Sermon delivered at Grace Presbyterian Church, December 24, 2000
Through the Eyes of Joseph
Imagine what it might have been like
God had arranged all the circumstances to exactly suit this pivotal moment in history. He had witnesses present who were chosen by providence. Not long after, the Holy Spirit directed Luke as he wrote the Scriptural account so that we could have all the important facts as God saw them.
But before we can appreciate this event as God says it happened, we have to get the Medieval images and inventions out of our minds. Myths and mistranslations have attached many things to our picture of Christ's birth. We tend to think of it taking place in a stable or cave with animals surrounding the new born baby, and halos glowing around each family member's head. Some picture a bright star overhead and three wisemen offering gifts to the baby.
None of these is found in the biblical record of that first night. When the facts are confused, the point they teach is often less clear. We've looked at the facts before, so without going into the details a quick summary might help: We should begin with a picture as honest as is possible of the birthday of our Lord.
This young, newly married couple would not have been alone in Bethlehem. The decree of Caesar required every family of the line of David to come to that city to register. The families of both Mary and Joseph (at least all the adult males) had to be there too. This included their fathers and grandfathers, uncles, cousins .. all male family members. The idea that Mary and Joseph traveled that long distance alone is neither likely, nor does it fit the facts as we have them. When they arrived, the City of David would have been already full of relatives.
But you might have noticed, there is no innkeeper mentioned in the story. We read of no frantic search for a room to rent, no uncaring villagers who turned them away. Remember -- this was their family's home town. Jewish law required families to show hospitality to visitors, specially toward relatives. And Mary had just spent three months near there staying with her cousin Elizabeth. She would have known people there and had family contacts. Its inconceivable that these relatives from Nazareth would be left to search for a place to rent.
We know from archeology and from ancient records that many average homes had two sections. When guests arrived the family crowded into one room and the guests in the other. The word used for that guest room in Greek is kataluma, the word translated as "inn". The only other places its used in the New Testament, it means a room for guests. The New Testament uses other Greek words used to describe inns, not this one. So there is probably no inn in the story at all !
The families of David's line who lived closer to Bethlehem would have gotten there first. They would have filled up the guestrooms of the family homes. So since there was no room left there, they probably did what was usually done: They would have stayed in the shed like structure built onto the side of the home. Most houses had them to protect tools, animal feed and other supplies from the weather. That's where they would store unused items such as unneeded feeding troughs, or mangers. Sheds like that were usually as well constructed as the house itself. Mary and Joseph would have found that to be a humble but very private and comfortable place.
There had been no special star shining down on the manger the night before. That came about a year later to guide Eastern wise men to where the Savior was then living.
But they would have had a nice company of visitors. We know of the shepherds who came by God's special invitation through his angel. And certainly the relatives who had come from Nazareth with them, and others from other places, would have come to see the new member of the family and to ask God's blessing on their home.
With a more accurate understanding of the setting,
We can appreciate the thoughts of Joseph, waking up to see his beloved wife, and the miracle of their new-born son, the one specially promised by God. If we dare to wonder what he likely thought to himself ... we could understand his asking, "How did all this happen to me?"
Just one year before he was just a simple carpenter in Nazareth hoping to be one day married to this wonderful girl he knew there by the name of Mary. But so many things had taken place in that past year! Matthew 1 gives us insight to the memories that would have been in Joseph's mind.
About 9 months earlier, Joseph faced a crisis, a serious moral problem.
Matthew seems to assume that his readers know the basic story of Jesus' birth. He adds new information for us by showing things through the eyes of Joseph.
Mary and Joseph were betrothed.
We might wonder why God would have chosen a girl about to be married? If a physical father wasn't needed, if the Holy Spirit would cause the child to be conceived, then why was a man needed at all?
The answer was as old as God's word itself. It was God who ordained the family as the right way to raise children.
Marriage and fatherhood are not just quaint human traditions. They didn't evolve out of ancient needs or convenience. The humanists and feminists all assume this and that is where they are so wrong.
Fathers are important. Not just to physically produce children. But to raise them and produce a covenant home. Marriage and the traditional family are God's way. Single parenting is not easy and should be avoided when there is a choice. But when circumstances produce single parent families, we need to help out where we can. Joseph's part was to be the head of the covenant home Jesus was to grow up in.
Joseph was presented with a troubling situation:
They had not come together yet so he knew the child wasn't his. Matthew tells us directly that the child was conceived in her by the Holy Spirit. But Joseph didn't seem to understand that yet.
Joseph faced a problem that was hard to reconcile
Sometimes people use the word righteous in a derogatory way. They say "Oh don't be so righteous" meaning don't be prideful, thinking you're so perfect.
The Bible uses the word differently. A person is righteous when he admits his imperfection, but loves God, his law and his grace above all else.
God's law was clear in what it demanded: A betrothed woman was condemned as an adulteress if she consented to lie intimately with another man.
