One of my favorite childhood memories at the always noisy and never dull Smith home was our family Christmas tree. A fixture at every Christmas, for as long as I can remember, was a Christmas tree stand that turned the tree around while playing favorite Christmas carols in a high pitched bell sound. Because you would be able to see every side of the tree, we needed to have a fake tree, or at least that is what mom and dad told us. There was also some bogus story about my younger brother Rodney being “allergic” to real trees, but we figured out early in life that if he truly was – going outside to play for hours on end would have bothered him. The tree turned about, and the lights would blink different colors and make different shadow shapes on the wall.
Another really neat part about that tree was that my mom would put on it pictures in little Gerber lids of the children of Christmas past. When you are in a foster family, the faces and names change year by year – and the tree was a quiet reminder of children that dropped by our home on their journey through childhood. My parents raised many children of many sizes, shapes, and colors. Our tree was like a picture album that came out every year, and reminded us of how life changes year to year. Every picture was simple, a snapshot of a child doing something that was probably unimportant at the time. Yet, capturing their image reminded us of the days and nights we spent together, and the many things God taught us as He led our family through its blustery highs and tumultuous lows. I am sure my memories of those children are not exactly as things really took place. Memories are tricky, you know.
You never really know what God is up to – do you? When you look back on the path of your life, you see times when God moved you out of one situation into another – but you couldn’t really see at the time what you see now. God was at work in your life – directing, caring, and leading – but you just felt frustrated, confused, and uncertain at the time. You wanted to believe the path you were on was His path (because you were trying to follow Him), but weren’t sure where the road was taking you. Things came up that were unexpected, and at the time, unwanted.
Key Principle: Mature believers discipline reactions to circumstances, and consistently allow God to speak a path of direction when the known map runs out!
It isn’t a problem unique to you. Maybe some of you can identify with one of these beloved brothers and sisters in Jesus:
- One man recently faced an uncertain future when a challenge overtook him. He couldn’t see as well as before, and couldn’t react physically like he once could – so he surrendered his driver’s license. Now he tries not to be impatient – but waiting on someone else for every grocery store run means that he cannot even cook creatively without having every possible ingredient in stock before he begins. He can no longer just “hop in the car” and “pick something up”. To get supplies is now what feels like an imposition on others – and it is embarrassing and frustrating. After all he is an adult, not a child. He knows he did right, but the disappointment of that decision often brings frustration. He isn’t sure how to resolve the tension, and isn’t ready to simply surrender his creativity and spontaneity.
- A young man went off to serve his country, and has struggled. His struggle was more related to what he felt about his young wife at home then what he was experiencing on duty. She started his service term writing him regularly. Now her infrequent letters have moved from personal journals and things from her heart, to news briefs. He knows she is changing without him – and there is nothing he can do to keep her heart. He is watching her slip away, all the while he is serving his country faithfully. He is uncertain of the future and begging God to hold together a marriage in his absence. God doesn’t seem to be stopping her from pulling away. He can see it – but he cannot understand why God won’t help him.
On and on the stories go…God is not always obvious in His directions. Frustrations rise when hurt seems left unattended – even when we cry out to God about our needs. Let me encourage you – look back. In your own life you can see God’s hand better at a distance. Look back. Look not only to your own history, but to those who were an example in His Word. Take a few minutes and consider the well known but often overlooked story of a frustrated step dad. His name was Joseph.
If Joseph could tell the story of the first Christmas, the tale might not sound anything like a Hallmark card. The scene opened with uncertainty, was a study in bad timing, and was filled with unwelcome impositions. What started with the promise to love a young woman soured into a feeling of betrayal, and quickly spiraled into a dizzying series of redirections from God that didn’t fully satisfy long term planning urges. If there is one prominent feature of Joe’s story in the Gospels it is this: Joe faced a consistent uncertainty of direction. Matthew introduced him this way:
Matthew 1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. 19 And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. 20 But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” 22 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “BEHOLD, THE VIRGIN SHALL BE WITH CHILD AND SHALL BEAR A SON, AND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL,” which translated means, “GOD WITH US.” 24 And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, 25 but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.
