Welcome again to our Christmas season of Light in the Darkness. As our own winter days get darker and colder, and Christmas approaches, we get to dig into some of the story behind the season and look for the hope and light we can find there. This year our team has particularly been intrigued by the dreams we find in the Christmas story and how those dreams of what Jesus might be able to do can inspire us in our own times, whether life feels dreamy to us or whether the world looks more to us like a nightmare.
I was lucky in my teenage years and early 20s to have a lot of mentors in that time of life, and one of them reached out to me again recently with a surprising message. He’d remembered something I said something like 25 years ago and how it had stuck with him.
I remember the conversation well because it’s not often that a mentor opens up to you about their own life’s disappointments. Especially when you’re young. But one day this guy was telling me, essentially, that he thought he was a failure. He had dropped out of graduate school when he was younger and never really put the professional life together that he’d always hoped he would. I think that he was trying to warn me that life can easily become a big disappointment. Wow, that was heavy to hear.
And so maybe just to lighten the mood, I’m not sure, I asked him—what about all this other stuff in your life? What you’ve done as a father, how your kids have turned out? I mean look at them, and look at the stuff you do outside of your work? Can you feel good about that? I don’t remember him answering me, just looking at me kind of wistfully with a forced smile, maybe saying thanks for saying that.
But here we are, some 25 years later, and he’s telling me thanks for trying to help me see myself as something other than a disappointment. To be honest, I couldn’t tell if it had worked—if it was one of those thanks for the help comments, or more like thanks for trying.
Because disappointment is powerful, isn’t it?
My sense is a lot of us greet this Christmas season with some degree of disappointment in our lives. Disappointment in ourselves, and where our life is in one area or another? Disappointment in the way things are going in the world? Maybe we pin that disappointment on someone else? Maybe on God? Maybe we blame it on ourselves? Regardless, it’s a heavy weight.
And today we’ll meet a character central to the Christmas story, wrestling with how to understand his life and times, and whether to see himself or his times or his circumstances as one big disappointment he’s got to extricate himself from?
Or whether there’s something bigger and deeper going on, whether in the middle of what might feel like disappointment, he’s living in a bigger dream he can lean into.
This guy is named Joseph of Nazareth, and it’s his story that begins the New Testament in our Bibles.
Matthew 1:16-25 (CEB)
16Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary—of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Christ.
17So there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen generations from the exile to Babylon to the Christ.
So already, there are two different angles on Joseph’s life here.
I picked things up a few paragraphs into the story because the opening bit, what the editors called verses 1 to 15 in a genealogy. So and so is the father of so and so, this person was born of this or that mother. It’s boring to most readers, but if you know the whole cast of characters, it’s actually kind of gripping. Because it’s telling us that Joseph is in the lineage of some very important people. His family history includes great kings and legendary patriarchs. His life is the stuff of legend, his lineage royal. Joseph could have had high aspirations for where his life would go.
But there’s another thing going on right inside this introduction. In Matthew’s opening genealogy, there’s a flow—there’s a rise, there’s a peak, and there’s a decline. Fourteen generations from Abraham to David—from the father of faith for billions on this earth, to the great king of Israel, from one epic hero to another.
David is the name from the Hebrew Scriptures, the figure in the Old Testament, who is named more in the New Testament, the Christian scriptures than any other. But it’s been a long time – some thousand years, since the time of David.
And Joseph’s backstory says there’s been a long, slow decline from the heroic days of David into exile in Babylon. To tragedy, undoing, deconstruction, disappointment. And since those days of exile, there’s been an equally long era of the dreary status quo.
Now the 500 years from exile in Babylon to the birth of Jesus in Nazareth is a complicated and interesting history, full of rises and falls for the Jewish people. But that’s not how Matthew sets up this story. He waves his hand in the direction of these fourteen generations, lists a number of grandfathers and great-grandfathers of minimal fame, and says it’s been a long time since exile. It’s been a long time since the age of our disappointment began.
