December 20, 2020
If you Google World’s Greatest Mysteries, you’ll find lots of opinions. Everything from, what is dark matter (we know it exists, we just don’t know what it is), to, who was Jack the Ripper who terrorized London, to, who’s buried in the tomb of the unknown soldier? The lists are quite varied, so I suppose the idea itself, world’s greatest mysteries, may belong on the list. There was a TV show just three years ago called, World’s Greatest Mysteries, with episodes like:
The Easter Island Monuments
The Treasure of Oak Island
The Devil’s Triangle
and, Area 51
There were lots more, you can look them up. But I have one to add to the list – a mystery of great significance, annually visited. Here it is, ready? Did Mary know? And if she knew, what did she know? We seem a bit confused. You see, the song, Mary Did You Know? was written by Mark Lowry way back in 1984. It’s an annual favorite to some, an annual irritation to others. Some of the lyrics go like this:
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would one day walk on water?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy
Has come to make you new?
This child that you delivered, will soon deliver you.
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would give sight to a blind man?
Mary, did you know that your baby boy
Would calm the storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy
Has walked where angels trod?
When you kiss your little baby
You kiss the face of God?
Mary, did you know?
The song goes on, I’ll stop because some of you cannot now get the tune out of your heads – and you’re irritated with me. But again, the question, did Mary know, and if she did, what did she know? Upon closer investigation, it’s not really much of a mystery. I don’t want to ruin anyone’s favorite Christmas song, but clearly she knew.
There have been lots of traditions and teachings about Mary through the centuries. The Catholic Church, for example, has taught things like the Immaculate Conception – that is, Mary was conceived without sin – no original sin, and no acts of sin – and therefore, no need of a Savior. In fact, they call her the Mother of God, although the Bible does not. So, with that position, sinless Mother of God, some want to make her a co-redeemer with Jesus – she, or Jesus can save you. Further, they teach what is called the perpetual virginity of Mary, that she remained a virgin throughout her life.
There is the Assumption of Mary when she was taken body and soul into heaven – no purgatory for her, not even any future resurrection for her. I suppose that has something to do with her supposed sinlessness. There is also the idea when she arrived in heaven, she was greeted by Jesus and crowned Queen of Heaven. Lots of ideas about Mary – some good, some not. But, what did Mary know, and further, what do we really know, biblically, about Mary and that first Christmas? That’s what I want to talk about today in what is called the Annunciation.
And I want us to know, not just so we can answer the question, did Mary know. I want us to know what she knew, because what she knew is incredibly important. Taking a break from I John, let’s read the text – Luke 1:26-38.
I’m not going to do an exposition of this text – I’ll save it for our study in Luke, coming soon. But clearly, Mary knew something. Further, can we rightly assume that when the angel later appeared to Joseph, that Joseph and Mary compared notes? And when the shepherds appeared at the birth, do you suppose they told Joseph and Mary why they showed up? Mary knew.
She knew that she would bear a son named Jesus – so named because He would save His people from their sins. Did you know, Mary, that your Son would save our sons and daughters? Yes.
She knew He would be called the Son of the Most High – a reference to God.
She knew He would reign over Israel and sit on David’s throne forever – a reference to His messiahship. In fact, the angel told the shepherds, Today in the city of David a Savior has been born for you, who is Christ the Lord. And we’re told after the shepherds’ visit, she treasured all these things in her heart. She knew.
She knew the Holy Spirit would overshadow her – that’s an interesting word. It was used to speak of the presence of God overshadowing the Tabernacle and later the Temple. It would later be used of God overshadowing Jesus and His three disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration. The word spoke of divine presence.
She knew that since God would overshadow her to make her conceive, that the holy Child would be called the Son of God. Did you know, Mary, that when you kissed this little baby, you kissed the face of God? Yes.
Later, when she uttered the Magnificat, she said, my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. Did you know, Mary, that this Son that you delivered would soon deliver you? Yes.
I am suggesting she knew what you need to know about that first Christmas, that to you, too, a Savior has been born, who is Christ the Lord. So, let’s go back to that first Christmas. Let’s look at the circumstances of the birth of Jesus so we can know what it was really like – to see who He really was. I want you to know.