Take the arm of Dicken’s “ghost of Christmas past” and look back at Joseph intently. You will see some interesting and important details that lead us to essential life lessons. You will observe a spiritually mature follower of God – a leader in the local synagogue of Nazareth. You can observe his rough hands – he was a builder and stone worker. Stop for a moment and see if you caught the seven part sketch of Joseph given to us in the Scriptures:
• The first statement concerning (1:18a) in the text is Joseph was betrothed, and held up his end of the sexual purity bargain with her. Joe was without blame in his conduct with Mary. Joe was CLEAN.
• The second statement (1:18b) is that he discovered his betrothed was with child and that the claim was that the baby was from the Holy Spirit (the notion that it was sure is a wrong assumption based on the need for the dream in v. 20). Joe was SHOCKED.
• The third statement (1:19) was that Joe’s response was going to be proactive to protect both their reputations and get her to a confidential place to have the child. Joe was a PLANNER.
• The fourth statement (1:20) came from an angel in a dream. Joe was afraid, and the fear could drive his decision making. God answered through the angel’s assurance. Joe was a LISTENER.
• The fifth statement (1:21) offered evidence of the veracity of the angel’s words -you will have a son, but it coupled that evidence with a command – you will call Him Yeshua. He believed the words of the angel and got ready. Joe was PREPARED.
• In the sixth statement (1:22-23) the angel offered more evidence to underscore the truth of the event – It was Biblically sound. He appealed to Joe’s knowledge of the Word to settle him. Joe was KNOWLEDGEABLE.
• The seventh statement (1:24) revealed that Joe awoke with a commitment in his heart to do as the Lord revealed. He would call the baby Jesus. He would maintain the purity of the marriage. He would not endanger the reputation of the baby as Abraham was willing to do with Sarah before Isaac’s birth. Joe was OBEDIENT.
Sounds like a good guy to marry right? Sounds like a good potential step dad, right? He lived inside the boundaries of sexual purity and obedience. He learned the Scriptures and led a community with a circumspect life. He attempted to protect the reputations of people in the story, and was pliable when God spoke into his life. His path changed when God ordered it to. In the end, he was a good man, but that DIDN’T INSULATE HIM FROM LIFE’S PAIN OR THE NEED FOR CONSTANT DIRECTION from God!
Three times in the Gospel accounts God re-directed Joe by revealing truth to him that he did not already know. Each one was essential, and looking back – each one is clearer than it was when Joe received it.
Lessons about God’s Direction
We read about the first dream in Matthew 1:20. God opened the door to truth when Joe’s map ended. He acted within what he knew, and then needed God to reveal what he did not know. The first dream came in the backdrop of a deep interpersonal confusion. Joseph committed to marry Mary, but she appeared to be unfaithful. Look even more closely, and four truths will emerge:
Lesson #1: Even when you follow God – things don’t always work out the way you planned.
Joseph was Committed but Confused: Joseph made a promise to Mary and she appeared to have broken the promise, though she didn’t (1:18). He was thrust into God’s plan in an awkward way – at least that is how it looked to him.
I must understand that God can move in my life in a way that makes no sense to me at that time. This is part of His Divine Prerogative. He is entitled as my Creator and my Master to do this, and we must not be surprised by this work. After all, isn’t the Bible filled with stories that make this truth obvious?
• Didn’t God push Noah into a building project that made little sense apart from God’s direction?
• Didn’t God lay out a “hard to believe” family expansion for an aging Abraham and Sarah?
• Wasn’t God’s call from the burning bush – a call for a Midianite shepherd to stand before a powerful prince – one that seemed mistimed and mis-casted?
• Don’t you wonder if David felt uncertain about God’s protection when the bear appeared to take a young lamb? He didn’t know he was in combat training for giant slaying.
