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"Love"

December 20, 2020 Speaker: Pastor Bob Davis

Passage: Matthew 1:18–1:25

We are getting close now. The Scripture lessons are sounding more familiar, the music is more Christmas-like, and there is a sense of anticipation. Of course, this year, our anticipation feels quite a bit different – but there is anticipation anyway. We are adapting to these new circumstances the best we can in order to maintain the important traditions.

We have been doing that with worship, too. If you have been along for the ride, you know that we began the Sunday after Thanksgiving with our Advent series: remembering how God fulfilled the promises He made in the incarnation, life, ministry, obedient walk to the cross, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. That’s a mouthful, for sure, but in this time of wondering where all of what we are experiencing is headed, it is really important to remember who is in control and how we can have confidence that the promises we have read in Scripture will be true. We can have confidence because God has done what he has said he would do. We can look forward with expectation because we know that God is faithful and true and that His steadfast love endures forever – even through a pandemic.

So far in Advent, we have heard how the promises of God are the substance of our hope, how the peace of God is revealed in the coming of the Messiah, how the joy of the Lord is bigger than any crisis we face. Today, we look at the way God’s love surprises us.

Sometimes a story is so familiar, we stop hearing the surprises within it. I want to go through these verses that we hear at some point during every Christmas season to pull out some things that we might have forgotten or overlooked because the story is so much a part of what we expect to be included right about now.

The personal involvement of God’s love

First, let’s look at Mary and Joseph. You may have heard this previously, but it is worth covering again. You probably know that a betrothal was more than simply an “engagement.” The marriage between a man and a woman was a significantly more involved process in those days than it is today. These days if a couple wants to start a family, the move in together and may (or may not) get married. If they do get married, it is understood to be something done between just the two of them. Many of the weddings I see portrayed or reported on television these days seem more of a coronation of the bride than a celebration of the covenant love God has given a couple, but that’s a topic for another day.

In the days of our text, things were quite a bit different. The first step towards union as husband and wife was the contracting between families. There was generally a price set for the bride; and that price would be fairly steep. It was to recognize the value lost to the bride’s family and, in a more pragmatic sense, a way to help offset the costs of the week-long marriage ceremony that would come at the end of the betrothal period. Think about it: I know how much it costs for a one day wedding with one meal; can you imagine the price-tag for a week-long event?

Most betrothal periods lasted a full year. The time frame was designed as a testing period; as an opportunity for any hidden flaws to be disclosed. Most times, the man and woman were still kept separate, even though they would be described as husband and wife. If, during the course of that year, infidelity was discovered – say, by the woman manifesting a pregnancy – it would be considered adultery and the marriage would be dissolved.

Again, we need to stop thinking about the end of the story. Pull the fact situation out of the Bible and think about how real people in the real world would respond. We need to put ourselves in the time before everything was revealed and only the first details were coming to light: Mary was pregnant and Joseph was not the father. What he thought was his was not. Human nature has not changed in this regard: you can imagine that he was upset, angry, disappointed, hurt, frustrated, and bewildered. Put yourself in his shoes. What would you do?

In the ordinary course of things in that day and age, the marriage would have been dissolved. Not might have been, not could have been, not should be. It would have been. Infidelity was a deal breaker. It was an irreparable breach of the contract and a shameful thing.

Joseph and Mary’s family were all aware of the standard set in Deuteronomy 22, “If…evidence of the young woman’s virginity was not found, then they shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father’s house and the men of her town shall stone her to death, because she committed a disgraceful act in Israel by prostituting herself in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.”

My, how things have changed! Now, if you happen to be sixteen years old and pregnant, you might get your own show on MTV.

In fairness, even by the time of Joseph and Mary, stoning was a much less frequent result. It still happened – as evidenced later by the woman caught in adultery in John 8. Ordinarily, though, there were two non-lethal options: public disgrace or a private divorce. The public disgrace was exactly as it sounds: the aggrieved party would go to the elders in the town, proclaim his complaint, and then there would be severe condemnation of the young woman and her family. The private divorce involved only the families and two independent witnesses and some paperwork.

We do not know how Joseph was informed or discovered that Mary was pregnant.  Matthew is markedly ambiguous and passive about this detail: “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.” It is an odd turn of phrase, “she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” Did Mary tell him and claim the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit? Did someone else pass the news to him and indicate that Mary was saying she had not been with another man?  It did not really matter. Even with the relaxed punishments, it was clear that a righteous man before God could not take home as his wife a woman of disgrace.

