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.
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?