Sunday, December 05, 2010


Author Kathleen Norris tells us that the Incarnation is where hope contends with fear. How do we stay hopeful when fear plants seeds of deep doubt in our lives?  Perhaps taking a look at Joseph, the carpenter from Nazareth can help us.  

We don’t know a whole lot about Joseph and thus talk about him relatively little except with occasional mention during Advent. I read once that a little boy, scheduled to play Joseph, in the church play on Christmas Eve took ill. Mom called the Director. And the Director said “That’s OK. We really don’t need Joseph.” And isn’t that the truth.  He’s the one in the shadows, between the ox and the cow. But even though we might not need Joseph except to make our Hallmark card vision of Christmas complete...  God needed Him.

Joseph was engaged to Mary.  Probably the same qualities that made God choose Mary were the same ones that brought her to Joseph.  Iraneus once said that the ‘glory of God is a man, a woman fully alive.”  When I think of Mary that’s what I think of.  Fully alive. I once wrote a short story about Mary.  I said that God liked to be in Mary’s company because she made His heart glad and that she made Him laugh.  And my guess that’s what she did to Joseph.  He was ‘in love’ with her.  This was the woman of his dreams.  And I’m sure he spent time daydreaming about what life like her would be like.  And those dreams were good dreams.  Dreams of a home, a companion, children, a legacy, a place in the community …and his heart had to race with joy as he thought of his future with her.  And then …this happened according to Matthew.

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.  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.” 

In Jewish tradition an engagement was just like a marriage except there was no sex, no living together. If you wanted out you had to get a divorce. One just didn't ask for the ring back. Engagement was an expression of a covenant between a man and a woman.  In that culture, at that time, it was taken quite seriously. It was a sacred thing.

The gospel writer, Matthew, goes out of his way to make sure people understood that Mary’s pregnancy was a Holy Spirit thing.  He says it clearly: Mary and Joseph had not been sleeping together.  

Of course Matthew’s careful clarification didn’t do Mary and Joseph a whole lot of good at that time.  He wrote decades later.  This unplanned pregnancy put Mary and Joseph in deep, cultural  doo doo. Holy Spirit pregnancies weren’t the norm in this primitive culture. In fact, they’re not the norm in any culture

And so from the vantage point of the casual observer this whole situation was pretty clear.  Mary had been playing around.  And Joseph was probably the guy she was fooling around with.  They were both guilty of breaking cultural and religious expectation and obligation. Joseph, however, being the guy in this 1st century Judaic culture was in a better position to look the casual observer in the eye.  He cold simply cry ‘foul’ signaling illegal procedure in Mary’s direction and then just walk away.  He could divorce her, make it as messy as he wanted (if he intended to get even) and Mary would be left to fend for herself. Those were the rules.  Not good rules.  But the rules.

It's hard to for us to understand in this day and age what a serious business it was. Today, this would be tame for a story-line.  But in 1st century Holy Land there was nothing casual nor perplexing about this.  This was big stuff.  Hard stuff.

You gotta understand this. Joseph's world has fallen apart. Can't you just see him walking around in a daze looking at every man in the village wondering if ‘he’ was the one? His plans are in tatters. His hopes and dreams pushed to the side by doubt, hurt and possibly even fear. For Mary to be pregnant put Joseph between a rock and a hard place.  He knew the child wasn’t his.  He could walk away exposing Mary to public disgrace.  No one would object much if Joseph took out the hammer of ‘judgment’ and figuratively beat Mary with it. But being a righteous man he chose mercy over judgment and determined to divorce her quietly.  But God had another plan. 

 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.  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.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:  “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”[c](which means “God with us”). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.

In the midst of what is a truly life defining situation Joseph gets a message from God delivered by an angel.  It’s a private message.  No witnesses.  If I were  Joseph I’d be wondering if a private message from God would make much difference in the midst of a public disgrace.  Who’d believe him?

So, he had a decision to make.  Do I play this out God’s way or not?  Joseph could walk away and start life again relatively free and easy.  Doing it God's way was problematic. The gossips would have a field day.  No one would believe, any longer, that he was righteous and good.  And they certainly weren’t going to believe that about Mary. This was a test of maximum magnitude.  It was a test of his character, his integrity and his faith.  It meant coming face to face with some shattered dreams and it meant leaning into his fears.

And so he made his choice. With a shattered dream behind Him, Joseph very bravely stepped into a whole new reality for his life. He is obedient to God’s request. He took Mary into his home.  And he gives the child its name.  This would formally acknowledge that this child is his son and legitimizes Jesus as a descendant of the great king named David. And by doing this Joseph stepped headlong into his doubts and fears.   He made the decision to believe God and to continue to love Mary.  To marry her meant that he would be publicly admitting that the baby was his and that all the gossip mongers could assume what they wanted to assume about both his and Mary’s righteousness. To do what God required meant potentially losing a great deal of the good reputation he had spent a lifetime acquiring.  

I wonder what questions were going through Joseph’s mind in the midst of his decision making and in the aftermath of it all?

Do I have what it takes to do this? How much do I really love Mary? Are there are lingering doubts about her character?Is obedience to God enough to sustain me? Am I man enough to withstand the gossip? Am I willing to do what’s right even though life is going to stink for awhile if I do it? And maybe the biggest question of all …am I up for the task of being Jesus’s human father? What do I have to offer?

And of course he did have what it took.  Obedience trumped expediency.  He lived with the gossip.  He stepped into the miracle.   But it meant that he had to scrap  plan A for his life.  And he had to embrace Plan B.  That meant a birth in a stable for the child.  A life on the run as a refugee in Egypt.  It meant coming back home to the rumor and innuendo that would always swirl around them.  But he loved plan A I bet.  It was a good plan.  Joseph/Mary, kids, a thriving business,  and community respect. 

And then God comes in with another plan.  It’s part of a plan that’s been in place for a long, long time. And Joseph, son of David is part of it.  The promise of a new king, a descendent of David had been promised for a long, long time.  This child, entrusted to both Mary and Joseph, would be the king, the savior of God’s people. And the irony of it all is that one who would save the world from sin would, in the eyes of many, look like he was conceived in sin. Gotta wonder, when Jesus was forced to defend the adulterous woman during his public ministry if he didn’t enter into that fray willingly.  After all his mother and Joseph had walked that road courageously before Him.

Joseph made a pretty significant choice.  He opted to step into a bigger story than the one He was living.  Instead of trying to manage the situation, which I often try to do (trying to manage my sin and others expectations) he walked into his fears and into a story the he wasn’t in control of. His whole life was laid bare and every good plan looked thwarted.  He walked towards Hope. He decided to trust a good and beautiful God. Joseph walked, I believe, into a bigger story with a confident expectation that this good God is 'enough' for every circumstance.  And that allowed him to walk headlong into his questions, his fears and even his doubts. 

I wonder as the years passed if he would have traded this new life for original Plan A. I don’t think so.  Every time he looked at his ‘boy’ and at his wife …he knew he was participating in God’s plan.  God’s good plan. Joseph could have easily walked away. He could have said ‘no’ to God.  He could have. But he didn’t. He stepped into the messiness of what God had laid out and made a decision to embrace it all. 

Joseph trusted God. And then God entrusted Himself to Joseph.  May we be like Joseph.  People who love mercy over judgment, willing to deny ourselves for the sake of others, people obedient to the will of God. Willing to scrap our plans for His plans.  In Joseph we see someone grappling with both hopes and fears.  Hope won out.  May it be so for us.

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