Just Not What You’d ExpectPosted November 16th, 2011
by Bert Williams
There is nothing complex about the sentence. It is a simple, straight-forward statement: “After Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child.”
Found with child. What a sequence of events that finding would set in motion.
But consider poor Joseph. He simply could not believe what he was hearing. Mary had seemed nothing less than a gift from heaven. He could scarcely comprehend his good fortune. And now this. In one horrifying moment, his experience was transformed from a dream-come-true to a nightmare.
Imagine their conversation:
“Joseph, wait! It’s not what you think.”
“Well, Mary, really. What else could it be?”
Indeed, what else could it be?
How could Mary possibly explain what had happened? She was pregnant. How could she expect anyone—most importantly, Joseph—to believe her? How could anyone possibly believe her? At best, to Joseph, Mary was delusional. At worst, a colossal liar. There were no other possibilities. And to Joseph, until this horrifying afternoon, she had seemed so nearly perfect.
Eventually, the sun set. The moonless sky grew dark. Joseph wandered aimlessly through empty streets, kicking rocks, listening to dogs bark. A jackal yipped in the distance. Joseph stared into the starry heavens through eyes still blurred by tears. Finally he stumbled to bed, tossed and turned endlessly, and fell into fitful sleep.
Was It an Angel?
In the morning when he awoke, he wondered—in awe: Did an angel speak to me in a dream, or did I merely dream that an angel spoke to me?
The angel had said the same thing Mary had told him. Was it just that Joseph so desperately wanted to believe this impossible thing? Could this impossible thing possibly be true? Was he now delusional, too?
But there was Scripture. The angel had quoted Isaiah: “A virgin shall be with child.” It was in the scroll. A virgin . . . with child. No one had made that up.
Unbeknownst to Joseph, Mary had had her own desperate time of tribulation. When the angel first approached her, Scripture says, “She was troubled . . . and considered what manner of greeting this was.”
Well, truth be told, she had absolutely no way of grasping what manner of greeting it was. She could not possibly have imagined. So the angel explained his mission, and between incredulous gasps Mary blurted the utterly predictable response: “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”
Indeed. How? Isn’t that where every sane person’s thoughts would immediately turn?
But it was easier for Mary, than for Joseph, to believe it. She had missed a period. And she absolutely had not been with a man.
Joseph had further reason to believe upon hearing the news that an elderly relative of Mary, a woman named Elizabeth, who had been unable to have children, was now pregnant. Her husband, a priest named Zacharias, had also had an angelic visitation announcing the news.
But if this was true—if Mary was indeed carrying the Messiah in her womb—how could their experience in Bethlehem be explained? The location itself made sense. Joseph had read the prophet Micah:
But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
Though you are little among the thousands of Judah,
Yet out of you shall come forth to Me
The One to be ruler in Israel,
Whose goings forth have been from of old,
An Unroyal Welcome
However, when they arrived in Bethlehem, the inconspicuous couple received nothing like a royal welcome. The town had filled up before they arrived. Bethlehem had limited options for accommodating travelers; the one inn was full. But Mary’s contractions had already begun, and there was nothing to do but find some place—any place—quickly.
So it was a stable–cattle, sheep, chickens, and the less than pristine conditions barnyard animals create in their living space. Joseph quickly cleared away the refuse in a manger he found in a corner. He gathered some fresh hay, threw it into the manger, and ran to Mary just in time to help her through the final moments of the baby’s delivery. No one was off boiling water in another room. No one else was there to help at all. How, under these conditions, could this baby possibly be the hope of Israel—the long awaited Messiah?
But they did the best they could, and it was good enough. The baby was indeed a boy, and he appeared healthy. He cried lustily, and took to the breast eagerly. And that was it. He had arrived.
So, now what? What were they supposed to do now?
As Joseph sat and considered the question, Mary and the baby boy drifted off toward slumber. But Joseph was wide awake. What could all of this mean? Had they been mistaken? Could this baby, born under these conditions, possibly be the Messiah? How could that be? It couldn’t be! Could it?
Now Joseph hears voices outside, people walking, a rustling near the door. The innkeeper appears in the lantern light.
“These people say they know you,” says the innkeeper. “I’m sorry. I tried to get them to leave. I know it’s been a difficult night. Oh! Already the baby is here! I’m sorry. I wish I had had some place better. I can still turn them away. But that is a good looking baby.”
The eager men crowding around the innkeeper now press past him, they surround the manger and the young family, and then silently kneel in awe. Kneeling is not a practice to which these rough-hewn men of the hillsides are accustomed, but it is the only thing to do.
“Why are you here?” Joseph asks in wonder, after the men are back on their feet.
“The angels told us,” say two of the shepherds, almost in unison. “It was after they quit singing,” says one. “and you should’ve heard that music!” says the other. The rest nod and murmur agreement.
And so it was by humble men—men of little education and less refinement—that the baby’s identity was confirmed yet again to Joseph and Mary. Unlikely as it seemed, this baby boy was the Messiah, the hope of Israel. The hope of all the world. And as Joseph and Mary would continue to discover, it was only the beginning of the utterly unexpected.