Yet…God is with us!
More often than a Christian likes to admit, faith is a challenge to us. We want to trust God, but things turn out differently than we anticipated or wanted, and we don’t know how to handle the disruption to our expectations.
Such seems to have been the case with Joseph when he was engaged to be married to Mary. The Bible tells us that Joseph was a “righteous” man; he wanted to trust God. But he received a severe blow to his expectations. He found out that Mary was pregnant…and he knew that the child she was carrying had not come from him! What was he to do?
The Bible reports that Joseph “considered this.” The English translation sounds so calm, but the original Greek paints a different picture. The Greek word translated into English as “considered” in Matthew 1:20 is enthumathentos. It comes from the combination of two Greek words, en, meaning “in” or “with,” and thumos, meaning “anger,” “fury,” “rage,” or “intense feeling.”
When Joseph heard that Mary was pregnant (not from him), he did not calmly and emotionlessly consider what to do next, he stormed internally. The emotions in him erupted with fury, rage, and anger.
Or consider the situation from Mary’s perspective. She is called upon to give birth to the Son of God, but nobody understands. Even the man she is engaged to doesn’t believe her and assumes the worst about her. Though she is trying to be faithful, she finds herself in a scandalous position. Matthew reports that Joseph could have exposed her “to public disgrace,” which could have included having her stoned to death. Even thirty years later, questions about the legitimacy of Jesus’ birth were raised. In the midst of an argument between Jesus and the Pharisees, recorded in John 8, the Pharisees stressed that they were “not illegitimate children,” leaving hanging in the air the insinuation that Jesus was illegitimate. A bit later in the conflict between the two, they replaced the insinuation with an outright accusation. In verse 48 they say, “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?” They accuse Mary not just of having sex outside of marriage, but of having it with a hated Samaritan! If such accusations were flying around 30 years after Jesus’ birth, we may wonder whether the reason Mary left Nazareth in the ninth month of her pregnancy to accompany Joseph when he had to go to Bethlehem for the census may have been because it was more uncomfortable to her to have stayed in Nazareth with people gossiping about her than it was to walk 70 miles on dusty roads to Bethlehem.
The Christmas story confronts us with the reality of the Christian faith that even when (or perhaps especially when) we are seeking to be “righteous” and trying to fulfill faithfully God’s call to us, things turn out differently than we anticipated or wanted.
But here’s the good news of the Christmas story: Even when our expectations are disrupted, leaving us in the midst of confusion, disappointment, or struggle, God is with us! That is the good news the angel shared with Joseph, telling him to wed Mary for the baby she would give birth to would be called Immanuel, “which means ‘God with us.’”
Ever since Christmas day, that’s the good news we live with (through all of the ups and downs of our lives): God is with us!
To say that things did not turn out the way Jerry Sittser anticipated or wanted would be to understate his grief by a thousand miles. In an instant, he lost his mother, his wife, and one of his daughters when a drunk driver slammed into his car. In the midst of deep pain and anger, he turned his heart to the miracle of God becoming one of us at Christmas. He writes, “God embraced human experience and lived with all the ambiguities and struggles that characterize life on earth…. His sovereignty did not protect him from loss. If anything, it led him to suffer loss for our sake…. The God I know has experienced pain and therefore understands my pain…. The incarnation means that God cares so much that he chose to become human and suffer loss, though he never had to…. He is not aloof from my suffering but draws near to me when I suffer. He is vulnerable to pain, quick to shed tears, and acquainted with grief. God is a suffering Sovereign who feels the sorrow of the world.
“The incarnation has left a permanent imprint on me. For three years now I have cried at every communion service I have attended. I have not only brought my pain to God but also felt as never before the pain God suffered for me. I have mourned before God because I know that God has mourned too. God understands suffering because God suffered.” (A Grace Disguised, p. 158-159)
The good news of Christmas is not that we will get what we want but that, even in the worst messes of this world, God is with us!