Life-changing decisions

Have you ever been going along, just living your life, thinking things were going great, and all of the sudden, out of nowhere, something happens that changes everything? That makes you reconsider everything you’ve ever believed, every goal you’ve ever set for yourself? Something that requires you to make a life-changing decision.

That’s what happened to Joseph, the husband of Mary, a man that’s often pretty much forgotten in the Christmas story. The Bible doesn’t tell us very much about him—he’s mentioned as part of the Christmas story and then again briefly when Jesus is twelve years old. After that … nothing. It’s assumed that Joseph died before Jesus began His public ministry—that perhaps the reason Jesus waited until he was 30 years old to begin that ministry is because He needed to carry on the family carpentry business until His brothers were ready to take over.

When we meet Joseph in Matthew’s gospel, he’s engaged to a young girl named Mary. Under Jewish law, an engagement was legally binding—the first step in the marriage process. Following the engagement, it was the task of the husband-to-be to prepare a place for the couple to live and to be sure that he was well enough established in his occupation to support a family. Only then did the wedding take place and the bride come to live with her new husband.

So in Matthew’s gospel, Joseph is looking forward with anticipation to taking Mary into his home as his wife. Then one day Mary shows up and says, “Joseph I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that I’m pregnant. The good news is that I haven’t been unfaithful to you. An angel came and told me that I’ve found favor with God and that the Holy Spirit is going to give me a baby who will be the Son of God.  I know this probably sounds pretty unbelievable, but that’s what happened.”

We know that Mary shared this news with Joseph because Matthew makes it clear that he knew about the baby before the angel ever appeared to him in his dream. Knew about it and was struggling to decide what he should do.

Before Mary shared her news with him, Joseph’s life was going great. And now suddenly everything is collapsing around him. And—this is important—none of it is his fault. Nothing that he has done or failed to do has contributed to this enormous problem that he’s suddenly faced with.

What is he going to do? What can he do?

The Bible only tells us one thing about Joseph: in v 19 of our gospel, we’re told that Joseph is a just man—or, as some translations put it, a righteous man. The Hebrew word that’s translated here as “just” or “righteous” means “to completely and totally obey the law of Moses.”

So what Matthew is telling us is that Joseph was a man totally committed to doing the right thing. And for a first century Jewish man, the right thing was all about obeying the law. We can be certain that Joseph never kept the carpentry shop open on the Sabbath to earn a little extra money. We can be certain that everyone knew that if you hired Joseph to do your carpentry project, it would be well done and his bill would be fair. So business was good and the future was looking great. 

Everybody knew that Joseph was a righteous man. People looked up to Joseph—nobody would have ever even thought about inviting him to a party at the home of a tax collector. Nobody would ever have seen Joseph talking to a prostitute.

All his life, Joseph has done everything right—he’s built a solid reputation for himself as a just man. And then he learns that the girl he’s engaged to is going to have a baby—and they’re not married yet. Joseph doesn’t know who the father is, but he knows for certain that it’s not him. He also knows that as soon as word gets around—and he knows that word will get around—nobody’s going to believe that he’s not the father.

What should he do? Surely he’s praying for an answer—but God isn’t helping.

Joseph is a man whose entire life, whose entire identity is based on his righteousness, on his observation of the Law. And the law has some very definite things to say about what should happen to someone in Mary’s condition. Deuteronomy 22:21 says that if a woman engaged to be married is unfaithful, “then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done an outrageous thing …. You shall purge the evil from your midst.”

Joseph surely knows this— but he doesn’t want to make a public example of Mary. Even though he is a just man, he doesn’t want to expose her to what the law demands. At the same time, he knows that when the other righteous men in Nazareth find out about Mary, they’ll be sure to point out to him what the law requires.  And he knows that under the law of Moses, a just man should never even hesitate—but Joseph hesitated. He couldn’t bring himself to do this to Mary.

Her life is on the line. Joseph’s reputation is on the line.

Joseph is struggling—really struggling. What should he do? He loved Mary—but really … an angel? A virgin birth? Really? Righteous men don’t lie—and they can’t tolerate lying in others. So now she’s not only pregnant but she’s trying to cover up what happened with lies?

Finally Joseph makes up his mind. We’re told that, “being a just man, and unwilling to put her to shame, Joseph resolved to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:19). Because an engagement in Joseph’s day was legally binding, the only way out was to get a divorce. This was the only way Joseph could think of to provide some protection for Mary and still maintain his status as a just man.

But then, we’re told that “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” (Matthew 1:20-21).

