Sunday, December 23, 2012
Several years ago I put together a lesson on Mary and Joseph as they were to become the parents of the Messiah. A few weeks ago my husband asked me to speak for our Sunday Christmas program, to relate a portion of that lesson, and continue on. At first I had no idea how I was possibly going to do this, but I should never have doubted. Here is my talk. I hope it gives you pause to remember our Savior during this beautiful Christmas time.
In the small village of Nazareth there lived two very special young people, though to look at them you may not find anything that would make them stand out. One was a handsome young man in his early twenties, a carpenter named Joseph, who was betrothed to his cousin’s beautiful daughter, Mary.
One particular night Mary had been peacefully sleeping when a most remarkable thing happened - an angel appeared and spoke unto her, saying:
“Hail, thou that art highly favored. The Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women. Fear not, Mary, for thou hast found favor with God. And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest, and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:28-33).
Mary, though only in her late teens, readily accepted the words of the angel, and had only this to ask: “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Luke 1:34)
“And the angel answered and said unto her, ‘The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee; therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God’” (Luke 1:35).
Before Mary could take all this in the angel also spoke of her cousin Elizabeth, who had been barren and was well past child bearing years, but was now blessed with a baby. “For with God nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1:36). Mary answered this, saying, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy Word” (Luke 1:38).
The angel Gabriel departed, leaving Mary alone to ponder the incredible news. Can you imagine her thoughts in this moment? All her life she’d been told of the coming of the Messiah and knew of the circumstances by which He would come. She knew herself to be of the proper lineage. Perhaps she had dreamed, not once but many times, that it could be a blessing bestowed up her, all the while never truly believing it would actually happen.
Yet it was happening, and she had a heavy responsibility laid on her tiny shoulders. How long did she live with the secret before taking leave of Joseph and her family, departing for another city where her cousin Elizabeth lived? What hopes lay in her heart that this woman, who she may not have known very well, would understand, could comprehend what had happened? The angel had told Mary that Elizabeth was also pregnant. Could they find comfort with one another, a comfort only womanhood could bestow?
While in her sixth month Elizabeth received a surprise. Her young cousin, Mary, came to visit. At Mary’s salutation something remarkable happened - Elizabeth felt the quickening of the spirit of the baby growing inside her belly as it moved in response to the voice of the Messiah’s mother. Did Elizabeth shout out her knowledge right away, unable to repress the joy and wonder? Or did she invite her weary cousin inside, giving her refreshment, before saying:
“Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42-43).
The relief Mary must have felt at those words. She had traveled all this way at the angel’s bidding, not knowing what would wait for her there. These words must have poured out of her mouth:
“My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name. And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation” (Luke 1: 46-55).
Mary stayed with Elizabeth and Zacharias for three months before heading back home. The journey must have been intolerable for such a young woman who was very aware of what she must now face. Did her parents know she was pregnant? If not, what would they do? What would they say? And what could she possibly tell Joseph, knowing how hurt he’d be - would he even give her a chance to explain? A betrothal was every bit as binding as a marriage.
Mary would have been about six months along by now, her condition obvious. Can you picture Joseph, excited beyond words that Mary had returned after being gone for so many months. He must have missed her terribly. What do you think happened when he walked in to greet her? Did he welcome her immediately, too happy to notice her swollen belly? Or as she stood to greet him was he suddenly stunned, incapable of speaking? Did they quarrel - Mary frantic to make him understand and Joseph so hurt he couldn’t hear what she was saying? Did immediately turn away, unable to face what he thought to be unspeakable betrayal?
I would suppose neither of them slept well that night, both unsure of what to do next. One can only hope Mary knew that as the mother of the Christ-child nothing could be done to hurt her. No, the truest wound was in knowing that at any time Joseph, the man she’d been counting on to provide both love and protection, would most likely put her aside.
Jewish law provided for the annulment of a betrothal in one of two ways - by a public trial and judgment, or by private agreement. Joseph was a good, kind man and truly loved Mary. He did not want her to face public humiliation and embarrassment. He had decided to annul the betrothal in as much privacy as possible, though the thought of doing so rested heavily on his heart.
It was then an angel came to him in a dream, and said, “Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus; for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet saying: ‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us’” (Matthew 1:20-23).
The elation Joseph must have felt upon waking! The woman he loved was carrying the Messiah. Was he ashamed of his first reaction? Did he rush right over to her house, hoping she could forgive him? Did he sit there in awe of the woman in front of him, and wonder at the child and mother placed under his protection? Was he scared of not living up to his Lord’s expectations as the guardian of this most heavenly son?
