Pulpit and Pew

From John 1:12, Luke 1 and 2, and Matthew 1 and 2
by Robert W. Christman

What was it like for them later that night?
Did thoughts and emotions rob them of sleep?
“These came and reported, those sang and took flight,
We lie on this straw in eternity’s deep.”

The Son of God came into the world to turn sinners into children of the heavenly Father.
St. John tells us,
To all who did receive him, who believed on his name, he gave power to become the children of God (John 1:12 ESV and KJV).

We should recognize the difference between being a child of God and being a son of God. Neither has anything to do with gender. A child is generally a biological child, begotten by its father and resembling its father. A son is thought of as an heir.
John is talking about children, for he uses the Greek word for children. (This is not reflected in the King James Version.) In particular, “child” bears the imprint of the father, God in this case. Hear what St. Paul says about sons and children in Romans 8:12-17 (ESV):

So then, brothers, we are debtors not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

The Spirit tells people that they are children of God. This is the first big step, to learn from the Holy Spirit that you are God’s child. With that, you are ready to grow in grace and act like it. The Holy Spirit played a determinative part in Jesus’ birth, both in his begetting and in the cultivation of a filial character in his mother and his foster father, Mary and Joseph. Two different children they were. With Mary, it was her faith that stood out. In Joseph, it was his obedience. In each case their Christian character was a thing of beauty, and remains such to this day. Let us consider the two in the light that shines on them from the manger. May it please God to lead us in their paths.

Mary’s faith is already on display at the Annunciation, when Gabriel announces the Savior’s imminent incarnation. The holy angel comes into her house unannounced, looks her in the face, and says, “Hello, graced one. The Lord is with you.” And what is Mary’s reaction? She tries to draw the words into clear focus. She does not waste her energy trying to deflect the compliment with the self-depreciation of a hypocrite, nor does she snap up the high compliment with the certainty of a dogmatist; she hears it freshly like a child. And is this not the way we all must receive the high compliments of Scripture? Faith wishes every word of God to be accepted on its own terms.
Then Gabriel proceeds to his message. He tells Mary that she is going to bear a boy-child, and is to call his name Savior, that is, Jesus. She is to understand that her son will be great, great enough to be called the Son of the Highest. He will also be a son of David, and not only a son but the Son of David. He will be enthroned forever as King. This is the meaning of “the sure mercies of David.” His kingdom will never be toppled or restricted. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever.

Mary does not find this too much to believe. She poses only one question: “How would this come to pass?” She knows she is not in a position to bear a child; she is
a virgin.

Gabriel’s reply was the unvarnished truth. But it carried Mary farther out of the range of the everyday, the natural, and the expected. Knowing this, Gabriel set about guiding her into the counsels of God. He explained that the Holy Spirit (who once hovered so effectively over a dark and formless creation) would come upon her. Through him the powerful shadow of the Living God would be blanketing her. This was another reason why her boy would be called holy, the Son of God.

What momentous claims and what boggling promises! We could imagine Mary returning the same answer the crowds gave Jesus in John 6: “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” To avert such a gross error, Gabriel, operating with the might of God’s grace for Mary’s sake, gives Mary a stepping stone to the level of the things she has just heard. There is something else she should know. Her cousin Elizabeth, the one people had taken to calling the Barren One, well, she is pregnant and due in three months. She, too, will have a boy.

Mary stood speechless as Gabriel draws a bold line under what he has told her: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” With that, Mary agrees to play her part. The angel then walks out the door. He has aimed God’s message at the lady’s heart, and has not missed the mark.

We turn now to Mary in conversation with Elizabeth, for she wisely takes Gabriel’s final disclosure as a suggestion. She packs a bag, gives a wave to relatives, friends, and the man to whom she was promised, and sets off for Elizabeth’s house in the hill country of Judah. Yes, she should visit Elizabeth; they need each other. They must compare notes.

