Joseph's Prayer by Max Lucado from On This Holy Night
Joseph... did what the Lord’s angel had told him to do. — Matthew 1:24
The white space between Bible verses is fertile soil for questions. One can hardly read Scripture without whispering, “I wonder...”
“I wonder if Eve ever ate any more fruit.”
“I wonder if Noah slept well during storms.”
“I wonder if Jonah liked fish or if Jeremiah had friends.”
“Did Moses avoid bushes? Did Jesus tell jokes? Did Peter ever try water-walking again?”
“Would any woman have married Paul had he asked?”
The Bible is a fence full of knotholes through which we can peek but not see the whole picture. It’s a scrapbook of snapshots capturing people in encounters with God, but not always recording the result.
So we wonder:
When the woman caught in adultery went home, what did she say to her husband?
After the demoniac was delivered, what did he do for a living?
After Jairus’s daughter was raised from the dead, did she ever regret it?
Knotholes and snapshots and “I wonders.” You’ll find them in every chapter about every person. But nothing stirs so many questions as does the birth of Christ. Characters appear and disappear before we can ask them anything. The innkeeper too busy to welcome God — did he ever learn who he turned away? The shepherds — did they ever hum the song the angels sang? The wise men who followed the star — what was it like to worship a toddler? And Joseph, especially Joseph.
I’ve got questions for Joseph.
Did you and Jesus arm wrestle? Did He ever let you win?
Did you ever look up from your prayers and see Jesus listening?
How do you say “Jesus” in Egyptian?
What ever happened to the wise men?
What ever happened to you?
We don’t know what happened to Joseph. His role in Act I is so crucial that we expect to see him in the rest of the drama — but with the exception of a short scene with twelve-year-old Jesus in Jerusalem, he never reappears. The rest of his life is left to speculation, and we are left with our questions.
But of all my questions, my first would be about Bethlehem. I’d like to know about the night in the stable. I can picture Joseph there. Moonlit pastures. Stars twinkle above. Bethlehem sparkles in the distance. There he is, pacing outside the stable.
What was he thinking while Jesus was being born? What was on his mind while Mary was giving birth? He’d done all he could do — heated the water, prepared a place for Mary to lie. He’d made Mary as comfortable as she could be in a barn and then he stepped out. She’d asked to be alone, and Joseph had never felt more so.
In that eternity between his wife’s dismissal and Jesus’ arrival, what was he thinking? He walked into the night and looked into the stars. Did he pray?
For some reason, I don’t see him silent; I see Joseph animated, pacing. Head shaking one minute, fist shaking the next. This isn’t what he had in mind. I wonder what he said...
This isn’t the way I planned it, God. Not at all. My child being born in a stable? This isn’t the way I thought it would be. A cave with sheep and donkeys, hay and straw? My wife giving birth with only the stars to hear her pain?
This isn’t at all what I imagined. No, I imagined family. I imagined grandmothers. I imagined neighbors clustered outside the door and friends standing at my side. I imagined the house erupting with the first cry of the infant. Slaps on the back. Loud laughter. Jubilation.
That’s how I thought it would be.
The midwife would hand me my child and all the people would applaud. Mary would rest, and we would celebrate. All of Nazareth would celebrate.
But now. Now look. Nazareth is five days’ journey away. And here we are in a... in a sheep pasture. Who will celebrate with us? The sheep? The shepherds? The stars?
This doesn’t seem right. What kind of husband am I? I provide no midwife to aid my wife. No bed to rest her back. Her pillow is a blanket from my donkey. My house for her is a shed of hay and straw.
The smell is bad; the animals are loud. Why, I even smell like a shepherd myself.
Did I miss something? Did I, God?
When You sent the angel and spoke of the Son being born — this isn’t what I pictured. I envisioned Jerusalem, the temple, the priests, and the people gathered to watch. A pageant perhaps. A parade. A banquet at least. I mean, this is the Messiah!
Or, if not born in Jerusalem, how about Nazareth? Wouldn’t Nazareth have been better? At least there I have my house and my business. Out here, what do I have? A weary mule, a stack of firewood, and a pot of warm water. This is not the way I wanted it to be! This is not the way I wanted my son.
