Lessons from the Nativity: 5: Open for Grace?
Matt 1:19 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.
As Christians we would claim to be the righteous of God, for God has so declared us through the work of Christ on the Cross. We work to maintain that righteousness by standing in opposition to wrong ways of the world and the ways of the enemy. We seek to be Christ-like, we seek to be obedient and we seek to be honest, full of integrity and honourable. They are all part of the package and it is good
In that sense we are just like Joseph. He is a good man and he is engaged to a good woman, or so he thinks, but then one day (we assume because we are not told the details of how this worked out) Mary shared with him what had happened to her. An angel? We haven’t had any contact with God or angels or prophets for over 400 years. If you had to make up an excuse to cover up your indiscretion – and I can’t imagine how you did this and let this happen – you could have come up with something better; you could have said you were raped by an unknown assailant, but to make up this cock and bull story that is just so unbelievable……
But he ponders on this. This is the girl I was going to marry. How could she do this? There is no way we can continue with our wedding arrangements, there is no way that I could marry her knowing she is carrying the child of another man…. what man? But she is still the one I was going to marry and she may have let me down but I don’t have to let her down. I’ll simply divorce her, break off our engagement, quietly. At least I won’t make a big thing of it publicly. That’s how righteous people deal with bad things, we do it with grace. And so there it was, the decision was made.
But then he started dreaming and the dream was so vivid that he remembered every word, every syllable, every little bit of it. An angel – oh no, not an angel again – yes, an angel appears in the dream and tells him this baby is a work of God not of man and that he must marry Mary and look after this very special baby.
Now here’s where it gets tricky because righteous people are told to live according to God’s words and not by emotions. Righteous people know what is right and what is wrong and that is the end of it. But then we come across this thing that we stumbled around a couple of meditations back, the question of whether God speaks to us today. Was this dream just wishful thinking or was it truly a dream from heaven? Why didn’t the angel appear directly to Joseph in the same way he did to Mary, the sceptic might ask? How do we know this dream is from God? Surely God’s word, the Law, is quite specific that there shall be no adultery (Ex 20:14), and if a man had laid with a virgin he should marry her (Ex 22:16) and the law of divorce was simple enough (Deut 24:1-). It’s all there surely, it is quite specific.
But what if this was God? Would God do such a thing? I’ve never heard of such a thing happening before; why should it happen now? Faith comes from hearing the word of God and if God speaks, faith is responding to that – but was this God? We don’t know what it was that convinced Joseph but thankfully he believed and obeyed the instructions that had come to him through a dream. Later on it’s going to be another dream that gets Joseph to take his little family to Egypt to protect them from Herod (Mt 2:13). Somehow this righteous man is open to being spoken to through dreams.
How many of us, I wonder, would make major life changes as a result of a dream? Yes, Joel prophesied that old men would dream dreams (Acts 2:17, Joel 2:28) but when those dreams appear to go against the Law, against the declared will of God, how does that work? All we can say is that somehow something of this dream convinced Joseph to respond and act in faith, but we aren’t told what that thing is. (There is also a clue in the word ‘appears’).
So let me make a suggestion about it. Maybe, just maybe, this righteous man was also a young man full of grace. Grace in this sense means that godly characteristic that thinks well of people and wishes well for people and seeks to do well by people. Not all righteous people have grace. Righteousness without grace can be cold, formal and heartless – the Law says this so I’ll do it. Grace says, is there someway in the midst of this that God wants to bring blessing to this people or this situation? Thus when Joseph hears the angel declare the baby is of God, he finds a tremendous sense of relief and he has the gift of faith and believes and is willing to respond accordingly. There is a feeling about the goodness of God about this message: “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.” Wow! Awesome! Incredible! But how wonderful! Wow, this IS God! And grace triumphs over righteousness (and personal feelings), and so Jesus has the human protective guardian that he needs.
The only time I have found myself in such a situation was many years ago and also involved the matter of divorce. I believed (and still do) that divorce is a tragedy to be avoided if at all possible, and something that grieves God (see Mal 2:16). Jesus pointed out that God through Moses permitted divorce because of hardness of heart (Mt 19:8), i.e. if you are so hard hearted you cannot receive counsel and reconciliation then it is better that you divorce, but I was still part of the righteous church that heard God say, “I hate divorce,” and that was as good as the Law. But then we had these two very godly people in our church, both single, and both in middle age. He had been divorced many years before he become a Christian. Her history was that her husband had abandoned her and despite her desire for reconciliation he forced through a divorce after five years. To cut a long and beautiful story short, they came to me and asked me to marry them. I am against divorce, God hates divorce, and so what about marrying two divorcees? The Law in me said no but I did go away and pray about it and while praying heard very clearly the voice I have learned is the Lord’s saying, “You will marry them.” Well we did and they have had many happy years of married life as two strong Christians.
The thing about Joseph (and what I came to see despite my legalistic perspective) is that God ‘permitted’ divorce which is different from saying God ‘demanded’ divorce. Joseph didn’t HAVE to divorce Mary but it was a major act of grace and faith for him to many her and be a father to this child that was not his in a physical sense. Joseph believed on the basis of a dream and that belief was grace incarnate to provide protection for grace incarnate in the crib.
May I ask, ever so gently, are you a legalistic Christian whose life is based on the Law, or are you a grace and faith person, who is open for God to prompt them into gracious and grace-filled activity of bringing His blessing into the lives of those who do not appear lovely or who do not appear righteous? I just leave it with you to ponder on, if you will.