Week 2 Advent series: based on the devotional, When God Comes Down, by James A. Harnish
18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. 20 As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit.
21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:
23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, And they will call him, Emmanuel.
(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)
24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.
26 When Elizabeth was six months pregnant, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a city in Galilee, 27 to a virgin who was engaged to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David’s house. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 When the angel came to her, he said, “Rejoice, favored one! The Lord is with you!” 29 She was confused by these words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you.
31 Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. 33 He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.”
34 Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?”
35 The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. 36 Look, even in her old age, your relative Elizabeth has conceived a son. This woman who was labeled ‘unable to conceive’ is now six months pregnant. 37 Nothing is impossible for God.”
38 Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
Today we continue our Advent series by taking a look at the two people who helped bring Jesus into the world: Joseph and Mary. It’s fascinating that we are given two rather different accounts of the birth stories in Matthew and Luke. Matthew tends to focus more on Joseph, while Luke focuses more on Mary. In these different accounts, we are given a pretty good picture of Mary and Joseph, and their significance to the birth of Jesus. We can also take away lessons from each person as we continue our own Advent journey. Both Joseph and Mary teach us about what it means to be obedient to an “undressed God.” This strange concept comes from a 17th century Anglican priest and poet named George Hebert who wrote these words:
Hast thou not heard, that my Lord Jesus di’d?
Then let me tell a strange storie.
The God of power, and he did ride in his majestic robes of glorie,
Reserv’d to light; and so one day
He did descend, undressing all the way.
Yes, the gospel accounts we are given are shocking stories of the way the Almighty God stripped off his majestic robes of glory and came down to be Immanuel, God with us (18), undressing all the way. If we are not shocked by the Christmas story, either we have heard it too many times and have become numb to it, or we haven’t ever really heard it at all. But if you hear these stories and are confused by them, welcome to the club. You are a lot like Joseph. And if there is room for Joseph at the manger of Jesus, then there is certainly room for each of us.
We meet Joseph in the midst of his confusion about how Mary, his fiancé, had become pregnant. We are not given much information, just that this had taken place when Mary and Joseph are engaged, but not yet married. In the ancient world, young women were eligible to be married as soon as they were of child bearing age. Young men waited to marry until they were capable of supporting a wife. So usually they were several years older and established in a trade. Mary and Joseph would have had a ceremony that united them as husband and wife, but then there would be a full year of readying the home before they lived together and the marriage was consummated. During this time, Joseph would be building a house for them, while Mary was expected to be preparing for her life as a wife as she still lived with her family. To protect her reputation and Joseph’s, she had to steer away from social gatherings and behave as a proper bride-to-be, preparing herself for her husband.
And what of her husband? What do we know about Joseph? We know Joseph that was a righteous man. He lived by the Law of Torah, he worshiped God, he took on his proper role in society, etc. According to what he was taught, Mary should have been stoned. Joseph was faced with a moral dilemma and with a situation that went against everything he had been taught to obey or believe. But because he was a righteous man, he planned to end their marriage arrangement quietly and have compassion on her. Of course, all of this changed when the angel appeared and let him in on the situation- that Mary was indeed pregnant with the help of the Holy Spirit, and the child within her is to be called Jesus, “God with us.”
But Joseph still had a choice to make. Would he follow the rules of what he has been taught his whole life? Or would he risk his reputation and even his life for the sake of Mary and the mysterious child within her? But we know how the story goes- Joseph took that risk and took Mary as his wife, showing his radical faith and obedience to the God who comes to us, “undressing all the way.” Joseph reminds us that there is room for doubt in our faith, and there is room for questions, and that it is ok when we are confused and don’t understand. Joseph’s faith is not the kind of faith that removes every doubt or every question, but the kind of faith that sets our lives in a new direction and expresses itself in active obedience. It is the kind of faith that listens for the promises of God. Joseph’s story reminds us of the strangeness of having faith in the undressed God, and being willing to step forward, even if the situation asks us to challenge ourselves and everything we have been taught or known or believed. Joseph reminds us that sometimes, having faith in God means being willing to have a change of heart or a change of plans. Joseph certainly didn’t know what the future would hold, but he knew enough to claim this child Jesus as his own, and was willing to spend the rest of his life finding out what this would mean.
In the classic book called The Christian Agnostic by Leslie Weatherhead, there is this idea presented that proposes a mental box labeled, “awaiting further light.” This means that as Christ followers, we do not have to have all the answers or be perfect people or claim to have it all together. If we love Christ and are seeking to follow him, we only need to live into what this life means and absorb the truths of the Christian faith slowly and accept gradually the things that may be true for us. The things that still confuse or blind us, we might put into the box labeled, “awaiting further light,” that we remember that we always have much to learn and explore about this life of faith. But in the meantime, we are to share the rich spirit of Jesus with the world. We don’t have to have it all figured out to do that! I think that Joseph certainly made use of his “awaiting further light” box, and let God fill in the rest.
