A sermon I preached on the Doulos

This is Week 2 of Advent. “Advent” is the 4 weeks leading up to Christmas. Every year, many churches celebrate Advent almost as a month long festival, each week getting closer to Christmas, with excitement and energy building, and finally the great celebration on Christmas eve, and Christmas day.

There is no commandment in Scripture to celebrate Christmas, and some people object to it, on grounds that it’s just the pagan “Winter Solstice” with Christian decorations hung on it… We don’t know exactly what part of the year Jesus was born in. And really, it doesn’t matter. We’re celebrating Jesus, and He was alive before time existed, and He will be forever, so any time at all He is worthy of celebration.

The Jewish calendar has many festivals and special days set apart, including whole Sabbath Years, dedicated to God, and resting in His provision.

These days, we don’t tend to celebrate many, or even any of the feast days of the Old Testament; we’ve taken Romans 14:5 “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike” to mean that all days are equally unimportant. Of course, life in Christ is far more than just celebrating special days, or following hundreds of rules. We have freedom to celebrate, or not celebrate in Christ, who is the Lord of the Sabbath. Everything was made through Him, and for Him.

This week, we’re looking at the lives of Joseph and Mary, in the context of our whole advent theme “Away from Home, but going home”.

Without further ado, let’s go to the Scriptures, in Luke Chapter 1, verse 5.

We’re not yet at Mary and Joseph, but at Mary’s older cousins, Elisabeth and Zechariah.

Luke1: 5

“In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.

Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.

 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Many of the people of Israel will he bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.” Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak. When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion. “The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.“”

So a few things… first, the description of Zechariah and Elisabeth, in verse 6.

Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commandments and regulations blamelessly.

So both of them are good people. We’re talking about pillars of the community. Zechariah is a priest, and well respected. They’re both older, and God describes them through Luke as upright in His sight, and blameless. Nevertheless, Elizabeth felt as if she were under God’s judgement; shamed and disgraced because she had no Children. Maybe similar to how Naomi felt when her husband and sons died. Many people at that time felt that if you didn’t have success, a prosperous home, many sons, then it was a judgement from God on you, because of your, or your parents’ sin. But God doesn’t see them like that. God has kept them from having children until this time so as to display His glory more clearly. We don’t know why. Maybe God wanted John – their baby – to be the firstborn son of Zechariah and Elisabeth.

When the angel speaks to Zechariah, he tells him

“Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard.”

So Zechariah has been praying for a son, over the years. But it seems like even though he was asking God for a son, he wasn’t expecting an answer, as we see in verse 18:

“How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”

Funny isn’t it – he asks God for something, but then isn’t ready to accept it when God does answer his prayer.

So the angel rebukes him, and stops him being able to speak as a sign. He leaves the temple, and everyone was wondering what took him so long inside. The conversation we have recorded here isn’t very long, so I wonder if Zechariah was waiting around inside after the angel vanished, wondering if he’d come back and let him speak again. It would be quite embarrassing, imagine that you were the worship leader, and after the sermon your voice stopped working! Or if I’m up here speaking and suddenly ….

So Zechariah finishes his time at the temple, and then returns home to his wife. She becomes pregnant, and remains alone for about 5 months rejoicing as in verse 25:

“The Lord has done this for me,” she said. “In these days he has shown his favor and taken away my disgrace among the people.“”

Now, finally, we get to Mary and Joseph, in the story, in verse 26:

In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.

So let’s now look at the similarities and differences between the Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah and to Mary. When Zechariah saw the angel, he was “startled, and gripped with fear”. When Mary saw him, she “was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this was.” The NASB says that she was “perplexed”, or confused. When told that he will soon be a father, Zechariah doubts the words of God’s messenger, and asks (in verse 18)

“How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well on in years.”

Mary’s response sounds at first similar (in verse 34)

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

But she doesn’t doubt the words of the angel, like Zechariah does, but instead asks how it is going to happen, since as the NASB puts it she “doesn’t know a man”.

How WILL this be, not How CAN this be. Nor “How can I believe you?” Like Zechariah seemed to say.

So the angel explains to her, and tells her that also, her cousin Elisabeth is pregnant too. Maybe that explains partly why Elisabeth had no children before John, and why she went into seclusion for months. If she were in public, then I think for sure the news would have reached Mary by then. They didn’t have facebook to let each other and the whole world know immediately, but family news like that would travel faster than 5 months…

We carry on the story in verse 39

At that time Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!”

Why would Mary run to her cousins house? Well, Elisabeth was much older than she, and it sounds to me like they were quite close – we read that she entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elisabeth inside, and that Mary called out to her loud enough that Elisabeth heard the greeting first before seeing Mary. She then stays on 3 months, which would bring her visit until the time for Elisabeth to give birth.

Gabriel told Zechariah that his son, John, would be filled with the Holy Spirit even from birth. Other translations say “from the mother’s womb”. Either way, it’s unusual, and God is again stepping into creation and changing things. Also, think of words “Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!” and how they kind of echo Jesus’ own words to Thomas in John 20:29

“Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed”

To continue on the story, we need to go to the book of Matthew next.

Matthew starts off his gospel account with the genealogy of Jesus. Let’s skip over that for now, and start at Chapter 1 verse 18.

