The tribulations of Mary did not end with the long, two year exile in Egypt. They continued throughout her life until that awful day, some thirty years later when she stood at the base of a Roman cross on a hillside just outside of Jerusalem and watched as her first born son suffered and died in unimaginable agony. Throughout her whole life she suffered the supposed indignity of having borne an illegitimate child. People can be so cruel, at times, and the Gospels report on several occasions that people never forgot that Mary developed a preposterous story regarding the origins of her first child.
Her tribulations began in the sixth months of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Elizabeth was a relative of some distance, and had become pregnant quite miraculously. She was old, and far beyond child bearing age, but God still saw fit to grant her the grace of becoming a mother. Her child, named John, is the one we know as John the Baptist, and he was the one who paved the way for the emerging ministry of Jesus.
It was during the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy that Mary’s trials and tribulations began. During that month, the angel Gabriel suddenly and unexpectedly paid her a visit. And during that visit he revealed to her some completely unexpected and uninvited news. It is difficult for us to comprehend how unwelcome that news was unless we understand that her objection to it was immediate and steadfast. Mary had no intention whatsoever of becoming pregnant. Even though Mary and Joseph were engaged, they had covenanted with one another not to engage in sexual activity until after they were married. This decision and covenant was probably as rare in the first century as it is now in the twenty-first century. This was not a covenant that Mary would easily break. She was fully committed to it. But by the time that her conversation with the angel Gabriel is completed, she agrees to the plan and makes the difficult decision to be obedient to God. Did she, in making the decision consider some of the potential consequences of her obedience? I strongly suspect that she did. Mary was a thinker and a ponderer, and a wise girl for her age. She understood that oftentimes obedience to the will of God brings unintended and often dramatic consequences to a person’s life.
Chronology is difficult to nail down in the Christmas story, but Luke makes it very plain that after Mary’s angelic visitation that she wasted no time in getting out of town. And we do not have to imagine why. Mary had completely disgraced herself. She had openly and obviously committed adultery against her husband to be. In doing so, she had also disgraced and brought shame on her whole family and her community of loved ones and friends. Her crazy story of being visited by an angel was believed by no one. It made no practical sense at all. She had become a laughing stock in the community and a religious outcast for her failure to confess her sins. She had no option but to run away. She had become a pariah. She knew well the legal ramifications that also loomed over her head. While stoning was rare in the first century, it was not unknown. She knew that she could be stripped naked, paraded through the streets and taken to the place of stoning. Probably worst of all, she received no sympathy at all from the man she loved. And how ironic. It was her steadfast commitment to remain a virgin until the day that she was married, that had thrown her mercilessly into this terrible predicament. It was her dedication to God and to Joseph that had so radically and so horribly transformed her life. There was nothing in Nazareth to keep her there. No love, no sympathy, and certainly no understanding, not even a whisper of it. And so she ran away.
We do not know exactly where Elizabeth and Zechariah lived, other than that it was a Judean town in the hill country. And thanks be to God, once there, Mary found some sympathy and love and understanding. But most wonderfully, she also experienced some belief. Nevertheless, the three months that Mary spent with Zechariah and Elizabeth must have been the longest three months of her life. Other than Zechariah and Elizabeth, she had no one in this world who had any sympathy for her or for her story. Even in the company of Elizabeth and Zechariah, she must have been feeling incredibly alone. And, most likely, during this time, and probably completely unknown to her, Joseph was making plans to divorce her. In the first century, an engagement of a couple was as binding as a marriage, and it required a divorce to dissolve it. In spite of his total disappointment in Mary, and because of his broken heart and his righteous character, Joseph determined not to make a public spectacle of her, which was his every right, but rather, he decided to legally end the relationship as quietly as possible.
