Last week we got to hear from the angel Gabriel as he reflected on his experience delivering the news of Jesus’ birth to Mary. With him we got to marvel at the wonderful truth that with a faithful servant, God can change the world. This week we got to hear from Joseph who gave an poignant reminder that faith in the hard really is worth it. Keep reading to see how this story unfolds.
Faith in the Hard
They’re finally asleep, thank the Lord! You would think that exhaustion from the journey alone would have made that particular task significantly easier than it has proved to be lately, but you would be wrong. These are the things no one bothers to tell you when the child arrives. All everyone does then is ooh and ahh over how cute he is. “He’s such a precious little baby,” they said. “He’s just perfect,” they crooned. “He’ll be the Savior of the world,” they proclaimed. But after a long day on the road and with the stress of recent days weighing heavily on our minds, I’m not so much worried about the whole world being saved as I am getting a few hours of sleep so we can keep going tomorrow.
What? They didn’t say that last one about your son? No, I guess they probably didn’t. I wouldn’t have believed it myself before it happened. This is certainly not the life I signed up for when I prevailed upon my father to approach Mary’s father about cementing a union between our two families, but here I am all the same. I’ll bet you’re wondering what I’m talking about. Well, I suppose a few minutes of storytelling before hitting the sack myself wouldn’t hurt. We dare not go too long, though. I may not know much, but I have at least learned that when the baby sleeps, you do too.
I guess I should start with why we’re even here at this watering hole in the first place. We are…emigrating. From where, you ask? Israel. We’re heading for Egypt. As for why that particular destination…let’s just say for now we were sent there on good authority. As I said, this is never where I would have imaged myself not all that long ago. I had counted on a nice, quiet life with Mary in Nazareth. Other than perhaps a bit of travel for work—I’m a carpenter—I never planned on traveling more than a few miles from home. The Lord has a funny way of turning our plans over on their head when we least expect it.
In any event, we are heading to Egypt because our lives are at risk. All of the hubbub of the past couple of years attracted the attention of no less than Herod himself. You know as well as I do that when Herod has his eye on you, nothing good will come of it. The old snake somehow concluded that our child was a threat to his power and sent soldiers to kill us. We only just managed to escape with our lives and that only because of some divine intervention. Egypt is the only place we’re likely to be safe from his far reach. Our people are a bit more welcome in that corner of the Empire than it sometimes feels like we are even at home.
Perhaps the question you really want answered is how we found ourselves in this mess in the first place. That, my friends, is a tale best told over a long meal, but we’ll make do with what we have. It all started not all that long ago. Mary and I grew up together, though several years apart. Our families were close, but there didn’t seem to be any real benefit to be gained from a union between us, so neither of our fathers would even hear of it. Over time, though, the relationship between our families grew to the point that a forming a more permanent bond began to appeal to everyone.
When my own father finally agreed to reach out to Mary’s the two of us were ecstatic. I’m not sure where our friendship blossomed into love, but we both had it bad. I have never known anyone like her. She was—she is—just beautiful; inside and out. There is a kindness and gentleness to her spirit that draws you in no matter if you are family or a total stranger. She always seems to know what to say no matter what the occasion is. And her courage…wow. Just, wow. I guarantee you haven’t met anyone quite like her before.
Perhaps what always stood out the most to me, though—well, beyond what I could see because…wow—was her faithfulness. She is righteous in a way most women her age just aren’t. She loves the Lord as I do and it was this that drew us together more than just about anything else. We sat there just beaming at each other as our fathers and the town elders agreed on the bride price and cemented our betrothal. Then it was official. I started calling her my wife immediately. She would respond, “Yes, my husband?” Then we’d just grin at each other. Thinking about it now, it really was pretty pathetic. But we were so happy. I’d better stop, or you’ll start to think less of my manhood.
For about a month we were blissfully happy. The days were light as a feather. We couldn’t spend every waking minute with each because of the demands of life, but we stole and snuck every second we could. But then…something changed. At first, I didn’t have any idea what it was. I’ll never forget that first afternoon. I went around behind her father’s house where we had planned to meet the night before and she wasn’t there. Then, from a distance, I saw her hurrying across the field and into the house. I called for her loudly enough to be heard, but not attract any attention and she looked my way, but it was like she was seeing through me. I started to go to her, but the door shut so quickly behind her that I stopped in my tracks. It was like the smooth, glassy surface of the pond that was our love had been touched and the ripples were taking everything out of focus.
