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Sermon for Sunday 18 December 2016

FIRST READING Isaiah 7:10-17

10Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, 11“Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” 12But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” 13And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? 14Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 15He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. 17The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah — the king of Assyria.”


PSALM Psalm 24

1The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and all who dwell therein. 2For it is he who founded it upon the seas and made it firm upon the rivers of the deep. 3“Who can ascend the hill of the Lord? and who can stand in his holy place?” 4“Those who have clean hands and a pure heart, who have not pledged themselves to falsehood, nor sworn by what is a fraud. 5They shall receive a blessing from the Lord and a just reward from the God of their salvation.” 6Such is the generation of those who seek him, of those who seek your face, O God of Jacob. 7Lift up your heads, O gates; lift them high, O everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. 8“Who is this King of glory?” “The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle.” 9Lift up your heads, O gates; lift them high, O everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. 10“Who is he, this King of glory?” “The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.”



1Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 3concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, 6including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, 7To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.


GOSPEL Matthew 1:18-25

18Now 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. 19And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20But 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. 21She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). 24When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.



It was the day after Christmas. Dad was trying to take a nap, but his young son kept finding ways to interrupt his siesta. Finally, the father lost his patience and said sternly, “I want you to go to my room, and go there now!” Hearing this, the boy’s mother asked, “Why did you tell him to go to our room and not his?” The father replied: “Are you kidding? Did you see all those Christmas presents that kid received? In his room, he has a TV, an iPod, an iPad, an Xbox and 3 brand new electronic games. If I want to punish the kid, I have to send him to our room. There’s nothing to do in there!” I think it goes without saying, that our world is a very different world from the world into which the Christ child was born. Based on a basic cultural study of first century Palestine, I doubt Jesus ever even had a room of his own. In Matthew 8:20, Jesus told a certain scribe, “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
In our gospel lesson from Matthew, Joseph and Mary are betrothed. This is our first example of how things have changed. Betrothal in those days was like a modern engagement, but much more binding. An engagement in today’s world can be expensive to break, but being betrothed in the first century, meant that a couple had already exchanged vows, and they could only end their betrothal by divorce.
When Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant after they were betrothed, he naturally suspected that Mary was guilty of being unfaithful to him. This is certainly hurtful in today’s world, but Mary and Joseph came from a region where strict biblical laws were observed, and great care was taken to abide by these laws. If a betrothed couple was found to be with child before the marriage, this brought shame to the entire family. Joseph’s reputation would have been affected as well as Mary’s.
And so, the Bible tells us that Joseph decided he would divorce Mary, though very quietly. This alone demonstrates that Joseph was a very special man. His compassion shows here in that even though he was hurt, he didn’t want to expose Mary to public disgrace. Even more important, Mary’s pregnancy put her life in danger. If Joseph had accused Mary of adultery, which is how a betrayal during betrothal would have been viewed in that culture, she could have been stoned to death. But it appears that this type of action wasn’t in Joseph’s character. Still, all evidence pointed to the fact that Mary had betrayed him, so he planned to put an end the betrothal. Then Joseph had a dream.
In this dream an angel addressed him with an important title, “Joseph, son of David.” This is of course extremely important because it links this event directly to the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah. Isaiah prophesied that the coming Messiah would be of the house of David. (9:7) The angel told Joseph that Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit and that he shouldn’t be afraid to marry her. The angel also instructed Joseph to name the baby Jesus, and that the babe would “save his people from their sins.” After the dream, Joseph changes his mind and stayed with Mary. And as instructed, he names the baby Jesus.
By naming Mary’s child, he’s indicating to the world that Jesus is his legal son. During Jesus’ time, a father’s acceptance of the child mattered as much as blood. According to custom, a child’s legal father was his real father. Therefore, Joseph’s lineage was also Jesus’ lineage. This again tells us a lot about Joseph. He was not only a son of David, but also a man of God.
