Man Proposes but God Disposes
Rev. Kurt Lantz The Nativity of Our Lord-Christmas Eve Matthew 1:18-25
December 24, 2022 Resurrection Lutheran Church St. Catharines, ON
Dear people righteous and just,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
“Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly” (Matthew 1:19). Merry Christmas. Here are the divorce papers. Sadly, that has probably happened more than once in our modern society even on this solemn and holy night. What a different flavour even the Christian celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord would take on if the biblical account began with the divorce of Mary and Joseph instead of him taking her to be his wife. While Mary generally receives more of the spotlight than Joseph and there are plenty of images of just Madonna and Child, imagine the change in our nativity sets and the difference in Christmas cards and children’s pageants if Joseph was obliterated from the scene.
It is Joseph trying to do the right thing that threatens his withdrawal from the Christmas Gospel. In sharp contrast to the grossly immoral times that we live in: Under God’s holy Law given to the Jews, if a betrothed man found evidence that his intended was not a virgin, the men of the city were to stone her to death at the door of her father’s house, because she had done an outrageous thing among God’s chosen people (Deuteronomy 22:20-21). If the man who got her pregnant was found, both of them were to be stoned to death at the gate of the city in order to purge the evil from God’s chosen people (vv. 23-24). If the man had forced himself on her, then only the man would die (v. 25).
Rather than seeing the need to punish such evil in our society, such immorality is not only encouraged but even expected. Our children are trained and groomed to be sexually active long before they would ever be encouraged to be married. And subsequently, divorce is not seen as a way in which to purge the evil, but as an escape hatch in order to pursue other sexual interests.
Not only do we see Joseph trying to do the right thing, but also a merciful thing. He does not want Mary put to death (if the Jews were even allowed to carry that out under Roman occupation. Certainly we see them threaten to do that with another woman caught in adultery, as it appears in John chapter 8). Joseph chose the softer option: to write a certificate of divorce so that his finance could marry someone else, one presumed to be the father of the child (Deuteronomy 24:1). Even in any such case, our observance of Christmas would be quite a bit different.
As it is, we do treasure Christmas as a time to draw families together rather than to tear them apart. Even if there is some discord and even divorce within the family, we muster our resolve to overcome the differences and the hurts and the harm in order to show care and concern and even share time together. At least we have the sense that we ought to do that sort of thing, even if it may be beyond our strength. And I think that the tension and strain that Joseph experiences right at the outset draws us to this ideal. We know that we should strive for a balance between what is just and what is merciful.
We seldom do it as well as Joseph the Just, a man whose overriding concern was to do the right thing according to the Law of the Lord. Instead, we use our own determination of what is right. If at all, we may be slightly inclined in the direction of what we think we might have heard when someone somewhere was referencing the Bible.
For example, we think it the Christian thing to do to try to get the family together at Christmas, but we may not specifically consider what the Bible says of the relationship of Mary and Joseph or other God-pleasing family relations. We want to have the final determination in setting the boundaries of our family gatherings. When we decide that divorce or the shunning of a family member is the right thing to do, it is based heavily on what would be easiest for us and how best to punish the offender. If we can defend our position with something we find in God’s Word all the better, but we don’t consider that essential.
This is not the way in which Joseph is declared to be just or righteous before God. Our way is the way of self-righteousness, deciding for ourselves what is just and right. Joseph is not condemned by God even for what he intended to do. Rather, God declares him to be just. Nevertheless it was not according to God’s standard of justice and mercy for Himself.
God’s justice and mercy are of a higher standard. He wasn’t bending the rules for Mary and Joseph. He was going above and beyond for them and for us all. God’s justice, the justice of the One who gave His holy Law in thunder and fire on Mount Sinai, reaches higher and beyond the Law that He imposes upon us. It is beyond our ability to meet or even to aspire. It is perfect and holy.
Likewise, His mercy, the mercy of the one who inspires us to be merciful, is deeper than we can ever delve. It goes beyond our comprehension to an extent where we feel mercy and justice become incompatible. If the penalty is to be paid in full, can there be any room for mercy? If we are going to be merciful, is justice not to be served? Not with us.
