As I write, I am sitting in my study, facing my desk. In the middle of the desk is a monitor stand, built from shelving we had in our old house. I used the stand for my old CRT and LCD monitors, but it is not high enough for my laptop with its remote keyboard. So, I have three reams of paper on top of the monitor stand, and on top of them rests my computer.
There are 28 books lying on my desk. They rise and fall like foothills beneath the mountain of my monitor stand, with its reams of copy paper. On the corner of the desk, a tray for correspondence has overflowed in an avalanche of envelopes and notepads, and cascades down to the desktop.
This is how my study always looks between cleanings. In home décor parlance, I believe the look is known as “Early Disheveled.” Contrary to rumor, no children or pets have ever been lost in my study—but that’s not to say that there haven’t been some close calls.
I put off cleaning my study for a reason. I do not know what to do with all the stuff. Things that might be important go in the tray while I wait for more information, or formulate a response, or weigh a decision. They sometimes stay there for a long time.
My wife tells me that I ought to file such things, but I know myself. The file cabinet is a burial ground and file folders are graves. Once a paper goes in there, it will, apart from a miracle, never see daylight again.
I am going to clean my study someday soon. Despite appearances, I like things to be well-ordered. I will begin by moving the mountain of books back to their appropriate shelves in my study, office, and basement. Next, I will sort through the papers, keeping the relevant ones and disposing of the rest. Then, after a quick dusting, all will once again be right with the world.
But I foresee a problem. Experience has taught me that I go a little mad once I start cleaning. I know what to do with the books, most of which are already catalogued and have their particular places. But the papers are another matter.
As I begin to sort through the papers, I find many that are no longer relevant: deadlines are past, invitations are dated, decisions have already been made. But there are still some that I do not know what to do with. That is a problem. I want an empty paper tray.
That’s when I get a little crazy. After a few minutes, I begin tossing things, left and right. When I start a project, I want to finish it, and those papers are an obstacle to the completion of my goal.
In my quarterly frenzy to declutter (my wife would say it is more like a semi-annual frenzy), I have tossed things I wish I had kept. My determination to finish the task makes me act impulsively. I find myself throwing everything away.
What set me thinking about my rash disposal of things was a line in the biblical Book of Hebrews. The author admonishes his readers: “Do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.”
In our day, when so many people are “deconstructing” their faith, this warning to the Hebrews seems very contemporary. If faith can be deconstructed, it should be, and the clutter – the pietistic flotsam and jetsam carried on the tide of faith – thrown out. But the rash way in which some people are going about it almost guarantees that beliefs that warrant keeping will be discarded.
Many people, upset with the ecclesial debris that has accrued around their faith, have impulsively thrown faith itself away. When their confidence in Christ goes, their relationship to his church goes with it. Hence, Joel Belz, founder and CEO of World Magazine, is warning Christian leaders to get ready for an avalanche of church closings.
Those who throw away their confidence in Christ will find that they have discarded something precious. I hope it is not too late for them to recover it.
When my son Kevin preaches, people take notes – including me. I’ve learned so much from him! It’s funny: ten or so years ago, when a staff position opened at our church and Kevin asked if I thought it was a good idea for him to apply, I said, “No.” I told him that it would be hard coming back – a prophet in his hometown. Also, I said, “I’ve taught you everything I know. If you worked with someone else, you would learn things I can’t teach you.”
But he did apply – and I am so glad he did! What a blessing he has been to our church family and to Karen and me. May he also be a blessing to you as he shares truth from Philippians 2:1-11.
Have you seen a telescoping spyglass? There is a wide cylinder in which a narrower cylinder rests, in which a yet narrower cylinder rests, and perhaps several more. I think our view of reality is likewise telescoping. We live in the narrow end and view our world through the lens of our own experiences. But we and our experiences are contained within a family circle, and our family circle exists within a community, and our community exists within a nation, and our nation exists within a world.
Most of our attention is given to the nearest circles of reality: ourselves, our family, and our immediate community, which is normal and good. But it is important to remember that we are part of something bigger, and that something bigger is part of something bigger still.
Think again of the telescoping spyglass and how its widest cylinder contains all the others all at once. It is that way with us, where the widest circle is not our nation. It is not our world, or even our cosmos. The widest circle, containing all others, is our God. He is, in the language of the apostle, “All in all” (1 Cor. 15:29).
We do ourselves injury when we fail to see that all things exist within the rule and love of our God. This includes the good and beautiful things, which we enjoy and for which we ought to be thankful. And it includes the hard things we endure, and even the grievous things we can hardly bear. Though we live within all these things, they exist within the encompassing scope of the gracious God’s good intent.
When we fail to believe this, many things disturb our peace and cast doubt on our security. Instead of being an opportunity to know God, life becomes an irritation and a threat. We question whether God loves us, whether we’ll be okay, whether we are enough. We have zoomed out far enough to see the enemies that threaten us and the griefs that might overtake us, but not far enough to see the heavenly Father within whose will all these things exist and to whom they pose no threat.
In verse 1, we read that “Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” I wonder if the Emperor’s decree disturbed St. Joseph’s peace. Things were already difficult for him. Before he got married, his wife had become pregnant in mysterious circumstance and while she was away from home. And now this. The international census, instituted by the Emperor Augustus, had come to Israel.