Then, she was gone. Gone to her cousin Elizabeth’s I would later learn. I didn’t understand and the confusion was more dispiriting than anything I’d ever faced before. At first her father wouldn’t even talk to me about it. It wasn’t until my own father went to him and reminded him of the agreement we had all made in front of witnesses that he finally told me where she was. But he wouldn’t tell me why. No matter how hard I pressed, he wouldn’t budge. The only thing he was say was that she needed Elizabeth’s counsel and would return when the time was right. He began putting on a hard face, but I could see something deeper in his eyes. He was hurt and he was hurting for me. There was something he was wanting to tell me, but he didn’t feel like he could. I wasn’t sure if it was fear or pride or something else, but I could see that something was going on.
It was like I had walked into a large room filled with lit candles, but all of them were under baskets. There was just enough light that I could sense there was more to the room than I could see, but I couldn’t discern what it was. Have you been somewhere like that before? It was maddening. What was wrong with Mary? Was she hurt? Had someone taken something from her? Was she having second thoughts? Was there something wrong with me? The misery of those four months was almost more than I could take. More than once I packed my things to travel to where Mary was in order to get some answers, but each time something held me back. I knew her. I’d known her all my life. I had to trust her because I didn’t have anything else I could do. It was agonizing.
Then she returned.
Have you ever been in one of those situations when you were waiting for a door to open, but didn’t know what was on the other side? It could have been anything. Your mind fills in the blank with all kinds of things, usually one awful option after another. Each worse than what came before it. The tension builds until the door finally swings all the way open and you see it. The gasp that often comes in that moment isn’t so much because of whatever is waiting for you but because of the relief you feel that it’s not as bad as all the things your mind filled in that it could be. Mary’s return was like that, except what was waiting behind the door was worse than I ever imagined.
I remember as clearly as if it were yesterday the afternoon she rode back into town. Yes, she rode back into town. Zechariah and Elizabeth must have been much wealthier than I thought they were to have afforded such a gift as that. She certainly couldn’t have afforded it unless her father had sent her entire bride price with her when she left. And while Mary was always shapely, she had a…different…shape. She was different all over. I noticed her eyes first. There was a confidence to them that hadn’t been there when I last saw her. She was scared then, but now, it was like she knew what was coming and was ready to face it. There was a resolve about her that was as strong as iron. She smiled at me almost patronizingly, like she knew something I didn’t and that whatever it was would be hard for me to accept. If only I had known how right she was.
My heart fluttered when I saw her again for the first time, but after four months I was cautious. I still didn’t know what was going on and I didn’t want to risk getting burned again. Betrothals had been torn asunder for much less than this and we both knew it. She must have had a good sense of this because she didn’t even try to act like everything was normal. And indeed, it most certainly was not. Just how different, though, became strikingly clear the moment she slid gently down from the donkey’s back sporting a small, but noticeable bump. That hadn’t been there when she left.
Have you ever watched a jar falling to the ground? It’s almost like time slows to half speed while it falls and then suddenly speeds back up to normal when it crashes. Time slowed to a crawl as the image my eyes had taken in wound its way to my brain. It arrived like a whole cartful of jars slamming into a stone wall at high speed. My world shattered. She was pregnant. There was absolutely no denying it. She went quickly into the house so nobody else could see, but she knew that I saw. Her eyes told me as much. Again, there was an almost patronizing sorrow to them. I understand why now, but in the moment, it made me angry.
At first, I didn’t even know how to react. I was just numb as I stood there dumbfounded. How could Mary be pregnant? I mean, I knew how she could be pregnant, but how could she have done that? Who was the father? Was it someone else in the village? A stranger passing through? This was so wildly out of character for her that I couldn’t even wrap my mind around it. Nothing made sense anymore.
