Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Mary & Joe - a modern day narrative

Dear Friends,
Have you ever wondered what it would have really been like for Mary and Joseph? It’s so easy for us to quickly read their story at Christmas time, look at the pictures and romanticize about a cozy, warm barn with cute baby animals and fresh clean straw. And of course we all know that Mary rode to Bethlehem in comfort on the back of a donkey. Or did she? But what if we were to put our self into the Nativity? What if we were to imagine what the hardships were like for a teenage girl that’s nine months pregnant? Come and take a journey with me as we time travel our beloved Christmas story to a new time and place...

You’re a young, teenage girl living right here in this part of the San Fernando Valley and you come from a loving but poor family. Your father works and has a decent job so he is able to keep the family fed, but that's about it.

You recently got engaged to this guy, named Joe, who's a carpenter working for a framing contractor building houses. He doesn't make a lot of money either, but he’s just a few years older than you are and he’s just starting out. Both you and Joe come from good church-going families and always try to do the right things. You’re a good girl and you’ve never slept with any boys, and you and Joe agree that you won’t sleep together until you are married. Then the most astounding thing happens...

God sends the angel Gabriel to the San Fernando Valley to visit you. It sounds so normal when we say it like that but it actually scares you half to death. Instantly Gabriel appears before you and says: “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you!” You’re frightened and confused and you try to think what the angel could mean. “Don’t be afraid!” the angel tells you, “for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give Him the throne of his ancestor David. And He will reign over Israel forever; His Kingdom will never end!” (Luke 1:26-33)

Wait! Pregnant? This is impossible! You’ve been a good girl! There must be some mistake here!  You ask the angel, “But how can this happen? I am a virgin!” The angel replies, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God... For nothing is impossible with God.” No Way! You're just a teenager! And you're going to have the Son of God? (Luke 1:34-37)

Is this really happening? What are your friends from the neighborhood going to think?  What’s your dad going to say? And will this be a deal-breaker with Joe? How is he going to handle the news? But you think about this and tell the angel Gabriel, “I am the Lord's servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” You then take a selfie with the angel so that you can prove to Joe and your family what really happened and when you look up, the angel is gone. You look at the photo on your phone and just see you and a very intense spot of brilliant white light. (Luke 1:38)

You are suddenly alone and now instantly and miraculously pregnant. What do you do now? You go see Aunt Liz who is very wise and a strong woman of God. Liz is a pastor’s wife and she’s also pregnant with a boy who will be called John. Liz lives with her husband Zacharias in the hill country they call Sylmar because that’s where the olive trees are. You pack your bag for a three month stay and go racing over there. (Luke 1:39-40) (Luke 1:56)

As soon as you get there and you greet Liz, her baby John jumps in her womb and Liz is instantly filled with the Holy Spirit. And Liz says to you in a loud voice, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! “But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.” Now Liz always talks a little oddly like that, but you cut her some slack because she’s a pastor’s wife and she spends a lot of time in church. (Luke 1:41-45)

But what Liz has done is to bring you to a full realization that you are soon to be the mother of the Lord. After receiving Liz’s blessing, you just do what comes naturally in the Presence of God. You burst out into praise and worship!

You sing: “My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, And holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him From generation to generation. He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, And exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, And the rich He has sent away empty.” 

And as you finish your song to the Lord, you’re realizing that you are starting to sound a little like your Aunt Liz. (Luke 1:46-55)

You return home, now three months pregnant and just starting to show a baby bump.  You realize that you need to tell Joe and, as you expected, he is very, very, upset about this. Because he had never slept with you, the only thing he could be absolutely certain about was that your baby was not his. It was obvious to him that you had been unfaithful and the law was very clear on the penalty for that. California Penal Code 22:23,24 clearly states: “If a young woman who is a virgin is betrothed to a husband, and a man finds her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones.” There is no mercy and no appeal process – not even Governor Newsom can pardon this crime. In California, if you cheat, you die. Joe doesn’t know what to do. He’s grown to love you and made a commitment to make you his wife, but there’s no way he can marry you now. In fact, as far as he’s concerned, you’ve insulted his intelligence by telling him that God had gotten you pregnant. Wait.. You say a “Spirit” got you pregnant? Yeah.. Sure, Mary... (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)

But fortunately for you, God always seems to have everything under control in your life and God’s got this one handled too. When Joe is fretting about what to do, “Behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Hey Joe, son of David, do not be afraid to take your betrothed for your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins. So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which is translated, ‘God with us.’” (Matthew 1:20-23)

Wow! Okay.. that’s a gamechanger! So you and Joe are good now. And it’s getting time for you to deliver. You can’t wait. You’re still helping your mom around the house, but it’s getting harder and harder and you’re getting tired quickly and needing to rest a lot during the day.

