Silent night. Holy night. All is calm, all is bright.
But that came later. At first, when Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant, things were definitely not calm, nor were they bright.
Do you know what a “cuckold” is? It’s not a word we use much in these days of easy sex and broadly interpreted marriage vows. The word refers to a man whose wife has committed adultery. He’s been cheated on. Joseph, a good Jewish man who considered the engagement as binding and as holy as the marriage itself, had been cuckolded — or so he thought. The woman he loved had gone to bed with another man and her pregnancy evidently proved it.
Thus it looked to Joseph at the time. And Christmas, which brings comfort and joy to us, held nothing but the prospect of pain and gloom for him.
What should this poor man do? Let’s see if we can help him. Joseph, the doctor will see you now.
Option #1: Divorce. It’s your right, Joseph. After all, she broke the vow, not you. Take her to court and fix her good!
What? You say you want to shield her from scandal? Well ….
Operation #2: Abortion. You’ve said that the father is nowhere to be found, right? Well, if you care about her so much, eliminate the pregnancy entirely. Yeah, it can be as if it never happened!
What? Sir! This is a family book and we will not repeat your reply!
What’s this you’re saying now, Joseph? Divorce her secretly? How in the world are you going to keep it a secret from her parents; from your family and friends? Oh, Joseph, we give up! It would take an angel to help you!
Which, as a matter of fact, it did. A shining messenger of God helped Joseph decide what he would do. But no angel could make him do it, or keep him from whatever unpleasant consequences might result. For, in a sense, Joseph, the good and upright Jew, decided to be humiliated: “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 had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus” (
Think what it meant for Joseph to do all this. If it took a supernatural message to convince him that God was the real father of Mary’s child — and we can’t even be sure he was totally convinced, can we? After all, the message came in the form of a dream — then no mere human reasoning could persuade his neighbors of such a story. Imagine the exchange:
“Hear Mary’s, uh, expecting, Joe.”
“Yes, she’s with child by the Holy Spirit.”
Now imagine the whispering, the gossip (“between you and me and the fence post”), the dirty jokes.
Here’s another consideration, a bit more delicate. Even after he and Mary became husband and wife, Joseph would not allow himself the pleasure of sexual intercourse with the woman he had waited for and been faithful to; instead, he waited until after the baby was born. Why? Perhaps he wanted to insure Mary’s integrity. In any event, Joseph was no sexless angelic being — he was a man. Think of the frustration on top of the humiliation.
Of course, I’m telling the story from Joseph’s point of view, as Matthew does. Luke tells Mary’s side. If you’ll read that account, you’ll notice that she didn’t seem to be as bothered by all this as Joseph. As a matter of fact, Mary didn’t even try to hide her condition; she remained in her hometown of Nazareth during her pregnancy’s latter stages. Her attitude was, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said” (
But Mary and Joseph were people of faith and courage. Regardless of gossipy townspeople, regardless of the uncertainty of the future, they were committed: Joseph to his wife and to the protection of the child growing within her, and Mary to giving birth to this Little Stranger.
And we love them for it, don’t we? “What courage, what honor, what faith!” we gush. We say these things while sitting on padded pews in warm church buildings and twenty comfortable centuries removed from the historical reality of these sentimental Christmas card figures. Yet Christmas started with a woman’s shame and a man’s humiliation, with the reproach of Christ and the power of the Spirit of God.
Do we know either of these? Do we know what it is to be weak in the eyes of men? Have we found God to be strong? Have we ever voluntarily chosen weakness, as Joseph and Mary did, in order to know the power of God?
Let me give you an example of what I mean, There’s this “nerd” at school or at work. You know the kind of person I mean. Nobody will talk to him, everybody makes fun of him. He’s too dumb or too smart, or too poor or too rich, or too fat or too thin. In spite of his obvious flaw, however, you want to reach out to him. Why don’t you? Because you’re afraid to be seen hanging around with the “nerd”? Because some of him might rub off on you and then you’d be marked? How humiliating to be marked!
When I was in college, I knew a fellow I’ll call “Red.” I don’t really know what Red was doing in an institution of higher learning. Not a few joked that he should be in an institution — period. He was big, awkward, and embarrassingly gullible. Once, for Red’s benefit, two boys staged a mock fight and convinced him that one actor had seriously hurt the other. Everybody laughed when they heard that story. Yes, ol’ Red was good for a laugh, but not good enough for a friend.
There’s a price tag on friendship with the unlovely, a heavy toll on our status. When we reach out to the outsider, we do the will of God. But doing the will of God often means giving up power and prestige. Above all, doing the will of God means giving up our pride.
Perhaps you’re at war with somebody. Oh, it isn’t that you actually fight; just that you avoid the person and the very thought of him sends acid spewing across your stomach. He hurt you once, a long time ago, and ever since you’ve warred with him in your heart. Why don’t you go and patch things up? Yes, acknowledge your hurt and seek to forgive and be reconciled.
