Matthew 1:18-25 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do 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 as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Reflection: Joseph is confronted with a pressing and perplexing situation that frightens him and calls for a rapid decision. Mary, his fiancée is pregnant and not by him. He enters into a period of anguishing discernment, relying on his spiritual and social resources to make the best possible decision for himself, Mary and her parents, and his community. Joseph is a righteous man (1:18) and seeks in the end to please and give the most glory to God with his actions.
As a righteous man, we can assuredly imagine that Joseph slows down to diligently searches Scripture for guidance. He searches the law. He searches his heart. He searches for wise counsel. He speaks with people that will be affected by his decision. He prays. He meditates. He fasts. He searches his motives and values. He considers his future and his options as he seeks to arrive at a decision that most glorifies God. He may have even made a list of the pros and cons of staying with Mary. Mary, meanwhile, anxiously, powerlessly, and prayerfully awaits his decision.
Joseph, the gospel of Matthew says, concludes that it is ultimately in both his and Mary’s best interest to separate. After all, in Joseph’s way of thinking, Mary would avoid public disgrace through a quiet separation; or would she? It would be impossible for a young unmarried Mary to hide a rapidly enlarging abdomen on the way to full term with child. It would be impossible for Mary to offer satisfactory answers to the spoken and unspoken questions of nosy people, or to avoid harsh and harmful present and future social judgement and consequences. Although separating himself from Mary seems like a noble resolution to Joseph’s dilemma, the truth is that such a decision would be devastating for a single young mother of a fatherless son in a patriarchal society.
Our decisions, if we are honest, are normally biased in our favor. Seldom are we comfortable or even willing to make decisions that go against or subordinates our own self-interest. When we make decisions, the operative goal is to have things turn out the best possible way for ourselves.
Joseph’s hasty decision to separate from Mary, while seemingly benefitting to himself, would not bring honor and glory to God. God intervenes and sends an angel to Joseph to redirect Joseph’s decision to separate from Mary. The angel appears to Joseph in a dream and sheds light on what is really happening, stopping and diverting Joseph from his intended course of action. Joseph is first admonished to stop being afraid. He is then directed to take Mary as his wife and raise the child she carries as his own. Joseph wakes up from his sleep and did as the angel commanded him; he took Mary as his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
As Christ-followers, we seek to bring the most glory to God in all we do. That means that our difficult decisions are deliberately entered into with a dependence on the Holy Spirit for guidance. Our discernment and decision-making are filtered through a deep love for God and for the people being affected by our decision. While we discern, we pray that the Holy Spirit will avert us from a self-centeredness that will side-track us from what God is pointing us to do. In time, the Holy Spirit will lead us to make decisions that please us, sometimes our decisions will not bring us pleasure. Some of our decisions will enrich us, some will not. Some of our decisions will bring us comfort, some will bring us suffering. The personal outcome of our decisions made with the end of glorifying God do not really matter because we do not belong to ourselves, we belong to God and our chief purpose in life is to glorify God with our lives and enjoy God forever.
Are you struggling with a pressing and aguishing decision this Advent season? Pray to the Holy Spirit for guidance. Pray for a deeper love for God and the people that are affected by your decision. Ask the Holy Spirit to avert you from self-centeredness. Wait for God to point you to what you need to do. Perhaps someone in your life will be like an angel of the Lord to you that comes to you in your darkest hours and sheds new light on your situation – who is that person for you? In time, you’ll know God is leading you when you experience joy, enthusiasm, deeper faith, greater hope and trust, greater love, confidence, and courage even if you decide against your own self-interest.
A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition (Contemporary Version)
I am no longer my own, but yours.
Put me to what you will, place me with whom you will.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be put to work for you or set aside for you,
Praised for you or criticized for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and fully surrender all things to your glory and service.
And now, O wonderful and holy God,
Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer,
you are mine, and I am yours.
So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
Let it also be made in heaven. Amen.