A Disgraceful Christmas
A Disgraceful Christmas
I want to ask us a question: What words do you associate with Christmas? I did that exercise with myself and this is the list of words that came to me as I thought about Christmas. It was joy, decorations, parties, presents, Santa, trees, and cards. I think it's very telling that as your senior pastor none of these answers involve Jesus, God, the Holy Spirit, or the manger. It just goes to show what a worldly pastor I am. But I think these kind of resonate with a lot of us. This is generally the picture that we get of Christmas, people having a good time and enjoying themselves and having a generally joyful season together.
Well, there are two more words that I want to introduce to us to think about as being part of Christmas. How about shame and disgrace? When you think about Christmas, do you also think about the words shame and disgrace? Are those the kind of words that come to mind? Maybe so. Maybe if you've gone to a holiday party and things didn't go especially well, you know shame and disgrace. But for most of us, Christmas and shame don't really go together. If anything they seem opposite like they're not really the same kind of thing at all. What's really strange is that shame and disgrace are actually essential parts of the Christmas story. In order to understand that, we need to compare how Mary finds out about the birth of Jesus or that she is pregnant and how Joseph finds out, and see there is a subtle difference between the two.
The annunciation to Mary and Joseph
The annunciation to Mary is a very famous passage in Luke 1. It's celebrated in many Christian traditions. It's a powerful moment where the angel Gabriel comes to Mary directly and the first thing he says is, "Do not be afraid," because she's afraid, because she's petrified by this angel that has come. The angel says, "You have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a Son, and you are to call him Jesus." This is how she finds out that she is going to have a child. She doesn't understand it and she wonders how she as a virgin can have a baby, but she accepts this and she says, "I, the Lord's servant, may it be unto me as you say." And she goes on to give a wonderful hymn of praise called the Magnificat afterwards. So this is a story of how Mary finds out that she is going to have a baby, and he is going to come from the Holy Spirit.
But what about Joseph? How does Joseph discover the same thing? We often think that he discovers in the same way, but it's actually a little different from what we anticipate. It's described not in Luke but in Matthew. Luke talks about the annunciation to Mary but Matthew talks about the annunciation to Joseph and he says this, "This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about. His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph but before they came together she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit."
What I want to point out is that Joseph did not find out about Jesus at first through an angel. Not at this point. By verse 18 there is no angel here so how does Joseph find out? How does he find out that Mary's pregnant through the Holy Spirit? Well, probably one of two things. Either he deduced it and he saw the changes physically that were taking place in her, or Mary told him herself and told what had happened. That is how Joseph found out about baby Jesus. The angel didn't come to him at this point and say, "It's okay, it's okay, but you're going to hear this in a second, but your wife is going to be pregnant and it's not going to be you, but it's going to be okay." That didn't happen to him. He just found out.
His response to it is different as a result as well. Verse 19 tells us this, "Because Joseph, her husband, was faithful to the law and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly." So what was Joseph's response? Essentially, Joseph did not believe Mary and he wanted a divorce. Sometimes I think we often pass by this fact because verses 18 and 19 go very quickly so we don't really recognize what is going on here. But he has found out that Mary is pregnant and he wants a divorce. That's what happened. He doesn't believe this whole story about her being pregnant through the Holy Spirit. And let's be honest, who among us would have believed that? If someone in your life—or let's just put ourselves directly in Joseph's shoe, sandals, whatever it was—and your fiancé told you, "I'm pregnant, but believe it or not it's not anyone, period, it's through God, it's an immaculate conception." Would you believe that? Mostly likely none of us would, and neither did Joseph. Joseph did not believe this. He believed she was pregnant with another man's child and he wanted a divorce. That's what's going on here in verse 19a. And sometimes I think when I read this I often forget that. I often put Mary's annunciation and Joseph's together and I think, Yeah, they both found out by an angel. That's not true, Joseph didn't. He found out in probably the worst way he possibly could have. He didn't know what was going on. Think about what that must have felt like in that moment. The person he's supposed to be married to is now pregnant and he knows he's not the father. What a difficult moment this must have been for him. I think we need to recognize how that must have felt for Joseph.
For Joseph, a moment of ultimate disgrace
Believe it or not, it gets one degree worse, because in the second half of verse 19 there is this very particular phrase where it says, "He did not want to expose her to public disgrace." To us, that doesn't really mean very much. We assume it means he didn't want to embarrass her. Right? When we read this we think he doesn't want to make a big deal out of it, he doesn't want her to be embarrassed by this, and we can kind of resonate with that, so he just wants things to go quietly. But that's actually not what the Scripture is talking about. That verse, 19b, references a verse in Deuteronomy, from Deuteronomy 22, and that verse says this. "If a man happens to meet in a town a virgin pledged to be married," like Mary, "and he sleeps with her, you shall take both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death." That is the truth of what is going on here: Joseph thought Mary had done something so shameful that she could be killed for it. This is not the modern day context where this happens and it's kind of awkward. This is something that if Mary is discovered, that it comes out in the open that she has had this child with someone else who is not pledged to be married to her, she will be dragged outside and rocks will be thrown at her until she is dead.
