This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25
Dear People of God:
What is God's Will?
I’m sure that if you are at all serious about your faith in Jesus Christ, you have probably struggled with the question, "What is God's will for my life?"
Now there are times when we determine whether or not something is God's will by the pain factor involved.
For example, we think that if doors keep opening and things move ahead relatively easily and smoothly, it must be God's will. But if we move ahead and things got tough and challenging, and even at times painful, then that would be an indicator that this was not God's will for my life.
Well, what we need to know is that testing God's will on these terms is not the best way to do it. Because the truth is that doing God's will is almost always hard.
For example, how many people find forgiveness to be easy? Nobody. Yet we know from the Bible that forgiveness is God's will for our lives.
How many of us find trusting God with our material resources to be a piece of cake? Never worry about having enough? Trusting God with our resources is hard, and yet it is God’s will that we do this.
You see everywhere we look in Scripture we find that doing God's will costs. It can cost us our reputation, it can cost us financially, it can cost us relationally, and it can cost us in all kinds of ways.
But the other truth is that when we do trust God and do his will, when we make him the object of our desire and we’re willing to follow him, then what we gain is always greater than what we lose.
And if anyone understood this truth, it was Joseph the adopted father of Jesus. The Bible says: This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph.
The Marriage Process in Ancient Israel
Now in ancient Israel, there were three stages of betrothal. The first stage involved the parents of a young man to choose a young woman to be engaged to their son. Often times young men and young women were pledged between 12 and 13 years old. But later rabbinic texts suggest that men in Jesus’ day often married around age 18.
The second stage of betrothal involved official arrangements. In a formal prenuptial agreement before witnesses, the young man and woman entered into the official state of betrothal. This was a legally binding contract, which gave the man legal rights over the young woman and it could only be broken by a formal process of divorce.
During this time three gifts were exchanged.
First: The Bride-price. This was a gift from the groom's family to the bride's family to compensate for the loss of a daughter.
Second: The dowry: This was a gift to the bride or groom from the bride’s father enabling them economically to start a family.
Third: The Bridegroom's gift to the bride was a symbol of commitment to the relationship.
During this time the couple was often referred to as husband and wife, even though sexual relations were not tolerated and the girl did not leave her family to live with the man.
After the second stage of betrothal was complete, the wedding took place.
So by the time we catch up with Mary and Joseph in our story, they are at the second stage of betrothal. They are considered husband and wife, but they are not living together or having sexual relations together.
Mary Is Pregnant
But then something happens. The Bible tells us: But before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.
Now the Bible doesn't tell us what the conversation between Mary and Joseph looked like. What we do know is that for the first three months of her pregnancy, Mary stayed at her cousin Elizabeth's house. So by the time she sees Joseph, she is now in the fourth month, and chances are she is already starting to show.
Another thing we know is that for the past 400 years, there were no special "God things" happening. No dreams, visions, prophecies etc. So when Mary tells Joseph her story of seeing an angel, and that the baby in her womb came about by the Holy Spirit, and not by a man, you must think that Joseph must have raised an eyebrow and thought, "Yeah right!"
Because in the very next verse we read: Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
A Righteous Man
Now there are a couple of things to notice about this verse. First, the Bible describes Joseph here as "a righteous man." The Hebrew word is tsaddiyq. This means that Joseph was known for his uncompromising obedience to Torah also known as the Law of Moses.
So Joseph did not eat unclean food. He didn’t mix with the wrong kinds of people. He didn't keep his carpentry shop open on the Sabbath to make a few extra shekels. He was tsaddiyq. He was righteous. That was his identity and everyone would have known that about him.
So as a businessman would want to be a CEO and an athlete would want to be an all-star, so an Israelite would want to be tsaddiyq. They wanted to be righteous. And Joseph was righteous.
Tsaddiyq with a Problem
In other words, Joseph would have been someone the people of Nazareth admired and looked up to because he was a tsaddiyq. But now he was a tsaddiyq with a problem. The girl he wants to marry is pregnant and Joseph doesn’t know who the father is. All he knows is that it is not him.
What he also knows is that in a small town like Nazareth, word gets around pretty quickly.
So put yourself in Joseph’s sandals for a minute and imagine his struggle. I imagine that for someone as committed to Torah as Joseph was, one of the big questions he was asking was, "What is God’s will for my life in this situation? What should I do?"
So here is Joseph's dilemma. You see Joseph was committed to Torah. And according to Torah, if a woman is guilty of adultery, she shall be brought to the door of her father's house and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father's house. You must purge the evil from among you.
Maybe Joseph thought that another man seduced Mary. If that was the case, both were to be stoned to death.
Numbers 5 lays out another option. It’s a strange passage. If a husband suspected his wife was unfaithful and she denied it, he could take her to the priest. Then the priest would have her drink what is known as "the water of bitterness" and then Numbers 5:27 says: If she has defiled herself and been unfaithful to her husband, then when she is made to drink the water that brings a curse, it will go into her and cause her bitter suffering; her abdomen will swell and her thigh waste away and she will become accursed among her people.