How long will it take for us to really grow to understand that God’s call in our lives is to follow Him, not to figure Him out?
I don’t want to pass over the hurt and disappointment that “hard to grasp” situations cause for us. Remember, a long and faithful walk with God may NOT protect me from misunderstanding and pain. God is not a man that we should demand to fully understand! (1:19; cp. Job 38). He was working a plan in Mary, and she was not driving the situation. Joe was going to be HURT in order for God’s will to be done. Why can’t we see that? Why are we so certain that God will only work in my when I am happy with that work?
Let me clearly say it: God can deliberately bring me into a path that includes pain to serve His purpose. He doesn’t do it cruelly, He does it lovingly… but He still does it. Yet, in the grip of pain, He offers me a place to cry when I cannot stand alone. God hears our cries! One writer said it this way:
“God hears our cries. He hears our cry no matter the time of the day or night. He hears our cry no matter where we are. He hears the cry of every creature on the face of the earth. He hears the cry of a child who cries as her daddy drives away on yet another business trip. She will see him again on Saturday morning. Make that Saturday afternoon. He has a golf game on Saturday morning. God hears her cry.
He hears the cry of the teenage boy who cries himself to sleep in the security of his bedroom after spending his weekend with his step-dad and his mother. The rest of the week he will be with his Dad and his step-mother. He will repeat this same scenario next weekend, and the weekend after that, and the weekend after that. God hears his cry.
He hears the cry of the wife who cries as she wonders if the man she married so many years ago will come home today. They had a big fight and he left angry. Words were spoken that neither one meant to speak. She wants to call him, but she is afraid he will not answer his phone. God hears her cry. God hears his cry… wherever he may be.
He hears the cry of the executive who closes the door to his office and turns his chair away from the window so no one will see his tears. He has just gotten a notice that his position is being phased out. His wife moved out last week. He has no place to go. He has no one to tell. So he sits alone in his office and he cries. God hears his cry.
He hears the cry of the husband who walks down the hall toward the exit of the nursing home where he left his wife. She has not recognized him for quite sometime. He puts the key in the ignition and cries for his wife. God hears his cry.
He hears the cry of a lady who walks into a church and finds a seat. She sits alone. No one speaks to her. No one notices she is there. No one notices when she leaves. As she walks through the parking lot to her car she cries. She cries for the love of someone… anyone. God hears her cry.”
Lesson #2: Quick reactions kill God’s direction.
The Jewish sages offered a powerful proverb: “Who is truly strong? He who knows how to overcome his passions.” (Tractate Avot, 4:1)
How we respond when we have been disappointed by another’s behavior, or even when we think we have been wronged is a water mark of our real maturity. Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant (likely she told him after the visit of Gabriel recorded in Luke 1:26-38). Any one of us would likely have backed Joe up if he stormed out angrily and slammed the door – and we would have been wrong. Who couldn’t understand that reaction? What friend, hurt for Joe, wouldn’t have consoled him that such an outburst was both normal and justified. The only problem is that our understanding would have blocked God’s lesson in Joe’s life. God didn’t pick a short-fused man – He seldom does for the delicate task. Joe had the long fuse that Galatians chapter five attributes to the Spirit-filled believer. A godly person is patient, circumspect, and gentle – they are not vindictive when wounded – no matter how deeply.
Joseph was Considerate but Concerned: He had more than Mary and himself to consider, so he wanted to deal discreetly with her. Because he was a leader in the synagogue, he wanted to dispose of the contract without public scandal to himself or the girl (1:19). He was willing to draw up the papers and submit for a quiet finding of the rabbis on Deuteronomy 22:24-26 while she was away from the village.
Don’t skip that part of the story in verse 19… Joe’s response to what looked like betrayal was the key to all that God would do through him. If he publicly shamed her, the whole story would have changed. If he grabbed her and shoved her before the elders of the village – there would be no dream, no direction, no dad role appointed by God to protect His Son.
