One of the traditions in our house is to read through parts of the Christmas story. This year, the passage from the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 1 caught my attention:
“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
Most of the time, our Christmas plays and stories focus on Jesus and Mary; this part of the story in Matthew, however, turns our attention to the oft-ignored, but critical participant, Joseph. We may not think of him very often, but what a shock it must have been for him to discover that his betrothed darling was pregnant, and not by his doing. Perhaps he was sad. Perhaps his initial reaction left him angry. Perhaps he felt remorse at agreeing to marry her begin with. Regardless of his initial instinct, he was faced with a critical choice: maintain the pledge and go through with the marriage, end it publicly to preserve his reputation, or maneuver quietly in the background and spare Mary from public disgrace.
We are told, at the outset, that Joseph was a righteous man. As such, it was clear to him that he could not go through with the marriage. Jewish law was very strict on this subject, and the penalty for a woman caught in adultery was severe: death. To marry an unfaithful woman would defile his marriage. Such would not do for Joseph, because he was a righteous man. But what, exactly, did it mean for him to be a righteous man? A righteous man knows, upholds, and supports the law and the rules of his faith. A righteous man would obey the oral traditions and the expectations of the religious leadership. These laws and customs were part of who Joseph was, and they were integral parts of his upbringing from an extremely young age. And Joseph would certainly support the law as he always had. . . because Joseph was a righteous man. . .
But then, a strange thing happens. An angel of the Lord speaks to him in a dream to announce that there is a brand new move of God in the making. The power of Heaven was about to break into the Earthly realm, and God was asking Joseph to follow a different path. He was being asked to play a critical part in a much larger unfolding drama. He is asked to listen to the angel’s instructions and to chart a different path. Joseph certainly knew of the righteousness that is found in listening to and obeying the voice of God – but to do this??
I’m sure Joseph was surprised by his circumstance. No doubt he was plagued with worry, anger, stress, and discomfort over his situation. Perhaps he had some fear over what his future would hold. I imagine that in the days leading up to this, Joseph had some long days and some sleepless nights. What would he choose?
One path would allow Joseph to continue his righteous adherence to the law. But the other path left open the possibility for a new kind of righteousness. . .one that would allow God to move in such a way that others would be blessed. There was no way for Joseph to foresee all the ramifications of his choice. At that point in his life, all he could do was decide what voice he would choose to obey. The rule of his faith, which guided him and led him to a point where God could speak, or the voice of God, imploring him to trust that the Almighty was working in a new, unexpected, and powerful way in his life and circumstances.
So, this Christmas season, as we head toward all the hope and possibilities of a brand new year, it is probable that your year has taken some twists and turns you didn’t expect. Work, family, and life in general may have brought you into a situation you didn’t ask for, didn’t plan for, and didn’t expect. Sometimes the surprises are pleasant. Sometimes, they cause stress and worry. The ‘Happy Holidays’ can oftentimes even exacerbate the issues. Somewhere in it all, you have to try to sense what God is doing in your life, and where His hand is at in your circumstance. Perhaps you sense that God is nudging you into a new direction. At this point, you may be faced with this same choice. . . . . . are you going be righteous in the old way. . . . . . . or are you going to be righteous in a new way. . . ?