Outside of tradition and what’s written here in the first couple of chapters of Matthew, and in Luke, we know very little about Joseph. Though Paul mentioned Mary, he never mentioned Joseph. After the birth narrative, there’s only three other references to Joseph in the Gospels. First is when the angel appears to Joseph and instructs him to take his family and flee to Egypt because Herod was going to kill all the male children age two and under. Second, was when the angel again appears to Joseph and tells them to return home. And finally, when Mary, Joseph and Jesus went to Jerusalem for the Passover when Jesus was twelve: a story that’s only found in the gospel of Luke. That’s the last we hear about this good man Joseph. However, even though there isn’t much information available to us about Joseph, there are several things we can infer. First, Joseph was a man in control of his emotions.
Gordon McDonald tells a story of a Nigerian woman, a physician, who teaches at one of the teaching hospitals here in the US. Once when McDonald was giving a lecture she stepped out of the crowd to say something kind to him about the lecture. She introduced herself using an American name. “What’s your African name?” McDonald asked. She immediately gave it to him. The name was several syllables long with a musical sound to it. “What does the name mean?” he asked. She replied, “It means ‘Child who takes the anger away.’”
When he inquired as to why she would have been given this name, she said, “My parents had been forbidden by their parents to marry. But they loved each other so much that they defied the family opinions and married anyway. For several years, they were ostracized from both their families. Then my mother became pregnant with me. And when the grandparents held me in their arms for the first time, the walls of hostility came down. I became the one who swept the anger away. And that’s the name my mother and father gave me.” McDonald concluded, “It occurred to me that her name would be a suitable one for Jesus.”
That name would also have been a good name for Jesus’ father, Joseph—“the one who swept the anger away.” When someone hurts us, it’s a natural reaction to want to strike back in anger. Joseph understandably thought that Mary was pregnant with another man’s child, but his reaction wasn’t one of revenge. He was hurt by this apparent break in their relationship, but he didn’t want to hurt Mary in return.
And when Joseph decides to end their engagement, an angel of the Lord came and assured him, that things weren’t as they seemed. Joseph, a faithful man of God, listened and did as the angel instructed. Joseph was a man who could control his emotions. A trait many of us could learn. There are times in life when all of us are confronted with situations in which the temptation is to respond in a hurtful way and say things we can never retract. But, if we can hold our tongue and control our anger, not only will we avoid a hurtful situation, but God can then use us in a wonderful way.
Maybe you’re familiar with a story about a man named Raymond who also had that kind of control over his own emotions. Late one night, Raymond was awakened by the ringer on the phone. Answering it, his heart stopped when he heard a female voice sobbing, “Daddy, I’m so sorry.” His daughter was calling to say she was pregnant. A million thoughts ran through Raymond’s mind as his daughter cried. He and his wife had raised their children in church. They took their Christian commitment seriously. This was the last thing they had expected from their child. But Raymond couldn’t be angry with his daughter. She needed his love and support. So, he listened and comforted her and prayed that everything would be all right.
The next morning, Raymond and his wife wrote a long letter full of love and encouragement and sent it off to their daughter. Secretly they prayed that somehow God would turn back time and return their lives to normal again. A few days later, Raymond received a call from his daughter. “What in the world was the letter about?” she asked. “And where did you get the idea that I’m pregnant?” The father explained the phone call he had received.
The next day, Raymond called the phone company and asked them to trace the midnight call. Some poor girl, desperate for the love and the forgiveness of her father, had accidentally called Raymond’s number by mistake. What would have happened if he had reacted in anger, thought Raymond. Or worse yet, what if after that phone call she returned home to a father who couldn’t comfort or forgive her? There are times, times of life changing importance, when we need to keep our emotions in check.
Joseph listened to the messenger of God through the agonizing pain of what he thought was infidelity, but he didn’t lash out. He controlled of his emotions. That’s the first thing we know about Joseph. Second, we also know that Joseph was a man of great character. We know this from his willingness to take on the role as Jesus’ earthly father. Even though Joseph was not biologically related to Jesus, he was willing to claim Him as his own.
Pastor Philip McLarty tells about a friend of his, years ago, whose girlfriend was pregnant. Naturally, he assumed he was the father. But the scuttlebutt around school was that she’d been seeing other guys, and that his friend wasn’t the father after all. Back then they didn’t have the benefit of paternity testing, so there wasn’t any way of knowing for sure, but there was enough to give his friend an out, if he wanted it. He weighed the pros and cons and decided to ask his girlfriend to marry him. She accepted, and they got married. Shortly after, she gave birth to a daughter who quickly became, and is to this day, the apple of his friend’s eye.
At the time, the thought of getting married and becoming a parent was the farthest thing from this young man’s mind. Yet, says McLarty, his friend would be the first to tell you that, beyond all his many accomplishments, it was in becoming a father, to that little girl, that he found his true vocation in life.