And this is what this moment is like for Joseph. When you put these two things together, the fact that this fiancé is now pregnant with who he thinks is someone else's child, and that she might die—brutally, a result which he does not want to happen—we need to recognize that for Joseph this is a moment of ultimate disgrace. I don't know exactly what Joseph's life was like before this time but I can probably guess, this is probably one of the worst moments of his entire life if not the worst. He feels like he has been cheated on and now this person that he was going to be committed to for his entire life might die. This is the Christmas story. We often charge through verses 18, 19, and 20 really quickly and we assume it's a really easy moment. This was not an easy moment for Joseph. This must have been heartbreaking for him. And I think some of us can probably relate to how he felt. At least to some degree.
The turning point: the angel
But this is the point at which the angel comes. The angel doesn't come before this, the angel comes here at this moment after verse 19. And the angel does three things and out of these things a transformation takes place. The first thing that the angel does is the angel appears. The angel appears to him in this moment, and that's important by itself. The second thing that the angel says, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid. Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife." Then thirdly, the third message that the angel gives is that Jesus, this Son who will be born of your future wife, will save his people from their sins.
Out of those three things an incredible transformation takes place in Joseph. We see a man who wants a divorce, who feels shamed and disgraced, and fearful for Mary's life. But by the end of this passage he thinks, I'm okay with it now, I'm okay. He takes Mary home as his wife. He doesn't want that divorce anymore, and more than that, he raises Jesus as his own son. What happens here? How does he move so profoundly from this momentous experience of shame into hope instead? What is it about these three things that the angel does that transforms his shame into hope?
God doesn't leave us during our shameful moments
There are three things that I think that are really powerful about what the angel does. The first thing the angel says is that the angel of the Lord appeared to him. He simply appears. Why is that important to Joseph, why is that important in terms of shame? Well, the first thing that we should recognize about shame is that the power of shame is that it makes us feel like God wants nothing to do with us. When you feel really ashamed of yourself or something shameful has happened to you—because shame is not our responsibility and we need to know that. We need to know that sometimes we feel ashamed but it's not anything that we have done.
But one of the consequences of it is that we don't think God wants anything to do with us in that moment. We look at our lives and we can barely stand to look at ourselves, so we project that on to God and we assume God's not going to want to touch me, God's not going to want anything to do with me. He's going to be as far as he can because look at my life, look what I just did, look what this person did to me. I'm disgusting and God must be disgusted with me. That is one of the most powerful effects of shame, that we assume that God must be far away from us in this moment.
I think that's what Joseph probably felt as well. I mean, look what's going on in his life, his life is falling apart. This engagement to his fiancé is falling apart, she might die now. He's probably assuming to himself, God's not going to want to be here. God's not going to be present in this moment, why would he want to be here at this time.
But lo and behold what does he discover? The angel comes directly to him in a dream. He appears directly to him and speaks to him through this dream, making it crystal clear that he is certain that God is still present in this shameful moment. In this moment where Joseph imagines that God wants nothing to do with him, God is more present that he has ever been in Joseph's life. Isn't that an amazing thing? At a time that he felt the worst about himself and about his life, God is actually the closest to him than he's ever been in his life. That is what breaks the power of shame—to realize that in this terrible moment God is still there.
That is something that we need to realize as well. We should realize that God does not leave us during our shameful moments. We need to resist that belief that we often have, that when things go terribly wrong God flees. That God only wants perfection and he will not come into our lives unless things are perfect. Doesn't make any sense because the Christmas story is the opposite, right? The whole beauty of Christmas is that things were not right and Jesus came especially close when they were broken. That's the story of God. And for some reason we fail to apply that to our own lives and we think, Because I'm shameful, because something terrible and disgraceful has happened, God wants nothing to do with me. It's because of your disgrace and shame that God wants everything to do with you. That's what the story of Joseph represents to us, and that's what breaks the power of shame in his story as well.
Be confident in God's opinion of us
The second thing that the angel tells Joseph is this: "Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife." Why is that important for him to hear? The reason is because the power of shame is that we fear the judgment and condemnation of others. That's what shame is. Shame is not simply how we feel about ourselves, shame is also magnified by how we think other people look at us. It's not just that we feel terrible about our own situation, it's that we think that in addition to that, people outside will look at us and they will judge us for if they would ever know what we have done. That's what makes shame doubly difficult. It's not only the burden that we carry but the burden that we feel other people place upon us, and we live in fear of that. That is why we don't want to share our shame with anybody, that's why we don't want to put it out there, because we don't know what other people will say and do and we live in terrible abject fear of that shame.
