“Joseph, what do we do now?”
” Dunno to be honest, Mary. Carry on as normal?”
The teenage parents lay side by side on stable straw beside the crude feeding trough where their newborn slept. It was a few days since the shepherds had visited. Silence filled the night as Bethlehem slowly emptied of pilgrims who neglected to take the cold night air with them. The light of the oil lamp cast shadows across the stable, its deceptive fragility strong enough to keep thick darkness at bay.
“Sometimes I think it’s all been a dream,” confided Mary. “Hard to believe on so many levels. I don’t feel very different – other than being a new mother, which takes my breath away. And you Joseph, have been the most patient and understanding of husbands. Where would I be without you?”
Joseph sighed and pulled Mary closer. “Life with you has certainly not been dull.” Mary turned her head in time to catch the smile play across his stubbled face and she grinned. Then her brow furrowed.
“But what now?” she repeated the unanswered question.
“Still clueless. I guess we follow the customs and take our baby to the temple in two days time and then make our way home. If we’re not deluded or dreaming then it’s up to God to answer that question. He did it for me once before when you insisted there was no other guy. Remember? One day at a time.”
There were to be year-loads of ordinary in the extraordinary lives of Mary and Joseph as they parented Jesus. Woven into the mundane similar to the next door neighbor was their participation in the normal traditions of Jewish families with children. Annual journeys to Jerusalem, attendance at synagogue, family chores, and earning a living. There seemed to be an acceptance of this rhythm and reality rather than stressful anticipation of exceptions to the ‘rules’ because our child is special. Which is totally in line with the God whom Jesus revealed as an adult. No favorites, mystery, compassion, kindness, and comfort and strength to ‘others just like us’ in a broken and often difficult world.
And every now and then a word of encouragement, or a surprise affirmation that God indeed has his eyes and hands upon you. Which is what happened when the freshly-minted new parents took their son to the temple, not on the first visit, but on the second. On the first visit(as was the custom) Jesus was circumcised like every other Jewish boy, no bells or whistles, no angelic appearance or anything out of the ordinary.
On the 40th day after the birth of Jesus Joseph and Mary returned to the temple to present their firstborn as outlined in Exodus 13:12-16. A sign of God’s redemption when he brought the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt.
Joseph and Mary probably had no great expectations, no agenda, nothing more than fulfilling the requirements of their Jewish faith and tradition. And there amidst the corruption, the religious ritual, the misuse of coins and sacrifice, God placed salt and light in the persons of Simeon and Anna. Who would have thought?
As they wandered through the enormous, probably rather intimidating temple, cradling their baby they surely must have been puzzled. Are we doing the right thing? Were we dreaming in a fantasy? Only we are aware that this baby may be special, although the last six weeks have been what any couple like us would expect with a new child. There had been no great outpouring of resources. They were poor rural peasants. Hence the meagre sacrificial offering of two turtle doves at the temple.
They had scarcely completed the sacrificial offering when an elderly arthritic man approached them in the temple courts, face beaming, arms outstretched. Joy radiated from his wrinkled face, kind eyes welcomed them with mystical recognition, and his words wrapped them in affirmation, straight from heaven. “Yes, at last!” Simeon exclaimed. “I have waited so many years for this moment.” Holding the baby close to his chest his beard tickled the child who grasped curiously at the long grey wisps. Simeon praised God, words tumbling like a waterfall over the child, splashing the wide-eyed mother and her husband. “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all the nations…” Tears streamed down the old man’s cheeks when he finally fell silent and kissed the young messiah on his forehead.
Then he grew somber as he returned the baby back into the arms of his mother. Simeon looked at Mary, then at Joseph, back to Mary. “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”
Mary gazed deep into the old man’s eyes as his words sunk into her heart. She felt the same presence as when the angel had appeared nearly a year ago announcing that she would be pregnant, a virgin with child. There was a flash of fear but mostly a surprising sense of peace and resolve that rose up within her. She was only too well aware that this child she held to her bosom would bring her great joy and unimaginable anguish. She nodded silently. Her eyes fell to the ground as Simeon placed both hands on her shoulders and blessed her.
Joseph whispered, “I guess we weren’t dreaming.”
They were about to turn and leave the temple when another elderly woman appeared at Simeon’s side. He nodded with a smile. “This is Anna, she has been here even longer than I have.”
Anna shook her head when Mary offered for her to take Jesus. “No my dear, I don’t trust myself not to drop him.” She chuckled as she placed her quivering hand gently on his head and addressed the crowd that had gathered around them. After giving more words of thanks Anna spoke of how this child was the answer they had been waiting for, the redemption of Jerusalem.
Mary had tears in her eyes as she and Joseph left the temple shortly thereafter. “Thank you Lord,” she whispered, “For giving us a word of affirmation and encouragement. I have no idea what lies ahead but I trust you. Thank you.”
And so it is with us as we enter a New Year. Much unknown, possibly fear and confusion. God perhaps silent even though many purport to speak in his name. So much ordinary. What now?
Perhaps the story of Mary and Joseph can be an encouragement to us. When you don’t know what to do, continue doing what you know to be right and good. Keep up the traditions and yes, even the rituals. God will bring each of us to Simeon and Anna in due course. The words from heaven may be a fleeting thought, a conversation, a dream, a song, a sense of….., a book read, a text or email out of the blue. You will probably be a Simeon or Anna for someone else when you least expect it. God is able to do exceedingly more than we imagine – most of the time.
And God’s promise through an angel to Mary is the same that he gives to every human being. John describes the meaning of Jesus’ conception and birth while skipping the detail. He knew that Luke had already covered that portion of the story. As he described the Word becoming flesh he included each of us in the event. “To those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husbands will, but born of God.” (John 1: 11-13) And a few verses later John says: “Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given.” (John 1:16)
In other words, God has already decided that he wants you and me to be his son or daughter. It is his initiative that we get to receive and rest in. No striving, earning, or tedious New Year resolutions. Allow him to hold you and embrace you like Mary cradled Jesus, Simeon welcomed him, and Anna made declarations concerning his life. Our lives are meant to be mundane and ordinary sprinkled with the extraordinary. You and I are not our own idea, we are created by God. Abide in his love, initiative, and faithfulness. Assume he is present for you – rather than just absent because you haven’t experienced anything for a while. The next time we hear about Jesus (apart from having to take refuge in Egypt), is ten years later when he travels with his parents back to the temple.
Be blessed in the abiding, the believing, and the ordinary living in 2022. May the extraordinary be powerful and unmistakable as God himself provides evidence designed specifically for your ears and eyes alone. So that you may know that he watches over you now and always. He is faithful, always. Here’s looking at you. Yes you! Much loved, profoundly known, accepted, and the delightful recipient of his faithfulness – better believe it!
Once again, John, you have blessed me. The timing is perfect as we move forward into a new year where we know God will walk with us through whatever hills and valleys will appear on our paths. May you be blessed at the same time as you bless so many others.
Moving! Beautiful!! Thank you John Cox
So good John, hopeful and instructive as we look to an uncertain 2022…reminding me of His faithfulness again and again…thank you