Look up on the side screens with me for a moment. I’m sure you’ve seen hundreds of pictures of manger scenes, but I want you to look at this one, just for a second, because I think it does a pretty good job of capturing the special peace that was surely felt by all who were present that first Christmas night.
I mean, you can see the wonder and joy in Mary’s eyes. Her hand is over her heart as if to say, “This is beyond words.” There’s a kind of quiet smile on her face. And Joseph is holding Mary close with his hand around her shoulder. They are both filled with amazement and anticipation—in fact they seem to be UNITED by it. The soft glow of firelight adds to this feeling of serenity and peace. There’s a shepherd standing nearby holding a lamb with a smile of wonderment on his face. Even the livestock look especially content.
Now—after viewing a picture like this, doesn’t it make you wish that when you gather for your family photo this Christmas—the feeling could be as warm and loving and joyful and wonderful as this one is? Doesn’t it make you wish that when you gather together tonight or tomorrow morning as a family—when everyone has gone over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house–and you decide to take a picture—wouldn’t it be great if that digital image could reflect the kind of love and joy that this nativity scene does?
Of course, it almost NEVER happens that way does it? The stress of all the Christmas prep—the harried, hurriedness of this holiday—long drives up 95 through bumper to bumper traffic on your way to grandmothers’ house—well, it can all lead to relational stress that make for anything BUT a perfect family picture.
I can’t help but think of that episode from one of my favorite TV shows: Everybody Loves Raymond where they gathered for this Christmas pic. Do you remember how strained family relationships were in that episode—all because Raymond’s wife insisted that HER parents be included?
Well, I read this week that there is actually a scientific reason behind the holiday stress that most families experience. There’s an explanation for why so many families end up with bruised relationships at Christmas. It comes from to a diagnosed condition called: “Hypercopresence”—which occurs when families are in close quarters 24 hours a day after having spent all year apart.
Think of it. During Christmas they have to share the same house, the same bathroom and have to put up with young children stampeding around the place. Remember, that’s how the kid in the movie Home Alone ended up sleeping in the attic—and then spending Christmas—HOME ALONE. That popular Christmas film reflected the fact that family members tend to become cranky—because their autonomy has been taken away from them by the tight schedule of naps, meals and games.
Professor Melanie Booth-Butterfield, a communications expert at the University of West Virginia, says that, “Arguments occur when people try to ‘strike out’ and reclaim their independence. Hypercoprescence happens when you get a ‘large dose of family at once’. It happens when you are too close and you can’t get away from people.” The professor says that pressures at Christmas time come from what she calls, “the ABC’s:” alcohol, bathrooms, and children. She writes: “The more people there are and the smaller the house is, the more pressure there is likely to be.”
Does this ring a bell? Has anyone ever suffered from “hypercopresence” at Christmas? Well, this morning I want us to take a behind-the-scenes look at the price that Joseph and Mary paid in order for the REAL manger scene to turn out as beautiful as the picture we just viewed. You see, I believe, the deep love and community that we see in nativity scenes is the result of several hard-fought battles that Mary and Joseph dealt with—and won. And—if we are to get Christmas right tonight and tomorrow—then we will have to engage in several similar personal battles. But with God’s help—we can win them—and enjoy the relationships that make not just THIS Christmas RIGHT—but all of life right. Our text is Matthew 1:18-25. Stand now as I read it:
18 – 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.
19 – 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.
20 – 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.
21 – 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.”
22 – All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
23 – “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a Son, and they will call Him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
24 – When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.
25 – But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a Son. And he gave Him the name Jesus.
Okay—before we go any further, I am indebted to Bill Hybels for my outline—and much of the content of this message.
Now, let’s get to it. Here’s the FIRST battle Joseph and Mary had to fight and win in order to experience the kind of joy and community that was present that first Christmas night.
(1) There was a battle for RIGHTEOUSNESS.
Look back at verse 18 where you see this phrase: “BEFORE THEY CAME TOGETHER.”
Remember, Mary and Joseph were betrothed—engaged—and we need to understand what that meant in the 1st century—because engagement is not NEAR as big of a deal today as it was then.
Here’s how it worked. In 1st century Judea, most marriages were ARRANGED by the parents of the couple. And don’t let that bother you because the bride and groom were not simply thrown at each other in a loveless match. No—directly or indirectly, their comments and conduct often alerted their parents as to which family to contact—which person to “arrange” for them to marry.
So, love was a factor in many of the arranged marriages of the day.