There is a saying that you have probably heard, “Man proposes but God disposes.” It is an oft quoted phrase that we use to explain those instances where justice and mercy go beyond what sinful humanity is capable of. When we intend to execute justice but in the end we see that mercy wins the day: “Man purposes [justice], but God disposes [mercy].” When we decide to be merciful and are thwarted by an inescapable justice: “Man purposes [mercy], but God disposes [justice].”
Joseph intended to be both just and merciful. He was, but it did not go far enough for God. Humanity’s justice and mercy was not high or deep enough. It could not be attained even in a just man like Joseph. Joseph’s justice was based on what he knew at the time. His betrothed was pregnant and it was not by him. God’s Law demanded that there be punishment so that such evil would not become the norm in all of society. Mary was not pregnant by any source of evil, but by the source of holiness. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:20).
The purposes of man have to give way to the purposes of the all-knowing, almighty, all-righteous God. The purpose of Joseph gave way to the divine, eternal, irrevocable purpose of the Lord. Being too high and too deep for us, the Lord sent His angel to Joseph to reveal the divine purpose established even before the foundation of the world. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you will call His name Jesus because He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:20-21).
This purpose of God could not be thwarted. It would happen just as He stated hundreds of years before to another son of David. Isaiah was the messenger sent to King Ahaz: “The virgin will conceive and bear a son and they will call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). It is not just man that purposes. God purposes, too. It was His purpose that the child Immanuel be born of a virgin. It was His purpose that through Mary, with child by the Holy Spirit, God would be with us—Immanuel, to save His people—Jesus.
It is in the Child born of Mary that God’s supreme justice and mercy are united in perfect harmony. His justice goes above and beyond as the sins of all mankind are punished to the fullest extent in the suffering and death of this Man who is God. He has come to us in flesh and blood to suffer in the flesh for our sins of the flesh. The death penalty is carried out for the sins of all mankind on this God who has united Himself to us in the incarnation. He is so united to us in this incarnation that justice is served to the full extent of God’s divine standard.
His mercy plunges to unfathomable depths as all of our indiscretions and betrayals and adulteries and self-righteousness are taken off of us and lain upon the God who places Himself in the womb of Mary. God’s mercy goes deeper than we are able to go. He has complete knowledge of our deepest, darkest sins. He has forgiveness for things that we could never forgive. And He is able to do so in justice because He punished us in Jesus, the God who is with us. The sentence was carried out, the death penalty served. Because Mary’s Child is God with us, He alone saves us from our sins. He suffers to the full extent of God’s holy justice and He pours out mercy to the surpassing depths of His divine love.
God purposed it and it pleased Him to dispose it through Joseph and Mary. Going above and beyond the justice capable of this righteous and obedient couple, and far far beyond our own, it is God who purposes to save us in His mercy and who disposes justice and righteousness in a perfect harmony of His nature. And draws us all into His family through faith in His Son.
This is what inspires us to go beyond what justice requires in making amends with those whom we have wronged. This is what drives us to be merciful even when we feel it is not in us to forgive. We have no strength for this kind of thing. Despite what we purpose to do in any given situation, no matter how well-meaning we might be in terms of justice or mercy, we need God to dispose what we are unable, and to fill our hearts with His holiness and grace. We need the good news of Jesus our Saviour, God with us, to draw our families together in forgiveness and reparation. And there is no time to do so like this most holy season of Christmas.
It is a great comfort to the Christian who purposes to be righteous in dealing with strained family relationships, that a monk preceding the Reformation wrote in the fifteenth century, a devotional entitled “The Imitation of Christ.” In it Thomas a Kempis encourages us to strive to imitate the justice and mercy of God in Christ Jesus, and also points us to the salvation that we have in Jesus who is God with us. In chapter 19 of Book One we come across a familiar phrase. “The purpose of righteous men depends in the grace of God more than in themselves, or in their own wisdom: for man purposes, but God disposes: rather, the way that man shall walk in this world is not in himself, but in the grace of God” (page 37). May such grace work in us and through us for a blessed Christmas to one and all.