by Dr. Don Y. Gordon
Scripture: St. Matthew 1: 18-25
One of my challenges as a preacher in a local church is to find creative ways to tell the Christmas story year after year. I want proclaim the great truth of the incarnation of God through the birth of Jesus, but not say it the same way every year. The Hippocratic Oath for the medical community is “Do no harm.” The Homiletical oath for preachers is “Do not bore.” Although doctors and ministers fall short of their stated oath, I’m afraid preachers fall shorter than doctors. Therefore, this year my way of telling the story is through the different characters of Christmas. I appreciate John Mykelbust getting us started last Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, with a sermon on the angels announcing the birth of Christ. Today, I move to a person who gets very little press in the coverage of the nativity scene.
Among the principle characters who crowd the stage for the Christmas pageant – angels and kings, mothers and fathers, prophets and prophetesses, shepherds and even donkeys and a lamb or two – there is one we hardly notice. Although Matthew tells his story, he is not even given a speaking part. Near the manger, but not too near, just off to one side, quietly kneeling is Joseph. But this quiet man, Joseph, has much to tell us about the child in the manger. For as little attention as we pay him, it may be true that, among all the assembled cast, Joseph knows more intimately the identity of the one who is born. And despite his secondary role in the narrative, year after year, Joseph was an extraordinary man. Think about it: Is there any man on the face of the earth who has ever been given a more challenging role than to be a father and raise the Son of God? Anyone who knows the challenges of parenthood understands the daunting task given to Joseph. He must have been an extraordinary man to have been chosen by God to raise God’s Son and be the husband to the mother of God in the flesh.
Joseph’s extraordinary character and faith become vehicles for us to move closer to God. He has some life lessons that will help us live our lives more in keeping with God’s will. I want to share 3 of those lessons with you this morning. If you have a pen, you may want to write down these lessons we learn from this father who is not given one sentence of dialogue in the whole Bible.
Life Lesson #1: Sometimes your heart will be broken even when you are living a righteous life. (v 18)
This is not an easy lesson. And we instinctively want to run from this lesson or somehow find some religious, psychological, or emotional exit from this hard truth. We’d like to think that if we are good enough or faithful enough or religious enough, perhaps even smart enough or wealthy enough, we could avoid painful experiences, suffering, and having our hearts broken. And there are plenty of religious spokespersons who are willing to tell you how to avoid a broken heart if you will only send them money, or perform some religious exercise. Joseph is just one of the many examples in the Bible that confirm it can’t be done. Your heart can be broken even when you are living a righteous life.
Notice what happened to Joseph and how Matthew describes him in verse 18: “This
is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be
married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.”
Now Joseph and Mary were engaged, as we would call it today. It’s likely that they had been promised to one another a long time, perhaps their entire conscious lifetimes. During this engagement period they were religiously commanded to remain sexually pure. They weren’t to consummate the marriage until the wedding night.
So get this picture in your mind. Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant. We’re not told how. Did she confess it? Did he notice her stomach swollen from the push of a child’s body? We don’t know. However he found out, he clearly didn’t hear or couldn’t believe that she was pregnant through the agency of the Holy Spirit and this Son would be God’s Son. No, if he believed that he wouldn’t have decided to divorce her quietly. Joseph knew that Mary was his fiancée. He knew they had not been to bed together. And he knew she was pregnant.
How do you think Joseph felt about this news? Can you imagine what he was feeling? I can imagine a few things. I bet he was hurt. Angry. Ashamed. Devastated. Confused. He probably felt betrayed. I’m sure his heart was broken.
Some time after the gospels were written, other writings emerged from the Christian community to fill in some of the holes in the 4 gospels. We don’t consider them as Sacred Scripture, but they do give us a fuller picture of the Christian community heard about Jesus and his family. One of these writings comes from the second century AD called Protoevangelium of James. The name literally means, “The First Gospel of James.” Listen to how this gospel of James describes Joseph upon learning of Mary’s pregnancy: “Joseph came back from his building, and, entering into his house, he discovered that she was big with child. And he smote his face, and threw himself on the ground upon the sackcloth, and wept bitterly.”