There are various purposes for a census, but one is universal: effective taxation. Apparently, the Divine Caesar needed to do something about his cash flow. Posting troops around the world was expensive then, just as it is now. It is hard to plan a budget when you don’t know how much revenue to expect. And you won’t know how much to expect unless you identify your sources of revenue; hence, the census.
In Israel, unlike in the provinces, people were required to return to their hometowns to be registered in the census. Had I been Joseph, I expect I would have complained: complained about the Emperor, complained about the situation, complained about the time off work, complained about pretty much everything.
Perhaps Joseph, good man that he was, did not complain. Perhaps he saw that he, and his circumstances, and his work, and even his godless Emperor were all within his good God’s good intent. Whatever may be the case, Joseph went to his hometown; he went to Bethlehem. Luke tells us that he did this because he belonged to the house and line of David. And he took Mary with him.
Why he took Mary is not exactly clear. In other regions of the Empire, only landowners were required to register. Perhaps Mary, who was also from David’s line, was an only child and had inherited property from her parents. Or perhaps Joseph took her along to get her out of Nazareth because of what people there were saying about her. Whatever his reasons, Jospeh took Mary went with him, though she was (as the NIV puts it in verse), “expecting a child” (Luke 2:5), or, as the King James translated, “being great with child.”
It must have been a wearisome trip. Depending on the route they followed, they would need to travel between 70 and 90 miles, much of it uphill. Normally that would take four to six days, but Mary was quite possibly in her third trimester, so it might have taken even longer.
The popular account of Joseph and Mary reaching Bethlehem just as she goes into labor does not seem to fit the biblical text. Luke writes (verse 6) that “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born…” We don’t know how long they were there, but it is unlikely that they stumbled into Bethlehem just in time for the baby to be born.
That’s not the only inaccuracy in the way the story gets told. The text does not say anything about a hard-hearted innkeeper turning them away. It is true that verse 7 says that there was no room for them in the inn, but the meaning of that word is in question. In its only other use in this Gospel, the word refers to a guest room in someone house. And the one time Luke clearly speaks about a travelers inn, he uses a different word.
So, let’s put those details together, then think about how Mary and Joseph must have felt. They arrived in Bethlehem prior to Mary’s labor. They had been there at least a short time before the baby was born. The inn – or guest room, which is a more likely translation – was unavailable to them. The text says literally (in a word for word translation), “because not to them was there a place in the guest room.”
Perhaps there was no place because other family members had arrived first and already occupied the guest room. But can you imagine a loving family sticking the pregnant girl who was about to give birth in the stable rather than giving up their room for her? It may be that the family disproved of Mary – almost thirty years later people were still making snide comments about Jesus being born illegitimately – and because of that she and Joseph slept with the animals.
This is speculative, of course. But imagine being Joseph or Mary. The family does not take you in. They say: “Sorry, very pregnant girl. You’ll need to sleep with the animals.” How would you feel? Would you remember the telescoping nature of reality and remind yourself that you were safe in God’s care?
From very early in Christian history, it has been said that Jesus was born in a cave. The church of the Nativity is built over the site of the cave that early Christians believed to be Jesus’s birthplace. Because homes were built on the ridge in Bethlehem and the ridge was dotted with caves, this cave may have been below a family member’s house, where his animals were sheltered. It might also have been a cave that local shepherds used for their animals. That seems likely to me because when the angel told the shepherds that a baby who is the Lord Messiah had been born and was lying in a manger – a feed trough for livestock – the shepherds hurried off (verse 16) and found Mary, Joseph, and the baby. They didn’t need to ask directions. They seemed to know where the baby in the manger would be. How did they know? It is possible that the cave where Joseph sought shelter belonged to (or was used by) one of those shepherds.
Luke first introduces those shepherds in verse 8. He says that “there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” The fact that they were nearby is interesting and a little unexpected. It is unexpected because Bethlehem was not much more than five miles away from Jerusalem. Why does that matter? It matters because there was an ordinance that banned livestock from being kept within an eleven mile radius of the Holy City. (This was because of purity laws.)
So, what were these shepherds doing within the prohibited area? Were they breaking the law? No. There was one exception to the ban, which was a matter of necessity. Animals raised for sacrifice at the temple – and many tens of thousands were needed each year – were permitted within the eleven mile radius. That means that the sheep and other animals around Bethlehem were bred and raised for one purpose: to be sacrificed – frequently as sin offerings – to God.
How fitting that the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world would be born and then raised for a time in Bethlehem! The one whom God presented as a sacrifice of atonement was born where many such lambs had been born, dating back centuries. The shepherds who attended him at his birth had attended the births of thousands of lambs that had been offered in sacrifice to make atonement.
Can you feel the circle within circle of the providence of the all-knowing God? But did any of this occur to Joseph’s mind when he was informed – perhaps by some swaggering Roman soldier – that he must leave Nazareth and travel to Bethlehem at the most inconvenient time and register in a most inconvenient census for a most inconvenient tax? Probably not. But God knew. No wonder Paul burst into praise: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen” (Romans 11:33-36).
