How do you picture the birth of Jesus? Would you have wanted to be there? Do you imagine it was a serene occasion full of uninterrupted delight and laughter? Most of us would probably like to think so. But the author of Luke’s gospel tells us otherwise. He records that, for one of the key characters in the original Christmas story, the events surrounding the birth of Jesus were deeply traumatic!
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: After his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly. (v.18)
Joseph was betrothed to a young lady called Mary. In his culture, engagement was like the first phase of a legal marriage that could only be terminated by divorce. So Joseph was well on the way to settling down in life. Yet suddenly some bad news arrives – his wife-to-be is pregnant! The child is not his and, so it appears, Mary has been unfaithful to him. This faces him with a heart-breaking dilemma. If he married Mary he might as well be saying 'I did it!' This would ruin his moral reputation and family name. On the other hand, if he went through a high profile public divorce to clear his character he would, in the process, ruin Mary. She would be seen as damaged goods; a lone parent in a deeply religious community. Joseph is in a real tight spot. He is a just man wanting to do the right thing, but he is also compassionate and doesn't want to destroy Mary’s future. So, in the end, Joseph reaches a compromise:
'Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly.' (v.19)
He has to divorce her – that’s just. But he plans to do it secretly – that's compassionate. This low-key approach satisfies both the need for justice and mercy. Yet, for Joseph, this path didn't alter the fact that this was a sad day. The unplanned pregnancy had brought all of his plans crashing down around his head. No doubt he cried out in the night "Why God?" The unexpected coming of this child was ruining his life-plans and breaking his heart. His arrival was not good news but bad news!
A modern dilemma
Perhaps you feel the same way about the Christian message. For you it isn't good news at all, as Christians claim. For you it is all bad news. It gets in the way of your vision of how life should be. As far as you’re concerned life should be straightforward. Yet the message of the gospel confuses things. It challenges you. Perhaps there is more to life than being born, getting married, settling down, and climbing the career ladder. Like Joseph, the news about a pregnant 1st century Jewish woman spells trouble for you because it seems to attack the status quo of an otherwise predictable life. Certainly this was true for Joseph. And yet all that was about to change forever. You see, although the Christian message is disruptive to many of our plans and programs in life this does not mean it is ultimately negative news. In fact, once grasped properly, the gospel is the best news you could ever hear. This is what Joseph soon learned.
From bad news to good news
As Joseph contemplated his situation he had a dream. In the dream an angel of the Lord spoke to him saying he was not to be afraid of marrying Mary anymore.
But while he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife..." (v.20a)
The angel wanted Joseph to re-evaluate his situation. What seemed on the surface to be extremely bad news was in reality extremely good news. Although Mary's pregnancy seemed like the end of the world for him, God was in the matter. In fact, through the birth of this child, God would fulfil his ancient promises (revealed in the Old Testament) to bring salvation to the people of God. Notice what the angel declares about the coming child.
[i] A miraculous conceptionThe angel says this pregnancy is the work of the Holy Spirit: "that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit" (v.20b). So the child wasn't the outcome of an immoral liaison between Mary and a mysterious lover. He had come about through the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit of God. Of course we mustn't think that this supernatural birth meant God had intercourse with Mary. This is why some people reject the virgin birth. They say it's disgusting and blasphemous. But this is because they misunderstand the nature of the miracle. This divine conception was not a case of God having physical union with a human. God is a spirit and does not have a physical body like us. Rather this conception occurred as Mary’s womb was miraculously filled with new life by the supernatural power of God’s Spirit.
So the child was not of human origin, but divine origin. This pregnancy was not a sign of shame but glory! It was showing that God was breaking into our world and beginning a new family with him at its head. This child would mark the dawning of a new era in history where God would reverse the broken state of our world and rescue humanity from the mess it has got itself into through disobedience to God. Isn't this good news? But how would this new beginning be achieved?
