The Redemptive Power of Marriage: A Christmas Story

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Over two thousand years ago, you could not find a position much lower than a poor, Jewish girl. Under Roman occupation, a girl like Mary had little political, economic, or social power. Even within her own country, she came from an area that elicited the response from Nathanael (a disciple): “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).  And that is exactly how God wanted it to be.

Time and time again, we see God work His redemptive purposes not through the powerful, attractive, or talented, but through humble and weak people. We even see Him working through a challenging marriage–the marriage of Joseph and Mary.

God Uses the Weak

We know that Mary was young and culturally defenseless, but we also know that Joseph was a respected and pious man. He, or his parents, would have initiated the official engagement that would lead to Mary becoming his wife. At this time, engagements were legally binding. Gifts were exchanged, and all that was left was the consummation of the marriage that would occur after the wedding ceremony. In every other way, they were considered legally wed.

It is during this time that Mary has an angelic visitor. She is told the great news that she will conceive the Messiah. She is confused and questions the angel–she is a virgin and has never been with a man. The angel explains that, “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” (Luke 1:35 ESV). Her confusion is understandable.  This has never happened before in the history of God’s interaction with man. Even still, knowing how difficult this will make her life, and future marriage, she trusts God enough to say yes.

We are not sure how Joseph finds out about this pregnancy. Does she tell him? Do whispers of her growing belly clue him in? We can only imagine his hurt and anger at her supposed infidelity. Even still, he moves to treat her with care, trying to protect her from the worst of the persecution. When an angelic messenger comes to him, though, and reveals the truth of Mary’s claim, he too believes and decides to go forth with the marriage.

A Challenging Marriage

Can you imagine a more awkward start to a marriage? They had both already gone through intense experiences of emotion–he believing his bride had been unfaithful and she believing she would be cast aside and ostracized without a protector. In their fear and hurt, God cemented them together to create a family who would raise His son and change the world.

This marriage is put to the test immediately. Joseph’s decision to marry Mary appears as admission to his own sin. His reputation as a pious man is questioned and the community at large would have viewed them both with derision. The irony is that not only were their beliefs about him incorrect—he goes above and beyond the call of sexual purity. Scripture tells us he is not even intimate with Mary until after Jesus is born.

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Waiting for God During Your Silent Night

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When we think of Christmas, it is easy to imagine the scene of Jesus’s arrival as a joyous time for all involved. Instead, history shows us that Israel was a powder keg and Jesus was in many ways a match to light it.

Silent, But Not Calm

Over two thousand years ago, the Roman Empire firmly in control of most of the known world, Israel sat quietly–at least on the surface.  Underneath the veneer of subservience, Israel seethed with regret, with holy aspirations, and with a tiny glimmer of hope. Their hope was for the renewed glory of Israel. They had had a taste when they miraculously threw off the yoke of Syrian captivity under the Seleucids.  Their own internal conflicts, however, led them once again under the power of another. Unable to settle their own claims to leadership, they actually invited the Romans in to restore order. They did, by taking control of Jerusalem in 63 B.C. about fifty-seven years before Jesus’s birth.

Added to this politically tumultuous time was the fact that there had been no prophetic voice since the prophet Malachi almost four hundred years prior. Realizing that they had no hope of freedom on their own, they began to hope for the Messiah to rescue them. A lay group of men who wanted to purify themselves by following the Law of God perfectly emerged to help hasten the day.  These men were the Pharisees.

The Silence Broken

It is in this climate of tension that John’s voice first emerged.  He urged repentance and spoke of one to come of whom John was not worthy to untie the straps of his sandals (John 1:27 NLT). Although he looked strange and was not a part of the organized religion of the day, people flocked to hear him speak. They were moved by the power of his words and the power behind his words.

Though Jesus and John were cousins, we can assume they had no meeting until the day Jesus came to be baptized, as John had been raised in the desert by the Essenes. So when John sees Jesus for the first time, he prophecies, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29 NLT).  The hoped-for Messiah had arrived, but He was not what they thought. He didn’t come to liberate them from their current external bondage but to liberate them from their internal bondage.