In his book, In Search of the Real Spirit of Christmas, Pastor Dan Schaeffer asks of the first nativity scene, “What’s wrong with this picture?” Jesus, the Son of God, laid in manger? Schaeffer says further, “I’ve heard the story so often that I’ve stopped thinking about it. But when I do think about it, I realize that this scene isn’t normal. And God doesn’t want me to view it as pretty and quaint. He wants me to be appalled at the situation, even bewildered and confused.” We don’t want to be appalled, so we change the scene – we try to sanitize it with our quaint nativity sets – with our sweet Christmas cards and carols – silent night, holy night, all is calm, all it bright. I want us to think about it again and be astonished. It was not a quaint and serene scene, it was not a silent night, especially for those involved, despite what the Christmas cards you receive portray.
For example, look at those parents. First there was Joseph. We don’t really know a lot about him. In fact, he’s the figure most dispensable in nativity sets and Christmas plays – at least, he plays a secondary role.
The Scriptures do call him a righteous man. Just months before that first Christmas had to be the happiest time of his life. He had proposed, or more likely, his parents had arranged a marriage to the girl of his dreams. I know the Bible doesn’t say that – but by this time, even arranged marriages were happy occasions which often took the desires of the prospective couple into consideration. We don’t know how old Joseph was – we suppose he was young, and it was likely his first marriage – we would expect the story to tell us otherwise. He was just a poor carpenter, but he made a good enough living to provide for his soon-to-be wife. True, they lived in Nazareth – a kind-of despised little Galilean community – can any good thing come out of Nazareth? Well, as far as Joseph was concerned, the answer was yes. You see, Mary was there, the one to whom he was betrothed.
At this point, we don’t really know a lot about Mary, either. Again, lots of silly teachings and traditions have arisen, but all we really know is what Luke tells us. Kent Hughes calls her a nobody in a nothing town in the middle of nowhere. She was highly favored, because the Lord was with her. You see, to be highly favored means God had showered His grace on her. We suppose she was quite young – history tells us brides at this time were in their early to mid teens. Oh, and one other important detail – she was a virgin.
Now, we can imagine she, like most brides, was looking forward to the end of her one-year betrothal period, when she would be brought as a pure bride to the man of her dreams. There would be the week-long marriage celebration complete with wedding parade where she would be brought to the home of her beloved Joseph. Certainly, it was to have been the most wonderful time of the year for them. Break out the hot chocolate.
But, something quite unexpected happened. One otherwise uneventful day, the angel Gabriel appeared to teenage Mary and told her she was to have a child. Well, she hoped so – this was the dream of every Jewish girl, to produce a male heir. Problem is, she would have this child before her marriage was consummated to Joseph. And this was not just any child – but the Son of the Most High. Mary was perplexed, how can this be, since I am a virgin? Gabriel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child will be called the Son of God.” She knew.
Now, stop right there just a moment. Again, we’re so used to the story, but place yourself in this young girl’s sandals. She’s not married – at least, she’d not had physical relations with Joseph yet, and she’s found to be pregnant. Both she and Joseph know he’s not the father. This was scandalous. Certainly, the fact that betrothed Mary, before the marriage was consummated, being found pregnant, would at least make the town’s gossip columns and raise eyebrows. And her story, her defense? I’m pregnant by the Holy Spirit.
Suddenly, this most wonderful time of the year isn’t quite so happy. In fact, she goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth – very likely to deal with the potential scarlet letter she’ll be forced to bear. Luke tells us she arose and went in a hurry, and stayed there three months – until John was born. Meaning, she returned to Nazareth just as she was beginning to show.
In the meantime, Joseph is no doubt crushed. Again, he knows he’s not the father. If he wanted, the law gave him the right to have Mary stoned. The love of his life, seemingly, surely unfaithful. But, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, he was thinking of divorcing her and sending her away quietly.
Now, why would God do it this way? What’s wrong with this picture? Why wouldn’t He have Jesus born to a more prominent and respectable family, in more acceptable circumstances? Why not to Caesar Augustus, the most powerful man in the world? Oh, to be sure the Messiah was promised through the seed of Abraham, of the line of David, but couldn’t Jesus have been born to a more prominent Jewish family? Couldn’t He have been born to a Jewish family in Rome, or Alexandria, or even Jerusalem? The highly questionable circumstances of this first Christmas were not likely the way you would have written the script – this was scandalous. Why did God do it this way?