And now, you and Joe get just about the worst news possible. The entire country is reeling from some governmental decrees. The Emperor, Caesar Augustus had rolled out a new health plan called CaesarCare that was not being at all well received. And as CaesarCare was tanking, the Emperor decided that it needed to be bailed out by the government and the only way he could do that would be to raise taxes. So the Emperor decreed that every man needed to go back to the city of their family of origin to be registered so that he could make sure that everyone was paying their full share of taxes. (Luke 2:1-3)

This is bad news. Joe came from David’s family and they had come from Santa Barbara. That means Joe’s got to go to Santa Barbara and you’ve got to go with him.  And Joe doesn’t make enough to afford a car and your neighbor offered you his donkey to ride but your doctor told you absolutely no horseback or donkey riding because the bouncing up and down when you're nine months pregnant isn't good. So you guys are just going to have to do what everyone else does and walk. You don’t know how far it is from the San Fernando Valley to Santa Barbara but you google it and find that it’s about 70 miles. (That happens to be about the same distance from Nazareth to Bethlehem.) (Luke 2:4-6)

A strong, healthy man or woman can walk 20 miles in one day but you wonder how far and how fast you can walk when you’re nine months pregnant. You can only take a few things to carry. Water and a little food. No extra clothing. You leave the laptop at home. You’ve got to travel light.  

After 2½ long hard days of walking you reach Ventura but here’s your dilemma. You can’t go any further because you’ll soon be in Summerland which is also called Samaria. Now everyone knows that the people who live in Summerland-Samaria and the people of the San Fernando Valley have been bitter enemies for centuries. That’s why everyone from the San Fernando Valley always avoids going through Summerland-Samaria if they can. (Luke 9:51-56) You and Joe talk about taking your chances on passing through their little beach town, but no one will give you food or shelter and they will very likely try to harm you both.

Joe is very protective of both you and the baby so you do what everyone else does when they travel north and south. Once you and Joe get to Ventura, you cross the Ventura river and go inland to Ojai. From there you go around Summerland-Samaria by taking the back roads to Santa Barbara. Normally, this is an enjoyable diversion in beautiful hills and mountain passes but your feet are so sore that there are times when you just don’t think you can take another step.

You wake up in the mornings feeling sick to your stomach and dread another full day of walking. You thank God that Joe is very loving and gives you plenty of time to rest. Your back hurts so much right now and you get short of breath even climbing small hills. But Joe is helping you walk and he’s even patient when you need to stop at every fourth bush to go to the bathroom. It’s taking forever to get to Santa Barbara. Having to avoid the dangerous Summerland-Samaria added another two days to your painfully long trip.

The one thing that’s helped you since you started out from the San Fernando Valley a week ago is the thought of staying in that cute bed and breakfast right there on the beach that overlooks the ocean. Your Aunt Liz recommended it and it’s a quaint little inn with free wi-fi and Victorian furnishings in all the rooms. 

And now you’ve finally arrived in Santa Barbara and you wonder if maybe you should see a doctor. This pregnancy thing is all new for you but from what your mom and Aunt Liz told you, you’re thinking this could be time. The pains are getting sharp and intense. But you’ve been on the road walking for a week now, it’s getting dark, starting to rain and all you can think about is a hot bath at the inn.  

And of course we all know what happens next. Because we’ve read your story and we know that you forgot to make reservations. The innkeeper and his wife are very kind and apologetic as they explain to you that they are completely filled up and there is no more room at their inn. And because of so many people who have come to Santa Barbara to register for the Emperor’s new tax assessment, all the inns, hotels and motels are also filled. But the innkeeper tells you that there’s an old storage shed in the back where he lets his dogs and cats go in to get out of the rain. He says that you and Joe are welcome to spend the night there.

As you walk hand in hand in the drizzling rain with Joe to the back of the property and to a cold, unheated shed you can’t imagine that this is what God had planned for you. Something must have gone terribly wrong. You are cold, wet and exhausted. The excruciating pains are lasting longer and coming just a few minutes apart. Can anything good come out of this miserable night...? (Luke 2:7)

"For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: "Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!" Luke 2:11-14
Have you ever thought about why Mary did go to Bethlehem with Joseph? A physically exhausting trip just right before she is about to have her first child? And, we don’t know how she got there. You might remember Sunday School pictures of her riding a donkey but that’s a church legend and not biblical. She most likely did what everyone else did. She walked. But why did she go? The census was only to count men. Women literally didn’t “count” in those days. Mary could have stayed home and family members would have cared for her and helped through the birthing process. Jesus could have been born in Nazareth in a warm, comfortable home.  

But God’s autobiography, the Bible, tells us that His plan was for the Son of God to be born in Bethlehem. The prophet Micah had prophesied that 700 years before. And yet, it would be nearly impossible for Mary to know that. Mary may have sensed that she was simply following the will of God to go to Bethlehem with Joseph. Mary didn’t know how things would turn out. But we know her faith and trust in God was strong.

We don’t know how things will turn out in our own lives either. But like Mary, it is only when we follow God in trust, faith and obedience that we live our lives according to His plans and purposes for us. And on our own journey, when we can’t see clearly what tomorrow will bring, we know that when we’re following God, somehow, everything will turn out okay...

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