So God's will was pretty clear, which put Joseph’s reputation as a righteous man on the line. Because if he was to remain righteous and do God’s will, it would mean that Mary would have to be publicly exposed and punished. And Joseph couldn’t bring himself to do this.
Although He Was Righteous
And so we read: Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
Which brings us to the second thing to notice about this verse. You see in the Greek, this verse can be read one of two ways. One way to read this verse would be "Because Joseph was a righteous man he did not want to disgrace her publicly." So the idea would be: "Because he was righteous he didn’t want to raise a ruckus."
But there is another way to translate this verse which New Testament Scholar Dan Hanger says is the most likely translation. That way of translating the verse would go like this: Although Joseph was a righteous man, he didn't want to disgrace her publicly.
In other words, "Although he was tsaddiq, or a righteous man, he didn't want to bring scandal upon Mary."
You see in the old system, righteousness would have demanded Mary be exposed. Sinners need to be excluded. Standards have to be maintained. In the old system righteousness always separates itself from sinners. So a righteous man would not hesitate. A righteous man would do as the law of God demanded. That was God's will.
And yet Joseph hesitates. He can't bring himself to say the words that would publicly expose the one he loved. Even though he is righteous, he can't bring himself to do it.
So basically Joseph is willing to put his own reputation on the line for the sake of Mary. He is willing to lose his good name as a righteous man so that Mary would not be publicly exposed.
So you can imagine the tension and the wrestling going on inside Joseph.
Message of the Angel
Well the Bible tells us, But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.
Now because Joseph was considering not following through and punishing Mary according to the Law, you would think that the angel would be there to deliver words of condemnation to Joseph.
But that is not the case. Instead the angel says, “Joseph, son of David.”Now the words, Son of David, is a title only ever used to address Jesus the Messiah. But here the angel is using them to address Joseph. In other words he’s not condemning Joseph for not following through and doing what the law required, instead he is affirming him.
Why? Let’s read on. The angel said: Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save people from their sins.
Now before Joseph could even process how all of this can work, we are told: All this took place to fulfill what the Lord said though the prophet: 'The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him, Immanuel'—which means, "God is with us."
A Word about "Virgin"
Now I want to say a couple of words here about the word, "virgin", because I think when we understand what is behind this word, we will understand why the angel is so affirming of Joseph.
You see often times when we hear this prophesy, "The virgin will be with child", our thoughts usually go straight to the Virgin Mary. And when we do this we miss the understanding of the bigger context.
You see when Joseph, who was committed to Torah, would have heard this prophecy, he wouldn't have heard it at a reference to Mary, he would have heard it as a reference to Israel.
And as a student of Torah, one of the verses that Joseph’s mind would have automatically gone to would have been Amos 5:1-2 which says: Hear this word, O house of Israel, this lament I take up concerning you: Fallen is Virgin Israel, never to rise again, deserted in her own land, with no one to lift her up.
Now if you were Joseph, you would have known that this verse paints a picture of Israel in the prime of her life. But before she can realize all of her potential, and all of her dreams, she throws them all away by turning her back on God. In other words, Israel is the one who commits adultery on God, and according to the law, justice demanded that Israel deserves death.
Which puts God in a position where he has to decide, what is he going to do? Justice demands that Israel must die because she committed adultery.
But God can't bring himself to publicly expose Israel, and put her to death. So what he does instead is give Israel a promise. And to find that promise we have to go to Isaiah 7:14. And even though we're flipping back in our Bibles to find this promise, we need to know this promise was written after the Book of Amos.
Here is the promise: The Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give to a son and will call him Immanuel.
You see what God is saying, is this, "Because I cannot put Israel to death, I will risk my dignity, I will risk my comfort, I will risk my glory and my righteousness all for the sake of the one I love. In other words, I will save her from her sins."
You see the reason why the angel affirms Joseph and calls him the Son of David is because he shares God’s heart. And God’s heart, God's will is not that he is separate from sinners but that he is with them. His will is not to condemn sinners but to save them.
So in this story, Mary becomes the picture of Israel. From all appearances on the outside, she is the picture of the scandalous one. The adulterous. But Joseph is the picture of God’s grace. He’s the one who is willing to risk his reputation, his dignity, his comfort, his all, for the sake of the one he loves.
Deliberately Tied to Scandal
And so the Bible says: When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Now there are a couple of things that Joseph does here that seals the deal for him. The first thing he does is take Mary home to be his wife. This is a legal step. It meant that he was publicly claiming Mary as his wife.
The second thing he does is name the child. This too is a legal step. In the act of naming the child, Joseph is publicly adopting the child as his own.
