“If people knew I was a Christian, I’d be ridiculed.”
My friend and I were eating sandwiches at a trendy lunch spot. He picked the restaurant and, upon seeing the menu, I quietly prayed he planned to cover the bill.
His candid comment redirected me toward being pastoral.
“Tell me more about that.”
I learned that classic time-buying phrase from a parenting book I read once.
“My career credibility would be gone,” he said. “The people in my world see Christians as a problem.”
He works at the highest level of academia. A brilliant guy. In a brilliant school. Making a lot of money.
I prepared my standard pastoral advice, but paused.
It’s a troubling conundrum that pastors, whose livelihood depends on public openness about God, could flippantly advise those whose livelihood may be harmed for doing the same. Empathy and sensitivity is required.
My friend’s credibility dilemma, tempting him to consider abandoning his faith, is not a new phenomena.
Mary Had Credibility Issues with Joseph
Two millennia ago, Jesus’s arrival caused Mary a serious credibility issue with her fiancé.
This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph, to whom she was engaged, was a righteous man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagement quietly.
- Matthew 1:18-19, New Living Translation
Joseph didn’t believe Mary's story. None of us would have.
I’ve always wondered why the angel didn’t reveal Jesus’s arrival to Mary and Joseph simultaneously, but God often chooses painful time schedules to accelerate our growth.
Joseph, I swear an angel told me I’m pregnant with God’s Son. (paraphrase of Luke 1:35)
Joseph wanted out, and his willingness to “break the engagement quietly” speaks to his character. Typical ancient penalties for adultery were brutal on women – the man’s options ranged from financial payment to slavery to death (John 8:4-5).
“Let’s peacefully go our own ways,” was Joseph’s graceful response, although a lifetime of “What happened to Mary?” surely would await him.
Cue the Gossip
Things changed quickly.
As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
- Matthew 1:20-21
On the surface, the angel’s announcement appears to solve the problem, but a new credibility problem was born along with Jesus.
People in the first century could count to nine too. When Mary’s “Jesus bump” first appeared, friends and family undoubtedly did the math, and it’s possible Jesus’s parents endured the gossip for years:
That’s the couple who couldn’t wait….
That’s the guy whose wife fooled him into believing…
What do you think really happened…
Ancient culture meant Mary and Joseph couldn’t hide from the gossip by closing the garage door and living off Amazon deliveries. They likely encountered coy glances daily – at the market, in the synagogue, entertaining guests, conducting business…
Joseph knew the truth so he stood by Mary and Jesus, but the cost was high.
Seeing Jesus in a Cloudy Culture
Our present day is, by far, the most confused and challenging moment in my 25 years of pastoral ministry. There can be a high cost to standing by your faith.
Many people, like my friend, are choosing to disassociate from their faith because current events are clouding a clear vision of Jesus. And when we lose sight of Jesus, the potential hit to our reputation feels untenable.
Perhaps you are one of them – exhausted by news of Christians acting unchristian and you are unwilling to be collateral damage in the culture wars. As things got uglier this year, perhaps you decided to set aside your faith and declare "Christian" as a past tense self-descriptor.
You may be appalled by what Christians are doing today.
You may be appalled by what Christians are not doing today.
Wherever you fall, it is certain that, while our culture may change, Jesus will not.
Meanwhile, our task is never to justify those who misbehave in his name; rather, the task is to distinguish between those misdeeds (especially our own) and the loving deity lying in the manger. Discerning the difference between Christians and the Christ has perhaps never been more important.
Can you see beyond the human-induced misery, confusion, politics, anger, division and hatred of 2020 and stand by the justice, promise, hope, grace, unity and love of our very good Savior? Do not throw out Mary's baby with the 2020 bath water.
Joseph and Mary endured shame by focusing on this core truth: their baby boy is the long-awaited, loving King.
And they knew, in the end, His is the only credibility that matters.
Thanks for reading! One more week of Christmas devotionals starts Monday.
Next Week: The “Highlight Reel” moments of Jesus’s life that help us celebrate His birth.
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Have a great day, JC