Episode 15 - The Birth of John and the Scandal in Nazareth - Opening Up the Gospels

In Episode 14 we looked at Mary’s visit to Elizabeth in the hill country of Judea. Mary spent three months there with her, and these two pregnant moms lived in obscurity and carried the two most important children in human history in their wombs. We talked about how God does things so differently than we do, and how even the circumstances of the birth of John the Baptist and Jesus give us a vivid picture of this. Now I mentioned last week that Mary probably left after three months because John was born. We can’t be biblically certain of this, but it seems likely. So Luke 1:57 to 66 gives us a record of John’s birth. Elizabeth’s full term had come, John was delivered, and her neighbors and relatives were the first among many in the hill country to rejoice at John’s birth. Eight days after he was born, he was circumcised according to Jewish tradition and was to be given a name. Now remember, Zechariah is still mute at this point. How awkward must this eight days have been for him? The entire neighborhood was celebrating, congratulating, laughing, and thanking God, but he was unable to speak a word. Well, the day for his circumcision came, and Elizabeth insisted that his name was to be called “John”, even at the objection of others who thought he should be named after his father. Now Zechariah was asked to confirm the name of his child. He was given a writing tablet, which was probably his only reliable method of communication for at least the last 9 months – and wrote “His name is John”. And immediately his tongue was loosed and he began to bless God. He said this in Luke 1, starting at verse 68: ““Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”” (Luke 1:68–79 ESV) Zechariah’s prophecy is very similar to what we looked at in Episode 14 in Mary’s song in that it interprets John’s birth and life in light of Old Testament prophecy. The first part of his utterance speaks of the coming king of Israel from David’s lineage who would save Israel from her enemies and reign over the house of Jacob forever, as God’s covenant with David in 2 Samuel 7 made clear. And through this horn of salvation from David’s line, God would remember the covenant He made with Abraham to bless all the nations of the earth through his seed. One day, Israel would be brought back to their land and into permanent safety, where they would be able to fulfill their calling as a nation of priests and worship the Lord. The second part of his utterance deals with his son John, and how he would be a part of God’s plan to fulfill His covenants to Israel. There’s so much in here and so little time to look at it all, but there is one specific point I want to highlight. Zechariah said that John would go “before the Lord to prepare His ways”. Zechariah is alluding to two Old Testament prophecies here – Isaiah 40 verse 3 and Malachi 3 verse 1. I’ve already talked briefly about this back in episode 4, and I’m going to spend several episodes on the importance of who John said that he was preparing the way for. This is so critical understand as we move forward in the story of the Gospels. Well, we know that after John had been born, Mary returned to her home in Nazareth. As I said last week, we can’t even begin to imagine how scandalous this would have been to her betrothed husband Joseph, her family, and the whole town of Nazareth. She said she was going to her relative’s house in Judea, but what really happened while she was away? Even if Mary was able to cover up her pregnancy upon her return, it would not have been long before she was showing. The stigma of bearing a child when she was only betrothed would have been overwhelming in her context. But what does this say about God? Remember, back in episode 13 we looked at Luke 1 verse 28 where Gabriel calls Mary “highly favored” of God? Now probably no one would look on a scandalous pregnancy and call someone “favored” by God, right? Well, this was all God’s design, every portion of it. He knew Mary would be walking right into severe misunderstanding and an overwhelming stigma. So again, what does that say about God? As I said back in Episode 13, it’s 1 Samuel 16 again. “For the LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”” (1 Samuel 16:7 ESV) So Mary is now back in Nazareth and up to this point we’ve looked exclusively at Luke’s account. But this is where Matthew’s gospel begins to pick up with the story of the birth of Jesus. Both Matthew and Luke are complimentary towards one another as Matthew is coming from Joseph’s perspective and Luke is coming from Mary’s. Let’s read Matthew 1 starting at verse 18: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” (Matthew 1:18–19 ESV) Though the birth narratives focus much on Mary, we really should ask ourselves what kind of man Joseph was. The Lord entrusted the care of His son to him, so there must have been something in him that caught God’s eyes. And indeed there was. Verse 19 says Joseph was “a just man”. What kind of person does it take to bear the scandal of your betrothed wife returning to town with a very unlikely explanation for why she is pregnant? I bet Joseph was devastated… So many emotions must have been raging through his mind – anger, confusion, betrayal, sadness, uncertainty. But I love the last part of verse 19. Joseph was unwilling to put her to shame. Now according to Deuteronomy 22, a woman who was unfaithful prior to marriage was to be stoned to death by the men of her city while standing in the door of her father’s house. “But if the thing is true, that evidence of virginity was not found in the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done an outrageous thing in Israel by whoring in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” (Deuteronomy 22:20–21 ESV) This is the context of how Mary’s pregnancy would have been received and viewed by Joseph and by the people of Nazareth. They were both devout Jews and would have known the law of Moses. But Joseph had a decision to make – whether to give her over to that fate or to somehow handle it in a way so that it was not publicly scrutinized and addressed. He didn’t want to bring additional shame and judgment upon her from the people of the town. We’re not sure exactly what Joseph had in mind, but as we’ll see in the next episode, Joseph would receive a visit from an angel and would go on to claim Mary and her child as his own. But still, they would have both borne the stigma and rumors of scandal even though he legally and formally embraced her as his wife. Again, this is just so revelatory concerning what “favor” from God is. This has to move beyond just a good Bible story to us to where we actually feel its implications. On a very real night in history, a young man called Joseph lay down to sleep in a small house in the Middle East, perhaps crying himself to sleep because of the turmoil in his soul. And Mary may have done the same… She knew the angel’s words to her were true, she had spent 3 months with Elizabeth and saw her child as a sign. But now the opinion of friends and family in Nazareth was weighing down on her. She knew she had never been with a man, and she knew the 9 months ahead of her were to probably be the hardest 9 months of her life thus far. And even afterwards as we’ll see in a future episode, Simeon in Luke chapter 2 would go on to prophesy that her own soul would be pierced through with sorrow because of her child. We have to let everything that happened with Mary shape our idea of what we call “favor from God”. Well, there’s just so much to meditate on throughout this portion of Jesus’ life. Here’s a few quick points: 1) Imagine yourself as a neighbor of Zechariah and Elizabeth that was present at the circumcision and naming of John the Baptist. Zechariah had not spoken in months, yet now his tongue is loosed and he begins prophesying. What would you have felt and thought as he spoke? 2) Ponder Mary’s journey back from the hill country of Judea. What could she have been feeling as she was on the familiar road into her town? What about the moment she locked eyes with Joseph after 3 months of not seeing him? 3) Think about Joseph’s life after he found out Mary was pregnant. Who did he tell first? What feelings rose up in his heart as he heard Mary’s story of what had happened? If you’re wondering what I mean when I say “ponder” or “meditate”, I’d encourage you to go back to Episode 5 and 6 to get just a quick overview of Biblical meditation on the life of Jesus.