The Secret to Christmas Love
Dr. Jim Denison
My father grew up on a farm in Kansas, where mechanics were harder to find than cornerbacks for the Cowboys. As he explained it, if you’re harvesting a wheat field and the tractor breaks down, you can either fix it yourself or walk a long ways home and lose the crop. He learned to fix anything.
I, on the other hand, was mechanically challenged. I didn’t know a socket wrench from a pizza. But my father was determined to change all that, so we worked on a 1966 Ford Mustang together. I would hold the light and he would do the work. Then I graduated to tool hander. Then to bolt turner. I still remember the day my father let me change the fan belts myself. But I had to do what he said, or all was lost.
I learned to obey to know. If I waited until I understood why he said to do something, I would never do it. If I did what he said, I would later understand why.
Hold that thought, as we meet my Christmas hero and learn to make his story ours.
From joy to tragedy
Joseph is the silent Christmas actor. In all the Bible, he never speaks a word. And in the rest of our faith tradition, he is seldom considered. The Baptist hymnal mentions him but once.
In the movie called Christmas Joseph is an extra, a character actor with minor credits. When we put up our nativity sets, he is usually the last figure we set out. If we lost his statue, we would set up our nativity scenes just the same. He is Joseph the Silent.
But he’s my Christmas hero. I think Joseph has the hardest part in the story. Here’s why.
As the movie begins, Joseph is doing well.
He is part of a family famous for its faith. A century earlier, his ancestors moved to Galilee to help evangelize the area. He is the descendent of missionaries, like a son of Lottie Moon or William Carey today.
Even better, he is a “son of David,” a descendant of the greatest king in Jewish history. In fact, he’s the only person in the Bible to be called “son of David” except Jesus. Joseph is royalty.
And successful. His work as a carpenter is honorable and respected; in fact, according to early tradition, he was known for making the best ox-yokes in the country.
Now his years of hard work are about to be rewarded. As was the custom of his day, he had arranged years earlier to marry the daughter of a family in their village, a young girl named Mary. Now she is ready for marriage. Their home is finished, most of it built by Joseph himself. Their year of engagement is nearing its end. All is ready.
Then comes the tragedy: his fiancée is pregnant.
Joseph has kept himself sexually pure all these years, and of course expected Mary to do the same. He is shocked beyond words, but facts don’t lie. His engaged wife, his love, is pregnant. And Joseph knows that he is not the father.
Now he has the decision of his life to make. He is “just” and “righteous” (Matthew 1:19), terms which mean “one who keeps the law.” And so he cannot marry Mary. Even if he wanted to put this shame and betrayal aside, he could not do so legally. The rabbis forbade it. She has committed adultery, and their marriage can be no more.
This fact leaves Joseph with two options.
He can divorce Mary publicly before her family and the entire town. (Deuteronomy 22:13-21; Leviticus 20:10).
Or he can divorce her privately. With just two witnesses, Joseph can go to her house and declare their marriage ended, then pay the fine to the priest and be done with her (Mishnah, Sotah 1.1.5 [Talmud]).
The word of the Lord gives this righteous man no other options. Or so he thinks.
Dreams that ended his
Joseph has decided to divorce Mary privately, as the kindest option for her. Now it is the night before he will go to her home and end their future together. And then, in his dreams, an angel of the Lord appears to him.
We are too familiar with the story. Try to read it as though you were Joseph. Have you ever heard an angel speak directly to you? Imagine the awe, the holiness, the glory of it. The angel’s appearance alone is a miracle. But his announcement is even more stunning.
The angel tells Joseph that Mary’s child has been “conceived by the Holy Spirit.” Who has ever heard of such a thing? Not once in all the Bible has God ever done anything like it. The Virgin Birth is basic theology to us, but it is a shocking idea to the village carpenter that night. How would you feel if your fiancée or daughter told you that she had become pregnant “by the Holy Spirit?” Would you believe her?
What can Joseph do? He can believe the angel and complete the marriage, raise this child that is not his, and perhaps live the rest of his life in confusion and doubt about it all. Or he can refuse. Who would believe him, anyway? People can count to nine months–they will know that Mary was with child before they were legally and morally united. They will assume that Joseph had been an immoral lawbreaker. They will shun him or worse.
It would be far easier to refuse this strange dream. Joseph has done nothing to deserve this dilemma, this turmoil, this decision. Why him?
He makes his decision, a choice which will end forever his own dreams for his life and future. He will obey the word of God. He will stake his life, his marriage, and his future on it. He will do what God says before he understands why God says it. He will obey before he knows.