December 6, 2015
Whatever you give yourself to will put demands on your life. If you give yourself to being a professional athlete you will have to deny yourself foods and activities that might jeopardize your ability to perform. If you desire to buy a house, you will have to deny yourself the purchase of other things. If you desire to get married you will have to deny yourself all others in order to be faithful to your husband or wife. The more valuable something is that you want, the more demands it will place on you.
This morning we are looking at the story of Joseph, the husband of Mary. Joseph was also called to embrace Christ. As we look at the story of Joseph we will see that those who embrace Christ are called to live a life of self-denial.
I. OUR PERSONAL DREAMS MAY BE CHANGED. Mt.1:18-23
In this passage we are introduced to Joseph. We know very little about Joseph. According to Mk.6:3, Joseph was a carpenter. It is generally believed that Mary was probably around 16 when they were married and Joseph was quite a bit older. Most believe that by the time Jesus began his public ministry Joseph had died.
In that day, Jewish marriages were usually arranged by the parents. Sometimes intermediators were used. Engagements lasted for about a year and were considered to be as binding as marriage. To break an engagement one had to get a divorce. During engagement, sexual immorality was considered to be adultery.
We also know from these verses that Joseph was a just and righteous man. It was his desire to obey the commands of God. Given the righteous character of Mary, one would think that for Joseph, Mary was quite a catch. In other words, God was not the only one who looked upon Mary with favor. Mary had caught Joseph’s eye as well.
Now let me pause for a moment to mention that physical beauty has its place when it comes to marriage. But as we all know, physical beauty is short lived. Much more important for a lasting marriage, is gracious character, conduct and speech. For Christians this certainly means that we should seek to marry a committed follower of Christ whom we have had ample opportunity to get to know. This is important because, like following Christ, marriage calls for a life of daily self-denial. Now let’s think a little more deeply about Joseph’s situation. During the year of engagement plans were being made for the wedding and married life. Jewish weddings usually lasted for 7 days. Guest lists had to be made. It was a pretty big deal. Given the general character of human nature, I would imagine that there could have been some arguments between Mary and Joseph and among family members. This is the grist of life. All this to say that Joseph was all in. He was surely doing his best to prepare for the added expenses of marriage. When we get engaged we are looking forward. We are dreaming dreams of what will be. We formulate pictures in our minds of what marriage will be like. Surely Joseph was no different. He pictured himself and Mary being married and then having a family. It is what all Jewish men and women wanted.
But then some disturbing news came to Joseph. Sometime before their wedding he learned that Mary was pregnant. It does not appear that Mary told Joseph, but that Joseph could see that she was pregnant. I can’t say this with certainty, but there is a passive sense in the way the verse reads. Mary was “found to be with child.” And just like that, Joseph’s dreams for the future began to unravel. He had trusted Mary, but obviously Mary was not trustworthy. Whose baby was this anyway?
Now look at v.20. In v.20 an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him that he should not be afraid to take Mary as his wife because Mary is pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Wow! It must have taken a little time for Joseph to wrap his mind around that. Suddenly everything changed.
Joseph had a picture of what married life would be like, and now that dream, that picture, that plan had to be adjusted in order to accommodate the birth of Jesus the Messiah. When Jesus enters into the picture of a person’s life all dreams for the future must be put on the table. Joseph had to decide if he was going to surrender his plan to God. Would Joseph surrender his plans for his life to the Kingdom rule of God?
This is always the question for those who follow Christ. All of our dreams and plans must be held loosely. Why? It’s because when we come to Christ we are no longer the ruler of our lives. We have come to see that the way of Jesus is far better than our own way. He has given us his life to live. His life is an eternal life that promises a very bright future with him. Paul tells us in Rm.14:17 that “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
Now surrendering our dreams and plans to Christ is not so easy. Most of us have very good dreams and plans. Maybe you are working on a degree and you have determined to enter into this or that field as your life’s occupation. Or maybe like Mary and Joseph you are planning to be married. Or maybe you have received a number of promotions at work and your goal is to go as high as you can in the company. Maybe you have your eye on a house or a new car. Or maybe you are dreaming about retirement. I don’t know what your dreams might be. What I do know is that all of our dreams must be held loosely before the Lord because He may have other ideas for us.
Joseph ended up with the girl of his dreams, but things did not go according to his plan. Jesus Christ changed his plans. Would you be willing to let Jesus change your plans? Are you willing to lay your plans before the King, Jesus Christ?
II. OUR REPUTATION MAY BE QUESTIONED. Mt.1:19-23
The word, “reputation” refers to the “estimation in which a person or thing is held, especially by the community or the general public. In v.19-23 we get the sense that Joseph was a man who had a good reputation. He was known for being just, righteous, and trustworthy. People in his town looked up to him. He was committed to God and the Jewish religion. Prov.2:21 says, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches.” In other words, reputation is important. When employers are looking to hire someone, they seek references. They want to know what kind of reputation the potential employee has. You don’t want to lose your good reputation.
And this seems to be one of Joseph’s concerns. Now that Mary was pregnant Joseph concluded that people would think he was the father of the child and of course, that just wasn’t true. People would think that Joseph had been sexually immoral. Not only that, but since Mary was pregnant with someone else’s child, Joseph had to consider how this might compromise whatever family he might have with Mary. It was not just a matter of personal pride for Joseph. These were realities that he needed to think about. Mary had put him in a difficult position.