“Just a minute!” You say. “It isn’t like Mary was at fault. It is NOT a betrayal!” Well, from outside the story we can obviously see that Mary was not at fault. It is a valid observation – but only in retrospect. Put yourself IN the story. BE JOE. He cannot be expected to believe that she was telling the truth. Yet, he is quiet. Hurt, ego-bruised, but quiet.
Let me be direct with the point: God cannot entrust some work to us because He knows we will all too quickly whip out our “righteous indignation” sword and slash at His plan. We will never allow Him the opportunity to direct our steps. Brothers and sisters, we have become proficient at “Trust in our instincts with all our heart and lean not to His understanding, in all our ways acknowledge our right to be happy, and it will direct our paths.”
God is telling His story. He wanted to tell it through Joseph’s life, but that included wounding him, bringing him through a misunderstanding – and then making him a key part of the story. No man or woman of God should think God will do otherwise. If we would be used of Him mightily, we must place ourselves in His hand willingly – and be slow to react to the pains of His direction.
Lesson #3: God doesn’t leave struggling believers in the dark forever.
John’s Gospel opens with the presentation of Jesus as both the Word and the Light. He makes a simple statement: “The light came, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” He said in John 1. The light often brings pain to the eyes of people who have been dwelling in darkness and confusion – but the pain will pass. Sight will come. God will speak again.
Joseph was Convinced but then Converted: God stopped Joseph from executing a plan to put her away by revealing truth in a dream (Mt. 1:20-23). In the words of his dream God spoke clearly: 1: 20 But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”
God won’t leave those who are truly seeking Him in the dark (1:20a). When troubles come, we can seek Him about them. The Apostle James told early church believers that when they were under the grip of troubles they could ask God about them – and God would, in time, reveal the secrets:
James 1:2 “Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials …5 But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. 6 But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. 7 For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, 8being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.”
God knows WHO we are, WHERE we are, and WHAT we are facing (Matthew 1:20b). God can speak clearly and concisely – but He does so normally ONLY to the open heart of the hurt one. It is not that He cannot answer anyone – it is that He normally chooses not to answer the half-hearted follower or the demanding foe. Notice in the account of Joseph’s dream that God answered directly concerning all that really troubled him:
• God addressed the central issue: There is no need to fear this marriage – she has been faithful.
• God answered the great question: By whom did this girl get pregnant? The child is from God’s Spirit – she has been blessed.
• God illuminated His purpose: The child will be a Savior – all will be changed.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get in a jam and just GO TO SLEEP to get answers. Think of it: we could market in Christian bookstores the COMMUNION HAMMOCK. “Lay on this and get your answer from God – all while dozing off!” They would sell like “hotcakes” on Saturday morning. I am not trying to tease you, I am trying to make a point. We somehow think that when God speaks to us it always has to be tailor-made sky writing, including our name and details about the situation. That is not a mature view of God at all.
God’s Word speaks in principles to every need. Sometimes we have to work at understanding what He said. God isn’t easy – He isn’t trying to be. Understanding the promises of Messiah required a knowledge of a number of different texts of Scripture, so delicately woven together that even Pharisaic scholars of the first century missed the Promised One when He stood before them. Why? Because God speaks to the willing heart. Our problem is not so much ignorance – as it is WILL to obey. The issue is always the same – will I trust His Word? If I do, I will gain the inner qualities that offer fulfillment and sufficiency! (1:20).
God does not leave men in a night without end. The message of Messiah is that Light has come. He will not take you into a trial that He will not light up the path – that isn’t His nature. You and I have few PLANS to make – you have mostly PATHS to follow.
Lesson # 4: God confirms new directions by illuminating old passages.
When you are up against the wall of confusion and God begins to shine a light forward, we need to confirm the path by looking into His Word.
