The Glory Of Christmas
It was the summer Olympics of 1992. It was the quarter finals of the 400 meter sprint. British athlete Derek Redmond was a favorite for the gold medal. The starter’s gun fired, the athletes burst out of the blocks, and 150 meters down the track Derek felt a pain and heard a pop. He though he’d been shot, but it was his hamstring ripping. The agony on his face was physical and mental—he was crushed.
Officials and medical personnel ran to help, but Derek waved them off, getting to his feet and continuing down the track.
The crowd was mesmerized. Then, an older man ran onto the track. The officials tried to stop him, but he brushed them off. He ran up beside Derek and placed his arms around him.
“You don’t have to do this son; you’ve got nothing to prove,” Derek’s father, Jim, said.
“Yes I do,” Derek replied.
“Then we’ll finish this race together,” Jim said.
As they continued down the track together, Derek buried his face in his father’s strong shoulder. They crossed the finish line with a roaring crowd of over 65,000 standing on their feet applauding. That became a defining moment in the Barcelona Olympics.
I want you to take in the scene. So here’s a 2 min clip. It’s the best image quality I could find.
Ya know, that moment when Jim joined Derek on the track transcends the normal experience of watching a sporting event. All Derek wanted to do was finish the race. But years later, he said in an interview, “I eventually got what people got. … On the day I was very upset and wanted to be able to complete the race. … But that day has changed the way that I am perceived: rather than being a medalist, I am sort of seen now as somebody who personifies what it means to compete in the Olympic Games.”
Sometimes we all need help to fulfill the purpose we’re destined for. Derek is now a motivational speaking in England. He need his father, Jim. And Jesus needed help too. He needed his dad; he needed Joseph.
If you have your Bibles, please turn to Matthew 1. We’re going to be talking about Joseph today, one of the most obscure characters in the Christmas story. Yet one who played a tremendous role in Jesus’ coming into this world.
Matthew 1:18–25, ESV
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
The Bible record no words of Joseph. We don’t have a single conversation where he’s making a contribution. Yet we’re told that he was a righteous man; a straight man; a man of integrity; a man for God; and a man who was God’s choice for Jesus … to raise him, to get Jesus established in the world, to get him through. I want you to really see Joseph today; therefore, we’re going to look at his dilemma, his dream, and his decision.
Here’s Joseph’s dilemma… “Before they came together [Mary] was found to be with child.” That’s very big dilemma. Imagine if you were engaged to be married for like a year, and then just prior to taking your wedding vows and enjoying the big party, you find out that the woman you’re going to marry is pregnant and you know you’re not the father. What are you going to do?
Now, let me give you a little background. A Hebrew marriage back then was different from most marriages today. There was very often a contractual stage in which the parents would typically arrange a marriage when the youths were about 9 to 10 years old; although they were seldom forced on young people who had absolutely no attraction or interest in each other. Anyway, marriage was not so much about love and romance as it was about survival.
I don’t think any of you have arranged marriages. I have a friend from India who has one and it’s worked out okay; he and his wife didn’t fall love, they chose to love. They have to make that choice everyday—perhaps that’s why it’s turned out okay for more than 25 years.
So, in the ancient Hebrew culture they often knew who they were going to marry when they were young. After the Contractual stage came the Betrothal stage, which was a formal year-long engagement. The couple got to know each other. They walked together, and talk together. They got to know each other’s personality, temperament, likes and dislikes. During this time the couple lived apart while their families negotiated the issue of dowries, etc.
After the Betrothal stage, in which purity was maintained—they weren’t suppose to come together intimately, even while in a sense they were already contractually married—the Consummation stage would arrive. The wedding ceremony included two days of feasting, the saying of vows and rites, blessings, the playing of games, the drinking of much wine. The bride and groom would consummate their marriage on the first night, and after the second day the bride would go and live with her husband.
It was during the Betrothal stage, however, that the Bible tells us that Mary went away to the hill country to visit her older cousin, Elizabeth. And went she came back there was a belly bulge. Joseph knew he wasn’t the father; he wasn’t even in the same zip code.
So, what does he do? That’s his great dilemma. It’s a struggle of the soul. He’s been waiting for Mary for a long time. He’s come to love Mary. But now there is a tension that’s pulling him apart from the inside: the tension between law and love.
According to the law, Mary could be stoned to death. But love says, “Hey, forgiveness is always an option. If you’re brave enough to take on what feels death in your interior world, if you’re strong enough to turn against your default desire to demand justice, exact revenge, to collect reparations, then selfless caring for another is an option.”
