Because it’s the advent season, most (if not all) of my bible reading has been firmly camped out in the early chapters of the gospels. Here we find powerful beginnings to the story that would turn all of humanity on its head. It starts small, just as whispers. At this point, it feels a bit more like a nice little story of an important baby being born than it does a rocking of the world’s foundations, but we with the benefit of history since then know that to be anything but the case.
Christians and even non-Christians are very familiar with the broad strokes of the opening of the gospels. God tells Mary she will have a son. The baby is born in a manger. Angels rejoice. Wise men and shepherds come to marvel. But there is one figure of this story who is often only mentioned passively in retelling and who bears a much more important role than we give him credit for: Joseph.
In Matthew’s gospel, our first introduction to Joseph describes him as a righteous man. We tend to gloss over that descriptor and move along in the story, but that is not just some ascribed status. Matthew goes on to show us exactly why Joseph is worthy of being introduced in such a way. When we meet him, he’s just found out that the girl who’s planning to marry is pregnant. At this point, Mary knows that her pregnancy is the Holy Spirit’s doing and has had months to come to terms with the path laid out for her, but this is news to her fiance. And it certainly isn’t joyful, welcome news.
If I would pick out a single, stellar trait of Joseph it would be his decisiveness. Here is a man who is not only able to make hard decisions, but he consistently makes them with humility. All too often, we can find someone who is one or the other. Very rarely do those two traits coincide. But in this moment when we see Joseph faced with an unexpected, difficult decision, he slows down and thinks about what’s best for everyone. Matthew tells us that Joseph didn’t want to disgrace Mary and decided to break his engagement with her quietly. Of course, Joseph’s story takes an abrupt turn when an angel appears to him in a dream and explains what Mary’s been called to do. And what does Joseph do when he wakes up? He acts with decisiveness and chooses to obey God and accept Mary and the whole situation.
We tend to look at the moment Joseph decides to listen to the angel and accept Mary as a neat little bow on this part of the story. The truth is it was anything but. It’s more likely that Joseph’s life got a thousand times more difficult, precarious, and all-around uncomfortable after his decision.
Joseph lived in a world governed by rules down to the very minutiae, and this wasn’t something that just happened. The fine tuned laws that dictated Joseph’s world were the result of man’s inability to make themselves right with God and their persistence in wanting to govern themselves without any help from on high. Even the structure that God had provided them had been wrested away and morphed over time to be a complex set of legalistic bindings, not a posture of staying as close to God as possible. The society Joseph lived in had some pretty particular rules about young unmarried women who showed up pregnant.
If Joseph followed societal rules over God, he would have flipped his lid. If Joseph followed societal rules over God, he would have publically shamed Mary in an accusation that would have likely resulted in her death. If Joseph followed societal rules over God, this story would have ended before it even truly started.
Joseph chose God over society.
I don’t say all of that to suggest that societal rules have no bearing and we should throw all caution to the wind in favor of doing whatever little thing feels right in the moment. But I will firmly say that societal norms and rules are not the same thing as following God’s plan and they will sometimes violently collide. Decisiveness is a great trait, but decisiveness to follow God is even better. Joseph could have used his thoughtful, decisive nature for himself and distanced himself from Mary. It would have kept him free of question and blameless in the eyes of his society. Instead, he chose to listen to what the angel told him which would mean sacrificing his social standing, casting himself in doubt, and attaching himself to a situation that would be viewed and judged by everyone he’d grown up with. I have to think that he must have felt a little insane choosing the latter.
Following God’s call is often going to feel insane because you are following his call in a world that has rejected him. If you use the free will of the world to measure the veracity of your faith it will always tell you that you’ve got it wrong. The world has rejected God, plain and simple. Following God means we are attaching ourselves to the same contempt from the world.
If you reject society to follow God, society will reject you right back.
That’s the painful truth of it. If you look to society for your rightness, you may very well live a long and contented life. But those societal rules for all their punch and authority are missing one very important thing: Purpose. Joseph could have lived a long and happy life as a carpenter who dodged a bullet in his engagement. But God had more in mind. Joseph ended up going on a journey with Mary to bring the Messiah into the world and raise him together.
But Joseph didn’t get to see the fruit of that for a long while. His kind decisiveness cost him his world, but earned him his place in the story. What Joseph lost in worldly standing he gained in eternal reward. It may have been a painful loss in the short term, but I’d be willing to bet that Joseph grew to never regret his choice. God’s blessings are always worth more than any the world could offer. God puts every ounce of our faithfulness to use and the rewards go so much farther than we could ever imagine.
Joseph was a righteous man. May we all be a little more like him.
Let’s find some joy,