Maybe you aren’t sure about a new job opportunity. Maybe your issue is the choice of a school, or even a spouse. You are sweating a choice because you don’t want to get it wrong. You have wise counselors, friends with a long track record of following God – and they are helping direct you. Remember this: God’s voice will never lead you away from God’s written Word. Look again at Joe’s story:
Joseph was Confident only when Confirmed. God provided the sound evidence needed to settle him: The new word was tested by God’s revealed promises – and it was consistent with the Word (22-23). 1:1:22 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “BEHOLD, THE VIRGIN SHALL BE WITH CHILD AND SHALL BEAR A SON, AND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL,” which translated means, “GOD WITH US.”
God confirmed new truth in ancient truth, because that is how He works. He will not call you to do the opposite of His Word – ever. At the same time, there is strength and security that settles confusion when we learn to look past our current problems and even our whole lifetime to the greater picture of what God is doing. We can give much for a cause that is greater than ourselves! (21). Ask anyone who volunteered to defend their country!
The key to becoming settled with God’s new work is understanding He has a PLAN and an OBJECTIVE, but it may not be found in our comfort or pleasure (Mt. 1:22-23; cp. Phil 2). God is at work – that is NOT the question. He awaits those who let Him work. The angel shared that God had a bigger agenda than Joseph’s family, He was busy saving the world! (1:21b).
• Does God have your permission to take your job away to serve a purpose in both changing YOU and reaching others?
• Will you allow God to use your life to reach others if it means He uses the platform of a hospital bed or even a funeral home?
• Does God have your consent to take away your child to reach a nation?
What has happened to our Christian message when we have come to believe that “He is Lord” only when my plumbing is fixed, my bank account is full, and I feel good about His path? Ask a martyred missionary like Jim Elliot if God’s plan is always found in the comfortable and comforting.
When a believer matures, they face the fact that God’s direction isn’t as confusing as it is demanding. My problem is NOT that I don’t understand so much, it is that I resist doing what God has already made clear – all the while insisting that He show more truth. Let me say it plainly: Know His Word. Follow the voices that are truly both teaching and living His Word. Check what you hear against His Word. Trust His Word – not the messenger, but the message.
Lesson #5: The cost of surrender to God’s direction is much less than the compensation.
We have talked a lot about the COST of following God. It may be interesting to you that Jesus spoke much of this same subject. At the same time, even though our primary focus shouldn’t be on “what we get” – God is careful to include in the story the way Joe was compensated for listening to God’s direction. Matthew reminds:
Matthew 1:24 And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, 25 but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.
God desired and got obedience from Joe. But Joe got a privilege few of us can ever hope to have. He held in his arms the Savior, and was the first to pronounce His name and official purpose: “He is Yeshua – He is the Savior of man.”
Joe obeyed. Imagine the cost of that decision. Joe would probably have many snicker beside the village well at the tale of his angelic dream. Some would call him a fool or a romantic dreamer. Their words would sting at the scar of disappointment and hurt if Joe did not allow God’s healing balm to cover him. How many times have believers felt it…God sometimes asks the hard thing – but it is always a simple call to trust and obey. It is a simple call to exchange our experience and expertise, our accomplishment and developed insight – and humbly surrender to the demands of God’s Holy Word. The world may laugh at us, and our family may not really understand. Our dearest friends may call our trust in God a delusion – but it is the path of the believer. It is a call to fully surrender to the KNOWER OF THE UNKNOWN.
Now imagine holding in your hands the Creator of the Universe in the tender package of a helpless baby. Feel the thrill, and grab the weight of the responsibility of being His “fill in” dad.
Do you think he will say in Heaven, “It was worth it! I obeyed the Lord and it was truly worth it!” I bet when we gather in the great throne room of Heaven, and the King of Kings steps forward to the thunderous sound of the song, “Worthy is the Lamb! Worthy is the Lamb!” Joe will be upfront with the “proud pappa” smile. You will recognize him… He will have the tears running down his face and a deep thankfulness in his heart for the whole experience. He will be grateful to have been included in the plan… and so will you.