Another historical document from the fourth century entitled “The History of Joseph the Carpenter” said that upon discovering that Mary was with child: “Joseph from fear and sorrow and the anguish of this heart could endure neither to eat nor to drink so filled with grief was he.”
Can’t you understand Joseph’s anguish? Have you ever been engaged and then told “I’m pregnant and you’re not the father,” or “I’ve made someone pregnant and it’s not you.” Joseph had to be devastated. And we know he was a righteous man because we’re told this in the very next verse. There’s a great depth to the meaning of the term “righteous” In the Hebrew language, but it meant, at least, that Joseph was a good man. He was a man who honored God. He was a man who kept the laws and commandments of God with utmost integrity. His life was devoted to God. And despite all of this his heart was broken.
I think of Doug and Denise Froemke from my church in the mountains. Doug was the leader of our choir and the manager of a local textile company. His wife Susan sang in the choir and they had raised both their children up in the church. Their son and daughter were students at a college in Asheville and shared an apartment there. I received a call from Doug one day informing me that Kellie had been raped, murdered, and left dead in a burning apartment. He wanted me to go with him to the apartment to retrieve Kellie’s belongings and see what he saw. Walking in to that burned out apartment and finding the remains of her life with Doug and his son was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. And she wasn’t even my daughter.
No one would’ve blamed Doug if he had lashed out at God and cried out “Why God? Why me? Why did my innocent daughter die and this murderer live?“ It would’ve have been understandable if Doug had left the church and said, “If this is the thanks you get for being faithful to God for 50 years, then I quit.”
Instead, something deep with Doug and Denise carried them through and they began to speak to other parents who had lost a child. They corralled their grief and plunged it into a ministry to other grieving parents. They were put on the cover of the Baptist monthly magazine Homelife where they professed their faith in a loving God, and shared how they hoped to use their pain to be a source of comfort and healing for others. It is still one of the most remarkable acts of God’s powers I’ve witnessed in my lifetime.
Doug and Denise’s heart was broken. It wasn’t broken because they had been unfaithful or because they were being punished. Their hearts were broken as a result of living in a broken world, where it rains on the just and the unjust, where good and evil reside on the same street, where suffering knows no religious boundaries. God didn’t do this to the Froemkes, but he was ready to redeem this suffering and bring something good and redemptive and loving from it.
That’s a lesson that Joseph teaches us. Joseph didn’t know at the time he found out about Mary’s pregnancy how God would redeem that situation. He couldn’t imagine that this was the work of the Holy Spirit. And neither can we imagine how God is going to redeem all the bad stuff in our lives, all the suffering, all the rejection, all the shame, all our broken hearts. But God can and God does redeem our broken hearts with his amazing grace.
Remember the third verse of Amazing Grace:
Thro’ many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come;
‘Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
Life lesson #1 from Joseph: Sometimes your heart will be broken, even if you lead a righteous life. But hold on. Hold on to your faith, because God can redeem your broken heart and use you for his glorious purposes.
Life Lesson #2: An act of mercy is an act inspired by God
Have you ever heard someone described as “righteous?” It’s a pretty daunting term. Dare we try to live righteous lives, meaning lives inspired by God and reflective of God? Does that intimidate you to even think about it? It does me.
The Bible describes Joseph as a righteous man. One reason he was so described is because of the mercy he demonstrated toward Mary. Look at the next verse, verse 19 of chapter 1 in Matthew’s telling of the Gospel: “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.”
Clearly, in Joseph’s mind, Mary had betrayed him. As a righteous Jew he would
certainly know what the Law of Moses allowed. The Law of Moses called for Mary
and her adulterous partner to be stoned to death. Listen to Deut 22:21: “If a
man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her
and the woman must die. You must purge evil from the land.” This is the law that
could be put in effect by Joseph. To be engaged was equivalent with being
married. Therefore, in his mind, Mary and some other man had committed adultery.
They had broken the seventh
commandment from the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Sinai. Therefore, he had every legal right, and to some extent, a religious obligation to have Mary stoned.
