Topical Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25
My father grew up on a farm in Kansas, where mechanics were harder to find than cornerbacks for the Cowboys. As he explained it, if you’re harvesting a wheat field and the tractor breaks down, you can either fix it yourself or walk a long ways home and lose the crop. He learned to fix anything.
I, on the other hand, was mechanically challenged. I didn’t know a socket wrench from a pizza. But my father was determined to change all that, so we worked on a 1966 Ford Mustang together. I would hold the light and he would do the work. Then I graduated to tool hander. Then to bolt turner. I still remember the day my father let me change the fan belts myself. But I had to do what he said, or all was lost.
I learned to obey to know. If I waited until I understood why he said to do something, I would never do it. If I did what he said, I would later understand why.
Hold that thought, as we meet my Christmas hero and learn to make his story ours.
From joy to tragedy
Joseph is the silent Christmas actor. In all the Bible, he never speaks a word. And in the rest of our faith tradition, he is seldom considered. The Baptist hymnal mentions him but once.
In the movie called Christmas Joseph is an extra, a character actor with minor credits. When we put up our nativity sets, he is usually the last figure we set out. If we lost his statue, we would set up our nativity scenes just the same. He is Joseph the Silent.
But he’s my Christmas hero. I think Joseph has the hardest part in the story. Here’s why.
As the movie begins, Joseph is doing well.
He is part of a family famous for its faith. A century earlier, his ancestors moved to Galilee to help evangelize the area. He is the descendent of missionaries, like a son of Lottie Moon or William Carey today.
Even better, he is a “son of David,” a descendant of the greatest king in Jewish history. In fact, he’s the only person in the Bible to be called “son of David” except Jesus. Joseph is royalty.
And successful. His work as a carpenter is honorable and respected; in fact, according to early tradition, he was known for making the best ox-yokes in the country.
Now his years of hard work are about to be rewarded. As was the custom of his day, he had arranged years earlier to marry the daughter of a family in their village, a young girl named Mary. Now she is ready for marriage. Their home is finished, most of it built by Joseph himself. Their year of engagement is nearing its end. All is ready.
Then comes the tragedy: his fiancée is pregnant.
Joseph has kept himself sexually pure all these years, and of course expected Mary to do the same. He is shocked beyond words, but facts don’t lie. His engaged wife, his love, is pregnant. And Joseph knows that he is not the father.
Now he has the decision of his life to make. He is “just” and “righteous” (Matthew 1:19), terms which mean “one who keeps the law.” And so he cannot marry Mary. Even if he wanted to put this shame and betrayal aside, he could not do so legally. The rabbis forbade it. She has committed adultery, and their marriage can be no more.
This fact leaves Joseph with two options.
He can divorce Mary publicly before her family and the entire town. (Deuteronomy 22:13-21; Leviticus 20:10).
Or he can divorce her privately. With just two witnesses, Joseph can go to her house and declare their marriage ended, then pay the fine to the priest and be done with her (Mishnah, Sotah 1.1.5 [Talmud]).
The word of the Lord gives this righteous man no other options. Or so he thinks.
Dreams that ended his
Joseph has decided to divorce Mary privately, as the kindest option for her. Now it is the night before he will go to her home and end their future together. And then, in his dreams, an angel of the Lord appears to him.
We are too familiar with the story. Try to read it as though you were Joseph. Have you ever heard an angel speak directly to you? Imagine the awe, the holiness, the glory of it. The angel’s appearance alone is a miracle. But his announcement is even more stunning.
The angel tells Joseph that Mary’s child has been “conceived by the Holy Spirit.” Who has ever heard of such a thing? Not once in all the Bible has God ever done anything like it. The Virgin Birth is basic theology to us, but it is a shocking idea to the village carpenter that night. How would you feel if your fiancée or daughter told you that she had become pregnant “by the Holy Spirit?” Would you believe her?
What can Joseph do? He can believe the angel and complete the marriage, raise this child that is not his, and perhaps live the rest of his life in confusion and doubt about it all. Or he can refuse. Who would believe him, anyway? People can count to nine months–they will know that Mary was with child before they were legally and morally united. They will assume that Joseph had been an immoral lawbreaker. They will shun him or worse.
It would be far easier to refuse this strange dream. Joseph has done nothing to deserve this dilemma, this turmoil, this decision. Why him?
He makes his decision, a choice which will end forever his own dreams for his life and future. He will obey the word of God. He will stake his life, his marriage, and his future on it. He will do what God says before he understands why God says it. He will obey before he knows.
So Joseph marries his fiancée, and keeps her sexually pure until the child is born. He names the boy Yeshua, or Jesus, legally adopting him as his own. Thus Joseph makes Jesus legally a “son of David.” He obeys before he knows, and not for the last time.
