Christmas Through the Eyes of Joseph (11am)
Scripture: Matthew 1:18–1:25
When I was a kid I was a lot like everyone else my age in my excitement to get my driver’s license and have the freedom of the open road. I was fortunate that my dad had bought my sister and I a car to share. Being a year older and having more responsibilities in high school, I knew I’d usually get first dibs on the car. I couldn’t wait to be able to drive myself to school and do road trips with my friends and all that. But it didn’t take long for me to realize something about myself: I really don’t like spending a lot of time in the car.
I’d have friends and still do today who love going on long drives. Not to any place in particular but just going on a long drive. I’ll bet several of you might enjoy that sort of thing. Well, not me. In fact, from as early as I can remember, I plotted out routes that would get me to my destination as quick as I could. And I learned something: sometimes the best route isn’t the most direct route.
It’s not rocket science. We all know that even though Veteran’s might be the most direct way to where we want to go that if it’s around 5:30pm, we’re taking other roads. In high school, the most direct way to get to school from my house was to take 113. In fact, it was almost a straight shot. But it was also a busy road with lots of traffic lights. So I found an alternate route of back roads. Shaved close to 6 minutes off my drive, depending on if I dodged the buses. If I followed a map or used the GPS, it would actually take me longer. So I went a different way.
Well, God is much the same way. God rarely takes what we would consider the most direct or appropriate route. “His ways are not our ways” as Scripture says. And I’m sure if I asked you too, many of you could tell us about a time the Lord did an incredible work in your life or the life of someone you know in the most unexpected and unimaginable way. But there’s something about that reality that I think we forget until it happens to us: at best, it’s really inconvenient. At worst, it’s terribly painful and stressful. And whether or not you categorize your Christmas as inconvenient, painful, stressful, or wonderful…the first Christmas family didn’t have quite as easy a go at it.
We often talk about Mary. In fact, next week we’ll look at Christmas through the eyes of Mary. Her story is beyond precious to the church. But there was another in the family who has a story worth hearing. Joseph. Not only was his life turned upside down by the Christmas story we know and love but he also rarely gets even a fraction of the limelight that Mary does. So this morning, let’s consider his story. We’re in Matthew 1:18-25.
Alright, so again and just like last week, this isn’t likely a new passage to most of us. And even if we’ve never actually stopped to read each line verse by verse, we know the gist of this story pretty well. It’s the lead up to the manger scene we see displayed almost everywhere we go. And even though Joseph is recognizable in the story, as I said, he still is often considered to be about the status of a B-level actor in the drama. And even worse, he’s regularly the target of pot-shots and swipes because of how he initially reacts in the story. But I think it’s a mistake to paint Joseph as a bad guy.
If we take in his story we find this: Mary was pledged to Joseph to be married. This was a betrothal and that means it involved more than just Joseph and Mary. It involved their families. And this was more than just a romantic love story, it was a contractual and mutually agreed upon covenant between families. I have no question that Joseph loved Mary but that love likely wasn’t the initiation of their relationship.
So Joseph is doing everything the way he is supposed to and likely the way he had planned. His families had determined a suitable wife for him. Mary was a nice, young girl. They didn’t “skip ahead” or anything like that but were waiting for the wedding day. And then Joseph is hit with a bomb. Mary was pregnant. Now before anyone jumps on me – yes, this was difficult for Mary as well. And we’ll cover her story – the incredible one that it is – next week. Today is Joe’s day, though. His betrothed is pregnant. What should he do?
Well, this is where we see the conflict within Joseph. Scripture tells us he was faithful to the law but also that he didn’t want to publicly expose and disgrace Mary. By terms of law and custom, he would have had every right to renege on the betrothal to Mary and move on – publicly or otherwise. But he didn’t want to do that. He cared about Mary. And so he came to a compromise, he’d deal with it quietly and privately. This not only would spare Mary public humiliation but would likely save her life as well. The law demanded adulterers be brought to public trial and then, usually, stoned. But he doesn’t do that. Instead, likely with a profound amount of disappointment and his own broken heart, he steels himself for a quiet but painful process.
Then the Lord steps in and saves not only Mary, but Joseph as well. The angel brings Joseph in on the details of God’s plan and on the importance of this little child in Mary’s womb. In fact, Joseph is the first person to hear the name of the child – Jesus. And then we learn that Joseph woke up from his sleep and brought Mary into his life without any reservation or hesitation.