Jospeh is in turmoil. He doesn’t know if he can believe her, or trust her. How is this to be explained? He’s embarrassed. He’s hurt. He’s alone. He’s lost his joy. His dreams of the future have been dashed. His faithfulness has been flagellated. And yet we know he loves Mary because the text reads, “Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly” (Matt 1:19).
Ya know, if you thumb through the pages of the Old Testament you might get the impression that God is teaching two simple principles: (1) The bad news: if you do something bad, if you are disobedient, God will “break your face;” and (2) the good news: if you do it right, good things will happen to you. That’s not actually how it works, yet over and over again it does seems God is using the Israelites as a object lesson to bring these two points home to us.
I’ve been told that many Jews wish he’d used the Italians instead to make the point. “Yet the truth is the good news is only good insofar as the bad is bad.” You only understand light when you know darkness. Flashlights are worthless at twelve o’clock noon. (Steve Brown, Three Free Sins, 223–24).
The God of the Bible, however, isn’t different in the Old Testament and the New. He’s the same God. But what he’s doing is showing us the difference between night and day. To get the full story, to see things rightly, we have to read the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament.
And here’s the story… When Paul, talking about the gospel, says in Romans, “You are not under law but under grace” (Rom 6:14), he’s not saying that the law isn’t relevant or true. He’s not saying God doesn’t have the right to be angry when you break his law and walk away from his will. God has every right to be angry—just as Joseph was hurt and had every right to be angry. And once you see God’s power and holiness, and get a good view of yourself, you begin to realize there’s a reason to be very afraid.
And yet… what does God do? He has every right to use the law, but he doesn’t. Rather, he sends a Christmas present of grace. The gift of Jesus coming into the world is all about God taking it on the chin himself in order to keep the door to relationship open to you. This is what love does: love overcomes the tension between the law and love through death.
When you come to realize that you’ve been loved like that you begin hear his voice speak to your soul, “Welcome, child! Come gather around the tree. Welcome,” and you come running.
The tension between law and love is alive in Joseph. We’re told he’s a righteous man, he believes the scriptures, he has strong convictions about right and wrong, but he also has compassion. There’s a war within: “Mary, we can’t ever be together,” “Mary, I forgive you.” Law and Love, that’s the dilemma. And we know it because he’d determined to let her go with compassion, not with a stone—but the dream!
“Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’” (Matt 1:19–20).
Christmas time is a time when many people are filled with all sorts of fears. For one it comes at the end of the year, and that give folks to pause, they look back and say, “Oh, my… what just happened?” It’s a time when people see or think about family—that has its own set of issues. It’s a time when some get some vacation, which allows them to reflect, and reflection causes them to think, and thinking causes them to worry, and worry is fear.
Years ago I took a long-haul flight across the Pacific Ocean. Flying over that pond is no small feat; you’re stuck in a metal tube for 15 hours with 500 strangers. It is no Christmas Party, but they do have free wine.
Anyway, there we were at 35,000 feet in the sky with nothing but ocean below us and all of a sudden the plan started shaking a knocking violently. People started screaming and crying. I started to get excited, I was like, “Oh, wonderful, finally something is happening, the boredom is over. It’s just turbulence no need to shout about it.” But the violent jolts didn’t stop.
Then, all of a sudden, I watched a stewardess, who was carrying a tray for drinks, go horizontal. Her feet rose behind her. She literally looked like she was impersonating Superman. Then, her entire body slammed into the roof of the plane and hung there for a few seconds as the plane plummeted straight down for what had to be 300 feet or more, before the wings grabbed some air and the plane stopped with a mighty bang. It felt as though we had slammed into the ground, but we were 35,000 feet it the air. That’s when I got freaked out and began to pray.
The poor stewardess tried hard to compose herself as she clean up the mess. She tried to comfort other passengers, but she could hide the tears of fear rolling down her face.
Surprisingly a few seats away there was a child who sleep through all of it. While everyone was crying and screaming, that child was at peace.
What relieves fear? Well, you might want to try unconscious, if you can fall asleep. But fear is caused by the unknown, unsurety, insecurity.
I got very afraid: I’d never been in a plan crash before; I didn’t want to be in one; and I was really unsure if we were going to be in one. What we want most is love, connection, security, and sense of joy in living. If any one of these things is lost—even to a small degree—then fear begins to get a grip on you.
