Today marks the first Sunday of Advent in which Christians all across the world are preparing to celebrate the coming of Jesus.
This year as we prepare our hearts for that celebration we’re going to be looking at the life of Joseph. Our series for this season is “Christmas with Joseph—When Things don’t Go as Planned.” Our hope, as we look at the life and conduct of Joseph, and the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth, is that we learn from Joseph how we should respond when things don’t go as planned in our lives and also how we can see and celebrate the beauty and necessity of Jesus.
(Read Matt. 1:18-19)
Character and Actions
I find it very interesting that the New Testament doesn't record a single word from Joseph. Yet his life speaks volumes. We’re not even told much about Joseph in the Bible and yet we can glean so much from his life. Why? Because of his character and actions.
The eloquent silence of Joseph is perhaps a reminder of that famous proverb that our actions speak louder than our words. What we do and how we act is oftentimes a lot more important than what we say—and boy don’t we need that today?! We live in a noisy, opinionated, verbose, argumentative, and critical time in our society, and so we need Joseph.
We need Joseph to remind us that our character and our actions matter more than we may think. But before we look at the character and conduct of Joseph and what we can learn from it, we need to set the scene because this is what Matthew does in verse 18.
Vs. 18a: "Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way ..."
Now this introduction sounds so sweet and sanctified doesn’t it? It sounds like a Hallmark card and I’ve got to say that this was always my view of Christmas as a child. I had sort of romanticized the whole story of Joseph and Mary. The whole story was so clean and neat and pristine, but it was anything but that.
Vs.18b. The next thing we’re told is that Mary was betrothed to Joseph.
Now betrothal in their day was a very serious agreement, it was more than just the gal saying say yes to some guy’s proposal. No, this was something that would have been planned for years and their parents would have been monetarily and covenantly involved in the process as well. According to Jewish Law at this point Mary already belonged to Joseph. In fact, at this moment some would say they were technically married. This is why in verse 19 Joseph is already called her husband. They just hadn't exchanged the vows yet and physically consummated the marriage yet (that’s what it means when it says before they came together). But in Jewish Law they were already technically bound together.
So, here is Joseph and he's found the girl of his dreams. As a carpenter we know he was probably a planner and so he's probably planned out his future with Mary. He’s thinking about the house he’s going to build. He’s got it all planned out. He’s got it all scheduled. Everything is going as planned and then something happens. Isn’t that the way of life? We make our plans but the Lord ordains our steps.
When we pair Luke’s Gospel with Matthew’s account, we begin to get a little bit more of the timeline . In Luke 1 when Mary is told that she is going to conceive a child by the Holy Spirit, we’re told she immediately goes to her relative Elizabeth’s house which was about 80 miles away. So that’s like from here [Hamilton, MA] to Providence, Rhode Island.
So, she tells Joseph, “Hey, I’m going stay with my relatives for a few months and then I’ll be back.” Three months go by. Mary comes back and it says here, “she was found to be pregnant.” She returns back and Mary was found or literally seen to be pregnant. Mary was showing and she couldn’t hide it.
Fellas, put yourself in Joseph’s shoes for a second. Your fiancé leaves Hamilton and stays in Providence for three months and comes back pregnant. But she tells you “Don’t worry, I can explain everything. The baby is from the Holy Spirit. An angel told me that this just happened to me miraculously.”
You can imagine the anger, confusion, frustration, and doubt that was welling up in Joseph. “How could she be so unfaithful to me? How could Mary do this to me? And then come up with this whole ‘miraculous conception of the Messiah’ story and expect me to just accept that.”
Now we’re told at the very end of verse 18 that this child really was from the Holy Spirit. Mary had done nothing wrong here, but Joseph didn’t know that yet. All Joseph knew was this was a scandal. This was a big problem. This threw Joseph’s whole world into a tailspin. This is not the life that Joseph signed up for. All his hopes and dreams are now dashed against the rocks.
This is the same thing that can happen to us. Here’s how one writer put it: “Joseph offers a lot of hope for real people in a fallen world whose lives and holiday celebrations fall short of the mythical ideal.”
How does Joseph respond? What can we learn from Joseph? What does he do? He resolves to do the right thing in the right way.
