It hadn’t occurred to me until just now (I don’t know why, it seems obvious once you see it), but in these two passages—Matthew’s account of the angel’s message to Joseph, and Isaiah’s message to Ahaz, which Matthew references—there’s a remarkable contrast between the two men who received those divine messages. The obvious one is between their social status; but more than that, there’s a sharp contrast between the two in faith and obedience.
Doesn’t it seem strange to you—lots of people ask God for signs; the Old Testament is littered with examples—but here, God’s prophet actually invites someone to ask for a sign, and Ahaz says, “No thanks.” He cloaks it in false piety, saying, “I don’t want to put the Lord God to the test”; which sounds great until you remember that God made the offer. Why does he do that? I could be wrong, but I think it’s because he honestly didn’t want the sign; he had his own plans for political and military deliverance. He’s fighting Syria and Israel, and his idea for dealing with them is to bring Assyria down on them—to ally himself with the tiger to get rid of the fox.
Really, that wasn’t all that bright an idea, as the long-term consequences would be severe; but he was trying to deal with his problems on an ordinary level—ordinary for a king, anyway—by means of plans he could devise and events he could at least hope to control. He was trying to solve political and military problems by political and military means, and here’s the prophet coming along with an offer from God to solve them in a way that was completely out of the ordinary and beyond his control. To that, he says, “No, thank you. I don’t want that.”
In retrospect, knowing how the story ended, we can see how foolish Ahaz was; but in our own lives, in our own context, it’s much, much harder to see. Intellectually, we understand that God is out there and doing stuff—we say it, and at some level, we believe it—but in terms of the day-to-day operation of our lives, we don’t live by faith in what God is doing, we live by faith in what we can see and touch and quantify and control. When we have big problems (as certainly Ahaz did), we tend to look to big people rather than to God—to politicians, to the rich, to the famous, to the influential; to big corporations and big government. And yes, God can and does work through them as much as through anyone else; but he doesn’t need to, and he doesn’t rely on the powerful to accomplish his purposes. This time of the year above all others, we should remember that, because the birth of Jesus dramatizes the point with exceptional force.
Jesus’ parents came from Nazareth, a small town which lay in a high valley among the hills of Galilee; they were far from rich or powerful. They may have been poor, given that when they presented Jesus at the temple, they offered the sacrifice of the poor, two small birds, rather than a lamb; but it occurred to me this week, those were unusual circumstances—they had just made the trip to Bethlehem, and their families were mad at them. In a world with no bank accounts, ATMs or credit cards, the fact that Joseph couldn’t afford a lamb right then doesn’t mean he was poor in general. We think of Joseph as a carpenter, but in our terms, it would be better to call him a builder, even a general contractor; no doubt he did work with wood, but he probably did a lot more with stone, and the bulk of his work was most likely in construction.
That said, while economic times were pretty good, and building houses was a good way to make a living, this was still a man working for a living in a small town; Joseph was not a man to whom Rome would have paid any attention, save at tax time, nor a man who you would ever have expected to wind up in the history books. History is usually about those who are blue in blood, not in collar. Sure, he probably hoped Messiah would come, just like many in Israel did—but to have any part in his coming? Messiah was for Jerusalem, and he was for Nazareth, and his plans for his life would have been much smaller than that. No doubt when he and Mary were betrothed, he looked for nothing more than a happy marriage, a healthy family, and at least one son to learn the trade.
And then one day, Mary came to him and told him she was going to have a baby. One would think he must have been the first person she told; and one would also think he must have felt like one of his houses had fallen in on him. I don’t know if it made it better or worse when she then took off for Judea to visit Elizabeth and Zechariah, leaving Joseph alone to wrestle with everything; either way, it had to have been agonizing.
He had been dishonored—or so he thought, and so the whole society would think—and he had no option but to divorce Mary; engagements in that culture were as binding as marriage, they could only be ended by divorce, and not only Jewish but Roman law demanded that a husband divorce his wife if she were guilty of adultery. If Joseph failed to do so, he would have two choices: let everyone think he had gotten Mary pregnant, or be subject to arrest by the Romans for facilitating prostitution. Either way, he would be shamed, subject to the scorn and contempt of everyone around him. What’s more, in divorce proceedings, Joseph could have claimed her dowry—whatever assets she brought with her into the marriage—and reclaimed any bride-price he had paid, thus coming out of the matter with his revenge and a tidy profit.
But instead, we see the first indication that Joseph, for all his ordinary life, was truly no ordinary man. Where financial considerations, the desire to save what he could of his reputation, and simple anger and hurt would all have pushed him toward a public divorce, instead he decided to do the best he could for Mary, rather than for himself. He had to divorce her, but he resolved to do it as quietly as possible, minimizing her public dishonor at considerable cost to himself. Justice would have permitted him to do much more, but he chose instead to treat her with mercy, which was a remarkable decision. Indeed, it was truly Christlike.
So Joseph comes to this decision, then goes to bed; he tosses and turns for a while, no doubt thoroughly miserable, and finally falls asleep. And in his sleep, an angel comes to him and says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” And then the angel was gone, and I imagine Joseph sitting bolt upright in bed, heart pounding, the room dark, but the light of the angel still shining in the backs of his eyes.
And then—he didn’t try to fight it, he didn’t say it was just a dream or try to explain it away: he did what he was told. He believed the angel, and he accepted Mary’s story, and he acted on it. Sure, it was impossible to believe; but then, what had happened to him was impossible to believe, too, but it had happened. It would cost him his honor in the eyes of his community, it would mean great shame for him and all his family, but God had commanded him, and he obeyed. This showed remarkable faith in God, and an even more remarkable willingness to follow God into the teeth of all the displeasure and contempt the world, and his family, could throw at him. It’s hard, hard as a door slammed shut, to buck the demands of family and society for God’s sake, but he did it.
We really need to appreciate this: Joseph gave up his life when God called, with no idea how much of it he might ever get back. He gave up his reputation, he gave up revenge, he gave up his own plan for how his life should go . . . he surrendered his life. He could have rejected the dream; he could have refused the call and chosen to keep control of his own life. Instead, he chose to put himself in God’s hands and accept the part God had for him, even though it meant being a fool to the world and a pariah to his family.
And because of that, he got to be there when God came to earth, a baby who would become a man whose footsteps would shake the world; and in so doing, in surrendering himself to the plan and the hands of God, Joseph surrendered himself to joy: the joy of the angels; the joy of the shepherds; the joy of all creation. His extraordinary obedience brought extraordinary reward.