OPEN: (We began the service with a clip from the movie "The Star" that showed Mary and Joseph at their wedding party just before Mary is going to tell Joseph that she's pregnant with the Christ Child)
There’s a true story about a grade school class that was putting on a Christmas which included the story of Mary and Joseph coming to the inn. In that class was one little boy who wanted so very much to be Joseph, but when the parts were handed out, his biggest rival was given that part, and he was assigned to be the inn keeper instead. He was really bitter about this. So during all the rehearsals he kept plotting in his mind what he might do the night of performance to get even with his rival who was Joseph.
Finally, the night of the performance, Mary and Joseph came walking across the stage. They knocked on the door of the inn, and the inn-keeper opened the door and asked them gruffly what they wanted. Joseph answered, “We’d like to have a room for the night.” Suddenly the inn-keeper threw the door open wide and said, "Great, come on in and I’ll give you the best room in the house."
Joseph and Mary were stunned. This wasn’t the line they’d been expecting and suddenly the rest of the play was in jeopardy. For a few seconds poor little Joseph didn’t know what to do. There was a long silence but then, Joseph looked in the door past the inn-keeper and dramatically looked to the left and right, and then stepped back and said "No wife of mine is going to stay in dump like this. Come on, Mary, let’s go to the barn." (John Simmons)
In the movie clip we saw today, from the movie “THE STAR”, Joseph plays a major part. In fact, throughout the movie the Joseph we’re introduced to is a strong character, a just man, a good husband, and a fairly humorous and gentle person. But in the Bible we don’t get to see that much of him. In fact, nowhere in Scripture does he even get to say anything.
One preacher noted: “Joseph, in many ways, is the forgotten man of Christmas. We don’t sing his story in Christmas carols. There are no cards or poems written about him. He’s not even the most well-known Joseph in the Bible” - THAT Joseph was in Genesis." (Daniel Darling)
But in spite of the fact that THIS Joseph didn’t get a speaking part in the play, he IS central to the whole story of the birth of Jesus. Three of the times he’s mentioned in Scripture he’s doing something important.
“When Joseph woke from sleep, HE DID as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.” Matthew 1:24-25
“… an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ And HE ROSE AND TOOK the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt.” Matthew 2:13-14
“an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.’ And HE ROSE AND TOOK the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. Matthew 2:19-21
Notice, in each of those verses Joseph is a very obedient man. God just says “Do this” or “Do that” and that’s what he does. No questions, no arguments… simply straightforward obedience.
But perhaps the most telling statement about Joseph is how GOD describes him in Matthew 1:18-19 - “the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a JUST MAN and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” Matthew 1:18-19
ILLUS: Now, at this point, I think it would be helpful to know a little bit about Jewish marriages. According to one source I read: Ordinarily parents would draw up a legal marriage contract, and when the contract was signed, boy and girl would be legally married, but (at that point) they still couldn’t live together for at least a year. That one year waiting period was a time to test their commitment and faithfulness. It was also a time for the families to get more acquainted. If Joseph died during that one year waiting period, Mary would have been considered a widow. One more thing: during this 1 year waiting period the only way out of their marriage would have been for them to get a divorce. (Daniel Darling)
And that was the option Joseph was considering. He was thinking of divorce. But why? Why would Joseph consider divorcing Mary? Well, because she’s pregnant… and Joseph knows the baby ISN’T his.
Now Mary’s in a tight spot. The Law decreed that a woman who was pledged to be married and was not a virgin could face a death sentence. Deuteronomy 22:20-21 tells us “if the … evidence of virginity was not found in the young woman, then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done an outrageous thing in Israel by whoring in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.”
In the Gospel of John 8, we’re told of some men who dragged a woman before Jesus who had been caught in adultery… and they said to him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women.” John 8:4-5
You could be stoned to death for adultery back then! Now I get the impression that the stoning of women (in that day) didn’t happen very often, but a man who divorced his wife - who’d gotten pregnant by another man - was still pretty harsh. Such women were shunned, shamed and ostracized by society.
Now Mary’s pregnant. Joseph feels betrayed…. And he has the right to divorce her.
What I find interesting in this part of the story is that God describes Joseph as a “JUST MAN”. Why is he a “Just man”? Well, God tells us: “Joseph, being a JUST man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly”
I got to wondering – what does this word “JUST” mean? (so I looked it up). I found that it was the Greek word: “dikaios” which means “righteous”. Someone who is “righteous” – is someone who tries to do the “right thing”.