Well, you know what then happened. While Joseph is in the deep throes of despair, the angel of the Lord, probably Gabriel, appeared to him in a dream and said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife – it’s true – the child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.”
And so Joseph awoke from his sleep and did what the angel commanded – took pregnant Mary as His wife. There’s no record of the week-long marriage ceremony or the parade to his house. The fact is, she remained a virgin until Jesus was born – meaning no physical intimacy between new husband and wife. And, they were assuredly the gossip of the town’s rumor mill. The most wonderful time of the year?
But then it gets worse. Caesar Augustus, the Roman emperor, issued a decree that a census should be taken of all the inhabited earth. A bit arrogant – he wasn’t the ruler of the whole earth – but at least he wanted to know how many people he did rule – likely for tax purposes to write next year’s budget. Everyone was commanded to go and register at the place of their ancestral origin – their forefather’s place of birth. (2020 census) Joseph was of the line and family of David, so he had to go to Judea – to the town of Bethlehem, to register.
Now – you know what’s about to happen – Jesus will be born there. But why there? This story goes from bad to worse. Of course, Bethlehem, you say, Micah 5:2 said He would be born there. And we have sweet thoughts of this precious cozy little town – just look at the covers of the Hallmark cards. “Oh little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie; above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.” How serene. Actually, Micah says of this two-bit town, “But as for you, Bethlehem, too little to be among the clans of Judah, From you One will go forth for me to be ruler in Israel.” From Nazareth to Bethlehem was not much of an upgrade. Bethlehem was too puny to be considered of any account. Again, why was Jesus born there – why didn’t God choose a more important urban center for the birth of His Son? What’s wrong with this picture?
As Mary and Joseph arrive, we assume because of the crowds gathered for the census – they weren’t shopping – there was no room of them in the inn. Now, I don’t know what you think of when you think of an inn – but that wouldn’t have been a quaint bed and breakfast complete with individual rooms, feather beds, private baths, and muffins and hot coffee for breakfast. Even if there had been room, they would have been crowded into a single room lined with cots and a fire pit in the center for warmth and cooking.
But, there wasn’t even room in those fine accommodations. So Luke tells us, very simply, that “While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” Is that how you would have done it? We’re so used to the story it doesn’t astonish us – but it should.
We assume from that brief account Jesus was born in a stable, surrounded by animals, since a manger was a feeding trough for animals. But there is no mention of animals – no cattle lowing, no ox and lamb keeping time. We imagine the innkeeper, who is never mentioned, showing them to a barn or a cave where the animals were kept. Hardly sanitary, hardly the place for the birth of the Savior of the world. No mention is made of labor and delivery, although contrary to tradition, we suppose it was quite the same as any other delivery. Only mother and father, left alone in a stable with no midwife to help.
Somehow, I doubt this young mother found her circumstances quaint. There, she went into labor, crying out in pain and fear, with beleaguered Joseph as her only attendant. We see a romanticized picture of round yon virgin mother and child, holy infant so tender and mild, complete with halos for all present. But there were no trendy flannel sleepers, just strips of cloth. No crib made by the skilled hands of a father-carpenter – just a manger. Why would God do it like this? What’s wrong with this picture? You can’t recreate this drama with a nativity scene, no matter how hard you try.
Who else was present at the birth? The magi didn’t actually make it till some time later. By the way, when they finally did arrive, following the star, we have the further Hallmark image of them worshiping and presenting gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, true enough. But, Matthew tells us it led to slaughter. “Then when Herod saw that he had been tricked by the magi, he became very enraged, and sent and slew all the male children who were in Bethlehem and all its vicinity, from two years and under….Then what had been spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled, ‘A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children; and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more.’” Does anyone have that scene depicted in their nativity sets? Soldiers slaughtering babies? Kind of messes up the holly, jolly white Christmas thing, doesn’t it?
Back to those actually present at the birth. By the way – no angels were present at the maternity ward either – they simply announced the birth to the shepherds out in the fields, watching their flocks by night. But, having heard the news, we read the shepherds did make their way into town where the child lay in the manger. And they went from there telling everyone who would listen what had been told to them about the child. Mary knew.
