Life is filled with plot twists. You think a story is going in one direction but then it suddenly turns in a completely different direction.
- You are downsized from a job
- Your marriage ends
- A mate dies
- You are diagnosed with a disease
- You have a car accident
- A natural disaster impacts your life
Life is filled with unexpected surprises. Learning your fiancé is pregnant and you are not the Father would be one of those unexpected and unpleasant surprises! That is the story we focus on today. The story of Joseph.
18 This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph, her fiancé, was a good man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly.
20 As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet:
23 “Look! The virgin will conceive a child!
She will give birth to a son,
and they will call him Immanuel,
which means ‘God is with us.’ ”
24 When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25)
We don’t know a great deal about Joseph. We have his genealogy in the first verses of Matthew but that is all we know. From later in the gospels we learn that Joseph was a carpenter by trade.
Last week I reminded you that an engagement in Bible days was different from an engagement today. We don’t know whether Joseph and Mary were “attracted” to each other or whether the marriage was arranged by parents. We see both scenarios in the Bible. There are times when parents chose a mate and there were times when a man was attracted to a woman and asked his parents to arrange a marriage (Jacob, Samson). Either way, the betrothal or engagement was legally binding. Often the engaged couple were referred to as husband and wife.
We really don’t know much about the relationship between Mary and Joseph. What we do know is word of Mary’s pregnancy (when Joseph knew he was not the father) would have impacted Joseph deeply. Notice that he was considering how to respond to the pregnancy BEFORE the angel appeared to him. I wonder, did Mary tell Joseph in person or was the news relayed to him by other sources?
Imagine what that time in between learning of Mary’s pregnancy and the appearance of the angel must have been like. Even if he had yet to have strong feelings for Mary there would be the public embarrassment, betrayal and humiliation. If he had strong feelings for Mary it would have been even more heart breaking. There would be a sense of profound personal rejection.
Jason Gray captures the agony in his Christmas song, Forgiveness is a Miracle”
Love can draw a dream out of the darkness
And blow every door open wide
But love can leave you brokenhearted
Did she dare to look you in the eye
Did her betrayal leave you raging?
Did you let her see you cry
When she said the child was not your baby?
Pain can turn to anger then to vengeance
It happens time and again
Even in the best of men
It takes a miracle to save us
When love is like an open wound
There’s no way to stop the bleeding
Did you lose sleep over what to do?
Between what’s just and what brings healing
We are told: “Joseph, her fiancé, was a good man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly.”
This tells us a great deal about Joseph doesn’t it? In spite of the public embarrassment, in spite of the perceived rejection, in spite of the hurt and sense of betrayal, he had already decided to break the contract privately. He could have made a public stink. He could have called for her to be stoned as an adulteress. Instead he chose to release her from her obligation to him.
Was this because he loved Mary (which could have just as easily have resulted in a more fierce response)? Was it due to the fact that he didn’t want to make the matter any bigger than it needed to be? Was he showing respect to her family? Or, was he just a truly godly man? I lean toward the last choice. Joseph held on in faith even though his dreams exploded. Even though the plans laid out for his life were self-destructing before his eyes.
Do you resonate with Joseph? Has your life taken a detour? Have all the dreams you had evaporated before your eyes? Have you experienced a hurt that crushed your soul? If so, you have an idea of how Joseph felt.
When these “surprises” happen you don’t know what to do. The various stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, depression and finally acceptance stomp through your heart and emotions, sometimes leaving potholes of destruction behind. We can understand the agony of Joseph.
But the real story is not Joseph’s agony, is it? The real story is his forgiveness (he probably felt like a “victim”), his compassion and his willingness (after his conversation with an angel) to take Mary as his wife, the willingness to endure the comments and criticisms and to raise the child as his own. Joseph decided to put his trust in the Lord and step forward in a giant step of faith. It is a remarkable response in a very difficult situation.
Let me go back to Jason’s insights again.
Pain can be a road to find compassion
When we don’t understand
And bring a better end
It takes a miracle to show us
Forgiveness is a miracle
And a miracle can change your world
Forgiveness is a miracle
Forgiveness, trust, faith, are all miracles when life comes upon us with a crushing fierceness. Why was forgiveness needed? Joseph had to forgive Mary (for getting Him into this mess) and perhaps let go of His anger toward God. Yes, on one level it is very irrational but bitterness and resentment are often irrational. Forgiveness and trust require that we let go of the desire to exact revenge. It means trusting rather than reacting. Forgiveness can’t happen until we look beyond ourselves; beyond the hurt.
If you are like me, you know how unnatural such responses are. I am prone to be impulsive, to act before I think, to fight rather than work to understand. Joseph shows us a better way to live. He shows us what real love looks like.
I wonder how many times Joseph looked at his pregnant wife and had to make that same decision again. Were there days when he cried out to God in anger and anxiety or did he regularly sit before the Lord and trust what he could not yet understand?