And compare notes they do. It happened in a wonderful way, thanks to the participation of the Holy Spirit, who activated, stirred, and compounded the faith of both of them. Mary enters with a singing hello. It is so alive with the truth and grace of God that it causes the miraculously insightful child in Elizabeth’s womb, filled already with the Holy Spirit, to leap for joy. In an instant Elizabeth, by the same Spirit, knows why Mary has come. Deferring to her young cousin, she hails Mary, not herself, as the one who is blessed—and the fruit of her womb is blessed! Then for a moment she sounds like Gabriel. As nothing was impossible with God, so “blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

But there is more. With the help of the same Spirit, Mary delivers her Magnificat! (Luke does not say Mary was filled with the Spirit, because he does not have to. From whom else might this Song have come?) “Yes, I am blessed beyond words, and for this the Lord is entirely responsible. My soul heaves with the magnitude of the all-graciousness of the omnipotent Lord God, and with the sweet and salutary joy it brings me.” He is Mary’s Savior.

She is extremely sensitive to the truth, and realizes at once that what the Lord has done for her can best be professed in contrast to her personal insignificance and unimportance. Who was she? Was there a woman in the world with smaller claims on such things? Yet this is her lot, and it ever shall be. What Elizabeth called her will be said of her to the end of the age: She is the blessed virgin! Again she sings the truth without embarrassment. It is a fact. It is simply and utterly true. She has been set in the inner circle of God’s salvation masterpiece.

But why did he choose her? No reason can be given. It is profundity worthy of being accepted. “He who is mighty has done great things for me”—that is her reply. “Through me God is setting his holy name before the whole earth, before the regions above the earth and the regions below. With this he is manifesting his love. Also his strength and power. He is tossing off the wraps from his right arm and stretching it out to save.”

The force of this revelation pushes open a door of understanding. “God’s ways are not man’s ways.” Rather, they challenge the imagined primacy of man’s ways! But the proud have a large investment in the ways of man, and it is hard for them to let go, believe, and be saved! This makes her low estate an asset! Everyone’s lowly estate is an asset. Each of us should try hard to recognize and appreciate his own low estate. None of us will search for it in vain.

At the same time, everyone is capable of finding God’s ways annoying and insulting. This is sin having its say. Blessed are those who find their temptation to overestimate themselves and underestimate God something manageable. Too bad for the proud achievers who see nothing but their heroics.

Mary rejoices in the division God has designed into the human condition. Notice how deftly she presents the human race in two pairs. First, it is the bad in contrast to the good; then it is the good followed by the bad:

He has put down the mighty from their seats,
and exalted those of low degree.
He has filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich he has sent empty away.

In conclusion, Mary gives voice to the one great truth of history:

He hath holpen his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy;
As he spake to our fathers,
To Abraham, and to his seed forever.

Is this not exactly what every believer learns from Jesus Christ? By faith Abraham tasted the promise of his coming. So did Isaac, in whom Abraham’s offspring was named. He outranked Ishmael, Hagar’s son, but not because his mother was in the better position to support his aspirations. He outranked him in God’s economy, because he was the child of promise, and promise-met-by-faith is history’s taproot. Consider Abraham’s wife, prototype of Mary that she is. “Through faith Sarah herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised.” (Hebrews 11:11, KJV)

In the Old Testament the seed, that is, the Israelites, were called, literally, the “children” of Israel, for like their fathers they were God’s chosen servant-children (the Greek language has a fine word that means either servant or child). Though Israel in his “Jacob days” spent his energy trying to build his hopes on his own cleverness, in the end, when he entered his “Israel days,” he prevailed over men and God through fervent prayer that arose out of tenacious faith in his heart.

All this Mary was given to see with the eyes of her own faith, so that she could bring forth not only the Magnificat, but the holy Child Jesus, wrap him in swaddling clothes, and go on to participate in his proper upbringing.

Joseph got the news in a dream, where he is addressed as Joseph the son of David. He would learn how his inclusion in the house and lineage of David suits him to be the Savior’s foster father, particularly among the vast majority, who would not know the boy as Immanuel. Then he is given his orders. “Do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Ghost,”

Finally, he is to name the child Jesus, since “he would save his people from their sins.”

