Why did God implement his saving plan for the world in a way that caused Joseph (and Mary) so much pain and suffering? If we were in charge of the universe, we think, we would have done things differently. But let’s face it: Pain and suffering are a part of God’s plan for our lives. God uses it for our good and for his glory. Do we live our lives as if we believe that?
Sermon Text: Matthew 1:18-25
[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]
My favorite contemporary rock band wrote a Christmas song several years ago. The song is called “Joseph, Who Understood.” It’s sung from the perspective of Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus, after he learns that his fiancée is pregnant—and he’s not the father. It begins like this: “Rumors are flying/ All over Galilee these days/ And, Mary, I’m trying to be cool/ When my friends walk by ’em/ They cannot look me in the eye/ Baby, I’m trying.” But, he says, “You’re asking me to believe in too many things.”
This opening verse perfectly captures what Joseph must have been going through before the angel visited him. The fact is, rumors were flying all over Galilee about Mary. We know this in part because of a couple of intriguing verses in the gospels of Mark and John. In Mark 6:3, people from Jesus’ hometown, who have just turned against Jesus, refer to him as the “son of Mary.” In that culture, you would never refer to someone as the son of their mother—even if the father was dead. They would have called Jesus “the son of Joseph”—unless they didn’t believe Joseph was the father. And in John 8:41, when scribes and Pharisees are arguing with Jesus about whether they can claim Abraham as their father, they say to Jesus, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one father—even God.” We were not born of sexual immorality. What a strange thing to say—unless they believed that Jesus was born that way.
I said this when we talked about Mary two weeks ago, but even if Joseph and Mary told people that the child was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, without a human father—well, who would believe them? Most people would think that Mary was simply covering up an embarrassing sin.
My point is, there’s evidence that the people of Nazareth had heard the rumors and believed that Jesus himself was, quote-unquote, an illegitimate child, which means, as the song says, that a lot of people would have a hard time looking Joseph in the eye. They would be too embarrassed and ashamed. “Why are you marrying her, Joseph? She’s carrying a child who isn’t your own. She’s done you wrong! She’s damaged goods.” She’s a…”—well, you can imagine what they would say about Mary in that culture. By marrying her, Joseph is harming his own good reputation, his own good name.
And if scholars are right about Mark 6 and John 8, which took place about 30 years after Jesus was born, then the damage to Joseph’s reputation was permanent. You didn’t live that sort or thing down.
No wonder Joseph decided at first to break off the engagement. In that culture, you were considered legally “married” the moment you got engaged—even before the wedding, and before you consummated your marriage.
But before Joseph could go through with his plans, a funny thing happened to him. He had a dream. A dream in which an angel appeared to him. And the angel told him, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…” The angel says, “Do not be afraid.”
And I want this sermon to focus on that—on not being afraid—on summoning the courage to place our faith in God, to do what God wants us to do, to endure what God wants us to endure, to suffer what God wants us to suffer—to be willing to submit to God’s will rather than simply following our own. All of that takes courage, and Joseph, history’s second Christian, had courage to spare.
Because here’s something I want us to notice about the story of Joseph in today’s scripture: It didn’t have to be like this. It didn’t have to happen like this. It didn’t have to be so difficult! Think about it: God could have brought his Son into the world in some other way—with timing that was more favorable to Mary and Joseph and their reputations. Wouldn’t it have been easier on both of them, for example, if the angel had come to Mary and Joseph the day before the wedding, let’s say. And the angel could have told both of them, “Look, Mary is going to conceive a child by the Holy Spirit, so Joseph you won’t technically be the father, although you’ll raise him as your own child. But no one else will know—at least until decades later when Mary will tell the gospel writers. No one will know because the wedding is tomorrow. No one will be able to ‘do the math,’ to add up the days, and to figure out that the baby was born less than nine months after your wedding date. So your reputation, your good names, will be preserved, and no one will look down on you or your son.”
Wouldn’t that have been so much easier?
One important reason that it didn’t happen like that, however, is because God didn’t want it to happen like that. For whatever reason, God wanted Joseph, for example, to wrestle with his anger toward Mary, his hurt feelings, his wounded pride, his jealousy—these feelings that Mary had lied to him; that she had cheated on him. God wanted him to do endure this amount of suffering, at least for a little while.
This is a difficult truth, but I don’t know how to say it except to say it: sometimes God wants his children to experience pain and to suffer. In Daniel chapter 3, for instance, there’s the familiar story of about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Remember these three faithful Jews, who served in the court of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon? They were commanded to bow down and worship a giant statue of the king—which would have been idolatry, a violation of the second commandment. So they refused. And their refusal is interpreted as nothing less than treason. As punishment, unless they repent and bow down, they will be executed: they will be thrown into a fiery furnace. And of course, at the last moment, God miraculously intervenes to prevent them from being burned alive.
Now, when we’re children and hear about this story in Vacation Bible school, we think of this story as a miracle about God saving these men from suffering. But how can that be? The fact is, God allowed the three friends endure the worst part of the fiery furnace.
Why do I say that? Because, first, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had to wrestle with the decision to go to the furnace—versus bowing down to the statue. They could have chosen idolatry and saved their lives. But they had to wrestle with that decision. Second, after deciding that they would not bow down, they had to anticipate the horror of the furnace: What would happen the moment they were thrown in? What would dying that horrible death feel like? Can you imagine how they felt walking with the guards to the furnace—how horrifying. They wouldn’t know until they were already thrown in that they would be O.K. The worst part is the anticipation, the fear. After all, the fire itself would kill them instantly—so that couldn’t be the worst part.