Luke began the birth narrative section with Augustus, “Father of his country,” “Savior of the world,” “the Emperor Caesar Son of God” – those were some of his titles. Now he turns from the most powerful man in the world to men who lived at the other end of the social spectrum. Shepherds had no authority or status. They were peasants who rarely owned their own land or even the sheep they tended. But the God who, in Mary’s words, “has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts … has lifted up the humble” (Luke 1:51b, 52b). The shepherds, no less than the Emperor Augustus, were well-known to God, and both they and he existed within the circle of his will.
God’s messenger angel brought these shepherds the good news that the Savior, the Lord Messiah, had been born to them. Notice how personal this good news is. The angel does not say, though it was true, that a Savior had been born to the world, but rather “to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord.” The shepherds, who were so often excluded from social functions, were included by God, and honored by him.
The angel gave the shepherds a sign. God will, I think, give signs to anyone who will make use of them. I’ve talked to people who say, “If God wants us to believe in him, why doesn’t he just give us a sign?” I suspect those same people pass by every sign that God posts without reading them. If a sign will help, you can be sure that God will give it. That was the case for the shepherds.
This is what I think happened. When the angel told the shepherds, “You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (an animal’s feed trough), they knew just where to look. I don’t doubt that Joseph had already talked to one of these shepherds about using the shelter where he kept the sheep when the weather was bad – and when the ewes were lambing – and so they knew right where to look.
The news that a baby had been born and was lying in a manger might have left the shepherds wondering what help a baby would be – especially a baby born to a poor family who had to use a manger for his crib. Perhaps they thought, “We need an army, not a baby.” But this baby came with backup – not that he needed it. For immediately, the sky was filled with “a great company of the heavenly host” (2:13).
We’ve heard that phrase many times, usually as part of the Christmas story, but we might not understand what it means. The word translated “host” is simply the Greek word for “army.” This is Company A – possibly part of a combat brigade. We often speak of these herald angels as singing, as if they were a choir, but the text says they “were praising God and saying…” Perhaps we would be better to imagine their words as a chant, a kind of marching cadence: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (2:14).
As soon as the army had vanished from sight – though they maintained – and still maintain – a strategic position – the shepherds “hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger” (2:16). The shepherds that kept watch over the sheep found the Lamb that keeps watch over them.
And now, be amazed at our great and glorious God, from whom and through whom and to whom are all things. See again the telescoping reality of his creation. The movers and shakers of the earth – the great ones who have taken titles for themselves and think that they are the ultimate power of the universe – fit easily into our God’s hand and can do nothing to thwart his will. And as we descend from these great ones, circle within circle, world, nations, kings and rulers, we arrive at last at the circle we occupy.
It is filled with ordinary things: with births and deaths; with need and plenty; with love and hate; with beauty and ugliness. In this circle, we go to our jobs – whether we are shepherds or craftsmen. We go to the market. We go to school. We eventually go to our grave. This circle too is within the scope of God’s purpose, and we are held in the palm of his hand.
But because of Christmas, because the Word was made flesh, the God in whom all things hold together was himself held in the Virgin’s womb – and then in the manger crib. The same God who is wholly other is one with us. The One who transcends all things is imminent within them. The God who is ultimate being, the outside cylinder of this telescope reality, is also at the center of its inmost circle. He is all and in all.
The God who exists beyond time, and at all points in time, enters time and dwells with us. “Time is silly putty in his hands,” as the philosopher Peter Kreeft once said. He can compress a thousand years into a day and stretch a day into a thousand years. Time is his accordion, which he expands and contracts as he plays his dazzling tunes.
The eternal God has entered time. The infinite God whom the heavens and the highest heaven cannot contain (2 Chron. 6:18) now dwells in people – first in the Virgin’s womb and now in our hearts. When he came to be born of the Virgin, angel armies stood at attention. When he comes to judge the earth, angel armies will do the same.
On this Christmas Day, we worship the newborn king who is also the Ancient of Days. We glory in the infinite God who once lay in a cramped manger. He did not despise the Virgin’s womb, nor has he despised the hovel of our hearts. Instead, he is making them new from the inside.
On this Christmas day, let us take courage: for this God, who holds emperors and kings and presidents in his hand and disposes them according to his will; this God who made all things and in whom all things consist; this God is, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, our God and we are safe in his hand.
In his classic story, The Last Battle, C. S. Lewis has the great Lion, the Christ figure Aslan, say to the story’s protagonists, “You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be.” Perhaps Lewis put these words in the Christ figure’s mouth because he realized that this was the kind of thing the true Christ was saying to him.
The idea that Christ wants his people to be happy is not one that most of us, who have swallowed a cultural caricature of religious people, have spent time exploring. That caricature, found in books and film, represents Christians as dreary, dour, and frequently sour folk who care nothing for earth, but only for heaven. They regard every earthly pleasure as a threat, which is their sacred duty to avoid. They also feel an obligation to deny these ruinous pleasures to others.
It is, unfortunately, not just irreligious people who have bought into this way of thinking; many Christians have too. They have somehow come to believe that the faithful can’t have fun. To enjoy earth, they think, is to betray – or, perhaps, to risk – heaven.
But is this a caricature? Doesn’t the Bible say a lot about keeping commands, fleeing youthful lusts, and walking in the narrow way? Isn’t the Bible filled with commands that Christians are required to obey? Wouldn’t constant attention to those commands make anyone dreary, dour, and sour?
