In recent weeks as we’ve been reflecting on Scripture, we’ve been noting how often it’s possible to view Scripture through different perspectives or angles. In any given passage, God can communicate to us on many different levels. Often there is a main level on which God is communicating to us, and its always important to keep that in mind. For example, in the passage we just heard, there are a few different levels of interpretation, but there is, I think, one main level. Many of us are quite familiar with the main level of this passage. The main level of this passage is about the story of Jesus’ divine and earthly origins. In telling the story of Jesus’ divine and earthly origins, Matthew is beginning to unfold the picture of who Jesus is. On this main level, Matthew tells us that Jesus was not conceived in the normal way. The angel tells Joseph that the child Mary is carrying has been conceived from the Holy Spirit. It’s not likely anyone would have made this up, as the story probably caused trouble for Jesus later on in his life. In John 8, it sounds like some of the people are giving Jesus a bit of a jab when they say, “We are not illegitimate children…” (emphasis mine). The conception story most likely made Jesus’ life more complex and difficult, but Matthew tells the story as he believes it happened. The Angel appeared to Joseph and told him about this child that was soon to be born. The child would be named Jesus, the Greek version of name Joshua. Jesus would be named after the one who led Israel into the Promised Land and defeated Israel’s enemies. Yet the angel says that Jesus’ job isn’t to save the people from a political enemy, but to save the people from their sins. All this gives special meaning to the passage in Isaiah 7 that Matthew says is being fulfilled — the virgin will conceive and bear a son, who will be called Emmanuel, meaning, “God with Us.” This origin story of Jesus primarily answers the question of “who” Jesus is and who He will be for the people of God. That’s the primary level Matthew is working on, yet I’d like to shift our focus a little bit and look at the question of ‘how’. That is, ‘how’ is God at work in the origin story of Jesus. Answering that question will give us a deeper understanding of who Jesus is for us, and how he might be at work in our own lives and the lives of those around us.
To do that, let’s first look a bit more closely at some of the cultural parts of this story, like the relationship between Joseph and Mary. Marriage customs differ pretty widely from culture to culture. Marriage customs in our day are very different from their’s. Raise your hand if your parents were involved in picking your spouse? That’s how things were for Mary and Joseph. I was once talking with an Indian man who’s marriage had been arranged and I expressed my surprise and discomfort with that practice. He just smiled and said, “Mother knows best.” Another difference from our contemporary marriage practices is that Mary and Joseph were probably teenagers. Picture Mary and Joseph as fitting in well with our youth group. Now, there were a couple different stages before a couple was fully married. First the couple needed to go through the engagement stage, and it was usually pretty long — about a year. The engagement was quite an official arrangement. There needed to be witnesses because it was a legally binding agreement and could only be broken by a formal divorce or death. During the engagement the couple would already be referred to as husband and wife, but they didn’t have sexual union and the bride wouldn’t take leave of her parent’s household until they had the marriage celebration. Sexual unfaithfulness in this period was considered adultery, and the penalty for that was death by stoning. But by the New Testament era, that was rarely practiced.
With that background you can see some of the differences and similarities to our own cultural practice of marriage. Its similar enough that you can understand why Joseph would see himself in a difficult situation. His wife, the one who he’s engaged to, the one he has not yet known intimately, the one to whom he is legally bound, is found to be pregnant. Divorce appears to the only option. Matthew tells us that Joseph is a righteous man and doesn’t want to disgrace her. So Joseph has in mind to divorce her quietly (as opposed to having a big, public trial that may put Mary’s life at risk, and certainly bring about community wide shame and condemnation). Judging by appearances only, Joseph is in the right. He’s attempting to apply the law in the gentlest way possible, and make the best out of what looks like a pretty miserable situation. Imagine you were in Joseph’s situation without any knowledge of what God was up to. What would you do?
Notice what Joseph misses. Joseph is only looking at surface appearances, and in doing so misses what God has conceived deep down underneath. Joseph only sees the surface of what looks like a sinful situation, and misses that God is preparing in Mary something powerful, transformative, world changing. This is a big near-miss. Jesus warns us again and again of the dangers of judging others by mere appearances. Jesus tells us the story of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee. In that story, a Pharisee, a self-righteous religious figurehead, stands pridefully by himself, and congratulates himself on not being like that sinful, miserable, adulterous, thieving, rogue of a tax collector. Yet while the Pharisee preens himself, he misses God birthing something powerful in that tax collector who is crying out, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” The pharisee missed the new life begin born in this child of God. In another story, Jesus is at a well and strikes up a conversation with a woman who has a sordid reputation. The disciples come back and, judging by mere appearances, are shocked that Jesus would even be talking with this woman. Yet what they can’t see is that God is birthing in this woman something new, and that this woman has been chosen by God to announce the arrival of the Messiah to everyone in her village.
