Writer, editor, stumbler after Jesus

Christmas delight and duty

Nativity scene silhouette at sunset, horizontal orientation.

ALL SIN SEPARATES us from God, but that doesn’t make all sin equal. Some wrongdoing has much greater consequences and implications—for those responsible and for those who are affected. The same is true when it comes to righteousness—doing what you are told and doing what you are asked are not the same thing.

Both responses are good, of course. But the difference between the two came to mind as I pondered a previously unnoticed wrinkle in the familiar Christmas story. The two central characters, Mary and Joseph, both hear from an angel, but for only one of them is it an in-person message.

Why does Mary get a one-on-one audience with Gabriel when he tells her she is going to give birth to the Messiah, while Joseph’s instructions to not divorce her—as he had intended—are delivered only via a dream?

Some might suggest tha it’s because if it occurred in a dream for her, Mary could just dismiss the encounter as too much pizza at suppertime. Possible, but unlikely: the angelic dream Joseph has subsequently is striking enough for him to accept it as real and act on the instructions without question. When an angel speaks to you, either in person or while you are snoozing, you kind of know it’s for real.

Or it could be argued that Joseph has more faith than Mary; he doesn’t need as much vivid proof. Nah. That just downplays Mary’s spiritual stature. She isn’t some little wilting flower chosen at random for this assignment; she has been deliberately selected. She is a “favored one” (Luke 1:28). If anything, she may have more faith than Joseph.

I wonder whether the reason is perhaps because while God is looking for obedience from Joseph, he is wanting more from Mary—not just acquiescence, but willingness. Of course, He could just announce that she is going to conceive the Messiah and that’s that, but such a marvelous plan needs more than reluctant acceptance. It needs welcome.

Notice how, after Mary has quizzed Gabriel on the details of the plan, she tells him, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). This isn’t just, Okay then. This is, Sure!

With Mary pregnant and Jesus on the way, Joseph doesn’t have to like what’s happening, because it’s on whatever he says. He just needs to get with the program, to be willing to sacrifice. Maybe that’s why he has a dream; he just needs the facts.

Whatever the reasons for the different ways they learn about the incarnation, the way Mary and Joseph respond reminds me how delight and duty are both appropriate when God speaks. We do what He says because we want to, and we do what He says because we should.

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