What probably happened was this. One day, Joseph asked his parents if he could marry that village girl who was his distant relative—Mary. They discussed it among themselves before giving him an answer—carefully appraising Mary’s parentage, ancestry, and resources. Then Joseph’s father paid a call on Mary’s parents, who would act duly surprised as the purpose of the visit grew plain. You see, MARY’s random comments about the young carpenter had all but shouted her interest in HIM, and so the discussion began in earnest. Finally, the fathers agreed to a marriage CONTRACT between their children. Joseph was then brought before Mary, and with family and friends looking on, their parents uttered a formal benediction over them as they tasted a cup of wine together. After this PUBLIC COMMITMENT they were considered officially “betrothed.”
This stage of the marriage process was called the “kiddushin” and it was far more binding than our modern engagement. I mean, CONTRACT is a good word to describe it. You see, only divorce could break a 1st century betrothal, and even though they were not yet married—had either Joseph or Mary been unfaithful to each other—the act would have been deemed an adultery punishable by death under the old Mosaic law—death by stoning. And—if Joseph died before the wedding, Mary would have been his legal widow. This betrothal period—this KIDDUSHIN—lasted a year. During these months the bride lived with either her parents or parents of her friends. However, her property now belonged to her future husband.
But back to that phrase—“BEFORE THEY CAME TOGETHER.” You see, through their public engagement ceremony, they had made this pledge to obey God’s law—to live chaste lives until AFTER their wedding. I know that sadly this is NOT the norm in our culture—but it is just as much God’s will now as it was then. It was and is His loving law—and Mary and Joseph pledge publicly to obey it.
Let me just stop and say that obeying God’s loving law wasn’t any easier for them than it is for us. They had the same hormones we do. I mean, in that day, and in our day, sexual purity is a battle. In the first century or the 21st century, it takes a total commitment to personal righteousness to honor God with your sexuality—especially in a loving relationship or engagement headed toward marriage. But Joseph and Mary engaged in that age-old, hard-fought battle for purity in their relationship, and with God’s help, they were winning.
Today, in like fashion, whether we’re married or single, younger or older, with God’s help—with Christ in us OUR HOPE OF GLORY we can win the fight for sexual righteousness—sexual purity. We can fight for marital fidelity. We can even fight to make sure our minds are pure with regards to sexual matters throughout the day. I can win it. You can win it. Every one of us can.
WITH GOD’S HELP as we win these battles for righteousness in the area of sexuality, or any other areas in life that call for integrity, we can wind up living with a clean conscience. We can live with a peace that passes human understanding.
And some of you, right now, have already begun to roll your eyes. You’re wondering to yourself, “What is the big deal whether or not I fight and win the righteousness battle? In this day and age, who really cares? I mean, everyone in Hollywood and DC are ignoring this battle. In a world like ours, millions of people, every day, are taking swan dives into immorality of every kind. You’re really expecting someone like me to pray and strive and discipline myself and fight for personal integrity? Come on pastor! This is the 21st century. This is modern America. What’s the big deal about winning the righteousness battle?” Well—it WAS a big deal in the 1st century and it IS STILL a big deal. Listen, God’s laws—ALL OF THEM—are for our good!
He gave us these LAWS because He loves us and doesn’t want us to suffer from the inevitable pain that comes from sinful behavior. Think of the family gatherings that have been strained because someone messed up sexually! Think of the families that no longer gather at Christmas—or at any holiday—because one family member broke one of God’s loving laws?
My point is—personal righteousness IS a big deal. It touches every relationship—not just family—but work—church—friendships. I’ll say it as simply and as directly as I can: Our personal righteousness matters.
And I’m not just referring to sexual righteousness. I’m also talking about verbal righteousness, financial righteousness, ethical, market-place righteousness—ALL this stuff matters. And it REALLY matters to God.
In fact, let me pose this question to you. Do you think God would have chosen Joseph and Mary to be the key players in the incarnation drama of Christmas if they had been careless with regard to personal righteousness? Do you think there’s any correlation, whatsoever, in their commitment to personal integrity and God’s decision to entrust them with the birth and the raising up of the Savior of the world? Do you see any connect there? You should because there’s always been a connect between righteousness and God’s hand of favor and blessing—and His decision to entrust someone with a kingdom adventure. 1st Peter 3:12 says, “For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and His ears are attentive to their prayers, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” Now–it doesn’t mean God doesn’t love people who have lost their way. It doesn’t mean that God doesn’t want to reclaim lives that have lost the battle. It doesn’t mean God doesn’t give sinners like me and you second chances. It doesn’t mean you have to be perfect and blameless for God to use you. No—it just means when He’s looking for someone to pour His favor on, when He’s trying to select someone to give a kingdom adventure to—He tends to choose those who are striving—with His help—to walk in His way.
