Joseph - The Dilemma of Interruptions
The Christmas Dilemma Joseph – the Dilemma of Interruptions Matthew 1:18-25 Pastor Pat Damiani December 9, 2018 NOTE: This is a manuscript, and not a transcript of this message. The actual presentation of the message differed from the manuscript through the leading of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, it is possible, and even likely that there is material in this manuscript that was not included in the live presentation and that there was additional material in the live presentation that is not included in this manuscript. Back in 1984 when Mary and I were living in Albuquerque, we came back here to Tucson to visit our families at Thanksgiving. So we weren’t really planning on returning at Christmas. But since my grandmother was in poor health, we decided that this might be the last Christmas that we would get to spend with her so we made the trip again at Christmas. A little over a week after we returned home to Albuquerque, I got an unexpected phone call at work to tell me that my dad had just had a heart attack at work and died. In the space of less than a month, God brought a couple of significant interruptions into our lives. The first, which required another trip back to Tucson less than a month after we had just been there, turned out to be a great blessing as we had one more time to spend with my dad. The second, the death of my dad, was certainly much more difficult to deal with. But afterwards, we were so grateful that we had been willing to make time for that first interruption. As I think back to that time now, over 30 years later, I am reminded that God can bring interruptions into our lives at any time. And that seems to be particularly true at Christmas. Most of us have some high expectations at this time of year. We have pictures in our mind of the perfect Christmas. We want it to be, as the song proclaims, “the most wonderful time of the year”. But certainly the first Christmas didn’t live up to that and so maybe we ought to temper our expectations as well. Last week, we saw that for Mary, the visit of Gabriel represented a huge interruption for her. While she was busy making plans for a wedding and a life together with Joseph, God interrupted her life in a pretty significant way. This morning, we’re going to see that the same thing happens for Joseph. While he is busy building a home for his bride and his family, his plans are interrupted when he finds out that Mary is pregnant. There is much that we can learn about how to handle interruptions in our lives from seeing how Joseph handled his. As I mentioned last week, Matthew and Luke give us distinct accounts of the birth of Jesu because they approach it from different perspectives. Last week we began with Luke’s account which is written from Mary’s perspective. This week, we’ll look at the birth of Jesus from Joseph’s perspective, which is found in Matthew’s gospel account. [Read Matthew 1:18-25] Before we get into the details of this account, I want to ask you to do the same thing we did with Mary last week and try to put yourself in Joseph’s shoes for a few moments and imagine what this whole situation must have been like for him. Just like we saw with Mary, we don’t know a whole lot about Joseph. In fact we know even less about him than we do about Mary because he doesn’t appear in any of the accounts of Jesus’ life once He begins His ministry. That has led some to speculate that perhaps Joseph had died by that time and that therefore he was probably substantially older than Mary. But, as I said, that is merely speculation. Knowing what we know about the culture at that time, it’s certainly more likely that Joseph was just a teenager or maybe in his early 20’s. He is identified later in Matthew as a carpenter – the word that is used there describes anyone who worked in the construction of buildings. So he was a blue collar kind of guy there in the little town of Nazareth. As a builder, he likely was a planner who measured twice and cut once as a way of life. If he lived today, he would probably be one of those people who could follow the instructions for assembling any Ikea product and not have parts left over when he was done. After the betrothal, he had gone back to his father’s house and started to build an addition to that house where he and Mary would live and one day raise a family. And everything was going according to plan until the day he found out Mary was pregnant. Joseph knew the child wasn’t his because he had not been with Mary, a point that both Luke and Matthew are careful to emphasize in their accounts. We don’t exactly how Joseph found out Mary was pregnant. We’re only told here that she was “found to be with child.” Perhaps Mary had told him about the visit from Gabriel. Maybe she had kept that to herself, but as the pregnancy progressed it became obvious she was pregnant. But however he found out, the conversation with Mary at that point would have been really interesting, right? “You may be pregnant, but I we both know I’m not the father. I can’t believe that you cheated on me. Sure, an angel visited you and then you got pregnant by the Holy Spirit? I’ve heard some pretty wild stories in my day, but you really expect me to believe that?” Joseph seems to be in a no-win situation here and I don’t think he really knows what to think. All he knew for sure is that the life he had imagined with Mary was no longer possible. But what Joseph couldn’t see is what we can clearly see because we have the entire picture… Before we go any further, I need to point out that not all interruptions are necessarily opportunities, which is why I’ve used the word “often”. Sometimes interruptions happen just because people are rude and inconsiderate. And some interruptions are just due to our own bad choices. But I suppose that even then it’s possible that those interruptions can be an opportunity to show grace or to learn an important life lesson. Joseph couldn’t see it at the time, but the interruption that God had brought into his life was an opportunity for him to be involved in God’s plan to save the world in much the same way that the interruption to travel back to Tucson at Christmas became an opportunity for me to spend time with my dad for one last time. So Joseph did what I think most of us would do – he came up with a