“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary for your wife …”
By Jeremy W. Bergstrom
This morning I want you to meditate on Joseph. Mary gets a song — “Mary, Did You Know?” — but what about Joseph? Nobody seems to care. But let’s give Joseph a minute. It’s a great way into the story of Christ’s birth. A good man, fair and just, a descendant of David but not in a famous way. His royal blood was probably little more than a distant memory. Just a quiet craftsman from a nice family. He’d make a great neighbor, and was the probably the sort of guy you’d like to go into business with.
Everything seemed to be going according to plan: betrothed to a good girl from a good family, and she ends up pregnant. And he knows it wasn’t him. In those days, as you probably remember, a betrothal was a legally binding in-between step on the way to being married, and so Joseph is no doubt sad, yet no doubt somewhat relieved he found out now, before they were fully married.
Except, he completely misread the situation. Why? I think it’s because Joseph didn’t really have a category for what God wanted to do in his life. Sure, he knew the stories of his ancestors, their faith and their failures, and the way God worked miraculously in their lives time and time again, his love and mercy and power proven over and over; and we have no reason to think he didn’t believe all those things really happened.
But what happened to him is probably what happens to many of us. It never occurs to us that God wants to do something exceptional in our lives. We think our lives are unexceptional, too ordinary, too mundane. God works powerfully in the lives of other people, missionaries, or people in Third World countries or in underground churches like in Iran.
Why would God work in the life of a carpenter? A teacher? A financial advisor? A truck driver? A medical billing specialist? A homemaker? What use could he have for people like me? God is not interested in people like me. He can’t do powerful things in someone like me. We talk like this, and we wonder why he doesn’t work in our lives?
As James reminds us in chapter 4, “You do not have, because you do not ask.” And as he says in chapter 1, when we do ask, “ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways, will receive anything from the Lord.”
Here’s another challenge. Joseph also worked at a disadvantage in his prayer life. No doubt he prayed, but he didn’t have the help of the Holy Spirit, who hadn’t come yet; without God’s help, he couldn’t imagine the Lord would come to him in his time, in his circumstances. Others, like Simeon and Anna in the temple, were earnestly waiting for Christ, but not Joseph; not in the immediate and urgent sense, anyway.
He knew the prophecy from Isaiah that a virgin would give birth to the savior of Israel, and Mary surely must have told him what the angels had said, yet it still blindsided him completely. It took a miraculous intervention by an angel to keep him from putting her away. That’s because religion and a good background does us no good if we aren’t active in prayer and earnest expectation with the Holy Spirit as our guide. We can know all the Bible verses and prayers, and God can be working in our lives in amazing ways, and we completely miss it!
Or perhaps you don’t really believe this stuff? Maybe you’re eminently sensible like Joseph, when he didn’t have a category for what was happening: Yep, I’m a decent guy, Mary was obviously unfaithful, let’s deal with this quietly and quickly so I can get on with my life. And she was carrying his Savior and he completely missed it! If that angel hadn’t come to Joseph in his dream, Jesus would have been raised in a single-parent home. But thanks be to God, “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 borne a son; and he called his name Jesus.”
Why do you fail to see or even resist God’s plan for your life?
I resist because I’m afraid of no longer being able to live just for myself, because I’m afraid of change, or a fear that I’ll miss out on something good this world has to offer. Compared to God, this world has nothing to offer, but that doesn’t seem to stop me in my weaker moments, when my heart is cold and my faith is weak.
What do you fear? That you’re going to miss out on this, that, or the other thing? When you get to the pearly gates, do you think God cares if you got your children into an NCAA Division 1 program, or Harvard Law, or a full ride to Duke? That you outperformed all your peers, that you achieved your financial goals? That you found the so-called “good life,” whatever that is? Those things are fine in a limited sense, but we treat them like they’re everything.
And yet Jesus has come to provide us with everlasting life, an abundant life that far surpasses all the things we seek, and it goes on and on long after the things we chase and struggle to obtain have turned to dust. None of those things matter in the end. No, what he cares about then is, do you know me? Do you love me? Are you glad to be here? Are you looking forward to being a part of my kingdom?
He means for this breakthrough to begin now, in this life. All of us say we love Christmas, and I’ve gotten lots of Advent Grinch accusations, but the real danger is not jumping into Christmas too early — the real danger is never getting there at all! The real danger is always being stuck in Advent through fear and a lack of faith — claiming we want Christmas, but not having the guts and love to trust God and let Christ be born in us.
So through fear and doubt we refuse to let him be born in us, year after year, and yet his love is persistent. Year after year we announce that Christ comes to seek and save the lost, and imperfect vessels like me tell you the story and join the ancient prophets and try with all our might to appeal to you to seek your own good, to “Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near” (Isa. 55:6).
The Rev. Jeremy W. Bergstrom is rector of St. Peter’s, Lake Mary, Florida.