Do you remember David’s words in Psalm 51? “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.” And don’t miss this NEXT part. “THEN I will teach transgressors Your ways, so that sinners will turn back to You.” God can’t/won’t use us if we are in rebellion against His loving law. He won’t use us to teach transgressors His ways—if we are embracing transgression ourselves. This is why Psalm 1 says, “Blessed is the person who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of God, and on that law he meditates day and night. He or she is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season—and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he or she does will prosper, for the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.”
Sometimes I wonder if we would even know Joseph and Mary’s names had they not fought and won the battle for personal righteousness. They may have been passed over altogether for the role they played. And to be honest, sometimes I wonder what opportunities or what adventures have been withheld from ME because, there have been too many times in my life—when I’ve lost the righteousness battle in embarrassing ways. Do you ever wonder that about yourself?
Sometimes, in the overall scheme of things, we forget that God has a world He’s trying to reach. And He’s looking for people who will walk in His way—people who He can entrust kingdom responsibilities with. He’s looking for people who, with His help, will “stand in the gap” for Him. Personal righteousness is a very big deal to God. It always has been and always will be. I mean, when you’re committed to personal righteousness, it demonstrates your trustworthiness.
It makes you eligible for a special kind of favor and blessing that God reserves for those who faithfully fight and win this battle.
I think we should all do a righteousness inventory regularly—not just at Christmas. We should pray with David, “Search me, God, and know my heart. Try me and know my thoughts. See if there’s any wicked way in me, because if there is, I want to make it right.”
Now, listen very closely to what I’m going to say next. Some of us will not get this Christmas right until we make something right in our relationship with God or someone else. You can put it off; you can pretend not to know what I’m referring to—or you can step up and you can engage in this battle. And—I hope you WILL step up. I hope you will “gird up your loins” and say,
“Okay, I’m going to make things right with God. I’m going to ask for God’s help along the way, draft a few Christian brothers or sisters to help keep me accountable, but I’m going to try, with God’s help, to turn from this sin—that I have been embracing.” Or, “I have been avoiding dealing with this person. We’ve not been getting along—we’ve become enemies—and I know that doesn’t please God. So, with His help I’m going to obey His Word and make every effort to get back to a healthy relationship with this person.” I hope Joseph and Mary’s righteousness victory, and all that came their way as a result of it, will inspire us all this morning—to get this Christmas right by making something right with God or with someone else. Fight this battle—because with God’s help you can win–and you’ll be glad you did.
(2) Here’s the second battle that was fought to make this nativity scene so peaceful. It’s the battle for GRACIOUSNESS.
Take another look at it. Joseph looks relaxed and loving toward Mary NOW—but it wasn’t always that way. No—Joseph had to fight a battle for graciousness and it was a hard-fought battle. Try to picture what he went through in the months leading up to that first Christmas night.
Imagine living in a very small town where all the kids go to the same school. Everybody in the town goes to the same church. Everybody, pretty much, votes the same way in the local elections. And we’re not talking about a liberal town. No—the highest value in this little village is traditional family values. It’s a very conservative community.
You’re engaged to be married to a pretty, young maiden who everyone in the village knows very well, and they know that this woman is not just an attractive, young woman. She’s a godly young woman, as well. I mean, she’s like the local church homecoming queen. Your upcoming wedding is the talk of the town. It’s the social event that everyone’s looking forward to. You feel the eyes of the village on your courtship. You know how important it is for you to get it right, so you do everything you can to date right! You spend all of your together time with her family or yours. You walk and talk in public places only, and there are not any PDA’s—no public displays of affection. In my youth ministry days, I called them PDI’s—public displays of INFECTION. To prevent this kind of thing on hayrides, I would pass out Tootsie Roll Pops—or as I referred to them, “Smooch Preventers” — very effective.
Anyway, you and Mary engage in no PDA’s or PDI’s because you know the whole village is watching. The entire town helps you live up to your personal spiritual convictions. And don’t get me wrong. These are good people—God-honoring people. You love them and you don’t want to disappoint them. You don’t want to lose your reputation as a righteous person. Well, one night you’re bringing this pretty, young woman that you’re engaged to, to her doorstep. And she says, “Joseph I need to tell you something. I’m pregnant.” Your first response is to cringe, because nice girls don’t even joke about stuff like that. But then, your mouth gets dry and your stomach starts churning, because you can see in her face–she’s not joking. What comes next is a, kind of, internal boiling rage welling up inside of you, because you know you are not the father. You’ve never even kissed her. You’ve never even held her hand. You haven’t touched her in any way. You’ve never even been alone with her in a private place. But you know biology so obviously, someone else has been alone with her, which means there has been a deception and betrayal you didn’t think existed in this world. Your blood turns cold. Two words seesaw back and forth in your mind. “Pregnant,” and, “father.” “Who is the father?” And you’re running down a list of names in your mind of other young men she knows.
