St Michael’s 18th December 2016
Reading – Matthew 1:18-25
So here I was, engaged to this beautiful young lass called Mary. We had received the blessing of our parents, and both of us were working so hard towards our wedding day. I was busy building an extension to my carpenter’s shop, she was busy making a new dress with her mother and doing whatever girls who are about to be married tend to do. We had fixed up a date with the local synagogue, and everyone in the village seemed to be talking about this lovely couple who were soon to set up home in Nazareth. For our part, we were dreaming of a wonderful future together, building a home and a family in this quiet corner of Galilee, and maybe one day earning enough money to be able to return to our roots in Bethlehem.
All was going so well, and the wedding date was fast approaching. And then one day Mary came to see me. I still remember the shy knock on the door, and Mary standing there, barely able to even look at me.
“Whatever is the matter?” I asked.
“I’m pregnant”, she replied.
Now I know what you’re thinking. But our relationship wasn’t like that. I know what God’s word says and I try to live by it – and so does Mary. We had talked it all through and we were going to save ourselves until our wedding day, because we wanted to start our marriage right. So I definitely wasn’t the father. But who was? The Roman soldiers who had started hanging round the village? That big talking fisherman from Capernaum who had passed through town the other week? And was Mary doing going off with any of them, anyway?
Mary must have known what I was thinking because she shook her head and said, “No, it’s not what you imagine”. And then she began telling me this story about an angel visiting her and the Holy Spirit overshadowing her, and she discovering she was with child. To be honest, I couldn’t make head nor tale of what she was saying. It was so unlike anything my sweet, sensible Mary had ever spoken to me about before.
So what to do? Mary was still standing there, and I sensed it was really important to her how I was going to react. I guess some men would have shouted and sworn, and made a public example of her. Others might have tried to claim the child as their own. But me, I believe in being fair and honest. If Mary was pregnant, she would have to face the consequences herself. It wasn’t for me to humiliate her or inflict further pain.
I gently held her and said, “I think we had better call the wedding off”.
“I think you’re right”, she agreed. And then she told me of her plan to go away for a few months to her relation Elizabeth somewhere down south. That seemed an excellent idea. I know what the village gossip is like, and if the news of a cancelled wedding got out, it would soon spread like wildfire. I’d have a quiet word with my parents, and the rabbi at the synagogue, and just say Mary needed some time away to think things through. That didn’t seem too far from the truth, after all.
A few days later Mary left, and she went with my blessing. I felt sorry for her, and whatever she might or might not have done, she would need the help and protection of the Lord in the months ahead. No-one is more vulnerable or alone than a teenage mother, and I’ve seen too many examples of the fate that can befall them.
And I went back to my work, trying to forget what had happened, taking on as many jobs as I could to keep myself busy. But I found at night I just couldn’t sleep. I kept going over in my mind those words Mary had spoken to me. I knew the ancient prophecies about a virgin being with child. Was Mary in fact the one the prophet had been talking about? Or was she just using the Scriptures to spin a tale? The more I began to wonder, the more I began to think about her child. Would he just be another unfortunate Jewish child born into poverty, or would He in fact be the Saviour our people had all been promised?
I couldn’t figure out the answer, and I guess if the Lord hadn’t appeared to me, I would still be wrestling alone with my hopes and fears. Now you probably are thinking I’m crazy if I tell you an angel appeared to me in a dream. But all I can say is it really happened. I can’t explain how, or tell you what the angel looked like. Yet I find time after time that when God speaks you just know. A word or an image or an inner conviction fixes in your heart and you can’t shake it off.
Even years later, I still remember what the angel said to me word for word:
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.
So Mary had been telling the truth! I guess part of me felt ashamed I had doubted her at first, and dismissed her story as some kind of lie. A rather greater part of me felt overjoyed and ecstatic. I had been told right from my earliest days of the Messiah who would come and save His people. But no-one had thought He would come in their lifetime. It was a prophecy from ancient times about an event far in the future, or so we believed. It couldn’t really be happening right here, right now when our land was occupied and the people so poor, could it? Well, according to the angel, yes it could. This child of ours would the one to save us and set us free. He would bring us a new future with God, and the hope we had almost stopped waiting for.
