The Story We Thought We Knew: The Family We Love To Know
Pray with me, please. Give me Jesus, Lord. Give me Jesus. You can have all the rest. Just give me Jesus. Amen.
I choose to call them the first family of our faith, the family we love to know. I refer to Mary and Joseph and the Christ child. But it’s so amazing to me that when we speak of Mary and Joseph, for all of the impact they have made upon our world, we actually know so little about them. For all of the amazing difference they have made in the history of humankind, they are given no space whatever in our history books. All that we know of them is a tiny, intriguing, little slice of their lives. But that little slice does give us, at least, some insight into Mary and Joseph.
Their story is actually a story of great romance. They fell in love, deeply in love. They bound their lives together as one, even against the odds and in the face of tremendous adversity. They shared incredible experiences together.
Their story is also a story of great adventure, long and challenging journeys, angels appearing in the night sky, a bright wandering star, midnight birth in a cold stable, adoring shepherds, worshipful wise men, and then capping it all off, a frantic last-minute escape from death. Ah, but I believe that their story, most of all, is the story of how God hooked the extra on extraordinary.
You see, Mary and Joseph were just ordinary people. There was nothing about them to commend them any more than any other person in Nazareth. And yet when God searched the hills and the valleys of Israel, looking for a couple to whom He could entrust His only Son, He chose young Mary and young Joseph. Why? What was it about them? What was it about their lives, their hearts, their minds, their spirits, their character, their personalities? What was it that led God to select the two of them? I believe the answer can be found in one single word. The word is obedience.
I want us today to take a look at the first family of our faith and to do it as if we were meeting them again for the very first time. And as the story unfolds, at appropriate times, Meliza Gomez is going to lead us in singing a single verse from some of our greatest Christmas carols. Let’s begin here.
Joy to the world. The Lord is come. Let earth receive her King. Let every heart prepare Him room. And heaven and nature sing. And heaven and nature sing. And heaven and heaven and nature sing.
Part one: Mary’s obedience.
Mary, that’s what we call her. That is not what Joseph would have called her. You see, the name Mary is an English version of her original name. Joseph would have called her Miriam.
What did she look like? We have no idea. Artists through the ages have attempted to portray her, most frequently, as a lovely brunette with dark eyes and light olive skin. But the fact of the matter is we simply do not know what she looked like. We do know what her age would have been. She would have been 14 or perhaps 15 years old. Understand, please, in that day and time, women were married early. If a woman was not married by age 17, something was wrong. Most young women were married by age 13 or, at the latest, 14. And so we can safely assume that Mary was 14, maybe 15 years old, certainly much younger than we imagine her to be.
Think of it, here is this very young woman, living in a little out-of-the-way place called Nazareth, and suddenly, her whole world is turned upside down. The Bible says that an angel of the Lord appeared to her. The Bible actually names the angel. His name was Gabriel. And the Bible says that Gabriel appeared to Mary. And the angel must have been covered in a blazing light because the Bible notes that Mary was startled by the angel. So startled, in fact, that Gabriel immediately said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” Now, I want us to focus on that line, “You have found favor with God.” Today, we understand perfectly well what the angel meant by that. Mary would not have understood that at all. And in fact, if she had any understanding, it would have been a troubling understanding. You see, in those days, very frequently, that line, “You have found favor with God,” could well mean that you were going to die or you were going to be sent to some distant land.
Mary would have had no idea what it was that the angel was saying. She would have been terrified, yes, terrified not only by the appearance of the angel but also by the announcement of the angel. And that’s why the angel Gabriel very quickly delivered to her a word of explanation. The angel said to Mary, “You will conceive in your womb, and you will bear a son. You will name Him Jesus. He will be great. And God will give to Him the throne of His ancestor, David, and He will rule over the house of Jacob forever. And of His Kingdom, there will be no end.” Astonishing words. No one in all of history had ever heard anything like that. Certainly, no king, no ruler, no leader had ever had such a sweeping declaration of power, “Of His Kingdom, there will be no end.” Those words must have been overwhelming to young Mary.
