One of the frustrating truths we must face in our faith is that God has made plain to us in His Word that we have a different mission than the one most of us thought we had from the “default setting” of our heart. What do I mean? Most of us grew up learning lessons about life by “figuring things out”…
If you watch a small child grow, you will observe how they test different sounds with their mouth as they eventually figure out how to speak a set of understandable syllables, and eventually even words. They get toys and try to work out how to get them to make the sounds they want, or to open up the way they want them to. In short, children figure out life by a long series of frustrating trial and error experiments as they grow. That basic method carried all of us from our infancy into our kindergarten class. In school we learn through a series of guesses that show up on homework, on quiz grades, and eventually even guide us in our High School dating experiences. We guess, we try, we fail and we keep trying until grades improve and eventually we end up with a date to the party. Life is learned by trial and error – and if you are a guy like me, it was (by far) mostly error – with a few hospital stops along the way for good measure. The biggest problem is this: When we meet God, we think this is the way we are to learn to walk with Him. Our “trial and error” grow by experience mentality places us on the wrong path for the journey of spiritual growth – because we think we have to figure out how God works and plot a course in life for where He wants us to go. The problem is: We weren’t told to do either.
Here is the truth: You and I aren’t called to figure out God, we are called to walk with Him. The journey isn’t nearly as much about understanding each turn in the road along the route, or even really grasping the destination as it is about one thing – learning to walk with our traveling companion… He can lead us where He wills, and our job is to learn to trust Him in spite of the terrain.
That isn’t easy, but it is true. Let me be honest: I am a planner by nature. I don’t go on journeys without checking out the route and knowing the roads. If I am going to a place with which I am wholly unfamiliar, I pull up the map on the computer and check out distances and traffic patterns. I look for places of interest, potential food stops and gasoline stations, and even places to pull off and rest if the trip is going to be long and potentially tiring. Having made so many trips over the years, I have found it prudent to check this all out before I leave for the journey. These habits have served me well in both business and vacation travel. What they DON’T do well, is teach me about how life works. We don’t often get to see the journey of life very well until we are on the road. Often we don’t know how breathtakingly beautiful a moment is going to be until it is in front of us.
Maybe I was supposed to know them, but some of the most profound moments of beauty and wonder embedded in my heart, came when I wasn’t truly prepared for what I would see until I was standing in position for that incredible blessing. I remember standing next to my Pastor at the front of the main aisle of Immanuel Baptist Church in Maple Shade, New Jersey, the day when my beautiful bride stepped into the room, surrounded by our friends and family, and looked right into my eyes as she came down the aisle in her gorgeous wedding gown. I remember, it is frozen in my mind, the very moment each of our three children came into this world! I stood by their momma’s side as she worked so hard to get through the process. I remember these moments, and a number of others, each which captured my heart and even, if the truth were told, overwhelmed me in ways I didn’t expect.
I remember the day I trusted Jesus to be my Savior. I was very young, and I had as little understanding of what I was doing as I did when I got married or became a father. The amount I DIDN’T know was much more vast than the little I did know – but it was a great day of wonder that is still embedded in my heart…
For a few moments as we move toward the Christmas celebrations, I want to think about the step-father of Jesus, and remind us from the Scriptures of Joseph’s tale of what happened that first Christmas season. His recollections as they have been handed to us include much less certainty and direction than we may realize. He learned a truth worth recalling as we think about the coming of the Savior…
Key Principle: Life isn’t about predicting our path and controlling our outcome; it is about holding tightly to God’s hand and following His lead.
If I took a moment, and began to survey believers about the last year and its many experiences, I am certain I would find that all of us were surprised at some of the path we experienced this year.
Some of us faced a loss this year we didn’t expect. We know we will lose friends and family over the journey through life, but each time we gather at a funeral it reminds us how fragile life truly is, and how little we are prepared to lose the ones we love.
Some of us experienced the joy of a new life entering the world this year. I have been surrounded by a “baby boom” in our little place of ministry – and there is little that can compare with such joy. Every baby truly is God’s vote that life will continue. Looking at the tiny fingers move and the little facial expressions is of the most fascinating views on the planet.
