Pursuit of Proof

Mary wants to bring evidence from the house of Zechariah that will prove the miraculous nature of Mary’s pregnancy, but what will she do if the angel’s words turn out not to be true?
Before dawn, Mary dressed and picked up her wineskin and bag containing bread, figs, and raisins. She bridled the family’s donkey and led him into the street. He was more useful for carrying her pack than he was for riding. Walking was often better, especially in rough terrain.
Shaphan greeted her. “Relax, cousin. You need not hurry so. Our gathering won’t leave at dawn. It never does.”
“I know. I am just eager to see my aunt Elizabeth.”
“I’ve not seen you so impatient before. You’re pacing like you are waiting for a horse and chariot. The caravan may be slow, but it will get us there in due time.”
Mary nodded. Slower was better for a pregnant woman, but she was desperate to see Elizabeth, to know she really was pregnant. Fifteen miles southeast to Scythopolis, fifty miles south near the Jordan River to Jericho, then fifteen miles west to Jerusalem. From there she had less than a fifteen-mile walk to the house of Zechariah. However long the journey took would be too long.
The distance was no worry to her—simply one step at a time. The people were her concern. In her small village, she was too well known by everyone.
Would someone suspect her condition or ask why she was alone? She would point out that Shaphan was with her, but was that explanation good enough? She mentally rehearsed how she would answer—not just the words, but also what her expression and tone needed to be—entirely truthful, without any hint that she might be hiding something.
That night, camp was set only a few miles south of Scythopolis, near Salim. After the evening meal, Shaphan offered to make room for Mary to sleep in his family tent.
“You are gracious as always,” Mary said, “but I am comfortable beneath the stars.” She sighed with anticipation, as if to say her choice was a special privilege. “I love the open air where I can clear my mind and talk freely to the Lord.”
At the same time, she worried whether people would question why she slept alone. Maybe she should accept Shaphan’s offer, but no. Children ask prying questions, and she wasn’t prepared to answer them.
The next day, before the sun came into full view, they were moving again. Mary rode close to Shaphan, trying not to call attention to herself.
“Mary!” The familiar voice came from behind her—Sara. “Why didn’t you tell me you were going to the feast?”
“Because I am not. I go to visit my aunt Elizabeth. She is too old to come to the wedding.”
Sara walked up alongside her. “You still could have told me, but”—she hesitated—“I didn’t tell you I was going either, did I? We always have our reasons, I guess.”
“What are you talking about?” Mary smiled, trying to sound like she was interested.
“Oh, it’s nothing.” Sara turned away and joined her father, who had a stern look.
Did Sara know about Mary’s secret? Impossible. Mary had told no one but her mother. And Anna would never tell anyone. Could Mary or her mother have somehow let a word slip among friends?
Maybe Sara sensed something different on one of those days when Mary drew water at the well. If so, she might have shared her suspicions with others in the village. That was how rumors started, trickles coming together until they became a raging river.
At dusk, after camp was set, Sara returned. “The day has been long.”
“Yes,” Mary said, trying to discern what was different about Sara. “I believe today’s journey was about as long as yesterday, and I’m sure it will be about the same tomorrow.”
“I mean, I’m exhausted. I can hardly pick up my feet.” Sara’s eyes were watering in a way that said she was in desperate need of a friend. Or maybe Sara was spinning friendly talk to trick Mary into letting her secret spill out.
“I know,” Mary said. “By now you would think we could handle a few days of walking. We may be young, but we are no longer children who run and play all day.” Mary grasped Sara’s hand. “Is there something you want to tell me?”
“Oh, no. It’s only that… I mean I…” Sara broke into tears. “I’m not going back.”
“Back to where?”
“Nazareth. This journey has no return.” She put her head on Mary’s shoulder. “I won’t see you again. Will you tell our friends I’m sorry?”
“Sorry for what? Sara, what is it? What are you not telling me?”
“I’m pregnant. My father is taking me to his brother’s house in Jericho. I must disappear, or the family will be shamed.”