Friends, I don’t know what age of disappointment you’ve settled into, what your dreary status quo looks like today.
I shared last week that it’s been 45 or 50 years since mainstream American culture trusted our public institutions. Most of us look at our government and our banks and our schools and our press and our religious institutions and don’t like what we see. And of course, some of that distrust has rapidly accelerated over the past two years. We’re so disappointed in our public discourse, our public policy, and the mean-spirited antics of our nation’s leadership.
But whatever take you do or don’t have on the broad American story, I’m sure you look at something more particular in our public life and sigh, or clench your fist. We all look at aspects of the world as it is that makes us sad or enraged and wonder: what happened? How long? Will it ever get better?
I know from your conversations with me that some of you look at your personal lives and feel the same way. You look at your careers, or you look at your finances, or your marriages, or your children, or your faith and feel like it has settled into a dreary status quo. How things are don’t seem so great, but they’ve been that way for a long time, and you don’t know if it will get any better.
It’s into this age of exile in the world, into this sleepy night of disappointment in our souls that Jesus arrives.
18This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly.
Ha! Can it get any worse? Within the context of exile, of this hard life in hard times, Joseph perhaps dreamed of a quietly good life. He’d found a marriage match, he had a trade to make a living. But just as his life is getting going, it all falls apart, when Mary tells him: Joseph, I’m pregnant.
Now I’ve got to say that most of my life, I’ve really liked Joseph in the Christmas story. I dreamed of being a dad long before I had kids and having and raising kids —hard as it may be sometimes—is one of the great joys of my life. And so I’ve liked this story of a dad, even a very unusual one, right in the Christmas story. And I’ve read Joseph’s story and shared Matthew’s generous take on the man. He’s a righteous man, a good guy, so when Mary tells him this outlandish story of the Holy Spirit getting her pregnant, he decides to end things quietly. To not make a big stink out of abandoning the woman he’s sure has betrayed his trust. Good guy, right?
Lately, I’ve got to admit, my read of Joseph has been getting less sympathetic. Betrothal, the stage of relationship Joseph shares with Mary, was a little more serious even than what we have with engagement. Mary is promised to Joseph as a wife, the two extended families – and so their whole hometowns know this. Arrangements have been made. They just haven’t had their wedding feast, moved in together, and consummated the relationship. For Joseph to back out of this arrangement and for Mary’s pregnancy to show up just after this would have meant abandoning Mary to a life of shame and destitution. All because Joseph doesn’t trust his near-wife when she tells him what happened. We might say he doesn’t believe the woman. His sense of betrayal or his own shame is too great to imagine the possibility of her admittedly unlikely story. From Mary’s perspective, she must be feeling like: Hey, Joseph, it’s not like I asked for God to choose me for this strange and enormous task of the virgin birth of our Lord. Can you believe me? Can you hang in here with me?
So whether or not Joseph is the good guy Matthew calls him, he’s living in what you might call exile mindset. He’s a realist, not a pessimist, perhaps, but his reality is framed by disappointment and by failure.
I grew up respecting people like this, people who surveyed the landscape of their world and honestly faced up to all that it wasn’t. And then stoically tried to soldier on and do the right thing. To make the best out of a bad situation with the meager resources at their disposal.
The mentor I mentioned at the top was this kind of person – disappointed his state of life, but trying to be an honorable and decent person even with his lack of hope. I’ve been this kind of person sometimes in my life – it’s a mindset I’m familiar with.
Here’s the thing, though: stoic, decent people gripped by disappointment can’t experience or produce joy. Stoic, decent people stuck in exile mindset can’t transform anything. They may be what Matthew would call “righteous people” – good guys, honorable women. But this is not the goal of the good news of Jesus – to produce miserable people who’ve quietly come to terms with our disappointment.
The good news of Jesus is to liberate us from our exile, to surprise us with what the Holy Spirit can do, to make us people who can dream again.