plan to deal with the interruption that God had brought into his life. And that plan was the result of two things that are revealed here about Joseph’s character. First, we are told here that Joseph was a just man. That meant that he devoutly tried to follow the Old Testament Law. And he knew how the law addressed this situation. As we talked about last week, for purposes of the law a betrothed couple was considered to be legally bound, so if the betrothal was to be broken off a divorce was required. That meant that under the Old Testament law, the fact that Mary had become pregnant during the betrothal period, the laws concerning adultery applied here. So technically Mary could have been stoned to death according to Deuteronomy 22, although that penalty was rarely, if ever, enforced in Jesus’ day. In practice what usually occurred in situations like this is that the pregnant woman would be divorced in a very public proceeding in order to shame her. But we also see here that Joseph was a compassionate man. He was not willing for Mary to be shamed like that. Even though she had hurt him deeply, or at least that’s what he thought, he didn’t want to hurt her. So he came up with the best plan he could think of to deal with this interruption in his life. There was a provision in the Jewish law that allowed him to just give Mary divorce papers that did not assign any blame and that could be attested to by two or three witnesses rather than having to go to a public court. That way he could both follow the law and still treat Mary with compassion at the same time. But it seems like Joseph took some time to think about his plan before he actually followed through with it. You’ll notice in verse 20 that Joseph “considered” these things. The word that Matthew uses there is a compound word that is used only one other time in the Bible. It means to meditate or think deeply on something. That’s really not surprising given the implications his actions would have both for Mary and for him. We don’t know how long that Joseph mulled these things over in his mind. But before he could follow through with his plan, an angel appears to him in a dream. Since we’re not told specifically, we can’t be sure, but it seems likely that this was Gabriel once again since he appears to be God’s primary messenger angel in both the Old and New Testament. And this angel confirms to Joseph that everything Mary had told him was true. The baby in her womb had been conceived by the Holy Spirit. Mary had not cheated on Him after all. And that son was to be named Jesus. Jesus (Greek Iesous) = Hebrew Yeshua = Shortened form of Yehoshua (Joshua) = YHWH is salvation And then in his typical fashion, Matthew, who is writing primarily to Jews, includes an Old Testament reference to show that this is all the fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah 7. As we’ve mentioned before that prophecy was given to King Ahaz of Judah and had a short-term fulfillment in his lifetime, but it finds its final fulfillment in the virgin birth of Jesus. When Joseph awoke from his dream, he took Mary to be his wife, but had no physical relationship with her until after the birth of Jesus. And that was certainly true for Joseph. So let’s see what we can learn from him about… HOW TO TURN INTERRUPTIONS INTO OPPORTUNITIES 1. Consider all my plans to be temporary There is nothing wrong with making plans. In fact, the Bible teaches us, especially in the Proverbs, that it is wise to make plans. But we need to hold those plans loosely and consider them to be temporary, recognizing that God may have something else in mind and it is His plans that will stand: Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand. (Proverbs 19:21 ESV) Before Christmas back in 1984, Mary and I had made plans to be at our home in Albuquerque for Christmas. But I believe that because we didn’t hold to those plans too tightly, God, who knew that my dad would die shortly thereafter, led us to change those plans so we could spend one last Christmas with him. And we see the same thing here with Joseph. His plans actually changed a couple of times here. He began with plans to prepare for a life together with Mary. After the betrothal ceremony, he had returned to his father’s house to build a house for his own family. And then when Mary got pregnant, all those plans went right out the window. So Joseph made a new plan, one which would end his relationship with Mary, but which would also harm her the very least given the circumstances. But when the angel appeared, Joseph changed his plans one more time. We sure don’t know all the details, but it seems quite likely that his life as Mary’s husband would have been a whole lot different than what he had first planned. In that culture, it’s very unlikely that he could have returned to his father’s home and lived there since both families would have probably disowned them. That seems to be confirmed by the fact that Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem alone and that there are no other family members present at the birth of Jesus. And we’ll see Joseph’s willingness to consider his plans to be temporary again a couple years later when an angel appears again and tells him to take Mary and Jesus and flee to Egypt where they will be safe from Herod. 2. Avoid knee-jerk reactions Earlier this week a woman that I used to work with sent me a friend request on Facebook because she wanted me to pray for her grandson, who has an aggressive brain tumor. Since I knew she was Catholic, I wasn’t too surprised when a couple days later, she posted a request to Saint Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of hopeless causes to pray for her grandson. My initial knee jerk reaction was to post a nice long treatise that would prove to her that she should be praying to God the Father through Jesus and not to some saint and showing her why God considers all disciples of Jesus to be saints. Fortunately, before I followed through with that, I realized that while there might some day be the right opportunity to have that conversation, that is not what was needed most right now. What she and her grandson need most right now was my prayers, not a theological dissertation. When Joseph first found out that Mary was pregnant, he had to have experienced all kinds of emotions – hurt, rejection, anger, disappointment, fear, worry. But he didn’t just fly off the handle and react based on his emotions. Had he done that he would have immediately filed divorce papers and drug Mary through the mud in order to get back at her. But instead he took time to consider the situation before he came up with a better plan – one that would meet the righteous requirements of the law and also protect Mary as much as possible. But even then, before he actually followed through and put that plan into action, he literally slept on it. And while he was asleep, he got some further information that caused him to abandon his own plan and follow God’s. That leads us directly to the next thing he did. 3. Get God’s take In Joseph’s case, I’m not sure that he did this intentionally, but at least by taking some time to consider what he was going to do, he allowed some time for God to speak to him. And maybe sometimes that’s all we really need to do, too. Obviously, like we said last week, God is probably not going to send us an angel to give us His take. But He has actually sent us someone even better than an angel – His Holy Spirit who doesn’t just visit us occasionally, but who dwells within us permanently. And, as we saw in our study of Romans 8, the Holy Spirit is constantly interceding for us and guiding us to live in a way that is consistent with the will of God. Last week, we talked about the importance of seeking clarification from God through the Bible, prayer and wise counsel, and all of those apply here, too, when it comes to getting God’s take. In fact, God uses all three of those tools to help us stay tuned to the Holy Spirit. But this morning I want us to think more about how we get God’s take by listening to the Holy Spirit. I wish that it was possible, but I can’t give you three simple steps to follow in order to hear from the Holy Spirit. I wish it was that easy, but frankly there is so much I don’t understand about how the Holy Spirit communicates with my human spirit that I just can’t boil it down to some simple process, as much as I’d like to. That Christmas, as Mary and I considered whether to come back to Tucson, I can’t tell you exactly how the Holy Spirit guided us to a decision. But I believe with all my heart that He did. All I do know is that the more I’m in God’s Word and the more I pray and the more I focus my thoughts on God, the more likely it is that I will recognize and hear the voice of the Holy Spirit as He speaks to me. 4. Submit myself to God’s plan Joseph was a lot like Mary in this regard. Once he heard from God and got God’s perspective on the situation, he immediately did what God had commanded him to do. He took Mary as his wife, and when the baby was born, they named Him Jesus, just as the angel had commanded both of them. Joseph did that even knowing that obeying God was not going to make life easy for him. By taking Mary as his wife, everyone in that small town of Nazareth was going to assume that meant he had gotten her pregnant during the betrothal period as was therefore guilty of adultery. He would have to live with the whispers and the stares. Either that, or he could try to tell people about the visits from angels that both he and Mary had and risk everyone thinking that he had gone crazy. Neither of those alternatives was going to make life easy for him and Mary. And it would get worse before it got better. Not only would he and Mary have to travel alone to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus, but they would then have to flee to Egypt and live there as refugees for a number of years. But time after time, Joseph demonstrated a willingness to submit himself to God’s plan, regardless of what that involved. And one reason he was able to do that is that he was willing to… 5. Leave the results to God Even though he had some idea of what he could expect as a result of his decision to obey God, Joseph certainly didn’t know all that would occur. But just like we saw with Mary last week, he just took the first step and then left the results to God. He knew God well enough to trust that God loved him and wanted was what was best for him, even if that involved some shame and hurt and suffering along the way. That Christmas when Mary and I decided to come back to Tucson, we certainly weren’t facing the kind of difficulties that Joseph knew he would face. The cost to us was little more than some gas and about an 8 hour drive each way with a one year old in the car. And we could have never known that would be our last opportunity to spend time with my dad. But God knew that all along and I’m so grateful that by leaving the results to Him we got that opportunity. As we’ve seen this morning… I want you to think about what your life would be like if you understood that and lived your life accordingly. God is obviously not going to make you the earthly parent of the Son of God, but He certainly can take those things that you consider to be interruptions in your life and turn those into opportunities to serve Him and to serve others in His name in ways that you could never imagine. I love what Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about interruptions in his book, Life Together: We must be ready to allow ourselves to be interrupted by God. God will be constantly crossing our paths and canceling our plans by sending us people with claims and petitions. We may pass them by, preoccupied with our more important tasks… It is a strange fact that Christians and even ministers frequently consider their work so important and urgent that they will allow nothing to disturb them. They think they are doing God a service in this, but actually they are disdaining God’s “crooked yet straight path.” So the next time that an interruption comes into your life, why not look at it in a different light and look for the opportunities that lie ahead rather than dwell on the interruption itself? Discussion Questions for Bible Roundtable 1. Give some examples of where interruptions have turned out to be opportunities in your life. 2. Why is it important to make plans in our lives? How do we strike a balance between making our own plans and trusting God? 3. What are some practical things I can do to avoid making knee-jerk reactions that I will regret later? 4. How do we know if it is the Holy Spirit speaking to us or if it is just self or even Satan?