I was recently invited to preach a Christmas message for Advent and as I was working my way through the assigned texts an old insight suddenly became refreshingly current for me.
In Matthew 1:18-25 we read about Joseph and his predicament upon discovering that Mary is pregnant. By Jewish law he was obligated to divorce her, and to do so publically. This would require an aggressive legal proceeding. In this way Joseph would recover his dowry, and more importantly his good name.
Projecting forward Joseph understands that such a course of action will result in terrible hardship for Mary. No man would marry her. Her family would disown her, and she would raise her child alone in poverty. So, being a “righteous man” he opts for a low-key solution. He chooses to “divorce her quietly.” In doing so he will be assuming some of Mary’s shame.
However, an angel forestalls Joseph’s plan. Through a dream the angel informs Joseph that Mary is with child “because of the Spirit.” Joseph must not put Mary away. He must marry her and raise the child alongside Mary. Joseph swallows his pride, obeys the angel, all the while knowing that this will be the end of his sterling reputation. People will assume, in spite of his efforts to set the record straight, that he is responsible for Mary’s untimely pregnancy. Joseph will carry the full brunt of the shame. This is hardly an auspicious beginning for this young father upon the birth of his first-born!
This struck me as being extremely unfair. Why did God in orchestrating the incarnation of the Messiah turn Joseph’s life upside down? The same question applies to Mary. This is certainly no proper context for the birth of a King, much less the Son of God! The whole situation is deeply disappointing. Yet, God triumphs in Joseph and Mary’s story.
On the one hand, the self-emptying of the Son of God, starts at the lowest end of the human ladder as He is born to parents suffering under a scandalous pregnancy, an imposed census, an untimely trip, and an overcrowded house. This kenotic trajectory will stop only upon reaching its nadir at the cross. (Philippians 2: 6-8) Thank God for how Jesus completely identified with the “least of these” as He journeyed toward His own sacrificial death on our behalf. The incarnation is God’s “yes” for everyone of us!
On the other hand, there’s a major bright spot in all of this for Joseph and Mary. As they gaze into the face of their newborn son they are the first humans on planet earth to gaze into the face of God in the flesh.
Over time as the reality of their son’s identity settles into their souls, the difficulties they’ve endured fade into the background. These troubles are nothing compared to looking into the Face of God in their newborn child.
And, here’s what’s really cool. Jesus will hang out with them for many years to come until He launches His public ministry! Wow! Imagine having a perfect son, who never stays out too late or crashes the family Toyota. He always makes up his bed. He eats all the food on his plate, even the broccoli. And, when, as a parent, you lack faith in God, He could say to your face, “I’m here with you. I’ve got this. Don’t worry.”
In the midst of their frustrating and shameful situation Mary and Joseph find themselves at the very epicenter of God’s redeeming work for all humanity. They have front row seats to the glory and grace of God Himself, the Son of God, living in the flesh in their midst.
What was true for Mary and Joseph, remains true for us today. God is on His throne and the world is in His hands. He wants us to trust Him in the midst of our messy lives and know that He is at work causing everything to work together for the good of those who love God (Romans 8:28).
Now that God has come to earth in incarnate form in the lowliest of human situations you can count on Him showing up in all kinds of surprising places and ways, especially as we invite Him to do so—places where you would least expect Him. Jesus embeds Himself in the fabric of everyday lives transforming tragedy into comedy and mending broken hearts and lives. He gives purpose where there’s only been the aimless, exhausting existential daily grind of living life.
So, this Christmas I encourage you to look for Jesus in your life and its craziness. Jesus brings hope into the messiest of life situations, just as He did at the very first Christmas with Joseph and Mary. He will do likewise for you, and also for your church. May the hope of Christ, who was born to us in the flesh, rise anew in your heart this Christmas season. God bless.