Monday, November 28, 2016

Joseph's Perspective on Christmas

Christmas is a challenge. For example, there is the challenge of finding just the right gifts for each of the special people in our lives. In my family of origin, my father was always the most difficult person for whom to buy Christmas gifts. The best job I ever did, of giving my father a Christmas gift he enjoyed, happened the year that my car broke down. I was nineteen years old, and one day driving down the freeway in California, the engine in my little Renault Le Car blew up. I had failed in a very simple maintenance task—that of putting oil into the engine. My father payed to have the car repaired. I decided in response, at Christmas, that I would wrap up all the burnt-out engine parts as a gift for my father. Then I put a check with the gift—the first installment in my pay-back plan! He loved it.

Christmas poses the challenge of finding just the right gifts for those special people in our lives. Christmas poses some other challenges as well, some challenges that we share with a man who lived two thousand years ago. The man’s name was Joseph and his story is told in Matthew 1:18-25. Let’s read his story together….

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do 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 as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
    and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” 

When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

The first thing I would like to point out in this passage is that Joseph faced the challenge of disgrace if he accepted Jesus into his life. This may come as a surprise, so allow me to explain….

Matthew tells us that Mary was engaged to Joseph. It is important to understand what was involved in the Jewish wedding procedure in the first century. There were three steps. First, there was the engagement. This was often arranged by the parents, or a professional matchmaker, when the persons to be engaged were still children. Sometimes the persons to be engaged did not even know each other.

The second step was the betrothal. This was what we might call the ratification of the engagement. At this point, the engagement initiated by the parents could be broken if the girl was unwilling to go ahead with it. However, once the betrothal was established, it was binding. The betrothal period lasted one year. During that time-period, the couple was known as husband and wife. However, there were no sexual relations allowed during the betrothal. The only way to break a betrothal was by divorce. If one partner had sexual relations with another person during the betrothal period, it was considered adultery and was punishable by stoning (Deuteronomy 22:23 ff.). Joseph and Mary were in the betrothal period of the Jewish wedding procedure when they discovered that Mary was pregnant.

The third stage was the marriage proper which took place at the end of the year of betrothal when the couple would come together and consummate the marriage. This was usually accompanied by a week of feasting.

Now imagine, if you will, what Joseph’s reaction would have been when he heard that Mary was pregnant. Joseph knew that he was not the father. They had not had sexual relations, nor were they even living together. Mary was still under the authority of her father and living in his house. Perhaps Joseph was tempted to feelings of jealousy or even anger. He must have wanted to ask: “Who is the father of this child, Mary? How could you have forsaken me for another man?”

To go ahead with their marriage and bring Mary into his home would bring certain disgrace upon Joseph. People would be bound to say, “There goes Joseph, his wife had a baby by another man, and he wasn’t even man enough to divorce her. Joseph is crazy for taking that woman and her baby into his house.”

Those who accept Jesus into their lives today also face potential disgrace. As Eugene Peterson has written, “This world is no friend to grace. A person who makes a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior does not find a crowd immediately forming to applaud the decision nor old friends spontaneously gathering around to offer congratulations and counsel. Ordinarily there is nothing directly hostile, but an accumulation of puzzled disapproval and agnostic indifference constitutes, nevertheless, surprisingly formidable opposition.”

But there is some good news in all of this. Jesus said that if we will accept the challenge of disgrace then we will be blessed; the Lord himself will speak well of us even if all the world should hold us in derision. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (Matthew 5:10-12)

In addition to the challenge of disgrace, Joseph faced the challenge of decision. What was he to do? Even though Mary was pregnant, apparently by another man, he still loved her. He cared about her welfare more than his own. Yet, it was against God’s law for him to go ahead with the marriage.

Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man. This means that Joseph cared most about pleasing God and keeping God’s law. For Joseph, God’s Word came first, even before his feelings for Mary. Thus, Joseph decided to divorce Mary.

Joseph had every right, by Jewish law, to bring public suit against Mary and expose her to a public trial. If Mary was found guilty of adultery, she would not have been stoned to death, as the Mosaic law had been tempered by this time. But it still would have been an ugly affair. Thus, Joseph decided not to apply the full rigor of the law in this situation, while still being obedient to God’s command as he understood it. In short, Joseph decided to give Mary a bill of divorce in private.