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Grumpy Old Men and Hallmark Christmas Movies: Exhausted by Change

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When I was a kid, I used to be perplexed by what I considered the stodginess of elderly people. They seemed desperate to maintain their routines, angry even. This type of character is captured comically in Disney’s Up and beautifully in Frederick Bachman’s A Man Called Ove. In both stories, the main character, a man, follows a strict routine every day. Bachman describes Ove :

Every morning for the almost four decades they had lived in this house, Ove had put on the coffee percolator, using exactly the same amount of coffee as on any other morning, and then drank a cup with his wife.

After this routine would come his daily inspection of his neighborhood and the general maintenance of his home. He was diligent and hard-working, but he was also bitter. What is introduced initially as a grumpy old man, the likes of which we’ve all encountered, is then slowly revealed to us to be a man who has suffered greatly and who uses the routine to bring comfort into his life. Backman reveals the man he used to be  and why he changed, and we are left loving him instead of hating him. To be sure, like Disney’s Carl, both men have an encounter with love that helps them place their hope in something else, but learning their backstory immediately gives us sympathy for these characters.

Hallmark Christmas Movies Value Tradition

Hallmark Christmas movies also play with the same theme–tradition brings comfort. A base storyline for many Hallmark Christmas movies is a woman or man leaving the city to return to their hometown for Christmas. They are drawn in by the familiar traditions of small-town Christmas and see that this is the answer to the longing they feel within. It is in the familiar routines of home that they find themselves and find peace. I can think of three or four movies already with this theme.

I’ve asked myself why these movies appeal to me–I’m an English teacher after all. I used to make fun of people who watched these movies. Despite this, about two or three years ago, I felt an urge to start watching them, and now I’m hooked. The truth is I was going through a difficult time, and I felt comfort in watching these predictable storylines.

I reveled in beautiful Christmas scenes, a quickly resolved romantic crisis, and the sense of belonging somewhere that the characters experienced. As I age, I see this need articulated more clearly. I look back over my life and see a blur of experience, and I feel bewildered. I’ve never lived anywhere longer than five years, and this rootlessness haunts me. I long, like Ove, who lives in one house for forty years, to know a place. Though Backman is talking metaphorically about a relationship, his comparison haunts me:

Then over the years the walls become weathered, the wood splinters here and there,and you start to love that house not so much because of all its perfections, but rather for its imperfections. You get to know all the nooks and crannies. How to avoid getting the key caught in the lock when it’s cold outside. Which of the floorboards flex slightly when one steps on them or exactly how to open the wardrobe doors without them creaking. These are the little secrets that make it your home.

As I feel my mortality, I need there to be places that I know intimately and where my imprint has been worn into it. My pushback from the realization that I am here so temporarily is to connect. Tradition and routine seem to be an easy way to do this.

Tradition Is An Invitation

Tradition invites me into a history that reaches further back than me and will extend beyond me. Participating in tradition invites me into an inner circle, giving me a connection to those around me. It is also a protection from the excessive change around me.

When I ponder the characters of Ove and Carl, and even many in my Hallmark Christmas movies, they all seek peace in the midst of change. We sympathize with them because we too are victims of the capriciousness of time. I keep waiting to finally “arrive” in my life the way it’s supposed to be, but I am cruelly tricked by the continued change. My body changes, my children change, my job changes–all the while I want to yell for it to stop for a minute, so I can catch my breath.

My response is to dig in and hold on, find a place to nail me down, so I won’t be swept away with the tide. However, we all know this won’t work. My heart cries out for comfort though and promises bitterness if I don’t deliver.

I don’t think this longing for routine is wrong–I think in many ways it is the necessity of life. There are many routines I cannot avoid–I must eat every day, breathe every moment, drink and sleep. The danger comes when I decide what these routines must be in order for me to feel safe.

Only God Provides What We Need

Like Ove and Carl, we all need to release the tight-fisted hold we have on the routines of life in order to allow God to step in and do His redeeming work. Love alone is powerful enough to unclench my fist. I cannot stop the tide that flows ever onward pushing me towards my end; however, I can choose to trust the One who controls the tide. When I realize that there are things and people that are more important than my comfort, I can allow traditions and routine to take their proper place in my life, as a stabilizer but not my foundation.

