Have you noticed how many people in the Christmas story had to take God at His word? We have two millennia of history and the New Testament to shape our understanding of the Christmas drama, but the key players in the story didn’t have that advantage. Lest we forget, God had been silent for centuries when Zechariah and Mary had their heavenly visitor, and nothing like what they experienced had happened for more than a millennium. You could make a case for Zechariah having an angelic visitation because he was a priest, but the rest? Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds were ordinary people going about their business without the slightest indication they were about to play significant roles in a cosmic drama that would alter human history forever.
Consider the shepherds: They were social outcasts with reputations for being dishonest and incompetent. Those shepherds who announced the birth of Jesus would’ve been the last people expecting God to entrust them with the most incredible exclusive of all time. I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t have sent them either. I would have probably rationalised that the news was too important to send messengers that people would likely distrust to deliver it. I suspect something about their eerie exuberance piqued the interest of some, but it’s telling that all of Bethlehem didn’t flock to see the baby as the news spread. However, they had the privilege to be Jesus’s first visitors because they took God at His word [Luke 2:8-20]. Those shepherds risked mockery and abuse, but God disproportionately rewarded them. Years later, that infant would redeem the reputation of shepherds by identifying Himself as the Good Shepherd [John 10:11].
Now consider Mary, likely a teenager, when God sent the angel Gabriel to her. Her humility and courage to discard her plans and accept God’s call for her life remain exemplary. Imagine the responsibility on her young shoulders! She would’ve known the implications of the pregnancy, but she said yes nonetheless. Today, we celebrate her as the mother of God, but that was far from her experience, possibly until Jesus started His ministry. It’s even likely that throughout her life, she bore the stigma of a suspicious pregnancy. We often imagine God’s call will take us to the mountaintop, and it does, but the path to the top usually includes dark valleys and passageways where what God said is all we have to go on. Like the shepherds, Mary risked her reputation and even her life when she agreed to do God’s bidding because she never knew how Joseph would react. Had Joseph responded differently, Mary would have faced a capital offence. Her life, epitomised by the phrase: “Be it unto me according to Your word”, remains a stellar example of what it means to trust God [Luke 1:38].
I find Joseph most fascinating because his divine instructions came through dreams – a medium many of us often discard or discredit. First, an angel told him in a dream about the origins of Mary’s pregnancy, and he believed [Matthew 1:18-25]. Imagine what friends and family said as Joseph recounted the story. Consider his options: Either he claimed a child he knew wasn’t his on the strength of a dream or put his fiancee’s life at risk by denying the baby was his. There was seemingly no happy ending, but Joseph trusted God. The second dream is incredibly instructive on being sensitive to present truth. Yes, Mary’s baby was the Messiah; angels heralded His birth, and wise men travelled hundreds of miles on the prompting of a star to confirm that his child was the One promised by the prophets. An unwise person could’ve ignored the dream and reasoned that Herod couldn’t kill the Son of God. But at that moment, the God who parted the Red Sea said: “Run”, and Joseph discerned, obeyed and saved Jesus. As Scripture says, we live on the word proceeding (present continuous tense) from the mouth of God [Deuteronomy 8:3]. Therefore, we must be sensitive to what God is saying in the present, not just what He said in the past.
Like all the heroes in the Bible, Joseph, Mary, and the shepherds trusted God when they had little or no proof to do so. They understood that believing what God said was evidence of things not seen [Hebrews 11:1]. Joseph, for instance, took his family to a country that once enslaved his people. Imagine the challenges he faced to support his family as a refugee in a country that detested his people with a language he didn’t speak [Genesis 43:32]. As Mary demonstrated, our conviction about God’s faithfulness and integrity produces something tangible the world can perceive. Yet, for a season, all we’ll have are our convictions and maybe naysayers. But be patient; God always comes through. I believe that if any of the heroes of the faith could give us one advice, it would be this: Trust God and do whatever He says [John 2:5]. Divine instructions will seldom make sense at first. As one sage puts it: “Faith means trusting in advance what will only make sense in reverse”. In other words, faith to the human mind will always look like a risk because God offers no guarantees outside Himself.
The counterbalance to the transient discomfort of taking God at His word is remembering who He is and what He has already done for us. Joseph and Mary could look back to the Exodus as evidence that God is trustworthy. But today, we have infinitely greater proof of His love for us [John 3:16]. God Almighty, the Creator of the universe, left His throne to dwell among us in a form we could see, hear and touch [John 1:14]. If He did that for us, what would He not do for us [Romans 8:32]? I aim to grow to a point in my Christian walk where I disregard discomforts and obey once I verify God has spoken [Numbers 23:19].