Now it was just at this point, after Joseph had made his decision, that an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. The angel called him “Joseph, son of David”. Already, in this form of address, there is a foreshadowing of the tremendous news that the angel has for Joseph. The angel reminds Joseph that he is a descendant of King David. Joseph certainly remembers the promises to David of an eternal kingdom. He remembers that the Messiah, the promised Savior, is to be a descendant of David.

Then the angel goes on to say, “do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 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.”

It is at this point that I know some of us may feel a bit uneasy. Miracles don’t really happen, do they? Remarkable healings, maybe, but not babies born without human fathers. I understand the question, but I want to respond to it more fully, and to do that, I am going to ask you to wait for the answer until next week when I talk about Mary’s perspective on Christmas. For the moment, I invite any skeptics among us to suspend disbelief and contemplate: “What if the God who made the universe, not only could, but did perform this miracle? What must it have felt like for Joseph to receive this message from the angel?”

It was an awesome message! Joseph must have been relieved to know that Mary had not wronged him or forsaken him. He was probably overjoyed to find out that the Lord wanted him to go ahead with the marriage, an action that was in keeping with his great affection for Mary. But Joseph must have been awestruck as he considered who this baby was. He was to be named Jesus, which means “Yahweh saves”. And as Matthew explains to us, this baby was Immanuel, meaning “God with us.” This baby, Mary’s baby, was God in the flesh. How could Joseph, a simple carpenter, receive God’s Son into his home? How could he raise the Savior? Was he worthy of such an honor? Questions such as these must have been circling in Joseph’s mind as he tried to decide how to respond.

We too are faced with a similar decision: will we accept Jesus? We may be tempted to feel we are not worthy of having the Son of God in our lives. Yet, that is exactly why Jesus came—to rescue us. Jesus came to earth precisely because we are not worthy; we are all sinners in need of a Savior.

As we consider our decision regarding Jesus we need to remember that if we fail to decide, other factors may decide for us.

The story is told about the aunt of Ronald Reagan taking the young lad to the cobbler one day to have a custom pair of shoes made for him. The cobbler asked, “Do you want square toes or round toes?” Ronnie hemmed and hawed; he didn’t know what he wanted. So the cobbler said: “That’s alright, you think about it, then come back and tell me what you want.” So Ronnie went away. He saw the cobbler a couple of days later, but he still didn’t know what he wanted. The cobbler said, “OK. Just come back in a few days and your shoes will be ready.”

When Reagan came back to collect his new shoes, the cobbler had made one shoe with a square toe and one with a round toe. Then he said to young Ronald Reagan, “That will teach you never to let other people make your decisions for you!”

If we don’t make a deliberate decision to welcome Jesus into our lives, other people may make the decision for us. If Joseph had not made the decision to bring Mary and Jesus into his home, his family probably would have made the decision for him and their decision would have been not to go through with the marriage.

Once we make the decision to accept Jesus into our lives we are then faced with another challenge: the challenge of doing. Joseph faced the challenge of doing what the angel told him to do.

What was Joseph’s response? His response was immediate and radical obedience. Matthew tells us that “when Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.”

Once we have accepted Jesus into our lives we face the challenge of doing God’s will every day. C. S. Lewis puts it this way in his book, Mere Christianity….

… the real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.[1]

Have you accepted the challenge of doing, the challenge of living out a long obedience in the same direction? That is the challenge that Joseph faced as he brought Mary into his home and set about raising the Son of God.

Once we accept the challenge of doing, there is another challenge that goes along with it: the challenge of discipline. Matthew tells us that Joseph had no union with Mary until she gave birth to a son. In other words, Joseph took Mary into his home, he was living with her day in and day out for all those months until Jesus was born, and during that entire time he refrained from having sexual relations with her. When viewed from the vantage point of our contemporary society, this fact comes across as nothing less than astonishing. Can you imagine getting married to someone and living with them but putting off the honeymoon night for something like nine months?

Why did Joseph do this? Perhaps Joseph anticipated the questions that would later be asked about Jesus. In Matthew 13 we read that Jesus came to his hometown and…

… began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him.