All this takes faith, but it also takes some doing on his part. But he is carefully chosen, too, and he is up to it. What we learn first about Joseph is that he is a just man. This is borne out by his inability to pass over Mary’s (apparent) unfaithfulness with a shrug of indifference.We know, too, that he is kind-hearted. He does not want the divorce to be any more public than it has to be;
he wants Mary spared as much as possible. Both qualities are expressions of a pious, responsible submission to the Mosaic Law.
But what is now being asked of him requires more, for it is about God’s greater word. He needs now to respond to the testimony of the Gospel. Yes or no. It is purely a question of faith. And the answer he gives is the decided yes of faith. Yet, though faith is typically confessed with the mouth, not a single spoken word is afforded him on this or any other biblical page. His “yes” is the yes
of obedience:

When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him:
he took his wife.

Moreover, as Matthew tells us, he “knew her not until she had given birth to a son.” Few, if any, would have known about this, but it is important anyway. It is Joseph’s way of showing the Lord his God, and also Mary his espoused wife, his obedient “yes,” and of reminding himself, too, that all other plans must be scuttled, and everything from now on must be gauged by the Good News. Very simply, he does what he has been ordered to do, but not doggedly or resentfully. He proceeds with his heart and soul to do what he is being ordered by God to do. He pictures to himself what would be appropriate and what would not be. He is not afraid of going beyond his orders, for his obedience is freely given. It is the obedience of a true child of God, cultivated in him by the gift of Jesus Immanuel himself. In the same spirit, when the child is born, he gladly drops any plans he may have had to name the oldest lad in his household after himself. Obediently, he names him Jesus.

Some time later (less than two years), Wise Men appeared seeking, finding, and worshipping the child Jesus, and laying their expensive gifts at his feet. Presumably this boosted Joseph’s spirits as well as Mary’s, although only Mary is mentioned as hosting the strangers from the East. Joseph re-enters the account just after the Wise Men leave for home. Again, an angel appears to him in a dream delivering another order:

“Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”

Without any expression of curiosity, without a complaint over the strenuousness of such a journey, and without a moment’s delay, Joseph accepts the task:

And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt.

He stays in Egypt until, again in a dream, the angel summons him back:

“Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.”

Again his obedience is immediate. But soon a situation develops that forces him to go beyond the comfort of doing exactly as told, and to come up with a plan of his own. Just into Judea or, perhaps, not quite there, Joseph learns that Herod’s son Archelaus has succeeded his father as king and is now ruling. This is not good. Joseph could well imagine the new king applying himself to the tasks his late father had left behind for him—the way Solomon tackled the list of unfinished business David gave him before he died.

But God was pleased with Joseph. He knew he was not trying to resist his will. And indeed, he had not. He had assumed that the birth in the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, should be followed by an upbringing in Bethlehem, the city of David. Not at all, said the Lord to him in a dream. Right now the issue is his safety. He should be taken up into nearly-off-the-map Galilee.

Joseph, of course, obeys, and the family settles in Nazareth. Thus the word of the prophets was fulfilled, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” He was protected until the time came for the last shred of his protection to be stripped away, allowing him to die—with Mary standing there.

Some children of God are given the gift of deep contemplation, to the continual increase of their faith. They hear the messages of the Gospel and see the hand of God at work. Pondering these things in their hearts night and day, they also pray without ceasing. Mary was one of these.

Others, like Joseph, though they too are believers and are ready to hear when God speaks, have as their outstanding gift the ability to apply themselves quickly and firmly to the tasks assigned them. They, too, love the Lord.

Both types are children of God. Both are empowered by the Son of God and his word, and from both we all benefit. Of course, it is never an absolute matter, one gift to the total exclusion of the other, but something of a blend. Yet, one often dominates.

Finally, let us note that we all benefit from the sanctification of those in the other camp. If you consider yourself a member of the faith association, you benefit from those that are of quick obedience, and vice versa. Mary and Joseph complemented each other in the grace of God. The same thing is true of many a godly marriage.

How well did they sleep? Ultimately they slept well in what they had in common.

As children they snuggled in blankets of grace,
Drawing their breath from the Wind of the Word.
Energized, sanctified, may we keep pace,
And serve the dear Father in what we have heard.

Citations from Scripture are a blend of the King James Version and the English Standard Version.

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