Times of crisis, disappointments, rejection, and various other sorrows invade our lives. They can cause us to ask the question; ‘If God is so loving and good, why this loss, this pain, and struggle in my life? The atheist will answer cynically that it is because there is no God. But the Christmas story is God’s answer to our question. There is another way to deal with ‘the human condition.’ We can discover that God is sufficient for us in life’s darkest moments. There are amazing things in these moments that God can and wants to reveal to us. We can encapsulate the message with a word that comes from the book of Isaiah. God experiences the pain with us, and then moves to bring redemption to our situation.
In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.[i]
We often see the Christmas story through the Sunday School lens of cheerful little children walking through the nativity scene, struggling with their lines. Christmas too often is viewed through sentimental lenses. Jesus could have been born in a palace and lived a life of charm, but that’s not how God invaded our planet. Jesus came into the world and shared our struggles and our sorrows. He was born in difficulty and his background was filled with controversy and criticism. Jesus was born in crisis and difficulty. So, what was that first Christmas like for Mary and Joseph? I’m convinced that when we understand the story the way it really was, there is enormous power for people who are struggling with personal issues in the twenty-first century to help us understand that God is with us even in life’s most trying moments.
Let us put aside our whimsical image of Christmas, and with a little imagination, see the struggles that Joseph and Mary experienced two thousand years ago. It is a story of one crisis after another. Yet in each crisis, God was there speaking into the human dilemma. Has Christmas really changed that much? In some ways, absolutely. It is relatively easy to travel down a highway today and find some accommodation for the night. What takes hours today, took days as Joseph traveled with Mary in order to pay their taxes. And then the arrangements for the night of Jesus’ birth proved trying. There was no room for them in the inn, so they stayed where the animals were kept, and Jesus was laid in a manger, a feeding trough. But there are many things that have not changed. We still have to pay taxes. We still have relational pressures, financial pressures, medical issues, and circumstantial crisis. Today we are going to look at some of the pressures this young couple faced, while we find God’s answers to our issues, just as they did theirs. We are going to look at three areas of crisis that we all experience at some point in our lives.
THE FIRST AREA OF CRISIS THAT CHALLENGES OUR LIVES IS RELATIONAL IN NATURE
Relational tensions are the most difficult because it affects us all so profoundly. This isn’t just marital tensions, but we all have people that are in our lives that cause us some challenge. It could be neighbors, relatives, in-laws, co-workers, bosses or employees. We can have adversarial people who oppose us. Here in our text we see how the beginning of Mary and Joseph’s life began with tremendous challenges. How many couples today start off a bit shaky? Problems emerge, misunderstandings occur. Trust is such a fragile thing, and easily broken. Mary and Joseph got off to a shaky start. Joseph discovers that the young woman who was arranged to be his wife is pregnant. He knows he is not the father. Matthew records for us what was transpiring both in the mind and heart of Joseph.
This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.
Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.[ii]
Jesus’ conception took place when Mary was betrothed to Joseph. In Jewish law betrothal, which lasted about one year, was much more than our engagement. It was a binding contract, terminable only by death…or by a divorce… The man was already the husband (v. 19), but the woman remained in her father’s house. The marriage was completed when the husband took the betrothed to his home in a public ceremony (v. 24; cf. 25:1-13); thus they came together, and sexual [relationships] could begin. . .. In Old Testament law the penalty for infidelity before marriage was stoning (Dt. 22:13-21), but by this time [the practice of] divorce, based on Deuteronomy 24:1, was the rule.[iii]
Joseph’s thinking indicates what kind of a man he was. Not wanting to publicly humiliate Mary, Joseph felt the pain of rejection and loss, so he was about to privately divorce her. Here in this moment of brokenness, God sends a message to Joseph via a dream. God wants to speak to us in our places of pain and hurt, if we will but listen. He may not always tell us what we want to hear, but we can be confident that He will tell us what we need to hear. God spoke to the heart of the issue when he addressed Joseph’s fears. Many of our decisions are not based on faith. Too often our decisions are based on our fears. Listen to what God told Joseph.
