The last two weeks we have been exploring how God broke His silence and brought the news that He was sending His anointed one into the world to bring salvation to all. For 400 years God had been silent. The last words God spoke through the prophet Malachi proclaimed that “5 I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6 He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents” (Malachi 4:5-6). God then broke his silence by sending the angel Gabriel to an old man, a priest named Zechariah, telling Zechariah that he and his wife, Elizabeth, would have a son, named John, who “will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous” (Luke 1:17). John was not the anointed one of God. John’s mission would be to announce God’s Messiah had come.
After breaking the silence with Zechariah, God broke His silence again sending the angel Gabriel to a young woman named Mary to tell her that through the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary would give birth to the Son of God. Unknown to Zechariah and Elizabeth, God had acted and even before their son, John, had been born, God was bringing about the Messiah. The news from the angel to Mary was wonderful and terrifying. Mary’s child brought forth by the Holy Spirit would be the Son of God. This moment in time was the highest spiritual point for any human being. And as awesome as the news was from the angel, Mary nevertheless found herself in the little town of Nazareth, in Galilee, in Judea, in Israel, pregnant and engaged to be married to a man named Joseph. The Hebrew Scriptures were quite strict about women who were pregnant and not married. With Mary engaged and pregnant, family, friends, neighbors, and the authorities would assume that Mary was no longer a virgin. The Law of Moses said that such women should be “brought to the door of her father’s house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done an outrageous thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you (Deuteronomy 22:20). It was a difficult moment for Mary as she needed to share her story with Joseph for under the Law of Moses, for Mary’s fate was in Joseph’s hands.
Mary told her story to her husband to be, Joseph. Mary shared about the angel and that her child would be a king and would be called the Son of God. But all Joseph heard from Mary was “I am pregnant.” Joseph could not accept Mary’s story. All Joseph knew was that Mary was pregnant and the child was obviously not his child. Joseph chose to receive Mary’s news with despair and disbelief. Joseph was reshaping his experience by rejecting Mary’s good news that the Son of God was to be born. Disbelief in God’s Word always reshapes our life experiences for the worse.
Mary, needing assurance, remembered that the angel told her that her cousin, Elizabeth, was pregnant. Elizabeth was old, well beyond bearing children. No one brought news that Elizabeth was pregnant. Surely, something as miraculously as Elizabeth’s pregnancy would have been news to share. But no such news had reached Mary because unknown to Mary, Elizabeth had been in seclusion for the past 5 months. No one other than Zechariah, Elizabeth, and God knew Mary was pregnant. Mary hurried to see Elizabeth desperate for confirmation the angel’s news that Elizabeth was pregnant. Mary needed reassurance.
Luke shared with us that Mary hurried to find Elizabeth. When Mary arrived and entered the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary called out to Elizabeth. “41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her [Elizabeth’s] womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 In a loud voice she [Elizabeth] exclaimed: ‘Blessed are you [Mary] among women, and blessed is the child you [Mary] will bear! 43 But why am I [Elizabeth] so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 As soon as the sound of your [Mary] greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 Blessed is she [Mary] who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!’ (Luke 1:41-45). Mary received the assurance she needed that the Lord’s promises were true.
This little story of Mary and Elizabeth is a terribly important one. Mary had a mountaintop experience with the angel, a spiritual high. The angel told Mary she was highly favored and that she, Mary, would bear the Son of God. Then Mary shared her news. Likely first with Joseph and she experienced a spiritual low. Joseph rejected Mary. Joseph’s unbelief was not only shaping Joseph’s experience but was reshaping Mary’s experience.