But he didn’t do that. The text says he decided to “dismiss her quietly.” What did that mean? It most likely meant that he would go to the local priest and ask for a divorce. In order to legally divorce her all Moses had to do was tell the local priest he found something distasteful in her. That’s all. If he told the priest that she had committed adultery it is very likely the priest would have instigated stoning her in adherence with the Law of Moses. Joseph would spare her life and take the shame and dishonor onto himself. By initiating a quiet divorce by simply finding something distasteful in Mary, Joseph was opening himself up to public shame and ridicule. He would be the one disrupting the covenant for which their parents had contracted. He would be the one seen as abandoning Mary. Everyone would soon find out she was pregnant. In a matter of months she was going to have a baby, unless Joseph had her killed. By divorcing her while she was pregnant, Joseph set himself up as the bad guy. It was the more difficult path of mercy that he showed.
Showing mercy is one of the hardest, and yet most God-like things a human can do. Thus we have the well-known phrase “To err is human, to forgive is divine.” Making mistakes is common. True forgiveness is so rare, when we see it; we instinctively know there is something holy about it.
Ryan Cushing and Victoria Ruvolo
Back in November 2004 some teenagers were going for a joy ride. They had stolen a credit card and used it to buy all sorts of things, including, for some unknown reason, a frozen turkey. Driving down the road in their silver Nissan, they pass a Hyundai driven by 44 year old Victoria Ruvolo. She is driving home from listening to her 14 year old niece’s voice recital.
The boys decide to throw the 20 pound frozen turkey out of their car. It hits the road, bounces off the pavement, crashes through Victoria’s windshield, and almost kills her. If her friend had not been in the car to grab the wheel and stop the car, they both would have surely died.
Most every bone in Victoria’s face is broken. She endures eight hours of emergency surgery and three weeks of recovery before she’s conscious enough to hear the story of what happened to her. Her face has been shattered like pottery. It’s stapled together by titanium plates, an eye is affixed by synthetic film, her jaw is wired, and she wears a trachea.
The media has discovered this bizarre and tragic story and the young man is being vilified by the press and the public. Weblogs are calling for his head. Internet pundits are detailing what they would do to the punk if he ever crossed their path. They want to heave a turkey at Ryan Cushing, the 18-year-old boy who heaved the turkey out the window and shattered Victoria’s face.
Finally after nine agonizing, titanium-bolted months have passed since the attack they meet in court. Victoria manages to walk into the courtroom unaided, a victory in itself. Ryan Cushing is declared guilty but he receives the minimum sentence, a trifling 6 months behind bars when he could have spent 25 years there. The reason he was given the minimum sentence is because Victoria Ruvolo asked the judge to give it. After the sentence is given, the once tough guy Ryan is weeping like a baby and
Victoria takes him in her arms, strokes his hair, and offers reassuring words, “I forgive you. I want your life to be the best it can be.” Tears mingle from mask of reconstruction to mask of remorse. New York attorneys, magistrates, and the public are all brought to tears. The New York Times dubs it simply “a moment of grace.”
Mercy is shocking. It is so coded into the DNA of God that when we see it, we stand silenced, in awe of it. It’s a life lesson we receive from Joseph and others who allow God to determine their paths. So I ask you, “Do you need to forgive someone this Christmas season? Are you bitter toward someone who did something to you yesterday or perhaps ten years from yesterday? The power of mercy and forgiveness is that it blesses twice. It blesses the one who receives mercy, but just as importantly it blesses the one who shows mercy.
Life lesson #2: An act of mercy is an act inspired by God.
Life Lesson #3: Obedience to God begins with listening to God
This final lesson comes from Joseph’s response to the dreams God had used to communicate his plans. In verse 20 of Matthew 1 we read, “But after he had considered 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 home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.’” Then in verse 24 we read, “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” This is describing one of four dreams Joseph had in the early years of Jesus. Besides this one, Joseph also had a dream in which he was told to escape to Egypt with Jesus, another to return from Egypt, and finally a dream in which he learned he should move from Bethlehem to Nazareth where he would rear Jesus.