It was a couple of days before I could even bring myself to go and see her again. When I finally did, our meeting was awkward to say the least. I didn’t even know what to say to her. She seemed to know what to say, but all her words were only making things worse. She started talking about a visit from an angel and conceiving with the help of the Holy Spirit. It all sounded like so much nonsense. I mean, really, pregnant by the Holy Spirit? Who on earth would believe something like that? It’s like she and Elizabeth had worked for four months on constructing an elaborate story that was beyond the pale of crazy just to avoid all the possible consequences that might be involved in her betrayal and that’s all they could come up with. She had to know what options were available to me. I would technically have needed to produce the father in order to have her stoned to death, but most priests weren’t going to press me on that too much. The Pharisees certainly wouldn’t have. They’d have been more than happy to get a chance to publicly demonstrate the seriousness of the Law and the consequences of violating it so violently.
But that wouldn’t have been right. She was absolutely adamant that this whole thing was from God. There would be no prying the name of a father from her and no one in the village professed to know anything. No one even had that guilty look in their eyes like they knew they were not telling the whole truth. Everyone was baffled by this. But the simple truth was: no father, no stoning. Period. The Law was clear on that much. Plus…this was Mary. A lifetime of friendship and a love that had grown up like ours had isn’t something you can just cast aside because things had fallen so thoroughly to pieces. I couldn’t bear the thought of being with her any longer, but that didn’t mean I wanted her life ruined over this situation. Surely the anguish she had to be hiding deep inside (for it certainly wasn’t evident when I spoke with her about it) was punishment enough. She would have to live with the knowledge of what she had done and the lifetime consequences it would have. That was enough. No, the only thing that made any sense was to quietly contact the elders and obtain a writ of divorce.
Then everything changed again.
The very night before I was going to meet with the elders, I had a…dream. A vision perhaps? I’m not sure exactly what to call it, but in it, an angel of the Lord spoke to me. That much was abundantly clear. It said, “Don’t be afraid, Joseph.” You know, until that moment, I don’t think I had ever really nailed down exactly what emotion I was feeling. It was fear. It was fear of losing what mattered most to me. It was fear of being less of a man than I thought I was…than I wanted to be. It was fear of the unknown stretching out in front of me. Fear was controlling everything about my world. The angel had shone the light of the Lord on my fear and, exposed, it began to melt away.
That wasn’t the full extent of what he said, though. He said, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what has been conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” She was right. Every word out of her mouth was the truth. I can’t even begin to tell you how much of a relief this was. Not only was Mary’s testimony absolutely true, but my reticence to not trust her was entirely justified. She was who I thought she was! This revelation itself sent any remaining pique of fear packing.
There was still more. Not only was I not to fear taking her as my wife, but I was to treat the child—a son, no less—as my own. I was given the privilege of pronouncing His name—Jesus. Of course that would be the name. It was a strong name; a rich name. And then it dawned on me: This was no ordinary child. This was the Messiah. All of a sudden, everything changed yet again. I was to be the earthly father to the Messiah? Me? Who was I to bear such a burden? Why would God trust someone like me with such a task? But then again, it couldn’t be. The Messiah was to come from Bethlehem. The prophet Micah was clear on that. So, who was this?
That was a concern for another day. When I awoke the next morning, my path was abundantly clear. I hurried to Mary’s father’s house so that I could share the news with her. She was giddy as a young girl. Her relief was tangible that not only did I believe her story, but that she didn’t have to bear this burden by herself any longer. For indeed, you could see in the eyes of her father and mother that though they wanted to support her, they were not convinced of the truthfulness of her tale. We held hands and praised the Lord together.
And yet, if you thought this would make things easier, you are badly mistaken. My sudden change of heart on supporting her did not go unnoticed and in the eyes of most, I was a lunatic for it. Her insanity had rubbed off on me. What kind of a man was I that I would consort with such a woman as she very obviously was? It was funny: All of those fears I had were being realized, but they didn’t have any power over me any longer. The Lord had spoken and there was no need to fear. I could stand with my betrothed with confidence. We would face what lay ahead of us together, side by side.
