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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Mary and the Shame of the Manger

From the outside looking in, it would have been the mother of all unwanted pregnancies. You’re betrothed to a righteous man, you are pregnant with a baby that isn’t his, and your only story is that an angel told you that the baby would be conceived by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:34-35). To the average person, Mary was not in an enviable position. The birth of this child under these circumstances would be a stigma that followed her until her dying breath. In fact, had it taken place today, many of those around her might have counseled her to terminate the pregnancy.

Imagine the difficulty of sharing the news with Joseph. Mary had just spent three months in the hill country at the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the expectant parents of John the Baptist. When Mary returned to Nazareth, she was at least three months along, possibly more. Whether she was showing or not, there would have to be a measure of disbelief in the heart of Joseph at the news that his bride-to-be was expecting.

Did she even try to explain? We don’t know. But we do know that whether she offered an explanation or not, Joseph purposed to divorce her.

Our society has become more and more accepting of young unwed mothers. It happens so frequently that many people don’t think a thing of it. It’s commonplace to see pregnant girls walking around our high schools. They may receive some poor treatment, but it won’t follow them for life, and they more than likely will get married to someone someday. But in 1st century Palestine, young female divorcees with illegitimate children were not considered marriage material. Joseph’s decision to put her away quietly mostly likely would mean that Mary would remain single for life. She would be considered a whore and her son would be considered illegitimate forever. That Joseph eventually changed his mind would have done little to mute whispers of her sin.

And all the shame and awful treatment was not even a result of her sin. Normally, when an unwed girl gets pregnant, she has something to regret. She goes through that experience knowing that the bottom line truth is that she is reaping the consequences for her actions. But Mary would be an object of widespread public scorn through no fault of her own.

But we find no evidence in Scripture that she was bothered by this at all. In fact, we find that she walked through the whole experience with great joy. I think there are two reasons for this.

First, Mary knew who she was. After Gabriel gave her the news that she would give birth to the Son of God, in spite of any misgivings about how society would regard her, she responded, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (1:38). Mary was the servant of the Lord. She understood that her life was not her own.

We westerners have such an intense sense of individuality that it is difficult for us to stomach enduring difficult things that we did not bring upon ourselves. We have an acute allergy to “unfairness”. There is the notion that our rights guarantee us a freedom from unjust suffering.
But the word translated “servant” in Luke 1:38 is translated elsewhere as “bondservant”. A bondservant was someone who had made a decision to relinquish his freedom and remain in the service of his master for life. His entire existence revolved around his master. Bondservants didn’t have rights. Whatever the master required of him, he did.

And Mary considered herself to be a bondservant of the Lord. Her identity was one of service to God. There was no question of fairness. There was only obedience. She knew who she was and because of that, she obeyed without looking back.

Second, Mary knew who the Child was. Gabriel made it clear: this Child would be the Son of God (1:35). Mary understood the significance of what He would do (1:31-33, 46-55). He was to be a Savior. She rejoiced in God, saying, “From now on all generations will call me blessed, for he who is mighty has done great things for me” (1:48-49). Any consideration of how she would be viewed by her immediate culture paled in comparison to how she would eventually be seen, as the chosen mother of the Christ, the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham and his offspring (1:54-55).

And when He was born, she felt no shame. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart (2:19).

There are many in the church today who are reluctant to speak up and tell people what they really believe about Jesus Christ. They don’t want people to think that they are weird. To be blunt, they are ashamed of Him. The stigma attached to being a Christian today is nothing compared to what Mary faced, and yet she joyfully accepted it, while so many now refuse.

If any of us are among the ashamed, I have to wonder, do we know who we are and do we know who He is? Do we understand ourselves to be servants of Christ, that our very existence is for His glory and that we have been tasked with making Him known? Do we really understand who He is, that He is the difference between eternal life and eternal death for every soul around us? If we were convinced of those two things, I can’t help but think that we would be more like Mary, joyfully bearing the Son, unashamed of Him, treasuring Him enough to speak His name to one and all.

Christmas isn’t over yet. For most of us there will still be opportunities to engage people with the gospel. Don’t be content to exchange the normal Christmas pleasantries. You are his servant and He is a Savior. Tell people.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Joseph and the Shame of the Manger

Matthew 1:18-25

The shame of the manger? As we celebrate Christmas 2000 years removed from the event, it may seem odd that there was any shame attached to the birth of Christ. We think of the tremendous privilege given to Joseph and Mary to be chosen to parent Immanuel. And undoubtedly, Joseph and Mary felt that way. But what would those outside of Jesus’ earthly family have made of His birth and how would it have affected the community’s view of Joseph and Mary? Would they have been regarded with admiration or contempt?

We know that Mary and Joseph were betrothed prior to her conception by the Holy Spirit. But betrothal in the Jewish culture in that day was far more serious and binding than is engagement today. The parents of a boy would choose a girl to be engaged to their son. When the couple were of age, there would be a legal agreement before witnesses establishing their engagement, after which they were bound to each other as if married. This engagement lasted approximately one year, during which time the two were considered man and wife. (Thus, Matt 1:19 refers to Joseph as Mary’s husband prior to their actual marriage.) After the engagement year, the legal marriage was performed, and then consummated sexually. So, in the eyes of Mary and Joseph, and their families and community, they were bound together for life, though they had not yet officially married.

The book of Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ birth primarily from Joseph’s point of view. Joseph had a moral dilemma. Mary had become pregnant and he knew that the baby couldn’t be his since their marriage had not been consummated (1:18). The only rational explanation was that Mary had committed adultery. Such an offense would have warranted Joseph’s public humiliation of Mary in order to save his own reputation.