Now, look at this little paragraph buried in the Christmas story in Matthew 1. It says, “Because Joseph was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he decided to call off their engagement quietly.” I don’t know if you can fully grasp the weightiness of that little phrase. Shortly after the most devastating betrayal a young man can experience, Joseph tries to figure out a way that he can deal with his own disappointment in all this—but he also tries to figure out a way not to destroy Mary. Remember, the Mosaic law that Joseph was so keen on obeying said that during the Kiddushin period sexual immorality was punishable by death.
Now, do you think Joseph’s decision not to opt for making this public—leveling charges against Mary—do you think it happened naturally—automatically? I mean, do you think Joseph went from rage and disappointment and confusion to grace-giving and wanting to protect her automatically? Do you think that just was his natural reaction? I don’t think so. I think Joseph had to FIGHT to get from rage to graciousness. I think he had to fight to get from disappointment and the feeling of being betrayed to the place where he wanted to preserve and protect Mary. I think he had to fight to get to the point where he wanted to protect her from public humiliation.
Be honest now—when people betray YOU—when people slander you behind your back—when people disappoint you in a way that hurts you deeply—do you just automatically forgive them? I hate to admit it—but I don’t. I’m not proud of it—but my first reaction is to want to hurt back. I want to figure out how I can hurt them. I want to make them pay for hurting me.
Now, I’m sure that when Joseph first got the news that Mary was pregnant—he considered other options. I’m sure he considered dragging Mary in front of the whole village and saying with a voice dripping with sarcasm, “So you all think that Mary is the poster child of morality, do you? I mean, you think she’s the cover girl for traditional values. Well, she’s not. She’s pregnant. She’s deceived me, and all of us, all along the way. She’s not who she has put herself out to be. Get some stones—let’s end this.” I can also imagine Joseph wanting to have said, “And if that’s not enough—Mary is claiming innocence. She says she doesn’t know how this happened. Well, I’m here to tell you, I am not the father, and as a result, I have no intentions of continuing this engagement or ever marrying her. So, take your cover girl, your poster child for morality, you do what the law says should be done.” Surely that option floated around in Joseph’s mind. I mean, we all tend toward wanting to HURT the people who hurt us. But Joseph didn’t act on that first dark impulse that must have swept over his wounded spirit. No—Joseph dug down deep and pushed the pause button. He began to engage in the battle for graciousness.
Verse 20 infers that after Mary had shared her unbelievable news Joseph went away and, “considered” all she had said. But that translation doesn’t quite catch the full meaning of what took place because the Greek word used here literally means “to ponder” or more accurately, “to meditate on.” So the idea conveyed in this verse is that Joseph prayed. He went off alone and thought about what had happened and his thoughts gave birth to prayers as he poured his heart out to God. Picture him as he climbed the hills around Nazareth…a solitary figure…crying to the God he had faithfully served all his life, seeking wisdom to deal with his heartbreaking problem saying, “God, in this terribly disappointing and confusing situation, what would You have me do? What’s the high road? How would you have me act?” And maybe he even slowed his spirit to a point where he would seriously wonder, “If I were standing in Mary’s place, how would I like to be treated? Would I want to be exposed and publicly disgraced and humiliated, or would I hope and pray for just a little understanding and grace?”
What about you? I mean, tonight or tomorrow you are going to probably be in the same room with people—perhaps even family members—who have hurt you in some way—people who have betrayed you or wronged you. I mean, this side of heaven, this stuff happens. Even in good families, no one gets it all right—not everyone in every family. There’s usually some hurt somewhere. So, like Joseph, we each have a decision to make. We can act on dark impulses that make us want to inflict damage and hurt on people who we believe have wronged us—or we can follow the lead of Joseph. We can engage in the battle for graciousness and we can wrestle with God about what a higher road would be—about how, maybe, we could treat someone with grace instead of judgment.
It’s not going to be easy. But as a motivation—remember how God has forgiven you. You’ll never have to forgive someone more than He forgave you. By the way—after Joseph decided to take the high road—after he decided to divorce Mary quietly and not to disgrace her by exposing her to public humiliation—immediately after that, the Bible says in Matthew 1:20 an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and informs him that the child Mary is carrying is not the result of immoral activity on her part. Remember our text? The angel confirmed Mary’s story. She WAS innocent. The Holy Spirit had touched her womb in a supernatural way so the baby that was developing inside her was none other than the second person of the Trinity—the long-awaited Messiah—the One Who would do the atoning work to redeem this fallen world.
