Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Monday, December 21, 2009
As an example, with this decree sent from Caesar, for me, this meant a long journey south into the hill country of Judea, to the town of Bethlehem, the ancestral city of David’s birth. It took four days to make the journey, in your terms, think of walking 80 miles, perhaps from here into the big city to the east. Mary was well along in her pregnancy and we knew the journey to Bethlehem would be difficult. I tell you the truth though, it was good to leave Nazareth. People had begun to talk about this pregnancy which came so quickly during an engagement. Even though we knew we were in the full blessing of the Lord, people’s words can still hurt. Our child was given as a gift. People’s words were given as thoughtless babble.
Bethlehem seemed to be just the place to step away into a quiet place where people did not know us by name, where we could have our baby in peace and quiet. We packed many belongings for the trip, thinking we would be away for weeks, even perhaps a few months, preparing to live in Bethlehem for a while after the baby was born, until Mary was strong enough to make the return journey. Little did we realize what the Lord was preparing for us ahead as fulfillment of many prophecies from of old. Mary rode upon our old donkey and I walked alongside.
We traveled southeast from Nazareth, along the great plain of Esdraelon, into the valley of Jezreel, and down into the Jordan river valley. The name “Jordan” in our language means “that which goes down and down”. This river valley drops and drops and then drops some more. From the heights of Mt. Hermon in the north where you can find the headwaters of the Jordan river, down through the Sea of Galilee, down and further down runs this rift valley into the lowest place in our corner of the world, at the Sea of the Arabah, what you know as the Dead Sea. Following the verdant Jordan River valley south for a few days, with the heights of the Hill Country of Ephraim to our right, we finally came to Jericho.
Then the road turned to the west, traveling up and up, through steep ravines and rocky valleys leading up into the Hill Country of Judea and into the city of Jerusalem, which was built upon the uneven rocky plateau we call Mount Zion. The way was familiar to us because of our regular trips to Jerusalem for annual holy festivals to the Lord. Still, to travel this way while full-term pregnant, we went slowly, with every bump and stone an additional weight and pain for my beloved wife Mary. Our arrival in Jerusalem was of course a great joy, to return to the House of the Lord where all the world gathered to worship the Holy One of Israel. After resting for two days in Jerusalem, we had a short travel day south to arrive in Bethlehem, the ancestral city of our forefather David, hoping to find a room for rent. Bethlehem was overloaded with many other travelers responding to the Roman decree. Though small in size, Bethlehem is great in influence.
All those who are descendents from the lineage of David of Bethlehem, and we are many, take great pride in our heritage and association with the house of David and the city of Bethlehem. Now, we had all returned within the same month to register our names for the Roman census. The place was overflowing with people, including all the places of lodging. Private homes, guest houses and public inns were all filled, no vacancies.
After searching throughout the city, I came back to Mary with no lodging. There was no empty bed in the whole town. I was tired, weary and afraid for my Mary. I told Mary all my heart. She calmed me with her great faith, simply saying the Lord would provide. Yes, the good Lord above provided alright. But what a strange Provider he is sometimes! We were offered shelter in a storage cave where the people kept their animals. Just as the city was crowded, so this stable cave was crowded with all the people’s animals. We use our animals for transport, perhaps as you use cars and trucks and such. So there we made preparations for the birth of the Messiah, the Christ, our firstborn son, there in a crowded place used to keep animals, perhaps for you something like preparing to deliver a baby in a messy garage.
The good Lord did provide abundantly for us in that place, and Mary gave birth to a healthy baby boy, our little Yeshua, Jesus, the One sent to save us from our sins. The birth was without any complications, though we did not have the assistance of our well-loved village midwife! With newborn Jesus in her arms, Mary’s eyes filled with tears of joy. She treasured the gift of the Lord, a gift given not only to us, but to the whole world, to all who will receive Him, making room for Him in their hearts.
When I first saw this child, my heart was moved with joy. I counted his little fingers and then his toes. Perhaps it was the beauty of that little boy; perhaps it was the amazement at knowing we held in our care the long awaited Messiah, the bright Morning Star whom God had sent to shine upon all those who are living in the shadow of death to guide our feet into the path of peace. I am not known as an emotional man, but that night, I wept sweet tears of joy. Here am I. A working man. A carpenter. A modest man of modest means. What do I have to offer? What do I know about raising a child, about raising the Son of God sent from heaven? Yet, at the time of the birth of the Christ child, our firstborn, Jesus, such a great peace of God came upon us. To know in our heart of hearts the Shalom peace of the Most High God, for he himself is our peace! All this took place in that humble place, in that little town of Bethlehem. “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray, cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today!” Amen!
Note: Based upon Luke 2:1-7; Matthew 2:6; Micah 5:2-5
Monday, December 14, 2009
I am Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Matthan, son of Eleazar. In the Gospel of Matthew and Luke, you’ll read about my life, yet not one word I spoke has been recorded. I was never a man of many words, but still, I’m grateful after all these years for this opportunity to tell you the story of the birth of Jesus, the Christ. Perhaps you already know something about my life, but there may be more to my story than you had thought of before. I was given a great gift, the greatest gift in the world: to witness the birth of the Messiah, God coming into this world as one of us. God with us!
