Ordinary People in Extraordinary Roles
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” (Luke 1:26-28)
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:18-19).
For a long time, I have had the conviction that Christians generally think that the key people in the Bible were different. They were people, of course, but they were a cut above normal humans. They were a little more spiritual or a little more godly or a little more untouched by the world. Some of that thinking may have come from ancient pictures in which key biblical people were shown with circles of light around their heads. That way of thinking is incorrect.
The key people in God’s narrative were real people. Some of them were what we might call good or faithful (like Daniel in the Old Testament), but many of them were not faithful at points in their lives. Moses, Abraham, Jacob, David, Peter, and Paul come to mind. They were great leaders, but they either started as flawed people or made huge mistakes after they were in leadership positions. That means that, when we study their lives, we must see them as normal people and we must see God in His grace and righteousness.
I say all that to say this – I want to describe Mary and Joseph and their part in God’s story in a modern setting. I must credit the professor I had for systematic theology at Southwestern Seminary, Bert Dominy, for the idea. My goal is to present Mary and Joseph as real people in a relatable setting.
An Origin from Off the Beaten Path
Let’s imagine that Mary and Joseph were from McCormick – a little out of the way from the rest of the world, but not completely isolated. Mary was a teenager. Her family was thought of as solid. Her dad worked for the power company. Her mom took care of the house and family. Her upbringing was like that of the other girls in town. She and her family were faithful members of their church. They were good, likable people.
Joseph was a young man from a good family – faithful in the church and well thought of in the community. He had gotten a job in a local garage and was already well respected as a mechanic. He was beginning to think about the future and starting a family of his own.
Joseph and Mary had known each other for a long time. They had been in school together over the years. When Joseph thought about choosing a wife, Mary was the first girl he thought of. Whenever he was around her, she seemed to be as interested in him as he was in her. Others observed the two young people as they began to show interest in one another and thought they would make a great family.
They began to date. The relationship became serious. Joseph decided that he would ask Mary to marry him. He did – and she said, “Yes.” They set the wedding date for a few months out. Everyone in the community who knew them and their families was elated that the two were going to be married.
Mary began to make plans for their wedding and home. Joseph went to work every day with the joy and excitement of a young man looking forward to marriage. He even started thinking about what he would name his children when they were born.
The “Save-the-Date” cards went out. A couple of months later, the wedding invitations were mailed. Friends began to RSVP for the wedding and the reception. Everyone in town was looking forward to a great day. The general feeling was, “You know, sometimes things just work out the way they’re supposed to.”
A Shocking Development
One evening after Joseph got home from work, Mary called him and asked him to come to her house. She sounded very serious and a little agitated on the phone. Joseph nervously cleaned up and went across town. When Mary’s mother answered the door, Joseph knew that something was wrong. He could tell that she had been crying, but, at the same time, she seemed excited to see him. Joseph’s stomach was in a knot by the time Mary joined him in the living room.
Mary sat down beside Joseph and told him that she had something important to say to him. Joseph’s heart started pounding. “She’s about to break up with me,” he thought.
Sensing his nervousness, Mary told Joseph that she loved him and very much wanted to marry him. The next thing that she said hit Joseph like a sledgehammer – she said that she was pregnant.
“Pregnant?! What?” The word “pregnant” careened through Joseph’s brain, obliterating his peace of mind. “How can she be pregnant – I’ve never touched her?!” was all Joseph could think. Then, “Who has she been with? How could she do this?” He felt hurt, angry, and betrayed.
What Mary said next didn’t help much – she told Joseph that the angel Gabriel had appeared to her and told her that she was going to give birth to the Son of God.
“She’s blaming God for this!? Unbelievable! And she’s gotten pretty elaborate with this story – she even named the angel! I didn’t realize she had that kind of imagination!” Joseph thought.
Mary told him more about what the angel had said to her, but Joseph heard little of what she said. He was in shock. He had thought Mary was the best girl he knew, but he must have been mistaken. And they lived in a small town and knew all the same people – who had she been with?
Joseph stood to leave. He couldn’t bear to look at Mary. Mary said that it was all right – that she knew her news would be a shock. She told him she knew he couldn’t understand right then, but she hoped he would understand soon. Joseph ran out the door, wiping tears from his eyes.
The next few days were the toughest of Joseph’s life. He struggled to understand how Mary could have been unfaithful to him. He had done everything in their relationship the right way and she had repaid him by getting pregnant. He was so angry that he could hardly face anyone, much less talk to anyone about his situation.
After a few weeks, Joseph’s anger began to subside. He accepted the reality of his situation – that Mary was pregnant with someone else’s baby. There was nothing to be done about that now, he thought. He began to consider how to move forward with his life. He came to the conclusion that he would simply break up with Mary. With the goodness that was deep in his heart, Joseph reasoned, “She’s going to have a hard enough time making it as a single mother. I don’t need to make it harder on her by embarrassing her. I’ll just move on.”
After a long day at work, Joseph went to bed. He planned to break up with Mary in the next couple of days. As he slept, an angel appeared to him in a dream and said, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife. The child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. She will have a Son, and you are to name Him Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”
Joseph woke up full of questions once again. “What kind of dream was that? Was it real? How can I be sure?” Joseph thought about the dream and prayed about what he had been told. He knew (even though he didn’t know exactly how he knew) that the dream was real. He thought about what Isaiah had written in his prophecy about the way the Messiah would come into the world, “Look! The virgin will conceive a Child! She will give birth to a Son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’)” (7:14).
“Maybe Mary wasn’t lying to me,” Joseph thought. “What she told me and what Isaiah prophesied fit together.” Joseph faced a crisis of faith. Believing that he had received instruction from God through the angel in his dream, he decided not to break up with Mary. He decided to go through with marriage.