Go back with me to an earlier time and re-read with me a familiar story. It will be worth your time. If you watch, you will see anew that God is not always obvious in His direction. If Joseph could tell HIS VERSION of the first Christmas season, the tale might not sound anything like the inside of a Hallmark card. 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.
Joe had a plan, but it looked NOTHING like the one that developed at God’s hand. The text was clear: Joe anticipated marrying the young woman and perhaps, if God allowed, he would build a family with her. A careful look at 1:18 reveals several truths:
First, Joseph was betrothed, and held up his end of the sexual purity bargain with her. Joe was without any blame in his conduct with Mary. Joe was CLEAN before God in regard to purity. Look at the phrase “was found to be with child” and read this: Joe’s plan was derailed and he was blind-sided by what appeared to be Mary’s misbehavior. He wasn’t trying to do something unusual – he was just attempting to build a family like countless other men had done before him.
Second, if you continue reading statement in Matthew 1:18b, you will note the immediate claim that the baby was “by the Holy Spirit”. Joe’s responses aren’t fully explored in the text, because they wouldn’t bring any better understanding to the story, and because all of us can easily imagine the range of emotions introduced to Joe’s life by the Spirit’s actions. It is entirely safe, I think, to say that Joe was SHOCKED and (based on his initial planned response to the news) Joe was SKEPTICAL.
If you will allow me a moment of conjecture, based on what I know about life as a man, and based on the predictable response of virtually every man I have ever known in life; let me say this. Joe had to have been deeply FRUSTRATED. I would even say he was HURT by the situation.
I think we can all agree that frustrations rise when deep hurt seems left unattended – especially when we cry out to God about our deepest needs. One thing particularly encourages me about this story of deep frustration – this record came after the fact. That should help us understand the advantage of waiting to judge experiences in life until after they have run their course. If you look back on your own life, you can usually see God’s hand better at a distance. If you are moving through a time of uncertainty and don’t really understand what God is doing, let me encourage you to wait until you can look back. Distance may clarify the picture of what God did for you during a stressful time just as it did for Joe long ago. His response as the text related it showed the fact that he didn’t really understand what God wanted when the news of the pregnancy broke in his ears the first time. Keep reading…
Matthew 1:19 And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly.
Another idea about Joe is made clear when you observe closely Matthew 1:19. Joe was a responsible and careful man. He recognized his reputation was important, and he kept that in balance with his caring and sensitive spirit toward Mary. He did what responsible adults do when faced with difficulty; he made a plan. He wanted to be proactive to protect both his and Mary’s reputations and get her to a confidential place to have the child. Joe was a PLANNER and a KIND MAN. He didn’t rail against her infidelity, nor figure out a way to publicly shame her so he could be exonerated before all. He didn’t want to be a VICTIM; he wanted to avoid public shame.
It seems that spirit is lost in many today. We have raised many in our time who choose to be victims, accept labels as the walking wounded, and never take responsibility for self-change. I love the fact that Joe shifted quickly away from a vindictive spirit – even when he was deeply hurt. I am sure he faced confusion, and even hurt – but that doesn’t necessitate a burning anger and vindictive approach to the world. The idea of “not wanting to disgrace her” was a deep sentiment for a man wounded.
Joe lived within the law, and understood authority and purity, but still wanted to show mercy. Who can’t admire that in our polarized era with the posturing of so many about the need to defend ourselves from others. He wanted to be merciful if there was any way he could do that without endangering his family, his reputation and his soon to be “ex-fiancé”.
Before we go on, don’t lose the lesson of Joe’s experience, because many believers seem to grow deaf at this particular feature of the very familiar story of Christmas… Joe walked with God. Joe wanted to be kind and honorable. He did NOTHING wrong. Yet, in all this, His walk did NOT protect him from misunderstanding God’s plan for his life. He responded to what God had revealed to him, and needed more revelation to alter course.