I think this way of framing it is misleading. Yes, there are many rules or commands in the Bible – more in the New Testament than in the Old, which many people find surprising. But keeping these commands was never an end in itself, nor was keeping them a requirement for entrance into the afterlife.
Think of it this way. There are a lot of rules in music. For example, music follows a rhythmic pattern at a particular tempo. It requires pitch, which is a result of sound waves vibrating at particular frequencies. Musicians make use of particular pitch patterns based on established relationships between these frequencies. They build harmonies on recognized combinations of them.
Anyone may choose to ignore these rules and do music their own way. That, of course, is up to them, but they may not be able to play well – or play at all – with other musicians. Moreover, it is quite likely that neither they nor anyone else will find their music satisfying. The “rules” of music are not there to frustrate musicians and get in their way. They simply express the way music actually works.
Likewise, following the Bible’s rules helps us “play well” with God and others in a way that is rich and satisfying and wonderfully creative. God did not give us rules to frustrate us, but to enable us to flourish.
If we only keep the Bible’s rules as a means of reaching a desired end – entrance into heaven – they will feel artificial and imposed. But once we realize that these rules express the way life works best, the door opens for us to see that God wants people to be joyful. The mistake we repeatedly make is trying to create feelings of joy rather than construct a state of being in which joy is a natural part.
God, the Bible makes clear, experiences joy himself. He is, in fact, the most joyful being in the universe. He delights in his creation, rejoices over his beloved people, and takes pleasure in showering blessings on them.
It is because God is the universe’s most joyful being that the hero Nehemiah could tell people: “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” It is also why the biblical songwriter could say to God, “…in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.”
C. S. Lewis was right: “…it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us happiness and peace apart from himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”
On Christmas Eve we put on an original (and fun) skit that featured the Grinch of Dr. Seuss fame who was being interviewed on The Jenny Carson Show. In the highlight of the interview, the Grinch says, “I would just tell everyone that an experience – even a very powerful experience like I had – is not enough. After it happened, I thought, “I’ve had a spiritual experience,” and, I guess, I felt like that was all there was to it. But I needed more than an experience. I needed a life.”
The devotional message that follows takes up the theme with examples from Scripture, including the Christmas story. Spiritual experiences are great, but they are not enough!
In this 26-minute message, we examine Matthew 1:18-25 – the angel’s message to Joseph about Mary’s child. Joseph has just been trying to decide what to do about Mary his fiancé, who had returned home from a trip pregnant! God lets Joseph wrestle with his thoughts before he gives him the information he needs to make a wise decision.
If you prefer, you can read the text below.
When God speaks, when he says that something is going to happen, it will happen, though all the powers of hell wage war to prevent it. This is true both on a cosmic level and on a personal level – on every level. Nothing can withstand the word of God. Though ten thousand things arise to stop it, and ten thousand years have passed since it was spoken, it will come true. God’s word remains forever (1 Peter 1:25). The so-called laws of nature bend over backwards to submit to God’s word. Electromagnetism, the strong and weak nuclear forces, and gravity – the four forces of nature – dance attendance on him and race to obey his word.
God spoke his word at the dawn of the age when he promised to crush the serpent’s head. In Abraham’s day, he spoke a blessing on all the peoples of the earth. To David he pledged an heir who would rule the world. God told Israel that the virgin would conceive and bear a son, and of the increase of his government and peace there would be no end. None of these promises failed. God’s words do not fall to the ground. “So will My word be which goes out of My mouth; it will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the purpose for which I sent it.”
The story of the world is the story of God speaking, of evil resisting, and of God having his way. In the time of Isaiah, some 700 years before Christ, God spoke the promise of a child who would be Immanuel – the with-us-God. 700 years. Think how things change. 700 years, there were no United States; the Americas were unknown to Europe, Africa, and Asia. 700 years ago, educated people spoke Latin. 700 years ago, if you survived childhood – and most families lost one or more children in childbirth or in their first few years – old age would strike in your forties and, if you lived an average lifespan, you would die in your early fifties.
Lots of things change over a span of 700 years. God’s word does not. If he said it, you can count on it. He said that a child – Immanuel, the with-us God – would be born. The collapse of Israel as a nation, the destruction of Jerusalem, the confinement and execution of the royal heirs, the exile of its people to a foreign land, the centuries-long silence of God’s prophets, and the almost complete loss of Israel’s native tongue could not prevent God’s word from coming true.
I just listed some huge obstacles to the fulfillment of God’s promise – national and global obstacles, like war and the collapse of governments. But there were also obstacles closer to home, local and personal – so personal as to be a person. One such obstacle was a man, a good man, named Joseph. Our text today is Matthew 1:18-25. Let’s read about it. We’ll start with verses 18 and 19.
“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.”
In this case, the obstacle to the fulfillment of God’s promise was a person who is described as a righteous man. We presume that the obstacle to God’s plan is always an evil person who stubbornly resists God at every turn. But Joseph is a righteous man who is doing his best to obey God and honor him. I wonder how often righteous people unwittingly hinder God’s plan. I suppose it happens more often that most of us might imagine.
