Nativity figurines are interesting decorations. For many of us, these are some of our most prized Christmas decorations.
At the parsonage, we have two sets. My set has ceramic figures and everyone is looking at the Baby Jesus, though the Wise Men are kept at a distance. We have another set that is so small, I have a hard time telling the characters apart.
There are things that make each of these sets unique and special. To be fair, I find some Nativity sets awkward. I don’t know how willing I am to buy a Nativity set where Mary and Joseph are bears, or cats, or preparing more for St. Patrick’s Day than Christ’s birth. Those are just some that are in the marketplace today.
No matter how a Nativity set is designed, whether it is made up of regal or rugged looking characters, there is a constant to these displays. That is that all the characters are looking at Baby Jesus with awe and reverence.
These Nativity sets are our interpretation of how the barn area, likely a place inside Joseph’s family home, might have looked. I wish they would tell the entire story. I wish they would show the fullness of how Joseph and Mary might have felt, especially during the nine months leading up to Jesus’ birth. If they did, I’m sure these sets would paint a different picture. It would tell of two people who were overwhelmed by God’s calling in their life, but who gave us a beautiful picture of obedience and God’s peace.
Today, I want to take a look at Mary and Joseph, who were the first recipients of the most beautiful and life changing gift we have ever received in Jesus Christ.
The person we know the least about is Joseph. Matthew and Luke offer the most descriptions of the events leading up to Jesus’ birth, but neither give us much information about Joseph. Traditions have developed around Joseph. Some say he was older and more of a grandfather. Others claim he died before Jesus began his public ministry. Mostly these traditions have been created because we have felt the need to add to his life, so we might better know Jesus’ earthly father.
What little we know from Scripture paints a good portrait of Joseph’s life, and how he wrestled with the news that Mary was pregnant with Jesus. Matthew gives us the most detail. We learn that Mary and Joseph were betrothed. In other words, they were engaged. The culture of the time required couples be in this legal relationship for one year before marriage. They would live apart from one another, but if one person did not want to go forward with the marriage they would need to get a legal divorce.
During this period, Joseph learned Mary was pregnant. Could you imagine what Joseph felt when Mary told him the news? She was pregnant, and the father was the Holy Spirit. She would be the mother to the Son of God, and his name would be Jesus.
Joseph had a difficult time believing Mary and had a decision to make. Would he seek a divorce? Legally, Joseph was required to seek a divorce. Deuteronomy 24:1 states if you find something displeasing about your future wife, you were to seek a divorce. Mary’s pregnancy would have been displeasing to Joseph, but he struggled with this decision. The reason is that if Joseph made this a public divorce, Mary might have been killed. According to Deuteronomy 22:23-24, the penalty for sleeping with a betrothed virgin was the stoning of both the man and the woman. Now, Joseph was righteous and sought the divorce privately. He did this Mary would not be sentenced to death. Joseph’s righteousness came not from his obedience to the letter of the law, but because he was a witness of God’s love. Joseph showed a deep compassion for Mary, and the unborn child, by exhibiting grace and forgiveness.
This was not an easy decision. Joseph was likely distraught and struggled with this response. In this restless situation, Joseph tried to sleep. During his rest, Joseph had a visionary dream, perhaps a dream like the ones his namesake had in Genesis. An angel, a messenger of the Lord, appears. He tells Joseph that he should not be afraid. When Joseph felt a deep sense of restlessness and uneasiness about Mary’s pregnancy, God was there and offering peace. God’s peace came in the form of an assurance and words of comfort that God’s grace would surround him, and Mary. Joseph learned Mary was telling the truth. This son would be the long-awaited promised Messiah, the Son of God. Joseph would be the legal father to the King of King and the Prince of Peace. God comforted Joseph by giving him the promise of God’s presence. The promise of God’s presence was brought to life with the messenger telling Joseph the boy would be known as Emmanuel. This name means “God with us.” God’s peace surrounded Joseph and God promised to be with him, and with all of us.
Joseph responded to God’s grace of peace and presence. How did he respond? He took Mary as his wife. He protected and cared for her. The presence of God’s peace comforted Joseph so he could live peacefully and show mercy and compassion by accepting Mary and the baby.