But, therein lies another problem. No one listened to poor, lowly shepherds. They were the among the dregs of society – considered thieves and unreliable. In fact, they weren’t even permitted to give testimony in a court of law. And here they were, the most unlikely characters of all, announcing the birth of the Messiah. Who would listen to them about a child born in Bethlehem, and the supposed appearance of a heavenly host of angels? They probably just had too much to drink. What’s wrong with this picture?
Who else was present at the birth? One key figure we’ve left out in the center of the nativity – the baby, Jesus. And if true, He was the Son of God, God in the flesh. Back to Pastor Schaeffer, “Christmas is the day we celebrate the entrance of the eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, all-righteous, all-holy, and glorious God into our world. When I stop and consider this fact and then look at that scene of the baby Jesus in the manger, I scratch my head and say, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’” Think of it, the God of the universe, too glorious to look upon lest we die, lying in a foul feeding trough. The God before whom great people of the past like Moses and Isaiah fell on their faces, from whom angels hide their faces, in a filthy stable. Two other significant things you have to remember about this birth:
Philippians 2 tells us, first, although He existed in the form of God and did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, nevertheless, He emptied Himself, this God of the universe, and took on the form of a bond servant and was made in the likeness of men. He humbled Himself, taking on the appearance of a man. Most agree this self-abasement, this self-humbling, this emptying included the voluntary laying aside of His glory – the preeminent and infinite display of His majesty. He wrapped Himself – this glorious God – in human flesh.
Further, Philippians also tells us is the reason He came – to become obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.
So, let’s review – Mary loses her virginity, well, at least her reputation and loses her childhood dream of a wedding ceremony in which everyone celebrates. Joseph becomes the laughingstock of the community – at least they think he’s crazy. Mary gives birth to a child while on a mandated trip to a nothing community and is forced to lay her firstborn in a manger, wrapped in strips of cloth. Forty days later, they’re so poor that when they present Jesus at the Temple, as required, they can’t afford the normal offering of a lamb, but present instead the two turtledoves or pigeons allowed for poor people. We spend more every year on gifts under the tree than they could afford to spend to present the Savior of the world.
The angels who were present – not at the stable or the cave or wherever it was – but out in the fields. They announced to shepherds, and to us, the birth of Jesus with these words:
“Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people, for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men, with whom He is pleased.”
Good news of great joy for all the people – a Savior for the world has been born. While it will cost Him His life on a cross, it will mean forgiveness of sin and eternal life for all who believe.
As we close this morning, let me answer this question, at least to the best of my limited understanding, why would God do it like this? Why did Jesus came to a poor, working class couple in a no-count town in a little middle-eastern country, under oppressive Roman rule, where there was no room for Him in an inn, and be laid in a manger, and His birth announced to lowly, despised shepherds – why did God do it like that?
I believe the eternal God lying helplessly in a manger is an object lesson impossible to ignore. It is true, there was no room for Him in the inn. Yet in truth, there was no room for Him anywhere. This nativity scene, forever fixed in time, reminds us not only of His character, but of ours. The Creator came to a hostile world, not with divine wrath prepared to destroy all those who would treat Him with contempt, but in divine mercy and love prepared to endure all we would throw at Him. Could God’s attitude of love and mercy toward a hostile and rebellious world be made more clear than being found in a manger?
While lying in a manger, God was extending an invitation to all who would come. He was announcing in a dramatic way He had come to be available and accessible to all who would believe, even a nothing couple, even lowly shepherds. Let me finish with the words Pastor Schaeffer:
“Whenever I am tempted to blurt out, ‘Lord, you don’t know what it’s like to be humiliated like this,’ He points to the manger. When I cry out, ‘Lord, I deserve better than this,’ He points to the manger. When I tell God, ‘You see all these injustices in my life? Why don’t you change them; you have the power,’ He reminds me of the manger. This isn’t the stuff of Christmas cards; it is the stuff of transformation. What’s wrong with this picture? Not a thing! Though the manger is disturbing, the message it brings is anything but. For this primitive scene of our God lying in a manger reminds us of this precious truth: We’re no longer alone.” Immanuel, God with us, has come.