“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:18-19 NIV84).
The customs of first century Palestine are strange to us. A pledge to be married that is as binding as marriage, though the couple is not yet married. It could only be broken by a divorce, though the couple is not yet married. They were often called husband and wife, though they were not yet married.
So here is this couple, pledged to be married. They had not had sexual contact with each other. Joseph discovers Mary is pregnant. He knows he is not the father. As readers we are told the pregnancy is “through the Holy Spirit.” Joseph does not know this at first. If Mary told him that was a difficult story to believe. So Joseph has a dilemma. The strong implication is he believed Mary had been unfaithful to him, to her family, to God. His conclusion, Mary had committed adultery.
I will not take the time to discuss why, but I believe Joseph’s dilemma is more than concern for Mary’s reputation and honor, more than protecting her from the disgrace of public scorn. He very possibly was concerned for Mary’s very life as her perceived infidelity was worthy of her death (see John 8 and Deuteronomy 22:21). The story of the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew is not the sweet story of a young couple and their first child. It is the story of perceived infidelity and betrayal worthy of death. In Matthew’s story we read, though so briefly, of the struggle within the heart of Joseph, a righteous, a just, and a good man who wanted to be faithful to the law of God. At the same time he wanted to be merciful toward Mary. He decided to quietly divorce her and so somehow protect her.
Joseph made up his mind. “But just when he had resolved to do this” (Matthew 20 NRSV). Confident of the righteousness of his decision Joseph was able to sleep. But then “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. 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.’ When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife” (Matthew 1:20b, 21, 24 NIV84).
Matthew Marohl, in his book Joseph’s Dilemma (page 65), describes the story of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew as “not a modern story of a quiet divorce. This is an ancient story in which the expected outcome is death. While the expected out come is death, it is the unexpected that occurs–Joseph, Mary, and Jesus experience new life. Joseph takes Mary as his wife, she gives birth, and they name the child Jesus.” It is a story of the “dramatic reversal of fortunes.”
Isn’t this what we see in Jesus, from the story of his birth, his life, his miracles, his teachings, his death, and his resurrection? Marohl sees a principle of faith in Jesus Christ, a principle of God’s grace in the lives of his people. “From expected death comes unexpected new life.”
At the grave of Jesus the angel told the women, “He is not here. He is risen!” As each person stands before God in the guilt of his sins, he is dead (Ephesians 2:1ff). The expected outcome is death, God’s judgment and condemnation. In Jesus Christ, through faith in him, the sinner is united with Christ in his death to sin on the cross. He is also united with Christ in his resurrection to new life (Romans 6). From expected death comes unexpected new life. It is a new kind of life energized by the Spirit of God, shaped in his righteousness, mercy, and love.
With this new life in Christ comes hope that from expected death will come unexpected new life. When death comes, the body is buried. Everything that is touchable and visible tells us death is the end. This life is all there is. In Christ, however, we have the hope and we trust it is true, the unexpected will happen, resurrection to new life, a new kind of life without expectation of death, eternal life. “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable” (1 Corinthians 15:42).
From expected death comes unexpected new life. “Expected death” is not limited to death. The apostle Paul experienced a form of “expected death” which greatly troubled him. He calls it a thorn in his flesh, “a messenger of Satan, to torment me” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Three times he plead with the Lord to remove that thorn. The Lord answered, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me” (2 Corinthians 12:8-9). From that thorn, that expected death, came “unexpected new life,” the grace and power of the Lord in the midst of Paul’s weakness.
Disciples of Jesus Christ are called to surrender their lives to God in Christ Jesus. They are to live their lives trusting in God. In trust they are to seek and obey God’s will, living justly, loving mercy, walking humbly with God in Jesus Christ. The assurance the Lord Jesus Christ our Savior gives is the promise that from expected death comes unexpected new life. “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Merry Christmas and God’s blessings.