This Advent I find myself once again impressed by the courage and faith of Joseph and Mary. A lot of things could have happened to them in their time and culture. Per the Law of Moses, for example, intimate relations between a legally betrothed couple could carry the death sentence. If a case was lodged against them, it would have been very difficult to argue a defense because of the irrefutable evidence of her bulging tummy.
The angel Gabriel had first visited Zechariah, a priest, while he was carrying out the privilege of burning the incense on the altar in front of the holy of holies in the temple of God. Gabriel told him that his prayer had been answered for his wife Elizabeth of advanced years, would bear their first child. The angel said the boy was to be named John and he would be the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a forerunner who would announce the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah (Malachi 4:5-6). Zechariah doubted Gabriel’s message and was stricken with the inability to speak until their son John was born.
Six months later, Gabriel visited Mary announcing that by the power of the Holy Spirit, she would be blessed with the highest privilege God could bestow upon a woman, she would conceive and give birth to the Son of the Most High. She, in contrast to Zechariah, believed him and accepted God’s will unconditionally. That was courageous faith. She was more devoted to God than she was afraid of being misjudged and condemned by the community.
We can imagine the conversation she had with Joseph, “No, really, an angel told me.”
“Mary, Mary,” Joseph probably protested, “Zechariah saw an angel and Elizabeth is with child. You’re just imagining that God has done something in your life too.”
Her arguments in her defense were unconvincing since Joseph decided to divorce her secretly. It was nice of him to protect her from public disgrace, but it does reveal his Zechariah-like disbelief in her Gabriel visitation story.
Then, in a dream, Gabriel told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. Now it was Joseph who was confronted with the decision to believe God or go the way of Zechariah. It was a big decision because even if they got married, he would still have to take public responsibility for Mary’s pregnancy during their espousal period. He did, and that was courageous faith.
Caesar August, the Roman Emperor, issued a decree requiring everyone in the Roman world to register in their ancestral towns. Caesar, whose mobilization of the entire empire’s population, was God’s unwitting agent in the fulfillment of a Messianic prophecy. Each citizen had to register in his ancestral town. Joseph had to register in Bethlehem.
We potentially see a glimpse into the social and religious pressure they were under in their trip to Bethlehem. Joseph didn’t need to take Mary with him to be registered for the census, but he probably did so to protect her from gossip and emotional stress—although we can’t be sure. What we can be sure of is that you’ve got to have a solid reason to plop a pregnant woman, in her third trimester, on top of a donkey and take a long ride.
So, there they were, Mary uncomfortably rocking back and forth on the donkey, and Joseph trudging along into an uncertain future, all because an angel appeared to Zechariah and then to them. This is not what they had planned for their lives. What did it all mean? They didn’t know, but their obedience to God demonstrated their courageous faith. They were the perfect match. The rest . . . is history.
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Dr. Rob Oberto is the award-winning author of “Intimacy With God” available from Amazon.
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