I don’t know about your family, but at my house we watch TV… probably too much of it to be sure. On occasion our favorite program is interrupted by a breaking news event or radar images of some far-off storm. You have all heard the words: “we interrupt this program for...” you fill in the blanks. When this happens it takes us away from the escape of our favorite show and abruptly brings us back into the reality of this world. Well, our scripture today is about just such an interruption… one that abruptly brings us back into reality.
There are so many wonderful stories in the Christmas saga. We know the story about the sheep and the shepherds and the angels above them, singing “Glory to God in the highest.” We know the story of the shepherds going to the stable and the manger and visiting the baby Jesus who is lying in a manger. We love the story of the wise men with their gold and frankincense and myrrh. These are wonderful Christmas stories. The Christmas scene on Christmas Eve is such an idyllic moment but it quickly turns into an ugly moment of reality… and we often forget that during the Christmas season.
The danger of our sanitized, contemporary Christmas celebrations is that we are enabled and encouraged to forget the reality of the violence that existed during Jesus’ reign on earth. In our culture, we emphasize plastic Santa’s, reindeer with red noses, bright lights and maybe a few benign manger scenes without a hint of the amazing faithfulness of Joseph or the brutality of King Herod. We tell the Christmas story, combining our favorite parts of Luke and Matthew, so that we can have shepherds and angels, wise men and bright stars, but we never include in the telling of our edited and censored version, the full story of what happened at Bethlehem. Why is that?
Years ago I remember seeing a Peanuts cartoon where Linus was telling two little guys the Christmas story. He was explaining about the Wise Men going to Bethlehem, telling how they got there by following a star. At this point in the cartoon, the two little boys perked up and they asked him what star? Isn’t that how we look at Christmas sometimes? We look for the stars, the big name personalities. Joseph sometimes gets lost in the hustle and bustle of Christmas.
Last week at my home church, we held the annual children’s nativity. Every year I find this to be a great way to bring in Christmas. I laughed when the small children came in as sheep making as much noise as possible. I cried when the mother of a small child placed him in the manger to play the role of Jesus. I most enjoyed watching my daughter up front pretending to be an angel. When talking about this with a friend, I asked why her son did not play the role of Joseph, as he was one of the older kids in the production. She said he did not want to be Joseph and instead wanted to be the inn keeper. Even today, Joseph get’s very little respect.
I think Joseph is a forgotten figure in the Christmas story. But with Herod in Matthew chapter 2, Joseph is the star of the story. My message today is about what we can learn from Joseph’s faithfulness and Herod’s brutality.
My wife loves Christmas… it may be her favorite season. When Thanksgiving rolls around, she finds the radio stations that are playing Christmas music and tunes in full time. One of her favorite songs is by 4Him called “A strange way to save the world.” The words of the chorus go like this:
And Joseph said...
Why me, I'm just a simple man of trade
Why Him, with all the rulers in the world
Why here inside this stable filled with hay
Why her, she's just an ordinary girl
Now I'm not one to second guess what angels have to say
But this is such a strange way to save the world
We know from earlier in the Christmas story that Joseph is a faithful man. We learn from his experience that divine guidance comes to those of us with prepared hearts… those of us who are receptive to God’s word. In verses 13 and 21 of the scripture today, we see that Joseph remained receptive to God’s guidance, even through the fear of Herod out to get Jesus. But what is the lesson for us this Christmas season?
We need to slow down and hear God. We need to learn to discern God’s voice from all the competing messages we receive. In the song, when Joseph says “I’m not one to second guess what angels have to say,” he is listening to God, not challenging God. How often do we challenge the word of God by not paying full attention, by not being present with God? We need to be careful as we live in this world that we do not live for this world… instead living for the kingdom of God. Like Joseph, we must hear God through our Christian characteristics of obedience and faith.
There is a fierce battle taking place in each of us between our sinful nature and our renewed spirit in Christ. Paul describes this conflict in Romans chapter 7: ”I know nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.” Sin is a "me-first" self-pleasing attitude of the heart which denies God's authority to direct our lives and our world… it is our separation from God. We need to seek to overcome sin in our lives.
In the scripture today, the first of three prophecies is fulfilled in verse 15 when Matthew quotes Hosea 11 verse 1 “out of Egypt I called my son.” The original reference by the prophet Hosea was to Exodus 4 where God called Israel his firstborn son. The Hebrew word for firstborn is bakar (Baw Kar) which means first fruit or best. At the first Passover, God instructed the Israelites to select the best lamb for sacrifice and to place the blood of the animal on the doorframe. God then came through Egypt and struck down the firstborn, the best, of all those who did not have this blood evidence. This represents the beginning of a cycle of sacrifice leading up to Jesus’ death on the cross… including the brutal slaying of the young boys. From this point, God’s claim on the firstborn, the best, has been absolute.