However a grim, disappointed exile mindset has set in for us today, my sense is the Holy Spirit might just want to interrupt that during this Christmas season.
Here’s how it happened for Joseph:
20 As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:
23Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
And they will call him, Emmanuel.
(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)
Joseph goes to bed thinking about how to quietly dismiss the woman he no longer trusts, but who so happens to be pregnant with the Son of God and the most influential person who ever lived. But then this dream interrupts Jacob’s dreary status quo.
Angel in Greek means messenger, so when we hear about an angel in these stories, we’re not supposed to worry about what an angel may or may not be. We’re being clued in that someone thinks God is speaking to them – in Joseph’s case, it’s through a dream he remembers. But it could have been through any means. We’re just supposed to pay attention to that message, that sense of interruption.
And here’s the interruption for Joseph.
To dream of the possibility of the Holy Spirit – that God might actually be present and at work for good in the world.
To dream of hope and deliverance – to dream that sin and exile, our failures and disappointments, will not have the last word.
And to dream of God with us, that we are not alone, abandoned, unseen and unknown, but that God is here, so it’s going to be OK.
This is a radical interruption to a life that Joseph would have told you just a day ago had just gotten much worse than it seemed.
What would it mean for you if you knew God was really, profoundly with you, even in your disappointment? And if you knew that your failures and disappointments were not going to get the last word?
I was on the phone with a few pastor friends last week and someone asked us if we had any thoughts on the year we’re about to finish, any observations or themes that stick out. And when it was my turn, I told them about some of the fun things and hard things that have come with our kids getting older and I spent some time talking about our church here – some of the great year we’ve had, people that are growing and developing in their leadership and their experience of God, new people in our community that are so wonderful and fascinating, really good work people are doing in the world. But then when I thought about just me, what’s my theme for the year, it was almost embarrassingly simple.
I told them how I’m learning that God is with me, that when I’m stressed out or discouraged or feel like I’ve kind of lost my moorings, it’s getting a little easier to not just soldier through or panic, but to stop and remember that God is with me, as if there’s a hand on my shoulder saying: Steve, it’s OK. It’s OK. Sort of weird that some of the first-fruits of months of therapy and nearly a year’s worth of this structured program or spiritual practice can be so simple, but there it is.
I’m a child of God. Not in just some theoretical sense, but God loves and likes me, God’s curious about my life and present even in my disappointments, and God’s there to give me presence and joy and encouragement to press forward creatively, courageously. To interrupt that gloomy fog of the exile mindset, and hope in the possibility of renewal and liberation.
One more thing about Joseph, though. It’s interesting to me how the interruption begins for him. The dream that interrupts Joseph’s disappointment, that shakes him out of his exile mindset, doesn’t start with the good news he needs to hear. God is with you – you, Joseph, you, the oppressed people of Israel, you, the people of the earth. That’s really important, but that’s not where things start. It also doesn’t start with a rebuke – like, shut up Joseph with your whole plan to dismiss Mary. Believe her, trust what I’m doing in her, love her. It gets there too, more gently than that, but the interruption gets there.
But where it starts is with who Joseph is. Not with an assertion, not with a command, but with an identity statement.
The interruption to Joseph’s exile mindset, his disappointment-driven bad living begins: Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid.
I wonder how long it took Joseph to figure out what it meant. He might have started wondering, who you are talking about? My name is Joseph, but my dad is not David. We read that at the beginning. You can look back in your programs to the beginning of the excerpt we’re reading today. In the ancient Near East, someone was known not by first and last name, but by their given name and the name of their father. This is Joseph, son of Jacob. Matthew has given us this genealogy in fact, so we know that Joseph’s dad is Jacob. And his grandfather is Matthan. And his father is Eleazar, and so forth. You have go to back 28 names, 28 generations in the family story to find a David.
