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Gospels

John 21:17

The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."

Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."

December 31, 2006

Adventures with Mary and Joseph

I love reading stories about churches. I like seeing what churches are up to, what they might be doing differently from churches I'm familiar with. I like to get ideas from them and to rejoice over things they are doing.

But sometimes I find myself shaking my head instead.

In the last month I read about a huge church that has grown from 40 people to more than 10,000 in just six years. The pastor is treated like a pop star, is dressed to the nines and drives an 06 Bentley among his other luxury cars. He's sought after around the world and is on the road for speaking engagements every week. He has plans in the works to start his own clothing line. His congregation views him as a role model; he preaches that God wants them to be wealthy, just like he is. That is what the life of people who are following God should look like.

A lot of churches out there focus on prosperity. Some of them have national reputations and TV ministries. They are very attractive—they are some of the largest churches around. Their pastors are best-selling authors, and household names.

But what they preach about the benefits of following Jesus does not fit the pattern of what we see in the lives of God's servants in the Bible. In Scripture, there's something else going on in the lives of people who God favors.

*****

Scripture shows us that those who choose to follow and obey God are not showered with an easy, happy life and material blessings.   Now don't get me wrong—there are benefits to following Christ. One, of course, is that our sins are forgiven and we can have a relationship with God that continues after we die. But another is that God gives us the privilege of participating with him in giving life to the world. This leads to a life with some incredible high points, yes—but it is also a life in which there are costs and sacrifices to bear.

That is why throughout Scripture, when you read about God or his angels interacting with his servants, you frequently find them saying, “Do not be afraid,” or “I am with you.” God means both that they should not be afraid of the encounter with him, and that they should not be afraid of what they will experience in his service. He will be there to guide and enable them as they follow him.

So—what does the Bible tell us about what we can we expect when we choose to follow and obey? Let's take a look at what Mary and Joseph experienced in the early going.

*****

The Annunciation: Luke 1:26–38

Imagine it's about 2,000 years ago and you're a teenage Jewish girl somewhere between 12 and 16. You live in a small rural town, your family is of modest means. They arranged your marriage a short time ago, and you're in a mandated year of waiting between your engagement and your wedding day. (Back then, in Jewish culture both men and women married young to avoid temptation. Girls were married in early puberty; men married around age 18.) Legally, when you are engaged you are already married, and you can call your fiancée your husband. But you are expected to keep apart from each other during this year. And being from a devout family, you're willingly following all the rules.

You're just an ordinary girl. Everything is absolutely normal in your life. Until the day the angel tracks you down.

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God…”

Then Gabriel proceeds to tell Mary some of what God would like to do, with her cooperation. He doesn't go into the whole thing about what Jesus' life will be like. There's such a thing as too much information all at once.

It's enough to blow Mary's mind with the first part of it, that she has been chosen to bear God's own child, as a virgin. And to tell her that this special child will be given David's throne, basically, forever.

Mary, understandably, doesn't get the conception part of it. But Gabriel explains it to her, and also lets her know that her much older relative, who was childless, is now in her sixth month of pregnancy. And he ends by saying, basically, don't worry about the how.

“…For nothing is impossible with God.”
“I am the Lord's servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.”

Wow. Talk about being open to whatever God has in store for you even if you don't know where this is all headed. And talk about God being willing to take a chance on his end.

This story is very typical of how God works with us. No, not the virginal conception part. Obviously that was a once-in-history kind of thing. The part about God waiting for Mary's consent, her freely chosen obedience, before he went any further with his plan for her life. God does want to work with us in remaking his world. But he never imposes his will on us.

In this encounter, Gabriel told Mary that the Lord was pleased with her. That God would be with her. That God was blessing her. And that what God says will happen, will happen.

But Gabriel also said, “Do not be afraid.”

What did she have to be afraid of? Besides the fear she might have had about the angel himself, her immediate concern must have been for how she was going to be perceived. In Jewish culture, the corruption of a daughter's virginity shamed her father, especially if she were engaged at the time. There were only two conclusions people would come to, and neither of them were good. It was either Joseph's child—or it wasn't. In either case, Mary's reputation and her relationship with her family were about to be tested.

This is something to think about. Gabriel told Mary that she had been chosen— favored —by God. But what a strange blessing! Having a child out of wedlock, having to endure other people's attitudes, shaming your family? This is how God treats people he favors? Sometimes, yes. Mary learned that there were immediate consequences associated with obeying God. And one of these was that she had to learn to be secure in what God said he was doing in her life, no matter what other people thought.

Joseph's dream      Matthew 1:18–24

Some time passes. Mary indeed becomes pregnant. She starts to show. The word gets out. And across town, Mary's fiancée is having a rough time with all of this.