Execution for adultery wasn't permitted among the Jews under Roman rule. But still the principle was clear. Joseph knew that he couldn't overlook what appeared to be a capitol offense. The law wasn't given just for pagans. It was given to Israel for those who professed faith in God. Mary's trust in God's promises wouldn't excuse her ... or him for marrying her. He knew he had to follow and uphold God's law though it hurt him deeply.
What a devastating issue for a young man to deal with! It was hard to reconcile the tensions in his heart. His love for God was obviously supreme. But he also deeply cared for and respected Mary. And what a disappointment, that Mary would be involved sinfully with another man. He knew her so well. How could this be?
According to the record in Matthew, Mary never tried to explain it to him herself. Perhaps she knew that supernatural things need a work of God to be understood. God's plan is more than just where things will end up. It includes all the means of getting to that final goal.
Rather than worry about how God's plan will be completed, we, like Mary, should obey submissively and leave the success to God if he wills it. She trusted God to lay the path for her, and she wasn't afraid as she walked on as he directed her. Mary doesn't seem to have been troubled about her pregnancy with the Savior.
But Joseph also didn't want to disgrace Mary.
So he didn't act rashly to put his own pride above the honor of his intended bride. He couldn't ignore the crime he supposed she had been guilty of.
His choices were simple, according to the law, and how it could be followed at that time: He could have charged her with adultery which would then cause a public trial. Or he could simply end his part with her and stop the betrothal with a legal divorcement.
His decision was not to presume more than he needed. He planned to divorce her quietly. This shows us Joseph's holy character. Though it was hard, he didn't look for ways around God's law.
Joseph didn't just ignore God's word as if somehow love would excuse it. But he showed mercy within the bounds of the law. True mercy can never bypass justice or the moral law revealed in Scripture. Even God's mercy to us in Christ is only possible in that satisfied our guilt in our place on the cross.
We should also remember God's work in Joseph's heart to restrain him as he weighed his options. God's plan was to directly reveal the situation to him in a dream. There was to be no doubt in his heart as he took Mary to be his wife.
God's angel explained the situation to Joseph - he would hear it first hand.
In due time God sent his word to Joseph in a dream.
In this particular dream the angel of God addressed Joseph
Sometime from among the descendants of King David this Messiah would be raised up. He will rule forever over the covenant people and in a kingdom established by God.
By reminding Joseph that he was of that kingly line, the angel prepared him for an amazing message.
Then he assured him that he shouldn't be afraid to take Mary as his wife.
What an astounding, simple and yet unexpected solution to Joseph's dilemma. There had been no adultery. There was no breach of justice to consider. There was no challenge to leave Joseph to choose between God and his beloved Mary. God had planned that she would be his wife. This Messiah would be their child to raise!
As he told Mary, now he tells Joseph,
But here the angel explains the purpose of his name for Joseph.
And, yes, his name is really pronounced Iosaef.
Jesus would deliver his people from the cause of all mankind's sufferings: He would save them from sin itself!
The root of all our horrors, all our struggles and all our problems is the corruption and depravity we inherit as a race from Adam, our representative in Eden.
This is the Christmas message:
This year, the most popular gifts may be ... electronic palm organizers, chrome scooters, robot puppies, or the newest play station.
Rich celebrities may spoil their poor children with gifts bound to corrupt their values.
But if you had all these things, you would be no closer to happiness and inner peace.
What is the greatest need of people today? of your children and friends? What is really going to bring satisfaction and happiness in your marriage? in your home? at work? in politics? in your worship? in your own quiet moments? ... in all things?
Its to know and treasure the simple gift given by our Heavenly Father at Bethlehem. This is the gift that is so often neglected and diminished in importance.
Jesus came to save us from the guilt and disabilities that come from sin itself. And Joseph was chosen to be the husband of Mary and the father to the young Jesus. He would head the covenant home that would bring the world this greatest gift!
This was done to fulfill the ancient prophesy of the Messiah.
This brought the ancient prophesies to fulfillment.
This is evidence that what was about to happen was consistent with what God had said before. The ancient Scriptures themselves are the confirming test, the proof.
This baby is Immanuel:
And here is the wonderful part of this account -- Joseph obeyed.
There was no uncertainty left in Joseph's conscience.
It all had worked out! The seeming dilemma disappeared!
The ancient plan of God, and the promise to King David about 1000 years before, were at that very moment unfolding on the pages of history!
What an important part that carpenter from Nazareth was to play:
Then Joseph is heard of no more. Perhaps he didn't live to see Jesus begin his ministry and fulfill the promise.
But he provided what God called him to provide as a godly and caring father. God used the family structure he had ordained from the beginning in Eden. Within that structure the 2nd Adam was raised to one day save his people.
Some great changes in our world have come about by bloody revolutions. Some by disaster and disorder or by the rise of strong armies and powerful leaders. Some great inventions and innovations have changed the way we live.
But that's not the way God would defeat sin and Satan. It was a baby, promised from the beginning, born in Bethlehem, and obediently going to the cross for the sins of a disobedient people.
This gift changes lives. It brings peace and confidence. Immanuel saved us from our sin.