But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, 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 his people from their sins.’[iv]
Here we find the underlying reason why Joseph was considering divorcing Mary. He was afraid. So what was Joseph afraid of? Shame of taking her as his wife. People thinking he was not a godly person. If he divorced her, he would not suffer shame. We need to remember that this was a shame/honor culture. Shame was a huge issue for those living within that context.
Did Mary love another? Maybe the issue was that Mary would not be the kind of girl one wanted as the mother of your children. It doesn’t say specifically why Joseph was afraid. God was challenging Joseph to address his personal fears. Isn’t this at the heart of marital tensions? This is really at the heart of all broken relationships. We have been hurt and are afraid to be hurt again, so we insulate ourselves, and shut the person out who wounded us. The problem is that it gets lonely. We are not created to close ourselves off from people. Every relationship we have is a risk. We must move beyond our personal fears. We can expect to be hurt at times. Pain is part of the human equation. That’s why Jesus spoke so powerfully to the issue of forgiveness. We need to learn to forgive others, recognizing that we all need to be forgiven.
Why do we struggle with moving on in our relationships with people? Why do we seem to get stuck? Is it not because our focus is wrong? We tend to focus on the pain. Our focus is generally upon ourselves, our pain. Here in the story of Joseph, God was challenging Joseph to focus on doing the right thing. God was calling Joseph to focus on God’s word that it would all work out. So often we are trying to figure it all out. We need to learn to trust God with our relational challenges. The need in resolving marital conflicts and tensions is that each person needs to hear a word from God. Too many decisions today are based on our fears. God is challenging us to base our relationships upon His word.
In Wobegon Boy, Garrison Keillor tells the fanciful tale of John Tollefson. John leaves Minnesota, moves to New York, and makes a life for himself far from Lake Wobegon. Although the story is spun from Keillor’s marvelous imagination, it contains gems of insight. For example, John calls home and tells his parents about something his girlfriend had said: ‘There’s no such thing as a successful marriage. There are marriages that give up, and marriages that keep on trying; that’s the only difference.’[v]
That’s true. Yet another aspect we must factor into relationships is that it takes two yeses to make it work. Both parties must work on it, or eventually failure is the result.
When author Philip Yancey and his wife reached their 25th wedding anniversary, he reflected on their experience.
Before marriage, each by instinct strives to be what the other wants. The young woman desires to look appealing, and takes up [his interests, in Yancey’s case, his] interest in sports. The young man notices plants and flowers, and works at asking questions instead of just answering monosyllabically. After marriage, the process slows and somewhat reverses. Each insists on his or her rights. Each resists bending to the other’s will.
After years, though, the process may subtly begin to reverse again. I sense a new willingness to bend back toward what the other wants—maturely, this time, not out of a desire to catch a mate but out of a desire to please a man or a woman who has shared a quarter-century of life. I grieve for those couples who give up before reaching this stage.[vi]
What is he saying? That when it stops being about me and it becomes about the other person, something powerful changes in the relationship. Joseph was a godly man because he overcame his fears to obey God’s word. One of the issues in relational crises, is to overcome our fears by trusting God and obeying what He says. Obedience is the fruit of trust. We need to obey God’s word, not our feelings, nor our fears.
THE SECOND AREA OF CRISIS THAT CHALLENGES OUR LIVES IS FINANCIAL IN NATURE
This is the area of trusting God for our material needs. The challenge is discovering the real meaning of life. It doesn’t consist in things, but in doing God’s will. Yet, we all realize that it takes resources to live in this material world. Having just dealt with the relational issue, Matthew moves us to the second issue that many couples and singles struggle with. The issue of finances. How many couples or individuals are struggling over this issue in their lives? Often it seems to intensify during the Christmas season with all the expectations that people have. How many marriages end over conflicts generated by financial pressures? Finances can be a real issue in a marriage. In a survey of Americans [which I’m sure is significant to Canadians as well], 39% state that financial pressures are a real issue in their lives.