At the same time, Matthew’s account makes it clear that Joseph cared about Mary. He was not happy about this turn of circumstances, nor was he relieved that he did not have to go through with the wedding. The end of their relationship may not have been in doubt, but Joseph took time to consider his options. The sense we get is that Joseph was looking for a way to be kind to Mary. Note here that Scripture tells us that the dream of the angel came “just as he had resolved to do this…”

An angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. Because we have heard the story so many times, we know that Joseph believed the angel and acted accordingly. However. However, if it had been you or me, today, would we have done what Joseph did? Would we have accepted that the dream of an angel was anything more than a result of indigestion? Would the choice to buck all cultural expectations and stick with Mary been a simple decision? Vivid dream or not, I think I would have had some serious doubts about going forward with the plan based upon something I saw in a dream. We hold Mary in high regard because she responded favorably to the angel, Gabriel, understanding the consequences of her being chosen to give birth to the Messiah in the way it had been declared. But also it took a huge step of faith for Joseph to stand by Mary and say, “Yes, this child is from the Holy Spirit.” Do you think you could hear those words coming out of your mouth?

Let me be clear: God’s love was personal for Joseph. God was directly involved in his life. Joseph was called to step into a scandal not of his own making and to carry the burden of this child. It absolutely changed his life.

Friends, Joseph is not an unusual example. Mary is not an unusual example. Their specific circumstances may have been extraordinary, but the reality is that God is directly involved with each of our lives.

Let me pause on that for a moment. God is directly involved with each of our lives. God is not a concept. We learn about God in order to relate better to Him. God is not a tradition. We do not repeat these things just because we have always done them. We repeat these things to remember and to grow in our relationship with God.

God is sovereign over our lives – yours and mine – and God takes a direct interest in us. It may not always feel like it and we may not always be able to discern it. You may be like Mary and have known since a very early age how God was calling you to live your life. Or, you may be like Joseph who was older when God totally disrupted his life. Matthew and Luke do not give us much of a backstory on Joseph, but Matthew described him as a “righteous” man. There may have been long periods of his life during which it seemed like God was distant or missing – and then suddenly, this. Even so, the truth we see is that God was there all along, doing things according to His plan. And God’s plan also includes all of us and each of us. God is directly involved with each of us.

And God’s involvement – as shocking as it looks – God’s involvement is love. 

God’s costly love.

What is so surprising in this story about God’s love is that it is so personally costly. Mary knew the cost when she was going to be pregnant during the betrothal period. Joseph realized the cost as he made the decision to stand by her.

That God’s love is personally costly surprises us. We expect it to be like ice cream: smooth, easy, pleasing. There’s a sense that when God shows up, it is like Superman coming to the rescue: all of a sudden we can stand back, exhale and stop holding our breath, and watch the hero make everything turn out all right. And then everyone lives happily ever after. But Scripture seems to show that God’s love works very differently than our movie-superhero expectation.

Joseph and Mary’s participation in God’s plan was not a simple, “Ok, LORD. That’s great, we’re with you – this is going to be awesome. Let’s go get ‘em.” No, their submission to God was hard.  It involved them taking huge steps of faith with significant real life consequences for both. There was the initial step of faith – of obedience. They were blessed with the child. Then came the many other consequences: as any parent knows, the expression of God’s love in raising a child comes at a high personal cost. They had to flee to Egypt to escape Herod. They returned to Nazareth later. They had to raise Jesus. They had to feed him, clothe him, house him, and teach him. They watched him grow and develop. Parenthood is costly.

From my own perspective, the blessing that has come from being a parent has been far greater the cost and far greater than I could have ever imagined. It costs a lot, to be sure: time, energy, emotion, and resources. There are times I reflect on my life and wonder what hit, what happened? I raised a house of girls. Guys will understand this: I have yet to figure out when the bathrooms in my house turned into chemistry labs with bottles and potions and creams and tools …I have gained enough experience to know not to ask. I think I must spend a good portion of the girls’ teenage years with an exasperated or confused look on my face; but here’s the truth: I am so grateful to God for the blessing of being a part of the family God has given me. Whatever it cost me to be a part of this family was not worth having in comparison.

And so it is with Joseph and Mary. Whatever they gave up – and they certainly gave up security, respectability, and a normal life – was not worth having in comparison with the gift that they received. The cost of their obedience was high; but God’s love was totally transformative in their lives, personally. How surprising!

Ruth and Boaz (the societally transforming love of God)

For what it is worth, the costly nature of God’s call and the surprising nature of God’s love are consistent themes throughout Scripture. If you still have your Bibles open to Matthew 1, you will notice that the gospel does not begin with the birth of Jesus. It begins with a lineage of Jesus’ ancestry.  Matthew was tying Jesus to the covenant promises God made to Abraham generations before: to make Abraham and his family a blessing to all the families of the earth.

Take a look at the genealogy Matthew provides. You will see that it is paragraphed into three sections: the first section is the Patriarchs, the second section is the Kings, and the third section is from the time of exile.