By all means, the three friends hoped and believed that God would deliver them. They told Nebuchadnezzar that. They knew that God had the power to do so; but notice: this kind of faith isn’t the same as rock-solid certainty. As they tell the king: “But if [God doesn’t deliver us], be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”
Joseph’s experience is a little bit like this, too. After all, notice how this supernatural message comes to Joseph: in a dream! At least Mary, his fiancée, had an angel visit her in person, while she was awake and fully alert. Joseph’s angel came to him in a dream! Don’t you have some crazy dreams? I do. I’m sure Joseph did, too. Yet Joseph had to discern that this wasn’t just a crazy dream—that it was really a message from God, that God was asking him to turn his life upside down and do something incredibly difficult and costly and unexpected.
So you see, it took courage not only for Joseph to take Mary as his wife, but also to just believe that God was speaking to him, and he needed to obey. Do you think that Joseph was a hundred percent certain when he woke up the next morning that he had received a message from God? I don’t think so. Faith itself is not being a hundred percent certain. Faith isn’t the absence of all doubt. It is, however, having the courage to trust in God even in the face of those doubts!
And you might say, “Well, it all worked out in the end”—and it did work out. It worked out for Joseph, just as it worked out for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. But arriving at that end was often a difficult, dark, painful journey.
Is there a lesson there for us?
I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. In my house growing up, we had something called a living room, which was separate from the room where we did most of our living. The room where we did most of our living we called the “den.” Human beings rare set foot in the so-called “living room,” and certainly not us kids—it was the room with all the “nice” furniture and expensive decorations. Including these beautiful Lladro figurines that my mom collected. Mom kept them on display—behind glass, on the shelf of an expensive hutch. So that, once or twice a year, when she entertained guests in the living room, they could marvel at her beautiful Lladro collection. The problem is, to a five year old kid these Lladro figurines looked a lot like toys—action figures, even. But heaven forbid anyone take these things off the shelf and actually do something with them! I would get a whoopin’, as Mom would say, if I did!
My point is, I want faith to be just like that… to be like these Lladro figurines. Faith is something that I want to possess. I want it to look pretty sitting up on a shelf—maybe dust it off occasionally. But I never want to actually have to use my faith. I don’t want to have to actually depend on God; I want to depend on myself. Faith is something you need when you reach the very end of your rope, and you’re out of options. Like when you’re dying, for instance. It’s good to have faith then. But for the rest of your life it’s not practical; it’s not something that you need every day. Or so I often want to believe.
I am someone who is too easily impressed by successful people—successful in the world’s eyes, I mean. And there’s a sinful part of me that covets this kind of success—even though I’ve chosen a career that offers few opportunities to achieve it, even if I knew how.
Anyway, I was at a dinner party one time several years ago. I was a new pastor, with a lot of student debt, struggling to pay the bills—all because I, you know, answered God’s call into ministry. Meanwhile, there was a man there who was very successful. He had money. He had a start-up. He had great business success. He was from Germany. His name was Jorg. So I’m at this party making small talk with Jorg, and he asks me what I do for a living, and I tell him I’m a pastor, and he literally bursts out laughing. And he apologizes and says, “I’m sorry… I know that there are pastors out there, I’ve just never met one before”—and he may as well have just said it: “I’ve never met anyone crazy enough or foolish enough to actually be one. Pastors, you see, don’t belong in my circle of friends. Why don’t you do something productive with your life? Why don’t you make something of yourself?”
In that moment, I felt about as small and ashamed of myself as I used to feel when I struck out in Little League with two outs in the bottom of the ninth—which seemed to happen a lot when I was a kid. I’m ashamed to admit it, but there was a small part of me that wondered, “Is he right? Am I wasting my life? What do I have to show for myself? What difference am I making?” At the time I was in the process of ordination. So here I was, trying to convince the United Methodist Church that God really did call me into pastoral ministry—meanwhile, at this dinner party, I was doubting it myself.
Fast forward a year… I ran into Jorg again, this time at an Atlanta Hawks game. He came up to me and said someone invited him to church, and he reluctantly went—and to his own surprise he was now reading the Bible and praying. Every day! He became a Christian. He was saved. And just think: a year earlier a small part of me wondered whether he was right to reject faith!
All that to say, I’m not like Joseph: he was willing to be willing to die for his faith; back then I was hardly willing to suffer a small insult for mine. Because I was trusting not in God but in an idol—worldly success. I was looking to that idol to rescue me, to give my life meaning and purpose.
I’m not saying that I’m a hundred-and-eighty degrees removed from from the person I was eight years ago. God knows the battle against my sinful pride rages on. But I am saying that God has used pain and suffering—he has used incredibly difficult circumstances—which I would never choose for myself, to shape me into the slightly better man that I am today—and into the better man that I will become by God’s grace. I know that from the bottom of my heart! I need God to do that for me! I thank God that he does!
Do you believe that? Which is another way of asking, “Do you believe the sign of Emmanuel?” which the prophet Isaiah offered to King Ahaz in Isaiah chapter 7, which the angel offered to Joseph in today’s scripture: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
Have you lost your job? “God is with you.” Are you grieving the loss of a loved one? “God is with you.” Are you struggling to pay the bills? “God is with you.” Struggling in your marriage? “God is with you.” Struggling with your grades? “God is with you.” Struggling with your health? “God is with you.” Struggling with your business? “God is with you.”
[Invitation to pray the Wesleyan Covenant Prayer.]