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“And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” Matthew 1:19
What do a genealogy with women, the announcement of Christ, and Abraham have in common? The more I dig into them, one connecting thread I am finding along with others who have followed these threads before me is amazing faith. I’m not just talking about faith here. Because I’m not so sure there is something that is just called faith. I’m thinking that faith that is actually faith has an amazing quality to it. Yes, faith that is faith will look like actual living sometimes, but somewhere along the line, faith must show itself to be amazing. And in it’s “amazing” nature, faith demonstrates itself passionately.
Lord, where do I start because I’m not even finished learning? I’m not so sure that I ever will be finished learning. Once I thought I would be finished when once I was finally with You. But then I think I will have an eternity to continually be amazed at the things that I am learning from You and applying to my spirit. But where do I follow Your path of learning today? And how do I even try to express it?
I’ll express it feebly at best. It will be a feeble expression because it is so much harder to see faith written, to put it into words, than it is to see faith lived out. And it’s so much easier to watch faith lived out than it is to live it out for oneself. But somehow, in a much less noble manner than Kenneth Bailey or Soren Kierkegaard, this peasant girl is going to try to sit and be amazed at some heroes of the faith, at some “knights of faith.”
I’m going to start as my treasure search started a few days ago. Kenneth Bailey took me back to Matthew 1 to look at Joseph. I’m introduced to Joseph in God’s Word and with Mr. Bailey’s help through his knowledge of the original languages our text was written in and his knowledge of the culture. So he helps me to step back and see Joseph as a real man, in real times. I step back and find Mary betrothed to Joseph. And then what? “Before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”
Sometimes we take the walk of faith and the trial that led to that leap of faith so lightly. Sometimes we don’t really sit down and dig into what it was like in real life. Sometimes I think we try to paint a prettier picture so that faith becomes a little easier. Maybe that’s why I’m so excited to read these two authors I’ve mentioned. But even before reading them, I’ve come to the conclusion that true faith is absolutely anything but easy and convenient. But even though it’s not easy and not convenient, it is full of one thing- passion. But I must examine that passion of faith. Why? I must ask myself if I even have an inkling of it.
So here is Joseph. And it is brought to his attention that Mary is pregnant. Now Mary is the only one who at this point has seen and heard the angel’s news. Joseph was not privy to that announcement. Don’t try to tell me that Mary wouldn’t have sounded deranged to Joseph and her parents as well as all the townspeople! And in the middle of this embarrassing craziness, we read that Joseph, “being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” Is that significant? Well, it starts to tell us something about the faith of Joseph.
What does “just” mean? Kenneth Bailey says, “Such a phrase usually refers to a person who obeys the law and applies rules fairly to all.” Well, what was the rule that should have been applied to Mary? Let’s look back at Deuteronomy 22:23,24. “If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” The following verses speak of a woman seized in the field where she cries out but noone is there to hear. Then only the man is to be stoned. So, what to do with Mary? What would the just thing be?
Mary isn’t crying out foul play here. She seems to be making up a wild story. Remember, she’s just an ordinary girl to everyone, including Joseph. She may have had a wonderfully godly character, and that might have been why Joseph chose her, but she was just an ordinary young woman. This isn’t something that happens to ordinary people. Would you believe this story if your spouse or fiance came home and told it to you?
Now, before I talk more of Joseph’s response, I want to look at his feelings. Most interpretations of the Greek say he “considered” these things. That sounds like he heard this news and took it all in stride. But the Greek “enthumeomai” actually comes from the root word “thumos” which has to do with “passion (as if breathing hard):- fierceness, indignation, wrath.” What if Joseph was fuming inside? Oh, wait, that would make Joseph human, wouldn’t it? That would make him like you or me having to struggle with his own feelings and reactions. That would mean that this whole ordeal was actually a temptation for Joseph. How would he respond?
So Joseph was angry, yet he was controlling his anger and trying to decide the right thing to do. And somehow he felt there was a higher right thing to do for Mary than stone her even though he may have been as angry as a hornet. And maybe he leaned towards Mary’s weakness and mercy because he understood her humanness and weakness, or maybe he just remembered something more of God.
Maybe Joseph thought back to Isaiah 42:1-3 about the Suffering Servant, “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed will he not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.” See, reeds were used for pencils. An unbroken reed was also used for houses. Broken reeds were good for nothing but to be burned. Reeds were weak. Inside the house were oil lamps and the wick hung out. If the oil went out the burning wick might fall on the floor and catch the house on fire. So a bowl was kept on the floor underneath. But this suffering servant wouldn’t raise his voice against this weak reed or snuff out that flame. But it’s not really about reeds and flames. It’s about being weak, or being tired, or being broken. It’s all about the suffering servant showing mercy in His passion for the weak and the tired and the broken.