When he told Mary, she was ecstatic. She assured him that there was no one else in her life. Joseph was convinced of her faithfulness and her love. Their relationship became deeper and richer as they looked to the future together.
The Long and Winding Road
Even though their relationship had been restored, the next few months were difficult. The more obvious Mary’s pregnancy became, the more talk went through the community.
“Look at her – she can’t hide it anymore. And look at him – he’s just putting up with it. Why is he staying with her?”
Mary tried to explain everything to a few of her friends. Most of them couldn’t accept what she said. The ones who loved Mary and wanted to believe her the most gave her the benefit of the doubt.
Joseph’s friends pretty much told him how stupid he was. Only one or two listened to the whole story.
Mary and Joseph understood the shaken heads and the sideways glances, but their resolve remained strong. They knew the truth. They prayed. They read all the prophecies about the Messiah’s birth. About the time they had made plans about when and where Mary would deliver the child, the government became a part of the process.
An announcement was made that a census would be taken, but everyone had to return to their hometown to be counted. The census would help determine representation and taxation. Joseph’s family did not originate in McCormick, which meant he was going to have to travel with a very pregnant Mary to his hometown.
Before they left on the trip, their wedding day arrived. It was a lot different from what they had originally planned. Only the immediate families attended. The reception was at Mary’s house. The refreshments were cake on paper plates and punch in plastic cups. No big crowds, no live music, no dancing. The day wore Mary out. She went to bed – early and alone. Joseph had decided that under the circumstances, he would wait until after she had given birth to consummate the marriage.
The time came and Mary and Joseph left McCormick. They didn’t make great time because they had to make frequent stops. After all, Mary was very pregnant and very uncomfortable. Joseph thought to himself, “If I didn’t know that all this was a part of God’s plan, I’d turn around and go back to McCormick.”
A Less Than Ideal Birthplace
Mary and Joseph finally got to their destination. They immediately got an unwelcome surprise – there was no place to stay. The flood of people who had come into town for the census had overwhelmed all the hotels and motels. Joseph took Mary to every place he could find and pleaded his case, but there was not a room to be found. Finally, a kindly innkeeper took a look at Mary and said, “The best I can do is the storage building in the back. It’s kind of junky, but you can clear out a corner and I’ll give you a mattress to throw on the floor. It’s only $69.95 a night.”
Thankful that he had found a place, but a little irritated at the price, Joseph quickly paid for the space. He knew he needed to get Mary settled somewhere – she was getting more and more uncomfortable. He pulled the car around and unloaded their bags. A motel assistant helped him get the room arranged and Mary was finally able to lie down. She immediately dropped off to sleep. Joseph lay down beside her, thinking he would relax a little before finding something to eat.
The peace didn’t last very long. Mary was awakened by labor pains. It quickly became obvious that it was time for the baby to come. The young husband helped his little wife the best he could. Her labor lasted several hours. Mary hurt and Joseph got fatigued. As with the other parts of their journey and struggle, they leaned on each other and made it through. The baby was born. After cleaning him up a little, Joseph found an empty peach basket on a shelf. He wiped it out, wrapped the baby in a little blanket, and put him in it. The Son of God had made his entrance in the world, not in a palace or a hospital with a staff of doctors and nurses watching over him, but in a storage shed behind an overcrowded motel with only his mother and earthly father present.
The First Visitors
A few miles away, a group of third-shift workers were walking toward their cars in a Waffle House parking lot when they were blinded by light from the sky. They fell to the ground. Shielding their eyes, they saw a figure — an angel! — and they heard the angel say, “Don’t be afraid. I’ve got good news for you. Tonight, the Son of God has entered the world as a newborn baby. And this is how you can be sure you have found the Child – you’ll find the family in a storage building behind a motel and the baby in a peach basket.”
Suddenly the sky was filled with angels singing praises to God – “Glory to our God and peace on earth to those with whom He is pleased.”
Just as suddenly as the light had filled the sky, it vanished, and the little band of friends began to rub their eyes and ask each other what they had seen and heard.
“The angel said something about a motel with a storage shed behind it,” one of them said. “There’s one like that not far from where I live. Let’s go see if that’s the place.”
They all agreed that it was a logical place to look and they left for the little motel. When they got there, they saw a car with out-of-state plates parked by the storage building. They knocked on the door, startling Mary and Joseph.
Joseph went to the door to find out what was going on. He opened the door a little and spoke to the workers. The leader explained what they had seen and what the angel had told them and asked if there was a baby in a peach basket. Joseph couldn’t believe his ears, but by that time he had heard and seen a lot of things he couldn’t explain.
He let the workers in and they quietly walked over to Mary and the baby. Mary was surprised and a little upset that Joseph had let a group of strangers in.
“Wait till you’ve heard their story,” Joseph said with a smile.
The workers explained what they had seen and heard to Mary. She had the same astonishment and assurance as Joseph.
They all looked at the newborn resting in the basket.
“It’s just like the angel said,” one of them remarked. “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself.”
“I know what you mean,” said Joseph.
The workers stayed for a little while. One of them ran down the street to a fast food place that was open and got some food for the little family. When they could tell that Mary needed to rest, they decided to leave.
“God bless you, man,” one of them said to Joseph.
“Thanks, and He already has,” Joseph replied.
As the workers walked away, they talked about how great it was that God had let them in on what He was doing. They agreed that they would never be the same. Even though it was the middle of the night, they all had their cell phones out, calling friends and family to tell them what they had seen.
My objective for this little story was simply to illustrate that Mary and Joseph were common people who had parts in a unique story.
Just like we are.