Joseph, I think, would probably feel the same way if not much more so. As he thinks about having this child, who he is not the father of, the timing is going to be off, the baby is going to be born a little too early. What is that going to look like to his family? What is that going to look like to her family? What about the village, what about the law, and the public disgrace from Deuteronomy that was talked about. What about all these things? He's feeling that corporate shame as well. He's terrified of what other people will think of this situation. But in that terror God says, "Don't be afraid." The Living God, the Alpha and the Omega, God himself, comes into that moment and says, "Don't be afraid of what they're going to say, don't be afraid to take Mary home as your wife." And in that moment Joseph knows God's opinion, which is far more important than any other person's. He doesn't live in fear of anyone else's because God himself has told him, don't be afraid, so he can go home and take home Mary as his wife.
I think this is something we need to internalize as well. We need to be confident in God's opinion of us and hold it higher than any others. We live in such fear of other people's opinions. People who are as messed up as we are. We're all pretty messed up equally. But we live in fear of each other's opinions all the time as if someone out there lives a completely better life than we do and they understand everything better. Instead we need to be very sensitive and open to the opinion of God instead. We need to stop living in fear of other people's opinion and instead hearken to the voice of God.
What does God say in your shameful moment? What does God say when you mess up? I think he says what he says in Romans. He says, "Neither height nor depth, life or death, anything in all of creation can separate you from my life that is in Christ Jesus." Not even your shame. Not even the worst thing you've ever done can separate God's love from you. I think we need to hear what's preached in the Prodigal Son, that even when you mess up and you spend your entire inheritance and all the blessings that God has given you, God will be there waiting with a hug, waiting to put the best ring on your finger and a robe around your shoulders. This is the opinion that we need to hearken to. This is the opinion that we need to listen to. This is the opinion that Joseph heard and he was able to take shame off his shoulders.
God can use our most disgraceful moments
Finally the angel says this that Jesus will save people from their sins. Jesus will save people from their sins. One of the final powers of shame is the belief that our moments of shame can never be redeemed. The things you have done wrong are simply a black hole and the best you can do with those disgraceful things that you never want to look at again in your life is to leave them behind you, and that would be a win. That is the ultimate win for many of us, to simply put shame behind us. We don't think anything more can come out of them.
I wonder if Joseph felt the same way as he thinks about this moment where everything is wrong and he imagines God can never do anything with this. Yet, the angel appears to him and what does the angel say that out of this moment, out of this child, out of this particular circumstance, Jesus is going to save his people, meaning us, from their sins. That God is going to do something magnificent through this moment, through this painful moment in Joseph's life.
We need to realize God can use the most disgraceful moments of our lives and do great and tremendous good. That is what God is able to do. He is able to take the absolute lowest moments of your entire life, moments that you just want to bury and you wish would never come to the surface again, and he can make it the strengths of your life instead. Blessings, not just for yourself, but for other people.
This last point is I think the hardest to accept. We can accept that, yeah, God loves us through our shame. We can accept that God is still present in our shame, but can we really accept one degree more which is God can use our shame and use the worst moment, the worst week of our lives, the worst year of our lives, for great good. Do we really believe that? It's hard, it's really hard to believe that. This is what God does. God takes our shame, takes Joseph's shame and makes it his glory instead. Takes what would have been Mary's shame and makes it her glory instead. Takes the cross and makes it an instrument of glory as well. Because that's what the cross is, right? The cross is ultimately an instrument of shame and torture. It was a device that was used to demonstrate to anyone who came against the Romans: If you come against us you're going to die like this. We will strip you naked and put you on this tree. When God looks at that challenge, looks at that statement and says, "I'm going to make it something different, I'm going to take this execution device and it's going to be a symbol of hope for people for thousands of years." That's the power of God. That is what God does. I think sometimes we don't fully accept this fact in our lives and we think, No, shame is just shame, God can't do anything, He can't touch that. You're minimizing the power of God if you say that. God is able to take the moments you never want to look at, and make it blossom into something you never believed. That is what the Cross is, that's what Joseph's story is, that's what Christmas is.
In his glorious power, God can take your worst, most shameful moments, break them down and reform them into something beautiful. What a God who could do such a thing. I encourage you that whatever your moment is, to realize that as you look at it, that it is not too dark or too far or too disgusting for God to reach in there with his hands and to mold it into something new. What a God. So let God do that right now. Let God reach into that place, whatever that place is, and let him do what he does best which is to make all things new.
Peter Chin is the Lead Pastor at Rainier Avenue Church in Seattle, WA. He writes the "Third Culture" column for Christianity Today, and is the author of Blindsided by God.