Yesterday, one of the missionaries we support, Hilary, was in town and shared some updates. You can hear her message here. (Dec. 15, 2019). As we are in advent season, I’d like to reflect on one of the main characters in the Nativity narrative. It is a character we have a few details about. Today we’re going to look at the Nativity narrative with Joseph in mind. I want to look at three things a very human Joseph of Nazareth may experience. 1. What it meant to be a Nazarene. 2. Quandary of betrothal to a pregnant girl. 3. Struggle with the Angelic message.
What it Means To Be a Nazarene
We hear about Jesus being from Nazareth (a.k.a. A Nazarene). It is a common mistake to think he lived a Nazarite Vow. Nazarene is simply the region where he came from. Perhaps this confusion is why so many Medieval and later depictions of Jesus show him with flowing long hair. This means, Joseph was also a Nazarene. N.T. Wright explains that Nazareth was the region in Judea where the descendants of King David settled. After nearly 600 years of subjugation under empires, Judea broke free through the Maccabean Revolt. The Hasmoneans set up a monarchy. This too became subjected to another imperial rule.
King David’s descendants were removed from Judean politics. They settled into Nazareth to live quiet common lives. Joseph was a quiet, common worker. Nearly everyone in Nazareth was a descendent of King David. Joseph and Mary weren’t any more likely to fulfill a prophecy than their neighbors.
Being a Nazarene was nothing special. It was considered a backward area, like the American Appalachians. Nathaniel indicates this, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” What did it mean for Joseph to be a Nazarene? Not that he was expecting to be in line to sire the next King of Israel. Neither was Mary. They were common folk trying to get by. Just a young couple in love and excited to be wed. The world was far from their shoulders, and seemed to be far from the shoulders of their future children.
Betrothal to a Pregnant Teen
The Nativity Story gets really intense when Mary reveals to Joseph that she is pregnant. It must have been quite an incredulous situation for Joseph. The love of his life, the girl he was most excited to be with confesses to being pregnant. To add insult to injury, she protects the identity of her seducer by claiming God impregnated her.
It is easy for us to look backward through history and see how Joseph just couldn’t see God’s hand. Yet would we react any differently? A young couple are engaged to be married and have avoided premarital sex. They are excited to be with one another, and share that experience together. And it comes out that the girl is pregnant, but not by her fiance. None of us would believe a claim of virgin pregnancy. Especially her fiance. It would make the most sense for him to not proceed with marriage. So it was with Joseph.
Joseph cared for Mar,. but couldn’t be wed to someone who was unfaithful during their engagement. So scripture tells us he planned to “put her away secretly.” He didn’t want to call attention to her and increase her shame. IIt was the wise, just, and compassionate thing to do.
In Judaic law, if an engaged woman became pregnant (or was seduced), the seducer was to be executed. Mary hiding the identity of the man could also be subject to execution. Joseph was in a tough situation. Putting her away secretly mean preserving her life.
Angelic Visions and Human Doubt
We Westerners tend to be skeptical of angelic visitations. Those in more full-gospel circles are more open to it. Yet even in those circles, there can be a level of hesitancy to accept the validity of an angelic visitation. Especially if his instructions were very unconventional (and seemingly contrary to God’s law).
We have no reason to think Joseph would have been any different. The angel told him to marry Mary because she spoke the truth. The Bible doesn’t go into any more detail about Joseph. Given the regularity of angelic visitations to him could indicated he wasn’t as quick to act as we may think. It took an angel to convince him to marry Mary. It took another visit to convince him to move to Egypt. Then another to tell him to come back. It seems to me that Joseph was a regular man used to doing things in a conventional way. Because Jesus’ birth was so unconventional, Joseph needed some significant convincing.
I come to this conclusion based on the human experience. Even in my own life, I have heard from the Lord and still harbored doubts, or at least had moments of uncertainty while on the course. I can only imagine human Joseph shared similar experiences. Joseph’s role in Jesus’ advent wasn’t one of unwavering faith. It was one of uncertainty, but trust in the Lord. He was righteous enough to hear the word of the Lord (via angelic visitations). But he doubtless had questions and concerns.
We can sympathize from Joseph and learn from him. We will encounter things on our walk that are not conventional. These things will test our faith, and sometimes our sanity. What we see with Joseph is that it isn’t a sin (nor a negative) to face things with uncertainty. That is part of our walk of faith. Facing uncertainty is a necessity to grow in our faith. What makes or breaks a person’s faith is whether they follow the Lord through the uncertainty instead of letting it become a barrier to growth. When uncertainty becomes a barrier, we stop progressing. This in turn means we stop growing in our faith. Joseph is regarded as a man of faith, not because he didn’t experience doubt and uncertainty. He is a man of faith because he pushed through the uncertainty and believed the Lord with his actions.
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