Tidings of Comfort and Joy: Joseph’s Obedience
If you were here last week we began by talking about the strange lyrics to the famous Christmas song-It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year-as it talked about marshmallows for toasting and scary ghost stories of Christmases long, long ago. That’s not the only famous Christmas song with strange lyrics-because who doesn’t love the song-Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas? Such a heartfelt song-but did you know there’s 2 sets of lyrics for it? Now most of us remember Frank Sinatra’s more upbeat version from 1948-Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Let your heart be light, from now on our troubles will be out of sight…Through the years we all will be together, if the fates allow. Hang a shining star upon the highest bough. And have yourself a merry little Christmas now. So hearts are light, troubles are out of sight-and he’s hanging up a star on the tree. Definitely a merry little Christmas! The original version is different. It was sung by Judy Garland 5 years earlier in the 1944 musical-Meet Me in St. Louis-and the lyrics said-Have yourself a merry little Christmas. It may be your last, next year we may all be living in the past…But at least we’ll all be together, if the Lord allows, from now we’ll have to muddle through somehow, so have yourself a merry little Christmas now. It’s the idea that next Christmas will be terrible-good luck trying to muddle through that-so have a merry little Christmas now! What a bleak outlook! Anybody trying to muddle through Christmas somehow? Hopefully not-that you’re muddling will turn to being merry-which is why we’ve entitled our Christmas series Tidings of Comfort and Joy. Because the Christmas season is about the most joyful news we could ever receive on planet earth-the most miraculous arrival we could ever welcome. It’s comfort and joy to the nth degree! And yet at the start-on that first Christmas it wasn’t comfort and joy-at least not at the beginning. It was the unknown and uncertainty of what in the world was happening-and a guy who was trying to make sense of it all and muddle through somehow.
So as we dive into his story I want to set the stage by asking if you’re someone who knows exactly what you want for Christmas-your Amazon wish list has already been emailed out to people-or if you’re someone who likes to be surprised with gifts at Christmas and don’t make a list. For example-is it a successful Christmas for you if you get everything on your wish list? That when Christmas is over you can check off your list having gotten everything you expected-no surprise gifts? Or is it a successful Christmas if you were surprised by the gifts you received having gotten things you never would have thought of or expected? On the one hand surprise gifts are great-but on the other hand surprise gifts do run the risk of being weird gifts. Personally I like surprise gifts-but a little backup plan isn’t a bad idea either-that’s why I strategically place the To Jim-From Jim gift under the tree. Why that was so thoughtful of myself! But all joking aside-do you insist on getting everything you expected in life-or do you embrace the surprises that happen? Moving beyond Christmas-is it a successful life for you if everything happens according to your plans? You’ve got your whole life laid out-and there better not be any detours or big changes along the way. You know want what you want. Or can you handle it when your plans are interrupted and the unknown occurs? That when your plans do get changed-and life brings the unexpected you’re okay because you’ve got a God you’re trusting in no matter what? That brings us to Joseph this morning-because if anyone’s life was filled with interrupted plans and the unexpected it was him-and yet his faith didn’t muddle through-but totally trusted God.
So open your Bibles to Matt 1:18-19. From the very first verse introducing Joseph’s story you can see how unexpected this was-and yet what a gracious way for Joseph to act. Put yourself in his shoes-you and your fiancee have faithfully followed God’s plan for marriage and not been physically intimate together while you’re engaged-and then all of a sudden she shows up and says she’s expecting a baby. Obviously Joseph knows he isn’t the father-so what’s he supposed to conclude but that someone else is! My fiancee’s been unfaithful to me! Some sort of affair has taken place behind my back. Joseph is probably thinking about all the other guys around town wondering who’s the father. So Joseph would have every right to get really angry and blow up and make a big deal of it. What have you done, Mary? I thought we were going to raise a family together like a godly husband and wife-but now you’ve totally ruined that by having this affair! Joseph could have easily shamed her based on the clear evidence of her pregnancy-everyone can see it. But he doesn’t do that. Even in his anger and surprise Joseph chooses grace over retaliation. He doesn’t know the real answer yet-and even before he finds out-even when he fears the worst and is crushed-he chooses grace-in this case to divorce her quietly. Because back then a betrothal was as binding as marriage so a divorce was required to break it off. But would you be as gracious? Have you been as gracious? That when someone hurts you, offends you, breaks your heart-as was certainly the case with Joseph-you still respond with grace? You still choose to deal with their mistakes kindly and tenderly? Or do you fly off the handle-jump to conclusions-and let them have it? Joseph’s example just a couple of verses in is so challenging. I like what one author said-He acted with grace and compassion even when he assumed the worst; for presumably he thought she had been unfaithful. But then came the divine interruption. Things always change when God interrupts. How true is that! Listen to God’s interruption-Matt 1:20.