So, that sentence in the story about Joseph tells us two things: 1st - because Joseph was a just man – he was NOT going to look the other way on a moral issue. Mary’s pregnant, the child isn’t his, and now he believes he can’t trust her. To his mind (and an option approved in the Law), the only way to deal with this situation is to divorce her. That would be what a just man would do in that situation.
When it comes to morality, the world around us harshly rejects the idea of Christians standing up for morality. Folks would just as soon we shut up about what is right or wrong and go practice our faith in church buildings… but just leave them alone. Jesus said that would happen. He taught us “Blessed are those who are persecuted for RIGHTEOUSNESS’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:10) In other words, Jesus expects us to stand up for God’s morality and call sin sin even when the world gets angry about that. In Joseph’s case, standing up for morality called for him to divorce Mary for (what he believed was) her betraying his trust.
Now there were two ways that Joseph could have gone about divorcing Mary.
• He could get a PUBLIC divorce. Which would involve Mary being dragged before a judge at the city gate. The city gate was a public area. It was a place where people gathered, where they talked… and where people shared the day’s gossip.
• Or Joseph could divorce her PRIVATELY. He could give her divorce papers in the presence of 2 witnesses. It would be a quiet affair where Mary could at least walk away with some dignity.
In the verse where God calls Joseph a JUST man it appears that Joseph a just man BECAUSE he was “unwilling to put her to shame” Now, why would Joseph be unwilling to put Mary to shame??? Well, I can think of only one reason: he loves her. He cares for her. Although he believes she’s brought shame on her family, her God and him… he still doesn’t want to hurt her.
ILLUS: When it comes to dealing with immorality, Christians can fall into one of two traps.
1) They can “overlook sin” because it’s just too complicated to deal with. I’ve been fired from two congregations because the leadership refused to confront sinful people. “Looking the other way” is not what “just” people do.
Or 2) they can confront sin and drive it from their midst. I’ve heard of this being done in some churches where a person is caught in adultery, homosexuality, or any number of other sins. Such people are confronted and told “there’s the door and don’t let it hit you on the way out.” One strike and they’re out, even if they repent of their sin. Such churches don’t care about people caught in sin. They don’t love folks who have failed and repent. They simply want to keep their congregation “pure”.
But "just" people – while they do confront sin – aren’t really happy about doing so. They’d much prefer that the person in sin repent of what they’ve done. They care what happens to the sinner and they don’t want to hurt the person who’s sinned – they just want them to change their lifestyle. That's the kind righteousness that Joseph models for us here.
Now, this is a good place to talk about divorce. In our culture divorce sometimes takes place because of moral issues (as Joseph thought was the case with Mary). There are times when a spouse has been unfaithful and their partner can’t take them back. Or there are times when a person has to divorce to protect themselves or their children from a violent spouse.
But nowadays, most divorces take place because either the husband or wife think they could be “happier” with someone else. Now, just so you know - that rarely if ever works out. And to make matters worse God REALLY despises that kind of thinking. The marriage covenant is holy in God’s sight and is not something to be shrugged aside lightly simply because we’re not “happy” with the choices we’ve made. And one more thing, I know that spouses in our culture will often threaten their partner with the words “I want to get a divorce”. Let me be clear: DON’T EVER DO THAT! Christians should never fall back on that kind of nasty approach to problem solving. It shames your God and your faith. Don't go there!
Now Divorce, no matter what the motivation, is a messy thing. There’s a lot of anger and rage and vengeful behavior. I’ve compared our modern divorce culture to a game of “Checkers”. Checkers is a game of Mutually Assured Destruction (M.A.D.), In Checkers the goal is destroy your opponent – to take all their pieces. Now, you lose MOST of YOUR pieces in the process… but you win!!!
In modern divorces both parties seem to measure whether they win or lose by how much they can TAKE AWAY from their former spouse. They may LOSE much of what they own in the process… but at least they win!!!
But notice, Joseph’s not like that. He’s not out to take revenge on Mary. He doesn’t want to hurt her. He doesn’t want to put her to shame. He sees divorce as the only solution to a moral problem but he refuses to hurt this woman he’d loved. And that’s one of the reasons God calls Joseph a “JUST MAN” - Joseph refuses to hurt the one who (he believes) has hurt him.
God says “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them… Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Romans 12:14, 17-18
Being JUST in the eyes of God means refusing to take revenge.
