Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Dangerous Faith: When God Makes You Look Bad*

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"—which means, "God with us."

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Matthew 1:18-25

We don’t know very much about the man who raised Jesus as his own son. Scripture tells us that Joseph was a carpenter and that he was engaged to a young woman when he found out that she was pregnant. By Jewish law, he should have divorced Mary publicly and had her stoned to death for adultery, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to do it. Certainly, Mary must have told him of her visit from the angel Gabriel and that the child in her womb was put there by God. Joseph must have struggled to believe her. In the end, virgin birth was simply more than he could fathom. He decided to divorce Mary quietly to save her the embarrassment and probable stoning of a public divorce. It was then that God spoke into Joseph’s situation. The Lord sent an angel to him in a dream who confirmed Mary’s story and told him to take her as his wife. It is in Joseph’s response to this dream that his true character is revealed. “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him…”

What a verse! What dangerous faith!

Now, if you’re thinking that it doesn’t seem like much to you, there’s good reason for that. It’s easy to read over a passage of Scripture like this and remain unmoved. We are accustomed to movies, books, and plays that explain in great detail what each character is feeling so that we can understand the power the circumstances have on the character’s life. Oftentimes though, the Bible doesn’t do this. 

What we must remember is that the Bible is a compilation of texts - the most recent of which was  written almost two thousand years ago. The Bible was written to a different civilization with utterly different methods of story telling and that it has gone through a series of translations to reach us today. So, we must train ourselves to read between the lines. We must be careful not to add to or take away from God’s Holy Scripture, but we cannot understand these stories devoid of emotion. We have to breathe life into these stories to make them understandable. This requires a slow and purposeful reading of the text. It requires stopping to consider how each person must have felt and how we ourselves might feel in their situation.

Joseph must have known that no one would believe their story. He would either be regarded as a fool who had married a woman in spite of her unfaithfulness or as a sinner who had impregnated his wife prior to their marriage. But Scripture skips right over all of this without a word. It says simply that God spoke, and Joseph obeyed. I wish it was that simple in my own life! Too often I complicate my walk with the Lord by cluttering the situation with my feelings and thoughts and desires. In the end, it really is as simple as this passage makes it out to be. God speaks. We obey. This simple formula holds the secret to intimacy with God.

For Joseph, following this formula meant ruining his reputation. The Jews were looking for a Messiah that would overthrow the Roman government with military might and institute a golden era of prosperity in Israel’s history. None of the Jews were expecting a virgin birth, and they had very little reason to believe in such a wild notion. Certainly, it must have been popular opinion that either Mary had committed adultery or that Joseph and Mary had Jesus out of wedlock (and this was no light offense in those days). There would have been a significant stigma hovering over Mary and Joseph. This stigma may have even extended to Christ himself. Might Jesus have been called a bastard as a child? Might he have been called the son of a whore? We have no way of knowing, but it is certainly possible that Jesus knew first-hand what it means to suffer ridicule at the hands of mean-spirited children.

Thankfully, Joseph was willing to sacrifice his reputation for God’s purposes. As J.R. Briggs put it “[Joseph] knew he was participating in God’s bigger story and that the story was not about him and his life and his reputation.” Joseph succeeded where many others have failed. It’s easy to follow God when it makes us look good to do so; it’s hard when it makes us look like a fool. John 12:37 & 42-43 bears witness to this:
Even after Jesus had done all these miraculous signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him… Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not confess their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved praise from men more than praise from God.
Too often, we are like these religious leaders. The weight of public opinion prevents us from doing God’s will. What a drastic miscalculation to value man’s opinion over God’s! Many of us would not have been willing to pay the price as readily as Joseph was. Even though none of us will find ourselves in exactly Joseph's situation, Scripture tells us that we will be asked to suffer for Christ. Philippians 1:29 says:
For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him…
There are several readily available examples of this in Scripture. Joseph isn’t the only one who lost his reputation in the service of the Lord. The prophet Jeremiah is commonly known as the weeping prophet. The Lord only gave him messages of impending judgment for the people of Israel his whole career. Jeremiah was extremely unpopular because of his message of gloom and doom. He lived to see this judgment and was carried away into captivity by Babylon along with all the Jews who had failed to heed his warnings. God told the prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute to symbolize his relationship with idolatrous Israel. Noah was mocked for over a hundred years before the flood actually came and he was vindicated. So, don’t think that this won’t happen to you. God is working a great act of redemption in our world and “it has been granted to you…not only to believe [in Christ], but also to suffer for him.”

In your walk with the Lord, sooner or later, you will be asked  to do something that makes you unpopular, or makes you look foolish, or that makes you look downright stupid. Place this simple formula that Joseph followed in your heart. God speaks. We obey. This is the secret to intimacy with God. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15). So, the question is, what are you willing to suffer for the cause of Christ? Are you willing to be Christ’s fool…or will you settle for the world’s praise?

* (This part of our series is heavily influenced by a book entitled When God says Jump: Biblical Stories that Inspire You to Risk Big by J.R. Briggs.)

For further reading this week:

1 comment:

Johnson Family said...

thanks Lance, this was a great reminder this morning. I'm in a study on Jerry Bridges Pursuit of Holiness and just finished the chapter on obedience (he hits on it a lot in the book though) so this really was a great reiteration of something I'm learning about now. ~ Carol