have been covered with a blinding light, because, clearly, Mary was startled. So startled, in fact, that the angel immediately said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” I want you to think about those words for a moment: “You have found favor with God.” Let’s remember that we know, today, exactly what the angel had in mind, but at that point in time, Mary would have had no idea what the angel had in mind. In fact, in those days, to be called “favored by God” many times actually meant a death sentence. It could have meant that she was going to be killed, or it could have meant that she was going to be sent off to some distant land. Who knew for certain? Mary certainly didn’t. And so, my guess is that she was terrified—if not by the appearance of the angel, then by the announcement of the angel. But, Gabriel went on to explain, “You will conceive in your womb and bear a Son and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end.”
Try to imagine how Mary would have heard those words. I mean no one had ever had anything like that spoken about him or her in all the history of the world. No king, or ruler, or leader had ever been given such a sweeping declaration of power. “Of His kingdom, there will be no end.” Mary, so practical, asked precisely what most of us would have asked. Remember, Mary was just an ordinary person. Just like you. Just like me. Mary said, “How can this be, 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.” And how did Mary respond? Listen to what she said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to Your Word.” Mary obeyed. She didn’t understand it all. She had no idea what it all might come to mean, but she was obedient to the Word of God.
Grasp the immensity of this moment. God, our great God, who had no physical limitations whatever was choosing to become limited by hands and arms and fingers and toes and eyes and ears and a tongue and a nose. How incredible. The angel said, “The Child to be born will be holy, and He will be called the Son of God.” What Child is this? This is Christ the King.
(“What Child is This,” first verse)
Part Two, Joseph’s Obedience
Joseph. The angel had to do double duty, because, you see, there was also Joseph to contend with. At this point in time, Joseph probably would have been about 18 or 19 years of age. Amazing that God chose those who were so young. To be sure, God does speak through those who are older, but you know, it seems to me that many times when God wants to say something special to the world, He selects those who are young. Joseph was young. Joseph also was poor. We know that because carpenters in those days, and in that place, were poor. Joseph would have had to spend his entire life scrambling to make ends meet. He didn’t have much, but what he did have, he was ready to devote to the great love of his life, Mary—or “Miriam” as he would have called her. He approached Mary’s father, asked if he might have permission to make her his betrothed. That was official; the arrangement was made; the promise was sealed.
Then, horror of horrors, Joseph suddenly learns that this woman he loves, this woman of his dreams, is now with child. Can you imagine how he must have felt? The Bible makes it plain that Joseph had two choices. He could go public with the whole thing—that would have meant for Mary disgrace, or possibly death. Or, the Bible says, he could choose to dismiss her quietly. That’s the choice He made. Ah, but then, the angel came. The angel said to Joseph, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the Child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Can you imagine how that would have set his head to spinning? Yet, somehow, Joseph managed to put the pieces together enough to be able to say… well, the Bible puts it so beautifully, “Joseph did as the angel commanded him. He took her as his wife.” He obeyed. It’s as simple as that. If you want a truly significant life in the Lord, all you have to do is obey. The angel delivered the Word of God to Joseph. Listen. Hark! The herald angel sings.
(“Hark! The Herald Angel Sings,” first verse)
Part Three, Adoration
Mary and Joseph then faced the journey from Nazareth down to Bethlehem. I can imagine that, as they neared Bethlehem, they stopped on the brow of a hill, overlooking that little town. They were bone weary, dog-tired. Mary had been riding on the back of a donkey for five days. That’s right—count them: five days. That’s how long it would have taken to make the journey from Nazareth down to Bethlehem. It would have been tough on anyone, but especially on one expecting the birth of a child at any moment.
When they finally got into the little town of Bethlehem, there was no place for them to stay. The Bible says there was no room for them in the inn. That’s all it says, but that says it all. They managed then to find shelter in a cave stable. It wasn’t much, but it was enough. There, in what must have been an exquisitely tender moment, Joseph reached up, grasped the woman he loved, lifted her down from the donkey, and carefully set her down, on a bed of straw.
I’ve often tried to imagine what her face must have looked like there in the candlelight—drawn with pain, yes, but fierce with joy; dusty and weary, yes, but eyes sparkling. Somehow I think that she looked up at Joseph in that moment and said, “Joseph, you’ve done your part. You’ve finished what you needed to do, now it’s up to me.” And there, in the simplest of settings, with nothing but passive animals present to watch and to witness it all, there occurred the birth of God, in a manger.
Meanwhile, out on hillsides, shepherds tended their flocks—shepherds, poor shepherds. If carpenters were poor, shepherds were poorer still. When people wanted to make fun of other people, they used shepherds as bait. When people wanted to look at the bottom rung of the social ladder, to be sure that they weren’t there, they would say, “Well, at least I’m not a shepherd.” And yet, it was to poor shepherds that the blessed angels came. Note this, dear friends, God comes not to those who look good, but to those who look to Him. He came to poor shepherds and the shepherds responded, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place which the Lord has made known to us.”
And then, there came Wise Men. If shepherds were poor, the Wise Men were rich. We do not know how many of them there were. We do know that they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. We do know that they followed a wandering star for a long, long journey in order to reach the little family in Bethlehem, and we know something else. We know that somehow they were wise enough to understand who the Baby really was, for the Bible quotes them as saying, “For we have seen His star in the East, and have come to adore Him.” Adore Him. O come let us adore Him. Rich and poor, young and old, O come let all of us adore Him.
(“O Come All Ye Faithful,” first verse)
Part Four, Acclamation
I wonder. I wonder if, as those shepherds and Wise Men saw the newborn Child, I wonder if they wondered why in the world would God come to a stable? Why would God appear in an animal’s feeding trough? Well, if no one realized it then, we realize it now. He came that way, so that everyone could see Him. Had He been born in a palace, no lowly shepherd would ever have been able to lay eyes on Him. He had come to the lowest place possible, so that everybody, from the lowest to the highest, from the highest to the lowest, so that everybody could see Him. He came to a place so common, so ordinary, so unpretentious, so accessible that no one could be or would be prevented from seeing Him. That, after all, was the purpose of the journey. That was the purpose for the trip. He came from Heaven to Earth to bring the Good News of God’s salvation to everyone.
But, dear friends, let me tell you—the journey from Heaven to Earth was incredibly hard, yes, but the journey is not over. Jesus has one more trip planned. This time, when He comes, we shall see Him not in humble lowliness, but in awesome splendor. For when He comes, again, He will come to take us home—all the way home. Home, to Heaven. Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay close by me forever, and love me, I pray. Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and fit us for Heaven to live with thee there.
(“Away in a Manger,” last verse)