(PAUSE) As I was looking up the word “JUST” I stumbled across a Scripture I couldn’t figure out what to do with… but I put it in my Scripture file in case I found a reason to use it in this sermon. But then, when I got to this part of the sermon, I realized the power that verse had when applied to Joseph. The phrase shows up about 4 times in Scripture, but we’re going to look at it in Romans 1:17. It says “The just shall live by faith.”
Now as I mentioned earlier Joseph was a MAN OF OBEDIENCE to God.
When the angel tells Joseph to take Mary as his wife: “HE DID AS THE ANGEL of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.” Matthew 1:24-25
When an angel told Joseph to leave for Egypt to avoid Herod “HE ROSE AND TOOK the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt.” Matthew 2:13-14
And when an angel tells Joseph to return to Israel because Herod had died: “HE ROSE AND TOOK the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.” Matthew 2:19-21
Over and over again, Joseph hears… and he obeys. He makes no objections, makes no complaints. He just does what he was told. That’s because Joseph lived by faith.
Hebrews 11:1 tells us “Now FAITH is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” And Hebrews goes on to tell us about people of faith like Noah and Abraham:
“By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events AS YET UNSEEN, in reverent fear constructed an ark…” Hebrews 11:7
“… Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, NOT KNOWING where he was going”
You see, the just live by faith… and that faith OFTEN defies reason. Someone once said:
“It is the nature of faith to believe God upon His bare word.
It will not be, saith sense;
it cannot be, saith reason;
it both can and will be, saith faith, for I have a promise.” (John Trapp)
Faith - for the “just” - is often just believing God because He said so. To believe God upon His bare word. For the just to live by faith, sometimes we have to accept something that defies logic. LOGIC said Mary had been unfaithful… cause virgins don’t get pregnant. But Mary was pregnant with a baby that wasn’t Joseph’s and there was shame attached to that. When the baby was born, someone was going to check the calendar and count out the months and realize something didn’t add up. And because of that, if Joseph married Mary he opened himself up to ridicule and shame. That’s why the angel tells him “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”
And because Joseph was a “just man” and “lived by faith”, when the angel said it was OK, Joseph took her as his wife rather than divorce her. He took her as his wife because he had God’s promise that it was going to be OK.
But as I was finishing up this sermon, and I read this part where the angel told Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, I realized something I’d never realized was missing from this story. There’s one phrase every angel has to say to people every time they show up… do you know what that phrase is? YES “don’t be afraid” (as in “don’t be frightened of me”). It seems like every time an angel ever appears to someone that’s what he has to say: “don’t be afraid” because angels can be scary beings to be around.
ILLUS: Have you ever been around someone who’s very presence was intimidating? I have. I remember meeting a guy that climbed out a small sports car one day. As he stood up I remember that he was “huge” and I was a little overwhelmed standing in his presence. I remember thinking “this isn’t a guy you want to have mad at you!” If you’ve ever experienced that feeling… you have an idea of what it must be like to stand before an angel. You don’t want to mess with them.
But THIS angel doesn’t have to tell Joseph “Don’t be afraid” of him… because apparently Josephs’ not afraid of the angel. Why not? Well, I got to thinking about that… and I think Joseph was so TUNED IN with God, that the angel’s presence didn’t even phase him. Joseph wasn’t afraid, because he was a just man - a man who HEARD, BELIEVED, and OBEYED.
CLOSE: Now one last point: the Bible doesn’t say whether Joseph ever saw Star that guided the Wisemen. After all Joseph knew where Bethlehem was and didn’t need God’s help in finding it. But I still think the Star was there to be seen. The Wise Men had seen it in the East and their journey had to have taken a great deal of time to prepare for and to travel. So it is conceivable that the Star was visible even as Joseph and Mary started their journey to Bethlehem.
But, of course, Joseph didn’t need to follow the Star to Bethlehem. The reason he went to Bethlehem was because he had to… it was demanded by Rome. But I’m convinced that Joseph didn’t look on the journey to Bethlehem as something to be dreaded. I doubt he thought it was a burden to go to that city. Why? Because he knew the baby was about to be born… and it was obvious the birth would be in Bethlehem. So I think the journey for him was one of expectation and love. Expectation of what was about to happen. And love that he had for Mary. (PAUSE) And also the love that Joseph had for his God - the God he believed in and the God he followed to the manger.
The question this morning is – will you love God and follow Him where He asks you to go?