Now Joseph could have dismissed these dreams as mere dreams instead of divine communication. Somehow he discerned this was the voice of God. It was the will of God for him to go from Bethlehem to Egypt or from Egypt back to Bethlehem. He listened to God. He paid attention to what God was saying to him.
You know, we are often so busy we don’t have time to listen to God. We can’t stay off our IPODs, or cell phones, or computers to be still and quiet to hear what God is saying. Most of our prayers are spoken, without doing the more important part of prayer . . . . Listening!
When is the last time you paused, turned all the technology off, and tuned into God and said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening?” I’m convinced that God is constantly speaking to us, but we’re usually so busy that we fail to listen to him. And unless we listen to God, we can’t obey God. Makes it sort of important doesn’t it?
But how do we know when it’s God speaking and when it’s just some good idea in our mind? I have no foolproof method for you to follow, but I can tell you it begins with listening. We’ve got to take time to listen to God, listen for God, to be intentional about hearing what God might be saying. We can open our Bibles and read a portion of Scripture and say, “Lord, speak to me through your Word.” And we read and wait. We read and pray. We read and simply sit in the presence of God.
We can hear God speaking to us through music, especially Christian music. We can hear God speaking through the words of others, especially those in the community of faith. We can hear God in a sermon, or a SS lesson, or a song in a worship service.
And yes, we can hear God in nature or walking along a busy street in a crowded city. But most often, we hear God when we are quiet and are actively seeking to hear him.
And when we hear God we check it out. We check it out in Scripture. And we ask the question, “Is what I’ve heard in harmony with the revelation of God in Scripture?” I’ve had people say to me, “You know, God said this to me the other night.” And I’m thinking, “Wow, that doesn’t sound like the God revealed in the Scriptures I read. Are you sure God said that?” So we check it out. We bring the dream to Scripture. We bring the dream to the believing community. And if it’s in harmony with Scripture, then it very well could be the voice of God speaking to you.
I have a friend who’s a pastor who had a man come up to him and share this testimony. It was four pages of typed words that I’ve condensed into one paragraph. “Pastor, when I was a teenager I believed God was calling me into the ministry. I was excited about preaching the Gospel and offering ministry to people in the name of Jesus Christ. But then I went off to college and found out what the pastor in my little town made. And I found out what the lawyers and engineers made. And I wasn’t so sure I wanted to live like that. So I put that dream on hold, became an engineer, and spent my life making a good living as an engineer. Now I’m 63 years old and I know that God was calling me and I ran from the call all my life. I rationalized that I could serve God in the church without being a minister. So I’ve made the decision to go to seminary and spend the rest of my life serving God as the minister he called me into 45 years ago.”
That’s a both a happy and tragic story. It’s happy that he is finally obeying God after all these years of rationalization. It’s tragic that he’s spent all these years rationalizing away God’s call on his life instead of obeying God immediately, like Joseph did.
What is God trying to get you to do these days? Are you running from God’s call? Are you afraid God is going to call you to do something that will disrupt your life? Well, that may very well be the case. But better a life disrupted by God, than a life running from God. I want to tell you that whatever God calls you to do, he will be there to help you do. It may be painful. It may require sacrifice. It may be at odds with the plans you had created for yourself. But if it is of God, it will be the path of righteousness for you.
I invite you to pray one of the following 3 prayers:
1. God will redeem your broken heart and use it for His purposes and your joy.
2. Show mercy. Forgive someone.
3. Listen to God. Be quiet. Be still, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.”
Addendum: One of the Great Poems on Mercy Ever Written (From Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”)
The quality of mercy is not strain'd,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes: 'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown; His sceptre shows the force of temporal power, The attribute to awe and majesty, Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings; But mercy is above this sceptred sway; It is enthroned in the hearts of kings, It is an attribute to God himself; And earthly power doth then show likest God's When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew, Though justice be thy plea, consider this, That, in the course of justice, none of us Should see salvation: we do pray for mercy; And that same prayer doth teach us all to render The deeds of mercy.
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