And it was then that Mary, so practical—she was just an ordinary young woman, just an ordinary person, just like you, just like me. And she actually said something that we might well have said had we been under similar circumstances. Mary said, “How can this be? I’m still a virgin.” And at that point, the angel Gabriel said to her, “The Holy Spirit of God will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” That Greek word which we translate overshadow literally means to be immersed, submerged. “You will be submerged, immersed in the power of Almighty God.” Once again, a staggering declaration.
How did Mary respond? Amazing. It’s absolutely amazing. I find her response to be among the most moving words in all of the Bible. Mary, young Mary, said in response, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. May it be with me according to Your Word.” She obeyed. She didn’t understand it. She didn’t have any idea what it would all come to mean, but she obeyed the Word of God, grasped the immensity of this moment. Here is God, our great God, the creator of the universe, God who has no physical limitations whatever. Our God suddenly chooses to work through young Mary to take on physical limitations like hands and arms and fingers and toes and eyes and ears and a tongue and a nose. How incredible! And the angel said to Mary, “The child to be born will be holy, and He will be called the Son of God.” What child is this? This, this is Christ the King.
What child is this, who laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping? Whom angels greet with anthems sweet, while shepherds watch are keeping? This, this is Christ the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing. Haste, haste to bring Him laud, the Babe, the Son of Mary.
Part two: Joseph’s obedience.
Joseph. The angel had to do double duty because now Joseph had to be dealt with. Joseph, young Joseph. We know that Joseph probably was 18 years of age, 19 at the latest. But 18 was the customary age at which a young man was married. And so young Joseph, 18 years of age—it’s amazing to me how God so frequently speaks through those who are young. Oh, yes. Once in a while, He delivers some word through those who are older. But when God really wants to say something special to His world and to His people, He almost always chooses someone who is young. Young Joseph. Joseph was young and Joseph was poor. We know that’s true because Joseph was a carpenter, and carpenters in those days were poor. Joseph would have had to scramble to make ends meet. He didn’t have much, but what he did have he was ready to devote to the woman who was the great love of his life, Mary, or Miriam, as he would have called her.
And so he made the decision that he would approach Mary’s father and he would ask his permission for him to make Mary his betrothed, a very important word in that day and in that society. It was official. It was legal. The arrangement was made. The promise was sealed. It was meant to be permanent. It was meant to be for life. Betrothed. And then horror of horrors, Joseph learns that the woman he loves, the woman of his dreams, suddenly is with child. What to do? The Bible says that Joseph was plunged into a terrible agony. He was faced with a choice between two alternatives. One, he could go public with the whole matter. And if he had done that, that would have meant disgrace for Mary, perhaps even death for Mary. Or he could simply choose to divorce her quietly.
He chose that latter alternative, but it was precisely then that the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and said to him, “Do not be afraid, Joseph, for that which is conceived in Mary is of the Holy Spirit.” Think how that might have set his head to spinning. I mean, my word! And yet, somehow, young Joseph somehow was able in his mind and in his heart to put the pieces together so that—well, the Bible puts it so beautifully. It says, “Joseph did what the angel commanded. He took Mary to be his wife.”
He obeyed. It’s as simple as that. If you wish to have a significant life in the Lord, all you have to do is to be obedient to the Word of God. That’s what Joseph did. He obeyed the Word of God which the angel delivered. Listen. Hark! The herald angel sings.
Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King. Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled.” Joyful all ye nations rise. Join the triumph of the skies. With angelic host proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem.” Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King.”
Part three: Adoration.
Mary and Joseph were faced with an incredibly challenging journey from Nazareth down to Bethlehem, not so overwhelming a journey in terms of miles, but overwhelming in terms of circumstance: Joseph on foot, Mary riding on the back of a donkey. It would have taken them five solid days, count them, five solid days to make the trip from Nazareth down to Bethlehem to respond to the Roman census. That would have been tough under any circumstance, but especially when Mary was expecting the birth of a child at any moment. And then when, at last, they reached the little town of Bethlehem, there was no place for them to stay. The Bible says simply, “There was no room for them in the inn.” That’s all it says, but that says it all. And Joseph must have scrambled in order to find some temporary shelter, and he found it in a most unlikely place, a cave stable. It wasn’t much, but it was enough.