Now don’t miss the subtle underplay here that while he was considering these things and what to do he fell asleep. Hence why God spoke to him in a dream. But I’m sure we’ve all prayed about something before and fallen asleep! But what a nap it was-better yet-what a dream it was. My dreams are always weird! But this is God using dreams to speak to Joseph-and it’s the 1st of 3 dreams in Joseph’s story-and we want to trace them-because in each case it’s an opportunity for Joseph to exercise obedience in the Lord. Because listen to what he’s told to do-Matt 1:21. Part of this-obviously a big part-was about Mary. She’s going to conceive and bear a son. But what’s Joseph’s role-keep Mary as your wife-don’t divorce her-but help her bear this son that you will name Jesus. And that’s such an important and intentional part because Jesus is the Greek counterpart to the OT Hebrew name Joshua. Of course Joshua was the guy who followed Moses and led the people into the Promised Land. His name means Yahweh saves-which is the very thing that Jesus would ultimately do that Joshua foreshadowed. Because look at the note Matthew’s added-Matt 1:22-23. God would save His people because God would be with His people. The One who was with God and was God-that is the Word who we talked about last week-the eternal 2nd person of the Trinity would take on human flesh and be born from his virgin fiancee Mary. Talk about the most incredible news-the most incredible dream a person could ever have! I bet Joseph woke up wondering if he ate too much spice food the night before giving him weird dreams. But this wasn’t a weird dream-it was the truth-it was the sovereign plan of God orchestrated long before, spoken by the prophet Isaiah over 700 years before-and now it’s taking place as a young man is called to obey God and trust Him. So Pt1:Obeying God doesn’t always mean getting what we want-but trusting in what He’s already planned. Huge difference! I’m not sure that Joseph was wanting to be the earthy father to the Son of God-much less to have ever considered such a thing. I think any Dad would quiver in his boots at the thought of raising the Messiah. And yet whatever fears or nervousness or uncertainty Joseph may have experienced were quickly eclipsed by his obedience. Look at this-Matt 1:24-25. Joseph trusted God and followed through with what he was told-no arguments or excuses recorded. Joseph was obedient to one of the most incredible plans our human minds have ever imagined.
I like how Max Lucado describes this moment of decisions for Joseph-God Came Near, 39-40. Because that’s when obedience becomes obedience. It doesn’t matter if we agree with it, understand it, make sense of it, or even like it. It has nothing to do with what we want or feel-but everything to do with what God commands. Back to Pt1. Again-I doubt that Joseph wanted to begin his family with the Son of God. Lord, can’t we ease into this with a quiet boy, a shy little girl, or even a pair of twins? Really-the Messiah who’s going to save your people? That’s a lot of responsibility as first time parents. What if Mary and I aren’t good at this? We have no idea what to do with a newborn-especially your Son-we could mess this up! And to a lesser degree you and I might feel like that with the things God calls us to do. Are you sure about this Lord? You want me to do that? You want me to step up and serve when everyone else doesn’t? You want me to speak up when everyone else stays silent? You want me to go out on a limb and trust you when everything around me says to stay put? And the Lord’s answer is yes. Trusting and obeying God is never about getting what we want-but it’s always about experiencing something incredible that He’s already planned for us and put in motion. There was a prophecy 700 years before Joseph was born that his virgin finance Mary would conceive and bear a son called Immanuel. And in just the same way-God has things planned and prepared for you to do long before you were born. Remember the verse we looked at a few weeks ago-Eph 2:10. Things that God has already prepared for you, ways He already wants you to serve Him and build His kingdom. The question is will you do them and obey? You bet Lord-I’m in-I’ll follow you. Or-no way Lord-too scary!
Because we know it usually is scary. Joseph’s step of obedience to the Lord led him to several more steps of obedience on this journey. We’ll come back to this point later-but know that obedience is never a one-time event. Okay, Lord-I obeyed you-that was scary-but I took a deep breath and got through it. Time to get back to normal. It’s never that way. Trusting the Lord and obeying Him becomes your new normal-it’s what God’s people do. It’s not I obeyed-past tense-glad that’s done-but I’m obeying-present tense, an ongoing reality. And we remember how true that was in the Christmas story-because Joseph didn’t encounter easy things after he obeyed.
