4 Advent 2020

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We have heard the story of the Annunciation so many times, and seen it in art work, and sung about it in hymns to the point that all we hear is the Hallmark version of a sweet Christmas story.  The truth of the story is much more suspenseful, and frightening, and full of courage and hope than we normally acknowledge.

We live in a culture where people pick and choose if, when and whom they will marry for purely personal reasons.  Frank Sinatra’s song “Love and Marriage” no longer holds much weight for younger generations, and governmental regulations regarding pensions, community property, and insurance coverage make it a very difficult for widows to remarry.  But in first century Jewish Palestine, it was a life or death matter.  A family’s honor was closely linked to the purity of its women.  Land was the most important asset to a family.  Most people lived off their land: what they grew and the flocks they raised provided them food and clothing.  Marriage and inheritance laws closely guarded property rights. One did not want the property that they had worked and protected all their lives going to another man’s child.

Mary and Joseph were betrothed, and very possibly had been since they were small children.  Their lives were all laid out for them.  Joseph’s father had probably been in the construction industry.  We think of Joseph as a carpenter, but very few people had wooden furniture and no one had kitchen and bathroom cabinets.  He built things with his hands, as his father probably did as well, possibly farm tools or fishing boats. He may have also worked in stone in building construction.   Joseph would marry Mary as his parents had planned. He would work beside his father until his father’s death, at which time he would take over the business and his sons would work beside him.    Mary had been learning to cook, to clean, and to sew almost since she had been old enough to walk.  She would marry Joseph, have his children, keep house, look after their parents as long as they were alive, and be cared for by her children in her old age.    Then they both receive a visit from an angel. 

We don’t know how old Mary is.  She could be as young as 12, but peasant girls often married in their late teens or early twenties.  However old she is, she is all grown-up in her society, busy helping keep house and care for younger siblings and cousins.  You won’t find her in front of the television, texting on her cell phone, or listening to Apple Music or YouTube.  She has no sports team, dance or music lessons to occupy her time.  She is grown-up in her understanding of the need to work to survive, and in the religious practices of her people, but she is still childlike and innocent in many ways.  She is probably busy with her cooking or her sewing when suddenly an angel appears before her and announces “Greetings, blessed one! The Lord is with you.” We are told that she was perplexed by this greeting.  I often wonder if the angel appeared like an attractive stranger that happened to wander in off the street, like Cary Grant in “The Bishop’s Wife” or if he was some strange other worldly creature that materialized before her like you see in most works of art.  “Greetings, blessed one! The Lord is with you. Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God.” A strange man, even a good looking one, appearing in a woman’s work area at that time in history would be cause for alarm, but this one seeks to comfort her and brings good news.  “You have found favor with God.”

How often do we long to find favor with someone, anyone.  In school we wanted our parents to be proud of our report cards.  We want the blue ribbon when we enter a contest.  The trophy when we play sports.  The applause of the crowd when we perform.  Imagine someone walks in unexpectedly and unannounced and says, “God is proud of you.”  It must have been a “WOW!” moment and then – the stranger continues. “You are going to have a child, and his name will be Jesus.  He is going to sit on the throne of your ancestor King David and he will rule forever.”  Now she is really perplexed and probably quite frightened.  All she can think in that it is not possible.  “How?” she asks, “I have never known a man.”  She may be engaged, but she is not married yet.  Another reason to say, “How?” is not mentioned in this passage but is the fact that there is a king already sitting on David’s throne in Jerusalem.  His name is Herod the Great, and he is a puppet king, subject to Rome.  He is not of David’s line and he is not liked by many of the Jews. The angel continues telling her that by the power of the Holy Spirit she will conceive and as proof, he tells her that her elderly cousin Elizabeth is now six months pregnant. Elizabeth was long past the time of having children and she had believed that to have been impossible as well. Nothing is impossible for God.

And so Mary trusts the angel and submits to the will of God.  Did she think, “Joseph is going to kill me when he finds out”?  Possibly literally.  This was an option open to betrayed fiancés.  Did she wonder how her family and friends would react?  Did she worry that they might not believe her story? Did she visualize herself pregnant, abandoned, and starving to death?  Did she trust that if God got her into this situation, he would certainly get her out?  Apparently so.

Mary then hurries off to see her cousin Elizabeth with her secret. 

A woman cannot hid her pregnancy forever and in small towns gossip spreads like wildfire.  Sometime before Jesus’ birth, Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant.  We don’t know much about Joseph.  We know that he was a carpenter from Nazareth, of the tribe of Benjamin.  He was alive when Jesus was twelve, but appears to have died before Jesus began his ministry.  We don’t know if he was a young man in his late teens or early twenties, or if he was an older widow to whom the young girl Mary had been betrothed.  We are told he was a just man.  He did not want to have Mary executed or even publicly humiliated, and so he planned to “put her away quietly.”  I can remember when I was a teenager, girls who got pregnant in high school went to visit a distant relative, which meant they went to a home for un-wed mothers and then put their child up for adoption.  Perhaps it was something of this nature that he had in mind.

But Joseph had a troubled sleep the night he made that decision.  As he tossed and turned an angel came to him in his sleep and explained to him all the things that had been explained to Mary about the parentage of her child.  I wonder if Joseph contemplated the way people would point at his child in the street and laugh, calling him names that reflected poorly upon his mother.  I wonder if Joseph worried about how is parents would react when he told them he was going through with his marriage to Mary.  Whatever his concerns, Joseph acted in obedience to God’s will.

Mary and Joseph listened as God spoke to them through the angels, and although God’s plan was guaranteed to alter their plans, they submitted to God’s will and trusted God to handle the future details.

No one will receive as life altering a message from God as the one that Mary and Joseph heard, but God seeks to speak to us daily if we are willing to listen and obey.  There are times when the Holy Spirit is gently, or sometimes not so gently trying to speak to us: those nudges of our conscious when we are about to do something we shouldn’t or say something we shouldn’t, the passages of scripture that jump out and seem to speak directly to some situation we have been wrestling with, the times a sermon or retreat talk or some other conversation seems to have been written just for us.  These may be times the Holy Spirit is seeking to tell us, “Greetings, favored one.  The Lord is with you and has a job for you to do.” Will you follow Mary and Joseph’s example, step out in faith, and say, “Here I am Lord, let it be to me according to your will.”

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