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 [engaged] couple could carry the death sentence. Any case lodged against them would have been very difficult to defend because she would bring into court the irrefutable evidence of her bulging tummy.
The angel Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah was the event that set-off a series of events resulting in the birth of the Messiah. Zechariah was a priest who had the privilege of serving at the Temple of God in Jerusalem one year. While he was burning the incense on the altar in front of the holy of holies. Gabriel appeared to him saying that his prayer for his wife, Elizabeth, to conceive a child had been answered; they had been childless up to this time. Elizabeth was of advanced years. Yet, according to Gabriel, she would bear a son. The boy was to be named John and he would be the fulfillment of God’s promise to send an Elijah-like forerunner to announce the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah (Malachi 4:5-6).
He will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to make ready for the Lord a prepared people.
“How can I know this?” Zechariah asked the angel. “For I am an old man, and my wife is well along in years.”
The angel answered him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and tell you this good news. Now listen! You will become silent and unable to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.” (Luke 1:16-20)
Zechariah doubted Gabriel’s message and was stricken with the inability to speak until their son was born.
Six months later, Gabriel visited Mary announcing that by the power of the Holy Spirit, she, a virgin, 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.
Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Now listen: You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will call His name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.
Mary asked the angel, “How can this be, since I have not been intimate with a man?”
The angel replied to her: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the holy One to be born will be called the Son of God. (Luke 1:30–35)
In contrast to Zechariah, Mary believed the angel and submitted to God’s will unconditionally. She possessed a courageous faith. She was more devoted to God than she was afraid of being misjudged, condemned, and shamed by the community.
We can imagine the conversation she had with Joseph, “No, Joseph, really, an angel told me.”
“Mary, Mary,” Joseph probably protested, “Zechariah saw an angel, Elizabeth is with child, you’re just imagining that God has done something in your life too.”
All the arguments in her own 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 Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife.
“Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what has been conceived in her is by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to name Him Jesus, b because He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21)
Now Joseph 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; but he did, and that was courageous faith too.
Caesar August, the Roman Emperor, issued a decree requiring everyone in the Roman world to register for a census in their ancestral towns. The decree mobilized the empire’s population. Without Caesar’s decree, Jesus probably wouldn’t have been born in Bethlehem, and therefore the prophecy of His birthplace would not have been fulfilled. Caesar was God’s unwitting agent in the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy. 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 weren’t quite sure, 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.
©2017 Rob Oberto, All Rights Reserved.