Joseph made the right decision. He mercifully decided to divorce Mary quietly. He loved Mary and did not want to bring greater shame on her.
Now we know the truth. God is the one who put Joseph in this difficult position. It was all God’s doing. When the angel appeared to Joseph and told him to not be afraid to take Mary as his wife since she had conceived by the Holy Spirit, well, I wonder how you might have responded. Would you have believed the angel’s message? Would you have taken Mary as your wife? In light of this new information Joseph had to decide whether or not he would sacrifice his reputation in order to protect both Mary and the Christ child. The reality is that Jesus needed an earthly father from the tribe of Judah, in the lineage of David, in order that Jesus could also be of the lineage of David. Joseph had a very significant role to play in adopting Jesus as his son.
But even though Joseph was given this significant role to play, it meant that he would have to let go of controlling his reputation. He could not embrace Mary as his wife and Jesus as his son, and still maintain his religious reputation in society.
And this is also our situation. We don’t live in a society with a dominant religion like Mary and Joseph did. Instead we live in a society that subscribes to a dominant philosophy of secularism. The goal in our secular, pluralistic society is to try to get along with everyone. The kind of reputation that is valued today is a reputation for being a decent person who doesn’t make waves, especially when it comes to religion and politics. The temptation for Christians is to blend in so as to get along. After all, we have seen what happens when Christians try to live out their Christian convictions. University professors are fired. Government officials are put under a great deal of scrutiny. And Christians in the private sector who speak up for Christ are often mocked and stigmatized.
You may have a good reputation as far as our current society is concerned, but if you are compromising your life as a Christian in order to hold onto your reputation, you are denying Christ. It is true that we need to exercise wisdom in the things we say and how we say them. We don’t have to be arrogant and know-it-alls, but if we try to fly under the radar so that no one knows of our commitment to Christ we deny Christ. Joseph had a decision to make concerning his reputation. Would he embrace Jesus by marrying Mary and let God manage his reputation, or would he try to secure himself by putting his reputation before Christ? What about you? Is your reputation more important to you than following Christ?
III. OUR DESIRES MAY GO UNFULFILLED. Mt.1:24-25
We see that Joseph changed his mind about divorcing Mary quietly. Without any fanfare, he did as the angel commanded. He married Mary despite what others might think. Once Mary and Joseph were married Joseph had another decision to make. As husband it was his privilege, right and obligation to consummate the marriage. But, wait a minute, Mary was a virgin and was pregnant with the Son of God. Something very unusual was going on here.
Joseph shows the kind of person he is when he chooses to refrain from consummate-ing the marriage until after Jesus was born. There is no reason to think that Joseph was any different from the average man. He surely had the same drives and desires of most men. But in light of the fact that Mary was bearing the holy One of God, the Savior of the world, Joseph did not want to in any way compromise what God was doing. So he denied himself what would ordinarily be considered by all to be his right.
We all have rights. In the Declaration of Independence it says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” These rights are called “natural rights.” They are rights endowed by our Creator. The right to bear arms or the right to a fair trial would come under the category of legal rights. They are rights granted by the government.
When a person becomes a Christian all rights, both natural and legal rights, are surrendered to Christ. While on his missionary journeys, Paul made it his practice to be bi-vocational. Instead of seeking financial support from people, he worked as a tent maker so that everyone could see that he was not interested in profiting from his missionary work. Did he have a right to profit? Well, yes. Traveling teachers in those days commonly received money from those who listened to them. In 1Cor.9 Paul writes, “Don't we have the right to food and drink? Don't we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord's brothers and Cephas? In 2Thess.3 Paul writes, “We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, laboring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow.”
Paul believed he had certain rights, but in order to advance the gospel he surrendered those rights. This is what Joseph did. He surrendered his right to consummate his marriage to Mary.
We live in a society that is very conscious of rights. There is a sense in which Christians have no rights because we surrender all of our rights to Jesus. Do not misunderstand what I am saying. I am not saying that we should forego exercising our rights. Paul exercised his rights as a Roman citizen numerous times. My point is that all of our rights must be held loosely with the idea that God may call us to forego our rights in order that he might fulfill his purposes in our lives.
For example, maybe you are saving money in order to purchase something that you have wanted for a long time. But you begin to sense that God is telling you to give that money to someone who has a need. Do you have the right to spend the money to fulfill your desire? Well, yes. It is your money. But wait a minute, as a Christian you know that ultimately your money belongs to God. And so as you sense that God is directing you to use the money to help someone, you forego your right.
Many a missionary, many a pastor, many a Christian worker has laid aside his or her rights for the work of Christ and the church. Are you willing to lay aside your desires, your rights to bring honor to Christ?
Maybe you are wondering how to go about living a life of self-denial. I have two thoughts. First, it is important to make a formal declaration of your surrender to God. We must decide to surrender all to Christ. Think it through. We sing, “I give myself away.” That’s what we are talking about. Second, a life of self-denial can only be learned by doing. Daily ask the Lord to show you how to deny yourself in normal activities of living. The reason why we live lives of self-denial is so that Jesus would be pre-eminent in our lives. We deny ourselves so that Jesus might be promoted through our lives. A life of self-denial is characterized by humble, loving service to God and others. Amen.