I grew up a country boy. I rambled freely in the woods and fields that surrounded my boyhood home. It was a full quarter of a mile from the back yard to the dirt road that ran past my grandmother’s house and the space in between was filled with trees made for climbing.
One wonderful summer my two cousins, who had lived far away for most of my life, came to live with my grandmother. We spent the summer days engaged in our two favorite pastimes…playing in one of the three creeks that bordered our farm and climbing all the way to the top of one of the huge pine trees that occupied the field between the back yard and the dirt road.
Usually, my cousins and I were content to stay close to the trunk of the tree where the limbs were nice and fat and we could quickly wrap our arms around the trunk if the wind began to blow. But every now and then, we would dare each other to see how far we could move out on a limb away from the safety of the trunk. Being way out on a limb was scary because when the wind would blow, the limb would move up and down and back and forth, causing us to have to hold on for dear life! It didn’t take long for us to permanently trade the relative safety of staying close to the trunk for the thrill of riding the wind way out on a limb.
Matthew 1: 18-25 tells the story of Joseph…a man sitting on a big fat limb up close to the trunk of life’s tree. Joseph’s life was set. He had been taught a valuable trade (carpentry) which would provide him with a poor but sustainable living. He was betrothed to marry a beautiful young Jewish girl named Mary. He was respected in the community and he was looking forward to settling down and starting a family.
That’s when God pulled Joseph away from the trunk and sent him on the ride of his life!
Before Joseph and Mary came together (in the biblical sense) it was discovered that Mary was pregnant. What would Joseph do? The law required that Mary be put to death for her obvious adulterous ways but Joseph loved her. Not wanting to see her harmed or even shamed he decided to handle the matter privately. Joseph stepped gingerly away from the trunk of the tree when he bucked tradition by showing mercy to Mary. That night, God appeared to Joseph in a dream, revealing that Mary had not been unfaithful to him. It must have been difficult for Joseph to believe but he decided to go out on a limb with God by believing the message of the angel. He took Mary as his wife and his normal, everyday, life up against the tree trunk came to end.
I believe Joseph discovered three things when he made the decision to believe God and move out on a limb. First, he discovered that God’s ways are out on a limb. Staying close to the tree may keep us safe and secure but God’s greatest glory is gained out on a limb. Maybe Joseph remembered the story of David, who left the trunk security of a shepherd boy’s life and embraced the limb of giant slaying and nation building. Maybe he remembered Joshua, who rejected the trunk safety of traditional warfare and moved out on the limb of marching around Jericho seven times, and was rewarded with seeing Jericho’s walls fall at the sound of a shout. Maybe he remembered Gideon who pushed away from the trunk certainly of an army of over thirty thousand and followed God out on the limb of just three hundred. Whatever was going through Joseph’s mind, he came to the conclusion that great things for God are most often accomplished when we are hanging on for dear life rather than hanging on to our own dear life.
Second, Joseph discovered that God’s will often takes us out on a limb. According to Acts chapter 8, Phillip was in the middle of a revival of the Samaritans when God called him to a desert road that ran from Jerusalem to Gaza. That must have seemed strange to Phillip since the Samaritans were coming to Christ in great numbers. But God’s will was to reach a continent through a eunuch from Ethiopia. Joseph must have thought it strange that he was told in a dream to pack up his new family and head for Egypt. But God’s will often takes us down unfamiliar roads to unusual places. These out-on-a-limb encounters are filled with the power and the glory of God. Sometimes, it is when we are the most uncomfortable in our circumstances that we experience the most comforting moments with God.
Finally, Joseph discovered that God would be with him out on a limb. Matthew 1:23 reveals the most wonderful name of Jesus in all of Holy Scripture. The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel…which means, God with us.” John put it this way in his Gospel, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only Begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
When God calls us out on a limb he is calling us to Himself. He calls us to experience life to the fullest, where faith replaces fear and everlasting life replaces death. This Christmas, will you hear God’s call for you to let go of the trunk of your own provision and security? Join Joseph out on the limb of radical obedience this Christmas and get ready for the ride of your life!
Dr. Tony Beam is Vice-President for Student Services and Director of the Christian Worldview Center at North Greenville University in Tigerville, South Carolina.