Why, you reply, if I humbled myself like that, he’d have the upper hand! I’d have to watch my cherished self-image, my vision of myself as victim and martyr, go down in flames!
How much safer, we think, to ride through life like John Wayne, tough and proud! And some of us really do try to act like “the Duke.” Some of us resemble the tough old rancher Wayne played in the movie The Cowboys who was told, “If’n yore neck was any stiffer, you couldn’t even bend over to pull yore boots on!” Another of Big John’s creations declared, “I won’t be wronged, I won’t be insulted, I won’t be laid a hand on.” And we love that attitude, don’t we? It’s made dozens of macho film stars rich.
Yes, fleshly pride and worldly power sell tickets at the box office. But they can’t buy the power of God. Just ask the fellow I’m about to describe.
He was, by all accounts, a short, feisty fellow; smart too, with academic degrees and honors to prove it. He lived by the strict code of his fathers and, as he grew older, he became a sort of policeman who took it upon himself to see that others also lived by that code. He toed the mark, and he made others toe the mark or suffer. He had power, he had prestige, he had God in his hip pocket — or so he thought.
One day this fellow realized he’d been wrong. He saw that he’d been fighting on the wrong side all the time and now he wanted to be on the right side. So he changed over to the right side and there did just as well, if not better, than he had done before. Maybe he was just a little too successful — for now he was in danger of thinking, “Hey, I’m pretty good. I wonder if God could get along without me?”
It was then that trouble entered his life. It came in the form of an illness that brought him down low and forced him to question everything he stood for. And what was worse, the illness wouldn’t go away. I’m not exactly sure what the trouble was (some have said it was a problem with his eyes), but I know that this thing turned Mr. Successful every which way but loose. Then something else began to happen. Gradually, this fellow learned to accept his humiliation as a great teacher. When he had worked it all out in his mind, this is what he wrote:
“To keep me from becoming conceited … there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ … for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (
No, it wasn’t “the Duke” or Mr. T who penned those words. It was Paul the apostle.
So far as I know, neither Mary nor Joseph ever wrote about their experience but, like Paul, they knew what it was to be weak, insulted, distressed. They allowed God to make life hard for them. And, in so doing, they allowed the Spirit of God to work. What was the result for them? Indeed, what will happen to us when we humble ourselves before God and obey Him?
First, believe it or not, we will know peace. Men will roll their eyes, wag their tongues. It will sting for a bit. But nobody can take away the peace that comes from knowing we live and move in the center of God’s will.
Wonder comes next. The wonder came to Mary and Joseph in the form of adoring shepherds and searching strangers from the East. It will come to us when we let go of fear and pride and allow ourselves to become God’s obedient children.
And then there’s love. Love came for these parents, and for the whole world, in the form of an infant son. For God so loved the world that He gave a man and a woman the privilege of shame in order that whoever would believe in the Son they raised would have the shame of his sin erased.
But not the shame that men will heap on us whenever we do what’s right. No, that will not be completely sponged away until we stand completely justified with Him in glory.
In the meantime, let’s not worry so much about what people are going to think or say about us.
Do you, for example, believe that you should say a blessing over a meal, even in a crowded restaurant? Then do it! Sure, some will call you “holier than thou,” even though you haven’t aimed to call attention to yourself. Sure, others will misunderstand. Go ahead and do what you believe is right.
Do you think the sale of pornographic books — whether in grocery stores, drug stores, or adult book stores — is wrong? Tell the managers of these places. Of course, some will say it’s none of your business what others want to read. Some no doubt will call you a “rabid fundamentalist.” Rejoice! You’re in sterling company. Such insults were heaped on the prophets, the apostles, Mary and Joseph, and the Son they raised.
Is it worth it to do right, even if doing right makes you feel out of place? Those who work to please the Lord can tell you the answer.
Those of you who have a problem with a stiff neck and rusty knees may appreciate the story of the proud man and the preacher. The two talked for a while, and then the preacher said, “I want you to go outside and look up to heaven. You’ll receive a revelation.”
The man protested: “But it’s pouring rain. I’ll get soaked.”
“Just do what I say,” said the preacher. “It’s important.”
So the man went outside and ten minutes later came in soaking wet. He was absolutely drenched, and more than a little upset with the preacher. “Well, I did what you said! I kept looking up to heaven, but I sure didn’t get any revelation! I’m drenched and I feel like an idiot!”
“Not bad!” the preacher replied. “That’s quite a revelation for a first try!”
But where do any of us get off thinking that we have it all together? Isn’t it the truth of the matter that we’re all fools? My friends, our choice is not whether to be fools; our choice is whether to be a fool for Christ’s sake.
Some of us need to feel sometimes like the fools we are, so well learn to trust in God’s knowledge, not ours; in God’s power, not ours.
Do what needs to be done. Do what He asks of you, like Mary and Joseph did — even if you feel foolish doing it, even if people misunderstand.
Be weak in His service and watch Him be strong.