And then there must have occurred what was surely an exquisitely lovely moment when young Joseph, strong Joseph, reached out and with his arms grasped the woman he loved and gently lifted her off the back of the donkey and very carefully laid her on a bed of straw. I’ve often wondered what her face must have looked like in the candlelight of that moment, a face drawn with pain but fierce with joy, a face dusty and weary but eyes sparkling. And then I rather imagine that Mary said something to Joseph like this, “Joseph, you have done well. You’ve done your part. Now it’s up to me.” And there in the simplest of locations, the simplest of settings, with only passive animals to watch and to witness, there, there occurred nothing less than the birth of Almighty God in a manger.
Meanwhile, out on the nearby hillsides, shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks. Poor shepherds, understand, please. The shepherds were the poorest of the people in that day. Always they were poor. Always they were social rejects. In fact, when people wanted to make fun of other people, they actually used the shepherds as bait. Or when people wanted to see that they were not on the lowest rung of the social ladder, they would say, “Well, at least I’m not a shepherd.” Oh, yes. The shepherds were the poorest of the poor and the lowest in regard amongst all the people. And yet God came to those poor shepherds. Note this down. God comes not to those who look good but to those who look to Him. God came to those shepherds, and they responded. They said, “Let us go into Bethlehem and see this thing which has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went.
And then there came wise men. If the shepherds were poor, the wise men were rich. We do not know much about them. We do not know how many there were. We do know that they traveled a very long distance in order to see the holy family in Bethlehem. And we know that they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We know something else about them. Somehow they were wise enough to understand who the baby really is because the Bible quotes them as saying, “We have seen His star in the east, and we have come to worship Him.” Worship Him. They had come to worship Him, adore Him. Let us all, rich and poor, young and old, O come, let us all adore Him.
O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant. O come ye, o come ye to Bethlehem. Come and behold Him, born the King of angels. O come, let us adore Him. O come, let us adore Him. O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.
Part four: Acclamation.
I wonder. I wonder if those shepherds and wise men wondered, “Why in the world would God choose to come as He did? Why would He choose to come in a stable, of all places? Why would He choose to appear in an animal’s feeding trough, for Heaven’s sake?” Well, if they didn’t realize it then, we realize it now. You see, He had to come that way so that everyone could see Him.
Think about it. Had He been born in a palace, those poor shepherds would never have been able to lay eyes on Him. He had to come in the lowliest of places so that everyone, from the lowest to the highest, from the highest to lowest, so that everyone could see Him. He came to this ordinary, unpretentious, accessible place so that no one could be or would be prevented from seeing Him. But, you see, that was the whole purpose for the journey. He came from heaven to earth in order to bring the good news of God’s salvation to everyone.
I have to tell you something. You know that journey from heaven to earth? That would have been incredibly hard. Think about it. To leave all the glory of heaven and to humble Himself and to come all the way down to this earth to live with us and like us would have been hard.
But I want you to understand that journey is not over. Jesus has one more trip planned. When He comes again, we will not see Him in humble lowliness. We will see Him in awesome splendor. When He comes again, He will come to take us home, all of us, to take us home, home to the Heavenly Father’s house, home to the glory of heaven, where we shall be reunited with those whom we love who have preceded us into that place of glory. Yes. He will come to take us home, all the way home to the Father’s house. “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 your tender care and fit us, fit us, for heaven to live with Thee there.”
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.
If you have never made your personal commitment in faith to Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord, I invite you to take that step of faith today. If, at some point previously, you’ve made that commitment, but today you wish to rededicate your life to Christ or to become a part of this church, I invite you to take that step. If you wish to have special prayers for yourself or for someone you love, I invite you to take advantage of the spiritual resources waiting for you here. In any case, when the service concludes in just a moment, all you have to do is make your way here to the front. Rick Myers will be here. I will be in the back. In the name of Jesus Christ, we invite you.
Come, let us join hands and look to God in prayer. Now may the living Lord Jesus Christ go with you, may He go above you to watch over you, behind you to encourage you, beside you to befriend you, within you to give you peace, and before you to show you His way, now and forever. Amen.