So … what I wonder when I read this passage is why? Why did God make Joseph go through that time of struggle before He sent the angel? God could have sent the angel directly from telling Mary that God was calling her to be the mother of His Son to fill Joseph in on what was happening? Why did Joseph have to experience all that anxiety, all that fear?

Or, better yet, if God wanted Mary to be the mother of His Son, why didn’t He just wait until Mary and Joseph were already married? Why couldn’t He have avoided what He surely knew would be a huge scandal? A scandal that would follow Mary and Joseph for the rest of their lives?

Could it be that removing anxiety and fear wasn’t God’s number one priority for Joseph? And if that’s the case, could it be that removing anxiety and fear isn’t His number one goal for us either? Could it be that God was trying to give Joseph a new understanding of what it means to be a just or righteous man? Could it be that God was using the time between when Joseph learned that Mary was pregnant and the appearance of the angel to grow Joseph? To prepare him for the future that God had prepared for him?

Could it be that the question isn’t really “are you struggling,” but rather “What are you doing about your struggles?”

What do you do when life throws trouble your way? Have a pity party? Feel sorry for yourself? Wonder what kind of God would allow you to suffer? Be angry with God?

Or are you trusting Him enough to know that whatever is happening, God has a reason—and a plan? That you might have to wrestle with Him to come up with answers—and that those answers might not come immediately. And when the answer if not what you wanted to hear, are you willing to obey?

One of the very clear messages of Scripture that we have forgotten—or maybe just ignored—is that God never intended our lives to be just about us. Jesus taught this through every single thing He did or said.

God knew that Mary and Joseph were engaged when He placed His Son in Mary’s womb. He knew that this whole virgin birth thing would involve Joseph. Joseph wasn’t just some collateral damage that God had forgotten about. Joseph was just as much a part of God’s plan as Mary was—a part of the plan that God had set in motion at the beginning of time.

So God had to prepare Joseph—he had to grow him. He had to show him where his life needed some correction. God wanted Joseph to struggle—because in his struggling, Joseph was forced to count the cost. He was forced to consider whether he was willing to let go of whatever he had allowed to be more important in his life than God’s will for him.

Because Joseph was a just man. Was that a bad thing? Of course not. But have you ever considered that sometimes even good things can become sin? Joseph was a man who up to this point had made righteousness his highest goal. God wants our highest goal to be obedience to His will. And his will is often very different from ours.

God allowed Joseph to struggle because struggle is what Joseph needed to be ready to hear and obey God. Joseph was waiting for God to tell him what to do, but, as often happens, when we think we’re waiting for God, what’s really happening is that God is waiting for us to be ready to receive whatever it is that He knows we need.

Allow Mary to be stoned to death or marry her and allow the reputation that he had so carefully built be destroyed? What should he do? Joseph had to struggle until he reached that point of desperation, that point where he cried out, as he surely must have, “I don’t know what to do God!”, God said, “Yes!” “Finally—now you’re ready to listen to me.”

Then, and only then, did God send the angel to Joseph in a dream to tell him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife. Why would Joseph be afraid to marry this young woman he was already engaged to? Certainly part of his fear would be about the fact that he’d be breaking God’s law. But probably the real reason was that Joseph was afraid of what people would think, of what people would say. Joseph was afraid of losing his reputation, of losing his good standing in the community.

Joseph knew that if he didn’t believe Mary when she told him what had happened, it was pretty likely that nobody else was going to believe her either. They wouldn’t believe her and they wouldn’t believe him. He knew that there was no way people would believe that an angel showed up and caused a child to be conceived in the body of a virgin teenaged girl. He knew that if he married her, his life would never be the same—some people would say his life would be ruined. He knew that most, if not all, of his friends would no longer want to have anything to do with him. He’d probably lose a lot of business. And he’d lose the love and admiration and respect of everyone—maybe even his own family.

If Joseph committed himself to Mary and her child—to the one who would be called Jesus—he would do so at enormous personal cost.

But Joseph did what the angel commanded him. He took Mary home as his wife and, in v25, it says that he named the baby. For a Jewish man to name a baby in first century Israel was to legally declare that this child was his. By naming Mary’s baby, Joseph was making a deliberate decision to bind his future to the lives of Mary and her child. He did so knowing that Mary would be forever known as the woman who’d had an illegitimate child. In Mark 6, when the adult Jesus returns to Nazareth to teach in the synagogue, the people call Him “the son of Mary” (Mark 6:3). Joseph is probably dead by now, but even if the father died, people in Israel always referred to a man as the son of his father.

So even years later, Joseph’s reputation has still not recovered. His days of being known as a righteous man ended the day he took Mary as his wife.

