Updated: Jan 2
We sometimes imagine that if God were to show up in our lives that it would be like witnessing a glorious sunrise. It would come in an appropriate manner – when we expect it – and we would welcome it gladly with radiant faces. In the Bible, however, encounters with God frequently don’t look much like that. Instead, in Scripture, encounters with God have a way of deeply interrupting our agendas. They tend not to affirm our chosen course but instead have a way of rudely jarring us out of our comfort zones and sending us on a different path. Joseph, like all of us, had his plans all laid out for his life. And then God showed up…
I have a faded childhood memory of being a part of a Christmas pageant that took place in a little rural Anglican church just a few miles from where I grew up. The front of the church building was decorated with a manger scene. Joseph and Mary and the Christ child, shepherds and wise men, and a star. We didn’t normally attend church and yet I was invited to participate in the story as one of the shepherds.
This kind of a nativity scene is often depicted on Greeting Cards – a kind of mashing together of the two distinct Christmas stories we find in Matthew and Luke. It’s an attempt to put the whole story together in one image and I suppose it functions well enough for that purpose – an account for the neighborhood children to participate in, while parents and grandparents look on from the pews.
But if you’ve ever decided to go and read the Christmas story for yourself, what you discover almost immediately is that it’s not really a children’s story. It’s ‘R’ rated. The Christmas story is birthed in scandal – she’s pregnant and it’s not his child! And instead of all the world being blanketed in peace there’s a raging tyrant on the throne intent on butchering children. The Christmas story, whether you’re reading Matthew’s or Luke’s version wasn’t written to be read to our children on Christmas Eve. Any parent who has sought to open the Bible impromptu on Christmas Eve to “set the mood” of anticipation by reading the story knows that it needs some serious editing if the children are to drift off to sleep with visions of sugar-plumbs dancing in their heads.
It seems that if the “real” Christmas story is to be taken seriously one of the dominant themes that needs to be highlighted is that when God shows up with a plan to redeem the world through the Christ child you best buckle up. This is not a story for parents to watch while smiling from the comfort of a church pew. It’s a story that beckons for their full participation… but be warned… it’s not designed to leave you comfortably where you are. Just ask Joseph.
In Joseph’s comfortable world he was anticipating marriage. He and Mary were dreaming of a life together – making a home and raising a family. They had plans, and they were working together to put them on the ground. And then the roof fell in on the whole thing. What had all seemed so certain for Joseph was called into question – Mary’s integrity!
This was not your typical 21st Century engagement where the young couple have moved in together prior to exchanging vows. In their world the first time they would be intimate with each other would be the day of their wedding. Mary turning up pregnant was a scandal. She had betrayed her betrothed.
Matthew’s gospel tells us, “It was discovered before they came together that she was pregnant.” And Matthew is careful to tell us that this pregnancy was from the Holy Spirit. Matthew is assuring us that nothing scandalous has taken place. But apparently Joseph didn’t get the memo. Perhaps Mary had told him what had happened, but he wasn’t buying it. Whatever the actual conversation was between Joseph and Mary his immediate decision was to call off the marriage. In their world where engagement was a formal contract to call it off constituted a divorce.
Joseph was a devout man and although his head was swimming, Matthew tells us that he determined nonetheless not to make a public spectacle of Mary. He would divorce her quietly.
How is it that God didn’t give Joseph the heads up on this one? Why the chaos? He was a man of faith and yet for him the Christmas story was launched in confusion. This is not a Joy to the World moment for Joseph. All he had dreamed of was crashing to the ground. And God, Matthew tells us, orchestrated this.
Merry Christmas Joseph!
We don’t focus on this part of the story in our Christmas pageants. It doesn’t make it into the children’s edition. But if you’re a man or woman of God and want to take the Christmas story fully on board you need to spend some time with Joseph, for this is the real stuff of faith.
We tend to believe that if God were to show up in our lives for Christmas that it would be all sunshine and roses, choirs of angels and hugs from heaven. But this naïve version of faith will not sustain you when Joseph’s God intervenes in your life. Your first impression of the presence of God might feel more like a tsunami than sunshine with your toes in the sand. Can we believe in a God who is unafraid to turn our lives upside down?
Joseph’s story would tell us that God is very willing to disrupt our comfortable lives with the good news of Jesus Christ. Can we get on board with that? When the storm hits can we imagine God is at work and it’s time to batten down the hatches of our faith rather than abandon ship?
Yes, but Joseph wasn’t left hanging. Read the very next verse - the angel epiphany that assured Joseph that the child forming in Mary’s womb was from the Holy Spirit. Joseph wasn’t left upended. You might be asking, “Where’s my messenger from heaven to assure me that my present chaos is part of the divine plan? I’m left with my world upside down with no idea if God just showed up or if I am being subjected to the whims of the enemy.”
Welcome to faith for grownups! It’s time to embrace the real Christmas story. Get on your knees – “consider these things” like Joseph did and you may just have your own epiphany moment.
Joseph’s role in the Christmas story, as Matthew tells it, was not an easy one. Even after the angel encounter. The presence of the Christ child continued to disrupt his life. He was called to bear something in his service to God and he embraced his call faithfully.
I have no idea what Joseph, in his former life, had dreamed of when he imagined the Messiah arriving in Israel, but I suspect he didn’t think it would look like he and his family fleeing to Egypt because a tyrant king was set on killing his son. Would Joseph have signed up for this role in the Christmas pageant? Not likely, but God signed him up anyway. And it’s clear he chose the right man for the job.
There was no palace waiting in Jerusalem for the Christ child and his family when Joseph’s venture to Egypt was over. Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem for his enthronement would not unfold in any predictable fashion. He would bear the burden of the nation; he would become very familiar with suffering. And Joseph’s story is consistent with Jesus’.
Joseph’s story ought to encourage us that when our path looks cruciform, as we seek to offer our service to the Christ child, that we shouldn’t be caught off guard with a child’s version of the Christmas story. Buckle up man or woman of God – this is a story about bearing, about entering into the sufferings of Christ.
And yes, learn to sing the Christmas songs even in the midst of the trials.