“But we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness….” I Corinthians 1:23
In the last few posts, I wrote of the coming of our Savior and the light that He brought into the dark world. Light is a popular topic around Christmas. We find great comfort in the positive themes of this season. Light. Hope. Peace on earth, good will toward men. Yet these are not the only themes that are prominent in the historical accounts. There are other themes that do not offer the same feel-good sentiment, that are also worthy of our consideration. One of those themes is that of scandal.
Matthew 1:18-25 “This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). 24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.”
The coming of our Savior, Jesus, is steeped in scandal. Joseph is betrothed to Mary, a relationship that is more than engagement; they are married under the law except for the consummation and moving in together. Then comes the shocking news. Mary is “found to be pregnant,” meaning her condition is becoming known. Joseph apparently does not get the news from Mary, for the angel explains the supernatural circumstances to Him.
Imagine the pain. Your wife-to-be, legally bound to you, apparently has been unfaithful. Imagine the shame, the scandal brewing around this disastrous news, the impending public humiliation, the bewilderment. Joseph knows he is not the father, so the ramifications are severe. Mary could be stoned as an adulteress. He could insist on it, and no one would blame him. Yet, “…because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Joseph reveals his true character. With grace, mercy, and love, he decides to privately divorce her, to minimize the public shame to her.
Visited by the angel, Joseph learns the divine circumstances of the pregnancy. Instructed to take Mary as His wife, and his obedience is immediate and decisive. “…When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” The cost will be enormous to Joseph, who will be known as the one who could not obey the social and religious standards and wound up getting his woman pregnant before the marriage was completed. He will the subject of whispers and rumors for years.
Mary, perhaps only 14 or 15 years of age, has willingly accepted her role in the advent of the Savior. As a result, she will likely be treated harshly. How many people, even in her own family, will ever believe her version of these events? Like the woman at the well in the story recorded in John chapter 4, Mary will likely be a moral outsider, an outcast in her own hometown who will experience mocking and exclusion. Jesus will be associated with scandal from His birth onward. Many will not get past their own perceptions of scandal, will not give His life and message the attention they deserved. The scandal will cause them to stumble.
Jesus is referred to in the Bible as a scandalon, a Greek term meaning a trap or snare, an impediment placed in the way and causing one to stumble or fall. Jesus, quoting from Psalm 118, says this about Himself, “Have you never read in the scriptures: ‘The stone that the builders rejected (“scandalon”) has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes’? The cornerstone of our great salvation was rejected by the religionists, and he became to them a scandalon, a stone of offense and stumbling. He is still so for many today.
This is not how most of us would plan the advent of the Savior of the world, nor is it how most of us would expect to be treated for offering up total obedience to the plan. How this story plays out for the participants is bewildering. It is scandalous. Mary and Joseph, like so many who will be associated with the Savior, gamble everything and risk all, and appear to lose so much. Ken Wytsma said:
“The kingdom of God is an upside-down kingdom. It beckons us to gamble all, to trust radically, to come and die so that we might live–to give our lives away. Giving life away is a paradox. It’s losing so we can win. It’s giving so we can receive. It’s risking for security. It’s faith. The kingdom of God means living that tension.”