Maybe God had a reason for doing things this way. Later, Jesus will call twelve men to follow Him. He’ll talk about the need to count the cost. Luke tells us in chapter 14 of his gospel that no one would ever begin to build a tower without first sitting “down and counting the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?” He’s saying that we must be prepared to finish what we start. When God calls, we must count the cost of leaving one’s family behind, of leaving one’s home, job, friends. The cost might include giving up favorite leisure activities, or even just time.

There’s another man in the Bible whose name was Saul. He was the most righteous of the righteous until one day he was knocked to the ground by the Lord as he was on his was to Damascus. Saul was blinded by God for three days until God sent a man named Ananias to him. Ananias told Saul what God has told him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:15-16).

God changed that man’s name to Paul and when Paul turned his life over to Jesus, everything changed. Paul went from being the most righteous man around, to being beaten and imprisoned and eventually beheaded. 

Could it be that God still works this way? Could it be that the reason God chose Joseph, the reason that we have so little information about Joseph, is because Joseph was such an ordinary man? An ordinary man living a simple life in a small town—a man not much different from you or me. And could it be that if God had this plan to use Joseph for the advancement of God’s kingdom, that He has a plan for you and for me for that same purpose?

Could it be that God never intended our lives to be all about us? That we were created for more? For something much greater than ourselves?

Maybe you’re confused or anxious or uncertain about something right now. Maybe you’re struggling with something and wondering why God is allowing this to happen to you. Maybe it’s your health or your finances or your job or a relationship. Maybe, like Joseph, something has turned your life upside down—maybe this is happening despite the fact that you’ve always tried to do the right thing. Happening through no fault of your own.

Maybe God is trying to get your attention. Trying prepare you for something new in your life, something you don’t even know about yet. Wanting you to recognize what you’ve placed ahead of Him in your life. Especially if that something might be something good: your family, your reputation. Or something not so good: a belief that God cares more about the righteous than He does about the unrighteous. Cares more about your certainty that you’re right than He does about someone that you’re certain is wrong. Cares more about your comfort than He does about growing you into the person He wants you to be.

That’s what was happening with Joseph. God was teaching him to count the cost—and to recognize that what God was offering was far better than anything Joseph might have been trying to build for himself.

In our American culture, we don’t take these words of Jesus seriously. Count the cost … be prepared to renounce all that you have. If you’re not willing to do this, Jesus say, you cannot be His disciple.

We have only to look at Joseph to see what it can cost to be obedient to God. Joseph surely knew he would lose his reputation and his good standing in the community. Did he realize that when he traveled to Bethlehem with Mary for the census, that no one would be willing even to give them a room for the night? This was Bethlehem, the place from which all of Joseph’s family came; it must have been filled with relatives. But only the stable, perhaps offered by an innkeeper who himself had compassion for the couple. And then when Herod ordered all the baby boys in the region two years old and younger to be killed, Joseph had to take his family and flee by night to Egypt. Surely none of this was part of the plan that Joseph had for his life.

But he did it. He followed wherever God led. God’s purpose for Joseph was that he care for Mary and her child—and Joseph did that.

This is God’s plan for every one of us. He does not ask us to be perfect or good. He simply asks us to be His. Nowhere does He promise that it will be easy. Because it is only through testing that we grow in our trust of God.

When we were at the LCMC conference in October, we talked about something called “Holy discontent.” Holy discontent is being dissatisfied with the way things are—the way things are in our own spiritual lives, the way things are in our church, even the way things are in our world.

Holy discontent is rooted in a desire to see the will of God on earth as it is in heaven. It’s rooted in knowing just how very far we are from seeing that happen.

Joseph, as far as we know, was completely content with the way his life was going—until the Holy Spirit caused his fiancée to become pregnant before the wedding. After that was a serious time of discontent—but I think that when we meet Joseph in heaven someday, he’ll tell us that his decision to obey God was the best decision he ever made.

Are we content with things as they are? With the world as it is? As we begin a new year, as we begin three days of concentrated and committed prayer, this seems like a really good time to consider these questions. To struggle if necessary to know God’s purpose and plan for us—both individually and as a congregation.

Are we content to know that our marriage is good even when we know that our neighbor’s is not?

Are we content to have our children do well in school when other children do not?

Are we content to know that we have enough to eat when others in our neighborhood do not?

Are we content with the role of the church in the world? With the role of this church in our community?

Are we content with how well we know Jesus? With how much of Him we have allowed in our life?

Are we desperate enough for more of God in our life to cry out, “Lord, help me! I don’t know what to do?” and then listen and learn.

May this new year be the year when each one of us, like Joseph, discovers that God’s will for us is greater and more glorious than anything we might imagine for ourselves. Let us pray.