[Jesus'] mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

Imagine you are Joseph, probably about 18 years old. This woman—legally your wife!—is  having another man's child! She had seemed so obedient, so devout. He thought she'd been looking forward to the marriage… but now this! Joseph was stunned and no doubt felt betrayed. How did Joseph most likely find out about the pregnancy? Probably the word had gotten around.

He did not have the option of giving Mary a second chance, even if he wanted to. Jewish law demanded that a man divorce his wife if she were guilty of adultery, and that he charge her immediately after discovering this was so.

But Joseph did have another choice. He could marry Mary anyway, and take her shame upon himself. Everyone would assume that he was the father—because otherwise he would have divorced her. So to go through with the marriage was to wave goodbye to his reputation in the community.

Joseph struggled. At this point, he had to assume Mary had been unfaithful to him. Why should he go out of his way for her? He was not inclined to marry her.

Now, Scripture tells us Joseph was a righteous man. Within the system, he had to do what was required by law— divorce Mary. But there were ways, and there were ways. Despite the betrayal, Joseph did not want to respond in kind. That's one of the marks of a righteous person. He wanted to divorce Mary with the least harmful consequences to her. Divorcing her “privately” meant he would do it in the quietest way possible—in front of the fewest amount of people the law allowed (two witnesses), not in front of the whole town. Matthew continues…

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins…”

Matthew then lets the reader know that this virginal conception fulfills prophecy found in the book of Isaiah. And he concludes:

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.

When God reveals the truth to Joseph, he believes it immediately and acts to obey God's will. Joseph apparently married Mary right after his dream, minimizing her shame.

“Do not be afraid,” the angel said to Joseph. What did Joseph have to be afraid of?

Joseph would pay a personal cost for marrying Mary. Because the angel had spoken only to him, other people would think that he had gotten Mary pregnant before the wedding. He would be an object of shame in a society that was dominated by the value of honor. From Joseph we can learn about fidelity, discipline and preferring God's honor above our own. Here is a man who, when God tells him something, believes it and immediately takes action to obey, even though there's a cost to himself. Joseph's obedience to God cost him the right to value his own reputation.

Jesus' dedication in the Temple     Luke 2:22–35

Angels had told both Mary and Joseph, “do not be afraid,” as they began their journeys of obedience to God's will. Most likely they had been gossiped about in their town. Most likely both sets of families had reproached them for their lack of restraint. In due time, and after a long (70 mile) journey south to Bethlehem in Mary's ninth month, Jesus is born. Now Mary and Joseph are about to learn a little more of what they are in for.

When the time came for the purification rites required by the Law of Moses, Joseph and Mary took him to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male is to be consecrated to the Lord”) and to offer a sacrifice in keeping with what is said in the Law of the Lord: “a pair of doves or two young pigeons.”

If you have Jewish friends, you know that baby boys are circumcised and officially named in a ceremony eight days after they are born. Being devout people, Mary and Joseph did this for Jesus. But the law stated that 33 days after the circumcision of the child, the family was to go to the Temple to dedicate the firstborn boy to God, and for the rite of purification after childbirth for the mother.

Now, conveniently, because Jesus had been born in Bethlehem, which is only about 10 miles away from Jerusalem, Mary and Joseph were able to take Jesus to the Temple. There was only one Temple, and it was in Jerusalem. Just imagine this. It is the very first time that Jesus—God's son—is brought to the Temple—God's house. This was highly symbolic. Jesus would go to the Temple a lot more during his lifetime… he probably made the journey south every year during Passover as a child. Luke tells us when he was 12, it was the place where he stayed behind, debating the scholars. During his temptation, it was where Satan took him, daring him to jump off the top. He chased the merchants out of the Temple during his ministry. He taught there on occasion. And he had some of his bitterest fights with the religious leaders in the Temple. So this was a big deal: Jesus' first time in the Temple.

One other thing to note here. According to Leviticus 12:8, you had to bring a sacrifice for the purification. Now, if you had the means, you were supposed to offer a lamb and a pigeon. But the law made provision for people who were poor. They could offer a second pigeon in place of the lamb. Mary and Joseph brought two pigeons for the sacrifice. The implication is that they did this because it was all they could afford. Following God was certainly not making them rich.

Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts.

When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: A light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”

Simeon coming to the Temple at the same time the holy family was there was not a coincidence. Simeon was moved to come there because he knew how to immediately respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. [This is a habit we all should develop.] The holy family are showing that they are observant Jews, going to the Temple for the rituals, keeping the entire law. It's important to realize this meeting   in the Temple is completely dependent on these people's   active obedience   to God.