That is the difference between two people who open the Word of God today as well. Some come hungry because they feel they don’t understand what God is doing – so they listen intently for the next truth from the Word. Others come with little hunger, either because they are living in a period of peace in their life, or because they have settled their souls amid the current disruptions. Let’s say it clearly: God has the right to take us through a wilderness of confusion to deepen our walk and understanding of Him. Further, a true walk with God opens us not simply to unending peace and prosperity, but to becoming mature by being forced to grow in trust.
The kind but confused Joe got a word from His Creator that helped him take the next step. In fact, the mercy of God flowed through the voice of an angel, because MORE than the immediate plan was unfolded. Matthew recorded:
Matthew 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.” 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.”
I took special note from the words of the angel in Joseph’s dream that Joe was “afraid” to marry the now pregnant Mary. From the stories unfolded from Genesis to Revelation, you will notice something important: fear is a terrible motivator to drive good decision making. Fear leads to over-reaction to the problem. Fear often leads to pre-empting God’s direction and closing our ears to God’s gentle voice. Fear isn’t God’s way – but the enemy thrives in the shadows of the scary things that don’t make sense, beckoning us to abandon trust in God’s goodness and draw our strength from our pain instead.
Part of listening to God is seeking and then hearing His voice OVER the fear that would otherwise distract us. Fortunately for Joe, God stepped in God answered through the angel’s assurance. Joe was not only a GOOD LISTENER; he was a GOD LISTENER. He didn’t simply accept the word of the angel – because the apparent source wasn’t enough to conclude the message was TRUE. What he did, and what we must do when we hear new information is this: Joe compared the new information of the angel with the Holy Scriptures already revealed by God. Don’t overlook the fact that this prophecy of the child was wrapped in an Isaiah quoting package of promises.
Also note the veracity of the angel’s words that declared “you will have a son” coupled specific evidence with a command: “you will call Him Yeshua”. Underscored by Biblical promises already unfolded and paired with measurable events that Joe could see, he believed the words of the angel and got ready. Joe apparently served in the Galilee scouting program and believed the motto: “Be PREPARED”.
It occurs to me that Joe’s qualification to be used by God in this special way was at least partially rooted in the fact that Joe was a Biblically sound man. His knowledge of the Word settled him. That helps me recall an important truth as well: Joe began his preparation to be used by God listening to and learning about the scrolls of God’s Word. Because he spent time growing in truth, he was ready for God’s use. Isn’t that worth noting? Have you ever spent time in study of the Word and not been able to connect the truth under examination with where you were at that moment? Does that make the study worthless? Not at all! I wonder if Joe knew when he studied Isaiah in synagogue, years before as a child, that each promise of Messiah would one day become critical to his life choices. I doubt it.
Joseph grew up in an ancient Hebrew atmosphere of Biblical examination and God expectation. People who don’t search out God’s promises don’t expect much from God, and they aren’t prepared for an encounter with Him. Joe knew Isaiah’s promises, and the angel used them to direct his next steps. I doubt Joe thought one Bible study was a waste after God’s purposes were made clear. If he hadn’t studied, by then it would have been too late.
Many people want God to use them, but they won’t do what it takes to get ready for God’s encounter in their lives. Joe was ready. Matthew recorded:
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.
Hearing God is important, but following Him is even more important. Joe awoke with a commitment in his heart to do as the Lord revealed. He would call the baby Jesus, Yeshua or Savior… 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, and obedience to God opens the door to use by God.
Joe lived inside the boundaries of sexual purity and obedience. He learned the Scriptures and led a community with a circumspect life. But here is the really important thing so many overlook… none of that INSULATED HIM FROM LIFE’S PAIN OR THE NEED FOR CONSTANT DIRECTION from God!
Three times in the Gospel accounts God re-directed Joe by breaking into his life and revealing truth to him that he did not already know. Each one was an essential direction, and looking back – the reasoning for each one is clearer to US – than it was when Joe received it. His life reads like a textbook on “lessons in resting during God’s destruction of your life plan.”
Joe’s life map got derailed by a surprise baby announcement.
He acted within what he knew, and then needed God to direct him in 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 at some spiritually encouraging lessons that emerge:
Lesson #1: Make a plan following what God has said – but remember things don’t always work out the way you planned even when you follow God.