Let’s get a little background. Verse 18 informs us that Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph. The Greek is something like, “His mother Mary was betrothed (or engaged) to Joseph.” We will misunderstand what is in mind here if we think of their betrothal as if it were a 21st century engagement.
Betrothal was much more binding in first century Israel than engagement is in 21st century America. In a first century Jewish setting, the groom would declare his intention to marry before at least two legally qualified witnesses, and both members of the couple were required to state their consent. The groom would then pay the father of the bride (or, if he were deceased, to the oldest male relative) a down payment on the bride price.
The period of engagement was usually one year. If, during that time, the bride was unfaithful to her fiancé, the law of Moses dictated that both she and her lover be put to death for adultery. If for any reason the couple (or their parents) decided that they wouldn’t go through with the marriage, they could not just call off the engagement; they needed to get a divorce—once again before witnesses. Betrothals were so binding that, if the man died during the betrothal period, the woman became a widow.
It was during this year-long engagement period that Mary, verse 18 “was found to be with child.” She had been away from home – staying with her much older cousin Elizabeth, who may have been a mother-figure to Mary – and when she returned three months later, she was pregnant. “She was found to be with child.” What was Joseph to think?
We are not informed by any of the Gospels that Mary told Joseph about the pregnancy before she was “found to be with child.” She did not go to him with the angel’s message or even try to relate the experience of the Holy Spirit coming on her and the power of the Most High overshadowing her. If she had told him, he would not have believed her.
Today, we think that people living in the past would believe anything. Everyone before our time was gullible. But this is simply false. People in the first century did not believe in virgin births any more than people today. Put yourself in Joseph’s place. Your fiancé has been away for three months and, when she comes back, she is pregnant. If she came to you with a story about an angel and an immaculate conception, would you have believed her? No? And neither would Jospeh.
The NIV ’84 translates verse 19 this way: “Because Joseph was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace…” It sounds like it was because Joseph was righteous that he did not want to expose her to disgrace. That is simply a misreading of the text, which the NIV 2011 corrects. It was because Joseph was a righteous man that he felt a responsibility to expose Mary to public disgrace.
You see, Joseph was torn. As a righteous man, it was his duty to make an example of Mary. But Joseph does not want to do that, to destroy her reputation and ruin her life. His mind demanded: “Tell people what she’s done. That is Deuteronomy 22. Besides, if you don’t, people will think you are the father.” But his heart said, “She is just a girl and disgracing her will ruin her life forever.” So, the good man was torn between what he thought was his duty and what he thought was her good.
Righteous people are sometimes torn. Joseph was. Being a righteous person does not mean you have all the answers. Life is complicated. Decisions still need to be made. Joseph made one. He would get a divorce. Remember that betrothals (or engagements) could only be ended by divorce or by death.
I say Joseph made a decision, but in the very next verse we see that he was still pondering it. You’ve had that experience, right? You’ve reached a decision – or at least you thought you did – but you find you can’t stop going over it in your mind. That’s apparently what Joseph was doing. A very literal translation of verse 20 goes, “Reflecting on these things, an angel of the Lord appeared to him according to a dream.”
It seems Joseph had gone to bed but his mind hadn’t turned off. All the things that had happened – his betrothal, Mary’s absence for three months, the pregnancy – and all the things that might happen – Mary’s reputation ruined, his reputation ruined, the humiliation of it all – were running around in his mind. It was in that state that he drifted off to sleep.
There were other angel appearances around the time of Jesus’s birth, but they came to people who were awake. Joseph’s two angel encounters came while he was asleep. Sleep is no barrier to God and, I suspect that in Joseph’s case, sleep removed a barrier and enabled him to receive the message more clearly than he could have received it had he been awake.
The angel tells Joseph: “Do not to be afraid to take Mary for your wife.” Notice that the angel offered no assurances that everything would be fine. He didn’t tell him that that things would work out or that there would be no humiliation. He did let Joseph know that Mary had not been unfaithful; the child in her was conceived from the Holy Spirit and is holy.
The angel went further. He told Joseph that he would give the child the name Jesus. In that culture at that time, naming a child was a father’s prerogative. In this case, the heavenly Father’s prerogative. He tells the earthly stepdad what the child’s name will be.
Names in Bible times (and through much of earth’s history) have had greater significance than most names do in our society. When my parents named me “Shayne,” they had no idea what the name meant. (It is related through several iterations to the Hebrew name Yochanan and means “Yahweh (that is God’s name) is gracious.” They didn’t know that; they just liked how it sounded.
Biblical names were not chosen primarily because of how they sounded but because of what they meant. Abraham, for example, means “Father of many.” Noah means “rest.” Peter means “rock.” Hosea named his son Jezreel, which means, “God sows.” Isaac means, “he will laugh.” These names were intended to convey truth about the person or about God.
So, with the name Jesus. Jesus, which is how we pronounce the Aramaic version of the Hebrew name “Joshua” means, “Yahweh saves.” When Joseph woke, he did what the angel commanded him. The Greek says, “Rising from sleep, Joseph did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took his wife…” One of the great things about Joseph – and there are many, for Joseph was a great man – is that when he knew what to do, he did it. That was the kind of person God chose to be the earthly dad to his only begotten Son. It is still the kind of person God chooses for all his important assignments. (Are you and I those kinds of people?)