Simeon is overjoyed that God has allowed him to see the Messiah. He praises God, and at the same time—because he is mature in faith—he understands how God's purposes come about in the world. And because the Holy Spirit rests on him, he is moved to prophesy about what this family can expect in the future—from their son and in their own lives.

The child's father and mother marveled at what was said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

So, Simeon can praise God and say, “For my eyes have seen your salvation,” and then turn to Mary and somberly tell her, “ a sword will pierce your own soul, too.

Simeon had no illusions about how things work in this world. But he is filled with joy despite it all. The joy transcends the circumstances and looks to the ultimate purposes of God. This is how we should be thinking, as God's servants, and where we should set our sights. How do we mature to this point in the faith? By continuing to follow and obey God.

I wonder what Mary and Joseph must have been thinking as they left this encounter? They had just come from a pretty wild month, what with all the angels and shepherds worshipping their baby after his birth. That in itself must have been a lot to take in.

And now this very devout stranger gives them a prophecy that holds a key to what kind of king their son would be.   He will cause people to fall and rise? He will be spoken against? And the final statement, “A sword will pierce your own soul too.” None of this sounded very good.

You follow God's instructions, you're obedient, and what you get is conflict and heartache? Well, sometimes, yes.

“Do not be afraid,” Mary and Joseph remembered being told. They were beginning to see just how important that bit of encouragement would be in their lives.

The flight to Egypt       Matthew 2:13–23

Most likely a few more months passed in Bethlehem before there was an unexpected knock on the door of the house where they were living. Some men from out of town, visiting because they had observed signs in the heavens announcing a new king. Nice guys, too. Bearing gifts. Only problem was, 10 miles down the road in Jerusalem, the sitting Judean king Herod, who was not the nicest of guys, knew about them and the purpose of their visit. You see, Jesus' birth brought the evil out. Scripture tells us that Herod “and all Jerusalem” were frightened.

This town isn't big enough for the both of us, Herod reasoned. So let's kill all the boys in the neighborhood who could be this child's age.   And let's do it soon.

So God sent Joseph instructions in another dream. Get out of there, the angel told him this time. Go to Egypt, out of Herod's jurisdiction. Go now. And to his credit, Joseph again instantly obeyed. Jesus was saved from what is now called “the slaughter of the innocents.” But how did the family survive? They survived as refugees in a foreign country, most people think for about a year, until angels in two more dreams told Joseph it was OK to return.

What did Joseph and Mary learn through this? Those who God favors don't necessarily escape evil and danger. In fact, evil and danger may seek them out. But at the same time God provides you with guidance for the situations in which you find yourself.

They also learned that following God does not make for an easy life. Mary and Joseph spent time as refugees in a foreign country. They certainly did not get wealthy as a result of obeying God. They faced hardships. But did God provide for them? Unquestionably.

*****

In these first two years, Jesus' parents learned a lot of lessons quickly about serving God.

They learned there would be immediate consequences in their lives as they obeyed God. They may not be pleasant. They would not always be safe. And this certainly wasn't going to be easy.

They learned they were able to do what God asked of them. God gave them strength. God guided them. And God showed them glimpses of himself to help them keep going.

They began to see there are longer-term consequences of obeying God. They could not be comfortably isolated. Instead, they found themselves actively witnessing, fighting against and being acted upon by the things that are wrong in the world.

They saw glimpses of the ultimate consequences of obeying God. They participated in God's plan of salvation for the world. They fought on the right side. What they would ultimately gain would far surpass their sacrifices and pain here.

Through all these experiences, they learned what it means to not be afraid.

*****

We have to expect that when we choose to obey God, certain things are going to happen. It is simply not true that the Christian life is a series of light, pleasant and unending happy days with Jesus moving all obstacles out of our way. Some people assume that those whom God favors will enjoy what we consider a good life: social standing, wealth and good health. But prosperity and comfort have never been the essence of God's blessing. The things we strive for are not a part of being God's servant.

No, if we follow him, our lives are much more likely to be like Joseph and Mary's—filled with misunderstandings, hard choices, moments when we need to instantly obey. We may encounter danger, hardship and unpleasantness.   But we will also have our share of moments when God reveals himself to us and gives us glimpses of what is to come.

Our God chose a teenage couple from a rural area of a small, occupied country to be two of his key operatives. “How unlikely!” we think.   But it is very much like God, for whom nothing is impossible.

The glory of Christmas came with the willingness of ordinary people to obey God's claim on their lives. It kind of makes you think about what God could do with you.

.

 

Portions of Matthew 1 and 2, as well as Luke 1 and 2.