When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him . . . (Matt. 1:18-25).
Whether in story or song, we yearn for resolution. We don’t always get it.
Some musical composers seem to delight in the discordant, regarding the unfinished sound as artistry. Some writers leave us wondering and guessing, regarding the jagged edges of the tale as closer to reality. They may be right. But that doesn’t change the fact that the ear and the mind instinctively seek resolution.
We want the chords to progress in such a way that we hear and feel the conclusion of the piece. We like for the varied plot-lines of the story to come together in such way that the fragments form a unified whole. ‘They lived happily ever after’ – that’s what we like to hear.
God in Loose Ends
Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth lacks resolution. As we typically read it and hear it read, the story ends nicely enough with Joseph taking Mary as his wife. But while this ending is simple, it isn’t neat. Much is left untold.
The fall-out from the marriage remains a mystery. Joseph’s faithful obedience to God no doubt came with a price-tag. New Testament scholar Craig Keener writes that ‘Joseph’s obedience to God cost him the right to value his own reputation.’ We never really see how this played out in Nazareth. Matthew tells us how Joseph and Mary settled there, but that’s it. We don’t know what life was like there. We never get the happily ever after ending.
However, there is one line in Matthew’s birth narrative that helps us make sense of what Joseph did when he awoke from that life-changing dream. When the Angel repeated the words that the prophet Isaiah had spoken long ago, Mary’s child was identified as Immanuel – ‘God with us.’ This truth is at the core of the Christmas story, and in some way it is at the core of our own stories as well – especially the messy stories, the stories that lack resolution and leave us groping about for what’s next.
The Power of ‘With’
The power of ‘with’ changes everything. God is present in the varied realities of this day, in all places and all circumstances. God with us in offices and malls, in gyms and courtrooms, on airplanes and on golf courses. God with us in health and illnesses, in heartache and in love.
In the birth of Jesus God keeps the promise made long ago through Isaiah: ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you’ (Isaiah 43:1-4). Our God is the God of ‘with.’
The power of ‘with’ tells us that God is not simply ‘above’: Aloof, distant, watching to see how we’ll manage and whether we’ll screw up. And it also tells us that God is not ‘against.’ The messy story you’re living right now is not punishment or revenge.
Endings yet Unseen
We tend to think that when God is with us, the story will always resolve. We sometimes doubt ‘God with us’ because if it were true, life would surely look differently than it does today. Joseph wouldn’t be risking his good name, devoting himself to an already-pregnant woman. And we too would be getting something other than we’ve got. But ‘God with us’ means that God enters fully into the life you have right now. And if God embraces your life, maybe you can embrace it too.
You can do the hard thing and accept the difficult reality – just as Joseph did.
And you can do it with deep peace and bold confidence, knowing that ultimately in all things God is working for your good. All things will one day resolve. Until then we, like Joseph, wake up each day and place our lives in God’s hands. We relinquish our claim to neat resolutions and fairy-tale endings and choose something better: Life with God. God with us.
How might the power of ‘with’ change how you live the day in front of you?
I will claim the Angel’s words to Joseph as your promise to me, O God. You are with us. In Jesus you entered fully into the experience of life and embraced it all. Because you are with us, we can do the same. Grant us the gift of your Spirit that we might live fully in your presence today, we ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.