Christmas 2002 Message (6 P.M.)
Christmas is a time for telling stories. Tonight, I want to tell you the best Christmas story of them all. Once upon a time, there was a young girl named Mary and a young man named Joseph. We know so little about them. Just a tiny, little slice of their lives. It’s amazing when I stop to think about it; they were just ordinary people. It’s so amazing to think what God did through the two of them. This is their story.
Once upon a time, their story is a story of a great romance. They fell in love. They bonded their lives for better or for worse, as the saying goes. And they had some of both. They experienced incredible things together. Their story is a story of great adventure: a long, difficult journey; angels appearing in the night sky, a bright wandering star, midnight birth in cold stables; adoring shepherds, worshipping wise men. And then a last minute frantic escape from death – great adventure. Their story is also the story of how God hooked the extra on extraordinary. They weren’t just ordinary people. I mean, when God looked up and down the hills and the valleys of Nazareth, in order to choose a couple to whom He would entrust His only Son, what was it about the two of them that led Him to choose young Mary and young Joseph?
I think I know the answer. The answer is a single word, obedience. And so the story of Mary and Joseph is the story of obedience. As we unfold their story, I want us to sing at appropriate times, a single verse from some of the great Christmas carols to help us tell this, the best Christmas story of them all. Let’s begin right here.
Mary: that’s what we call her. That word Mary is actually an English version of her Hebrew name. Joseph would have called her Myriam, not Mary. Myriam. I wondered what she looked like. Artists portray her as a beautiful brunette with dark eyes and olive skin, but we don’t know for sure. What we do know is her approximate age: she was 14 or 15 years old. Amazing. You see, in those days, unless a young woman was married by age 17, then something was terribly wrong. Most of the young women were married by age 13 or 14, so I think we can logically assume that Mary was age 14 or 15. In any case, she was much younger than we usually imagine.
The story tells us that an angel of the Lord appeared to Mary. Now the appearance of that angel must have been blinding with light because the Bible tells us that Mary was startled. So startled, in fact, that the angel immediately said, “Do not be afraid, Mary. For you have found favor with God.” I want you to think about that phrase for a moment. “You have found favor with God.” Today, of course, we know what the angel had in mind but Mary at that point in time would not have known. You see, that phrase was frequently used in the pagan religions of that day to designate those who were going to be sacrificed to those pagan gods. They were said to have found favor with that god. And so there is a sense in which Mary might well have thought that the angel’s words would constitute a death sentence for her. Little wonder she was terrified, if not by the appearance of the angel, then by the announcement of the angel.
But the angel said, “Do not be afraid. The child conceived within you is of the Holy Spirit of God. You will bear a son and you will call His name Jesus. And He will be great. And of His Kingdom there will be no end.” Amazing, isn’t it? Do you realize that no one else in all of history has ever had anything like that said? No king, no ruler, no leader has ever heard such a sweeping declaration of power: of His Kingdom, there will be no end.
Now Mary, practical Mary. Remember she is ordinary, she’s just like you, she’s just like me. Mary asked the question that all of us would have asked: “Well, how can this be since I am a virgin?” And the angel responded, the angel said, “The power of God will overshadow you.” And at that point Mary said – and I want you to hear this – Mary said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.” Do you hear? Mary obeyed. She didn’t understand it all. She had no idea what ultimately it would all mean, but she obeyed the word of the Lord. And the angel said to her, “You shall call His name Jesus. And He will be the Son of God.” What child is this really? This, this is Christ the King.
Joseph. Young, strong, carpenter, Joseph. Joseph was young like Mary. Not quite as young. Joseph probably was 18 or 19 years old. Always, then, the husband was just a few years older than the wife. But Joseph was poor. We know that because we’re told that Joseph was a carpenter. And in those days and at that place, carpenters were always poor. In fact, Joseph would’ve spent his entire life scrambling to make ends meet; it was a struggle. He didn’t have much, but what he did have he was ready to devote to the woman he loved most in the world. Mary, we call her. Myriam, he would have called her. And so he approached her father. He asked for permission to take her hand in betrothal, that was official. The engagement was formed, the announcement was made, the promise was sealed. It was done. And then horror of horrors, Joseph discovered that the woman he loved, the woman of his dreams, was with child. Can you imagine how he must have felt? His mind must have been swirling.
