February 23, 2016
19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 20 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. 21 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.”
Were it not for Matthew, we would know next to nothing about Joseph. He is all at once a star and a stagehand in the story of salvation. Luke reveals to us the heart of Mary while Matthew shows us the heart of Joseph. History makes much of Mary as the MVP of the whole thing but only gives Joseph honorable mention. I’d like to suggest that Joseph disciples us every bit as much as Mary does. Joseph shows us what it looks like to simultaneously be a star and a stagehand in the drama of salvation.
Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
Joseph was a man who did not compromise on his convictions. He believed in the justice and judgment of God yet he had been broken by the mercy of God. How do we know this? Because he was merciful. Rarely do people give mercy until they have received mercy, and rarely do people receive mercy until they know their need of mercy, and rarely do people know their need of mercy until they have been broken by the weight of their own convictions. The mercy of God teaches us that conviction can give way to compassion without compromising. This is precisely what mercy is: divine conviction infused with divine compassion. It’s one of the hallmarks of Christian character. So often so-called Christian conviction is little more than moral crusading. The tragic irony is how the worst secret offenders tend to be the strongest public oppressors of others caught in the same offense.
Joseph could have easily shamed Mary for what appeared to be a devastatingly disgraceful sin. Instead, Joseph’s impulse was to cover her shame by divorcing her quietly. This is not an affirmation of Joseph’s divorce, which would have been entirely in order. God affirms the manner in which Joseph was planning to go about the divorce. In the face of apparent “moral failure” there are ways to do very hard things in quite merciful fashion.
As an aside, I have witnessed Christian leaders publicly shame and defame brothers and sisters caught in failure and I have witnessed Christian leaders quietly engage a process of redemption and reparation for the same kinds of situations. The outcomes have tended to run respectively from public ruin and irreparable damage to profound restoration and healing. We can learn a lot from Joseph about how to mercifully handle human frailty in the face of failure while at the same time being faithful.
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.
Joseph shows us what it looks like to be attentive to God in the midst of crisis and responsive to God despite great personal cost. By taking a pregnant woman as his betrothed wife, Joseph was subjecting himself and his family to the shame of the community. The community would not have looked up to Joseph for this act. They would not have seen it as Joseph covering Mary with compassion. This would have been seen as a breach of his “true love waits” promise. Imagine Joseph trying to explain to his peers that the Holy Spirit got her pregnant. So in planning to do a hard thing by quietly divorcing Mary, Joseph would end up doing a much harder thing by sticking with her. He knew that she knew and she knew that he knew and they both knew that God knew and because of that they knew it didn’t matter what everyone else though they knew.
Perception is reality, so they say. Joseph shows us that reality is reality, and true reality always wins out for those willing to be patient and take the long view. After all, look who is teaching us today.
1. Reflect on this statement: “The mercy of God teaches us that conviction can give way to compassion without compromising.”
2. Can you remember a story from your life or someone elses where you witnessed this happening: conviction giving way to compassion without compromising?
3. Have you witnessed the difference between the public shaming of moral failure and the way mercy covers over failure without “covering it up” which leads to deep redemption?
4. Do you tend to be a shame oriented kind of person who judges others failures and shames them for them? Or are you a mercy kind of person?
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J.D. Walt, is a Bond Slave of the Lord Jesus Christ. firstname.lastname@example.org.