“Didn’t we just do this the other day?” Most years, Christmas decorations show up in the stores, and I can’t believe it’s already that time again. Or my first-born starts talking about her birthday, and I’m like, “Wait, didn’t you just have a birthday?”
I can imagine Mary, the mother of Jesus, felt the same way about Passover. After she and Joseph returned to Nazareth from Egypt, they went to Jerusalem for the festival every year. It was a three-day walk each way, but they did it, as did almost everyone in Nazareth. Continue reading
I opened my calendar and counted the months. Our baby would be born in early January, which meant I would be great with child at Christmas. “Great!” I sighed, wondering if with child was a good thing for Christmas time.
A long time ago, there was another expectant mother, one much younger and more fearful than me. Perhaps she pulled out her calendar when she heard about a census of the entire Roman Empire. Perhaps she counted the months, sighed, and wondered. Continue reading
How long did it take Joseph to fall asleep that night, after he decided to divorce Mary? I imagine his conscience was clear, but I wonder if his heart still hesitated. Then, in the middle of the night, an angel came, saying, “Don’t do what you were planning to do. Do the exact opposite instead” (my paraphrase). Continue reading
It was one of those rock-and-a-hard-place moments. On the one hand, he longed to be faithful to the law. On the other hand, he wanted to be faithful—even gracious—to his future wife.
His wife… Would she still be his wife one day? Could he marry an unfaithful woman? Was the wedding off? It was his decision to make, and he felt like Moses, stuck between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army. He couldn’t go forward, but there was no way he could go back. Continue reading
I had always thought of Joseph…when I bothered to think about him at all…as the strong, silent type, playing a supporting role for the stars of the Christmas show, Jesus and Mary. In the cast of Christmas, his role seemed rather minor, more of a passenger than a driver. But then one year, God stopped me there in Matthew 1. I slowed down and really considered all the challenges Joseph faced, all the moments when he could have acted differently, and all the faithfulness he demonstrated in just two chapters of the Bible. He is the human driver of this story and a man who deserves our attention.
Joseph had at least
four angelic dreams.
Notice the sequence of events here in Matthew 1 and 2. (I had it backward until just the other day, so don’t be embarrased.) First, he learns that Mary is pregnant, then there’s a time of indecision, then the dream with an angel, then officially taking pregnant Mary as his wife. Even after the Baby is born, we’re only part-way through the story. In another dream, he gets another command—this time to run away to Egypt so that Jesus doesn’t get killed. A couple of years later, the same angel appears again to tell him it’s safe to go back to Israel, but on the way, he learns (in yet another dream) that Judea isn’t safe enough, so he relocates his family to Nazareth, in Galilee. By the way, all these moves fulfill all kinds of prophecies. Check your notes in you study Bible if you want to dig into that aspect of the story.
Let’s take a few minutes to step into Joseph’s sandals back there in Nazareth at the very beginning of this story…
The News that Wrecks a Life
Joseph doesn’t get the benefit of a pre-conception angelic announcement. He hears about Mary’s pregnancy the old-fashioned way: word of mouth. I want to think that Mary told him. (See last week’s post for more about Mary.) I hope it wasn’t the town gossip, the guys at the barber shop, or a nosy aunt.
Think about all the emotions he must have experienced after he heard the news…
- Skepticism: Was Mary telling the truth about the Immaculate Conception? (You don’t get to use that phrase every day…) As wonderful as she was, what was the likelihood?
Joseph was more interested
in doing the right thing
than in saving his reputation.
Compassion: He liked, maybe even loved, Mary and he didn’t want her to be exposed, judged, and stoned according to the Mosaic law (Deut 22:22-24). He needed to find another solution for their dilemma. Note that he has already taken ownership in the situation. He could have simply rejected Mary the moment he heard the news, but he was more interested in doing the right thing than in saving his reputation.
- Anxiety: If he didn’t expose Mary, people would think poorly of him because either (a) he was a push-over for taking a ‘tainted’ woman or (b) he lacked the self-control to wait for their wedding night.
- Shame: Having already entered into a marriage contract with Mary and her family, Mary’s action reflected poorly on him regardless of what he decided.
- Fear of the future: No matter what he did now, his carefully-planned-out life was about to crumble at his feet.
From the moment Joseph heard the news about Mary, I think he was praying. Maybe he called in a couple of trusted friends to pray with him; maybe he went to his rabbi.
Joseph’s faithfulness to the law and his years of studying the Scriptures
prepared him for this situation—whether he knew it or not.
How long did he pray? We don’t know. At some point, Mary went to Elizabeth’s for three months, so it could have been as long as that. Or it might have been less than one day. Finally, he decided to divorce Mary quietly (1:19). But then he fell asleep one night…
The Dream that Changes Everything
That first dream must have been the most welcome event EVER (1:20-23). I’m sure there was a radical shift in Joseph’s emotions afterward!
- Relief: Mary hadn’t lied or been unfaithful. In fact, she was the top choice of God Himself! He had chosen a wife well.
- Confidence: God not only saw his situation, but actively orchestrated it. Even though life still wouldn’t go back to normal, he knew God was sovereign (in that experiential way, not just because he’d read it in a book).
- Fear of the Lord: Such sovereignty wasn’t to be taken lightly. In the future, he would pay careful attention to God’s workings and follow Him even more closely. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10).
- Heredity: For forty-two generations (Matthew 1:17), the Hebrew people had been watching for the One who would fulfill God’s promise to Abraham that all peoples on earth will be blessed through you (Genesis 12:2). Even before that, God foretold of the One who would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15). Like the author of Hebrews talked about such a great cloud of witnesses (Hebrews 12:1), perhaps Joseph felt those generations looking now to him.
