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Advent 2 - Mary & Joseph

By Jim Taylor

Luke1: 28-38, 46-55

Matthew 1: 18-25

Luke 2: 1-8, 19

 

Preparing this series of services – after I declared that I wasn’t going to take any more services -- has taught me something I hadn’t realized before. The Bible is a book of stories. Not a book of doctrines, or rules, or answers to questions. It’s a book of stories. And it’s the stories themselves that matter, not the theories we develop from those stories.

If every story has a villain, every story also has a hero, and or heroine. Mary and Joseph ought to be the hero and heroine, but oddly, they’re not, even though they’re the ones who make the story possible. They’re more like the workers in the vineyard. Or the pawns on a chessboard, pieces that can be sacrificed to move someone else forward.

In fact, the way the story has come to us, they’re almost victims of forces beyond their control.

There’s actually very little in the Christmas story about Mary and Joseph. The main stories about them happen nine months before the birth of Jesus. Long before they got to Bethlehem.

And so we have the story of Mary being told that she’s going to be pregnant. But it doesn’t tell us how. It tells us only that she was initially doubtful.

The angel Gabriel was sent to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a young woman engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. The woman’s name was Mary.

Luke1: 28-38

 28 And the angel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.”[a] 29 But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” 

34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”[b]

 35 The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born[c] will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”  

Then Mary said, “Here I am. I am the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And the angel left her.

We tend to idealize Mary as the perfect mother. That comes, in part, from the story of a pregnant Mary visiting her cousin Elizabeth. And reciting a magnificent prose poem, that we today call the Magnificat. If you look up Miriam’s song, when the Hebrew slaves escaped from Egypt, you’ll find something quite similar. You’ll find the same if you look up Hannah’s song when she realized she was pregnant with a child who would eventually become the prophet Samuel. That doesn’t mean Mary was plagiarizing. Chances are the format had been established for generations, just as the sonnet existed long before Shakespeare. Mary simply tapped into a tradition.

Biblical Version

My Paraphrase

46 “My soul magnifies the Lord,47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,48 for he has looked with favor on the lowly state of his servant.    Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed,49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,    and holy is his name;50 indeed, his mercy is for those who fear him    from generation to generation.51 He has shown strength with his arm;    he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones    and lifted up the lowly;53 he has filled the hungry with good things    and sent the rich away empty.He has come to the aid of his child Israel,    in remembrance of his mercy,55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,    to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

47 My body bulges with new life;Just look at me!The joy of it shines in my face.

49 Now I know that prayers can be answered;

50 now I know that the deepest longings of the heart can take flesh.

51 I will be the best mother there ever was!You don't have to be rich or famous to nurture new life;you don't need big houses or expensive nannies -- you need love.

52 The most important person in the world lives inside me;my unborn child matters more than prime ministers or presidents.

53 I feed my child with my own life blood;I will nurse him with the milk of my own body.No one else in all the world, no matter how rich or powerful, enjoys that privilege.

54 I care for my child the way I know God cares for me.

55 As the child lives in my womb, so I live in the womb of God.

 

Similarly, the story about Joseph has little to do with Bethlehem. Rather, it’s about his struggle to accept Mary’s pregnancy – for which he was not responsible. According to biblical law, Mary should have been stoned to death for adultery. (So should the male partner, although it didn’t usually work that way.)

Or Joseph could have brushed her aside – broken his commitment to her. Both would have been socially approved. But he chose neither of those. He chose to take her as his wife regardless of her pregnancy.

Matthew 1: 18-25

Before they lived together, Mary was found to be pregnant.19 Her husband Joseph, being a kindly man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to divorce her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do 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 as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  

24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife.

So when the order came for everyone to go to his ancestors’ hometown to register for a census, Joseph took Mary with him. To Bethlehem. Bethlehem was David’s town, and since Joseph claimed to be directly descended from David, he went to Bethlehem, a Dogpatch village where the great king had once been a shepherd boy.