Matthew summarizes this whole section in verse 22: “All this” – the births and lives of the people listed in the genealogy, dating back two thousand years, as well as Joseph and Mary’s engagement, her pregnancy, and the angel’s appearance – “All this happened so that the word of the Lord spoken through the prophet might be fulfilled.”
Let me remind you of what was said earlier: “When God speaks, when he says that something is going to happen, it will happen, though all the powers of hell wage war to prevent it. … Though ten thousand things arise to stop it, and ten thousand years have passed since it was spoken, it will come true for God’s word remains forever (1 Peter 1:25).” This God is our God.
And because he is abundant in his mercy and overflowing with love, he is not only our God in heaven; he is our God with us. Look at verse 23, which reminds us of the word of God that was spoken hundreds of years earlier and was now coming to pass: “‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, ‘God with us’”.
In Psalm 115, God is spoken of as “our God is heaven,” and from there he rules over us. In Deuteronomy 4, he is “our God near us,” unlike the gods that other people worship, who are far away. In Christ he has become, as Romans 8 puts, “our God for us”—and if God is for us, who can be against us? But best of all, he is “God with us”: with us wherever we go, as he told Joshua; with us in trouble, as he told the psalmist; with us in the fight, as he told Zechariah; with us until the end of the age, as Jesus promised; and then beyond that, for he will be with us and be our God when this age has passed away for he “lives in us and will be with us forever” (2 John 2:2). He is Immanuel – God with us.
For us to grasp the glory of all this, it must be set against another biblical story, the story of Adam and Eve. That story is about the choice our first parents made – that humanity made and has been making ever since – to abandon God. They chose not to be with their God. Do you know what usually happens when one person wants to be with another who doesn’t want to be with them? Anger, distance, withdrawal, divorce. But though humanity chose not to be with God, which is to say, though humanity chose death, God chose to be with humanity—he chose life.
The surprising route that God followed so that he could be with us and give us life led through the virgin’s womb. What a journey! What an act of humility on the part of the unwanted God! Nothing can stop him.
Now let’s wrap this up by returning to the good man Joseph. He was caught between the hammer and the anvil. It seemed to him that doing the right thing meant making a public example of his fiancé who had been – as far as he could tell – unfaithful to him. But it went against his nature to disgrace her. After anguished hours of internal debate, he made up his mind what to do. He would quietly divorce her. It was a compromise between exposing her to public condemnation on the one hand and ignoring what she had done – what he thought she had done – on the other.
God let Joseph work through all this before he spoke to him. God does not usually cut short our thinking process in order to facilitate his plans. He could have come to Joseph before all this happened and said, “In a year or so you will learn that your fiancé is pregnant. Don’t panic. It’s all part of my plan.” Instead, God let Joseph think this thing through for himself. It was only after he chose the best course of action he could (which, we know, was not the right one), that God stepped in. God does not usually override or overwhelm our thoughts. Instead, he uses our thoughts to shape us, sometimes to break us, but always so that he can bless us for his purpose and our great good. His purpose is our great good.
I close with this: the final words of this chapter confirm Joseph’s obedience. “And he gave him the name Jesus.” The Baby whose birth we are about to celebrate is God’s salvation. Peter says that God has exalted him as “Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins…” Paul calls him “our great God and Savior” and says that he is “the Savior of all men.” John calls him “the Savior of the world.” Remember the angel’s message to the shepherds: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
The angel told Joseph, “Give him the name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” “And he gave him the name Jesus.” Savior. Do you know him by that name?
In a matter of days, it will be 2023 and I have still not got used to writing “2022” on checks and papers. What has happened to the time? People talk about timesaving hacks and timesaving gadgets – we even have daylight savings time – but time cannot be saved. It can only be – must be – spent, either well or poorly. Each new year reminds us of the fact.
The New Year’s holiday offers us an opportunity to reflect on this. Am I spending time well? Are there things I could do differently that would make me more productive, bring lasting benefit to others, or increase my joy?
The biblical writers encourage such self-reflection. St. Paul, for example, instructed readers to “Be very careful, then, how you live.” A more literal translation is: “Look carefully at how you walk” – where “walk” serves as a metaphor for one’s journey through life. The apostle is urging people to take a close look at their lives.
This call to take a careful look at our lives is common in Scripture. We find frequent exhortations like this: “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.” St. Paul says, “If we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged.” Jesus himself urged people to “consider carefully what you hear.” The Greek for this is striking: “See what you hear.” In other words, pay attention to how you pay attention.
The danger is that we will go through life mindlessly and thereby miss out on opportunities to become the strong, joyful people that God intends us to be. St. Paul continues his instruction this way: “Be very careful, then, how you live – not as unwise but as wise.” He explains the difference between being wise and unwise in the next sentence. The unwise person has “become foolish” – the word means “unthinking” or “mindless” – while the wise person “understands what the will of the Lord is.”
The great saint knew that the temptation to mindlessness is strong. Humans are escapists by nature. Some of us have been trapped in boring routines while others are captive to non-stop stress. Many are locked into addictions that, ironically, began as escape attempts. Rather than facing our situation and acknowledging the pain it causes, we seek to “become unthinking.” Television shows, social media platforms, video games, sporting events, and even coffee klatch politicking owe their popularity to this desire.