As a result of his faithfulness Joseph was given the privilege of seeing the Son of God born into the world. He heard the testimony of the Shepherds, he listened as the Magi told their story. I can’t imagine what an incredible experience it must have been that night in the stable. And unless I miss my guess, the moment Joseph saw Jesus, he loved him as his own.
Joseph serves as a reminder of the gospel and God’s attitude toward us. You see, God does not ask Joseph or us to do what He himself is unwilling to do.
We have betrayed the Lord with our idolatry. We have run after other lovers. We have given our best to false gods. We deserve to be “put away”. We deserve to lose the privilege of having a relationship with the Lord over all creation. We cannot plead a special circumstance as Mary did. We have no excuse. We are guilty. We deserve whatever punishment we are given.
What we don’t deserve is forgiveness. Yet the message of Christmas is this: God showed grace, mercy, and forgiveness, to those who treated Him so disgracefully. The entry of Jesus into the world was for a single purpose: to make it possible for us god-haters to become a part of God’s family. He came so that the stain of sin which kept us from His presence could be removed from us.
The only way to remove the stain of sin was for another to bear it in our place. That is what Jesus does. He steps up in the time of crisis and takes the penalty we deserve. He “became sin for us so that we might be made righteous”. He took our disease so we could be well. He absorbed the hurt of our rebellion so we did not have to.
Hopefully the story of Joseph and Mary leads you to come to grips with the child they brought into the world. Many seem to be indifferent to the message of Christmas. However, I don’t see how you can possibly understand what is going on and remain unmoved. Christmas is so much more than a holiday. It is a declaration of God’s love and God’s forgiveness. It is the announcement that the broken can be made whole. It is a reminder that shattered dreams can give way to better realities.
There is one more application from this text. Christmas is a time to learn from Joseph. It is the best time for us to extend the miracle of forgiveness to others.
Christmas is often a time when warring armies will lay down their arms, if only for a night. Hopefully the same will be true for you. This is the time to turn away from the anger and instead take up the mantle of forgiveness. Perhaps for you it needs to be given to,
- A family member who has hurt you
- A friend who has betrayed you
- A business partner who cheated you
- A parent who walked away
- A child who embarrassed you
- A Pastor who let you down
- A Doctor who missed something on your chart
- An investment advisor who misread the markets
- A driver who wasn’t paying attention
- A mate who crushed your heart
- A student who bullied you
- A person close to you who didn’t respond the way you wanted in a crisis
Maybe this list doesn’t include the one who is in the site of your weapon of rage. However, if we learn anything from Joseph we learn that forgiveness opens doors, bitterness locks them tight. Forgiveness is an act of faith.
Our initial response of course is that the person does not deserve forgiveness. And that is exactly when the message of Christmas should bring us to silence. We do not deserve forgiveness. We did not warrant God’s extravagant act of love and mercy.
There is this part of us, if we are honest, that says, “but, you don’t know what they have done to me . . . “. And when we say such things we show that we do not understand the depth and horror of sin. We are being too easy on ourselves. Forgiveness does not require us to be a doormat, it doesn’t mean we go back to a bad situation without changes being made; it requires us to let go of the bitterness and the resentment and the desire to punish. It is to put those things in God’s hands.
Imagine being a prisoner of war. You and a group of fellow prisoners spend day after day in agony. You are treated poorly. Yes, sometimes the prisoners turn on each other but it is only because of the misery of their situation.
Now suppose someone slips you the keys to the prison. They tell you that a sedative will be given to all the guards at a certain time and you are assured that you will have the opportunity to escape without incident. What will you do? When the guards fall asleep will you unlock your chains? Will you unlock the prison door and run to your freedom? I hope you would.
This is the message of Christmas. God has come and given us the key to freedom from sin and the key to new life in Christ. We can escape our prison. Here’s the question: Will you take advantage of what God has done? Will you turn to Him for forgiveness and a new beginning?
But here is a second question: when the guards fall asleep will you also unlock the chains of your fellow prisoners? I suspect you would. You would want to share this good fortune with all who are imprisoned as you are.
Perhaps you have been deeply hurt. The one who hurt you is also imprisoned. They are miserable because of sin. You can play God or you can extend grace. Which would you desire if you were them?
Forgiveness is the key that opens the door to freedom and new life. We can experience freedom for ourselves and we should do so eagerly. However, we also have the opportunity to unlock the chains of those who are imprisoned with us. The Lord has given us the key, the question is: will we use it selfishly or unselfishly. As long as we refuse to forgive, we remain imprisoned in a bitterness that robs us of life. As long as we keep quiet about the message of Christmas we leave imprisoned souls without hope.
One of the greatest gifts you can give this Christmas is the gift of forgiveness; the gift of a new beginning; another chance; and a restored relationship.
Jason concludes his song about Joseph with these words,
Blessed Joseph, your heart is proven
And through you the Kingdom has come
For God delights in a man of mercy
And has found an earthly father for his son
The story of Joseph is one of trust. It is a story of courage. It is a story of mercy that brought with it the joy of new life. We have the opportunity to experience that story in our own lives. We have the chance to follow in the warm and wonderful footsteps of Joseph, a good and godly man.