We serve a God of grace and mercy. But what happens when God’s grace comes packaged in a very difficult situation? How do you respond?
When Dusanka and Borislav Vujicic learned that they were pregnant they were thrilled. God had graced them with new life. What they didn’t know (and what three sonograms didn’t tell them) was that their son, Nick, would be born with a rare genetic disorder. That disorder would cause him to be born without any arms or legs.
When the nurse came into mama’s room and held the baby in front of her, mama refused to see him or hold him. But eventually, the parents came to accept their child. They would accept that he was a life created by God and every bit as deserving of love and nurturing as his siblings who had been born with arms and legs. How would you have responded?
And then there was Joseph. An everyday guy who is looking forward to his upcoming marriage to a young lady in his village of Nazareth. Until he finds out that she is pregnant. And he’s not the father.
Oh, but wait there’s more. He learns that God has intended this pregnancy. Indeed, he has graced the couple with this pregnancy. And he wants Joseph to marry the young woman. For Joseph, God’s grace has come packaged in a very difficult situation.
So this morning, I want to focus on how Joseph models for us how to respond to God’s grace when it comes packaged in a difficult situation.
The bible gives us two stories of God announcing the birth of Jesus. We’re most familiar with Luke. Luke focuses on Mary. The angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will give birth to a son who would be called the Son of the Most High. Mary’s responds saying:. “Be it unto me according to your word.” God’s grace for Mary means that she will get pregnant out of wedlock. And she responds passively with complete acceptance. “Whatever it is you desire of me, Lord, here I am.”
This morning, Matthew gives us Joseph’s side of the story. Matthew perfectly complements Luke’s account. In Matthew, Joseph receives the news, not from an angel, but in a dream. In Matthew, Joseph doesn’t respond with passive acceptance like Mary did. Joseph responds actively; he takes some initiative.
It’s a very active and deliberate response. And it’s a model for us as we receive God’s grace today. Even when that grace comes wrapped in a difficult situation.
Let’s start with God’s grace. In preparing this sermon, I’m indebted to Prof. Douglas Hare’s take on the passage. Prof Hare is a Professor of the New Testament at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He brings a well thought-out perspective to “the Virgin Birth” that I find authentic and biblically sound.
To begin with, we need to keep in mind that Matthew writes to a Jewish audience So we need to read this with 1st century Jewish eyes. Matthew relates the story of the birth of “the Messiah.”
He doesn’t call him the Son of God. Or the Word made flesh. Jews were not looking for the coming of the Son of God. They awaited The Messiah. It was The Messiah that was prophesied to come. And every Jew longed to see him.
Matthew says, “When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”
Now we hear this after 2000 years of theological interpretations. And we think in terms of Mary somehow being impregnated with God’s DNA so that he is half God and half man. A demigod, so to speak. The Greeks had that concept in their religion. Various Greek gods would impregnate human mothers.
This notion of a demigod was foreign to Jews. But there was precedent for miraculous conceptions in Jewish history. Some historical writings suggested that Moses was miraculously conceived. And one Jewish source says that that Sarah in her old age did not conceive by Abraham, but by a miraculous work.
Matthew will only go so far to say that somehow, not by Joseph or any man, but by some miracle of the Holy Spirit, Mary conceived. And I find that helpful. I think that helps us see Jesus as a fully human and not a demigod of sorts.
Now, to be sure, Jesus was God in the flesh – if we can wrap our minds around that. But we get that metaphysical description of Jesus from John’s Gospel, not Matthew. In Matthew, Jesus is fully human baby, miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Here’s another little nuance that is buried in Matthew’s account. Matthew tells us: “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God with us.’”
Did you catch that? THE Virgin shall conceive. Not A virgin shall conceive. That’s significant. It begs the question, who is “THE Virgin” in Isaiah’s prophecy?
In the Hebrew Scriptures, Israel is often referred to as a young woman and sometimes specifically as a virgin. For example, Amos writes: “Fallen, no more to rise, is the virgin Israel.” So when Joseph hears the angel recite the prophecy of The Virgin conceiving, he’s hearing prophecy being fulfilled in his betrothed.
This will be no ordinary birth. Mary has been singled out in history to represent the Virgin Israel who cannot bring forth the Messiah without the intervention of the Holy Spirit. That’s God’s grace in action. And it takes that same grace, today, operating through the Holy Spirit, to birth Jesus in our hearts.
