In the first chapters of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, we see four people receiving surprising news. For two, Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth, the news was very joyful, if a bit disturbing. For Joseph, betrothed to Mary, the news was definitely disturbing. For Mary, well, it's complicated, so we'll get to that in a bit. First up, Zechariah and Elizabeth:
In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah,of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years. Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother's womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared." And Zechariah said to the angel, "How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years." And the angel answered him, "I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time." Luke 1:5-20
Before looking at Zechariah and Elizabeth's likely feelings, there are some things in this passage that deserve some explanation. That Elizabeth had no children was a source of great sadness and pain for her and Zechariah. On top of the natural desire of most married couples to become parents, children, in Jewish culture, were seen as signs of God's blessing. Thus, their being childless would raise the question of why God did not so bless them. And the nickname “Barren” - as in “Elizabeth the Barren” - was catty and particularly cruel.
The statement, “when his division was on duty,” is a reference to a reorganization of the priests done by King David in 1 Chronicles 24. In the time of Moses, Aaron and his sons had been appointed priests, not just for their lifetimes, but his descendants in perpetuity. By David's time, as many as 4 or 5 centuries later, the number of descendants of Aaron were so numerous that David organized them into 24 divisions, so that each would have a chance to serve as priest. With each division being on duty just 2 weeks or so a year and the likely recovery and growth in the numbers of priests in the 5 centuries or so after the Exile to Babylon, Zechariah may only actually have served in the temple just a few times during his life. On top of that, Zechariah had been chosen to burn incense on the day of the announcement, so all in all, this day was special for him … and God made it all the more so with this announcement!
“And he must not drink wine or strong drink,” means that John would take the Nazirite vow (Numbers, chapter 6). The Nazirite vow to abstain from grape products, not cut one's hair, etc., denoted a special dedication to serving God. It could be for one's lifetime or it could be for a designated time period.
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!" But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." And Mary said to the angel, "How will this be, since I am a virgin?" And the angel answered her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy--the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." And Mary said, "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." And the angel departed from her. Luke 1:26-38
In this, Mary was put in a difficult position from the very outset. The norm in Israel was for a newly (both first-time, of course) married couple to be virgins. Extra-marital sex was against the Law of Moses. Mary was a virgin – probably in her teens – and betrothed. In her culture, that meant she was married, except for the ceremony and the living together as husband and wife. Now here she was, about to have a baby, normally prima facie evidence of not being a virgin. The legal complications, to the extent the Romans allowed any, could be deadly. And even if navigated such that Mary escaped punishment, her social status (Nazareth was a really small village), and her status as Joseph's wife-to-be, were in jeopardy. Yet, Mary knew she was still a virgin! And her baby was God's Son and the promised Messiah! Putting it mildly, that was a lot for a teeny-something to handle!
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. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel"(which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. Matthew 1:18-25
Joseph is shown but little in Scripture. This passage gives considerable insight into his character. While it is true that Joseph was prepared, given the news of Mary's pregnancy (and he knew he wasn't be the father of her baby!), to call off the marriage, his reaction was actually atypically mild. The more natural reaction – outrage – would not have been to quietly and privately call off the marriage. Outrage, anger, and bruised pride are much noisier, public, vindictive. He could have put Mary's life in jeopardy, or at least made her life very miserable. But that wasn't the kind of man Joseph was! He was going to call off the marriage quietly and let Mary and her family to figure out what Mary should do.
We don't know how much Mary told Joseph about how she came to be pregnant. She may have told him the full story of Gabriel's announcement. Or she may have given no explanation at all. Given his inclination to call off the marriage, he did not believe her. At any rate, when in a dream Joseph was informed of the source of Mary's pregnancy, rather than blaming something spicy in his previous night's dinner, Joseph fully accepted that Mary was indeed a virgin, pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and, obedient to God, proceeded with their marriage. That was quite a reversal and life-changing decision to be made based on a dream! Joseph accepted Who the baby's Parent was. Joseph set aside and quashed the anger he had had toward Mary. Joseph set aside his pride in accepting both social disgrace – marrying Mary would be interpreted as an acknowledgment that they had had sex before being married – and the fact that he would be raising a son that was not “his”. Joseph certainly trusted God and loved Mary!
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord."
And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever." And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home. Luke 1:39-56
This incident is sort of an appendix to the announcement to Mary (and possibly to Joseph's dream), but there are some interesting things here. First, there's the apparent familial relationship between Mary and Elizabeth (verse 36, not quoted). Verse 5, quoted above, states that Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron, of the tribe of Levi. Mary was a descendant of David, of the tribe of Judah. How were they relatives? By the marriage of other, unmentioned, family members? Or by being descendants of two sons of Jacob (Israel), who lived some 18 centuries earlier? The New Testament doesn't explain.
More interesting – to me anyway – is what happened at their initial meeting. John, not yet born, reacted to the presence of Jesus, Who was also in utero. Babies do all kinds of things in utero – get the hiccups, do jumping jacks (maybe it just seems that way) – and sometimes in response to things happening in the outside world. But babies don't react vigorously every time the mother stands up or a person enters the room. Hence Elizabeth's realization that John was responding to the unseen presence of Jesus. This says much about the nature of unborn babies: aware, with consciousness, not just responding reflexively; having character and personality (John's desire to recognize and honor God; Jesus being the Son of God) far beyond “just” being a generic fetus.
In sum, this announcement was a huge blessing to Zechariah and Elizabeth! Zechariah's response to Gabriel shows that he was resigned to being childless, and was making the most otherwise of his marriage with Elizabeth. More than that, Zechariah, who of all Israelites was in a class who should have understood God's power, expressed doubt. And now Zechariah and Elizabeth were told that they would be blessed, beyond their expectation, by having a child! And their son was named by God and was to have a special dedication and service to God in life was all the more exciting!
For Joseph, this was a roller coaster experience! He was to be married soon. Then he learned his betrothed was pregnant, and not by him. So he decided to divorce Mary. Then he is told in a dream that Mary's child is by God, not some other man … marriage back on again! Hypothetically, Joseph was expendable. He wasn't “needed” for Mary to have her baby or to raise Jesus. Yet God offered Joseph the chance to serve Him by being Mary's husband and Jesus' Dad. And Joseph embraced that service!
Mary was at the center of all this. She was carrying Jesus, the One Who brought salvation to the world! And still, she was a teeny-something from a tiny Galilean village! She had the most to digest, and it's pretty evident, from her hymn of praise in Luke 1:46-55, she had done a lot of thinking. And Luke 2:19 and 51 and John 2:3-5 make it very clear that Mary did much more thinking through the years about Who Jesus was, and about how she should respond. I guess your Son being the Son of God and your Savior is a lot to contemplate!
I'd like to append a special and particular, "Thank you!" to Pastor Steve Clifford, whose sermon for this weekend's services helped me bring clearer focus to parts of this post! He didn't/doesn't know that I was preparing this post, but God did.