So, think about Joseph for a moment… The angel who appears to him in a dream says, “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife…”, which implies he was afraid. Maybe he was thinking… Does she really love me? Can I trust her? Will she be loyal to me? Am I going to be angry at her forever? What are the folks in the village going to say about me? He’s afraid of a broken past, a lost future, connection and love demolished. Joseph is without security. He is probably tossing and turning and unable to sleep. Anger and grieve are gnawing on his soul.
Have you been there?
But the dream settles his soul. “The truth is, Joseph, I’m the father,” says God, which means Mary wasn’t unfaithful. Love, connection, security, joy… they come flowing back in as this truth breaks into his mind.
What removes fear, then? Truth. The truest truth. I’m not saying simple facts such: as we flew through a microburst, that is going to remove fear. I’m saying that parking your head on foundational truth removes fear: This is God’s world; I belong to God; God has a plan for this world, and for me, and he’s working it—so I’ll remember and relax.
That’s a really big part of the Christmas message, ya know? Our heavenly Father is saying, “Trust me—I’m at work. And it’s for your good. Fear not!”
This is what Joseph’s dream released his soul into. When your soul lands on this truth, fears lose control over the plane.
For Joseph this meant he was enabled to take up the mantle of being an adoptive father. He was Jesus’ legal father, but he wasn’t his literal father. But that was okay… Faith released him to overcome fear. And this bring us to my last point.
“When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus” (Matt 1:24–25). Joseph decided to accept the revelation; then, he decided to act in obedience, in alignment with that word.
When you read the Christmas story and you come to passages that talk about Joseph leading a donkey that is carrying the pregnant Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem, which was about a 5-day journey, he’s doing the will of God. “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2).
When you see the nativity scenes with Joseph there besides the manger, he’s doing the will of God. “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there … she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger” (Luke 2:4–7).
When you see Joseph presenting Jesus at the temple when he was eight days old, he’s doing the will of God. “When the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, ‘Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’) and to offer a sacrifice” (Luke 2:22–24).
When you see Joseph taking Mary and Jesus down to Egypt to hide from the wrath of King Herod, he’s doing the will of God. “An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt” (Matt 1:13–14).
When you see that Jesus was a carpenter and you realize that he learned that from Joseph, Joseph was doing the will of God.
Joseph was a dad to Jesus—the exact earthy father Jesus need. He wasn’t a famous movie star, a pro-bowl athlete, a head of state, or a captain of industry. He was simply one of whom God could say, “The kind of man I want to raise my Son is a man who will do my will, he’ll glorify me by trusting and walking with me.”
There’s a story about one Christmas season. About two weeks before Christmas, a postal worker’s wife went out shopping and while driving on the freeway got into an accident. Christmas packages were strewn all over the road; the car was a mangled mess of metal. She died, leaving behind her husband and daughter.
The husband tried to take time off, but he finally said, “It’s no use; I might as well go back to work.” So he returned to the post office where it was his job to sort through the improperly addressed letters and reroute them. As he was going through them he found a letter that simply was addressed to Santa Claus. He opened it, and he was surprised to see that it was a letter from his own daughter. “Dear Santa,” she wrote, “My mommy died in a car wreck, and my daddy cries every night. I try to comfort my daddy, but he says only eternity can comfort him. Santa, would you please send some eternity to my daddy so he can be comforted this Christmas?”
Some of you have tears this year. Maybe you’ve lost someone. Maybe 2018 didn’t go as well as you hoped. Maybe you don’t feel very loved. Maybe you feel alone in some way. Maybe your future or your finances is insecure. Maybe you don’t know where the road is leading and you’re worrying. Maybe you’ve lost your joy. Whatever it may be, Jesus is the gift of eternity to you.
Ya know, Joseph was told to name God’s only Son, “Jesus,” which, translated from the word Yeshua, means “to save” or “to deliver.” And according to prophecy he was also to be called “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.” So… Christmas means you aren’t alone. Christmas means you have a savior. Christmas means you have a heavenly Father who walks with you like Jim Redmond walked with his son Derek. These truths are more true than anything you’re going through.
That’s what Joseph learned. That’s what the story of Joseph communicates. Joseph received the glory of Christmas. The gift of eternity got into his soul. It extinguished his fear. It empowered him to walk by faith. And as he walked with Jesus in the years that followed God was glorified in Joseph. And as you walk with Jesus in the year that follows, God will be glorified in you too.