“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole empire should be registered. This first registration took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So everyone went to be registered, each to his own town. Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family line of David.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
There are two basic categories of things that can get in the way of our pursuit of our plans in a given situation. There are distractions, and there are interruptions. Those may sound like synonyms, but I would argue there is a subtle difference between them. Distractions are obstacles we don’t mind and may even choose to have on our path. Interruptions are frustrations over which we may not have any control. Distractions we have some measure of control over stopping or even preventing. Interruptions are often things we are powerless to stop or avoid. Joseph’s life seemed like it was one big series of interruptions. But as it turns out, God was the one pulling the strings. Let’s talk about why this matters for us.
Joseph is perhaps my favorite character in the Christmas story (other than, you know, Jesus). Mary, the shepherds, and the wise men are all fine, but something about Joseph always captures my attention. In some ways, his journey was the most difficult of the group. I know, I know, he didn’t have to carry a baby for nine months and be subject to all the social stigma of being young, pregnant, and unwed, but his road was nonetheless a difficult one.
Think about it. He was living his best life. It wasn’t easy. He worked hard. He was poor.
Well, hold that thought for a second. We assume he was poor. We do that because when Jesus was born, on the eighth day, when Joseph and Mary went to the temple to have him circumcised, they presented an offering of two turtle doves. We know from Leviticus 12 that after a woman gave birth, she was to make an offering for purification. The offering was to be a sheep unless she couldn’t afford that. Then she could offer two turtle doves.
Now, does this young couple’s offering of two turtle doves indicate their poverty, or merely the desperation of their circumstances? They had just a few days earlier (again, we assume because of the way Luke tells the story) arrived from Nazareth to Bethlehem. We also know they were still living in Bethlehem as many as two years later when the wise men arrived.
Here’s my question: Why did they stay in Bethlehem so long? All the Emperor had commanded was for people to travel to their ancestral home to be registered so they could be taxed appropriately. Luke doesn’t report anything about a directive to stay there indefinitely. So, why did they stay?
I wonder how much of their choice to stay was influenced by the social stigma they were both going to be facing if they had gone back home. Their departure may have been mandated by the Emperor, but perhaps it was a saved by the bell sort of situation. Perhaps they left a situation of relative financial stability in order to escape one that was socially unstable. In the process, they took on the more socially stable unknown for a situation that was much less financially stable. Plus, what new parent hasn’t felt the pressure of having to now provide for this new human you have just introduced into the world, who is totally dependent on you, and for whom you are completely responsible?
All of this is to say, I wonder if their apparent poverty was simply their station in life, or something into which the journey on which God was leading them had led them. Either way, before Jesus, Joseph was doing okay. Things weren’t all sunshine and rainbows, but he was doing okay. He had a trade. He had a stable family network. He had a beautiful, young fiancée. Everything was pointing in the direction of a nice, happy, quiet life.
Then his fiancée turned up pregnant. And the child wasn’t his. Talk about an unwanted interruption of all his nice, neat plans. This one threatened to blow those plans to smithereens. But as it turns out, this wasn’t an interruption at all. It was an invitation from God Himself to be a part of something big He was about to unleash on the world. His shock and sense of betrayal made him a bit of a tough sell, especially when Mary tried on her own to convince him of it, but when God appeared to him in that dream, he changed course…or, rather, got back on course.
Then came the news that the Emperor had commanded for everyone to return to his ancestral home to be registered and taxed. Given the approximate timeline from Luke’s Gospel, Joseph and Mary had a six-month window—or less—to figure out their relationship before they had to travel. They were just settling back into a pattern together, and along comes yet another interruption.
As I said before, this may have been a welcome interruption because of the social pressures they were facing—people would have questioned Joseph’s character (not to mention good sense) for taking Mary back as much as they questioned hers for turning up pregnant in the first place; who knows, maybe Joseph’s taking her back triggered the rumor that the child really was His which would have made his relationship with her family rocky—but it was an interruption all the same. And maybe he had distant family there who could help, but the fact that no one had a guest room available for them when she was that far along in her pregnancy suggests that there weren’t any close family (it also suggests that the residents of Bethlehem were jerks, but that’s another story).
Yet once again, this turned out to be an invitation from God into the plans He had for them and the world through them. It wasn’t an interruption at all. It certainly seemed like an interruption at the time, but the truth was just the opposite. Joseph’s life was a series of interruptions that weren’t. And we haven’t even mentioned the whole wise men episode and the unexpected season of living as refugees in Egypt. Every time it seemed like things were falling completely to pieces, it was actually God leading them further onward in the plans He had for them.
I wonder how often that is the case in our lives today. How often are things that manifest to us as interruptions really invitations into something more? How often have we missed out on what God is inviting us into because we have refused to follow Him in an unexpected direction that does not fit with what we had planned? Now, this doesn’t mean that everything that looks like an interruption isn’t really. Some of them are genuine distractions trying to lead us away from God’s path and plans. It takes great wisdom and discernment on our part to know and recognize which is which. It also takes a willingness to hold our plans lightly and with open hands. It just may be that the thing which seems like the biggest lurch off our course is the very thing that will keep us on His.
How can we tell? By staying connected. God never let Joseph and Mary get far into their new and unexpected path without dropping at least a small hint that, yes, they were on the right track. Joseph got a dream. The shepherds visited in the middle of the night. The wise men came. Joseph got more dreams both to go and to return. God was faithful every time they were. Knowing we are on the right track (or are in danger of leaving the right one) will always come when we are connected to our heavenly Father who wants us to know. We do that by staying diligent in prayer and engaging with the Scriptures. We do it by staying intimately connected with a local body of Christ. We do it by regularly serving others in Jesus’ name. We do it by eliminating distractions whose noise drown out the often small voice of God calling us in these new directions.
As we draw near the end of this Advent season—only five days left to go—has God been calling you to anything that seems like an interruption but is really an invitation? It may be as big as a move to a new place, but it could also be something that in the moment seems small. But small things can change the world. May you have the faith and trust in the Savior whose own interruption from heaven was actually an invitation to all of us into eternal life to keep following even when the path gets tricky.