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.  3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 So Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 

The Bible actually tells you nothing about how Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem. Christmas cards often show Mary riding on a donkey. The chances are she didn’t. They were far too poor to have a donkey. She walked, nine months pregnant. About 100 km, like walking to Salmon Arm, if they took the mountainous route through Samaria; about 140 if they went via the Jordan Valley – from here to Revelstoke.

About the actual birth of Jesus, there’s only this terse line.

Luke 2: 6-8

6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

Those final words are critically revealing. We usually assume that there was “no room for them at the inn” because it was full of strangers. It wasn’t. It was full of Joseph’s relatives. Who were also descendants of David. Who were all there for the census. And they were inside having a family reunion.

But there was no room for a couple who had brought dishonour to the family. Who had disgraced the whole clan of David, by having a baby who didn’t have a father. There was no room for them in the inn.

Let’s read that with a different emphasis. There was no room for THEM at the inn.

They were not welcome.

But a kindly innkeeper – or maybe the innkeeper’s wife -- let them stay in the cattle shed. At least it was warm, thanks to the animals.

We have a tendency to look at Mary, Joseph, and the baby as an idealized family. They model of what we now call a nuclear family – mother, father, child. As opposed to an extended family, the norm throughout history – grandparents and aunts and cousins and uncle Tom Cobbly and all.

No, there was no extended family for Mary and Joseph. They were alone. Social outcasts. Without the network of support that would have assisted a first-time mother. All alone.

You might notice that Joseph doesn’t show up at all in the Bethlehem narrative. In Matthew’s version, he got Mary and the unborn Jesus TO Bethlehem. And he got them OUT OF Bethlehem. The way Matthew tells it,

 

Matthew 2:13-15

An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph[a] got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod.

 

His part of the story makes Jesus and his family refugees. Still pawns. Still victims. Pushed around by forces that they had no control over. Fleeing for their lives.

 

Just as refugees are still doing. Whether they flee from Burundi or Syria, South Sudan or Ukraine. Jesus was one of them. It’s a practical application of the parable that Adam Jones preached about, a month ago: As you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.

 

Literally. What we do to refugees today, we do to Jesus. Because he was a refugee himself. In many ways, refugees are “the least of these” – needing clothing, water, food, visits…

The only other time Joseph shows up in the story is when Jesus was 12. Mary and Joseph were on their way home from visiting Jerusalem for the Passover. And they were a whole day out of Jerusalem before they realized that Jesus wasn’t with them.

CLIP FROM “HOME ALONE” WHERE THE PARENTS DISCOVER THAT THEIR SON ISN’T WITH THEM. https://youtube.com/clip/Ugkxz0WqOI3LsauoKtdEDWrjXOFc9hw3CTSw?si=pX-v_2WJyWCGazvi

It makes me think of that scene from Home Alone, where the parents are on their way to Paris, and discover that one of their children isn’t with them.

In both cases, the parents desperately go looking for their child. In both cases, they are surprised to find him well and coping on his own.

Jesus’ parents are crucial to the Christmas Story. Without them, there would be no Christmas, no story, no Christian church. But the Bible gives them short shrift. All it really tells us about them is that Mary gave birth to Jesus and laid him in a Manger, because there was no other place to put him. Nothing at all about Joseph. Did he do anything to help? Did he go for help?

And then there’s this line, which changes everything: And Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart. (Luke 2:19)

With that one line, Mary is no longer the victim of a mindless empire. No longer a helpless teenager giving birth in a strange city. No longer an outcast shunned by her in-laws. No longer a refugee fleeing for her life.

She has a role that no one else can ever have. Mary was the keeper of the story. The keeper of the story. Only through her could the story have come down to us, 20 centuries later. It wasn’t recorded on the cell phones of the shepherds. It wasn’t inscribed on the scrolls of the Wise Ones. It wasn’t included in the Temple archives.

Mary treasured all these things, and pondered them in her heart. She saved her son. And she saved the story.

 

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