In this final part of our Christmas series, The Characters of Christmas, we look at Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father. What can we learn to him? How about what to do when life takes a sudden left turn on us? Joseph’s perfect plans were thrown into chaos by the news of Mary’s unexpected pregnancy. How did he handle it? Keep reading to find out.
When Life Turns Left
Don’t you love a good plot twist? I sure do. The best movies and TV shows always have that moment that leaves you going, “Whoa! I did not see that coming!” When I was in high school and college, one of the directors who was the very best at creating those kinds of moment was M. Night Shyamalan. Two films in particular do this better than just about any other show I’ve seen (and I think I can talk about these because they’ve been out long enough you’ve either seen them or you’re not going to see them). The first was The Sixth Sense with Bruce Willis and Haley Joel Osment. Osment plays a young boy with the ability to see and interact with people who have died. Willis plays a therapist who is trying to help him work through the fear and emotions of his unique ability. The movie is filled with moments of heart-stopping suspense as Osment’s character navigates his frightening world. But the real “whoa” moment comes right at the end, after Willis helps Osment figure out that the various dead people are coming to him to help them resolve some unresolved tension from before their death, and that with his help they can find peace and leave him alone. The climax comes as we realize that Willis was one of these dead people all along who had come to Osment for help. The moment is so jarring that people still talk about it almost 20 years later.
The other film, The Village, is worth mentioning because even though it didn’t receive as much acclaim as The Sixth Sense, the moment is just as jarring and it’s special to me. It was the first movie Lisa and I ever saw together, just after we figured out we had feelings for each other, but before we had had our D-T-R talk (that’s, define-the-relationship talk, if you’re not accustomed to the new lingo). In The Village, we are invited into the terrifying lives of the villagers of a 19th-century New England community that exists in the middle of the woods which are the stomping grounds of a creature that hunts in the night. As long as they don’t venture far into the woods and stay completely out of them at night, the monster leaves them alone. When a young man who is the love interest of one of the village elder’s blind daughter is grievously wounded, the elder reveals to her that the monsters are just costumes used by the elders to keep people from leaving the village and sends her on her way to get the supplies needed to save the young man’s life. We think that’s the shock. It’s not. After surviving a harrowing journey through the woods, the daughter finds and scales a wall where she is greeted by a young park ranger who has stopped his SUV upon seeing her. The village is not a 19th-century one at all. It’s a haven for some wealthy people who have experienced some tragedy in their lives to live cutoff from the modern world in order to hide from its pains as well as to protect their unwitting children from them.
Dramatic plot twists make for great storytelling. They do not, however, make for much fun in real life. In real life, we generally like to have everything planned out all nicely and neatly. We have a story we are living and we prefer it to stick to the script. Unplanned departures usually mean pain and hardship for which we may not have appropriately planned. Given our druthers, I suspect most of us would just prefer to leave those kinds of experiences safely on the big screen. And yet…life still happens. Our plans are nice, but they don’t have any bearing on what actually unfolds as we move forward. Even when we are committed to walking forward on the path of Christ, life still brings twists and turns that can leave even the strongest stomachs reeling.
This morning finds us in the third and final part of our series, The Characters of Christmas. All this month we have been examining the various familiar faces of the story of Jesus’ birth. The reason for this is that if we are not careful, we can get so accustomed to hearing the beloved tale told that we forget all about the fact that it’s more than just a nostalgia-filled story. It’s a real story about real people wading through the ups and downs of real life. It was messy and uncomfortable and tremendously hard, but in the middle of the chaos, God stepped into our world in the baby Jesus. And if He could step into that mess and bring redemption to the world, He can step into our stories too and bring that same redemption to our lives.
We started this journey with the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist. We learned that even when life gets hard—decades of barrenness was their particular encounter with life’s hard—if we will remain faithful to commands of God, we will experience the wonder of His promises. A life of faith is a life of promise. The next character we are introduced to in the story is Mary, Jesus’ mother. We looked at some of her story last week. When the angel dropped the news on Mary’s lap that she was going to be the mother of the Messiah—a turn of events that would have turned her life completely upside down—her response was that she was the Lord’s servant and she would go along with whatever it was He wanted to do in and through her. We spent some time reflecting on what exactly it means to be a servant of the Lord. At the end of the day, being a servant of the Lord means being open to His plans. Those plans are for our good even when they are hard at first.
This morning I want to look with you at Jesus’ earthly dad, Joseph. Joseph usually gets overlooked in the Christmas story. He was just a guy in the manger. In our Little People brand nativity set, it’s actually hard to tell which little figure is Joseph and which one is a shepherd. Mary gets decked out in beautiful blue whenever she is pictured, but Joseph was just kind of there. And yet, his role in the birth of Jesus was incredibly significant. Had he not played his part to the letter, the whole thing would have fallen apart. And the thing is, he had every reason to give up and go home almost from the moment he appears in the drama.