The reason is simple: the point of life isn’t your plan, or your destination – it is your companion. When God desires to grow your life deeper, He will often chip away at your plan and open you to something you never would have otherwise considered. He does it in health issues. He does it in relationship issues. He does it with employment issues. He does it to get you to know Him better. If the prize is eternity with Him, the idea of Him deepening our resolve to walk with Him makes perfect sense.
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. God’s disruption of your plan always feels a little like that – and sometimes feels STRONGLY like that!
I must understand that God can and will move in my life in a way that makes no sense to me at the time of His Divine incursion. God reserves the right to cut into the lane of my life and slow me down, even when I am sure I am really “getting somewhere” and “making great time” for Him. 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?
• What sense did boat construction make to Noah before the first rain drop fell?
• Did old Abraham really understand he was to make a crib for his geriatric life companion’s offspring after years of waiting?
• Didn’t God’s call to the ex-con named Moses, seem like a mistimed and a wrongly cast role when the bush lit up?
• Wouldn’t you think God wasn’t paying close enough attention when a bear and a lion attacked your sheep if you were the little boy David was in the wilderness? How could he know he was in combat training for giant slaying?
We must affirm in our minds, over and over, that God’s call in our lives is to follow Him, not to figure Him out. God is not a man that we should demand to fully understand! (1:19; cp. Job 38).
Remember, it was pointless for Joe to get mad at Mary – for she was not driving the situation. God was working a plan in her and Joe was going to be HURT in order for God’s will to be done. We must understand that or we won’t mature in our understanding of God at all. We will be locked into an infantile self-benefit relationship with God. Why are we so certain that God will only work in our life when we choose for Him to do so, and in a way I that make us immediately pleased with that work? From what Bible did we derive that mistaken idea?
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:
Lesson #2: Take time to discern God’s next step when the plan has been disrupted. Quick reactions often confuse and thwart God’s direction.
How we respond when we have been disappointed by another’s behavior, or even when we think we have been wronged can be the water mark of our real maturity.
When 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. A godly person is patient, circumspect and gentle – they are not vindictive when wounded – no matter how deeply.
Joseph was a leader in the synagogue, and as such he wanted to dispose of the contract without public scandal to himself or the girl (Matthew 1:19). He was willing to draw up the papers and seek a quiet legal finding of the rabbis on Deuteronomy 22:24-26 while she was away from the village.
Every time I read the story, I am stuck on 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, and no “dad” role appointed by God to protect His Son. We could understand his reaction and some of us would even have encouraged it.
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. Sometimes when people sin against us, what we need to do is patiently love them back into obedience. Tough talk and a whip aren’t the only tools for the job.
As long as we think we have the right not be wounded by God as we follow Him, we will live in confusion about what God is doing in our life.
God is busy, right now, 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: Remember God loves you, and He won’t leave you struggling 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.” The bright light often brings pain to the eyes of people who have been dwelling in confusion – but the pain will pass. Sight will come. God will speak again.
We are all glad that God stopped Joseph from executing a plan to put her away by revealing truth in a dream (Mt. 1:20-23). It is worth recalling that God will “turn the light on” for those who are truly seeking and trusting 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.”
God knows WHO we are, WHERE we are, and WHAT we are facing (Matthew 1:20b). He can speak clearly and concisely – but He does so normally ONLY to the open heart of the hurt one. Our problem is usually 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).
Don’t ever forget: God does not leave His children in a night without end.
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.
When a believer matures, they face the fact that God’s direction isn’t as confusing as it is demanding.
What settled Joe? It was nothing more or less than the very verified in the Word of God. Let me say it plainly: Know His Word to know His peace and to discern His direction.
Don’t choose a local church for any other reason above this one: Will it help me know the Word and follow God’s voice? Great music and fun fellowship won’t help you get through a time of crisis like the Word will. Friends are important. Worship is important. Knowing God’s Word is the difference between following truth and falling into error.
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 #4: Never forget that God’s role for you is incredible. When you see Him, it be worth any cost!
This lesson has shared much 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 us of the end:
Matthew 1:25 “… and he called His name Jesus.”
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 ours 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.