After this, things began to happen very quickly. It was a good thing too because the looks and whispers were starting to become more than either of us wanted to continue to bear. It started when the soldiers came to town. They were always around—you know as well as I how much the Empire likes to remind us who’s in charge—but this time they marched into town with all the swagger of men who had a mission they knew the people affected by it weren’t going to like…and they were glad for that. They announced that the son of the god, the eternal emperor Augustus Caesar wanted a fitting tribute to his glory. In order to do this, he needed to know just how big his kingdom really was. So, all men had to return to their ancestral homes in order to be counted—and, by “counted” they meant taxed to help fund Caesar’s glory.
Most of the town grumbled murderously. We joined in to save face, but we were secretly ecstatic. This would get us out of town. It would put a safe distance until after the baby arrived. Then, we could come back with the boy and perhaps things would be more settled. The only real challenge was that Mary was getting closer and closer to when Jesus would be ready to make his appearance. Traveling to Bethlehem would not be an easy journey in good conditions. The days on the road with her as far along as she was would be almost unbearable. Yet there was no choice, so we packed and left. We left and headed for exactly the place Micah had said the Messiah would arrive. Isn’t it just like the Lord to do that?
In any event, I knew the place would be crowded, but I didn’t have any idea it would be like it was. There was no room for us anywhere. Even with Mary in the state that she was, no one could make a space for us. Every inn, every rooftop, every spare room, even every nook and cranny was filled. Finally, one man said he had some room in his stable we could use. At that point we were desperate and so I said yes before he even finished telling us the conditions and rate. It was not ideal—it was little more than a cave—but it was better than sitting with the shepherds out in the hills. Those men are unclean and untrustworthy. Good folks like us have as little to do with them as we can.
Well, the Empire moved at a bare crawl, the days stretched on into weeks, and eventually the time came for Mary’s delivery. All the while, the little town was still crammed so full of people that we could hardly breathe. Fortunately, in a place such as that there is ample work for a carpenter so we did not want for food. Still, it was frightening that night as the child was born. We both understood the promise of this child and here we were bringing him into the world entirely on our own. Visits from—of all people—shepherds and many months later astrologers from the East, along with the unexpected blessings of strangers in Jerusalem, only served to deepen our sense of wonder at what God was doing with us. And then the astrologers’ visit drew the attention of Herod and we are back where we started.
Friends—I suppose I can call you that now that you know me so much better—I won’t pretend any part of this has been easy, but I am in awe at what God has done. Almost every step of the path that has brought us here with you today has been a struggle. We’ve met every kind of resistance you can imagine both internal and external. The things to which He has called us have time and again seemed wildly illogical. It’s been hard. So hard. And yet…the further down this rabbit trail we’ve traveled, the more filled with life we have been. I don’t know that I could even hope to fully explain it to you. It’s just the more we have trusted in God’s plans, and no matter how hard doing that has become, the more we have experienced the life that only He can give. There is only one conclusion I’ve been able to draw from all of this: Trusting God, even when it’s hard, always leads to life.
Can I be so bold as to suggest the same thing can be true in your own life? Are you facing circumstances that are fraught with difficulty? Do you feel at all lately like the more you reach out to lean on Him, the more obstacles seem to find their way into your path? Believe me—and I hope my tale has convinced you of this—I know how you feel. I still let my mind drift back to those early days when I discovered Mary’s pregnancy and just after the angel spoke to me in that dream. If I made the decision to do what He said seem easy at all then I did you a grave disservice. It was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my entire life. Every single voice I turned to for counsel assured me it was the wrong path. But the Lord had spoken. No matter how hard it seemed, obedience was the only thing that felt right. I’m not sure where I would be now if I had refused—certainly not here—but the life I am experiencing is something I wouldn’t want to trade for anything in the world. All I can say is that trusting God, even when it’s hard, always leads to life. He has proved it to us over and over again. Trusting God, even when it’s hard, always leads to life.
Think hard, then, friends, before you make your next move. Think harder still if the path forward in the direction the Lord is calling you seems difficult. If it is indeed the path He’s calling you to take, it often will be excruciatingly difficult. But if you will take it, I guarantee you that life will be your reward. The life that only He can give; the life that the angel assured me my little boy will one day bring to the world. Trusting God, even when it’s hard, always leads to life.