The story tells us that at that point he had a choice: he could choose to go public with the whole affair. And that would have meant for Mary, at least, at best disgrace, at worst death. His other choice was to quietly dismiss her and divorce her. This good and decent man could not bring hurt upon the woman he loved. And so that second choice was the choice he made. But then, wonder of wonders, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and the angel said to Joseph, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the Child conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.”
Now can you imagine what he thought at that point? I mean, young, simple, unsophisticated Joseph. Yet somehow he managed to put the pieces together enough to be able to – well, the story says it so beautifully. Joseph did what the angel commanded, he took Mary 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 to obey: to obey God’s teachings; to obey God’s commands; to obey God’s will; to obey God’s leading; to obey God’s word. That’s what Joseph did. He obeyed; he was obedient to the word of God. And it was the angel of the Lord who delivered the word of God to him. Listen, hark the herald angels sing.
Joseph and Mary took the long journey from Bethlehem – from Nazareth down to Bethlehem. It was a long journey, make no mistake about that. It was not an easy journey under any circumstances, but Mary was 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 travel from Nazareth down to Bethlehem. A tough journey for anyone, but especially for one expecting the birth of a child at any moment. I rather imagine that – as they crested the hill and saw the little town of Bethlehem in the distance – I rather imagine that exhaustion was what they were feeling and they could barely wait to arrive at their destination.
And yet the story tells us that when they did arrive in Bethlehem, there was no place for them to stay. It says, “There was no room for them in the inn.” That’s all it says, but that says it all. Well, they did manage at that point to find some shelter in a cave stable. It was a simple place. There were some animals there. Not much else. I’ve often wondered what it must have been like for Joseph. I rather suspect that he reached up and he grasped this woman that he loved and lifted her, exhausted as she was, from the donkey and placed her on her bed of straw. And I’ve often wondered what her face must have looked like, lined with pain, yes, but fierce with joy. Dusty and weary, yes, but eyes afire with light. And then the incredible moment. No one there except simple animals to watch and to witness it all. There occurred the birth of God in a manger.
The story tells us that shepherds were out in the fields watching over their flocks. Shepherds, poor shepherds. Shepherds were always poor in those days. In fact, they were the poorest among the poor. Shepherds, in fact, were so looked down upon by the people of that day that when someone wanted to make a joke about someone else to put them down, they always used shepherds as part of the joke. When people looked at the bottom of the social ladder, to be sure that they weren’t on it, they always said, “Well, at least I’m not a shepherd.” Shepherds were poor, the poorest of the poor. Yet the angel appeared to the shepherds. I want you to note this down and not ever forget it: God comes not to those who look good, but to those who look for Him.
God came to the shepherds. And the shepherds said, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” Shepherds were there. And there were wise men there as well. Wise men. The shepherds were poor but the wise men, they were rich. There are three of them. We have no idea, actually, how many they were. We say three because we say that they brought three gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh – but we do not know for sure. What we do know is this: that they traveled a long, long way in order to reach the little family in Bethlehem. And we know something else. We know that apparently, they were wise enough to understand who the baby really was. For the story tells us, quoting them, “We have seen His star in the east and we have come to pay homage to Him, to worship Him, to adore Him.” Oh, come let us adore Him. Rich and poor, young and old, shepherd and wise men. Oh, come let all of us adore Him.
I wonder if as the shepherds and the wise men saw the newborn baby, I wonder if they wondered, why in the world would God come to a stable? Why would God appear in a manger? Well, if they didn’t realize it then, we realize it now. God came there so that everyone could see Him. Do you realize that if God had come to a palace, those poor shepherds would never have been able to see Him? He had to come to a place so low that even shepherds could see Him. He came to a place that was so common, so ordinary, so accessible that everybody – everybody from the lowest to the highest, from the highest to the lowest – everybody could see Him.
And, of course, that’s the reason for the journey, the journey He made from Heaven to Earth. He came to tell everyone about the salvation of God. Well, that’s the best Christmas story of them all. But the story is not over. The journey that Jesus made from Heaven to Earth was incredibly hard, yes. But there is more to the journey; Jesus has one more trip planned. When He comes again, we will see Him not in humble lowliness, but in awesome splendor. Because when He comes again, He is coming to take us home. Home. All the way home. Home to Heaven, where we shall live happily ever after with Him. “Be near me Lord Jesus, / I ask you 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.”