Sermon by Robert Austell
Scripture: St. Matthew 1: 18-25
One of the lessons we work hard to teach our children is how to say “I’m sorry.” And you know from experience how hard it is to teach the real lesson of being truly sorry and not just mouthing the words. An even harder lesson is how to respond to being wronged. When someone comes to you and says, “I’m sorry,” what do you say? What if they only seem to be mouthing the words? What if they don’t say it at all? Is Christian forgiveness based on the sincerity of another’s apology? Or does grace produce something else entirely?
Today’s text is primarily about the birth of Jesus. But, like the sermon on Zacharias and Elizabeth, we are going to focus on a secondary, but very important, lesson tucked away in the details of this story. That lesson is the power and importance of godly and grace-filled forgiveness to open us up to hear and respond to God and move forward into His will for us.
Let me say that another way: there is an “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” that goes through the motions of reconciling two people and there is a grace-based forgiveness that issues out of godly character that not only brings healing with another person but opens us up to be touched and used by God. That is what is described in today’s story and what I want to hold out to you as a gift and an example from this text.
Godly Character and Action
Joseph is a model of godly character and action. We have two opportunities to see how he acts out of his conviction and character and in both cases his choices are challenging and instructive. The situation is tersely captured in verse 18: “When… Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.” Can you imagine a more difficult situation that that? In a culture where the bride’s pre-wedding purity was a prerequisite, the only thing more scandalous than the bride and groom getting pregnant before the wedding was if the baby was not his. Joseph had every right – personally, culturally, and religiously, to leave her in disgrace.
And look what all we are told in one sentence in verse 19: “And Joseph her [promised] husband, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her, desired to put her away secretly.” That verse tells us three things about Joseph. First, his character was godly – he was a righteous man. Righteous means that he wanted and tried to do right by God – to obey God’s Word and will. Secondly, his attitude toward Mary put her concerns above his own. He didn’t want to disgrace her or punish her. There was implicit forgiveness extended on his part, not the “I won’t feel better until I make you pay for what you’ve done.” That’s one key part of today’s message. Forgiveness isn’t what you give after someone has paid their dues and pleaded an apology. True forgiveness is an act of grace. Thirdly, Joseph acted on his character and conviction, choosing to “put her away secretly” – that is, hide her away from public shame and disgrace.
Now it might be easy to criticize Joseph, but we know the full story and he did not. Given what he knew, and aided by the Gospel writer’s description of him, there is much to learn from his initial reaction to an impossibly difficult and heart-breaking situation. How do we respond when another person disappoints or wrongs us? Can we be described as righteous? Do we think of the other person first? Do our words and actions flow from the faith we profess in Jesus Christ?
Probably no one in this room, including me, thought, “Yeah – I do that.” It is far more common to speak and act to make ourselves LOOK righteous in the eyes of others. It is far easier to think and act with our own needs and desires first – after all, we feel as if we have been wounded or slandered. On a good day, we just want to get the unpleasant forgiveness stuff over with and get back to being happy with God. On a bad day, well, that’s a lot darker and damaging for all involved. In either case, what happens is that our natural “revenge cycle” disconnects us further from our faith and hearing what God wants from us. If we cannot and do not forgive as God has forgiven us – that is, graciously – then it really affects our relationship with God and our ability to listen to God.
And hearing what God wants from us is the other key part of today’s message.
God sent an angel to speak to Joseph and to reveal the fuller plan of what was going on. I believe that it was Joseph’s faithful first response that gave him the ears to hear what God would then say through the angel. It was Joseph’s willingness to forgive without all the information that helped him to hear what else God would have him do.
Hearing God Speak
The next verse continues the story, with an angel appearing in a dream and saying to him, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…” And the angel goes on to reveal both the divine nature of the conception and the miraculous identity of the child who would be born. Would God have spoken in a dream if Joseph had not been so initially forgiving? Probably… but I wonder what Joseph would have made of the dream. If he had not been inclined to forgive Mary on the first hand, I can imagine him rationalizing or discounting the angel’s message as a bad or crazy dream rather than a message from God. (Do note, that the message squared with God’s revealed Word in scripture – to “fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet” – that’s how we verify that God is leading us or speaking to us.)
Faith and life have a cumulative and catalyzing affect on one another. If there is a disconnect between what we say we believe and what we do, it further drives a wedge between the two, making it harder to hear and believe. If we put our faith into action, it helps develop those ears to hear and eyes to see.
Look at how this plays out with Joseph. I believe that Joseph’s initial faithfulness toward Mary helped him to hear and respond to God, when God spoke. And once God spoke, look at how Joseph responded. In verse 24, “And Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took her as his wife, and kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.” Joseph’s faithfulness helped him listen, because he then responded with obedience. That’s the cumulative and catalyzing effect I was talking about. He immediately got up from sleep and obeyed the command of the Lord.
Going ahead and marrying Mary was not his original plan. But, having taken an initial step of grace toward her, he was already headed in the direction of obedience toward God. He was faithful with a little (information) and God invited him to be faithful with much. And indeed, he became the earthly father of our Savior.
Forward through Forgiveness
This story has some significant application for us. Broadly, it demonstrates the spiritual and practical value of faithfulness – doing what is right before the Lord. Even if we don’t understand at the time or don’t have all the information, righteousness puts us in the path of God’s blessing, that is, being in God’s will.
More specifically, forgiveness is one act of faithfulness or doing right before the Lord. It is taught, modeled, and commanded by Jesus. We repeat it weekly in the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debt as we forgive others.” And how does God forgive our debts or transgressions? He does so unconditionally and with grace. He does so preemptively, not waiting for us to earn pardon, but first, so that we may respond out of love rather than fear.
I believe one of the things that most frequently causes us to get “stuck” in life and relationships, including our relationship with God, is our unwillingness to forgive. We can have all the Bible knowledge and internal faith in the world, but until we are willing to extend that faith outward and extend the grace that we have already been shown by God, we are mired in place.
Do you feel like you never hear from God? One of the things we see going on in this passage is the benefit of taking small steps, or being faithful with a little. It doesn’t mean that the heavens will suddenly open or that burning bushes will start addressing you by name. But, it does mean that you will be better equipped to listen to God in the ordinary and usual ways God speaks: through scripture, through worship, through the counsel of fellow believers. And, being faithful with what you do have and who you are will also cultivate the discipline of obedience to God’s Word, which is what is necessary for faithfulness in larger, tougher situations.
Forgiveness is one aspect of faithfulness, but it is one that most of us deal with on a daily basis. And how we deal with this particular form of faithfulness offers us the choice of getting stuck, again, or moving forward through forgiveness. Amen.
by Maddie Shuler
If you look past what you can see
a whole world will open up like it did for me
Look beyond your life past the fear,
the guilt, the pain, and the worries
Let the silence calm you;
allow the peace to flow over your mind
Ignore the dust of the world;
don't let it pollute your mind anymore
Why do I have to be so nearsighted?
I don't want to be blind anymore.
I'm gonna open my eyes so I can see this world.
I can't believe I never saw the beauty in the darkest cloud
I can now see the smallest ripples in the waters of life
I've learned to appreciate the smallest things in this world
My eyes have been opened up so now I can see
Why was I so nearsighted? I'm not blind anymore.
I've opened my eyes so I can see this world.
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