As the angel had directed, Joseph quickly set about making the marriage happen as swiftly as possible in order to give Mary the protection of his name, for it was obvious to all she was not far off from delivering her child. At this time a decree went out from Rome ordering a taxing of all the people. It was a way to take a census upon which the basis of taxation would be determined among the different peoples. Had the census been taken by the usual Roman method each person would have been counted at the town in which they currently lived. The Jewish custom, for which the Roman law had respect, required registration at the cities or towns claimed as their families respective ancestral homes.
For this reason Joseph left for Bethlehem, with Mary choosing to accompany him. Certainly the journey was long and hard, but no harder than the people of their day were used to. The inns were full, something they may have expected, but one innkeeper told them of a kahn, or enclosure, nearby, one large enough for them to keep their animals sheltered and watered. On that night, in early springtime, Mary gave birth to her son, Jesus, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger.
Angelic visitations to shepherds, magi traveling from distant lands to offer gifts, a new star in the sky. Many miracles occurred during the brand new Messiah’s life. His life was saved due to the obedience of his parents, who took him away to Egypt when warned that Herod, whom Rome had appointed king over Judea, feared the prophecies of one who might overthrow him. Only at his death was Joseph told it was safe to bring his family back to Israel.
Very little is said regarding the life of our Savior once the family went to Nazareth, where Jesus was raised. The scriptures remain silent on his growing up years. But we are allowed a little bit of insight in the life of the young Jesus by studying a little about what Jewish boys were doing in that time. At the age of five he would have begun school. Over the next five years he would have memorized the Torah, or the first five books of the Old Testament. Six days of the week would have been spent in memorization while the seventh would be for review. At the same time he would have begun to learn the trade of his father, a carpenter.
I have wondered, during my studies, if the young Jesus recognized the words and teachings spoken in the Old Testament. Did they seem so familiar to his ears, to his heart? For they were his own words. Did he begin to receive an inkling of his own divine nature, or was he simply a boy doing his best to be a good son, a good brother, and a good student?
From the ages of 10-14 Jesus would memorize the rest of the Old Testament. Added to his memorization would be the art of rhetorical debating. The Rabbi would ask a question which the student would then have to ponder before answering by asking another question. It was this ability to answer a question with a question that set the best students apart, which we see in his debates with other spiritual leaders during his ministry. Only those who were exceptional students were allowed to continue their schooling at 15.
We are granted one short story in the life of the young Messiah. Every year at the time many families, including Jesus’, traveled together to Jerusalem to attend the Passover, finding safety in numbers. Their journey, especially in keeping up with such a large group, could take anywhere from three to four days. When Jesus was twelve, he and his family were in Jerusalem for the Passover. On the return trip Mary and Joseph realized their son was not with them. After what would have been, or so I assume, a rather frantic search, He was found at the temple, debating with the rabbis, who marveled at the knowledge such a young man held.
When Mary and Joseph found him at the temple he simply stated that he was “about His Father’s business.” Did he, at the age of twelve, realize that his true Father really was his Father in Heaven? Or was he speaking of the Father in the same way any of us who are attempting to be about our Heavenly Father’s business might do? Jesus had learned of the gospel line upon line and precept upon precept, just as every one of us must learn. He did not come into this world with a head full of precisely who he was and what was in store for him. He had to be taught, to be led, in order to become who he was meant to be and do what he was meant to do.
Jesus moved forward in his religious training, first continuing on at fifteen to train under a specific rabbi, until the time came when it would be determined if he would have to go ‘ply his trade,’ by ending his education and practicing his father’s business, or if he would begin a closer relationship with his rabbi until he entered his public ministry at the age of 30. Of course we know this is what happened with Jesus, as we are told he began to minister at 30. He was referred to many times by the title of “Rabbi”, or “Master.” In an article which depicts the life of Christ as a Jew it is stated: “Every word that came out of Jesus’ mouth indicated that He had spent a lifetime being educated as a teacher or rabbi. His words and actions, as well as teaching methods, displayed that of a master Jewish rabbi who had spent a lifetime in study. In actuality, His knowledge and wisdom far exceeded that of any master rabbi.”
When studying for this talk my mind was repeatedly drawn to another given by Elder Holland at the most recent General Conference. I kept pushing the thought to read it aside, as it had nothing to do with Christmas. Still the notion persisted, and I was led to a particular part I know I am supposed to share with you now.
Quote: “After a joyful reunion with the resurrected Jesus, Peter had an exchange with the Savior that I consider the crucial turning point of the apostolic ministry generally and certainly for Peter personally, moving this great rock of a man to a majestic life of devoted service and leadership. Looking at their battered little boats, their frayed nets, and a stunning pile of 153 fish, Jesus said to His senior Apostle, ‘Peter, do you love me more than you love all this?’ Peter said, ‘Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee.’