We take sin lightly today because we are not called to sacrifice our best in repentance… but sin is never free. When you think about it, sin of any kind, denying God’s authority, deserves a punishment of death. But we are relieved of this sacrifice through Christ’s blood on the cross. God sent his firstborn, his best, as the savior of humanity. Only through Christ can we overcome sin. Like Joseph, God calls us out of our Egyptian bondage – our sin – and we must be faithful to this purpose.
Christmas morning at our house is always a time of excitement. Our children know they will have gifts and other treats under the tree… but what will be there is almost always a surprise. Christmas combines assurance and anticipation, and so does faith. Hebrews tells us that faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Like children on Christmas morning, two words describe faith: sure and certain.
A theme that runs throughout the bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is rescue. God continually rescues humanity from deserved suffering. Think about all the bible stories you know, there is a recurring pattern of grace, sin, judgment, and grace whereby God consistently restores humanity. This is God’s progressive covenant repeated generation after generation revealing God’s character of grace and faithfulness, despite our consistent demonstrations of unfaithfulness. Of this we are sure and certain… we can have faith in God.
The second of the prophecies is fulfilled in verse 18 when Matthew speaks of the weeping and sadness present as a result of Herod’s brutal massacre of the innocents. Herod had faith. He believed there would be a savior king and he believes the wise men who tell him this king was born in Bethlehem. But Herod fears this savior king… he fears that Christ will take too much from him… his power, his authority, his throne. But Christ doesn’t seek to take things away from us, he seeks to provide us with freedom, peace, and joy. We can have faith that God comes to us in the dark places, in the dangerous places, and in the hopeless places and we can be sure and certain of our future restoration through Christ.
Joseph humbled himself to God. He put aside the ridicule and shame that would inevitably come from marrying a woman who was pregnant because he was faithful to God’s commands and guidance. He uprooted his young wife and newborn son and moved them in the middle of the night because he was faithful. Humility is the attitude of a person who knows they need help and Joseph embodied humility.
As the old country song goes, “it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.” I think too many of us get caught in the trap of thinking this way about ourselves… I know I do. We take pride indiscriminately. We boast of our virtues if we can discern any; failing that, we boast of our weaknesses. Christians are uniquely vulnerable to the most insidious kind of pride. We confess our dependence on grace -- but then, with just the slightest twist, this poverty of spirit becomes the grounds for the most unseemly boasting. “I am a sinner -- true enough. But God chose me.” How then are we to be humble… by following Christ’s example.
Christ humbled himself to us. The third of the prophecies is fulfilled in verse 23 when Matthew tells of the prophecy that Christ will be called a Nazarene. While most infants live a quiet and peaceful life, Jesus’ life and suffering began together. The glory days of gold, frankincense and myrrh did not last long. As if the journey and time in Egypt was not enough, returning to Nazareth, a relatively overpopulated and poor town, was about as low as Jesus could get. The prophet Isaiah tells us that the savior would be treated with contempt and be despised and rejected by men. Micah prophesies that Christ would come from humble beginnings… it does not get more humble than being born in a barn, being a political refugee, and growing up in Nazareth.
We all know how the story goes from here… Christ lived a relatively quiet life until adulthood when he burst onto the scene. He preaches and teaches, heals the sick and raises the dead, and serves the least of those around him… but he does it with such grace and humility as only the Son of God could. He leaves for us a legacy, an example of how we should live by his ultimate humble sacrifice. We are to be humble as well… relying on God’s authority. As Peter tells us, humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you in due time, casting all your care upon Him, for He cares for you.
As I come to a close, let me leave you with four things we can learn from Joseph’s faithfulness and Herod’s brutality that you can take with you to hear God, overcome sin, have faith, and be humble.
The prophet Elijah described hearing God as a still, small voice. In order for us to hear God through all the chaos and clutter of our lives, I suggest keeping a journal of your thoughts as you pray and read the bible. When you revisit this journal over time, you will see how God has been present in your life.
Our new covenant with God comes through the cross. Remember the words you hear every communion, “the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Every time you participate in communion, think of this as a time when you are renewing your covenant with God to overcome sin.
The beginning point of faith is believing in God’s character – he is who he is. The endpoint is believing in God’s promises – he will do what he says. In between, we are called to have faith that Christ is our path to everlasting life. Consider ways to get off your throne for Christ.
Humility is the attitude of a person who knows they need help. Be humble in the presence of God by praying a lot and following God's instructions, instead of leaning on your own understanding.
Merry Christmas… and may God bless you.