St. Paul explains what it means to live wisely with the words, “making the most of every opportunity,” or, as the King James Version translated it, “redeeming the time.” Though time cannot be saved, it can, apparently, be redeemed – or “bought,” as the root word signifies. Buying up opportune moments is a pillar of the wise person’s investment strategy.
Why is it important to redeem the time? An illustration may help. In 1271 Niccolo and Matteo Polo (the father and uncle of Marco) were visiting the Kubla Khan, who was arguably the most powerful man in the world. He ruled all of China, all of India and most of the East.
And he was interested in Christianity. He told the Polo brothers: “Go to your high priest and tell him to send a hundred men skilled in the Christian faith to instruct us. When they come, I shall be baptized, and when I am baptized all my barons and great men will be baptized, and their subjects will receive baptism, too, and so there will be more Christians here than there are in your part of the world.”
But the Polo’s did not redeem the time. No one was sent for thirty years, and then only two or three missionaries went. Too few and too late. William Barclay has written: “It baffles the imagination to think what a difference to the world it would have made if in the thirteenth century China had become fully Christian, if in the thirteenth century India had become fully Christian, if in the thirteenth century the East had been given to Christ.”
The Polo’s did not buy up the opportune moment. We would be living in a different world today if they had. Perhaps mindlessness got the better of them. Will it get the better of us too?
For the third week of Advent, we look at John the Baptist, the great roadbuilder for God. But the great roadbuilder was imprisoned and beginning to question what he had once believed: that Jesus was the Messiah. How did he address his doubts? We see that in Matthew 11:2-11. We also see how Jesus wonderfully addressed his esteemed doubter. (The sermon lasts about 26 minutes. The text can be found below.)
When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”
John the Baptist gets a lot of press during the Advent season. He makes it into the gospel readings on both the second and thirds Sundays of Advent, Perhaps the church realized that we, like John, are waiting for Christ to claim his kingdom. And, as we wait, our situation may, like his, be fraught with trouble. We too may face discouragement and doubt.
John was a road-builder – or, rather, John was the roadbuilder. His work was to make ready the way of the Lord. We too are roadbuilders. The things we say and the way we conduct ourselves should smooth the rough places, level the highs and lows, and prepare the way. Like John, we are not so much preparing the way for people to come to Jesus as we are preparing the way for Jesus to come to people. It is Jesus who is (to borrow John’s own words) “the Coming One.”
It is easy to get this backwards – especially for pastors. We think that the truths we speak, or the hopes we inspire, or the insights we share are preparing the way for people to come to Jesus. But behind that way of thinking is a mental picture of a stationary Jesus. It’s the people who move or don’t move (or need us to move them) toward Jesus.
But that is not the right way to look at it for it assumes that God does nothing, and people must do everything. If it is up to people to come to God and they aren’t coming, then it is up to us to move them – by what means necessary, including strong-arm sales techniques and emotional manipulation. After all, if they don’t come to God, they will go to hell. We forget that God will come to them.
He comes first to rescue them: He woos them; he calls them; he rebukes them; he draws them; he reveals himself to them. He “stands at the door and knocks,” but gives them the choice of acknowledging him or ignoring him. He gives them the choice this time. The next time he comes, there will be no choice. As a roadbuilder, my obedience to Jesus Christ prepares the for God to come to people.
This is work I can do. I don’t need to be someone I’m not – an eloquent speaker or a high-powered salesperson. God will come to people, and I can be part of the roadbuilding crew that prepares the way for him.
This kind of roadbuilding goes beyond good deeds and persuasive words. Much of the work involves making changes in our own lives, for who we are is more important that what we say or do. Repentance is roadbuilding work. Sacrificing time or money can be roadbuilding work, as is the renewal of our minds. The presentation of our bodies as living sacrifices is roadbuilding work. Much of what happens in roadbuilding happens inside us.
You see, the road we’re building for God runs through us. God intends us to be the way by which he comes to people. This was true of Jesus. Remember what he said? “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). As the Father sent him, so Jesus sends us. The road Christ travels to our friends and family – and even our enemies – runs through our words and actions, our hopes, our love, our prayers.
But sin leaves potholes in that road. A flood of anger can close the road entirely. Self-absorption leads to detours. If we are going to build a road on which our Lord can come to the people we know, we cannot ignore such things. It is not enough for our words to tell people that Jesus is there; our lives must convey him to them.
John the Baptist was the roadbuilder par excellence. But even the road he built became obstructed. To understand how that happened, we need a little background.
John got on the wrong side of Herod Antipas, was arrested and thrown into prison in the fortress of Machaerus. I have been in prisons in Ohio, Michigan, and Virgina, but I have never been imprisoned. I find the sound of closing prison doors disturbing even though I know those doors will open again in an hour to let me out. I can only imagine what it would be like to hear those doors close knowing that they were not going to open again.
I read about a guy named Stuart McCallister who, in the 1980s, smuggled Bibles into Eastern Europe. He was caught and thrown into prison. He had no idea what his captors intended to do with him. He didn’t know if anyone was coming for him – or even knew where he was. He started off his incarceration expecting that God would rescue him quickly – after all, wasn’t he doing God’s work?