“The Savior responds to that reply but continues to look into the eyes of His disciple and says again, ‘Peter, do you love me?’ Undoubtedly confused a bit by the repetition of the question, the great fisherman answers a second time, ‘Yea Lord; thou knowest that I love thee.’
“The Savior again gives a brief response, but with relentless scrutiny He asks for the third time, ‘Peter, do you love me?’ By now surely Peter is feeling truly uncomfortable. Perhaps there is in his heart the memory of only a few days earlier when he had been asked another question three times and he had answered equally emphatically - but in the negative. Or perhaps he began to wonder if he misunderstood the Master Teacher’s question. Or perhaps he was searching his heart, seeking honest confirmation of the answer he had given so readily, almost automatically. Whatever his feelings, Peter said for the third time, ‘Lord,…thou knowest that I love thee.’
“To which Jesus responded (and here again I acknowledge my non scriptural elaboration), perhaps saying something like: ‘Then Peter, why are you here? Why are we back on this same shore, by these same nets, having this same conversation? Wasn’t it obvious then and isn’t it obvious now that if I want fish, I can get fish? What I need, Peter, are disciples - and I need them forever. I need someone to feed my sheep and save my lambs. I need someone who loves me, truly, truly loves me, and loves what our Father in Heaven has commissioned me to do. Ours is not a feeble message. It is not a fleeting task. It is not hapless; it is not hopeless; it is not to be consigned to the ash heap of history. It is the work of Almighty God, and it is to change the world. So, Peter, for the second and presumably last time, I am asking you to leave all this and to go teach and testify, labor and serve loyally until the day in which they will do to you exactly what they did to me.’
“Then turning to all the Apostles, He might have said something like: ‘Were you as foolhardy as the scribes and Pharisees? As Herod and Pilate? Did you, like they, think that this work could be killed simply by killing me? Did you, like they, think the cross and the nails and the tomb were the end of it all and each could blissfully go back to being whatever you were before? Children, did not my life and my love touch your hearts more deeply than this?’
Elder Holland continues: “I am not certain just what our experience will be on Judgement Day, but I will be very surprised if at some point in that conversation, God does not ask us exactly what Christ asked Peter: ‘Did you love me?’ And if at such a moment we can stammer out, ‘Yea, Lord, thou knowest that I love thee,’ then He may remind us that the crowning characteristic of love is always loyalty.
“ ‘If ye love me, keep my commandments,’ Jesus said. So we have neighbors to bless, children to protect, the poor to lift up, and the truth to defend. We have wrongs to make right, truths to share, and good to do. In short, we have a life of devoted discipleship to give in demonstrating our love of the Lord. We can’t quit and we can’t go back. After an encounter with the living Son of the living God, nothing is ever again to be as it was before. The Crucifixion, Atonement, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ mark the beginning of a Christian life, not the end of it. It was this truth, this reality, that allowed a handful of Galilean fishermen-turned-again-Apostles without ‘a single synagogue or sword’ to leave those nets a second time and go on to shape the history of the world in which we now live.” Unquote.
Just as the gospel did not end with the death of our Savior, neither did it begin with His birth. I testify to you now that each person sitting in this room, regardless of how old you may be, how much of the gospel you understand, nor how long you’ve been a member of this church, lived with God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, before we all were born. I testify that the spirits in this room are some of the strongest and most valiant, who fought by the side of our Savior, and chose with passion and excitement to come to this earth in the hopes of making decisions that would enable us to return triumphant to that Home we left.
This is a life of choices. Every one of us is given the opportunity to rise above the evils of this world and make a choice to do good, even as the young Jesus learned to do as he grew. Each of us must learn this beautiful gospel by studying the scriptures and attending meetings that will help us gain understanding in those things we find ourselves confused about, just as the Savior did. And each of us must take up our calling and do our best in what the Lord asks us to do, just as the Messiah did for His Father. Not because it’s expected of us. Not because it’ll make us look good in the eyes of others. Not even because our bishop or stake president or prophet told us to. We will do it because we are loyal to the Lord. Because we are still standing with passion and excitement in furthering His work here on Earth. We do all of this because we love Him.
In a world where evil overwhelms us to the point where we may despair, remember this: the smallest acts of kindness can cause mighty changes in the hearts of others.
This Tuesday we celebrate the birth of our Savior. Remember this: He may have been the Messiah, but just like every person here, He started out as a baby. He needed to be taken care of. He needed to learn right from wrong. He needed to be taught His own gospel. Just as we all must do. Learn from this beloved Son of God. And love Him.