Hope in God’s unfolding story

Rev Niall Lockhart

21.12.2021 | Congregational Life, Moderator, Christmas

Hope at Christmas is this year’s PCI Christmas theme intended to help us celebrate the coming of Jesus among us as our Saviour. After another difficult and challenging year for society including our churches, so it is important to acknowledge the hope we have as Christians and to share this message of joy far and wide. Moderator’s Chaplain, Rev Niall Lockhart, reflects on hope as we find it in the story of Joseph.

This year as I have read, and reread, the Christmas story I have found myself thinking about Joseph. We don’t know a huge amount about Joseph. He was known for his work (Matthew 13:55) and he was known for his attitude to God’s law (Matthew 1:19). Honouring God in the ordinary, everyday things of life, mattered to Joseph.

Blog_Hope_NiallL-(1).jpgJoseph was engaged to Mary. Mary shared Joseph’s humble faith (Luke 1:48) but before they got married Mary became pregnant. Mary already knew the unbelievable truth that the baby she carried had been conceived by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). I imagine her sharing this news with Joseph. Joseph wanted to believe her but Joseph was afraid (Matthew 1:19-20), and so he planned to divorce her quietly.

Hope in our fears

The stories of Scripture reveal to us that people of faith often feel afraid. In the Old Testament we meet believers, different from each other in many ways; Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, Ruth, Samuel, David, Elijah, Solomon, Nehemiah, Daniel. Different people, who lived in different times, and yet at some moment in each of their stories we are told they felt afraid.

If faith is a willingness to live with hope when we do not understand what is going on (Hebrews 11:1) then fear is the opposite of faith. Fear roots us to the spot (Matthew 25:25).

When I look back over this past couple of years I remember back to March 2020 and the beginning of the Covid pandemic. I was afraid.

Fear can easily become a constant driver for us as Christian people. To borrow from the title of a recently published book by journalist Finton O’Toole, we live in a day and age when it can feel as if ‘we don’t know ourselves.’ Moral change, cultural change, political change, north and south, can all converge to leave us feeling fearful.

There is hope at Christmas. The Lord said to Joseph ‘Do not be afraid’ (Matthew 1:20).

At that moment of not knowing, of not seeing, of not understanding, those words were enough for Joseph. Joseph took Mary home as his wife, she gave birth to a son, and Joseph gave him the name Jesus (Matthew 1:25), just as the Lord had commanded him.

Hope beyond our control

Jesus was born in Bethlehem. This ‘second act’ in the Christmas story (Matthew 2) finds Joseph and his new family in an altogether more positive place. The Bible that Joseph knew portrayed Bethlehem as a place of divine possibilities and provision. It was in Bethlehem that God’s covenant kindness was lavished on Ruth and Naomi (Ruth 4:11-12). It was in Bethlehem that David, Israel’s greatest king, was anointed to the throne (1 Samuel 16: 4,13). It was to Bethlehem that the prophets looked for a ruler who would come to bring restoration and security to God’s exiled people (Micah 5:2-4).

But very quickly expectations are upended as Joseph is told in haste to leave Bethlehem with Mary and Jesus and to escape for their lives to Egypt. Joseph would have grown up with the stories of Egypt; a place of imprisonment (Genesis 37:36), slavery (Exodus 1:14) and divine judgment (Hosea 9:3). But Joseph would also have known the stories of his Old Testament namesake and how even in Egypt God, in his sovereignty and providence, had been working out his purposes for the good of his people and for the salvation of many (Genesis 50:20).

This past year and more has been a time when at so many levels we have had to wrestle with what it looks like, in a very particular way, to not be in control. In churches, in businesses, in hospitals, in schools, in families; in these and many other contexts, people have found themselves having to react to circumstances and events outside of their control.

Yet there is hope at Christmas. Even in Egypt God’s long purposes and plans were being fulfilled (Matthew 2:15). So, in this place of not choosing and not being in control Joseph patiently waited.

Hope in God’s unfolding story

Nothing in this unfolding story catches God off guard. After Herod died an angel of the Lord appeared again to Joseph in a dream (Matthew 2:19). So once again better times beckon as the infant Jesus and his parents make their way back to the land of promise. No sooner are they arriving in the land than Joseph hears that Herod’s son Archelaus is reigning in Judea. Once again that old unwelcome feeling of being afraid revisits Joseph (Matthew 2:22). Once again God’s steadying word comes to him. The enforced change of plan this time takes him further north into the district of Galilee and the town of Nazareth; the place where his son would literally learn to follow in his father’s footsteps (Mark 6:3).

Matthew 2:22 uses a particular verb to describe this redirection to Nazareth. In our English Bibles it’s the word ‘withdraw’. In the original Bible language this is a word with a negative tone. It literally means to ‘go backward’. No pious Jew wanted to be in either Nazareth (John 1:46) or Galilee (John 7:52) if they had ambitions to be in on God’s plans.

But God’s plans are not our plans. His ways are not our ways. In fact, his ways are higher than our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9). His wisdom is deep and his paths are often beyond tracing out (Romans 11:33).

In each and every moment of history God is looking for people who he can trust with his blessing. The shifting scenes of the Christmas story offer much material that could have filled a good person with fear, anger, disappointment, or frustration.

Joseph it seems found a different rhythm. His heart was not proud, he did not concern himself with great matters or things too wonderful for him. Rather, with a calmed and quietened soul, Joseph embraced each new moment, each new uncertainty, as a renewed opportunity to place his hope in the Lord (Psalm 131:1-3). God found that this was someone he could trust with his greatest blessing.

HopeAtChristmas_Homepage600x417.jpgHope at Christmas is this year’s PCI Christmas theme intended to help us celebrate the coming of Jesus among us as our Saviour.

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