For our purposes this morning, I want you to point out something unusual that Matthew has done: he has included the names of four women. It was unusual for women to be recognized at all; here, it is particularly notable because this is Jesus’ lineage. The four women are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and “the wife of Uriah” (aka Bathsheeba). Here’s a quick review of their backgrounds:

  • We find Tamar in Genesis 38. To make a long story short, Judah had arranged for his eldest son Er to marry her. They did, Er died without producing any children. According to the law of the time, Judah sent his next eldest son to her to produce an heir. He refused and died. Afraid his last son would suffer the same fate, Judah sent Tamar to her father’s house to wait for his next eldest son to grow up. She went. Some time later, Judah went to town to shear sheep. Tamar dressed up like a prostitute, seduced Judah, and got him to give her a signet ring and other stuff. Later, he tried to retrieve the heirlooms from the prostitute by trading one of his sheep, but could not find her. Three months later, Judah gets a report that Tamar is pregnant and he ordered her to be burned. At that point, she showed him the stuff and he was chagrined – and stuck. Tough girl. Yet God used her to continue the promise he made to Abraham.
  • Rahab may be a little more familiar to Sunday School veterans. We read about her in the early part of the book of Joshua. She was a prostitute in Jericho who harbored Israel’s spies as they were entering the Promised Land. When the walls of Jericho came tumbling down, Rahab and her family were preserved and became a part of the people of Israel. She was instrumental in God’s plan to deliver the Promised land to Israel.
  • Ruth is the “Ruth” of the Old Testament book that follows Judges. She was a Moabite woman. The people of Moab were considered enemies of Israel for things that happened during the Exodus. Ruth became well known because of her faithfulness to her mother-in-law Naomi, and to Naomi’s God. Ruth’s husband had died (as had Naomi’s) and Naomi encouraged Ruth to return to her father’s house. Instead, Ruth stayed with Naomi. The climax of the story was when the hero of the story, Boaz, who had no obligation to her was willing to become her “kinsman-redeemer,” – he saved her from the poverty of her situation. He married Ruth. Ruth, a Moabite woman, was David’s grandmother.
  • Bathsheeba’s story is, perhaps, the most well-known. We meet her in 2 Samuel 11. She was the wife of Uriah the Hittite, a soldier in the army of King David. From the King’s quarters, he saw her bathing and lusted after her. He called her in and lay with her. She conceived. David, troubled by the news, tried to cover his tracks by having Uriah take leave from military service to come home for a little R & R. Uriah would not go in the house while others were in the field, so there was no way for Bathsheeba’s pregnancy to be covered up. David had Uriah killed. The child was born and died; later, David and Bathsheeba had a second child who would become King Solomon.

Why do I draw this to your attention? It is simply to point out that God is not bound by our cultural expectations of using only socially or religiously approved people. God often moves forward through the lives of people who are powerless, who have no voice, or whose backgrounds are not pristine. (By the way, the men on the list are not any more virtuous – it is just that the inclusion of the women in this list is so out of the ordinary that we see how emphatically Matthew is making the point.)

And, even as God is not bound by our cultural expectations of using only socially or religiously approved people, he transforms the lives of those who had been previously lost, lonely, desperate, or hopeless.

Do you ever feel like you are not good enough for God to engage? Is there something in your past, is there something about you that you think God would not be interested in you? The genealogy of Jesus tells us very differently. There is no one outside the reach of God’s love: not by status, not by heritage, not by past personal history, not by wealth, not by geography, not by gender, not by age, not by anything. Where can we go to escape from God? Where can we go to escape His presence and love? If we go to heaven, He is there; if we make our bed in Hell, He is there, too. If we settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there His hand leads us. If we say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to Him, the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to Him.  (Psalm 139)

Each one of these women – and, I believe, each one of us – experienced the real life pains of loneliness, separation, hurt, and wondering whether God was able to love them. The answer, they discovered, was yes. Yes, God did love them. Yes, God loves us. God loves us so much that he gave his only begotten Son so that whosoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.

What can separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8)

Despite – or because of – a very imperfect and even sinful heritage, God sent his only begotten Son. God’s love is able to reach everyone: including you and me. God’s love is surprising in its scope and power.

Conclusion

Friends, as we look at this Christmas story and the birth of Jesus, we need to realize how God’s love impacts real lives: it was personal and direct for Joseph and Mary. It is personal and direct for you and me. There was a very personal cost to Joseph and Mary. Everything changed.  As we remember and reflect on it, we can see how it was worth the cost, but cannot forget that it changed everything for them.

But the truth of God’s love is this, too: there was a very personal cost to God – the only begotten Son born to save men from their sins. He changed everything. There was an incredible impact on the understanding of how things work, this simple baby born in an out-of-the-way-place and in humble circumstances was not only King of the Jews, but King of kings and LORD of lords.  God’s eternal love revealed to us: through time, for all time, but in time for you and for me.

God’s love still surprises us. Are you willing to be surprised this Christmas?

Amen.