There is no proper defense against the rush of life, except to lose ourselves in the eternal God. He is the one who goes before us, providing a home that cannot be taken from us (John 14:3). Then, we will be able to fully enjoy the peace Christ offers when He says, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). Our decaying world gives and takes back–with God it is not so. We are growing into his peace and into our new homes that await us. 

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Cheating Audiences with Fake Sacrifices

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In Stephen King’s novel Misery, Paul Sheldon, a famous author, is held hostage by his number one fan after a horrible accident. She demands that he write her favorite character back to life. His first attempt brings the main character back but without a plausible story. Annie, his captor, launches into a tirade about watching movies as a kid:

Anyway, my favourite was Rocketman, and once it was a no breaks chapter. The bad guy stuck him in a car on a mountain road and knocked him out and welded the door shut and tore out the brakes and started him to his death, and he woke up and tried to steer and tried to get out but the car went off a cliff before he could escape! And it crashed and burned and I was so upset and excited, and the next week, you better believe I was first in line. And they always start with the end of the last week. And there was Rocketman, trying to get out, and here comes the cliff, and just before the car went off the cliff, he jumped free! And all the kids cheered! But I didn’t cheer. I stood right up and started shouting. This isn’t what happened last week! Have you all got amnesia? They just cheated us! This isn’t fair! HE DIDN’T GET OUT OF THE COCK – A – DOODIE CAR!

She then makes him rewrite it without cheating his audience. He is able to do this and realizes as he is writing that this is the best writing he has ever done. Just like Annie, moviegoers, particularly those of the sci-fi genre, also do not want to be cheated by pretend sacrifices.

We’ve Been Cheated Before

In 2014, the X-Men franchise released X-Men: Days of Future Past which made the preceding X-Men movies pointless with its time-traveling antics. Deaths, catastrophic events, and important plot developments were reversed. This left the viewer with a vague sense that they had wasted money on movies that no longer “happened” and emotions on events and characters that no longer existed in the way they previously understood them. Even more frustrating was the unexplained resurrection of Xavier, leaving the viewers to speculate online how he miraculously shows up without a single reference.

Even in the very popular Black Panther, we see this reversal of fates. When T’Challa fights Killmonger and loses, he is thrown off the waterfall to certain death. The audience is left to believe he is dead, while Killmonger asserts his kingship with calculated and horrific steps. However, the audience cannot really believe he is dead. They just wait to see how it will be undone. In the case of this movie, unlike X-Men, there is a sense of cost. He is not immediately restored, and they must depend on the generosity of a rival tribe. Though it is expected, his resurrection is at least not easy.

Will It Be Believable?

This precedent or resurrections, however, makes Marvel Universe fans wary of the next plot development in the Avengers series. Since the Infinity War ends with the death of a large number of iconic superheroes (many with upcoming movies to be released), the viewer is once again wondering what kind of trick the Marvel Universe franchise has up their sleeves that will bring their heroes back but with little cost.

There are many speculations about how these events may be undone. These fan theories touch on revelations from the comic books series, as well as hints in the films. Some believe that Dr. Strange’s vision of the one possible scenario in which they win is still in effect. Others argue that the soul stone may exact a different price from Thanos from what he expected. While a dramatic ending like the one in Infinity War sparks much online discussion, it does challenge the viewers’ needed suspension of disbelief. If the characters cannot truly suffer harm, can we really care about them? Don’t most of the conversations just focus on the various possible plot twists and less on what this means to each character?

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What Kind of Rescue Is This?

The first Star Wars movie came out the year I was born. Though I never saw these movies in their original releases in the movie theaters, these movies helped define my childhood. I owned the action figures and played with them constantly. When I ventured away to more traditional toys, Star Wars came with me—my Barbie was named Leia and Ken was named Luke. There are too many iconic moments in these films to count, but I always remember Princess Leia’s rescue scene with mirth.

When I imagined a princess, I was not expecting the feisty, gun-toting, smart-mouthed warrior who resists torture to protect her people. She doesn’t hesitate to criticize her would-be rescuers either. When Luke and Hans Solo appear to have no real plan for escape, she mutters, “This is some rescue!” and continues to berate them for their lack of foresight.  Despite her misgivings, they are able to get away though it is a difficult process.