Let’s look at this together. I want to focus our attention on Matthew’s recounting of Jesus’ birth in 1:18-25. Before we get there, though, put yourself in Joseph’s shoes for a bit. You’ve learned a trade from your father—carpentry. It was probably the family business. There weren’t many other kinds of businesses back then. While work in Nazareth was fairly steady, he wasn’t setting the world on fire by any means. But, life was moving forward according to plan. His father had worked out his betrothal to young woman named Mary. He had quietly had his eye on her for some time and was thrilled to be able to call her his wife in just a few short months. Everything was on track for the quiet, happy life he had always wanted.
And then this: “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.” Now, come on: You’re a good guy. You’ve lived rightly your whole life. You’re not perfect, but you’ve consistently made your best effort to follow the Law and quickly offered the appropriate sacrifices when you’ve blown it. You’ve gotten engaged—it wasn’t really an engagement the way we imagine that concept, but it’s the closest thing we have to what a betrothal was so we’ll go with it for now—to a great young girl who you thought was right on the same page with you. Then she tells you she’s pregnant. And you’re not the father.
Rocked doesn’t even begin to describe your world at that moment. I mean, yeah, she assures you she’s been totally faithful to you and that the child is from the Holy Spirit, but really? You’re supposed to buy that nonsense? You may not be the smartest guy in the neighborhood, but you know it takes two people to get pregnant. That’s kind of Human Reproduction 101. In some ways her insistence that this was a God thing just makes it all worse. She’s using your common faith in God to try and cover for her obvious infidelity. God wouldn’t do something like this. He just wouldn’t. Okay, sure, He technically could because He’s God and He can do whatever He wants, but you had plans. There are a lot of plot twists you could have handled, but this wasn’t one of them. There was no way this wasn’t going to define the rest of your life, and not in a way you wanted to given the dictionary your small town was going to be using.
What do we do when we are following God faithfully and life suddenly flies apart around us? How do we proceed when life veers sharply to the left from out of nowhere? I suspect Joseph was asking some questions very similar to those when Mary delivered the news to him. By right he could have had her stoned. Yes, the Law called for the adulteress and adulterer both to face such a punishment, but if she wasn’t going to fess up to who it was, then she could face it by herself. Even if he didn’t go that particular route, he could have at the very least ruined her reputation—along with her family’s—to make sure she didn’t get the chance to drag anybody else through this kind of a mess again.
But he’d known Mary. He didn’t for a minute buy her story, but there was something about her tearful earnestness that…made him wonder. And the fact was, he loved her. Holding a vindictive grudge just wasn’t his thing. After all, if God could forgive the people of Israel in the face of their persistent unfaithfulness so many times in the past, surely he could back off from reacting to this at DEFCON 1. That’s exactly what Matthew tells us happened in v. 19: “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” It wasn’t what he wanted, but he didn’t have a choice. She’d taken that from him when she had done whatever it was she had done. And yet the plot was about to twist again. Things weren’t quite what they’d seemed.
Verse 20: “But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’” Gasp! The plot thickens. Mary was telling the truth! Great…but, what on earth was Joseph supposed to do with this? This wasn’t some announcement made from the city gates. This was a dream. His dream. Nobody else had this. Sure, he could move forward in light of this truth, but that didn’t mean anybody else was going to change their opinions of the whole situation. They were going to think him to be as crazy as her. Good luck to the both of them. If that nut job wants to hook himself up with her damaged goods, more power to him. I’m sure not going to take him any of my business. His crazy might be catching.
The thing is: Joseph’s character ran deeper than that. God wasn’t going to let just anybody be responsible for being the earthly father to His Son. Or perhaps to put that another way: He wasn’t going to put Himself in the care of just anybody. He’d chosen incredibly carefully for the scheme He was unfolding in our midst. Joseph was the kind of guy who, once he’d been convinced something was right, he was going to stick with it no matter what seemed to stand in his way. This was doubly true when the one pointing him to what was right was the angel of the Lord. As a result, “when Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.”
In other words, Joseph’s life took this incredibly unexpected and difficult left turn, but instead of being completely undone by it, he just went with it. And you could try and argue that your situation, your life’s left turn, is harder than what he faced, but think about the picture we’ve been painting. Your hard may be different from his, but it’s not any less hard. After all, the thing Matthew skips over entirely is what Luke reports in his telling of the story. Rather than getting to settle down into a nice, little life together, Joseph and Mary have their lives upended by Caesar Augustus’ call for everyone to return to their ancestral hometown in order to be registered for a new tax. To make matters worse, a couple of years later, they attract the direct and deadly attention of King Herod and have to live as refugees in Egypt for a few years being able to finally return home and settle down.