But after three months of pondering just how to go about doing this, Joseph had an angelic vision of his own. I am not, of course, impressed with this delay, and neither are any of us here this morning. I want to know, why, if God is in this, why didn’t Mary and Joseph have simultaneous angelic visions? Wouldn’t it have made things a little bit better? Couldn’t some unnecessary heartbreak have been averted? Wasn’t there enough heartbreak to go around already? Couldn’t God have fixed this one little thing? And the answer, of course, is yes. God can and does fix things. But as human beings we cannot always fathom the wisdom and the mystery of our God. Sometimes God does not fix things to our satisfaction, and this is where faith and trust must enter in. We must be content to understand that what God does is always right and proper, especially when it does not match our own expectations.
It is very likely that as soon as Joseph received word from the angel of the Lord, that he made the journey to Elizabeth and Zechariah’s home, where he wasted no time in restoring his relationship with Mary. They may even have spent some time celebrating with the new parents as they welcomed their son into the world. I’ll not speculate, though, on what life might have been like for them once they returned to Nazareth, other than to say that I don’t expect that there was much improvement of attitude among the locals.
Not many months later, as Mary entered the end stages of her pregnancy, due to an unfortunate census ordered by the emperor Augustus, Mary and Joseph were required to travel the 100 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to be registered. Not being a woman, and never having been pregnant, I can only imagine that this could have not been a pleasant trip. It must have taken them more than a week; longer if Mary was physically unable to keep up the pace. Were there people along the way who offered their assistance? Let us pray that it was so. Otherwise it would have been an arduous trek indeed. And we all know what happened once they arrived. It is one of the better known elements of the Christmas story, and very nearly a complete disaster, not to mention a huge disappointment. No suitable place to give birth to a child could be found. It must have been terribly frightening. Was a mid-wife located or did Joseph deliver the baby himself?
It is here, though, in Bethlehem, where the Christmas story goes completely awry, and chronology becomes impossible to determine. In Luke’s account, Mary and Joseph return to Nazareth not long after Jesus was born. But Matthew paints a much grimmer picture. In Matthew’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph stay in Bethlehem for as much as two years after Jesus was born. It was during this time that the wisemen visited and honored the young Jesus with their gifts. But I wonder, did Mary and Joseph miss their hometown of Nazareth, or was there really no good reason for them to go home, anyway? Did they plan to make a go of it in Bethlehem, and chart out a new life for themselves? We’ll never really know, because what plans they may have had to stay in Bethlehem came to a sudden crashing halt with the visit of the wisemen. It really wasn’t the wisemen’s fault; they had no
reason to expect that Herod was a mentally ill despot. But their visit certainly stirred up Herod’s wrath. But because Herod’s wrath was kindled, Mary and Joseph had to pull up stakes and flee to Egypt. The border of Egypt is 75 miles south of Bethlehem, and so this represents yet another arduous journey. Did Mary and Joseph have any idea, or did they hear of the horrible slaughter and the grief and loss that ensued after they escaped from Bethlehem? Did some of their friends and acquaintances have sons who died in that massacre?
But what awaited this newly formed family in Egypt was a foreign land, a foreign culture, a foreign religion and a foreign language. They were refugees in every sense of the word. If we consider our own attitudes toward refugees we will get a sense of how this new family must have been treated in Egypt. We know nothing of their story there, other than that they probably spent about two years there also.
The Christmas story is not at all as pretty as we would like for it to be, in spite of centuries of hard work trying to clean it up and make it pretty. In fact, the Christmas story is a dark and dangerous story filled with heartbreak, disaster and loss. But this is the broken world into which our Savior came, and it is the same broken world in which we must live. Faithless and faithful must live within the realm of its brokenness, and all suffer the consequences of this world’s deterioration and decay.
But this is also the same world that our Savior came to redeem. And he is present today in our midst continuing the work of that redemption. But he does that work, not by altering societal structures, or cultures or kingdoms, but rather by redeeming broken hearts, one person at a time. In all of their trials and tribulations and dislocations and fears and losses, Mary and Joseph never lost faith and trust in God. Called by God to be his servants, we can do no less, no matter what this broken world hurls at us.