The first thing that we learn about how to respond to life when things don’t go as planned is to do the right thing in the right way. When everything is falling apart, what do we do? Do the right thing in the right way. For us to really embrace this exhortation, we need to embrace at least a handful of principles that I’d like to unpack.
Our Sense of Right and Wrong Points Us to God
I want to zoom way out here for a second and get a bit philosophical because this whole account with Joseph is about what’s right and wrong. Here’s Joseph and he’s now deliberating on what he should do in the situation. Whenever the word “should” comes into our vocabulary we’re immediately in the realm of ethics and morality. But where does our morality come from? Where does our sense of right and wrong come from? Where is it pointing us to?
Listen to C.S. Lewis. Lewis, the famous atheist who became a Christian, in a tiny little book called The Case for Christianity, wrote this:
My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. … Some people may argue that different civilizations in different ages have had quite different moralities, but they haven’t. They have only had slightly different moralities. Just think what a quite different morality would mean. Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kind to him. Whenever you find a man who says he doesn’t believe in a real right and wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. But some people will say, by moral law aren’t you just talking about our natural instincts, no because two instincts can be at odds … an instinct to help someone and the instinct to protect yourself. So, what is it that tells us what instinct we ought to follow at the time? It’s like the notes on a piano, there are not right notes or wrong notes … there are notes that are right and wrong at certain times … but what determines that? What or who sets the tune for our lives? The Moral law. But if there’s a law, then if came from someone and the most rational answer is that there must be a moral law giver.
You see Lewis’ point? Your life isn’t going as planned. Life isn’t going as you think it should? But where did you get this “should” from to begin with? The Bible says in Romans 2 that it’s God’s law written on the heart of every single person and it’s a clue. It’s a signpost pointing us to the fact that we live in a moral universe where right and wrong are real things and really matter because they’ve been given to us by a real God. But sin, like a virus, made it’s way into the moral system and it’s caused great damage and decay.
What this Moral law giver has done is he’s gone on record and he’s revealed his will for our lives in the scriptures. In my opinion this is one of the most attractive things about Christianity. It gives us a rational basis for ethics and morality. Our sense of right and wrong points us to God. It’s a clue to understanding the universe we live in. In this moral universe that we live in, God wants us to do the next right thing.
God Wants Us to do the Next Right Thing
In this moral universe that we live in, Joseph had a decision to make. Now we’re told that he was a man of character, a man of integrity. We’re told he was a righteous man or a just man. That doesn’t mean he was a perfect man; it means that he had a reputation for doing the right thing even when it was hard.
And this would’ve been extremely hard. He loved Mary. He had plans for him and Mary but he knew what the law required. He knew the right thing to do was to end this binding engagement and issue her a certificate of divorce. He was prepared to do it. Think about it—the first and only thing we’re told about Joseph’s response to this whole debacle is his commitment to do the right thing.
Elizabeth Elliot, the widow of the great missionary, martyr Jim Elliot, was fond of telling people who were overwhelmed and confused at what to do, “Just do the next right thing.” Just do the next right thing. This is all that God expects of us in the moment. I wonder, what’s the next right thing for you right now?
Here’s how an old hymn writer put it, “Christianity is not an idea in the air but feet on the ground, going God’s way. Nothing we can say to the Lord, no calling him by great or dear names, can take the place of the plain doing of his will. To do right is the only real obligation that faces us.”
And again, this is what Joseph was committed to do. He resolved, as hard as it was for him, with the information he had at the time, he was committed to do the next right thing.
What is it for you friend? Here you are facing some dilemma, or some unexpected circumstance? Life isn’t going as you planned. What does God want from you? All he expects is for us to do the next right thing. What have we done, what will we do that only a Christian would do?
The Way that We Do Things Matters to God
The most striking feature of Joseph’s conduct here is the kindness that he’s willing to show Mary. It’s striking what we don’t find here. It doesn’t say, “And Joseph divorced her and made sure everyone in town knew who was to blame.” Joseph doesn’t go public with the reason for the divorce. Let me put it this way for some of the younger generations—Joseph isn’t blabbing all over social media about how he’s been done wrong and by who. No, what do we read, “He was unwilling to put her to shame.” He resolved to do the whole thing quietly.
