A Portrait of Christmas
Many years ago as a young family we purchased a nativity set. It was a simple set, open on the one side, with a wooden stable and some straw. Every year about this time, it became a family ritual for us to have the children gather around and unpack each of the pieces. It was fascinating as our little children would identify one piece at a time. “Oh, here is a shepherd and here is a little lamb; here is one of the wise men; oh, look Mommy, this is Mary.” But I knew what they were hoping each wrapped piece would be.
They were looking for baby Jesus. He was the one they were hoping to find. However, I can’t seem to remember any of them eagerly asking, “Mommy, where is Joseph? “ Joseph isn’t usually the focus of the nativity story.
Some have actually referred to Joseph as the forgotten figure of Christmas. He doesn’t seem to get much attention. In the Christmas pageant, he has no speaking parts so we can give that part to the shyest person.
Yet as we read Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, we immediately see he gives special attention to Joseph explaining why he has such an important role in the ancestral line of Jesus. Let’s look at Matthew 1:18-25 and the portrait of Joseph. Perhaps we can gain some new insights into the life of a man who was chosen to parent the Son of God. We are able to observe the way this young man handles the largest and most profound dilemmas of his life. If he were here, I would want to ask him some important questions.
“Joseph, how did you really come to trust the explanation of an angel who gave you such an unbelievable message? Zechariah had trouble believing and he was a lot older than you. How did you rebuild trust with Mary after you expressed doubts to her story about how she got pregnant? How could you really trust that it was God that was speaking after centuries of silence? How did you even trust in yourself to make all the right decisions?” Yes, I would want to ask Joseph about TRUST.
Joseph is a really a remarkable young man. Writers tell us he was likely no more than 18 years of age. A carpenter by trade, he is ready to become the head of the household. He is now engaged to be married to a teenage girl no doubt quite a bit younger than he. To us in 2009, he seems barely grown.
Joseph’s true character begins to emerge as we stop to reflect on his initial reaction and response to Mary’s news that she is pregnant. At first, he must have been intensely disappointed that Mary would commit adultery. This will likely ruin the family reputation. He has little reason to trust her innocence.
Matthew tells us Joseph was a good man a righteous man. As a Jew, he knows the law and he doesn’t abandon faithfulness to the law. He knows all too well Mary must be dealt with. It is striking that in the midst of this realization, he does not quickly reject Mary. He makes a decision of the heart. Trust begins in the heart. Trust has as much to do with the heart as it does with the head.
He says, “I will not expose her. I will deal with her quietly.” The compassion of this young man is so evident. He can not make sense of what she has done or why she has done it, but he somehow trusts that while he must do the right thing according to the law, he also must deal kindly with Mary. Trust goes beyond logic.
He will send her away quietly; no public scandal, just an out-of-court settlement; no community disgrace. Whatever caused her to be unfaithful is somehow not his to judge. Trust does not demand an answer. On the other hand, as N.T. Wright cautions, “Neither is it gullible, operating outside the realm of reality.”
After Mary breaks the startling news, Joseph doesn’t have to ponder his dilemma very long, We are familiar with the stunning encounter he has with an angel during the night. “Don’t be afraid to take Mary home to be your wife. Don’t fear the consequences and stigma, Joseph. Trust me. Trust me! Trust that God knows what He is doing!” Isn’t that the most difficult part of trusting? We can’t understand. We can’t figure things out.
Will he trust the words of an angel? If the angel’s words are true, it will be a huge relief to find out that Mary has not been unfaithful. However, the news is not logical. How can one have a baby conceived by the Holy Spirit? Mary, pregnant, not because she was promiscuous and sleeping around, but because she is selected to be the mother of God! Is this some figment of his imagination? Can you imagine how intensely conflicted Joseph’s emotional state might be? Often trusting is believing what does not seem logical.
It reminds me of the time in the Old Testament when Abraham had to trust a message from God when he was asked to leave his home and traveled to a far away country. Abraham must have thought, “This is not logical.” And then there was the day when Abraham was asked to sacrifice his only son on altar. That made no sense either, especially since Isaac was a gift from God in the first place. Yet Abraham trusted.
Little does Joseph realize that someday this son Jesus will become a sacrifice a sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.
What a dilemma. Joseph has to make a decision. Can you identify with the magnitude of his predicament? Will he trust the illogical words of an angel? Just as with Joseph, each of us will encounter troubling situations that produce a dilemma a dilemma every bit as unsettling as with Joseph as we attempt to carry out God’s will for our lives. These are dilemmas in trusting. can we trust that God knows what he is doing?
This was Joseph’s test of a lifetime…a test in trusting the angel and a test in trusting that it was a word from God. You might ask, “How do we know that Joseph trusted God.”
