Advent: Breaking the Silence.
“Why, Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in time of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1)
As the Old Testament comes to a close, we have a slew of prophets warning Israel and Judah of their coming exile. In 722 AD the Assyrian Empire conquers the northern ten tribes of Israel, taking them in to captivity (2 Kings 17). Then, 136 years later, the southern two tribes fall to Babylon (2 Kings 24) as Isaiah and Jeremiah foretold. Eventually, the Jews were permitted to return to their homeland, only to find a much different world than they had left. The advancement of Greek culture had spread throughout the region, with some Jews taking on this new worldview while other violently rejected it (see Maccabean revolt). It all came to a head when the Roman Empire subdued the whole area and established itself as the sole power in the Near East in 63 BC.
The underlying shock for Israel’s return came with the much deeper pain of realizing that Yahweh had not come back with them. They had erected the Second Temple over the site of the first as built by Solomon, but something was missing: God’s presence. Israel, for all intensive purposes, was still in exile; but this exile was spiritual in nature over the geographical. They were alone and waiting.
We find ourselves drawn to the small town of Bethlehem at the beginning of the first century in an Israel still licking it wounds from centuries of political turnover that had coming to a screeching halt with their new oppressors in the Roman Empire. A young man by the name of Joseph has been engaged to a young girl also of the House of David, but they hadn’t proceeded with the consummation of their marriage. In Jewish culture at this time, the bride and groom are engaged for a year or so while the groom prepares an add-on to his father’s house in anticipation of the final wedding ceremony. Because this is a covenant relationship that unfolds itself in stages, there is no easy way out at this point that can maintain the dignity of both parties should something go wrong.
And something did go wrong. He discovers that his young fiancee is pregnant; this puts him in quite the precarious situation. The rules of the day required that he publicly out her in order to put as much distance between himself and his now tainted wife-to-be. She has become a pariah in society, and his fortunes only diminish if he can’t find a way to deflect the blame as quickly and loudly as possible.
Then, breaking his 400 years of silence, God speaks through a heavenly messenger to Joseph. And the first thing he says? “Don’t be afraid”. What a shock this must have been! I can only imagine Joseph, after overcoming his initial terror, turning to the Voice and saying, “where have you BEEN all this time? You left us in the worst possible situation! It’s been one cruel dominion over another since we got back here. What do you have to say for yourself?”
There are two fantastic things to note about the quality of Joseph’s character here, and they give good indication as to why God chose him to steward his most precious possession in Jesus. First, Matthew 1:19 states that, “because Joseph was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly”.
Did you catch it?
A “righteous” man in Joseph’s day would have followed the rules and divorced her as loudly as possible so that the law could make a clean cut of the whole mess; her disgrace would just be an unfortunate consequence of doing what was “right”. But Joseph was not that kind of righteous. He already displayed within himself something of the heart of God. He desires to protect this girl as much as possible from becoming an outcast, a whore. This becomes a massive theme in the gospel of Matthew as Jesus challenges the religious authorities of the day in regards to their understanding of righteousness. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice”, he offers time and again, in both his words and his actions.
Secondly, as the first person to hear the voice of God in centuries, he immediately obeys, keeping the whole incident to himself. What would the temptation be like to scream from the rooftops the name which they called him, “Immanuel is here! God is with us again!”
Time and again we have seen men and women on the right side of history who have understood what it truly means to be righteous, what it really means to uphold the law that has been written on their hearts by the Divine Author (Jeremiah 31:33). These are the people of God who, when faced with the difficult decision of conforming to societal, political, or religious expectations have listened to the quiet voice within them that whispers, “there is another way”. Joseph becomes one of the first men of Israel to find himself living in that prophetic promise, and Jesus was in a better place to grow up with such an upright surrogate father.
Which righteousness do you pursue in your life? The desire to follow the rules in obedience, or to embody and reveal the Father Heart of God?