Mary, Joseph, and Lots of Sand
Dr. Connie Befus
Mary and Joseph seem extraordinary to us because the Christmas story is luminous with angels and the supernatural, but in their day and time Mary and Joseph were just ordinary people. Joseph was a carpenter or contractor, probably middle class in his small town of Nazareth. Mary was of marriageable age, so in her mid-teens, most likely from a family similar to Joseph’s. They were ordinary people—given an extraordinary assignment.
What can we learn from two ordinary people called on by God to serve him in what turned out to be quite a challenging assignment?
When we encounter Mary, an angel is giving her the most amazing Mission Impossible assignment of all time: become pregnant with the Son of God, carry that pregnancy to term, give birth, take care of the child (Luke 2: 26-38).
As I read the angel’s words to Mary, it strikes me that, while Mary was “troubled by” the angel’s words, she did not seem shocked that God would communicate with her. Mary knew of God’s ways from Old Testament readings in her synagogue; she knew God personally spoke to individuals and guided those who were attentive to his ways. I suspect Mary knew God in a personal way, that she prayed and lived in his presence. It makes sense that God would choose that kind of young woman to carry his son. But Mary was shocked at being told she was the person chosen for this special assignment.
Once Mary absorbed the fact that the angel really did mean she had been chosen to carry the Messiah, her questions are instructive. They were not questions of unbelief, or protest; they were simple, pragmatic questions about logistics. I.e., Mary obviously knew basic biology, so her questions were about how she was supposed to get pregnant. She was a virgin, she told the angel. So… was she supposed to do anything?
“No,” the angel answered. God would take care of it. “The Most High” would “overshadow her” and therefore the child would be holy, miraculous.
Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.” Or in today’s vernacular, “Okay. I’m in.”
Mary accepted the assignment. She asked questions about the logistics, but she didn’t ask about other details. She didn’t bargain. She just said, in essence, “Yes, I’m God’s servant, so of course I’ll do it.”
In the Old Testament, when God called certain people, they sometimes protested: Moses and Jonah come to mind. Not Mary; she just said “Yes.” I’m pretty sure Mary had a choice; she could have said, “No thanks.” Scary, but I think we human beings always have a choice regarding whether we will cooperate with God—or not. Possibly God chose Mary because he knew she was the kind of person who would say “Yes” without protest or grumbling.
Mary clearly had faith and intelligence; she must have known this assignment would not be a piece of cake. But she probably had no clue what she was really getting into. We seldom do. But I think Mary did know her God and chose to trust him for whatever this incredible assignment entailed.
Within the Assignment—A Gift
Those first months of pregnancy must have been hard for Mary: she had to tell her family about this unexpected baby. And Joseph, her husband-to-be! Wow. We have no idea how people reacted to her news: probably with disbelief, laughter, derision, gossip. It must have been lonely and hard.
But God, in his lovingkindness, had had the angel tell Mary about her cousin Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy with the baby that would become John the Baptist. God knew, and Mary knew, that Elizabeth would understand. So, early in her pregnancy, Mary went to visit Elizabeth. Elizabeth, whose faith was robust and joyous, provided Mary with a safe and encouraging place to be in those tough, early months. How good God is!
It is certainly true that God gives us difficult assignments; sometimes he allows tragic circumstances. But I have learned to watch for signs of God’s tender loving care in the middle of hard times. He often does for us what he did for Mary: amidst the heartache or stress he provides an especially helpful person, a place of comfort, a gift of grace. Watch for his fingerprints of TLC.
When we first meet Joseph, he is in a quandary. Mary has told him about her pregnancy, and either he doesn’t believe her, or he is not sure he is up for the role of stepfather of God’s baby, so he’s pondering how to end the engagement. But God sends an angel in a dream, telling Joseph to go ahead, marry Mary, and be the earthly father of Mary’s child. (Matthew 1:18-24.)
“When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him” (Matthew 1:24). That’s pretty incredible! I respect Joseph’s instant obedience because I’m pretty sure his eyes were wide open regarding what public opinion would be. He knew he was stepping up to the plate to take care of a young, pregnant woman and a baby that wasn’t his. He knew he would be considered a cuckold, a laughingstock. But he immediately took steps to obey God. His job was to be provider, protector, and caretaker of Mary and God’s baby. He did what God asked him to, faithfully and well.
Joseph, without doubt, knew the assignment would be difficult in Nazareth, but like Mary, he had no idea of the scope of the assignment. He didn’t know a Roman census would require him to take his pregnant wife to Bethlehem, causing the baby to be born far from home. He didn’t know they would then have to flee to Egypt to get away from the murderous Herod. Then, later on, they would have to take the long trek back from Egypt to get home to Nazareth.
Lots of Sand
Neither Mary nor Joseph knew what they were getting into when they said “Yes” to the assignments God gave them. They didn’t know they’d be trudging miles to Bethlehem, having a baby far from home, and then trudging through miles and miles of sand to Egypt—even farther from home. But they did it.
The whole announcement, conception, and birth of the baby Jesus were clearly supernatural and exciting. So were the arrival and worship of the Magi and the shepherds. So, in the beginning Mary and Joseph’s assignments must have felt magical and luminous—part of something huge and momentous—which they were. But the glory and excitement probably faded as Mary and Joseph traveled miles and miles of sand. And then, as life settled down, and Joseph planed wood and pounded nails, as Mary washed hundreds of diapers, and prepared thousands of meals, the glory must have faded. Being faithful in the ordinary mundane tasks when the initial excitement of an assignment has dimmed is often what obedience comes down to.
And probably, if Joseph and Mary were like me, they must have wondered why the God who could create a supernatural embryo in the womb of a virgin, send angels to advise shepherds of the momentous birth, and arrange a magical star to lead the Wisemen to Bethlehem—why couldn’t that God wipe out the murderous Herod? Or whisk Mary, Joseph and baby magically out of Herod’s way? They must have wondered, just as I often wonder at God’s mysterious choices. But if they wondered, they remained faithful and obedient.
We can learn so much from Mary and Joseph. They are inspiring people precisely because they were ordinary. First, they were the kind of people who chose to know God and be attentive to his ways and his commands. They were the kind of people God knew he could call on and trust to do the job. Second, when God gave them an assignment, they said “Yes” and immediately obeyed. Third, they remained faithful over the long haul, obediently doing the tedious, mundane things that were essential to the assignment.
I would like to be like Mary and Joseph when I grow up. I would like to be attentive to God’s presence and guidance so that I am the kind of person he can call on for what he wants done. I would like to be as promptly obedient, and as quietly, persistently faithful, as they were. I would like to trust God for the grit needed in tough assignments and to watch for the gracious gifts he provides along the way.
As we celebrate this Christmas, let’s learn from what God can do with two ordinary, but extraordinarily obedient and trustworthy people. Even in miles and miles of sand.
Dr. Connie Befus
Congregational Care Coordinator
Dr. Befus began serving as Congregational Care Coordinator at FPC in May of 2017. Before moving to Lakeland, Connie, who is a psychologist, served as Director of Member Care for missions organizations. Connie and her husband, David, also served in various ministries in Latin America for more than 17 years. Connie earned her Master’s in Guidance and Counseling from the University of Michigan and her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Miami, Florida. She grew up in Africa as the child of missionary parents and has lived in seven countries. David and Connie have a son and daughter, both married, and one grandchild. Connie enjoys occasionally consulting or providing workshops for mission agencies and loves to read, walk, or garden.