Mary hugged Sara and didn’t let go, crying with her for a while but saying nothing. What could she say? How could she encourage her? She wanted to say she knew how Sara felt, but Sara might sense the truth. “Where is Ezer?”
“He’s not the one. There was another, but I cannot tell. Money has changed hands to preserve the secret. There’s no hope for me now.”
“Don’t say that. Why else do we offer sacrifices in the Temple? You need to trust God. He will make a way.”
While staring at the stars that night, Mary wondered about the words she had used to encourage Sara. Did they only seem true because she wanted them to be true?
For yet another time, she reviewed the angel’s words. You will give birth to a son. You must name him Jesus. He will rule over Israel forever. Elizabeth is now in her sixth month.
Mary was pregnant. That was enough for her to believe the angel’s words were true. But what about everybody else? What would make them believe her story? Her word meant nothing without proof.
What miracle had God wrought in the house of Elizabeth that she would bear a child at her age? Perhaps Gabriel had appeared to her as well.
Mary would need undeniable evidence to take back to Nazareth—physical proof that God had done something men knew was impossible. A parchment from Zechariah, perhaps, bearing his seal. The letter would have to state that no word had been sent to Nazareth, so Mary’s knowledge of Elizabeth’s pregnancy could only have come as she claimed—from God’s messenger. As a priest, he could call for men to believe the angel’s words. They could be sure that Mary became pregnant by a miraculous work of God, not of man. Would that be enough for people to believe?
There was no other way—at least none that she could see. Getting proof had to be an important part of God’s plan.

Surprise Visit

Three months pregnant, Elizabeth still has concerns she wants to resolve. She is supposed to have a son, but what will she do if the child turns out to be a girl?
More than anything, Elizabeth wanted to understand the miracle that grew within her and share her husband’s excitement. With each new moon, communication became a little easier. She gained better knowledge of letters. Both she and her husband became skilled at reading each other’s lips.
What was it like to talk to an angel? Her imagination wasn’t adequate. “Tell me about the angel again,” she said.
Zechariah had a vacant stare, as if his mind was taking him back to the Temple. His face flushed, and his eyes grew large with fear, apparently with a fresh vision of the angel. A look of awe and disbelief followed.
Elizabeth longed to hear Zechariah’s voice, to be sure her interpretations were correct. “You saw a brilliant light. I already know that. But how did you feel? What did you say?”
Zechariah showed frustration, both on his face and with his trembling hands, as if he desperately wanted Elizabeth to share the depth of his experience but knew she couldn’t.
She hadn’t been there, so how could she understand? His drawings were crude, helping only a little. At times, his words seemed impossible to believe. Faith without some factual basis was blindness. If only she could have seen the angel with her own eyes, to hear his voice, to experience what had brought her husband such confidence.
After so many years being childless, disgraced by women who looked at her in ridicule, why would God give them such favor now? The answer lay somewhere in Zechariah’s story. She needed to know more.
Zechariah stood as if he were Gabriel talking. After touching his mouth, he shoved his hands forward and rapidly upward.
Elizabeth shook her head. What picture was he making? “Use this.” She handed the tablet to him.
In a quick turn from the angel’s position, Zechariah dropped to his knees, looked toward the sky as if in fear, and put his hands over his ears. Thunder, he wrote.
“Thunder? You’re saying the angel’s voice was like thunder?”
With an excited look and a broad smile, Zechariah nodded.
Depending on how it was shaped, a smile could have a dozen different meanings. When tears filled Zechariah’s eyes, Elizabeth knew the feeling ran deep—a reaction she had been seeing in him more frequently. Perhaps it was his anticipation of the baby’s birth. Or maybe his relationship with God had become more intimate.
Although unable to make a sound and unable to hear what people were saying, Zechariah seemed even more in touch with himself, with others. And with God. He showed an unexplainably deep awareness of everything around him. He wrote about the angel’s promise as if it was as certain as history past.
When referring to the baby, he formed John with his lips and wrote the letters. Why that name? All Zechariah knew was that the angel said to name him John, meaning “God has given.”