[ii] A mighty saviour
Again, the angel continues: '"And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins." This child would grow to be a mighty saviour. The name Jesus said it all. Jesus can also be translated as 'Joshua' and means 'Yahweh saves'. It was a name that would have reminded people of one of the great heroes of the Old Testament, Joshua. He took over leadership of Israel when Moses died. He led God's people over the river Jordan and into the Promised Land. Under his command Israel defeated their pagan enemies and conquered Canaan. As a result the people made the transition from slaves on the run, to citizens of the Kingdom of God. By giving the child this name God was hinting that, once grown up, he would achieve a similar feat of salvation for God’s people.
But in what way would Jesus save his people? In Joseph’s day most people would have expected the answer to be found in emancipation from foreign rule. At this moment in history the Jews were under Roman domination. Therefore they would expect God's saviour to address this problem. Yet the angel says something profoundly unexpected: He will save his people from their sins! For the Jews, like us today, this would have been a shock. They perceived their problems as being 'out there'. Yet Jesus has come to rescue people from inward slavery to sin.
[iii] A divine reconciliation
Why is it important to be saved from sin? Because of the consequences it creates. The most terrifying thing about sin isn't its social consequences – what it does between people and people – serious though these are. Sin’s ugliness is found in what it does between people and God. Sin erects a barrier that means we cannot have a relationship with God. If we try to breach that barrier using our own wisdom and strength we die. Yet notice what Jesus' arrival will achieve:
So all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying: "Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel," which is translated, "God with us." (v.22-23)
This passage is lifted from Isaiah. It was a prophecy which ultimately spoke of the birth of Jesus. It declared that with the coming of Jesus something remarkable was about to happen. God himself was about to take on human nature and live with people. He would enter our world as a child, living a real life in our broken world. The birth of Jesus would show humanity that God really cared. He cared so much that he came to earth to join himself to us so that we could have a relationship with him. So in Jesus, once more God is with us. He is 'on our side'. No longer does he hold our sins against us. Instead he has begun the process of reconciliation and restoration. Later on the apostle Paul says as much:
Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:18-19)
Joseph saw Mary's unexpected pregnancy as source of great shame in the sight of God. Yet the angel revealed that, despite how it seemed, God himself was the very instigator of this situation. All that remained now was for Joseph to respond to what he heard. He needed to repent of his previous thinking and embrace God’s way of salvation in spite of the temporary disruption this would bring.
A change of mind
Joseph had seen Jesus as trouble incarnate. As far as he was concerned he was an unwanted disruption to his life-plans. But now God had given him the full picture he changed his point of view. Instead of distancing himself from the child, he accepted and embraced him:
Then Joseph, being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife, and did not know her till she had brought forth her firstborn Son. And he called his name Jesus. (v.24-25)
Joseph did as he was told and went ahead with the wedding. Then when the child was born he formerly adopted him as his son by publicly giving him the name of Jesus, just as the angel had commanded. In doing this Joseph showed that he had undergone a change of mind about matters. He no longer saw the child as an unwanted thorn in his side. He allowed him a place in his personal life-story by formerly welcoming him into his family. For Joseph the bad news of Christmas had turned into good news.
What about you?
Perhaps up until this point you've seen Jesus as a trouble maker. You have mapped out the course of your life and made you plans. As far as you are concerned, to let Jesus into your life is more trouble than it's worth. He'll only make things more difficult. Perhaps you also realise that letting Jesus into your life will change how people look at you. It may mean a loss of respect or credibility. Friends may say cruel things behind your back like they, no doubt, did when Joseph took Jesus on as his adopted son. But, if you think about it, God can take care of that. He can strengthen you just like he strengthened Joseph through his message as he makes his promises of salvation real to your experience. Yes, just as God sent an angel to comfort Him, so God will comfort and strengthen us by his Word and Spirit. God has broad enough shoulders to carry the burden of your cares when you accept Jesus into your life.
Not only that, the cost is far outweighed by the gain. Just think of the gain Joseph made when Mary fell pregnant. The saviour of the world had come into his home! Joseph would now experience spiritual rescue: forgiveness of sins and a new relationship with God that would last forever. This was far more precious than a credible reputation with a world under the judgment of God. I wonder if you will follow Joseph’s lead by welcoming Jesus into your life today?