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

Joseph was an amazing man… I’ve been thinking about him for the last few days, trying to put myself into his sandals. When Mary finds out from Gabriel that she will be pregnant, she runs off almost the next day to her cousin Elisabeth in the mountains. That’s a long way off, probably 80 or more km. And she stays there for 3 months, which would be until the birth of John, before coming back to Nazareth. The scriptures don’t say how Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant… My guess is that Mary told him. The scriptures also don’t say when he found out… my guess is also that Mary told him after she came back from visiting Elisabeth.

So. How would you react?

I mean, awkward! I don’t know if they were sitting chatting on the 1st century equivalent of one of the orange-boxes on the lounge deck, or if they weren’t allowed by the culture to be alone or how that all worked, or what, but… man.

Or say they weren’t allowed to be alone and somehow the message spread through Elisabeth through the family network until Mary’s father told Jospeh?

It’s like something out of Pride and Prejudice…

Would Mr. Joseph trust his relationship with Mary, or would his affections be diverted by this most vexing of questions of how next to proceed?!

If Joseph believed Mary had betrayed him, and slept with another man, then legally he should divorce her. According to what I read about Roman law of the time, if a man did not divorce an adulterous wife, then he would be guilty of being a “pimp” and she a “prostitute”. She would be punishable by stoning as well…

Even though they weren’t married yet, it seems that betrothal, this vow that Mary and Joseph had, was much more than SP or even engagement in modern times. You couldn’t just break off an engagement, you actually had to write out divorce papers, and it could get all legal and complex very fast with dowry payments and all kinds of things.

I was talking with Jurgens about this, and he suggested maybe she could slip back into her family and remain in seclusion, like Elisabeth, and perhaps they would pretend that the child was not hers, once she had given birth…

But after he had considered 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 home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.” When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

So he didn’t divorce her. Instead, he acted nobly and took her as his wife, as God, through the angel told him to. The last two sentences show how righteous Joseph really was – he didn’t just want to look righteous, but his obedience of God was total. Although he took her as his wife, they didn’t sleep together until after Jesus was born.

Also, the scriptures say

“he gave him the name Jesus”

By naming the child himself, he would be adopting him as his son, legally – thus fulfilling the prophecy that the messiah would come through the house of David, Joseph’s ancestor.

By doing this, Joseph took all possible suspicion upon himself. He didn’t care what other people would say. All his neighbours and family could count, at least up to 9, and they’d know that the baby was born at least 3 months too soon for everything to be completely kosher. By marrying Mary, anyone who talked about it would assume that he was the father, and that they were too impatient, couldn’t wait, were immature, un-Godly, and sinful. Joseph and Mary had to trust God that HIS judgement and opinion meant more than mans.

From what I understand of the culture, back then, Joseph would wait until he had enough money to support himself and his betrothed before they could marry. If they had not married already, this might have meant that financially, he wasn’t ready.

Jumping forward to after Jesus’ birth, when Mary went to the temple with Jesus and Joseph to offer sacrifices to the Lord, and to dedicate Jesus to the Lord as their first-born son, in Luke 2:22, we see that they offer two turtle-doves, or young pigeons. Birds.

In Leveticus 12:6 (you don’t need to turn there), it says that a year old lamb and a young pigeon or turtledove is the right sacrifice. Not two birds, but a lamb and a bird. But, if you cannot afford a lamb, in verse 8, then you may offer two turtledoves or pigeons instead.

So Joseph and Mary were not rich. They were pretty badly off, actually, as they couldn’t even afford to pay for the sacrifices. This is also perhaps why they couldn’t get space in the inn for Jesus to be born.

This young couple were serving God with everything. They had nothing left. They would have lost their reputation, Joseph’s work was already going to be more complicated, with having to go to Bethlehem for the census and everything… probably he had to hire a donkey for Mary, their country was occupied by the Roman Empire which already made that era a very difficult place to live.

You know the story well enough to know that soon afterwards, they had to flee to Egypt for a few years. A new language, new culture, new people, while they were poor, just getting used to being married, they had a new baby…

This was definitely not Mary and Joseph’s plan. They were thrown in the deep end of the swimming pool. But, they were not left to swim or drown on their own. And look how well they took all these changes and uncertainty. Mary’s response to the angel is incredible

“I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said”

They obviously loved the Lord, and were willing to not only risk – but give up – everything for His sake.

Not all of us will have something good to go back to after Doulos. For many on board, there is no “home” to return to. And even if home is comfortable and safe, God may call us to go elsewhere, to abandon our plans and live out on the edge.

Christmas can easily be a happy, comfortable, joyful celebration, and we show Jesus as being in a nice warm barn with happy looking cows and sheep and Mary and Joseph all dressed up well, with clean clothes and everything… it would have been smelly, mucky, stressful, lonely, and dark.

But look past the problems, the pain… John describes Jesus’ birth as > “The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

The most amazing thing, God’s Word, made flesh, living on earth, Jesus, as Paul says in Colossians 1:15

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for Him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”

All God’s Fullness dwelling in Him, yet in this mucky, uncertain, troubled time, with a poor reputation, and little future.

I’m kinda worried about my future, what will happen with Becky and myself, with trying to raise support, trying to figure out where to go, what to do, how to build a life together which can glorify God. What will happen with this ship? With this ministry? With the reputation of OM? Of us?

Looking at the story of Joseph and Mary, seeing how things seemed to fall apart around them when they followed God, and seeing that it’s really not their story, it’s God’s story, is strangely comforting. God used their obedience into such a place for bringing His Son into the world.

Mike has a song prepared, the words are beautiful, looking at the lives of Mary and Joseph, living by and through love for God, and His love for them. While we’re listening, spend some time talking with God about your fears and plans for the future.