Lessons from the Nativity: 11: God who takes risks
Matt 2:13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
There is always a tension in the Bible between God who knows all things before they happen (and in fact knew them from before the foundation of the world) and God who seems to operate entirely in the present. It is a tension that has caused Christian scholars and theologians to scratch their heads and argue and disagree. I don’t know how it works, but it just does. Now I say this because it just may be the answer to a conundrum that appears to face us at this point of the Nativity story: how could God risk the very life of His own Son to a human being and, even more, risk his life being saved through that human being responding well to guidance given in a dream, because that is what is happening here.
The more you think about it, the more remarkable it appears, that God would risk Jesus safety on Joseph remembering a dream and then acting on it. Yes, Joseph had acted on a dream and so had married Mary. Yes, they had been encouraged when shepherds turned up and told them about their angelic visitation. Yes, they has been encouraged by Simeon and Anna prophesying over them in the Temple in Jerusalem, and yes, they had been mightily blessed by the gifts of the Wise Men, but all those things were others coming to them, not them having to do anything; they were simply recipients of God’s goodness. The temptation after all those things was to feel secure in God’s provision which had come in so many ways, so secure in fact that they could just go back to Nazareth and carry on life there. That was the danger.
It is also probable that they did not know of Herod’s plans and at this moment realise the threat that was about to come their way: “When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.” (Mt 2:16) If the order of the verses in Matthew 2 is also the chronological order of what was happening, the dream came before Herod had actually got round to taking action because according to his instructions we may deduce that two years had passed since the Magi had passed through, indicating the birth of this threat to Herod’s dynasty. So they don’t know there is any risk and then one night Joseph gets this dream. It may have been very clear, as we suggested previously of the earlier dream, but nevertheless it is a risk.
Can you imagine a modern Joseph and Mary talking it out – you and your partner. He says “I’ve had anther one of those dreams, just like I had when I was told to marry you.” She responds: “So what did it say?” “Well,” he goes on, “it said we should leave this country and go down to Egypt and stay there.” “Leave Israel? Leave God’s country, our people? Surely we were told this child was to be a Saviour for his own people; how can he be that in Egypt?” Those must have been the sort of natural thoughts that might have arisen within them. Was this dream God? Should we take any notice of it? Should we go to a foreign land? What will become of us there?
This is the risk that God was taking. He didn’t speak with an audible voice to them and He didn’t send an angel in the flesh so to speak, He simply gave Joseph a dream? Why? Why take that risk? The answer has to be that He knows His man, He knows that this man Joseph is a man of faith who recognizes a divine communication when he receives it and acts out on what he hears. So often I’ve had the impression that commentators play down Joseph. They say he doesn’t feature later in Jesus’ life and that Mary appears on her own. The suggestion is that Joseph must have been a good bit older than Mary and has thus died earlier in Jesus’ life and in this they seem to play him down as a lesser player in the divine strategies. I would suggest that Joseph did exactly what he was called to do – provide respect and security for Mary, and provide protection for Jesus while he was still young.
Now here is the challenge. So often we would like writing in the sky when it comes to receiving divine guidance but the reality is that instead He comes as Elijah’s still small voice, in a way that is not dramatic, a way that needs sensitive ears and which needs faith to respond to, a voice as the NIV puts it, that comes as “a gentle whisper”. (1 Kings 19:12). Wow!
So we’re back to one of those earlier questions. Are we people of faith with ears open to hear God who speaks to His people, people who recognize divine communication when it comes and then, even more, people who will step out on the water of faith with just a single word – “Come”? (Mt 14:29) Yes, elements of this Nativity story provide penetrating challenges, uncomfortable lessons.
Have you ever thought that God has all these plans on His heart for us (see Eph 2:10) and He risks those plans on our free will, on us hearing and responding to Him? Of course He comes with challenges like this, to take time out to sharpen our hearing, to learn to listen for God, but it is still a risk. As we are doing these studies near the end of the old year, may we have a new year resolution (that we might just keep) that we will spend more time waiting on Him, learning to listen for the gentle whisper that comes into our spirits by His Holy Spirit? But of course we will only do that if we are prepared to act on what we hear. Both are expressions of faith and both lead us to avoid the strategies of the enemy and move further on in the purposes of God – just like Joseph did.
Note finally, that the instruction was open ended – “Stay there until I tell you.” They did not know how long they would be there, but they went. So often this is how it is with God’s communications. Not only would we prefer to have writing in the sky, but we would like that writing to fully explain exactly how the future will work out – but He doesn’t do it like that! More often He simply gives us the next step and that is it. We don’t need to know subsequent steps; all we need to know (and it is true) is that He is there for us, He has it all in hand, and He will be there to work it all out for us, for however long we have on this earth. Live with that knowledge. Listen, learn what He has to say, and leave the comfort of the present to move into the excitement of tomorrow as He leads you and will go on providing for you. That’s what this story says.