So where does this leave us with Joseph? Maybe, contrary to what the ethical norms of culture and “religion” proposed, Joseph clung to this higher justice. And that’s an amazing thing already because his anger probably wants something else, but he doesn’t respond to his anger. His culture probably demands the stoning “justice.” To deny his culture their justice is to make himself an outcast among them. This is a man who was counting the cost. I’m pretty sure it was tearing him up inside and out.
And I’m pretty sure that God commends him. First, You, Lord had Matthew classify him as just. Even though he was breaking the law, he’s written down as a just man. Maybe he was obeying a higher law straight in You. And beyond that, as he was struggling with these things, as humans do, You sent Your angel to appear to him, after his decision, to confirm his amazing step of faith. “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit…” Obviously, his decision to not stone Mary was the right one.
Wait, but Joseph hadn’t decided to go on and marry Mary. How was he exhibiting faith? Maybe we should put ourselves in his shoes and see the difficulty of the decision he already made and then we might understand. Maybe we need to start looking at the passion that must have driven that decision. And sure, we all need You, Lord, to fine tune our faith and to show us how it really ought to be shaped, but he was taking a risk in the right direction. And because he took that first risk on his own as he was trying to figure out Your will, he was able to join in with the greater risk of marrying her upon Your word.
Here is a man who was already preparing himself for a life of being shamed and shunned because honoring God was more important than honoring people, and compassion, passionate compassion mattered. Like You, Jesus, are our Protector. Joseph was becoming the protector of Mary and the baby she was carrying. He was learning to love his wife as Christ loved the church. That’s amazing faith.
But it doesn’t stop there. From Joseph I was taken to Abraham through Soren Kierkegaard. And we think how hard it must have been for Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. And we think we can fathom it. But how can we fathom it if we have not experienced it? Again, here is a man who is going against all rules of culture. Even then you did not sacrifice your grown son, your only son. Maybe you might sacrifice a daughter, or a baby, but not this. And beyond the cultural thought, what of his own heart? How can a father who truly loves his precious one and only son, kill him? This is murder.
Earlier I mentioned the word “temptation.” I’m going to mention it here again. Can I understand the temptation that Abraham is having to go through? Can I imagine the thoughts and agonies and distress in his mind? I think they may far surpass the thoughts and agonies and distress that Joseph felt. Imagine every step to the mount. Imagine watching his son. Imagine knowing what you had to do. Imagine explaining to your beloved son. Don’t tell me he had faith that God would raise him. I’m sure he did. Would that make it any easier for you to plunge the knife into your own son? Does that thought remove the pain he would feel at that moment? Would that knowledge remove his temporary suffering that you would be inflicting upon him? Remember, you alone have heard the voice of God, not Isaac. Isaac has not been privy to the voice of God on this matter concerning his life/death.
What must you be thinking that Isaac is thinking of you? Is Isaac saying, “How Father, can this be? I have never known God to require this before. How can this be of God?” Did he really just lay there and say, “As you wish.”? What was the look in his eyes? Was there fear? Were they closed tightly shut so he wouldn’t notice the moment? Were tears coming down his face as he squeezed them tightly shut?
I’m sorry, but I see no easy door for Abraham. And either he was exhibiting amazing faith or he was just a murderer. Amazing faith takes amazing steps. It takes breaking the ethical norms to obey God. It may take breaking our own hearts, testing our own metal, giving up our safety, or position, or comfort. But it’s realizing that relinquishing all of this, everything to You, Lord, gains more in return.
Amazing faith isn’t just about amazing actions. It’s about the root of why you can demonstrate those amazing, culture defying actions. The root is true passion. Abraham was so passionate for God, that God gave him this test. God new his metal. And maybe it wasn’t to prove anything to Abraham and maybe it was to make sure his allegiance was lined up correctly. But this test was presented to Abraham for me, just as much as Joseph’s test was presented to Joseph for not only him, but for me, and for you.
And lest I fall off on only making it seem as though men are called to amazing faith, let me look at Mary today. After all, it was that genealogy that brought me here. And Soren Kierkegaard, while sharing about Abraham, also shares of Mary as being a “knight of faith.” Oh, wasn’t Mary such a sweet and innocent girl! Isn’t it wonderful how she got to bear the Christ child! Really? Do you think that in the bearing of the child that she felt sweet and innocent? What about during the announcement?