An Unusual Plan

Her words remind me of another rescue plan that seemed absurd.  In this scene, we go back in time to an ancient culture and a people also enslaved by a ruthless master. In our story, however, there is no resistance movement apart from one complicated man with a vision from God. Moses isn’t feisty and armed with wit and weapons like Princess Leia–instead, he is a man who states his own inability to even speak. Nevertheless, he is chosen for the mission of a lifetime–God is rescuing His people,

When Moses comes back to Egypt, he had been gone forty years and the Israelite people had been in bondage over 400 years. Moses had two difficult audiences to win over–a prideful Pharaoh and a beleaguered people with no hope. Initially, with the help of his brother Aaron and God’s miraculous works, the people believed “that the Lord had visited the people of Israel and that He had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshiped” (Exodus 4:31 ESV). But when Moses and Aaron finally approach Pharoah and make their demands (this time only for three days of worship), Pharoah is angry. He increases the burden of their work by making them gather their own straw while still maintaining the same quota of bricks.

A Costly Plan

When the people of Israel realize this, they are angry at Moses. They say, “The Lord look on you and judge, because you have made us stink in the sight of Pharaoh and his servants, and have put a sword in their hand to kill us” (Exodus 5:21 ESV).  Though they had been initially confident in the rescue, they now saw a death sentence. They probably wondered what kind of rescue resulted in greater hardship. God wasn’t done yet though.

We know from Scripture that it takes ten destructive plagues culminating in the death of the firstborns before Pharaoh is willing to let them go. Within these texts are the ominous lines that God hardened the Pharaoh’s heart, making the increasingly intense plagues necessary. It is only when Pharaoh himself experiences the decree that was enforced upon the Israelites (the death of their male child) that he is broken enough.

Finally, the Israelites get to experience a moment of triumph–they march out of their prison, taking with them the spoils of the Egyptians who freely offer them. However, this triumph is short-lived as the Pharaoh changes his mind and pursues them. Once again, the Israelites find their rescue plan taking a turn they did not anticipate. Once again, they turn to Moses and say, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’?” (Exodus 14: 11-12 ESV). Though God miraculously intervenes and they are free to move towards the Promised Land, this will not be the last time they question Moses.

Their rescue did not go the way they wanted.

A Continuing Plan

We can relate, can’t we? It’s easy this side of history to judge the Israelites and to think they were ungrateful, but, in living my own rescue story, I find myself relating to their angry and fearful sides. We want rescues to be dramatic, but we want them to be smooth and pain-free with as little participation in the hard work as possible.

We know from history that rescues are actually horrifically difficult and ugly.  When Allied forces liberated countries under the Nazi regime, the battles were bloody and costly. Even after the war was done, the rebuilding of an entire continent was overwhelming. No, the Israelites story is not unique in its difficulty, but it is unique in the direct supervision of God.

For those of us in the midst of our own incarceration–whether that is addiction, difficult relationships, depression or something else–we might be tempted to ask God what kind of rescue is this.  We know of the work done on the Cross–the war has been won! Yet why is the process of being made whole so difficult? Or why doesn’t God resolve our problems in a different way, one that hurts less? We, like the Israelites, might want to run back to the place of our slavery just to stop the pain.

The Israelites initial imaginations of freedom most likely included a ceasing from the back-breaking labor they were forced to do every day. They probably had no vision for a land all of their own. They couldn’t have foreseen the glory of David and Solomon’s reigns. They had no clue at all about the larger redemptive purpose God had of the seed of the Messiah being birthed from their people. God’s plan was too big for them to comprehend, too beautiful to imagine.

It is the same today. Wherever you are and whatever battle you face, it is a part of a great rescue plan that is still being enacted for the glory of God. It will be hard and confusing and chaotic, but the end result, which we cannot see in full, will be worth much more than our present sufferings could ever equal.  In the meantime, we do not pretend like it doesn’t hurt, but we learn to live within the pain and choose to trust the plan.

C.S. Lewis in his book The Problem of Pain notes “when pain is to be born, a little courage helps more than much knowledge, a little human sympathy more than much courage, and the least tincture of the love of God more than all.”  I pray we have all three!