Yet as I woke up the next morning, I realised also that the Lord was setting me a challenge. One day Mary would come home. She wouldn’t be able to hide the fact she was pregnant. Tongues would wag, and fingers would be pointed. It would be my duty to protect her and stand up for her, come what may. I couldn’t imagine many people would be coming to our wedding now! Unless of course they really believed what we told them, and I considered that most unlikely.
And then there would be the challenge of looking after the child. I had seen other fathers bringing up their sons, and it seemed to me that was a life’s work in itself. But how to bring up someone who was quite literally the Son of God? How could I possibly provide for Him, care for Him, keep Him safe? The more I wrestled with these questions, the more I found myself praying for wisdom and for strength. As far I could see, bringing up this child was not going to be straightforward. Little did I know just how much trouble would lie in store, that one day we would flee for our lives and for a time end up as refugees in Egypt. Perhaps it was for the best the Lord only told me what I absolutely needed to know at that point.
But for now I needed Mary to come home. I suppose I could have tried writing to her, but even if I could put everything into words, there was no guarantee the letter would reach her. Indeed her life could be in danger if it fell into the wrong hands. So as the days went past, and then the weeks, I found myself praying more and more – for Mary as the child grew inside her, for myself preparing to become His legal guardian, for the people of God that they might be ready to hear the news. And all the while I reflected on the prophecy of old that The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” – which means, “God with us.
It was little over three months before Mary returned home. I knew she was coming into the village because I heard the chatter out in the street. As far everyone else knew, she had simply been away to think things over. I just hoped her bump wasn’t showing too much.
I called round to see Mary later. I think she was surprised to see me. We both waited for the other to say something and then we both spoke at once. I explained how the angel of the Lord had appeared to me and I said how sorry I was that I hadn’t believed her. I asked her if she was still willing to be my wife and with a broad smile she said, “Yes”.
Then she began telling me about her cousin Elizabeth. I hadn’t been really listening when Mary told me that part of the angel’s message was about Elizabeth having a child in her old age – my mind had been on other things at the time. But now she started telling the story about the baby leaping in Elizabeth’s womb and how Elizabeth knew the child she was carrying would in some way prepare the way for the coming of the Messiah. Clearly they had had three very special months together of prayer and worship, and Mary even sang me a song all about the Lord doing great things and showing mercy to the poor and the humble.
We were about to announce to everyone that the wedding was back on. It took some explaining to our parents what had happened, but in the end I think they could see the joy and the happiness in us – not just the joy and happiness of two people deeply in love with each other, but the joy and happiness of two people who had together discovered God’s will and purposes for them. I began work on my extension again, and Mary started work on her dress again…and then came that decree from Caesar Augustus.
Instead of getting married in Nazareth, we would have to make the long trip down to Bethlehem, and perhaps look at a wedding with our extended family back there. Suddenly life once again felt rather uncertain and insecure. After all, we were going to Bethlehem, the home town of the greatest king of Israel called David, the place where all the prophets said the Messiah was going to be born. Suddenly a lot of people would be taking a lot of interest in us, and not all of it was going to be positive.
Well, I guess you know the rest of the story, although I can tell you some of the details weren’t exactly as you’ve been told! But looking back, what did I learn about those extraordinary few months in Nazareth? I think both Mary and myself would say that we learnt important lessons about the nature of faith. You see, it’s very easy to say you believe in God, and to try and live a good life. But that’s not really faith. Faith is being open to God actually speaking to you and trusting in His word, even and especially when you do not understand what He’s saying. And it’s about being willing to offer your whole life to Him, allowing God to use you in ways that you cannot even possibly begin to imagine.
That’s what faith is. That kind of faith doesn’t necessarily give you an easy ride. You may face all kinds of challenges and difficulties on the way. But if God is the one who is all that He says He is, then you can always count on Him to protect and to provide. After all, that gift of His Son, Jesus, proves He always keeps His word, even if sometimes we might have to wait. The question is: will we for our part keep faith with God, and allow Him to take control of our lives, no matter what the cost?