Every one of us goes through moments of spiritual highs in which our faith seems so strong and then it seems in an instant that spiritual high can evaporate, and we are in the clutches of a spiritual low. That was certainly Mary’s experience, but then Mary remembered a small statement made by the angel. Elizabeth was pregnant. That small statement was God’s way of letting Mary know that He had made provision for Mary’s renewed spirit. Mary went to Elizabeth and found God’s Word to be true. In knowing the truth of God’s Word, Mary’s spirit soared again. The same is true for us. Even in our spiritual lows, God is making provision our renewal. God is equipping people through the Holy Spirit to bring comfort, reassurance, and guidance to help lift us from the hole in which we find ourselves. These people are not likely to knock on our doors and say, “I am here to help.” They might but it is not likely to happen that way. But the people God has provisioned for us, to bring us out of the spiritual lows, will always be found in the body of Christ, His church.
The Apostle Paul saw the reality of God’s provision through the church this way. “27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And God has placed [God has provisioned] in the church first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, of helping, of guidance, and of different kinds of tongues” (1 Corinthians 12:27-28). You and I are part of God’s provisioning for each other and for those who are in need but not yet here. You and I are instruments being empowered by the Holy Spirit to bring reassurance of the truth of God’s Word to those who are experiencing spiritual lows. We need to let that sink in for a moment. You and I are empowered by the Holy Spirit to help reshape the spiritual life experience of another person. That is an awesome thought, responsibility, and blessing. If people can feel God’s love, a love made incarnate, full and complete, in the caring people of the church, people they see, touch, and hear, then they are assured of God’s presence. They can know that God hasn’t abandoned them. In you they see God.
In you those who need reassurance see and experience God’s provision. Mary found in Elizabeth the reassurance she needed that God’s Word was true.
While Mary sought and was enjoying the presence of Elizabeth, we turn our attention back to Joseph who had rejected Mary at the news of her pregnancy. Joseph was distraught. The Jewish tradition of the time was that Joseph’s father, Jacob, and Mary’s father would have arranged Joseph’s and Mary’s marriage. For girls, needed to be at least 12 years old for marriage. For boys, needed to be at least 13 years old. We do not know the ages of Mary and Joseph but they could have been very young by our way of living today. The two fathers would have agreed upon an amount of money Mary’s father would have received for losing a daughter to marriage. Once the agreement was settled, the couple was considered engaged but were not permitted to have sexual relations until after the formal marriage ceremony.
Mary’s news to Joseph of her pregnancy meant the marriage could be terminated. The Gospel of Matthew said, “19 Because Joseph her [Mary’s] husband was faithful to the law [of Moses], and yet [Joseph] did not want to expose her [Mary] to public disgrace, he [Joseph] had in mind to divorce her [Mary] quietly” (Matthew 1:19). Joseph was conflicted. Joseph wanted to follow the Law of Moses and end the marriage but Joseph did not want to expose Mary to the death penalty of the law. Joseph wanted to follow the command of justice but to temper justice with mercy.
Joseph remained silent about Mary’s pregnancy and the conflict within his own spirit. In the silence of the night, and in conflict of his mind, Joseph laydown to sleep. During Joseph’s sleep, “20 An angel of the Lord appeared to him [Joseph] 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. 21 She [Mary] will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he [Jesus] will save his people from their sins.’ 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’)” (Matthew 1:20-23). An angel had visited again. First to Zechariah about the birth of his son John, then to Mary about conceiving Jesus, and now to Joseph concerning the baby within Mary’s womb. Each time, the angel began by addressing fear of those he visited. The angel invited Zechariah, Mary, and Joseph to each let go of their fear.
Fear is such a powerful emotion. Fear separates us not only from each other. Think about it for a moment. If we are afraid of someone, we do everything we can to avoid them. That is the human level of fear. But fear also separates us from God. Fear talks us out of moving forward with God and causes us to believe our best days are behind us. Fear focuses our attention on our doubts and hurts our self-esteem. Fear keeps us in bondage until something worse comes along. But we need to remember, we only fear things that have not yet happened. Because what we fear has not yet happened, we can reshape our experience. Mary reshaped her experience with fear through the reassurance of Elizabeth and Joseph’s experience with fear was reshaped by God through an angelic messenger. Both Mary and Joseph, as well as you and I, can remain in our fear or we can accept the encouragement to life that God offers. What will we choose?