Well, let’s look at the announcement. The angel comes in and starts telling her wonderful things. Luke 1:29 tells us her response was to be “greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be.” She wasn’t just bothered by the angel’s presence. She was afraid of the purport of even the wonderful words of affirmation he had just given her. The angel knows and tells her not to be afraid. And then he gives her the news. “You’re going to have a baby and name him Jesus.” And like this isn’t scary, she asks, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Here comes the really scary stuff here. “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you…” Now, don’t tell me this isn’t scary stuff here. Don’t tell me that you think that when Mary has to tell people that everyone is going to understand and give her kudos. Don’t tell me that this young lady didn’t understand the ramifications of what this would mean in her culture. Don’t tell me that Mary is not faced with a temptation here. Don’t tell me this isn’t an extreme test from God here. Because either Mary has to be a crazy harlot here or a woman of passionate faith. Imagine what she was really thinking and really saying when she responded, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”
This was not a simple decision. To bear the miraculous child was no easy effort. The whole time during her season of carrying that baby, don’t tell me there wasn’t the constant dread and distress of being shunned. Not even Joseph was privy to the message until later. The angel didn’t gather all the young girls, her friends, and let them in on the message. Who would understand her?
I’d like to share Soren Kierkegaard’s thoughts here, “Nevertheless, when she says, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord’–then she is great, and I think it will not be found difficult to explain why she became the Mother of God. She has no need of worldly admiration, any more than Abraham has need of tears, for she was not a heroine, and he was not a hero, but both of them became greater than such, not at all because they were exempted from distress and torment and paradox, but they became great through these.” So what makes me think that Joseph, and Abraham, and Mary are examples I can look to of passionate true faith?
They make me think about myself in terms of realness and the decisions and actions I make. They make me think about what I do with what God requires of me. Am I exempt from trial and temptation? How shall my faith be demonstrated? If I am exempt from trial and temptation, is it because I exempt myself because I don’t want to pay the cost?
Soren Kierkegaard poses a good question. “Why then did Abraham do it? For God’s sake, and (in complete identity with this) for his own sake. He did it for God’s sake because God required this proof of his faith; for his own sake he did it in order that he might furnish the proof. The unity of these two points of view is perfectly expressed by the word which has always been used to characterize this situation: it is a trial, a temptation. A temptation–but what does that mean? What ordinarily tempts a man is that which would keep him from doing his duty, but in this case the temptation is itself the ethical … which would keep him from doing God’s will. But what then is duty? Duty is precisely the expression for God’s will.” So if that was Abraham’s duty, what is my duty to God, to You? And if Abraham, and Joseph, and Mary were that passionate about their duty to You, how deep is my passion for You? What tests would I pass, what tests would I be willing to take for You?
I suppose everyone wants to become a hero. And there are lots of heroes we can read about. And heroes can get there by their own power. But we can’t become a “knight of faith” by our own powers. This is more than a hero. Everyone roots for the hero. Everyone admires the hero. They all understand him. But not so the “knight of faith.” The “knight of faith” must be willing to stand on his own, with nothing but the Lord on his side. “When a man enters upon the way, in a certain sense the hard way of the tragic hero, many will be able to give him counsel; to him who follows the narrow way of faith no one can give counsel, him no one can understand. Faith is a miracle, and yet no man is excluded from it; for that in which all human life is unified is passion,* and faith is a passion.” (Soren Kierkegaard) Yes, faith is a passion for God beyond all other passions. It is a passion so deep that it outweighs all other fears, desires, dreads, temptations. It’s a passion that converts itself into more than talk. It’s a passion that acts upons itself and its beliefs. Yes, faith is a passion that stems from the heart of God Himself, into the lives and hearts and minds of those who have placed their trust in Him.
And this amazes me. Abraham could know how to respond, despite his own desires, because he knew and understood the heart of God. Did Joseph understand the heart of God that well, that he responded like the suffering servant? Did Mary know the heart of God so well that she could rely on her Redeemer and Comforter alone, should not even Joseph understand? Yes, faith is amazing. It’s absolutely unexplainable but it’s within each of our grasps. God is offering us opportunities called trials and temptations. Am I willing to follow after His heart no matter the cost? If so, someone just might see the faith of Abraham, or Joseph, or Mary, in me, thanks to the Lord.