THE FACES AND PLACES OF CHRISTMAS: Nazareth And The Holy Parents
Nazareth was not much of a place.
It is not mentioned a single time in the Old Testament. Most people believed that when the Messiah came, He would live in one of David’s cities—either David’s birthplace in Bethlehem or his capital in Jerusalem. Certainly no one would have sought the Messiah in tiny Nazareth, a struggling hamlet no one had heard of out in the middle of nowhere. Furthermore, the town was in Galilee and the very name Galilee suggested a heavy Gentile population. (“Galil ha goyim”—the Hebrew name for Galilee which means “the land of the Gentiles”) Hard to imagine a more unlikely or more ignominious place to find the Messiah.
However, it is worth remembering that the Old Testament prophets had predicted that the Messiah would be so ordinary and His arrival so inconspicuous that many people would miss Him. Nazareth was such a frightfully ordinary and inconspicuous place that it did not appear on the maps of the day and most people were not even aware of its existence. Prophecy fulfilled. Also, the prophets had foreseen that the Messiah would be scorned and ridiculed. Popular contempt for Nazareth was such that the people who knew the place said that nothing good could ever come from Nazareth. And even to be called a “Nazarene” was to suffer an insult, a slur, an epithet. Prophecy fulfilled.
Peter the Great, the Czar of all the Russias periodically would lay aside his royal robes and don peasant garb, enabling him to enter the marketplace and mingle with the masses, unrecognized. There he could listen to his subjects, feel their need, sense their mood, know their longings. King incognito. Christmas declares that God the King was able to come down to this earth wrapped in the ordinariness of a place called Nazareth and grow to manhood among the simple, ordinary people of that day. God incarnate. King incognito, growing up in a little place called Nazareth under the watchcare of earthly parents, Mary and Joseph.
Do you ever wonder why it was that God chose Mary and Joseph to be the earthly parents of His only Son? It’s a fascinating thing to ponder that. Therefore, for these next few minutes, I want us to look at each of the Holy parents—and the home they provided for the Messiah in Nazareth.
First, look with me at Mary.
The field of psychology has taught us much about the influence a mother has on her children. To a large degree, we can say that children reflect their mothers. The ancient Jewish Talmud put it in an interesting way: “God could not be everywhere so He made mothers.” God knows all about psychology—after all, He invented it. So God clearly understood the influence that Jesus’ earthly mother was going to have on Him—and God chose Mary. I think He did it for good reason. I think He wanted Jesus to be nurtured and taught by an ordinary woman who possessed an extraordinary faith.
We delude ourselves if we think for one moment that Mary’s life experience in Nazareth was all sweetness and light—it wasn’t. She was living on a blood-stained piece of real estate called Palestine and it was just as bloody then as it is now. Roman occupation meant injustice to Jews—and Mary was a Jew. The insatiable greed of tax gatherers meant poverty for others—and Mary was one of the “others”. Guerilla bands hid out in the Nazareth hills fighting for freedom from Rome, causing ordinary citizens to live under constant tension—and Mary may well have had kinsmen or friends who lost their lives in that quest for political liberty. So Mary knew what it was to be at the bottom of the heap, used, abused or misused, by a relentless, impersonal power. Mary knew what it was to scrap to make ends meet, to work long and hard just to put food on the table. She knew what it was to live in threatening circumstances and uncertain times. Think of it then: here was this ordinary young woman, probably in her mid to late teens, from a poor family, in an obscure village and suddenly one day, as Matthew puts it: “She was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”
Now be honest: Would you have believed that? The remarkable thing is that Mary did believe it. She didn’t have to be convinced or cajoled. She didn’t demand proof. She didn’t clamor for answers to her questions. She just believed. She was willing to trust God, even though it placed her in an awkward, difficult, complicated, and dangerous position. She was an ordinary young woman, yes, but she possessed an extraordinary faith. She was tuned-in to God. She was open to God’s leading in her life. She was listening with the ears of faith to anything God might way to her at any time. And thus, she was able to hear God’s message and respond. She was just an ordinary woman, but God chose her, I believe, because she was always alert to what God wanted to do in and through her life.
Let me share with you a true story told by Michael King about an incident which happened in, of all places, the “Red Light District” of Amsterdam. In that notorious place, women advertise the selling of their bodies by displaying themselves in picture windows in front of various parlors of perversion. A particularly attractive woman was in business on that street and was displayed in one of the windows. One day a man came by, stood in front of her and gazed up into her face. He was nicely dressed. He was carrying a book in his hand. She went through the motions of her trade, but nothing she did drew any response from him. He just kept looking at her eyes. Then he walked away. The next day he returned—and the next—and the next. Always the same thing happened. He stood there, a book in his hand, looking at her face. She was a bit apprehensive about him, and yet she found herself somehow drawn to him because he did not look at her the way other men did. Then one day, as he stood looking up into her face, for the first time she looked back into his eyes. His eyes disarmed her. His eyes seemed to say, “what a waste”, but his eyes also said much more. In fact, as she looked into his eyes, suddenly she began to see what he saw in her. She saw faith and hope. She saw the woman she could have been and still might be—the woman who once longed to love and be loved and might again. The experience hit her so hard that her eyes welled up with tears. His eyes then grew luminous in response to the tears that were trickling down her cheeks. He smiled softly and then he was gone. The next day he returned, but the chair in the window was empty. He felt a touch at his arm. He turned. It was the woman from the window. She looked down and saw that the book he carried was a Bible. Then she looked up into his face. She couldn’t say a word. All she could do was offer thanks with the only thing she had—a simple embrace from her heart. With that she turned and walked away forever from her sordid life on the streets of Amsterdam. Why? It was because she had encountered someone who saw in her all that she could be and it changed her life.