- Responsibility: Joseph knew his Scriptures. He knew all the Messianic prophecies. He knew how long his people had been waiting. Now God had chosen him to be the earthly father of the Messiah…to teach him how to live in the world, how to be a Jewish man, how to honor God through following the law. That’s pretty significant.
- Acceptance: I think Joseph released that carefully-planned-out life, exchanging it for the exhilaration of true obedience.
I’ve never had a dream in which an angel appeared to me and told me what to do. I wish I had. Some of the decisions I’ve had to make would have been much easier! You probably feel the same way. These days, we have the Holy Spirit, so God doesn’t often resort to dream appearances. We still go through the same emotions though, as we pray and search for His answer. Joseph woke up from the dream and obeyed. That’s our model.
Joseph to Mary: “Let me
share your shame.”
There’s something else here that’s really beautiful and encouraging for us. God provided Joseph as a partner for Mary. Yes, in the marital sense, but also in the spiritual sense. Throughout the Scriptures, He rarely asks individuals to “go it alone” (except for the prophets). I think of Daniel and his friends, David and Jonathan, Mary and Martha, the disciples going two-by-two. In Joseph, Mary had the firm pillar she needed to support her…even if he wasn’t much help with the childbirth.
I hope you’ve seen something fresh in Joseph today. Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!
Among the cast of Christmas characters, what more could be said about Mary, the sainted (sometimes deified) mother of Jesus and undoubtedly most famous woman in the world? Nothing, really. At least nothing new…but we can take a fresh look at Mary, perhaps remembering something we learned long ago that now has deeper meaning for us. Or perhaps finding a new point-of-view on an all-too-familiar scene.
I was “great with child” at Christmas time. I remember lugging my big belly around, struggling to get out of cars, sweating even when it was cold. That year, I empathized with Mary more than ever before. That was also the year I read Francine Rivers’ novella from the Lineage of Grace series, Unafraid: Mary. (I highly recommend that book, by the way!) I couldn’t imagine climbing onto a donkey, feeling the first pains of labor, or giving birth with no one around. I was twenty-nine years old. Mary was very young, unexperienced, and far from home. Well, let’s just take a look…
After Gabriel left (Luke 1:38), I imagine Mary sat for a few minutes with a stunned look on her face. She had just received the biggest news EVER! It had to be shocking. Then her mind started racing: so much to do, so many people to tell…
Overwhelmed with some bit of life-changing news (good or bad): have you been there? Do you know those moments where you brain is so busy processing that you don’t even remember to breath? It takes a few minutes to drag yourself out of that stupor and respond to real life…to start breathing again. Top priority for Mary: telling her mother.
Mary ran the gossip gauntlet every
time she left her home in Nazareth.
Hold on just a minute. How would Mary’s pregnancy look to the people of Nazareth? Every young Jewish girl hoped to be chosen as the Messiah’s mother, and I’m guessing that a few girls tried to claim it every year. Mary would have sounded just like them: another girl who couldn’t wait for her wedding night, and now she was paying the consequences. Oh, the gossips would have a field day, especially since Joseph had such a strong reputation and Mary was known to be an honorable young woman!
The Messy Months
We like to think about beautiful, clean, serene Mary in the stable holding Baby Jesus while Joseph stands proudly beside her—the perfect, noble little family. But think about the six months prior to that. Mary was an unwed, teenage mother in a very conservative society. It was messy and embarrassing. Her whole family would have been shamed, even ostracized. Sure, she and Joseph moved up the wedding date, but everyone knew (or at least could guess) why.
We’ve all watched believing families walk through something like this—the rebellious son, the pregnant daughter. Stop for a second and think about yourself as that girl or boy, telling your mother that a baby was coming. How would she react?
Now put yourself in the parent role (even if you aren’t a parent). What would you say to your (hypothetical) daughter? Could you control your tongue in those first few minutes? The Bible says absolutely nothing about Mary’s mother/Jesus’ grandmother. I wish we knew how she reacted to the news…
What About Joseph?
The hardest part had
to be telling Joseph.
In my estimation, the challenge of telling her Mom wasn’t Mary’s most difficult task. Telling Joseph would have been even harder. (We’ll consider his point-of-view next week.) You know Mary prayed about it and chose her words carefully. She knew Joseph’s honorable character, and she knew that he cared about her.
Maybe Mary’s Mom suggested the visit to Elizabeth. It would give Mary a chance to escape the stares and the half-whispered comments. And while she was away, Joseph could figure out what he wanted to do about their situation.
God Already Knew
Mary didn’t become the favored
one because she carried Jesus.
She was already favored.
In conclusion, think for a minute about Gabriel’s first words to Mary, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” God had already looked into Mary’s life. She didn’t become the favored one because she carried Jesus. She was already favored; carrying Jesus was her blessing as well as her burden.
God knew the road ahead for Mary wouldn’t be easy…and I’m not just talking about the dirt road to Bethlehem.
He knew she was young.
He knew she wouldn’t understand everything that happened.
He knew she would be afraid more than once.
He also knew her strength of character.
He knew the heritage of Godliness she carried in her heart.
He knew Joseph’s faithful spirit.
He knew she would treasure every memory and think about them for the rest of her life (2:19).
He knew she would be a good mother.
He knew He would be with her the whole way (1:28).
Mary had to trust God more than most teenage girls could every dream possible. She sets the standard for us all with her simple response to Gabriel: “I am the Lord’s servant” (1:38).
How has your life intersected with Mary’s? Please share in the comments below.