Mary, on the other hand, was quicker to jump into action in the unfolding drama of the Christmas story. She didn’t have much time for setting aside her “awaiting further light” box when the angel appeared to her and gave her the shocking news that she would be pregnant by the Holy Spirit and give birth to a son, a holy child. Although we are told she was frightened, her response reveals her courage and obedience to God as her words are only this: “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” With fear and trembling in her heart, Mary was off and running on the journey of her lifetime. Certainly she would have known the risks. Her very life was at stake, her pending marriage to Joseph, her reputation, her young life possibly ruined. Yet she accepted the seemingly impossible task of bringing Jesus into this hurting and broken world. She counted the cost, yet went through with it all anyway.
Mary brings us to what some ancient writings call in French “le point vierge,” which means, “the virgin point.” This is the place where conversion begins in the human heart- that place where God comes down to us where we acknowledge our emptiness and absolute spiritual poverty. It is the place where we say yes to the Spirit of God and allow the love of God in Christ to reshape and redirect our lives. Mary calls us to the “le point vierge,” this moment of saying yes to God while acknowledging of need of him. She says yes and becomes part of God’s saving work in the world. She says yes to obedience to the undressed God.
Mary reveals to us how God chooses the most ordinary and unexpected people to do extraordinary things. We know that Mary was a young woman of child bearing age from a small, unimportant town. If she were alive today, she probably wouldn’t be someone showing up in People magazine or in the movies. She was just an ordinary girl from an uninteresting place. But God selected Mary and knew her heart of courage and compassion. Many people who talk about Mary spend way too much time debating the virgin birth- was she, wasn’t she, is there such a thing? But the truth is that we will miss the point if we spend all our time debating the virgin birth! Luke wants to teach us about the theology of salvation, not about human conception. And it begins with this courageous young woman willing to say yes to change the course of history and God’s relationship with humanity. Mary reminds us that God uses all of us, no matter who we are, to transform the world in ways big and small.
Mary brings us to the le point vierge, the virgin point- that moment or series of moments when we encounter God and say yes. What might that be for you? My most profound moment of le point vierge was when I was wrestling with my faith and fluctuating between my Jewish faith and what I believed about Jesus. I had way too many “awaiting further light” boxes- so many that I couldn’t sort through them all. I wanted and needed answers and was holding on so tightly to this need that I couldn’t let it go. One night I on a mission trip with a church group, I broke down into tears and was ready to give up. I finally fell asleep. The next morning, I felt a sense of peace and calm, like the very spirit of God had washed over me. It was then that someone in the group let me know that some people had gathered to pray for me that very night. For me, that was a moment of le point vierge. A moment when I realized my spiritual poverty and need of God, whether or not I understood it all or not. We must allow God to reach into our hearts and change us from the inside out. And this starts with saying yes to him.
What might be the virgin point for you? Whenever or however it happens, we are invited to learn from Mary what it means to say yes. We learn from her what it means for our world to begin anew. I met many people in South Africa who had been led courageously to le point vierge. One of them was the pastor and lay people of the JL Zwane church in the township of Gugletu in South Africa. This congregation, like Mary, said yes to the risk taking mission of sharing the good news of the Gospel by being the first church in South Africa to address the HIV/AIDS crisis with open conversation, acceptance of persons with the disease, and helping with education and prevention. I will never forget the image they shared with us of people from the church going door to door, not with Bibles, but with condoms!
Because of this, the church suffered from a bad reputation and people condemning the work they were doing and welcoming people with HIV/AIDS into their congregation. But they kept on, like Mary, saying yes to God despite the inconvenience, the messiness, and the birthing process. They were determined to bring life into the midst of death, hope in the midst of pain. Today they have one of the most vital HIV/AIDS ministries in the country and have probably saved thousands of lives. Other churches have since followed suit and modeled their programs after JL Zwane’s mission to educate, accept, and get help for people with HIV/AIDS.
So now it is up to us. Mary and Joseph each teach us lessons about the strength of the human spirit, the questions, doubts, and certainties of faith, and the willingness to have obedience to this strange, mysterious, and shocking “undressed God.” Sometimes we need to make use of our boxes labeled “awaiting further light” while we share and serve God with our whole hearts. And sometimes we are courageously called to the “le point vierge” and open our hearts to what God will do despite the inconvenience, the messiness, and the birthing process. Wherever you are today, know that God calls each of us, no matter where we are or who we are, to kneel at the manger with wonder and curiosity and look upon this “undressed God.” The question is then, what will you do, now that you have seen him for yourself?