In our culture of constant connection and instantaneous updates, we don’t have to wait for the next weekly tabloid for the latest gossip. Twitter takes care of that and with every slanderous story and incriminating photo delivered to the worlds’ fingertips, pundits, bloggers and posts ignite. While the guilty, misunderstood, or shamed one hides under the irrupting judgment in a dark, lonely corner.
Have you ever felt attacked and alone? Maybe you were in the wrong or were being made fun of? Whatever the case, have you experienced the humiliation that comes from people knowing your sin, believing a rumor, or thinking ill of you unjustly?
In thinking about Advent it struck me that the one person who flies under the Christmas story radar screen also knew about this kind of condemnation and shame. Such is the story of Joseph. Joseph found himself at the center of controversy because the one to whom he was betrothed was pregnant with a child not his own.
This huge, messy, scandalous situation would have definitely raised eyebrows and had people talking. In that day, betrothal was more than engagement; the commitment was actually viewed as being married. Therefore, Mary’s supposed illegitimate pregnancy carried with it the connotation of adultery. So imagine the boiling emotions and what must have been going through Joseph’s mind before the angel appeared.
Don’t you imagine he felt humiliated and confused, consumed with anger and betrayed? Can you picture the heated words that might have ensued between Joseph and Mary as he called her character into question and assumed her guilt?
But with the appearance of the angel, Joseph’s heart softened and the heated situation changed. Just as Mary believed the angel’s words spoken to her, Joseph believed and submitted to God’s plan. This did not, however, mean there was no longer any shame. From the perspective of everyone else, whether a case of premarital sex or adultery, the law had been broken. So I imagine the whispering and judgment toward them continued along with the shame.
Even without today’s media digging up old news, the staying power of the scandal surrounding the holy night followed Jesus through life. We see this in John 8 in a conversation Jesus had with the Pharisees regarding who he was. The Pharisees had grown increasingly frustrated and confused over Jesus’ claims, so in an attempt to discredit Jesus further a snide remark alluding to his “illegitimate” birth was made.
“We were not born of sexual immorality…(like you were).”
Jesus responded by telling them he had come from God and if God were their Father they would love him. But the Pharisees, not belonging to God, continued to berate and accuse.
This type of condemnation was not new to Jesus. Everywhere he went he was subject to gossip. But while mistreatment, slander and rejection followed him from the crèche to the cross, the shame of the cross and everything leading to it, he endured for the joy set before him (Hebrews 12:2).
Isn’t this where the real scandal lies?
A God so holy and just that even the angels had to cover their faces in his sight, left his heavenly throne, not in grandeur or with power, but as a baby delivered to a messy world through the messiness of childbirth. The One who Joseph stepped in to father knew shame like no one else. Therefore, he could identify with what his earthly dad must have felt and he can identify with us in all of our shame.
Jesus came to associate with the ungodly, the lowly, the down-trodden, the unrighteous and the rejected. And because he entered into our world as a babe to live as a man and experience all that we do, he has compassion on us in our guilt, with our doubts and questioning, our lack of trust and with our anger and every other emotion. But in his grace he also came to do something about the muck and the mess: He took it on himself.
Do you realize what this means for you?
He didn’t just come to identify with us, but to trade identities with and for us. In this great exchange he became sin and shame, so we could be righteous and free. So no matter what trace of scandal, ongoing sin, or lurking shame seeks to define or destroy us, we are securely his. His precious children can know what the Pharisees did not —God as our loving Father. And this, my friend, is why he counted enduring a life sentenced to death as nothing compared to the joy of delivering us into his Father’s kingdom.
After Joseph heard the angel’s words, I believe he determined the personal shame associated with taking Mary, full with child, to be his wife as nothing. Not nothing in that he wouldn’t experience suffering, but worth the sacrifice to bring the Christ-child to a world desperately in need of the gift he came to be. And when you know who Jesus is for you, I pray you will also trust there is no shame or grief that heaven can’t heal. May you cast your eyes on him and believe you are his most loved child.