Today, dear readers, we are going to mix it up just a bit and take a peek at the beginning of Matthew’s Christmas story. Matthew comes at this from a very different angle than Luke, but we’ll see plenty of common ground. Again, our key question as we read these Christmas stories is: what do they teach us about participation in God’s work?
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him…
What can we see in this story about participating in God’s work?
#1: It’s risky.
We’re not told how quickly Joseph marries Mary after his “visitation”, but he runs a risk by marrying a woman already pregnant. If this were discovered prior to their marriage, Joseph would look either irreligious or foolish. If people thought it was his, then he would lose social status because of impiety. If people thought it was someone else’s, then he would be thought a fool for marrying an unfaithful woman. And remember, Joseph was obligated to marry well for his family; failure to do so could have lead to his being cut off from his family . . . and family in the first century was about all the safety net an average person had. Joseph is faced with a choice in this passage. He can be safe, and opt out of God’s work, or take the risk and participate in it. The same choice faces us today! (Note: I am aware that Mary’s risk was far greater . . . we’ll deal with that in a blog to come, I promise!)
#2: The story began before our involvement.
Joseph enters our story here when the action is well underway. First off, Mary is already pregnant with Jesus by the time he is faced with his decision. And Matthew points us further back still by quoting the prophet Isaiah in 1:22 (“Look, the virgin shall conceive). Matthew is quoting Isaiah 7, which was a prophecy of hope given to King Ahaz of Israel (who reigned in about 700BC) when it looked like Israel was about to be overrun by their enemies. In this prophecy God was assuring the king that he was with him and would bring about victory. Matthew is quoting Isaiah to demonstrate that God is working in the same manner and to the same end in this particular story (the Christmas story) to bring about his ultimate victory, and to ‘fulfill’ Isaiah’s words in a definitive manner. Matthew then doesn’t just quote Isaiah to point out a small correspondence, but rather to say to, “Remember that Israel story? Remember all those hopes? God’s is fulfilling them now!”
The point for Joseph then is that God was working on bringing this about long before he ever stepped on the scene (at least about 700 years, since when Ahaz was king). Likewise, we always come into God’s story as participants when the action is underway. We don’t get to arrive on the scene as the conquering heroes who will save the day by ushering in God’s work; we come into the game as players off the bench. Therefore we must indeed trust (hope!) that God is with us, and that the God who moved the action along up to this point won’t drop the ball now.
I have just one today . . . what is one risk that you are currently taking, or considering, for God? What scares you about that risk? Does considering the story that led up to this point give you more confidence or faith?