Mary and I had known each other since childhood, though I was a number of years older than Mary. It was quite common in my day for a man to be promised to a younger woman, and I had my eye on Mary for several years. When it came time to consider marriage, I asked my father to arrange a marriage with Mary, daughter of Heli, son of Matthat. That was the way it was always done in my day. There was no courtship. Everything was arranged by our parents. I knew in my heart that Mary would be a great gift from the Lord, and took delight in the day I would become her husband.
In our tradition, the engagement, or period of betrothal lasted nearly a year. The announcement of the engagement was a public ceremony which was as binding as a marriage, though during this time the engaged husband and wife did not live together. Still, I was known as Mary’s husband and she was known as my wife. Once the marriage agreement was entered into at the time of engagement, it could not be ended without formal divorce proceedings. Any infidelity during the engagement period was considered adultery.
Shortly after our engagement, Mary traveled to the south, to the hill country of
Mary was gone several months. During this time, I devoted my energies to my work. I work with my hands. I am a builder. A craftsman. In my heart, I was missing Mary everyday, yearning for the day she come back to
Late that night, I still couldn’t sleep. My mind and heart were racing. I am a God-fearing Jewish man. I could not marry a woman who was already pregnant. Had she been unfaithful, involved with another man? It seemed impossible. Had she been used wrongfully by someone along the road? I was full of confusion, torn between my love for Mary and my desire to make it all go away. In
I greatly loved Mary. Yet, there was no going back. Mary was truly pregnant. I would ask to divorce her, in accordance with the law of my people. But I would have it done privately, quietly, not publicly. It would be a quiet, legal procedure, before two witnesses. I would declare that I didn’t approve of Mary as my future wife, and give her a written declaration of divorce stating that we were both free from the bond of marriage. And then, I would help Mary relocate to another town, perhaps with her kinswoman Elizabeth. Mary would still face the shame of her pregnancy out of wedlock, but our plans for our future together would be over. This course of action seemed to be the only way forward. I could think of nothing else, though my soul shook with fear at the thought of losing Mary.
Finally, having come to a difficult decision, in the depth of night, exhausted, I fell into a deep sleep. That night, the angel of the Lord appeared to me in a vision. The Lord spoke to me saying: “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid! Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. Mary has never been unfaithful to you. The child which is now within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Mary will bear a son and you, Joseph, are to call him Yeshua, “Jesus”, because he will rescue his people from their sins.” In our language, the word to save, deliver or rescue forms a common name, the name Joshua, Yeshua, or Jesus. Our names have meanings, and sometimes these meanings are the special gift from God for which that child has come into the world. “Jesus”, the one God has sent to save us from our sins, rescue us from darkness, and deliver us from evil. Thanks be to God! As the prophet Isaiah declared long ago, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the shadow of death, a light has dawned. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. He will be pierced for our transgressions, he will be crushed for our iniquities, the punishment that brought us peace will be upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” “Yes, Joseph, you are to call his name, Jesus, the one who comes to save us from our sins.”
The angel told me this was all to fulfill what the Isaiah had spoken of long ago, predicting the coming of the Messiah: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and they will call him Immanuel—God with us.” God with us. Think of these words. God with us. That God would choose to come be with us is quite a thought, something that filled my night-time soul with such radiance and hope!
When I awoke, I was not sure if I had dreamed a strange dream that would vanish like morning mist, or if I had heard the very voice of the Lord. What good news to hear! Then a sense of my shortcomings slowly crept over me. I had not asked Mary about the details of her pregnancy. I never let her explain. I simply assumed I knew the whole story. In my heart, I regretted that I had assumed the worst of my bride. That morning, I went to Mary and confessed to her my heart asking her to forgive my foolish, thoughtless ways.
As we sat together, her eyes welled up with tears of joy as she told me of the visitation from the angel of the Lord. Just as the Lord came to me, God had sent the angel Gabriel to Mary, telling her, “Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God. Mary, you will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. I will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” I discovered that Mary’s story was the same as the one which came to me in the vision from the angel of the Lord. We were both uncertain what it all meant. They were strange words. But we knew what God wanted us to do.
Mary and I went ahead with our plans to be married. I took her to be my wife, and she moved from her family home into my home as was our custom. As a sign of our trust in the Lord our Provider, we slept in separate rooms and did not consummate our marriage until after the birth of our son. At the time, only Mary and I knew the secret of the gift God had given to Mary. As so Mary gave birth to a firstborn son, and according to the heavenly message given to us from God, we called our son Jesus. But where and how he was born, well now, that is a story all of its own.
At the time of his birth, I was honored as legal father of this child, to pronounce his name at the naming ceremony, the name given to us by the Angel of the Lord, the holy name of Jesus, the One come to save us from our sins, rescue us from darkness, deliver us from evil, bringing all God’s sons and daughters back Home into the Lords’ everlasting kingdom in heaven! At this name, as recorded in the Holy book, every knee shall bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father, who is to be praised forever and ever. Amen.
1. Adapted from a dramatic monologue by Bruce Goettsche, based upon Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-56
2. Painting by Fra Angelico, "Annunciatory Angel