Taking the time to read between the lines in Luke’s gospel creates a picture of Joseph and Mary that still humbles me as I contemplate why God entered His world in such a way. Six months after Elizabeth conceived John (Luke 1:26, 36) Mary is told by Gabriel that she, too, will conceive a child by way of the Holy Spirit. Soon afterwards Mary travels to stay with Zechariah and Elizabeth for three months (Luke 1:56). When she arrived John leaps inside Elizabeth and, filled with the Holy Spirit, she cries out to Mary,”blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42).
Matthew tells us that Joseph discovered Mary “to be with child”, perhaps as she returned to Nazareth from Elizabeth’s and started to show. Whenever Mary told Joseph of her visitation by Gabriel, he was unconvinced about the source of her pregnancy and he contemplated quietly divorcing her from their engagement before marrying and consummating their relationship (Matthew 1:18-20). A personal visit from the angel Gabriel (Matthew 1:20-21), however, convinced him to go forward with their marriage (Matthew 1:24-25).
Returning to Luke’s account, Mary and Joseph would spend the next six months preparing for the delivery of the child that would be born before they had been married for the nine months required for a normal pregnancy…in a small country town…where everybody knew everybody’s business…where gossip would fill the vacuum of unanswered questions. “Who is the father, Mary?” some might ask. “Joseph, is Mary carrying your child?” would be a legitimate question that others might ask. The awkward smiles. The hushed conversations that would suddenly stop when Mary or Joseph entered the marketplace. How would Joseph and Mary respond? “Well, you see, the angel Gabriel came to each of us separately to tell us that….” Max Lucado conjectures an interesting dialogue:
Mary’s growing belly gives no cause for concern, but reason to rejoice. “She carries the Son of God in her womb,” the angel announces. But who would believe it? Who would buy this tale?
Envision Joseph being questioned by the city leaders. “Joseph,” they say, “we understand that Mary is with child.” He nods. “Is the child yours?” He shakes his head.
“Do you know how she became pregnant?”
Gulp. A bead of sweat forms beneath Joseph’s beard. He faces a dilemma. He makes his decision. “Joseph … took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called His name JESUS” (Matt. 1:24–25).
Joseph tanked his reputation. He swapped his reputation for a pregnant fiancée and an illegitimate son and made the big decision of discipleship. He placed God’s plan ahead of his own. (Lucado, Upwords, July 4-10)
The echoes of uncertainty and misguided rumor mills in the small community of Nazareth would no doubt overshadow the next 30 years and may have contributed to the violent reaction of Joseph and Mary’s neighbors and friends to Jesus’ announcement in Luke 4:14-30. In Luke’s account there is no mention of Joseph’s vision and his marriage to Mary, no international intrigue with King Herod, no wise men, and no laser light star beams to guide them to the birthing place of the Son of God as in Matthew’s record (c.f., Matthew 1:18-25; 2:1-22).
Instead, Luke tells us the rest of the story: of a vision to lowly shepherds who are told to find the Messiah wrapped in swaddling cloths in the feeding trough of a livery stable. Thirty three days after Jesus was circumcised Joseph and Mary offer sacrifices for Mary’s purification after childbirth of a male child. There they offer the sacrifice of the poor who cannot afford the customary lamb: two doves or two pigeons (see Luke 2:24 and Leviticus 12:1-8). As they bring the month-old baby Jesus with them they are suddenly met by the priest, Simeon, and the widow prophetess, Anna (Luke 2:25-38) who proclaim the arrival of God’s salvation in their little one. Luke tells us that Jesus’ father and mother marveled (Luke 2:33). Why? Because most days were filled with the unpredictable yet common experiences of raising an infant child with limited resources in the midst of a community who tolerated their presence. As had been prophesied almost 800 years before in Isaiah 53:1-3:
Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
What kind of God dwells among the poor and disenfranchised to claim His identity among men?!
Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!
How unsearchable his judgments,
and his paths beyond tracing out!
“Who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?”
“Who has ever given to God,
that God should repay them?”
For from him and through him and for him are all things.
To him be the glory forever! Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)