That’s exactly what happened to Mary. She encountered the God who saw in her all that she could be and it changed her life. At Christmas we encounter the same God—the God who through Jesus Christ tells us and shows us all that we can be. Sure, we’re just ordinary people, but Christmas calls us to an extraordinary faith. Mary was just an ordinary young woman living in an ordinary, little place. However, her faith enabled her to hear God’s voice and sense God’s leading in her life—and as a result, some extraordinary things happened in and through her life. May we do the same.
Now look with me at Joseph.
It is no accident that as Jesus engaged in His preaching and teaching ministry, when He wanted to say the best and highest thing He could say about God, He said: “God is like a loving and understanding father.” Now is it not reasonable to assume that what Jesus learned about being a father, He learned from Joseph? Reach back into your mind and recall the cliches: “A twig grows in the direction it is bent”…“the apple does not fall far from the tree.” The words remind us of the relationship Jesus must have had with Joseph, and something about that relationship moved Jesus then to refer to God as “Father”. No other faith system has ever described God in such personal and intimate terms. Jesus called God “Abba, Father, Daddy.” Where else would Jesus have learned that if not from Joseph? How it must have been. Jesus as a little boy would crowd His way into the carpenter’s shop and Joseph would always stop what he was doing to talk a spell about whatever the boy wanted to talk about, or to help Him with His own woodworking project, or to pick Him up and playfully roll Him in the piles of soft sawdust until the bits of wood mingled with His dark Jewish curls. Was it this ready access to Joseph’s shop and Joseph’s attention which led Jesus later on to say: “Never prohibit a child from coming to me”?
Did they go for long walks in the fields around Nazareth, stopping occasionally to pick flowers for Mary? Was it then that the seed was planted in Jesus’ mind which later moved Him to say: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow…even Solomon in all of his glory was not arrayed like one of these”? As they walked together, did Joseph tell the boy how they had escaped Herod’s armies by taking that long, demanding, hazardous sojourn in Egypt? Was it then that Jesus began to tie into the concept of fatherhood the noble virtues of courage and bravery?
As they climbed higher into the nearby hills and came to places where flowing streams turned that desert-like place to lush green, was it then that Jesus began to imagine what it would be like to have streams of living water welling up from within?
Reaching the summit where they could see the caravan routes stretching out in all directions toward the horizon, was it then that Jesus began to mull in His mind the idea which later He would put into words: “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations…”?
The lovely tenderness which Jesus saw Joseph give to Mary, a tenderness which began even before the birth of Jesus—was that what led the Master to exalt womankind to the highest level possible, a level never known before or since?
When Jesus spoke of talents—both money and ability—and the way we are to use them, were His thoughts shaped by the fact that He had seen Joseph develop his carpenter’s skills to virtual perfection, and that He had watched Joseph pour everything of which he was capable into everything that he did? And was it Jesus’ appreciation for Joseph’s work that led Jesus later to say so beautifully, “Take My yoke upon you, for My yoke is easy and My burden is light”?
You see, I believe that Joseph gave a lot to Jesus, but best of all was the love of a father. It wasn’t easy. Nothing about it was easy. From beginning to end it was not easy. But God never said that it would be easy. I know. There’s a false Gospel being preached in the church today that says: “Be born again and God will put you in clover and on easy street. Be born again and God will heal all your ills and pay all your bills.” I don’t know where that came from. It didn’t come from the New Testament. And it certainly didn’t come from looking at the life of Joseph. In fact, what Joseph got was more problems, more confusion, and more frustration than he could handle. But you know what else he got? He got a face-to-face encounter with the Son of God. And that’s the same promise made to us—that someday we, too, will stand face-to-face with the Son of God. And I want you to know that Joseph would do it all again in a heartbeat to hold that Heavenly Toddler in His arms.
Here then is the greatest Christmas gift of all: God so loved that He gave His only Son. Joseph, the simple, unsophisticated carpenter of Nazareth, somehow understood that. Joseph took God’s Son into his home in Nazareth, thus providing Jesus with a normal, loving family environment in which to grow. Joseph took God’s Son into his heart, thus discovering a purpose for his life within the greater purposes of God. May we do the same.
No matter how worthless or hopeless or insignificant or unimportant we may feel, the message of Christmas is that we are of infinite value to God. We are the objects of His seeking, saving love. He comes to us in the form of Jesus, who was born to Mary and Joseph, and who lived and grew in Nazareth, only to die on Calvary in order that you and I might have life. Mary and Joseph took Jesus into their home and into their heart.
May we do the same.