It’s not long before God visits in another dream, this time telling the carpenter to uproot his family, abandon their home, and flee to Egypt for their lives. Imagine God telling you to leave your home tonight with only what you can put on the back of a mule and walk to Oklahoma City, because the governor of Texas has sent state troopers to kill your baby.
Once you’re there, you get another dream telling you that you can come home. But then another dream warning you not to return to Dallas, but sending you out past Weatherford.
And you have no confirmation for any of this. Mary saw the angel Gabriel, but you have only what you saw in your dreams. Her cousin Elizabeth confirmed what she heard from God, but you’ve received no such proof. Even when the Magi came to visit, you weren’t there and didn’t see them. Everything you have worked your adult life for is taken away.
You will raise a child which is not yours, by faith that he is God’s. You will risk your life, stepping into a future you cannot begin to understand, all because God tells you to. And billions of Christians across 20 centuries will be grateful that you did.
Obey to know
You can see why Joseph is my Christmas hero. He was asked to believe more, with less evidence, than anyone in the story. Even the Wise Men got a star, but not Joseph. He had to obey God to know God. So do we.
As I have pondered Joseph’s obedience this week, the question has occurred to me: why am I not as obedient as he was?
There are times when we know what we should and should not do, when our problem is not ignorance but obedience. Joseph had his dreams, but you and I have the written word of God. And yet there are times when I will not obey it until I first understand it. I want everything to be explained and make sense. I need a five year plan. I want to see the end from the beginning, and know without a doubt that God’s will is best for me. Otherwise I will do what I want to do, and pay the price later if the bill comes.
Am I the only one who struggles to be Joseph? Think of an area where you’re not fully obedient to the word of God–your witness, or your private ambitions or attitudes or thoughts, or your use of money and time and talents. Why are you not Joseph? You would be if you had proof that God’s will was best for you, that refusing that sin or sharing your faith or time or money was in your best interest. You would obey, if only you understood first.
But no one in the Bible gets that five year plan. Paul thought he was supposed to go east when he was called west. Noah was told to build an Ark when it had never rained. Moses was ordered to lead his people out of Egypt with nothing more than a stick in his hand and a Red Sea barring the way. Daniel was thrown into a lion’s den with no protection but prayer. The apostles were told to leave their boats and jobs with no glimmer of a reason why. Why is it that God wants us all to be Joseph?
Could it be that we cannot know until we obey? That we cannot see the future until we step into it? That we cannot understand what it is really like to be married until after the wedding? That we cannot comprehend parenthood until we’re home from the hospital? That nothing worth proving can be proven?
If Joseph had insisted on knowledge before obedience, he would have missed Christmas. He might have heard about the angels and shepherds, gotten wind of something unusual about Mary’s baby. But he would have missed it all. His disobedience would have cost no one as much as himself. He would never have known the love of Christmas, until he first obeyed the Lord of Christmas.
Would you like the Advent week of love to be more than another year’s trees and tinsel, presents and parties?
Would you like Mary’s Son to be as real to you as he was to Joseph? Would you like to know that Christmas love which will give your life hope and peace and joy? To know the love of Christmas, you must first obey the Lord of Christmas.
Then, and here’s the amazing part, when we obey him we know and love him, and the more we know his love, the more we want to obey him. And the more we love him.
I’ve told you about Joseph, one of my spiritual heroes. I’d like you to know another of Janet’s and my heroes in the faith, a woman named Tillie Burgin.
Tillie and her family were missionaries in South Korea when their younger son developed an infection in his brain and they had to return to America to save his life. Back home in Arlington, Texas, the Lord one day spoke to Tillie’s heart: why can’t you be my missionary in Arlington as much as you were in Korea? It was a Joseph call.
Tillie had no idea what this call meant, but she chose to obey. She spoke to her pastor at First Baptist Church in Arlington, Dr. Charles Wade, and he agreed to make her the church’s “Minister of Missions,” though neither of them had any idea what the title meant. Her first day in the office was a Friday. A woman called, needing help with an electric bill. Tillie went out to help her, and asked on the spot if she could start a Bible study in the woman’s apartment. She agreed. They had seven the first night. “Mission Arlington” was born.
Today Mission Arlington supports 254 different congregations and Bible studies, and touches more than 12,000 people each week. Tillie works 20 hour days, 365 days a year, obeying her call from the Lord. Her son Jim, one of my best friends, once asked his mother why she works so hard. Her eyes teared as she said simply, “I just love him so much.”
If you will obey the Lord of Christmas, you will know the love of Christmas. Your soul will never be the same. This is the promise, and the invitation, of God.