Matthew shared with us that, “24 When Joseph woke up, he [Joseph] did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus” (Matthew 1:24-25). Joseph had contemplated divorcing Mary quietly to avoid bringing further shame upon Mary over her pregnancy. Now, Joseph, assured that he was part of God’s plan, decided to take Mary as his wife and thus take upon himself the shame that would have been given to Mary alone. The Law of Moses had penalties for men who forced themselves upon virgins. There is little doubt that family, friends, and neighbors would have heaped shame upon Joseph for breaking the engagement requirement for celibacy. But Joseph willingly took the shame of wagging tongues and waving fingers because Joseph no longer feared. The Apostle Paul would later ask, “If God is for us, who can be against us?... 33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies” (Romans 8:31b, 33).
What are we then to do with Mary and Joseph’s story? Let’s begin with Mary’s part of today’s story, with Mary’s suffering and in need of reassurance. Mary’s suffered rejection by Joseph who was to be Mary’s source of support and strength in a world that would be hostile to Mary’s pregnancy. There are people in our lives who are suffering. People who need reassurance. When we participate in the sufferings of others as they wrestle with their pain, we are providing the comfort of the Holy Spirit and we model, we imitate, Jesus Christ. It is a powerful and privileged moment to enter the suffering of another. When we are invited into someone’s suffering, we should do as Moses did before the burning bush. Moses removed his shoes for the ground he entered was holy. When we entered the suffering of another we are entering holy place. It is a holy place because when you enter another person’s suffering, you find that Jesus is already there ahead of you. It is a supreme privilege to give to another the provision God placed in you ahead of time. We must provide with reverence. For the love you bring to suffering individuals is more than a mere reflection of God’s love. It is God’s love.
The season of Advent can be a wonderful and joyous time of year, but it can also be a time of great suffering for those who have been brought low by life’s hardships and difficult circumstances. If you are suffering, you are not here by accident. You are here because God led you here and we are glad you are here because God has provisioned this church to be a source of God’s comfort, reassurance, and love. If you are on a spiritual high, the reason for that is God has equipped you ahead of time to be a provision to others. You need to extend yourself and share the sense of God’s presence and love within you to others. Do this not in a smothering sense or in an over-the-top “lovey dovey” sense, but in the sense of communicating to others that they are valued, precious, and loved by God. You cannot remove the pain from another, but you can reshape their suffering. Elizabeth could not remove the pain Mary would experience from others over Mary being pregnant before marriage, but Elizabeth could remove some of Mary’s suffering. If you are on a spiritual high, equipped by God for this very moment, then be God’s gift and ease the suffering of others.
Let’s conclude briefly with Joseph’s part, a conflicted mind. Joseph was conflicted between a sense of Mary’s betrayal, a desire for justice, and a deep conviction that mercy should be extended. In conflict, Joseph chose to lay down. Joseph did not act while conflicted or emotional about the situation. Joseph paused and sought rest. In his rest, God could then speak to Joseph and to help Joseph through his fears. This Advent, we would be wise to do likewise. We should not exhaust ourselves by overdoing but instead we should find time to rest and allow God to work on us. People are generally more open to the movement of the Holy Spirit during the seasons of Easter and Christmas. But if we are in constant motion running from one task to another, we will never be able to receive what God has for us.
Joseph lay down and rested. In his rest, Joseph learned that Mary had not betrayed Joseph but had instead honored God. Knowing the truth allowed Joseph to reunite with Mary. The truth equipped Joseph to face the burdens that lay ahead without concern for what others would think of him. This Advent season, we should be open to God and take the time and let God reveal to us the truth about whatever conflicts our minds. Once we are no longer conflicted, then we should act in the truth of God.
It is my hope that each of us will come to know that God has made provision for us to have abundant life in the present and for all eternity through the child God brought forth through Mary and who was fathered on earth by Joseph. This is the blessing of this season. In our low points, let us receive the story and be assured of God’s love. In our high points, let us share the story and live it out to relieve the suffering of others. In our conflict, let the story teach us the truth that we can go forward without fear. Amen and Amen.