Perhaps Joseph anticipated just such questions as these and he wanted to be able to say with certainty, “No, this is not my biological son. This is the Son of God.”

I think Joseph sets a model for us with respect to self-restraint, and I don’t mean simply regarding sexuality. I think there is a more general application. It may be that to follow the Lord wholeheartedly we will sometimes need to say “no” to some good things so that we may say “yes” to better things.

The writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn spent most of his life, before being expelled from his native country, either in prison or under KGB surveillance in the Soviet Union. He once said that while living in a Soviet prison camp he discovered that “the meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering, but…in development of the soul.” Perhaps that is why, when he came to America, he chose to spend much of his time living in a small Vermont town, writing in a simple cabin, furnished only with the barest of necessities.

To say “yes” to the things that will develop our souls will sometimes mean saying “no” to some seemingly good things that may distract us from “soul development”. Whatever our circumstances may be, if we accept Jesus into our lives we will face the challenge of discipline amidst a society bent against self-restraint….

Christmas time is here again with the challenges of long lines in the stores, finding just the right gifts, and the inevitable tensions that arise when extended families gather together. But Christmas poses more challenges than these. The birth of Jesus, the Savior, “God with us”, poses the challenges of disgrace, decision, doing, and discipline. The question is: will we accept these challenges?

[1] Mere Christianity, pp. 168-169.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Holy Boldness

On July 15, 1986, Roger Clemens, the renowned pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, played in his first All-Star Game. During the second inning Clemens stepped into the batter’s box, something he hadn’t done in a long while due to the American League’s designated hitter rule. Clemens took a few tentative practice swings and then looked right in the eye of the opposing pitcher, Dwight Gooden, winner of the Cy Young award the previous year.

Gooden started off with a sizzling fast ball fired right over the plate. Strike one! Clemens smiled, stepped out of the batter’s box, turned to catcher Gary Carter and asked, “Is that what my pitches look like?”

Carter replied, “You bet it is!”

Clemens quickly struck out, but he went on to pitch three perfect innings. At the end of the day he was named the game’s MVP. From that day on, Clemens pitched with greater boldness than ever before. Why? Because of a fresh reminder of how overwhelming a white hot fast ball can be.

Sometimes we forget how powerful the good news about Jesus is. Paul said, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” (Romans 1:16) If we would only remember how powerful the good news of Jesus Christ truly is, then I think we would be bolder in sharing it and living it out before a watching world.

Let’s look together at the holy boldness of Paul in Acts 24….

Five days later the high priest Ananias went down to Caesarea with some of the elders and a lawyer named Tertullus, and they brought their charges against Paul before the governor. When Paul was called in, Tertullus presented his case before Felix: “We have enjoyed a long period of peace under you, and your foresight has brought about reforms in this nation. Everywhere and in every way, most excellent Felix, we acknowledge this with profound gratitude. But in order not to weary you further, I would request that you be kind enough to hear us briefly.

“We have found this man to be a troublemaker, stirring up riots among the Jews all over the world. He is a ringleader of the Nazarene sect and even tried to desecrate the temple; so we seized him. By examining him yourself you will be able to learn the truth about all these charges we are bringing against him.”
The Jews joined in the accusation, asserting that these things were true.

Paul’s Audience

Let’s examine who was in Paul’s audience. First, there was Ananias, the high priest. Ananias was noted for his cruelty, gluttony, thievery and violence. When the Jewish revolt broke out in the 60s of the first century he was eventually assassinated by his own people.
Secondly, there was the lawyer, Tertullus. He began his speech with what William Barclay once called “nauseating flattery”. Every word Tertullus spoke, he knew to be untrue. Tertullus thanked the Roman procurator, Felix, for the peace ushered in under his rule. In reality Felix had crushed Jewish rebellion with such brutality, the people were horror-stricken. Not only did Tertullus flatter the judge, he distorted the charges against the defendant. He accused Paul of stirring up riots, being part of a sect, and dishonoring the temple. As we will see in a few moments, Paul denied all of these false charges. Finally, Tertullus lied about how Paul was apprehended. He suggested that the Jews arrested him while in fact the Jews were intent on lynching Paul and it was the Roman commander Claudius Lysias who arrested Paul and thereby spared his life.