Making an unwanted trip to pay taxes to an oppressive government was certainly a strain on a new couple’s budget. We could talk much about the financial pressures that this time of restrictions in our world is causing people. Inflation rising, supplies faltering, costs increasing, and opportunities diminishing. What Joseph and Mary were about to discover is that they would have to relocate again, to another country, for the safety of their child. They were refugees fleeing a life-threatening situation. How were they going to pay for the journey and accommodations in Egypt? God’s provision came in the form of some Easterners with a mandate from God to worship the Christ child. These magi brought expensive gifts worthy of a king. They realized that true worship costs something of the worshiper.
When they saw the star, they were overjoyed.
On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.[vii]
Matthew Henry relates that God makes provision for us to help us accomplish His purposes. “Providence sent this for a seasonable relief to Joseph and Mary in their poor condition.”[viii] God certainly had a provision for Joseph and Mary. Those gifts would pay for the upcoming expenses. How does this provision by God to Joseph and Mary apply to our financial pressures? We may dismiss this as God simply providing for His son. But you and I are his children too. He loves us so much and knows our needs. We need to be reminded of the amazing price God paid for our redemption to know that God sees each of us as precious to Him. Another problem we encounter is that for many of us, we don’t realize what we already have. God has often already provided. Often the resources are before us.
If Danny Simpson had known more about guns, he might not have needed to rob the bank. The year was 1990 and Danny Simpson robbed a bank in Ottawa. As a 24-year-old, Danny ended up going to jail, while his gun went to a museum. He was arrested for robbing a bank of $6,000 and sent to jail for six years. He had used a .45 caliber Colt semi-automatic, which turned out to be an antique. The gun was made by the Ross Rifle Company, in 1918. The pistol’s worth was about $100,000, far more than Danny Simpson had stolen. If he had just known what he carried in his hand, he wouldn’t have robbed the bank. In other words, Danny already had what he needed.[ix]
Isn’t that often true in our situation? As a child of God, we have the One who is the creator of all things. But what do we do? We look to our own human resources, rather than turn ourselves, and our financial challenges, over to our God. Many times we deceive ourselves into believing that we what we need is actually a symptom masking our greater need for God, Himself. God is able to meet our needs. The issue is one of learning to walk with Him, and trust Him. He knows exactly what we need. Our culture has extolled a vision of what life ought to be like, it is primarily an economic vision. Our society is predicated by the advertising industry telling us what we need. One of the great lessons of life that most of us need to learn is one of simplicity. That is a counter-cultural concept.
John Rosemond is a nationally syndicated columnist—and also a family psychologist. He likes to take unusual informal polls of parents. Whenever he’s in a foreign culture, he’ll ask parents, ‘Do your kids complain about boredom?’ Without exception he’s always been told no outside of [North America]. In fact, parents in other cultures look at him with incredulity, as if to say: Boredom and kids just don’t go together!
Rosemond also likes to question parents who raised their kids in the forties and fifties. He asks: ‘When you were raising your kids back then, did you hear them complain about boredom?’ The typical response: ‘Rarely.’
In another of his little surveys, Rosemond asks middle-aged parents, ‘How many toys did you have growing up?’ The answers range from zero to ten, but mostly these folks respond with something like, ‘Toys? We took a cardboard box, and we made something out of it.’ In contrast, Rosemond says the typical American child of five years of age has accumulated 250 toys! Now, since five-year-old’s have only lived for 260 weeks, they’re apparently accumulating almost one toy per week. Result: they’re bored.
