It was a simple plan, well tested and widely practiced. Everyone knew how it went. It was life-changing, but it wasn’t complicated. Joseph and Mary would become husband and wife.
In this time, there were three steps in a Jewish marriage:
- The engagement, which was often arranged by the parents through a matchmaker when the boy and girl were children;
- The betrothal, which was a formal binding of the marriage-to-be, usually done a year before the couple was married. During the betrothal, the couple was legally bound to each other so that, if the man died before the wedding took place, the woman was considered a widow. In fact, they were referred to as husband and wife, but they refrained from having sexual relations.
- The wedding, which lasted a whole week, at which time the marriage was consummated.
This was the plan that had been in place for Joseph and Mary for years. It had been blessed by both families and it was a good plan.
And like any good plan, it had a way of creating momentum for other plans.
- The wedding itself; the bride and brides maid dresses would be picked out, the groom and would need to be sized up for the tuxes. There were flowers, and cake, and invitations.
- The wedding would one day be followed by children. The children would require Joseph to invest himself in his trade and create a flourishing business that he would pass on to his child.
There were so many plans; all of them really good and really exciting for this young couple that was just beginning this journey of life together.
But then, at the height of anticipation, the plan unraveled. What he never imagined would happen, happens. His fiancée is pregnant, and he knows he is not the father.
Suddenly his world shatters. As one plan caved, a chain reaction was unleashed, and all his plans shredded. In his twenty years, he has never encountered something that has left him so out of control.
So, Joseph devised another plan: Damage control. The girl would be sent back home in quiet shame, where she and her child will live out their days beyond the circle of scorn and out of harm’s way.
It's not a solution that leaves Joseph satisfied; it does little to dissolve his anger, shame, and hurt. But in the same way that he could not imagine his engagement shattering in this way . . . he cannot picture any better resolution.
But while Joseph was grieving the death of his dreams and scurrying for an alternative plan, trying to make the best out of what couldn’t have been any worse . . . he has a dream.
It is not some small dream, the result of a bit of undigested potato or the result of some movie he watched earlier in the night. What comes to Joseph is a BIG DREAM. And this dream is an uneasy place for him to be, because once again he feels out of control.
The dream speaks with the voice of command.
- He's told not to be afraid and to take Mary, as his wife.
- He's reminded that he's more than just a young guy trying to get started in life. He’s part of a great lineage that includes Israel’s best and brightest and in his family tree, is King David.
The dream does more than just pump him up, he finds out strange things about this unborn child, whose name or gender he had not begun to imagine.
- The father is not some random guy from the village who would dare take advantage of his fiancée. This child was conceived by the Holy Spirit.
God's the father . . . Not Joseph, not any man in Nazareth.
The dream gives this baby, yet to be born, both a name and a mission.
- He's to be named Jesus, a name that means savior, healer, and the one who rescues.
- It’s the same name as Moses' sidekick Joshua, who brought Israel into the Promised Land.
- He'll have a similar mission to perform. Not to deliver God's people from slavery in Egypt, but out of slavery to their sins.
And then a line from an old prophecy of Isaiah rolls around inside this vast, majestic dream; about a virgin who has a baby, a baby named Emmanuel, which means "God with us."
Joseph learned that verse in childhood, but He had no idea then what it would come to mean to him. And just like that the dream ends.
Now, it would be tempting for us to simply to say, “Well, there you have it.” The angel explained everything. Everything is going to be just fine with Joseph. He’s going to wake up feeling refreshed and skip over to Mary’s house, whistling a love song and wrap her up in his arms and give her a big ole kiss.
But that’s not what happens.
When Joseph awakens from the dream, he’s lying in a pool of sweat, wondering if he is out of his mind.
And his troubles are far from over . . . He's still got a pregnant fiancée, his relationship with her about to collapse. It's still a darker night than he has ever known before in his young life.
It takes a while for the dream to settle into Joseph's heart. It keeps playing over and over in his head.
- At breakfast that morning, he acts like a zombie.
- Later at the work site, he bends nails rather than hammers them straight, splinters wood rather than sawing it cleanly.
But finally, he comes to see that this big dream, still echoing in his head, is nothing less than God's message to him, an angel speaking a word even more startling than the news that Mary's pregnant.
Much to his surprise, against his will, contrary to his better judgment, he recognizes the dream as the revelation of a larger purpose than his own comfort or discomfort.
The problem is still in place, but now Joseph recognizes that there is power in that problem. What looks to be a burden is there to offer a blessing . . . not just for Joseph but for the entire world.
Joseph retains his right to be confused but he no longer feels afraid. He will follow through on his intention to marry, and he will raise this child as his own, and God will be the one to put together the pieces . . . make sense of this puzzle.
- Joseph's task is to be Joseph; nothing more, nothing less.
- God's task, on the other hand, is to make this child a savior, Emmanuel, God with us.
You see . . . Joseph’s life wasn’t being lived according to his own plan; his life was part of a plan that he never dreamed of. The plan at the center of his life was God’s plan – and God’s plan was being worked out while Joseph’s plans were falling apart.
On the day that Mary and Joseph met, Jesus was already planned and the work of salvation through him was fully formed in God’s mind.
Go back further. On the day Joseph and Mary’s grandparents met, Jesus was already planned. The story Matthew tells us goes back as far as the prophet Isaiah to show us that Jesus was a well-formed plan in God’s salvation story.
There is truth in this familiar Christmas story that serves to anchor us when our plans are falling apart, and at Christmas plans are especially vulnerable to falling apart.
The big meal didn’t turn out right, the family gathering was awkward, the gifts didn’t fit or missed the mark in some other way, the flight was delayed, or the trip was canceled altogether.
We picture the perfect Christmas, but rarely get it. And we picture the dream life but don’t see the dream become reality. As I say quite often . . . life happens.
Joseph’s story is our story, and it is retold day after day.
But the anchor is this: there is a plan bigger than the one you placed on your calendar. There’s a dream larger than the one you direct while also playing the starring role.
God has a plan and this plan will not unravel. It is a plan to reclaim and restore a broken, messed up world. God is always carrying out his plans and purposes – and you are invited to be a part of that plan.
God’s plans are being worked out, even when your plans are falling apart.