That leads us to the third major character in this narrative, the Roman procurator, Felix himself. The Roman historian Tacitus wrote of him, “Felix reveled in cruelty and lust and wielded the power of a king with the mind of a slave.” Felix had, in fact, been a slave and was set free because his brother, Pallas, was a favorite of the emperor, Claudius. It was for this same reason that Felix was appointed governor of Judea in AD 52. Felix was on his third marriage, having married three princesses in succession. His current wife, Drusilla, daughter of Herod Agrippa I, we will meet in a moment. Two years hence Felix will be recalled by Rome due to misrule.

Finally, in Paul’s audience there were the other Jewish leaders who had come from Jerusalem to press charges. They joined in the accusations against Paul even though they knew these accusations were untrue.

It’s hard to imagine a tougher audience than this one for listening to the good news about Jesus Christ. But it makes me wonder: Who is our audience? What are they like? And how do we handle our audience?

In Today’s Christian Woman, contemporary Christian singer Susan Ashton tells about the time she got to open for country singer, Garth Brooks. At the time, Garth’s brother Kelly was dating a woman who liked Ashton’s music. One day, after this woman played Ashton’s recordings for Kelly, he called his brother Garth on the phone and told him he should take Susan Ashton on the road. Garth Brooks did just that.

Once Ashton got to know Brooks better he admitted he hadn’t heard Ashton sing until they were on stage in Spain. That night Garth Brooks said he was overwhelmed by the beauty of Ashton’s voice and the moving nature of her lyrics.

At first, Ashton was afraid to tour with Brooks. She was afraid she would be booed off the stage with calls for “Garth! Garth!”. But an unusual thing happened. Ashton received a standing ovation her first time out on stage opening for Garth Brooks. Ashton later said she was overcome with the openness of the audience to hearing what she had to share about Jesus.

Neither you nor I may ever have a chance to speak on stage before a large audience. But the Lord will put each of us in situations we never would have dreamed of, just as Paul was thrust before an audience he never would have imagined speaking to. Your stage may be your cubicle at work, or an athletic banquet at school (like one I attended where I was invited to pray), or you may meet a stranger on the street and have an opportunity to share about Jesus with him or her. The Lord who arranges such divine appointments will also give you boldness to speak for him.

Let’s look next at what Paul said when he was brought before the governor.

When the governor motioned for him to speak, Paul replied: “I know that for a number of years you have been a judge over this nation; so I gladly make my defense. You can easily verify that no more than twelve days ago I went up to Jerusalem to worship. My accusers did not find me arguing with anyone at the temple, or stirring up a crowd in the synagogues or anywhere else in the city. And they cannot prove to you the charges they are now making against me. However, I admit that I worship the God of our fathers as a follower of the Way, which they call a sect. I believe everything that agrees with the Law and that is written in the Prophets, and I have the same hope in God as these men, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. So I strive always to keep my conscience clear before God and man.

“After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor and to present offerings. I was ceremonially clean when they found me in the temple courts doing this. There was no crowd with me, nor was I involved in any disturbance. But there are some Jews from the province of Asia, who ought to be here before you and bring charges if they have anything against me. Or these who are here should state what crime they found in me when I stood before the Sanhedrin—unless it was this one thing I shouted as I stood in their presence: ‘It is concerning the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you today.’”


Paul’s Witness

What can we learn from Paul’s witness before Felix? Paul got straight to the point and answered the charges brought against him by Tertullus. He didn’t waste any time flattering Felix. He was polite, but to the point.

Paul answered the charge of being a rabble-rouser by pointing out that he did not stir up the crowd in the temple, but that he was simply there to worship God. Secondly, Paul admitted the charge of being part of the Nazarene sect, but he pointed out that his belief in the resurrection was in agreement with the Law and the Prophets. Thirdly, in regard to desecrating the temple, Paul pointed out that he was simply there to present offerings.

Paul’s public confession of faith before Felix really had four points:

1.     I worship the God of our fathers.
2.     I believe everything that agrees with the Law and the Prophets.
3.     I have the same hope in God as these men.
4.     I strive always to keep my conscience clear.