Joseph listens to the instructions of the angel...TAKE MARY HOME It will be OK, Joseph. And he obeys. He does exactly as the angel tells him to do. Trust and obedience go together. If you trust you will obey. One will follow the other. The hymn writer, John Sammis, got it right. “Trust and obey for there’s no other way, to be happy in Jesus. But to trust and obey.” The greatest fulfillment the greatest joy in life - comes through trust in Christ, followed by willingness to obey the words of Christ.
God chose Joseph because he was a man He could trust a man who would be obedient. Their special son, Jesus, will grow up to model obedience to His father. He will one day say to his disciples, “I do exactly as my Father has commanded me: And then near the end of his mission he says to his father, ‘Not my will, but yours be done.’” Obedience is a hallmark of Jesus and he will invite His followers to trust His words and obey what He proclaims, “I am the way, I am the truth, I am the life. Trust me.”
So in our story … Joseph takes Mary home … Times of trusting are only beginning for Joseph and Mary. As a young couple with all the normal desires of two people in their teens, it is striking how they controlled their passions all for the honor of God’s plan, even though it wasn’t logical. The scripture says, “They had no sexual union until after Jesus was born.” As a young man, still in the passions of youth, it would not have been easy to contain his fleshly urges but He made trust in God and obedience a priority in his life.
During the nine months of waiting, there must have been plenty of rumors. Even though it appears to everyone that Mary has done a shameful deed, the couple bears the stigma bravely in order to preserve the sanctity of the call of God - to become the parents of the Messiah. They are on a mission which they believe in and trust in, even if others around them misjudge.
After the baby is born, Joseph obeys the instruction of the angel and names him Jesus, taking up his legal right as a father. With humility, he assumes this step-fatherly role with grace and provides a loving home to care for this divine baby and his mother.
With the visit of the Magi, comes another instruction. Before he even learns to walk or talk, the life of Jesus is threatened by Herod. Evil already haunts him to destroy him. Joseph needs another word from the Lord. The angel appears again. Joseph is quick to respond as the Spirit gives him wisdom. He trusts the angel and obediently makes plans to pack up his family and leave for a country where the child will be safe. Think of it. He no doubt has to abandon any livelihood he has developed in Bethlehem. They probably have to travel lightly. His little family is a wonderful illustration of brave and courageous trust.
I can only imagine Joseph was anxious as they made their plans to leave. Were they concerned about being questioned along the way? Perhaps as they were traveling, Joseph remembers the story of Moses as an infant when his life was threatened in Egypt. Does he receive comfort from the realization that God also protected another baby in order for him to fulfill his mission to the Jewish people?
Twelve years later we find Joseph still trusting God as he and Mary parent this special child. When Jesus was missing for three days, it must have been getting harder to let him go to trust him back to his heavenly father.
As Joseph’s child grows to manhood, he will often be referred to as the Son of God, or the Son of David, even the son of Abraham, not so much as the son of Joseph. Joseph obediently trusts even this child’s identity into God’s plan.
In the scriptures, Joseph fades from the scene quite dramatically as Jesus and His heavenly Father now become the central figure as his divine mission is revealed.
During this Christmas season, Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, provides a wonderful illustration of someone, who was obedient with an unwavering trust in God. Brenning Manning calls it “ruthless trust.” He believes, “Trust is the rare and priceless treasure that wins the affection of our heavenly Father.” Manning asks the question,
Why does trust offer such immense pleasure to God?” He believes it is because trust is the preeminent expression of love. It means more to Jesus when I say, “I trust you,” than when I say, “I love you.” Trust in the person of Jesus and hope in His promise means that His voice, echoing and alive in the Gospels has supreme and sovereign authority over our lives.
We find this theme of trust throughout all of scriptures. The Psalmist reminds us to “Trust in the Lord and do good. Take delight in the Lord. Commit everything you do to the Lord. Trust him and he will help you.” Do you find yourself right now in situations where you need help? Put your trust in God. It might not be logical.
Proverbs exhorts us: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your paths straight.” Is it hard to understand what is happening right now? Is it hard to find the right path? Trust in the Lord.
Isaiah the prophet has his own doubts and fears. “Surely God is my salvation. I will trust and not be afraid. The Lord, the Lord is my strength and my song. With joy, you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”
Both of the apostles, Peter and Paul, recognize the One in whom we are to put our trust when they quote the Old Testament prophets: “See I lay a stone in Zion, a choice and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.”
Jesus Himself knew we would have difficulty trusting. He said “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me.”
When it comes to this thing called trust, N.T. Wright says it well in Simply Christian. It’s not a matter of you figuring it all out and deciding to take a step or a stand. It’s a matter of Someone calling you, with a message that is an invitation of love and a summons to obedience. It is the call to believe or to trust that God loved the whole world so much, you and me included, that he has come himself in the person of his Son Jesus Christ.
It is the message of Joseph. It is the message of Christmas. It is the message of Christ. Will you trust Christ to guide your life?