Fourth Week of Advent
December 17, 2007
Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
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 as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 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.” – Matthew 1.18b-21
The Scriptures are full of stories of great faith beginning with Abram getting up and following the Lord into the unknown. Every great event of the Bible begins with an act of stepping out in faith, of trusting God to do what He has promised. Except Joseph’s story… Joseph’s story begins with an act of trust in Mary, an impossible decision to believe that Mary had conceived of the Holy Spirit. When is that last time any of us knew of someone who became pregnant through the Holy Spirit? It was just about as plausible in Joseph’s day as in our own.
Joseph had the right to have Mary stoned. He had justification for publicly humiliating her and her family. Joseph must have been a really nice guy. His plan was to divorce her quietly, to protect her life and give her a chance to go off and start her life elsewhere. Fidelity is God’s design for marriage, and clearly, Mary had not been faithful to Joseph since she was expecting a baby before they had come together. Likewise, fidelity was incredibly important in the ancient world because land was passed down through family lines. An unfaithful wife could bring a man’s land-holdings into question. Conversely, a philandering man might conceivably increase his property. But I digress…
Last week, I talked about the confidence that comes from encountering God. Faith is born from the recognition of God’s character; in knowing God we come to the knowledge of Something more certain than anything we can see. This week is a little different. What if we are asked to believe something that is impossible to believe? Joseph was asked to trust an utterly incredulous event. Mary’s “infidelity” to Joseph was a work of the Holy Spirit of God?
Joseph’s life and faith leave us a legacy of three distinct lessons. First, we can choose to be honorable and to do what is honorable, but if God wants us to do something extraordinary, He has to intervene. We do not really step out in blind faith; we make decisions based on the trustworthiness of God. Joseph could not believe that Mary was a virgin until an angel of the Lord appeared to him. God does not expect us to live and act blindly or stupidly but in response to His character, His graciousness, generosity, faithfulness, and love. It is God’s responsibility to reassure us, but it is our responsibility to respond in faith and confidence in Him.
That leads to the second lesson of Joseph’s life: always following the rules is not always following God. If Joseph had been obedient to the Law, Mary would have been stoned. Instead, Joseph trusted what the angel told him and he acted on it. Making a decision that challenges our own righteousness, especially from others, is hard to do. Joseph’s neighbors surely considered him a fool for staying with Mary. That is likely the reason why Joseph took Mary with him to Bethlehem from Nazareth; neither of them could have been eager to remain among those who knew she was pregnant prior to their marriage. Why else would Joseph take a full-term Mary with him on a long journey? Any other wife in a similar state would be left at home with the mother or mother-in-law.
Sometimes, God wants us to do something beyond the rules. Those are not the sorts of decisions we make but something only God Himself can tell us. Joseph heard from the Lord that he was to keep Mary for his wife. It was an extraordinary act more than an honorable one. We need to be on guard against thinking too highly of our own honor, lest we miss an extraordinary act of God.
Last, and perhaps most importantly, not every request God makes of us comes with the promise of great blessing. God promised Abram the Land of Cana. God promised David an everlasting throne, fulfilled in Jesus Christ. But God did not promise Joseph anything. Joseph is held in high esteem as the earthly father of Jesus. He got to live with, protect and defend the Son of God and son of Mary. Christians for all of history honor Joseph for his faithfulness and obedience. But Joseph received no reward in his lifetime. In a generation that wants to see the blessing and the promise fulfilled, we need to be reminded that, sometimes, the blessing is simply getting to serve Christ, not a reward. For all intents and purposes, Joseph life was upended to protect Mary and the Baby she carried, and he followed through, apparently without complaint. The legacy of Joseph is that a faithful and obedient life is a rich and worthy life, even if we cannot measure any immediate blessing to ourselves.
I think it would be easier not to be Joseph. But Joseph was given the privilege of participating in changing the course of human history. He protected and defended the Savior of the world, and he was crucial in fulfilling God’s plans. His name is lifted up by every generation as an example of true obedience and faith.
No act on God’s behalf and at His request is ever wasted, and acting on the unbelievable might even change the course of history. What is He asking you to do? And what would God have to do to convince you to be obedient?
In Christ –
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