Once upon a time in the land of Galilee, in a small town called Nazareth, there lived a young girl named Mary. She was beautiful with long, dark hair pulled back with a simple ribbon. In those days, when a girl reached her age, her father would begin to arrange her marriage to a young man from a good family.
When Life Doesn’t Go the Way We Planned
Mary adored her father and believed that he knew her best and loved her most. She trusted him to choose the perfect mate for her. So one day, her father came home and announced that the betrothal meal would take place. The betrothal was a legally binding event that could only be broken by divorce.
Mary’s father negotiated the bride price with the groom’s family; after all, her home would lose a valuable daughter who contributed to their household. This payment demonstrated Mary’s worth–that she was a treasure to her family.
On the day of the betrothal, a young man named Joseph set out to Mary’s home, carrying with him the bride price, a gold ring, material for her dress, wine for the vow, and the ketubah or marriage contract.
When Mary opened the door, there stood Joseph–a handsome young man that she had known since childhood. She welcomed him in, butterflies churning in her stomach. The two of them shared a meal and drank the cup, which represented both joy and judgment–joy at the prospect of their new lives together and judgment should either of them ever be unfaithful.
They fed each other bread as a sign of their promise: Joseph promised to provide and protect; Mary promised to care and to comfort. Together they signed the ketubah, sealing their covenant to become man and wife.
Joseph placed a gold ring on the forefinger of her right hand, saying, “By this ring you are consecrated to me as my wife in accordance with the law of Moses and of Israel.”
With excitement and anticipation, Joseph returned home to build an addition onto his family’s house for him and his wife. Mary began sewing her wedding gown. When Joseph’s work on their new home would be completed, he would return for his bride, and the wedding celebration would begin. They were now considered husband and wife, only awaiting the time when their marriage would be consummated, and they would become one.*
Their expectations soared as they anticipated building their new life together. And then…
“In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, ‘Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.’
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.’
‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’
The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.’
‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May it be to me as you have said.’ Then the angel left her” (Luke 1:26-38, NIV84).
Talk about a change in plans! Mary had been making a dress and preparing for a wedding celebration. Now she was trying to figure out how to explain something she didn’t understand herself. So, she prayed for courage and visited Joseph to tell him the news.
“Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, 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'” (Matthew 1:19-21).
These two had been anticipating a great celebration with family and friends, and now they were facing an unexpected and unexplainable pregnancy. They had to deal with rumors, explanations to their parents, and the responsibility of bringing the Messiah into the world.
Mary didn’t expect to travel 80 miles with a child in her womb or give birth in a cave with no family around. They probably didn’t anticipate being on the run from Herod with no diapers, no pacifier, and (good grief!) no mama there to help her.
Their world was turned upside down.
Perhaps you have felt the sting of unmet expectations–the sudden loss of a loved one, some unexpected turn of events, a longing unfulfilled. Maybe you feel that your world has been turned upside down and you no longer anticipate with hope and joy.
Perhaps there are empty seats at your table this year, hurt feelings among family members, a lack of funds for gifts, or a sickness you are battling. You feel the pain and disappointment of all those unmet expectations.
The good news for you today is that we know the rest of Mary and Joseph’s story. God is always true to His promises, and His promise of a Messiah who would save the world from sin was fulfilled through the unmet expectations of two teenagers.
Immanuel–God with us–slept in their very arms. God provided a manger to hold His Baby Boy, shepherds to welcome him into the world, and angels to sing His praise. God led them to Egypt and kept them safe. In the midst of their dashed hopes and unmet expectations, God showed up and used them to fulfill the greatest plan the world has ever known.
Their Christmas story became a story of redemption, peace, love, joy, and hope for all the world through Jesus. And their story brings hope to our story. Because we may face some dashed hopes and shattered dreams, but we can trust the God of Mary and Joseph to show up and work all things together for our good and His glory.
Immanuel will be with us, and He will bring comfort in our pain, peace in our troubles, His presence in our loneliness, His joy in our grief. He will take our pain and confusion and questions and disappointment and work them all together for our good and for His glory.
Will you trust God with your Christmas story? Will you trust that your Father loves you most and knows you best?
Because in the midst of your unmet expectations, a Savior has been born. He has come to heal the brokenhearted and to set the captives free. His name is Jesus, and He is here.
*The narrative is my own re-telling of the Christmas story. Much of the cultural context about Hebrew betrothal came from a teaching I heard by Judi Ebert.