Elizabeth rubbed her belly. “Yes, God’s gift.”
Zechariah shook his head, obviously disturbed that she had misunderstood. The meaning was not as she had supposed, that God had given them a precious gift. What was it?
Then the realization struck her. Oh… this child had been sent, not as a gift for them, but for what he would be as a gift to Israel. She felt a chilling sensation, which strangely left her heart feeling warm.
A familiar voice from outside the open door. “Shalom, Aunt Elizabeth.” Mary walked in, her arms spread wide, welcoming an embrace.
At the sound of Mary’s voice, Elizabeth experienced God’s presence like she had never felt before, as if God’s Spirit was penetrating the depths of her soul, filling her to overflowing. At the same time, the baby leaped in her womb, as if he too recognized some great importance of this moment.
In an instant, Elizabeth’s struggle to believe vanished, replaced by spiritual insight and confidence she couldn’t explain. “Of all women, you are most blessed,” she said, “because of the child in your womb.” How did she know this? She couldn’t. She simply felt compelled to say the words.
“Oh, how my soul sings praise to the Lord,” Mary said, apparently excited to see that Elizabeth was pregnant too.
“When I heard your greeting, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” Elizabeth gave Mary and even bigger hug. “It is so good to see you. I had received no word that you were even married.”
Mary smiled like she was happy to be among understanding friends. “Perhaps you will believe in the miracle when few others can.” She then described the angel Gabriel appearing to her, and repeated all he had said.
“You saw an angel too?” She glanced at Zechariah, who seemed to already be a silent part of their conversation.
Mary nodded. “He said my child will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. His name is Jesus, and God will make him king like David. He will rule over Israel forever.”
Their miracles were overwhelming, more than anyone could have dreamed. First John, now this? Jesus, who will be called the Son of God.
Elizabeth took a deep breath. “Why am I so honored that the mother of my Lord should come to see me?”
For almost three months, they rejoiced together in awe of the miracles God was working in their lives. But after the feast, it was time to join travelers from Jerusalem and return safely to her home in Nazareth.
“I rejoice in God my Savior,” Mary said. “He took notice of me, a lowly servant. His mercy reaches to all who fear him.”
“Yes,” Elizabeth said, “You are blessed because you believed that every word God has spoken will come to pass.”
“With his might, God does tremendous things,” Mary said. “He has brought rulers down from their thrones while lifting up the humble. He has remembered his promise to Abraham and his children, showing mercy and helping his servant Israel.”
Elizabeth hugged and kissed Mary, wishing she didn’t have to leave. When would she see her again? She could only imagine what great things God would do.
She waved farewell, pleased that Mary was leaving with the proof she needed.

Unbelievable

With the evidence in her hands, Mary wants to convince her father and Joseph that her story is true. If they can’t be persuaded, the whole town will be against her.
When Mary left the house of Elizabeth, she clutched Zechariah’s parchment like a sacred scroll. With the words of a priest, Joseph and Eli would now believe her story.
How should she present the news? Wouldn’t Joseph be excited to know he would be the father of God’s Son?
First, she would show Anna the proof, then Eli. After that, Joseph. How would they react?
Maybe Anna should tell Eli. That way he would have time to cool his anger before Mary had to face him.
Mary joined the caravan going north toward Nazareth, eager to get home. She thought of a dozen explanations she might use when she met her friends at the well. If she wasn’t careful, her words might be used against her.
That night, the stars displayed God’s majesty, bringing Mary peaceful sleep. At dawn, she recalled her dreams and imagined Joseph eagerly hearing her good news. Yet she worried. His heart might be hardened by what he could not understand. No, she should not allow herself to think that way. But wasn’t it necessary to prepare for their meeting?
With her mind so focused on what might happen, both bad and good, she gave little thought to her journey. Throughout the day, she reminded herself that this was God’s plan, not hers. Therefore, she could trust him to make a way.
The plodding of her donkey sounded a rhythmic beat to the chant playing in her mind: He will make a way. Each day of the journey, she was more encouraged. By the time she walked down Nazareth’s narrow street, she felt like God’s army of angels was riding with her.