Now let’s look at how Joseph responds to God’s grace. We start with Joseph’s character. Joseph is honorable and he is just. We know that because before receiving God’s dream, he had resolved to divorce Mary. That would have been just and true to his faith. But, because he is merciful, he resolved to do it quietly and spare Mary unnecessary humiliation and scorn.
Then the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream with his first command: Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife.
There are any number of difficult situations that we can face in life. And so often, our first response is fear. What will happen to me? How can I handle this? What about the future?
Fear paralyzes us, fear prompts us to make rash decisions. And I have no doubt that Joseph was filled with fear about the future when he learned that Mary was pregnant.
In June of 1979, the Soviet grip on Eastern Europe seemed as tight as ever. People in Poland living under that system lived in fear. Fear of the government. Fear of their neighbors who might be informants.
So when Pope John Paul II made his pilgrimage to Gdansk that month, three million people came out to see him. And his message to them? “When we are strong with the spirit of God, we are also strong with faith in man. … There is therefore no need to fear.”
It’s the message we hear over and over again from heaven. The Psalmist writes: Perfect love casts out all fear. When Joseph heard first when he experienced God’s grace packaged in a difficult situation, God’s first command to him was: “Do not be afraid.” And then the Angel of the Lord gave him three more commands.
When Joseph awoke, he didn’t wait. He didn’t ask for another sign from God. He knew what God wanted him to do and he acted immediately. Obedience delayed is obedience denied.
He took Mary as his wife. Yes, his social standing would suffer. He would always be seen as the poor schlump who married damaged goods. It didn’t matter. God commanded it, and Joseph acted.
Here’s something else Joseph did. He exercised some self restraint. He had no marital relations with Mary until Jesus was born.
If there were one life lesson that kids should learn for successful living, it would be learning to live with delayed gratification. Learning self-restraint. That kind of discipline learned early in life would spare them a lot of heartache down the road. It would spare them the bondage that comes from racking up a lot of debt for stuff they can’t afford. It would strengthen them to take control of their lives and realize their goals in life. And when met with difficult situations, it would carry them through to a God-glorifying resolution.
Finally, the Angel of the Lord commanded Joseph to name the son that Mary would bear. It was common for women to name the child. Joseph’s naming of Mary’s child constituted God’s acknowledgment in this instance that, by God’s will and God’s act, the baby was authentically his son.
Many Christians would be uncomfortable hearing “Jesus, Son of Joseph.” It would sound like you’re denying the virgin birth. But for Matthew, writing for a Jewish audience, it was essential. Because it established Jesus as a descendent of Joseph’s ancestor, King David.
Matthew presents a very Jewish understanding of Jesus’ birth. Jesus was indeed born of a virgin, and yet Joseph was his father. How could Matthew simultaneously deny and affirm the paternity of Joseph? Well, for Matthew, God’s miraculous intervention to cause the pregnancy included his miraculous incorporation of the baby into Joseph’s lineage.
Joseph, an honorable man, received God’s grace packaged in very difficult situation. It wasn’t the life he expected. But it was the life God ordained for him. And having heard God’s commands, he executed them right away. The blessings would follow.
Which brings us back to Dusanka and Borislav Vujicic. This couple received God’s grace of new life. But that grace came packaged in a baby with no arms or legs. Of course they recoiled at first. But then they accepted the child as Gods’ provision for them.
I’ve shared with you in an earlier sermon how little Nick Vujicic would grow up to be a motivational speaker and evangelist for Jesus. He continues to make a very good living speaking to audiences of thousands all over the world. Lives are changed because of him. Young people who struggle with their own difficulties hear Nick and take courage. Nick swims, he surfs – nothing is off limits to him.
Including marriage. But today, Nick is married to a gorgeous wife. And they are the proud parents of four healthy children with arms and legs.
It happened because Nick’s parents received God’s grace with the passive acceptance of Mary. But then they also, lived by God’s commands with the initiative of Joseph. And like Mary and Joseph, their son life blesses the world.
Joseph is a powerful example of Godly manhood. Manhood that takes courage to take the initiative. Manhood that lives in the shadow of the Savior in obedience to the Father in heaven. It bears out Jesus’ words when he said, Not everyone who says unto be, Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of heaven. But he that does the will of my Father.