Joseph nearly misses what’s going on beneath the surface with the woman to whom he is betrothed. Joseph nearly misses what God has conceived in Mary. Joseph had a big near miss. Acting purely on surface appearances would have led to a shamed, divorced woman, the Son of God without an earthly father, and a miscarriage of justice
. Instead, notice how different things turn out after discerning God’s will. Joseph stays with this family. Joseph is a husband to Mary. Joseph is a dad to Jesus. Joseph is obedient to God This is a big near miss. All this points to the risks of a knee jerk judgment based on initial appearances.
So, how does a person go about discerning what God’s is doing beneath the surface of a difficult situation? Let’s first, notice what Joseph doesn’t do. We are not told that Joseph had a conversation with Mary. If Joseph had a conversation with Mary, he would have gotten an immediate glimpse of what God was doing beneath the surface. He might not have believed it, but that’s another issue. If I don’t talk to the person I’m tempted to judge, its very likely that I’m going to miss what God is doing beneath the surface. That’s what happened in the story of the Pharisee and Tax Collector. The Pharisee made his judgments from a safe distance and missed the deeper work of God. The Gospel stories are full of warnings about the problems of judging people from a distance. In all the stories the risk is the same — you’ll miss what God is doing underneath what you can see. As Christians, I think we need to take this challenge seriously. Often we can do like Joseph did, developing what we think is a righteous consequence without having a conversation, without asking what God might be doing underneath what we can see. Often we’ll just ignore what we see on the surface and have no conversation at all. We just make our judgment from a distance and maybe avoid being around that person. Avoiding someone often seems easier than having an awkward conversation. In the Gospel stories, Jesus always engaged. We see He had an incredible ability to perceive what God was doing beneath the surface. Often, this began with a conversation.
In addition to having a conversation, what else can you do to discern what God is doing beneath the surface? You can pray. You can ask God. God knows what is going on beneath the surface. And if God thinks it’s necessary, He will let you in on what He’s doing beneath what you can see. That’s exactly what God did for Joseph. In a dream, God sent an angel of the Lord to let Joseph know that what on the surface looks like adultery, is in fact a child conceived from the Holy Spirit. That’s a bit different than what Joseph initially thought, eh? The angel of the Lord then told Joseph exactly his role in this confusing situation, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.” Often when we are confronted with a situation that looks superficially sinful, we feel as though we are on our own — that we have to be like Joseph at the beginning of this passage, and figure out the righteous response all on our own. But everything revealed about Jesus says the opposite. We are not on our own. This child’s name shall be ‘Emmanuel’ which means “God is with us.” And at the end of the book, Jesus says, “and remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Jesus is God with us now! That means that in all the confusing situations that we are confronted with in our modern culture, we can pray, and we can expect God to help us as we get our hands dirty and walk alongside all sorts of people, and discern what God is doing underneath the surface of these precious lives.
Let me give you one example. Just this last week someone shared with me a story about a man they knew who was not fulfilling his obligations to his family. Much like Joseph, this woman told me that she had had a vivid dream about this situation. Together with her husband, she felt led to invite this man over for dinner so she could share with him the content of her dream. She had received a vision of what God was doing underneath the surface in this man’s life, and God was preparing his heart to return to his family. This couple turned out to be an instrumental part of what God was doing in this man’s life. In their conversation with that man, he began to realize that God was indeed calling him to return home. In a way, God invited this woman to serve as a midwife and help bring to birth what God had already conceived for this man’s life.
God is with us and we are not alone in trying to sort out all the confusing situations we can find ourselves in. Finally, note one other thing the angel says about who Jesus is. The angel tells Joseph to name the child Jesus, “for he will save the people from their sins.” It’s Jesus’ job to save people from their sins, not ours. Often, when we are confronted with a situation that appears sinful, we can feel as though it were up to us to bring about a response of repentance. Often we will feel inadequate to that task, and either won’t say anything, or if we do we come across as blusteringly dogmatic — not bothering to listen for what God’s doing beneath the surface. Both are anxious responses. Perhaps it will lower our anxiety to realize that saving God’s people from their sins is certainly not our job. That is the job of Jesus and His Holy Spirit. We don’t need to take over for Him. We don’t need to do Jesus’ work for Him. If we do, we will likely really mess things up. Instead, we are invited to have conversations with people, in those conversations we can be curious about what God is doing, we can be gentle, we can pray, and we can wait on the Lord. And when the Lord invites us to act, we act with faithful obedience, just as Joseph was faithful in taking Mary as his wife and adopting Jesus as his son. And what’s truly special is that as I listen for what God is doing in the lives of those around me, I might also begin to get a glimpse of what He is doing in my own life. I just might encounter the Jesus who came not only to save others from their sin, but to save me from mine. I might get a glimpse of what God is doing underneath the surface of my own heart.