Can you imagine how glad Joseph was in that moment that he had not taken the LOW road? Can you imagine how glad he was that he gave her grace? Listen, I will tell you from my own experience—it ALWAYS feels great to forgive and offer grace. And it ALWAYS feels bad to refuse to forgive and to insist on judgment. You’ll never regret WINNING the battle to give grace.
Okay—there’s one more spiritual battle that Joseph fought that I want to mention.
(3) It’s the battle for TRUST.
I mean, Joseph had to come to terms with his willingness to walk by faith and not just by sight. The battle for trust meant listening to what the angel said—listening to what the Spirit prompted him to do, even though it made no human sense. And be assured—Joseph was being asked to trust A LOT. He was being asked to trust that the father of Mary’s child was, in fact, the Holy Spirit, and not some secret lover. He was being asked to trust that taking Mary as his wife was the right thing to do—that it wasn’t going to backfire on him later. He was being asked to trust that God was going to work in all this for the good of Joseph and Mary and the child. Perhaps one of the biggest trust deals he faced was naming the baby Jesus—the ONE born to save people from their sin. You see, when the people in that little conservative Jewish village heard that name they would go ballistic. I mean, in their minds to give what they were sure was a child conceived out of sexual immorality THIS name—I mean, how dare he! I’m saying Joseph’s trust battles were REAL battles. They pushed him to the very edge of his faith. And sometimes our trust battles are equally as daunting to us, aren’t they? We have to trust that God is going to be true to His Word and work in and through OUR struggles for our good. He have to trust that God will provide for our needs. And I have to point out that as Christians we have committed our trust in the fact that this whole Christmas thing is real and true—that as I said two weeks ago—this nativity scene REALLY HAPPENED. We’ve trusted that God, in fact, did visit this planet in the person of Jesus Christ—and that Jesus was born miraculously to two Jewish peasants and grew up in a blue-collar town. We’ve trusted that at 30 years of age He started a public ministry where He healed and challenged and comforted and taught people—and then, at the end of that three-year ministry, He shouldered the sins of the world as He hung on a cross between two common thieves. We’ve trusted that three days later He was resurrected, and later, He ascended back to the Father—where, from that time until this time, He’s been reaching out to fallen, wayward people—all over the world, offering them a new start—a more satisfying life and a secured eternity. Well let me ask you a question. If you DO trust—believe all this—what are you doing about it? I mean, if we really BELIEVE—TRUST—that this all really happened—if we really believe Jesus was born and lived and died for the sins of the world to save lost people—-then we will indeed use every God-given opportunity to share the gospel! If we really believe this—TRUST this—then we’ll act like we do—right? Sure we will! If we REALLY trust God for all this then CONNECTING with the lost will become our primary passion. If we REALLY believe all this—we will go and tell it on the mountain and over the hills and everywhere. Does your life show you’ve won the battle with TRUST?
How many of you have seen, the Christmas classic, A Charlie Brown Christmas on TV? It’s on pretty much every year. This week I read that the two producers who worked closely with Charlie Brown creator Charles Schultz remembered their desperate efforts to convince a network to show the special. All the major networks were hesitant. Finally, one agreed, and the great cartoonist got to work. Do you remember the scene when Linus strolls to center stage and reads the biblical account of the meaning of Christmas. It’s my favorite part. Every time I hear it I want to say, “AMEN LINUS!!!!” Well, the two producers working with Schultz as he put this all together cautioned him about putting something like that in the special, because they were convinced it wouldn’t go over well. Charles Schultz faced both of the producers and said, “If not us, then who’s going to do it?”
Schultz won the battle of TRUST. He BELIEVED the Nativity is not just a “story.” He believed it really happened—and so, He knew how desperate it was for Christians to share the good news that the SAVIOR has been born. So to borrow Schultz’s words—If we don’t do it—if we don’t tell everyone we can about Jesus—who will?
Would you look at the nativity scene one more time? As a Christian look at it and be assured that these battles we’ve talked about—the battle for righteousness and grace and trust—are worth fighting. God will help us fight and win—He’ll help us live righteously—He’ll help us give grace when it’s not deserved—He’ll help us share our FAITH—our TRUST in the Bible with the lost. With that in mind—if you want to commit to fighting these battles will you raise your hands? Thank you! This commitment will help you get not just Christmas right—but all of life right!