Christmas is coming.
Rereading the nativity story with my Kindergarten students, I was struck by the vital part obedience played. I know obedience isn’t a popular word, but bear with me. As I thought about it I asked my students: what would have happened if Noah had refused to build the ark? I received a chorus of answers: “He would have deaded!” “He would have drownded!” (Don’t you love five-year-olds!)
And what would have happened if Joseph had refused the angel’s command to get up from his sleep and take Mary and Jesus to Egypt? (Matthew 2:13). Jesus would have been killed by Herod’s soldiers.
It’s not as if everyone God asks to do something is immediately obedient. Poor Jonah disobeyed and spent three days repenting in the belly of a large fish. But God, through His angels, asked a lot of people to do a lot of different things in the nativity story, and it took a lot of obedience for everything to work out…
The angel told Mary she would “be with child”. Despite being “greatly troubled” – and who wouldn’t if a large angel appeared in their kitchen – she answered: “May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1:26-38).
The angel told Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, though she was pregnant and he knew the child was not his. “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary as his wife” (Matthew 1:24).
Of course, obedience to the decree of the Roman Caesar Augustus took Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem to register for the census and pay their taxes. There, as prophesied, the baby was born and Joseph “gave him the name Jesus’ (Matthew 1:25) as instructed by the angel (v21).
The angels said to the shepherds: “You will find the baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12), “so they hurried off” (v16). The importance of these lowly shepherds cannot be underestimated. Although not given a direct command they were, thankfully, inspired and curious enough to go and find out if what the angels had said was true. As first witnesses to the birth of Jesus, “they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them” (Luke 2:17-18). The people were probably just as amazed that it was poor, uneducated, dirty, smelly shepherds doing the telling, as they were at hearing fanciful stories of angels talking, heavenly hosts worshiping, and a baby King – their long-awaited Messiah, no less – lying in some nearby stable in the animal’s feeding trough. Yet, there the baby was, and Mary and Joseph lived among them for months in Bethlehem. Everyone would have known who they were and the house where they lived, where the Magi later visited “the child with Mary his mother” (Matthew 2:11).
The wise men obeyed God too. Have you ever considered how intensely they must have studied and known every star in order to notice when a new one appeared? They worshiped Jesus, then being “warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route” (Matthew 2:12). Their obedience saved Jesus’ life. By the time Herod realized he had been tricked, Joseph had taken his whole family to Egypt, before Herod’s soldiers began murdering all the boys under two in a futile effort to kill this potential challenger to his throne. In this, too, Joseph obeyed God. In a dream the angel appeared again to Joseph and told him to get up and get out of town; he obeyed immediately, fleeing with his family in the middle if the night, under the cover of darkness so no neighbours could see and betray their escape route, and perhaps only hours before the soldiers began their rampage.
They found sanctuary in Egypt, an option for only thirty years. In 30BC Octavian (later Caesar Augustus) defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra to annex Egypt and impose his rule, thus opening the border to Joseph. (I wonder if Augustus had any idea of how God used him to rescue His Son, or of being obedient to God!) The Roman army had thirty years to quell rebellions and establish trade and supply routes, capturing and killing bandits who might have endangered our little family.
Joseph did not take his family back to Israel until after the death of Herod, about three years later, again in obedience to an angel in a dream (Matthew 2:19-22). He was enroute to Bethlehem in Judea until yet another warning in another dream redirected him to Nazareth in Galilee (Matthew 2:21-23).
Obedience. The story starts with the obedience of a young girl, and is driven, time and again, by the obedience of this faithful, trusting man of God – Joseph.
And so, for us, Christmas is coming.