What is this? This is kindness under pressure. This is a tender consideration for the dignity of others. This is love covering over a perceived sin. And what does the Bible say? If we have not love, we are nothing.
Here’s the principle—it doesn’t matter what we’re doing, if we’re not doing it from love and in love, we’re doing it wrong. This little snapshot of Joseph’s character teaches us that how we go about things, the way that we do the right thing matters to God. So, how are you going to execute and handle that tough decision? What’s your tone going to be with that email? What’s your attitude and approach going to be with that hard conversation? Our sense of right and wrong points us to God, God wants us to do the next right thing, the way we do things matters to God, and fourth …
Doing the Right Thing in the Right Way Is Hard
One of my favorite speeches in all of film is delivered by Al Pacino‘s character in Scent of a Woman. Now, unfortunately the movie and the speech has some inappropriate language in it—so I can't recommend it—viewer discretion advised—but here’s a clean snippet from the speech.
I don’t know if Charlie’s silence here is right or wrong. But I can tell you this, he won’t sell anyone out to buy his future. And that my friends is called integrity. It’s called courage. Now that’s the stuff that leaders should be made of. Now I have come to the crossroads in my life. I always knew what the right path was. Without exception I knew. But I never took it. You know why? Because it was too hard.
Friends, here we are in 21st century America and the message and mantra that is ringing out all around us is do whatever feels good, whatever makes you feel comfortable, whatever is convenient. You do you! What is it? It’s the loss of virtue and a moral backbone, it’s the path of least resistance.
But what does the Bible say? “There is a way that seems right to a man but in the end it leads to death.” The times that we're living in begs the question, where are the Josephs in the church today? Where are the Esthers of this generation? Where are the Daniels of our day, the Shadrachs, Meshachs, and Abendigos, who are not going to bow to the idols of our time but are going to stand tall with courage and moral fiber and do the right thing?
Ask yourself, “What’s the thing I least want to do right now? What’s the hard choice that may not be the popular choice or the easy choice but it’ll be the best choice in the end?” You see, Pacino’s speech nails it. Why don’t we do the right thing in the right way more often? Because it’s too hard. It often takes way more time. It often means swallowing our pride. It often means putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. It often means losing friends and popularity.
This is why it often doesn’t happen because of the sin that all of us struggle with. Paul says in Romans 7, that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. Now sometimes, like Joseph, we get it right, but too often we don’t. Even Joseph needed a Savior, even Esther and Daniel and all the rest of them needed the birth of the Christ child. And that’s why we need to remember …
Jesus Has Done All Things Well
I’m quoting from Mark 7:37 where the people are astounded at Jesus and all cry out, “He has done all things well!”
Some of you know the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he was a Lutheran pastor who was imprisoned for his part in the assassination attempt upon Hitler. While in prison he wrote that it was there inside his cell that he had one of the best experiences of Advent in his life. “Here I am trapped inside a cell, and my only hope is for someone to come from the outside in to rescue me. There’s nothing I can do to get myself out, I need a rescuer.”
This is exactly what God has done for us in Jesus. God’s moral standard is moral perfection. Instead of lowering his standards and becoming something less than he is, God came to this earth in Jesus to meet all of the Law’s demands and take all of Law’s penalties for us.
Do you see who Jesus is? Jesus is the true and greater Joseph. Jesus is the just man who was unwilling to put us to shame and who took our blame instead. What do we see at the Cross? We see the ultimate husband covering a multitude of our real sins. What is all my hope and peace? What is all my righteousness? Not that I have done all things. But that he has.
Let me close with some lyrics from a hymn that’s taken from that verse in Mark 7:
Now in a song of grateful praise, To Thee, O Lord, my voice I'll raise: With all Thy Saints I'll join to tell, My Jesus has done all things well. How sov'reign, wonderful, and free, Has been Thy love to sinful me! Thou sav'dst me from the jaws of hell; My Jesus has done all things well.
Friends, Joseph may inspire us this Christmas season, but only Jesus can redeem us.
Jeremy A. McKeen is the Planting Pastor of Gospel City Fellowship in Portsmouth, New Hampshire..