Wait, so that’s it then? We just, “go with it”? That’s not very helpful. No, it’s not. You’re right on that score. It’s also not the whole story of what Joseph did here. Look more closely at this with me. When Joseph’s life took a sharp left turn, what was it that he did? Well, the first thing he did was to keep moving forward with the same righteous intent he had before the chaos ensued. Think about it. Yes, he was going to divorce Mary (and the text says “divorced” because even though a betrothal wasn’t marriage, it was nonetheless a legally binding state of affairs that could only be undone by a divorce certificate), but in light of all the things he could have done in reaction to the news of her pregnancy, I’d say he kept his character of righteousness pretty well intact. You see, Joseph was committed to living a life that was honoring of the Lord.
Have you ever made that kind of a commitment? I’ll bet you have. That’s not really the question, though. The question is not whether you’ve made it, but whether you’ve held it when life took a sharp left turn on you. You see, it’s easy to make a commitment to honor the Lord with your life. Lots of people do that. But then we start actually living life and things don’t go nearly as smoothly as we planned. They sure didn’t for Joseph. And when life takes a sharp left on us, we usually go into panic mode. In panic mode we operate with an eye toward survival and tend to run on our backup generators. Have you ever tried starting a generator filled with old or bad gas? I have. You can pull that cord all day long, but it’s not going to power anything. You can’t run on old, bad gas. At least, you can’t run very well. The thing is, unless we are regularly filling our reserve tanks with good stuff, our life backup generators are going to run on the last stuff we put in them. Depending on how long ago we filled them up, the result of powering them up may not be pretty. It may be that some old, sinful habit you thought you had left long in the past becomes the thing you lean on to get you through the chaos instead of the Lord. Holding tightly to a commitment to the Lord when life’s ups and downs get pretty intense isn’t easy. But it is right. It is good.
But, holding tightly to his commitment to the Lord wasn’t the only thing Joseph did. He also kept his eyes and ears open to what else the Lord might be doing around him. When that dream came he could have woken up in the morning, shrugged it off as something bad he had eaten for dinner, and stayed on course with his plans. But he didn’t. He was willing to listen. He was willing to obey.
Sometimes for us, when life has taken a left turn and we go into survival mode, we get so focused on just making it through the storm that we don’t pay any attention to the help and hope that might be springing up around us. We’re like the guy in the old joke who gets trapped on his roof by a flood and begins praying for God to send help. Two boats and a helicopter all come by to rescue him, but he turns them all away because he’s waiting for God to save him. When he finally drowns and asks God what happened, the Lord responds, “I sent you two boats and a helicopter. What more did you want?” In the thick of life’s chaos is not the time to tune God out. It is precisely the time that we need to be the most tuned in to see and hear what God is going to do next.
Being able to do this requires something of us. It requires us to have enough perspective to see that even though things may seem to be flying apart around us—and not for reasons of our own sinfulness—they are not out of God’s control. They have not veered over into territory that is beyond His ability to redeem. In fact, they haven’t necessarily left the path of His plans at all. It is entirely likely that He is up to something very good, but the route to that good will take us through some wild territory that will require us to lean harder than ever into our trust in God’s goodness and ability to redeem any circumstances by His grace. But here’s the thing: This perspective isn’t something we’re going to be able to suddenly develop in the moment of crisis. If it is not already in place, we’ll grab instead for whatever is the next closest perspective and that one, by definition, isn’t going to be nearly as likely to help us as this one is. You see, people are like tubes of toothpaste. When you squeeze a tube of toothpaste, what comes out of it? Toothpaste. This isn’t rocket science. Now for the follow-up question: Why does toothpaste come out of it? Because that’s what’s in it. Let me know if I need to slow down so you can keep up. Toothpaste comes out of a tube of toothpaste because that’s what in a tube of toothpaste. When life squeezes us, whatever is inside of us is what’s going to come out. The question becomes: What’s inside of you.
Joseph had built up a store of some good stuff inside of him such that when life began to squeeze, he was able to respond as he did. How did he do it? Perhaps by immersing himself in a world shaped by the stories of guys like Joseph, Jacob’s son and Daniel who faced incredibly trying circumstances and yet God was clearly the one at work behind the scenes pulling the strings on the whole show. If He could do that then, then He could do it now. And Joseph, like those other guys, could lean into what was right in spite of how crazy a notion that seemed to be. For us, we have the stories of guys like this Joseph whose hard circumstances were clearly being directed by God even though he would have had trouble seeing that at the moment. But that’s just it: At the moment it’s never easy to see that God is the one directing the apparent chaos when life takes a left turn. We don’t lean into Him, into what’s right, because it’s obvious, but because we trust God’s record. And let’s face it: His record is pretty good. Over and over again in the Scriptures we see Him lead His people into messes so thick and deep there’s no way they’ll ever get out only to guide them with His strong, steady hand to an incredible outcome that brings Him glory and them joy. We can listen to the stories from the lives of modern followers too. Time and time again, Jesus’ followers have walked after Him into circumstances for which the label difficult seemed far too small to cover it only to walk out with Him on the other side better and stronger than they were before. The sum total of all of this points us firmly in this direction: When life takes a left turn, we can join with folks like Joseph and Mary and lean into what’s right. When life turns left, lean into what’s right. When life turns left, lean into what’s right.