I wonder, if you or I were asked today by someone to defend our faith in Jesus Christ, could we do it as succinctly, as pointedly, as Paul? 1 Peter 3:15-16 says:

Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.

Paul gave his answer to Felix with gentleness and respect. Paul was prepared to give an answer to those who asked him to give a reason for his hope. Are we so prepared?

When Jeff Van Gundy, later coach of the New York Knicks basketball team, was a student at Yale University, he learned an important life lesson the hard way.

When Van Gundy was a student in New Haven, Connecticut he lived in a dormitory across the quad from actress Jodie Foster, who was also a Yale freshman. All twelve male students on Van Gundy’s dorm floor put $100 each into a pot with the promise that if one of them could get a legitimate date with Jodie Foster that guy would get the $1200.

Van Gundy, recounting the incident years later, said: “I had seen Jodie Foster around but I was too shy to go engage her in conversation, let alone, ask her out on a date.”

One evening on his way back to the dormitory Van Gundy walked by a store that made popcorn. He stopped to look in the window and suddenly heard a voice behind him say: “Geez, that popcorn smells really good.” Van Gundy turned around and found himself staring into the eyes of Jodie Foster. The only words he could get out of his mouth were: “Yeah it does.” That was it.

Finally, one of the other guys on Van Gundy’s floor got up the gumption to ask Jodie Foster out on a date. And she said, “Yes.” So that guy got the $1200. Van Gundy vowed that he would never be that flustered or unprepared again!

Many opportunities in life come along suddenly, including the opportunity to share our faith in Jesus. We need to be prepared like Paul was.

Now let’s look at the response to Paul’s defense….

Then Felix, who was well acquainted with the Way, adjourned the proceedings. “When Lysias the commander comes,” he said, “I will decide your case.” He ordered the centurion to keep Paul under guard but to give him some freedom and permit his friends to take care of his needs.
Several days later Felix came with his wife Drusilla, who was a Jewess. He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus. As Paul discoursed on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.” At the same time he was hoping that Paul would offer him a bribe, so he sent for him frequently and talked with him.
When two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, but because Felix wanted to grant a favor to the Jews, he left Paul in prison.


The Response

Felix’s response to Paul’s witness was to put him off. First, Felix put off judgment regarding Paul’s case until he got a report from Claudius Lysias. But even after Felix had all the facts, he left Paul in prison for two years, just to please the Jewish religious leaders. Felix was clearly a corrupt bureaucrat as well as a cruel tyrant. One moment he could brutally crush a Jewish rebellion; the next moment he was trying to curry favor with the Jewish people, hoping not to lose his power and position. Felix sent for Paul frequently and listened to what Paul had to say, but really his only desire was that Paul would perhaps pay him a bribe to get out of jail.

We may seldom, if ever, have an audience like Paul had. But by the power of the Holy Spirit each of us can be just as persistent as Paul was. Notice that Paul doesn’t allow the fact that he is being treated unjustly deter him from his primary goal in life—to tell others about Jesus. Despite how Paul was being treated by Felix, Paul remained focused on the good news. He longed for Felix not only to hear and understand that good news but also to embrace it. And notice how Paul tailored his message to meet the needs of Felix and Drusilla. Paul talked to them about faith in Christ, righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come. These were the very topics Felix and Drusilla most needed to hear something about. Felix had seduced Drusilla away from her first husband, Azizus, king of Emesa, by use of a magician. So we see here how Paul boldly warned Felix and Drusilla about their sin and the coming judgment, while at the same time he clearly showed them the way of hope through faith in Jesus Christ.

Can you imagine being as bold as Paul if you were in the same situation? What allowed Paul to be so bold? I think it is the fact that Paul had tunnel vision. What mattered to him most in life and in death was that he should be a faithful witness to Jesus Christ above all else. That desire was planted in his heart by the Holy Spirit who had transformed his life on the road to Damascus.

How about you? What is your response to the good news of Jesus’ death on the cross for your sins and his resurrection from the dead? I don’t think any of us can afford to put God off like Felix did. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6:2, “I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation.” And as it says in Hebrews 3:15, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”