“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” (ESV – Read the chapter)
When was the last time you had plans for your life and they were suddenly wrecked by something over which you had zero control? That’s never a fun place to be. Even the most free-wheeling, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants person still occasionally makes plans and isn’t all that much a fan of seeing them interrupted. Joseph feels your pain.
His plans were to marry Mary and settled down to a nice, quiet life of enjoying his wife, working hard, and providing for his family. And then Mary announced she was pregnant. You can almost watch the wheels flying off the wagon as it goes sailing down the hill here.
We often sanitize the story here and move on to the birth of Jesus and the wisemen, but don’t miss this. Put yourself in Joseph’s shoes for a minute. There were multiple things he was going to have to face here. For starters, his soon-to-be wife had very apparently been unfaithful to him. They weren’t nearly as scientifically and biologically sophisticated as we are today, but they understood that making a baby takes two people. If Mary was one of those people and Joseph wasn’t the other one, then somebody else was. If he moved forward with plans as they were, then the rest of his life he would have this constant reminder of his wife’s unfaithfulness. Every time he changed a diaper. Every time he was awakened at night by his cries. Every time he heard the laughing of a playing child. Every time he tucked him in at night. All of it. It would be a sting that never went away.
Divorce was the least bad option available to him. It was much to his credit that he didn’t have Mary stoned to death as the Law allowed for as punishment for such a crime. It was much to his credit that he wasn’t willing to publicly scorn her and ruin her family’s reputation in the process. When we’ve been dealt a grievous wound like this, our natural instinct is to respond from out of the pain we feel. Joseph somehow rose above that.
But, his personal relationship with Mary being interrupted was far from the only hurdle Joseph faced. His culture wasn’t nearly as tolerant of unwed mothers as ours is. We make them to be heroes (and where they are owning the choices they’ve made or the result of someone else’s choices as Joseph was in order to give their child the best life they possibly can in spite of those choices they are), but in the culture of the first century they were just damaged goods. They were sources of great shame to their families. At least as bad, they were constant drags on the household income. They were an extra mouth to feed that couldn’t meaningfully contribute to the resources they consumed and couldn’t be divested to be someone else’s problem.
If Joseph went ahead forward with his original plans, he would be looked on as crazy by his culture. That kind of public opinion would make operating his family business much more difficult. Who wants the crazy guy building something for them?
So, what did Joseph do with all of this? How did he move forward in light of how badly his plans had gone south? He did two things. He did two things that if we will follow suit on doing can have a pretty big impact on our overcoming our own times when life has flown apart around us.
First, he leaned into the righteousness he’d spent a lifetime developing. When things suddenly go bonkers on us, most of us go into a kind of panic mode where we focus all our efforts on simply surviving the storm and let our life backup generators get us through the normal, daily challenges. But, if those backup generators are filled with old or bad gas, we’re either not going to get very far or we’re not going to run very well or both. When life gets tough whatever is on our inside is going to come out. If we haven’t been filling our hearts with righteousness, we’re not going to react to life’s hard righteously. If we are going to make it through times like Joseph faced, we need to react like Joseph did and lean into what’s right, not what’s easy.
The other thing he did that’s so important is that he stayed tuned in to what God had to say about his situation. When life flies apart around us and not because we’ve blown it in some kind of way, there’s a good chance that God is up to something. If we want to find out what that is, we need to be listening even more closely to find out what He has to say about it. Had Joseph just done what he wanted to do this story would look very differently than it did. Instead, even as he made some plans for going forward that drew on the righteousness he’d spent a lifetime building, he was open to what God had to say about the situation. And, when God did speak, he was ready to listen.
These two things can make all the difference if we’ll apply them when life turns upside down: Lean into righteousness, and listen to what else God has to say. These two things kept the Christmas story on track. They can do the same in yours.