Christmas Carol #2: Strange Way To Save The World

Sure he must have been surprised
At where this road had taken him
'Cause never in a million lives
Would he had dreamed of Bethlehem
And standing at the manger
He saw with his own eyes
The message from the angel come to life
And Joseph said...

Why me, I'm just a simple man of trade
Why Him, with all the rulers in the world
Why here inside this stable filled with hay
Why her, she's just an ordinary girl
Now I'm not one to second guess what angels have to say
But this is such a strange way to save the world

To think of how it could have been
If Jesus had come as He deserved
There would have been no Bethlehem
No lowly shepherds at His birth
But Joseph knew the reason
Love had to reach so far
And as he held the Savior in his arms
He must have thought...

Why me, I'm just a simple man of trade
Why Him, with all the rulers in the world
Why here inside this stable filled with hay
Why her, she's just an ordinary girl
Now I'm not one to second guess what angels have to say
But this is such a strange way to save the world

Now I'm not one to second guess what angels have to say
But this is such a strange way to save the world
...this is such a strange way, such a strange way,
a strange way to save the world

You may have guessed from my first entry in this “Christmas Carol Musings” series, that my favorite carols are the ones that point to the grander purpose of Christmas. If you’re familiar with “Christian” music, you may even know this song (and folks from Rejoice/Owasso/Tulsa, if you haven’t picked up “Owasso Sings Christmas” yet, with Janettia Alexander singing this offering, you’re missing out… call Rejoice to find out how you can get your copy of this awesome album (and no, I’m not on it, I just heart it!)), but for those readers who’ve never heard it, this is a new one.

This time, I don’t have to define terms for you, but I do want to give you the Christmas story, because that’s the story this song assumes you know already. If you’ve heard this story all your life, read along with me anyway… try to rediscover the wonder you felt the first time you heard it, or the first time you heard it once you knew what it meant. If this is the first time you’ve heard this story, it’s told in the Bible in several places. I’d recommend reading the entire thing, but to get just the meat for this story, you’re going to go back to Luke 1:26-38, Luke 2:1-20, and Matthew 1:18-2:12.
Mary was a young girl; keep in mind that in the first century, life spans were significantly shorter than ours are now, and customs were different, not just because of the time, but because Mary and Joseph would have been good Jewish men and women, raised obediently in the law of Moses. Joseph would have been raised and educated as long as his parents could afford, and at 13, he’d have been apprenticed to a master tradesman… possibly his own father. By 13, though, Joseph was considered an adult, responsible for himself and his actions. He would have continued to work with his master (not as a slave, but an apprentice, remember), learning the trade, until he was able to work on his own and support himself and his family. Chances are good that his parents and Mary’s parents had pre-arranged the marriage years before the two of them knew the other existed. Once Joseph could care for Mary, the betrothal, this pre-arranged marriage, that had been planned would move to an engagement and then marriage… but this arrangement was so binding that the only way it could be broken was through the same mechanisms in place to divorce a wife… and in ancient Jewish law, divorce was not easy. So Joseph was almost certainly 7-10 (or more) years older than Mary, and Mary was little more than 13-15 herself. After all, if she didn’t die in childbirth, odds were that disease would take her before she saw 40; if she was to bear the sons and daughters that the couple would need to support them and their family (because that was the custom), they had to start as soon as she was able to… which meant she entered married life as an adult about the same age that Joseph was considered an adult.

So we have a 13? 14? year old girl who’s still living at home with her parents, a devout girl who’s been raised in observance of the law of Moses just as her culture and religion demands, and is waiting to be married to her husband, a man to whom she is bound, if not yet legally married. One day, as she’s going about the daily tasks she does… helping her mother with the cooking, cleaning, maybe making clothes… suddenly, an angel appears and speaks to her, saying odd things to her: “Greetings, favored one. The Lord is with you.”

Mary is rightly confused; it’s not every day that people just appear out of nowhere, and what an odd greeting! Even in her religion, this is odd; God has not spoken to their people for hundreds of years! But the angel continues. “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. (You’ve pleased Him!) You will be with child, and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High.” (italics mine). Mary, ever the wise one, asks the angel how this is supposed to happen; she knows where babies come from, and she’s not done anything that would bring one! This is important to her; even the hint of impropriety is enough for an accusation of infidelity, is enough to give Joseph cause to divorce Mary… and worse, to have her stoned to death.