Look at Luke 2:3-5. So off they go to Bethlehem. Joseph is making the journey with his pregnant wife-probably questioning God’s timing on this. Really Lord-to travel all this way now when Mary’s almost due? If you had planned this 700 years before maybe you could have adjusted the timing of the census a bit better! But I’m sure there’s a nice hotel room waiting for us when we get there. And we all know how that turned out-Luke 2:6-7. There’s the most famous Bible character who isn’t actually in the Bible-the innkeeper! He always gets a role in every kid’s Christmas pageant with a very important line-there’s no room in the inn. But imagine that conversation-Seriously-no room? Look at my wife-this baby’s coming tonight. And I wonder if Joseph tried to lean in and make his case-Listen buddy-this is God’s Son-the Messiah being born-so you might want to find us a room! And whether the innkeeper tried or just rolled his eyes and questioned Joseph’s sanity-there’s no room to the inn. And Joseph ends up having the even harder conversation going back out to Mary on the donkey-So we didn’t get the bridal suite-or any suite for that matter-but good news we have the cave out back with the animals! Straw and manger at no extra charge! Clearly Joseph muddled through that! But obedience to God didn’t mean smooth sailing for him and no obstacles. In fact, you could argue that by obeying God, Joseph’s life became more difficult, not less. Here he has a pregnant fiancé giving birth, lying the child in a manger-not the circumstances any new couple would like. And yet it’s not about what’s easy or simplest for us. It’s about God’s plans coming to pass so that He is glorified through us.
That’s Pt2:Obeying God doesn’t guarantee our ease-but always accomplishes His purposes. If you think you’re signing up for the easier of two options-you’re not. God’s will is often the harder and more difficult one-but it’s always the most blessed one because it’s what He wants to do through you as you follow Him. I’m sure there’s been a time when you courageously obeyed God-you did what He commanded and stepped out in faith-only to discover it lead to more challenges and stretched you further than if you didn’t obey. And you think-Wait a minute-what just happened? Wasn’t God supposed to reward me for that? Make my life easier for that? But Pt2-and that’s what Joseph’s story continues to reveal. Look at dream #2-Matt 2:13. Obviously Joseph wants to protect Jesus from Herod-but this is a detour he didn’t expect. To go spend time in a foreign land with his wife and young son. But once again we see complete, no-hesitation, straightforward obedience from Joseph-Matt 2:14-15. Notice how they went by night-because any hesitation or delay could have been deadly. It’s a good reminder that delayed obedience is actually disobedience. Because don’t we often like to wait awhile and think about it before we obey, to weigh our options, make sure we understand it-and even agree with God before we obey Him? But that’s not obedience-and Joseph didn’t do that. He didn’t hesitate-Hmm-Egypt-wonder if we can get a room there? Let me think about this. He just immediately obeyed and went-once again accomplishing God’s purpose-this time from Hosea-Out of Egypt I called my son-Bird, 342. So this trip to Egypt wasn’t a random detour thrown their way-but again orchestrated by God long ago. And I don’t think it’s any different for us today-the detours we encounter in life aren’t detours when we’re following God. They’re part of His plan and His purpose-and what if you viewed them that way? That instead of thinking-What’s this Lord? I don’t have time for this-this isn’t what I expected! To realize God knows what He’s doing and where He’s leading you-Prov 16:9. Detours aren’t detours when we’re following the God who directs our steps.
And that’s what He does a 3rd time for Joseph-Matt 2:19-20. And if you’re keeping track this is journey #3 for Joseph-from Nazareth to Bethlehem, to Egypt, now back to Israel. And Joseph could have easily refused and said-Forget it-I’m just getting settled in to Egypt and learning the culture-no thanks Lord, we’re going to stay put for a while. But earlier steps of obedience have prepared Joseph for a lifestyle of obedience-Matt 2:21. I love how direct and clear cut he is-Yes, Lord we’re going! And the text goes to say that even in another dream Joseph was told to go to the district of Galilee where they eventually settled back down in the city of Nazareth. But this geographical journey of Joseph really reveals his spiritual journey of faith. That being willing to travel means he’s willing to follow-to follow His God wherever He calls him. And that’s Pt3:Obeying God isn’t a one-time event-but becomes an ongoing reality. You obey once in order to obey more. Have you ever thought about that? Obedience doesn’t stop when you’re following God-did that once-it worked out okay. It’s what you do because of who you are-and that’s His child. You obey because God is your Father in heaven who loves you, has called you, prepared you, and knows exactly how He wants to use you to build His kingdom. Obedience isn’t always easy, it isn’t always convenient or what we would choose on our own-but it’s always joyful, exciting and fulfilling because it’s what we’re meant to do. You’ll never regret obeying God. Joseph certainly didn’t. David didn’t-Ps 119:54-57 NIV. Will that be true of you? Obviously we won’t do it perfectly. Our obedience will have its ups and downs-praise God that He forgives us, restores us and sets us back on our feet. But He’s calling each of us to a lifetime of obedience. Joseph’s life has shown us how one step of obedience led to another which led to another-until it became the way he lived thereby fulfilling God’s purposes. What about you? App: What step of obedience is God calling you to take? What is that right now in your life? What decision or choice has He put before you? Maybe it’s an action, maybe it’s an attitude. How is God calling you to obey-especially with something new and unknown-which is usually His way? How is He calling you to step out on a limb and trust Him? I return back to God Came Near, 40-42.