So Joseph deliberately tied his destiny to two strained reputations; that of his wife and that of her child. Because there would have been no way that anyone would have believed that the child was the Son of God.
So by identifying with Mary and her child, Joseph is basically saying, "My life and reputation as a righteous man is over. And I know that whatever the future has for me, I know that it will no longer be polite respectability."
Son of a B....
Now just to give you a bit of an example of how Joseph became disrespected in his community we need to turn to Mark 6:3. In that passage the people of Jesus village mock Jesus and say, "Isn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son?
Now in those days a son was never identified as the son of his mother. He was always identified as the son of his father. Jesus Bar Joseph. But they call him the son of Mary. They won't even mention Joseph's name. And basically this would have been the equivalent of calling someone a Son of a . . . And then an insulting word for mother.
In other words, decades after Joseph made the decision to identify himself with Mary, his reputation never recovered.
You see, doing God's will and identifying with sinners is not easy. But that didn't matter to Joseph. Because even though he lost his reputation and all the privileges that go along with it, what he gained was far more precious.
You see because he decided to associate with the sinners and the outcast, he got to see the face of God. He got to experience Immanuel, God with us, in a way that he would never have expected.
And what is true for Joseph is true for us, in that when we surrender ourselves and do the hard thing of doing God’s will. That is, when we decide to surrender everything and to love sinners, and outcasts, and lost people, what happens is that we experience Immanuel, God with us, in ways that we would never have expected.
This is basically the message of Matthew's gospel. To show you what I mean I'll invite you to turn to Matthew 18:15-20. Which is a passage about reconciliation.
In this passage Jesus is teaching his disciples how to correct another believer who has sinned. In other words he’s teaching them the importance of forgiveness and confession.
Now when someone hurts you, how easy is it to forgive? Not very easy. But it is God’s will that we forgive. Likewise, when we have done something wrong, how easy is it to confess? Not very easy. But it is God’s will that we confess, and come clean.
You see our natural tendency when there is conflict is to separate, to avoid, to condemn, to divide. And when we do this, we do not share God's heart and we miss out on seeing him.
But when we share God’s heart and we decide to surrender our pride, or our reputation etc. in order to love one another, and when confession and forgiveness takes place, then an interesting thing happens, we experience Immanuel, God with us. Jesus said it like this: For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them. (Mat 18:20)
Lost, Last, Leasy, Lonely
One more example from Matthew. In our world we know that there are sick people in nursing homes and hospitals. There are people on welfare and in prisons. We know that there are people who are lonely and hurting and rejected.
Now the easy thing to do is simply give money to these people. And it is important that we do, but if we really want to do God’s will, then our desire would be to go beyond simply giving them money; it would be to actually go out of our way and love these people. Which for many people is inconvenient, and uncomfortable because of what it would cost us. It means hanging around with people and associating with people we’d really rather not be around.
And yet the Bible tells us, that if we are willing to do God’s will and risk ourselves, our reputations, our pride, our resources, our homes, our time etc., in order to visit the sick and welcome the stranger, and visit the prisoner, and clothe the naked, etc., then an amazing thing happens, we experience Immanuel, God with us.
Jesus said it like this: "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me." (Matt 25:40)
You see when we do the difficult thing of doing God’s will, and risk it all for the sake of loving sinners, we experience God in ways we can’t explain.
When Joseph made the decision to take Mary as his wife, he thought it was the end of being known as a righteous man. What he did not fully know, is that the child he would adopt, would give up everything in order that the human race would know a new kind of righteousness and a new kind of love.
That's why we do God's will, and that’s why we celebrate Christmas. Amen.
Prayer of Application
Heavenly Father, as we seek to do your will may we reflect your desire that sinners be saved and that we are willing to risk our reputation for the sake of the gospel. In Jesus's name, the Immanuel, do we pray. Amen.
Order of Service
GOD CALLS US TO WORSHIP
Call to Worship: The prophet Isaiah describes our Lord: "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." (Isaiah 9:6-7)
Opening Song: "Meekness and Majesty" LUYH 157
Prayer for God’s Greeting: "May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Spirit be with us all. Amen."
Song: "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus" LUYH 56, PsH 329
SERVICE OF RECONCILIATION
Call to Confession: Isaiah 1:18-20
Song of Salvation: "Out of the Depths" LUYH 655, PsH 256
Song of Response: "I Surrender All" LUYH 739
GOD SPEAKS TO US IN HIS WORD
Prayer for Guidance
Scripture Reading: Matthew 1:18-25
Sermon: Christmas: "Doing God’s Will"
Prayer of Application
GOD SENDS US INTO HIS WORLD
Song of Response: "Hark, the Glad Sound" LUYH 60, PsH 335
Prayer for God’s Parting Blessing: "May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the strength of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen."
Doxology: "Of the Father’s Love Begotten" LUYH 78:2,5 PsH 342:2,5