Joseph isn’t the only one overwhelmed by God’s desires. So is Mary. In the first chapter of Luke, we learn Mary, who was likely between the ages of 13-15, was from Nazareth, a town which wasn’t anything to write home about. It was a poor village with few people. It was not the large and popular tourist destination that it is today. We don’t know what Mary was doing, but she is visited by Gabriel who tells her she is pregnant with the Son of God. Imagine her perplexity and confusion when she hears this announcement. She is a young woman. She is a virgin. She is betrothed to be married. And, she’s pregnant? How could this be? What would happen to her? Put yourself in her shoes. You could probably feel the fear Mary was feeling.
What does Gabriel say to her? He tells her to not be afraid. God is with her. God found favor with Mary, and showed her grace and peace. God will soon show that same grace and favor to then entire world through the birth of Jesus, who would save all of creation from their sin. Mary can feel peace because God is not going to abandon her. She would be protected. God will walk with her, and she will not be alone in this pregnancy. Mary will receive the greatest gift. She will be the first to hold the Baby Jesus in her arms and would always be known as the Mother of God.
Her response is one of the most beautiful responses to God’s grace and kindness in all of Scripture. She says, “I am the Lord’s servant.” She submits to God’s desires and accepts it as her own path of grace. She did not walk as God’s servant alone. Mary felt peace knowing God would be beside her in this new journey. As well, when she visits with her cousin Elizabeth, who was pregnant with John the Baptist, she offers a wonderful praise of adoration to God because of her love of God. Mary’s response to God’s grace and peace was to worship and praise God.
Both Mary and Joseph faced a difficult decision of how to respond to God’s call to be Jesus’ earthly parents. Neither blindly accepted this calling. They both wrestled with it. In their wrestling, God promised be with them. They would not do this alone. God’s grace and peace would walk with them.
Neither do we face difficult situations in our lives alone. God’s peace in the most distressing and disheartening of situations is here for all of us. God doesn’t call us to a life of fear and timidity, but of peace and living in the presence of God. When we go through difficult moments in our lives, we can have the confidence knowing God’s peace is with us. Even though some situations may seem overwhelming at times, God promises he will not abandon us. God’s peace and comfort is our assurance that God’s presence is with us.
I think this word gives us comfort. For many, Christmas is not a time of celebration, but a time of anxiety and sadness. We are reminded of those we have lost. Their presence is felt even more so during times of celebration. As well, there are many who visiting families is a time of frustration and sadness. The promise of God’s peace is that God is always with us, even when we are hurting and feel as though we cannot go on. We can be comforted knowing that even when we cannot face another time of celebration, God is right beside us. God is encouraging us, comforting us, and strengthening us in our times of loss and depression. We can have peace because the Emmanuel came, and is with us today.
As well, I think it is a word that gives us hope as a church and a charge. This year has been a time of transition and new beginnings for Mackville and Antioch. It’s also a time where we can look around and see the pews not as filled, and our loved ones not worshiping with us as we once liked. God’s promise is that his presence is here. God’s peace is with us, as a church and a charge, as we look forward to what it means for us to be a living and loving witness of Jesus Christ in Mackville, in Perryville, in Springfield, in Danville, in Harrodsburg, and all throughout our commonwealth, nation, and world.
God’s peace shows us the way to be fruitful and multiply as a congregation and as a people. This is something for all of us to think about what it means for us. In 2012, I am calling the church and charge to a time of visioning and looking forward. I want us to answer this question: What does it mean for us to be a representation of Christ in our community and our world? It will require us to look within the life of our church, and our own souls, to see what this might mean for us.
This is not a process of one, but a process for all of us. I want you to be in prayer and diligently think about this question. I want us to be in conversation with each other about this question and what it means for you. I want to hear your thoughts. I want to hear your struggles. I want to hear your soul. And, I want us to be in conversations with others who will guide us through this process. On Sunday, February 19, District Superintendent Jean Hawxhurst will be with us and will be talking with all of us about our vision as a church and a charge.
If we want to grow, and if we want to be alive, then we must look into the depths of our soul, as individuals, and as the church, to discern God’s call for us. We might be fearful and we might be intimidated, but just like Mary and Joseph we can be assured that God is with us. God will not abandon us. God’s peace will comfort us at all times.