Joseph’s is a classic story of God’s way not being the way we thought out. There’s a direct way, a planned way. In our eyes, it’s the easiest way. But instead, God sends us on this journey of backroads, shortcuts, narrow passes, rickety bridges, and usually even makes us get out and walk some of the way. That’s Joseph. His plan was to marry the right girl chosen by his family, have a family, live life, and be faithful to God. Good plan but not God’s plan exactly. That’s why Joseph’s story is so important for us. Douglas Hare says that by Matthew focusing on Joseph as opposed to how Luke focuses on Mary, we find that Matthew’s Gospel “stresses the active component in the human response” of God’s action.
Last week I talked about how, through Herod’s story, we learn how Christmas is supposed to oppose broken, destructive systems. How it is supposed to challenge our own bad habits, sinful practices, and poor life choices. Joseph’s story reminds us of something related but distinctly important: God’s will and His plan are not always convenient nor do they usually line up with the way we want things to work out.
I saw this in my own life a little over a year ago. I was just finishing my second to last year of seminary and my 7th year of full-time youth ministry. I was feeling restless in my call as a youth director and, at the same time, charged with the possibility of serving as a pastor. I wanted that so badly. And I believed God wanted that. And so, I broke ranks to a degree and perused the denominations database. And wouldn’t you know it, I found a church. A pretty big church in Georgia. I looked into the church more and was really intrigued. I then learned the position covered adult discipleship and leading the contemporary worship service. It was everything I wanted.
I sent an email which lead to a phone interview which lead to a Skype interview which lead to Caitlin and I spending about 5 days in Georgia. Through the whole process, I was thinking how perfect this was. I was praying nonstop. Caitlin was excited and likewise praying. In all honesty, I thought I had it in the bag. Key word: thought.
In the middle of July, right when I was waiting for a call from the church confirming my future, we had a terrible fire in our home. It was a little before 8am when an electrical malfunction in our range caused tens of thousands of dollars in damage and would put us out in a hotel for about two months. Like I said, that was around 8am. Around 4pm that same day I got a call from the head of the search committee. By now you know what happened but I was one of two final candidates and they were going with the other. I was crushed. Between the fire and that call, I experienced what was the second worst day of my life. The first being the loss of my mother. My family was in a hotel, my dream job was somebody elses, and I entered a crisis and drought of faith unlike any I had ever experienced before.
But you know what? God’s plan never changed. And He redeemed every part of that terrible sequence of events not only for His glory but for my good. The fire and loss of that job took me off the job hunt for several months and I wouldn’t revisit it until right around Christmas. The house slowly but surely was restored and made even better than new. And then, in what feels like a flurry, I graduated seminary, accepted the position here at First Pres, and sold our home. And I see God’s hand in all of it.
By waiting in my search process, I not only became available to talk with Dave Theile and the rest of the search committee here but I received additional blessings from my previous church and presbytery. My house, thanks to the repairs after the fire, became a hot commodity when it was time to sell and it only took 5 days. And that church in Georgia that I thought was perfect for me has since gone through a terrible separation and are no longer to even employ the position I wanted. And most importantly, my family and I are here. Here in the place where I unequivocally and absolutely believe God has called me and us.
Was my plan a bad one? I don’t think so. But it wasn’t His plan. Was Joseph’s plan a bad one? No, not at all. In fact, it was as “normal” as you can imagine. But God doesn’t deal in the ordinary, the normal, or the average. His plans may force us into backroads we find treacherous but we can trust the voice that tells us to go forward. Our destination may not always be the one we had aimed at when we started, but in that final destination we find the wellspring of God’s call and the assurance of His presence. Just as Joseph found the joy, security, and blessing of his new family. Just as the world would come to find life and grace and hope in a child born in Bethlehem.
Advent is a season of waiting. And so my challenge to you this morning is one of amorphous, uncertain, impending waiting. God has a plan for your life. It’s a plan hand-written by Him and filled with everything necessary for you to live into the potential the Spirit placed inside you. But it very well may not be the same plan you’re on right now or the one you’re trying to escape or the one you’re working toward or dreaming about. In those moments where God’s will crashes against our best-laid plans, my encouragement and challenge to you is to remember Joseph’s story. Christmas, that first Christmas, must have seemed like a stressful nightmare to that poor guy. But upon reflection and the hearing the voice of God, Joseph saw Christmas through a whole different set of eyes. And I pray we would as well.