McLarty says, “When I think about my friend, I’m reminded of the faithfulness of Joseph. It has something to do with getting your own ego out of the way and putting others first. It’s an exercise in humility and it’s based on a simple trust that, by God’s grace, all things really do work together for good for those who love the Lord and are called according to his purposes” (Romans 8:28). And to a great extent, that’s it, isn’t it? It’s a matter of getting our ego out of the way. It’s often been noted that a cross is no more than a capital “I” crossed-out. Bearing a cross sometimes means no more than eliminating ego from the equation.
Some of you may remember in the mid-eighties when Harry Belafonte teamed up with fundraiser Ken Kragen to assemble some of the top names in the recording industry in order to create a hit record and then donate the proceeds to the African famine relief project. Within days, pop stars like Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Loggins, and Bob Dylan arrived at Kenny Rogers’ Lion Share Recording Studio. A few months later the super-group released the hit song “We Are the World.” “We Are the World” became the fastest-selling American pop single in history. Sales exceeded twenty million copies. The project raised over $63 million in humanitarian aid. A few days before the musicians gathered in the studio, Lionel Richie posted a sign over the entrance that read: “Check your ego at the door.”
That’s a great piece of advice for all relationships. Joseph checked his ego at the door. Joseph controlled his emotions. Joseph was a man of character and because of this, Joseph made a crucial difference in our world. Consider where we’d be today if Joseph hadn’t been able to “man up,” and do the right thing?
Think how different the story of Christmas might be. Thankfully, he was a man of character and accepted the challenge and responsibility God laid before him. He controlled his emotions and checked his ego at the door and listened to the words the angel spoke to him and the world has been blessed ever since. He may have only been mentioned a few times in the Bible, but he had an important role to play in the story. We can’t ever assume that because we seem to be playing a minor role on life’s stage that our life can’t have an impact.
Pastor Charles Randall Ashcroft tells about an interruption that occurred one day while he was working at his desk. It was an unwelcomed interruption. He was working on his Christmas message. It was a man in the community named Joseph. Joseph is a nice guy, thought Pastor Ashcroft, but he never seems to have a grip on life.
Joseph came in and sat down in the chair across from Ashcroft’s desk. He was wearing a bright orange jacket pulled over an ugly green plaid shirt. Joseph always wore thick glasses which invariably were held together with tape. His hands were stained a brackish brown and he obviously hadn’t bathed in several days. “What do you want, Joseph?” Pastor Ashcroft asked.
“Oh,” said Joseph, “I don’t want anything. I’m moving tomorrow. I have no reason to stay here any longer. The woman I paid a little rent to every month finally died the other day. I took care of her for three years, you know. She was a wonderful person. I think she loved me and I surely loved her, but we never spoke of it. I will miss her. It’s Christmas you know. This time of year, you just seem to be more sensitive.” By now Pastor Randy was feeling justifiably sheepish.
“I haven’t come to ask for anything, pastor,” Joseph continued, “I have something I want to give you. I have in this grocery bag all of my discarded eyeglasses. I thought you might give them to the less fortunate.” “The less fortunate?” Ashcroft asked, now really feeling sheepish. “Yes,” Joseph answered, “you know, there are people out there who have very little. And look, I have so much. Must be at least five or six pairs of glasses in the sack. God has given me more than I deserve. I just want to help out. I’ll send you a postcard from Indiana. I think I still have a sister up there.”
With that he stood, shook Pastor Randy’s hand and walked out the door. Ashcroft hasn’t seen or heard from Joseph since. We might look at this humble Joseph and say he couldn’t possibly have made much of an impact on our world. He had few of the world’s goods. He certainly had no position of importance in the community. So how much difference could he make? But we might be surprised.
Maybe somewhere along the way he profoundly touched someone’s life perhaps the family of the woman he looked after. Maybe a pair of his cast-off glasses will be of real benefit to someone whose life might touch the lives of others in the future. You and I now know his story. Maybe it’ll make those of us who really do have more than we deserve of the world’s goods, be more aware of the needs of those less fortunate this Christmas. Certainly, Pastor Ashcroft’s life was impacted. He told his story in his church and on the web. Who knows how many lives will be touched?
The point is, when we go through life able to control our responses to people, so that we’re able to deal with them gently with love and forgiveness, when we’re a person of character so that people know that we can be counted on to do the right thing, when we’re able to check our ego at the door, then our life can be crucial to God’s plan for the world. It’s through these acts of love, kindness, responsibility, character and compassion that God is building His Kingdom. The Joseph who assumed the role of Jesus’ father certainly was such a man. If he hadn’t been, I wonder just how different the world would be today?

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