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Joseph’s Predicament

by Gary Roth

based on Matthew 1:18-25

Advent draws us to the center of the greatest drama ever written – the story of the clash between God and Satan, of good against evil. It is a story so large that kings and emperors, rulers of this world and rulers of other worlds, are all only pawns in the story. And we, too, are drawn into the story – each of us has our own part to play out because, as we are drawn into the very center of the story, we realize that the story is far from over. We are also called into the battle, even as we celebrate God’s entrance into that battle on our behalf. And we rejoice because, with the birth of His Son, we know that God has joined the battle with us – He is on our side, and so the tide has finally swung in our favor.

Yet these greater themes are not the object of the lesson today. Luke speaks only of a man and a woman, and of their anxiety over the birth of their child. He tells their story in so unpretentious a manner that we might easily miss its importance – like a listing on the back page of the newspaper. Yet it is on this small stage of the lives of these two people that the greater drama is played out. In the lives of these two people, we see the whole gospel story in a microcosm – God breaking into the lives of His people, claiming them as His own, and using them to bring in His kingdom.

The story begins very simply: Matthew 1:18-19

No flashing signs, nothing much – another sad story in a world filled to the brim with them. A man and woman in an arranged marriage and, suddenly, before the marriage date, it’s found out that she’s pregnant. The mystery and magic of the wedding day is suddenly lost to them, and their life becomes embroiled in problems and conflicts. What was to have been a time of happiness, a special time for them, suddenly loses its luster and there is a great brokenness that appears in their life – a terrible mistake. Joseph, being a just man, decides that there is only one course to take. Mary is pregnant. He is not the father. She must have been unfaithful. Even though he loves her deeply, he has little choice in the matter. The Levitical code deals very strictly with the matter of infidelity – it is a major crime, punishable by death through stoning. As a just man, he cannot just sit on his hands.

To further complicate the matter, if he took her as his wife, that also would not be without consequence. People would either assume that the two were irresponsible, or that she was playing Joseph for the fool. His reputation, his career, his life would be ruined. Legally, a child that was not his would become his heir. So he decides that the best route for both of them – the only reasonable choice, really – is to divorce her quietly. Perhaps then she could move somewhere else, or have a relative bring up the child for her. And he would be free to find another wife.

Yet, as he considers what to do, an angel appears to him in a dream. At the crucial moment, as he resolves finally to get rid of the problem – to get rid of Mary – an angel comes in a night vision, and tells him of God’s plan for him.

I think that this is the hardest part of the story for people to accept. Not many of us receive nighttime visitations by angels any more. A lot of folks have difficulty believing that God speaks to us at all any more. Yet He claims that He does – He speaks to us decisively in Jesus Christ. The question, really, is whether we are listening. And that was the real question that faced Joseph. He had made a decision. He had decided to put Mary away. But in this night vision, God opened up a new possibility to him, by putting him in touch with God’s Word. Matthew goes on: (1:24-25)

We all know the ending. We’re so used to hearing it that we don’t even stop for a moment any more to realize that it doesn’t make sense. Not from Joseph’s point of view. He had just nailed himself to the cross. His reputation would be ruined, and possibly his business. All he owned would go to a child that was not even his. He would be considered a weakling, a disgrace; he would be laughed at as the fool who had been “taken in” by Mary.

Joseph was in a position where the end wasn’t either light or darkness, bad or good – a decision like most of the ones we have to make – a decision between two alternatives that would have negative effects either way. Either way, someone would lost. In this world we all know how that game is played – it’s “better thee than me.” No one could blame him for getting rid of Mary. It seemed to be the only reasonable thing for him to do, and I can imagine how his friends and family pressed him to do that. He had to look out for number one. He wasn’t responsible for her dilemma. He shouldn’t be held responsible for the consequences of her irresponsible behavior. He had a life to live too. So, in terms of his responsibility toward himself and his own interests, in the end, he acted very irresponsibly.

But Joseph showed what he was really made of in that moment. He showed what was really important in his life. Setting aside the knowledge of the economic and social consequences, and even the possible religious consequences of his action – he decided to follow what he believed was God’s will in the situation. Although he didn’t even know what God had in mind, since the Jewish people were looking for an earthly king, not a savior from sin. So although he comprehended only the faintest glimmerings of what the angel was talking about, in his desire to be obedient, to listen to the Word of God, and to respond in faith – he changed his mind and married Mary – even over his own objections.

Matthew inserts a notation that sums up Joseph’ experience: 2:22-23.

By his obedience to his Lord, rather than to the exigencies of the situation, in opening his life to the realm of the possible, and letting God use him as He deemed fit – in denying himself and affirming God’s plan, whatever the personal cost – Jesus, the Savior of all humankind, came into the world. The Hebrews had a favorite name for God: “Yahweh Nisi,” “God who is before us.” But by this one person’s faithfulness, Yahweh Nissi, the “God who goes before us,” became Emmanuel, “the God who is with us” – the God who took on human flesh and acted decisively in history in our behalf.

This is truly a beautiful season of the year. It is a season in which we remember how God gave Himself for us in the form of a very special baby – how He presented Himself to us in a very special gift. It is a time for joy, for praising God, for celebrating and giving gifts. But it is especially a time for rebirth as God’s people. It’s a time to discover who we truly are – to discover the wonderful possibilities God offers us as His children. It is time to put away – to put to death – the world and its sham, its shallowness. It is time to slough off the chains of its rule over us, to break the bonds of cold reality by keeping our eyes and our hearts fastened on God and His promise alone.

Roger Garaudy once said of Jesus:

He has lit a torch. He demonstrates the spark of flame that brought him to birth. All wisdom, before him, meditated on fate, or necessity mistaken for reason. He showed their folly – he the opposite of fate. He, liberty, creation, life: he who defatalized history.

Joseph was able to make the decision he made because he was standing on the brink of Christmas. He could let go of himself – his desires, his dreams – because he saw God’s kingdom coming. He saw God’s desire to be active in his life. As so he responded – he broke all the rules we cling so tightly to to survive. Because he knew that, if he were to let go, if he were to fall, it would only be into the hands of his Heavenly Father.

As we also sit on the brink of Christmas once again, it is my earnest prayer that you may also realize how God has chosen you to be a Christ-bearer, that He wants to come into the world again, to be borne into it through your faithfulness and your love. He waits to be born again this Christmas into your heart and into your life. May you, like Joseph, living on the brink of Christmas, receive this most wonderful gift.