But this David’s kind of a big deal – the second king of Israel, the best king of Israel. The person God promised would have a descendant who would forever lead and guide humanity into peace and justice and the presence of God. And in the dream, the genealogy gets compressed, as Joseph first gets to own – I’m that David’s kid. That’s who I am.
So I don’t have to be afraid. I don’t have to be afraid to trust Mary’s encounter with God. I don’t have to be afraid to marry her. I don’t have to be afraid of the scandal that will follow us the rest of my life. I don’t have to be afraid of this impossibly big thing God is asking me to do. Because I’m a child of David. This is who I am.
I wrote on the blog this past week that this is how a lot of good stories in our lives start – with a truer story about ourselves, with a clearer sense of our own identity.
We post each month on our blog a few cool bits of media – podcasts or books or movies or website, sometimes an experience or two you can have – that we think might help some people flourish. And in the one I posted last week, as I was writing, I was noticing that most of my favorite stories recently start this way.
This great movie that Grace and I and our boys watched last month, The Hate U Give, it’s a movie a lot of things. It’s about some of the many disappointing, horrible things about the world as it is in our times – about police shootings of unarmed Black men, about various forms of racism, about generational patterns of brokenness. But at the heart of the film, and the young adult novel it’s based on too, it’s about a young woman named Starr who has the opportunity to in her great disappointment not take on an exile mindset, but interrupt things as the way they are. And it starts for her with a story about who she is. Her dad is always telling her and her siblings why he gave them the names he did, the love and legacy and hope that was placed in their names. And Starr has to embrace that this is true about herself.
We watched another movie, a documentary about this legendary cross country coach in Illinois, who to help boys become impossibly fast runners, has to first help them believe they belong, that they are becoming men, and that they can do hard things. It starts with a better, truer story about identity – about who they are.
So as Christmas comes, I’m wondering about our disappointments, about our dreams turned to nightmare in our world. Or at least to the dreary status quo. And I’m wondering about interruptions to the exile mindset that has set in for us.
But as Christmas comes, I also find myself asking questions about identity. Are we mainly vulnerable and alone in the world, or is God profoundly with us now? Are we free agents, shaping our future, or are we members of God’s family, citizens of God’s kingdom, seeking to find the way of Jesus in our private and public lives? Are we nobodies left to do the best we can with our disappointments, or are children of God invited into joy and courage and hope?
This is where the dream begins again for Joseph – you are David’s son. Don’t be afraid. This is who you are.
Let’s read the end of the story.
24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.
Joseph couldn’t stay in the dream. He woke up. He faced the morning.
And then he needed to trust what he knew now. He needed to trust that God did visit Mary. He needed to trust that the Holy Spirit of God is doing new and strange things. He needed to trust in the salvation this child would bring, the liberation from failure and disappointment. He needed to trust that God was with them.
By finding Mary, and saying I believe you, and taking her as his wife. And then by showing he trusted her, and trusted God, by giving her the space to do this thing God was doing in and through her.
And each day, for the remaining months of her pregnancy, he had to wake up and keep trusting her and keep trusting God. Each day of Jesus’ childhood, he had to keep waking up and trusting that God was doing this new and great thing through the little kid he was raising.
Each day, he had to wake up and remember the dream. To doggedly remember who he was – I’m David’s son, destined for a part in this great story, and I don’t need to be afraid. And to doggedly remember and trust the good news. God is with us. Good things are coming. It’s going to be OK.
It’s hard to keep waking up and remembering the dream of God. But that’s our invitation this Advent season, this time before Christmas, this Light in the Darkness.
An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing
Who or what in your life seems most gripped by disappointment? Pray for that person or situation to be interrupted by God’s holy shift in perspective, for a waking up to hope and for courage to keep walking and working in hope.
And let’s spend a couple of minutes leaning into the heart of today’s good news.
Spiritual Practice of the Week
Spend a few minutes each morning or evening meditating on the meaning of Emmanuel—God with Us—to you in this season.