However, there were two things that prevented him from doing this, according to v19: he was a righteous man, and he did not want to disgrace her. So he decided to divorce her quietly.
This is a significant thing. Joseph’s quiet divorce from Mary would have been eyed suspiciously by their community. His refusal to shame her would have resulted in his own acceptance of some measure of shame. In the eyes of that culture, had he been guilty of nothing, the normal thing to do would have been to make public the sin of Mary, thereby saving his own reputation. His silence would have been received as an admission of guilt.

And at this point in the narrative, already we see in Joseph a man willing to bear the shame of something he did not do, all the while acting with compassion on the one he thought was guilty.
We know from the following verses (20-25) that the angel of the Lord let Joseph in on the truth surrounding Mary’s pregnancy: “for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Obediently, Joseph took Mary as his wife, but did not have relations with her until the Child was born.

But think for a moment about the circumstances. Joseph could tell the story far and wide about the angel coming to him in a dream. He could take an oath before all, staking his reputation on the testimony he received from God that Mary had never committed adultery, but had conceived by the Holy Spirit. He could have sworn up and down that the situation was not at all the way it appeared. He could have revealed that the baby Mary was carrying was Immanuel, promised through the prophet Isaiah. But who would have believed him? Regardless of his story or the sincerity with which he seemed to tell it, Joseph would have been regarded as one of two things: either he himself was a fornicator, who impregnated Mary prior to their marriage, or he knowingly married an adultress. Either way, he was not a man to be admired, but a man to derided and shamed. Joseph was to be regarded as the father of an illegitimate son.

We find evidence that this is the case in John 8:41, where the Jews taunt Jesus, saying, “We were not born of fornication. We have one Father: God.” The implication is obvious. They believed Jesus to be illegitimate, that is, born of fornication. Their claim to have one Father may have been a jab implying that Jesus had two fathers – Joseph and a birth father with whom Mary committed adultery. Remember, John 8 takes place when Jesus is over 30 years old. The cloud of his assumed disgraceful paternity had followed Him all His life.

But one thing is almost certain. At Jesus’ birth, as Joseph looked down on the swaddled baby, God in human flesh sleeping in a trough, the derision of the world over his assumed sin must have been the last thing on his mind. There lay the Hope of all the world, the One who would save His people from their sins. There was no shame. There was no regret. There was only joy.
I would imagine that Joseph gladly endured the whispers and suspecting glances for the rest of his days, glorifying God for the privilege of being chosen to raise a Savior. What a joy to bear the shame of the manger.

You and I have also been given the indescribable gift of the knowledge of the identity of the Messiah. We know the truth about this Child. The question is will we allow those around us to associate us with the offense of His birth, His life, His death, and resurrection?

This Savior said in John 15:18ff, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.”

This season of the year affords us the great opportunity to turn conversations about Christmas into conversations about Christ. May the Lord give us hearts like Joseph, willing to associate ourselves with the truth no matter how the culture regards us. Let’s not celebrate His birth without also proclaiming its significance to the lost around us.

Next time: Mary and the shame of the manger.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Bearing Fruit

What does it mean to "bear fruit" according to God's word? In the scriptures, Jesus talks about people bearing fruit. Jesus here is using a metaphor, comparing people to fruit - bearing trees. In the same way that you can tell the nature and quality of a tree by it's fruit, you can tell the nature and quality of a person by their actions. Many of us know or have had conversations with someone who claims to be a child of God, but there is no evidence of fruit in that person's life. An "apple" tree that produces cherries in not an apple tree... it's a cherry tree. In the same way, a "good" person that is know for their bad actions must not really be good.
"Galatians 5:22" is a reminder that God's Word tells us that if I am a true child of God that I must bear the characteristic of "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness"... "Proverbs 20:11" tells us "Even a child is known by his actions, by whether his conduct is pure and right". People actions show what they are.
In "Matthew 7:16-21" we see that every tree bears fruit. This is a parable Jesus used to show the people a heavenly truth "an earthly story with a heavenly meaning". We see two trees, a good tree and a bad tree. A good tree, like the fig tree that Jesus mentions, will bear good fruit - figs. But a thorn bush will only produce bad fruit - prickly thorns. You won't find thorns on the fig tree, and you won't find figs on the thorn bush. One can recognize a true believer, not just by what he says, but by what he does.

"Luke 13:6-9" tells us that trees that bear bad fruit are cut down. This parable symboblizes Israel's last oppotunity to repent before experiencing God's judgment. In this parable, a fig tree that does not bear fruit may be cut down if it doesn't produce fruit within the next year. Jesus is warning the people in this parable. Jesus expect "fruit" from His people. The bad fruit that is talked about in "Matthew 7:16-21" is the same as bearing no fruit here. After all, thorns are hardly worth calling "fruit" at all, are they? Jesus expect us to live a certain way. He expects us to see certain things in our lives. If we really belong to Him, we will show these things -we will be trees with good fruit.

Earlier I stated that in "Galatians 5:22-23" that if I am a true child of God I must bear the characteristic of "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness". Most of us would say that we would what these things in our lives. Love, joy, and peace - everyone whats those. And most of us what to be good and kind, but are these things we can get on our own? Only the Holy Spirit can produce in Christians the positive attributes of godly character, all of which are evident in Jesus in the gospels.
One of the areas of bearing fruit is in having joy in serving "Philippians 2:1-18". Paul uses a conditional sentence (if) to provoke the Philippians so that they will reflect on whether these qualities are evident in their lives.
We can only find the joy of serving if we are in Christ. Our attitude should be the same as that of Jesus Christ. In Mark 10:45 we see that Christ did not come to be served, but to serve, and gave his life a ransom for many.
Let us continue to pray that the Holy Spirit would produce the fruits needed in us to bring glory to our God.