Joseph’s message from God and what it can say to us
Have you ever watched someone open a gift that they weren’t expecting? It can be a strange combination of trying to control emotions and put on a happy face, especially if you were expecting something much different.
I saw this happen a few years ago with one of my nephews.
He loved the movie, The Incredibles. And so when we needed a little something extra to go with his gift for Christmas, I decided to get him an Incredibles Viewmaster.
We were running low on Christmas gift wrap and it wasn’t a big box, so I decided to wrap the gift in some Thomas the Tank Engine paper. Thomas was another of his favorite things. Even before we opened the gifts, he was walking around with this package, very happily and very proudly.
He was ready to open that package.
And then I remember watching his face as he tore into that Thomas paper to reveal a Viewmaster. All of his happiness turned to shock and anger. And he blurted out, “Where’s my train?”
It wasn’t what he was expecting. All of the signs pointed to a train. The size of the box, the way it looked, the Thomas wrapping paper all said train. But what was inside was something completely different.
And, well, he let us know exactly how he felt. Our gift didn’t meet his expectations.
Some of the very same things happen in the Christmas narrative we find in Matthew 1:18-25.
18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus. (NIV)
If we had been able to go back in time to those decades before Jesus’ arrival and we had been able to conduct a public opinion poll, we would find results such as this:
- 90 percent believed that the Messiah was going to be powerful.
- 85 percent believed that Messiah was going to raise up an army and run the Romans out of Israel,
- Less than a fraction of 1 percent (and that’s being generous) believed the Messiah was going to arrive to poor parents in one of the poorest towns in the entire country.
In other words, everyone saw the signs and when they put them together, the “Messiah” was supposed to be much different than the one they actually received. The Jesus we see in the Christmas story isn’t what they were expecting. Honestly, he rarely is. He’s the unexpected God who works in the lives of imperfect people and empowers them to do incredible things. (And, thank you for that, God!)
So, on a day when we think about the unexpected, it really isn’t a stretch to turn to Joseph, the silent partner in the Christmas story.
Jesus is the unexpected God who works in the lives of imperfect people and empowers them to do incredible things.
There are some things that we need to know about Joseph and his situation to be able to understand what is going on here. And I know this might blow some of our Nativity scenes out of the water. But remember, Nativity scenes are only representations, images and symbols.
Mary is from Nazareth. Joseph is from Bethlehem.
Those two cities are separated by a ten-day walk that included a journey along roads where robbers frequently waited for passing travelers.
In this time of the Bible, Mary and Joseph would have typically reached an age to be married. Usually that was 12-14 for girls and 14-16 for boys. When they reached this age, the family of the young man and woman would enter into an agreement. The young man and the young woman are betrothed to one another. In a sense, they are married, but only in name.
They are allowed to see each other in limited, supervised visits, but they are not allowed to start a family during this time. This betrothal period lasted a year and in this time, the two families worked out the arrangements of the marriage. The family of Joseph would pay something to the family of Mary — an endowment if you will for this marriage.
If the young woman ended up getting pregnant, she suffered all of the punishment under the Jewish law. The young man and his family had a right to end the marriage, while the young woman could have been executed for her betrayal. It didn’t really matter whether the man she was promised to was the father of the child.
A tough conversation
There’s a point in the Biblical accounts where Mary knows that she is going to have a baby, so she goes to visit her relative Elizabeth. Mary lives about a nine-day walk from Elizabeth and the town in which Elizabeth lives is a day’s walk from Bethlehem where Joseph lives. So, we could imagine that at some point during her stay with Elizabeth, Mary goes to talk to Joseph.
I would have to imagine that this might have been one of the most difficult conversations in Biblical history — even if it isn‘t recorded. Mary had to be nervous as she began this conversation with Joseph.
Joseph expected a typical marriage — a year’s wait and then, he and his wife move in together.
When Mary says, “I’m going to have a baby” where must his mind have gone? What? You’re going to what? And who’s baby did you say this was?
It is in this moment when the unexpected nature of God meets up with the sometimes predictability of our reality that we learn something about Joseph. The Bible describes Joseph as a “good man.”
He was a good man because scripture says that he wasn’t going to cast her out and shame her publicly. He was going to quietly put her away so that they both could move on with their lives. He wasn’t going to put Mary and this baby in any danger.
But then, Joseph gets a visit from an angel. Angels are messengers — ones who bring a special message from God. As Joseph is dreaming, he hears what God wants. The message is “Joseph, don’t be afraid. Take Mary as your wife and bring her into your home.”
It’s a pretty challenging situation to find yourself asked to take the son of God and to raise him as your own child. But Joseph finds that this baby, this one he will call Jesus, is the one that has been promised. He is Immanuel. A name that means God with us.
Despite the fact that this is Jesus we’re talking about here, we still have to deal with the society in which Joseph and Mary live. It’s quite possible that Joseph’s friends turned their backs on him. The fact that Mary is carrying a child is a disgrace in this world.
The quiet one
Have you noticed something about Joseph in scripture? How many times has Joseph actually been quoted here? How many times have we actually read what Joseph says?
Joseph plays such a prominent role in this story. And yet, he never says a word in scripture. Sometimes, actions speak louder than words.
When Joseph wakes up, he obeys. Joseph has been surprised by the news of a child he did not expect. Joseph’s life has been transformed. A carpenter is going to be the earthly father of Jesus.
Joseph is in a period of waiting, waiting at first on his marriage to be official to Mary. Then, he is waiting on the arrival of the baby Jesus. But here we see Joseph putting into action the word that we see on the fourth box today. Joseph obeys.
In a simple statement, the course of the Christmas story is changed. Joseph gets up and does what the angel has told him to do.
When life doesn’t turn out quite the way we want it to be
We don’t always get the things that we want from God. We don’t always get them the way we want them or even in the time frame that we want them.
Yet, Christmas is our reminder of joy and peace and love. It’s our reminder that sometimes, in this world, things happen just the way they were predicted to! It reminds us that in all things, God works.
But above all else, this carpenter from Bethlehem shows us that, all words aside, the greatest action in the Christmas story comes with a soon-to-be teenage father gets up from his pity party and obeys God.
What would change for you this Christmas, if we could put aside our need to be in control, our self-pity, our brokenness, our anxiety, our failures and, simply, follow listen to God?
That’s worth waiting for.
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