“Mother, I have wonderful news,” Mary said. “Elizabeth really is pregnant. Zechariah talked to Gabriel before I did.” Mary handed her the parchment. “Everything I said is true. Here, see the proof.”
Anna smiled like the weight of a water-filled urn had been lifted from her shoulders. “What does the parchment say?”
“I can’t read all the words, but I remember most of it. I, Zechariah, priest of the Most High God, give this true testimony. The angel Gabriel has appeared to the virgin Mary, just as she says. I know this because, only six months ago, Gabriel talked to me and announced that I would have a son in my old age. Her description of the angel is the same as mine. Now I can tell Joseph.”
“Not until after I tell your father.”
“What will you say to him?” Mary imagined what Eli’s reaction would be. Shock.
Anna spoke like she had long ago formed a plan. “First, he will read Zechariah’s words. Then he will want to know the whole story, and I will tell him.”
As soon as Eli arrived from the fields, Mary greeted him with a long hug. “How good it is to be home.” She glanced at the half-full water jar. “I need to fetch water from the well,” she said.
Mary hardly noticed the people she passed along the way. At the well, her mind was occupied with what might be happening at home. She had to force herself to nod and speak to women who came and left. As soon as she had said a greeting or farewell, her mind drifted to more important thoughts.
How would Eli handle the news?
Slowly, she walked home, wanting to give her father more time to consider the news. Would he accept her? She wanted to believe so, but she couldn’t know for sure until she saw him face to face.
At home, silence—as if the birds had no song. But through the silence, she saw a hint of understanding in Eli’s eyes. Or was it sympathy? Pity, perhaps.
“Tell me your story,” Eli said.
“Didn’t Mother tell you?”
“Yes, but I want to hear it from you.”
Mary described her experience from the day Gabriel appeared until the decision was made for her to visit her aunt Elizabeth.
Eli hung on every word, often nodding but saying nothing. Sometimes his eyes were questioning, but in the end, he appeared to be in awe.
“Now,” Mary said, “I must tell Joseph.”
“No. Better that he hear the news from me.”
Mary nodded. “Yes, Father.”
While Eli was away and Mary waited for news, each hour seemed like a day. How long did the reading of a letter take? She imagined Joseph feeling hurt and betrayed, wanting to know why he had not been told of this earlier. Did they not regard him as part of their family? Eli would do his best to explain, but would he succeed?
Long after sunset, Eli entered the house but said nothing. No smile. But no sign of failure either.
“Father, tell me. How am I in Joseph’s eyes?”
“He loves you. I am sure of that. He also knows how easily stories are contrived, especially among relatives.”
“I must talk to him.”
“Yes, child. You must, but not now. Give him time to consider the circumstance. He is an honorable man. He spoke of secrecy, wanting to avoid shame for our families.”
The next morning, Joseph came knocking at Mary’s door and led her to the courtyard. “I am sorry,” he said.
Mary gasped and turned away, not wanting him to see her tears.
“No,” Joseph said in a pleading tone. “That’s not what I meant. You don’t understand.”
Who was he to say she didn’t understand. He was the one who didn’t believe. Mary restrained the trembling in her lips, prepared to hear the worst of news.
“Mary, look at me.” He was smiling as if he still loved her. “I know your story is true. I’m sorry I didn’t believe at first.”
He hadn’t rejected her? He actually believed? This was not the outcome Eli had inferred earlier.
“If my father could not convince you,” Mary said, “what changed your mind?”
“Last night, an angel appeared to me in a dream. He addressed me by name. He said I am not to be afraid to marry you, that your child has been conceived by the Holy Spirit just like Eli said.” Joseph wrapped his arms around her and held her more tightly than ever before.
“I don’t know why,” Mary said, “but we are blessed. I was so afraid you would not believe.”
“We must name him Jesus.”
“What? Did Eli give you this name?”
“No, the angel in my dream said to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
“Oh, Joseph, this is wonderful.”
“Yes, but we must plan an immediate wedding. Others may not be so quick to believe.”

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