So where does contentment come from? Does it come from having bigger and better toys? From going to more movies? From eating out more often? From enlarging our wardrobes? From escape of any kind? No, contentment comes from within. It’s an internal disposition, and we know it. We just don’t live as if we know it.[x]
So what can we learn from Joseph and Mary’s financial bind? That God knew what they needed ahead of time. He knew Joseph and Mary couldn’t afford to relocate to Egypt, but they needed to move for the safety of Jesus, so God, the Father made a provision. Doesn’t God know what you and I need? Can’t God work out His provisions for our lives? We have all had moments in our lives when we felt tremendous pressure to provide and we didn’t know how God was going to get us through. I remember when my youngest daughter Rachel was born. We were living in the U.S. paying between $500-600 a month for medical insurance, and discovered that our insurance was weak on maternity benefits. We were in the process of switching insurers when Rachel came six weeks early. She was born one day before the new policy took effect. What an anxious night! I was stressing about Patty’s wellbeing, concerned about the baby, concerned about paying for this cost. The final bill was $20,000. But God undertook. The new insurance covered much of the baby’s cost as she spent two week in the prenatal unit. We ended up paying $4,000. We worked out payment plans and were able to bring Rachel home. God provided.
THE FINAL CRISIS THAT CHALLENGES OUR LIVES IS THE CIRCUMSTANTIAL PRESSURES
There will always be day-to-day challenges with a few twists here and there to keep us on our knees looking to God, things beyond our abilities and resources. The great secret of the Christian life is a life of continued dependance upon God. In Joseph and Mary’s case we find the difficulty of a long journey with an expectant new wife. The lack of adequate accommodations. Giving birth to your first child away from family and friends. Later, they were to discover that their child was at risk from an insecure leader. Jesus’ life was in jeopardy. How many couples have struggled with a sick child, or an accident occurs that changes the entire direction of life? The loss of loved ones, injuries that change how life is lived. What do you do? As Mary gave birth to her first-born child that night so long ago, away from all support and encouragement, with a new husband that she may hardly have known (most of these marriages were arranged), what was going through her mind? Did she feel abandoned? She knew that this child was special, but were there doubts now filling her heart? God sent some strangers, shepherds, to come and tell of the wonderful visitation of angels they had seen on a hillside nearby. Luke fills us in.
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.
When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.
But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.[xi]
Notice what God did:
1. God sent some strangers to speak a word of encouragement in a difficult, painful time.
2. God gave another dream warning Joseph of the impending danger to the life of Jesus.
3. God sent wise men to supply provisions for relocation into a foreign country.
In all our situations and circumstances in life, God has a provision for us. The issue is one of trust, and daily dependency upon Him. What we want is a life of security. Folks, we have that because if God is for us, who can be against us? We need to live in the settled knowledge that God loves us.
To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom of priests to serve his God and Father – to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.[xii]
Why has God done all this for us? Because He loves us! Why? What have we done to be loved? Nothing! Human love is determined by the object of love…because they are attractive, or they are good to us. But God’s love is not determined by the object. It’s not determined by you or me. God doesn’t love us because we are loveable. He loves us because of who He is: He is love. Oh! What a liberating truth. To realize that God loves me…not because of anything I have every done, or ever could do. He loves me because of who He is. Oh! to grasp that truth! To receive His love! To believe that He loves us! Regardless!
In every situation, God made a way through the pressures and crisis of life for Joseph and Mary. To realize today, that He will make a way for you and me, in our relational, financial or circumstantial difficulties, God is there. Are we willing to trust Him with our lives? Are we willing to obey his voice in spite of our fears?
[i] Isaiah 63:9, The New International Version of the Bible, 2011.
[ii] Matthew 1:18-19.
[iii] R. T. France, Matthew, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, (Grand Rapids, Mi: Eerdmans’ Publishing Co., 1985), 77.
[iv] Matthew 1:20-21.
[v] Garrison Keillor, Wobegon Boy (Penguin USA, 1998), 142.
[vi] Philip Yancey, “A 25-Year Hike,” Marriage Partnership (Winter 1999), 68.
[vii] Matthew 2:10-11.
[viii] Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary On The Whole Bible In One Volume, (Grand Rapids, Mi: Zondervan Publishing House, 1961), 1208.
[ix] Arnell Motz, pastor of International Evangelical Church, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; source: The Province (of Vancouver, British Columbia) (9-19-90).
[x] Jim Nicodem, “Perils of Money,” Preaching Today #205.
[xi] Luke 2:16-19.
[xii] Revelation 1:5b-6.