The angel assures Mary again, telling her that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and she will be “overshadowed” with the power of the Most High so that the one who will be born will be called the Son of God. Then he tells her something that might seem a bit gossipy if you didn’t know better; “Even your cousin, who has been barren (unable to have children) is in her sixth month… because Nothing is impossible with God.”

The tidbit about Elizabeth might seem gossipy because for a woman of her advanced years who has never conceived to suddenly turn up pregnant is certainly grounds for scandal. Remember… even the hint of impropriety is enough to give grounds for a divorce, or a stoning. But as he tells Mary that she will carry the Son of the Most High, he also tells her she isn’t alone… “Oh, Beloved of God, even your cousin has conceived through the power of God!”… and Mary runs to her cousin.

OK, so where is Joseph in all of this? Especially when Mary runs off to her cousin and comes back obviously pregnant, and he knows the baby is not his? We go to Matthew to find out. Joseph is clearly a good man; he could have had Mary and her unborn child stoned, but he opts instead to find away to quietly divorce her to minimize the shame to them both. Before he can carry out his plan, an angel comes to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel says, “do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because He will save his people from their sins.” This clearly had an impact; when Joseph wakes up, he goes and gets Mary and marries her, but does not share her bed until after the birth of the child.

So here we are; an ordinary man and a young woman. Good people, yes, smart with sensible heads on their shoulders, but open to the extraordinary of their faith. And Joseph, having been raised and educated in the Jewish faith, would have been taught the Psalms… including the ones of the Messiah, the anointed one of Israel, who would save the people from their sins. And we know Mary considered these things; we’re told she “treasured these things up in her heart”. They’re trying to live quiet, ordinary lives when the extraordinary steps in and interrupts. And then, because they haven’t been shaken up enough, the occupying government of their home interrupts their lives again. The government wants to take a census… and it wants everyone to go back to their ancestral homes. Joseph, who has been living in Nazareth, who has probably been a Nazarene his entire life, suddenly has to go to his ancestral home… to a tiny little town called Bethlehem.

Can you imagine if you were suddenly told you had to report for a census, not based on where you live now, but based on where your ancestors were from? Could the towns handle the sudden influx of people? And poor Joseph and Mary; others could travel faster, but they were limited because she was so close to her delivery. There was no hopping on a jet and flying there… no, they had to walk or ride an animal the entire way. They were late arrivals, and by the time they got to the town, it was full. Surely they knew it was close… Mary was probably experiencing labor pains by now. They were at the point that Joseph was begging for ANYWHERE safe to take his poor wife to deliver her child… and one man finally offered his stables.

It is here that the greatest gift God ever gave us arrived. In a stable filled with hay for bedding and eating, a young girl gave birth to the child who would grow up to die for her sins. And the first people to arrive? Shepherds. Outcasts of society, with only their flocks for company, sent by… yeah, you guessed it, more angels.

So this is the story the song assumes you know. The Creator of the Universe, the Son of the Most High God, Christ, the Anointed Messiah, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Beginning and End… is born in a cramped stable in a tiny town to a young girl and her poor husband, surrounded by animals and hay, and visited first by society’s outcasts. If you and I were to write the story of a Savior, it would never start this way. He would arrive in a clean hospital, the son of royalty or socialites. His first visitors wouldn’t be stinking shepherds, and certainly not animals, and his room would be sterile, not surrounded in hay. He’d be born in New York or London or Paris or something… a big city with all the best equipment. We’d never bring the Savior this way… which is why we’d get it wrong. This is indeed a strange way to save the world, but it was the ONLY way it could be done. He had to be the least of us to know our suffering and to be approachable by all men. Because you see, Beloved, Jesus didn’t come just for the rich. He came for you and I, for Mary and for Joseph, for the stinky shepherds, and even for all of those who reject Him.

I know the reason Love has to reach so far, and I thank God that Joseph got to hold His savior in His arms and marvel at this beautiful, ugly, stunning strange way that my God came to save the world.

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