Oh my, I did it again. I did it again, didn’t I, Father? I don’t mean to do that; it’s just that I forget. He’s not my son... He’s Yours.
The child is Yours. The plan is Yours. The idea is Yours. And forgive me for asking but... is this how God enters the world? The coming of the angel, I’ve accepted. The questions people asked about the pregnancy, I can tolerate. The trip to Bethlehem, fine. But why a birth in a stable, God?
Any minute now Mary will give birth. Not to a child, but to the Messiah. Not to an infant, but to God. That’s what the angel said. That’s what Mary believes. And, God, my God, that’s what I want to believe. But surely You can understand; it’s not easy. It seems so... so... so... bizarre.
I’m unaccustomed to such strangeness, God. I’m a carpenter. I make things fit. I square off the edges. I follow the plumb line. I measure twice before I cut once. Surprises are not the friend of a builder. I like to know the plan. I like to see the plan before I begin.
But this time I’m not the builder, am I? This time I’m a tool. A hammer in Your grip. A nail between Your fingers. A chisel in Your hands. This project is Yours, not mine.
I guess it’s foolish of me to question You. Forgive my struggling. Trust doesn’t come easy to me, God. But You never said it would be easy, did You?
One final thing, Father. The angel You sent? Any chance You could send another? If not an angel, maybe a person? I don’t know anyone around here, and some company would be nice. Maybe the innkeeper or a traveler? Even a shepherd would do.
I wonder. Did Joseph ever pray such a prayer? Perhaps he did. Perhaps he didn’t.
But you probably have.
You’ve stood where Joseph stood. Caught between what God says and what makes sense. You’ve done what He told you to do only to wonder if it was Him speaking in the first place. You’ve stared into a sky blackened with doubt. And you’ve asked what Joseph asked.
You’ve asked if you’re still on the right road. You’ve asked if you were supposed to turn left when you turned right. And you’ve asked if there is a plan behind this scheme. Things haven’t turned out like you thought they would.
Each of us knows what it’s like to search the night for light. Not outside a stable, but perhaps outside an emergency room. On the gravel of a roadside. On the manicured grass of a cemetery. We’ve asked our questions. We questioned God’s plan. And we’ve wondered why God does what He does.
The Bethlehem sky is not the first to hear the pleading of a confused pilgrim.
If you are asking what Joseph asked, let me urge you to do what Joseph did. Obey. That’s what he did. He obeyed. He obeyed when the angel called. He obeyed when Mary explained. He obeyed when God sent.
He was obedient to God.
He was obedient when the sky was bright.
He was obedient when the sky was dark.
He didn’t let his confusion disrupt his obedience. He didn’t know everything. But he did what he knew. He shut down his business, packed up his family, and went to another country. Why? Because that’s what God said to do.
What about you? Just like Joseph, you can’t see the whole picture. Just like Joseph, your task is to see that Jesus is brought into your part of your world. And just like Joseph, you have a choice: to obey or disobey. Because Joseph obeyed, God used him to change the world.
Can He do the same with you?
God still looks for Josephs today. Men and women who believe that God is not through with this world. Common people who serve an uncommon God.
Will you be that kind of person? Will you serve... even when you don’t understand?
No, the Bethlehem sky is not the first to hear the pleadings of an honest heart, nor the last. And perhaps God didn’t answer every question for Joseph. But He answered the most important one. “Are you still with me, God?” And through the first cries of the Godchild the answer came.
“Yes. Yes, Joseph. I’m with you.”
There are many questions about the Bible that we won’t be able to answer until we get home. Many knotholes and snapshots. Many times we will muse, “I wonder...”
But in our wonderings, there is one question we never need to ask. Does God care? Do we matter to God? Does He still love His children?
Through the small face of the stable-born baby, He says yes.
Yes, your sins are forgiven.
Yes, your name is written in heaven.
Yes, death has been defeated.
And yes, God has entered your world.
Immanuel. God is with us.
Friday, December 13, 2013
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