With no word and no change in his situation, it was only a short time before he began questioning God’s apparent lack of response. It didn’t stop there. His thoughts quickly evolved from, “Why isn’t God doing anything?” to “God isn’t going to do anything.” Then from there, he began to question whether God cared – or was he even there.
Of course, I wouldn’t doubt like that … or would I? The loneliness, the complete uncertainty, lack of sleep, lack of privacy, strange, unappetizing food, my routine shot to pieces – perhaps I would come undone even faster than he did.
Stuart was in prison for a matter of weeks. John was in prison a lot longer. And remember, the vast outdoors had been John’s home, but now he was restricted to a few square feet and bounded by walls and bars. Remember too that John ate a very unique and specific diet for years, but he was now given food that he couldn’t stomach. If you were in that situation, you would lose weight and then strength. As you sat in that cell day after day, and month after month, the person you thought yourself to be would gradually disappear. You would hardly recognize yourself.
John sat through interminable days and even longer nights. His active mind must have screamed in protest. He had announced that the judgment of the wicked was at hand—but nothing had happened. Why was God delaying? What was Jesus – whom he testified to be the Messiah – doing? Had he been mistaken?
John was not the first of God’s people to experience this kind of thing. The prophet Jeremiah accused God of deceiving him and cursed the day on which he was born. Job nearly lost his mind. David cried out to God, “How long, O Lord, how long? Will you forget me forever?” (Ps. 13:1). Elijah, who was John’s hero and model, fell into so deep a depression that he wanted to die. These were great people – heroes of the Bible. If they could feel this way, what about you and me?
So, John was in prison and having doubts about Jesus. A similar fate might await some of us before Jesus returns. Such a fate is already the lot of Jesus’s people is some parts of the world. How can they stand before their doubts and remain true to God? How can we?
The first step is to examine our assumptions. Doubt does not usually start with our beliefs being disproved but with our assumptions being upended. Stuart McCallister, who was held in a communist prison in the Eastern Bloc, later said: “I expected God to do certain things, and to do them in a sensible way and time. I expected that God would act fairly quickly and that I would sense his intervention. My reading of Scripture, my grasp of God’s promises, my trust in the reliability of God’s Word, the teaching I had received, and the message I had embraced, had led me to expect certain things, and in a particular way. When this did not occur in the way I expected, or in the timing that I thought it should, I was both confused and angry … I was unaware how many unexamined assumptions I was living by.”
Unexamined assumptions. We all have them. And sometimes they are mistaken. Big Ed went to a revival meeting and was deeply moved by the preaching. After the service, when people were asked to come forward for prayer, Big Ed got in line. When it was his turn, the preacher asked, “Ed, what do you want me to pray for?”
Big Ed said, “I need prayer for my hearing.”
So, the preacher put one finger in Big Ed’s ear and the other hand on top of his head and prayed loudly and exuberantly for some minutes. Then he removed his hands and asked, “How’s your hearing now?”
Confused, Big Ed answered, “I don’t know preacher. The hearing’s not until next Wednesday.”
Everyone (but God) has unexamined assumptions. John did. He assumed that Jesus would rain down judgment on the heads of unbelievers. He expected him to “cut down every tree that does not bear fruit and throw it into the fire” (Luke 3:9) and to do it quickly. John wasn’t wrong, but his timetable was.
If you are having doubts, trace them back to their origin. I’ve known people who have been driven by doubt to throw their beliefs overboard. But their doubts didn’t come from their beliefs; they came from their assumptions. Assumptions can be wrong even when our beliefs are right.
Such was the case with John’s role model Elijah. Elijah was operating with a set of mistaken assumptions. He assumed that everything would be alright once his battle with Ahab and Jezebel was won. It was not. He assumed that he alone had remained faithful to God. He was wrong. He assumed that he would retire when his work was wrapped up. He did not.
When his assumptions began to fall like dominoes, his doubts – about himself, about other people, about God – came out into the open. God did not let Elijah down; his assumptions did. Those mistaken assumptions had to be exposed before Elijah could be restored, and that was a slow and painful process.
Perhaps we are operating with some mistaken assumptions. For example, we might assume that we will have justice in this life. We might assume that good health is normative, and that people who work hard and are fiscally responsible will have enough. But what will happen if we experience gross injustice or, after years of eating right and exercising, our health fails, or our retirement investments lose half their value in a matter of weeks?
We probably won’t doubt our assumptions even then; but there is a danger that we will doubt our God. We won’t doubt our assumptions because we don’t know that we have any; by their very nature, they remain invisible to us. How we need God’s help – and his people’s – to remain true!
If you are experiencing doubts, find out where they are coming from. It’s likely that they are sourced in your assumptions, which you have not examined, rather than in your beliefs, which you have. We all need to learn to doubt our doubts.
Even though John was doubting Jesus, doubting himself, wondering if he had been mistaken, he did one thing right. He went to Jesus with his doubts. I’ve seen other people, plagued by doubt, go everywhere but to Jesus. They go to the internet. They go to their friends. They go to a counselor. But they don’t go to God. He could help. He would help.
As John’s doubts gnawed at him, he sent two of his disciples (according to Luke) to Jesus to put the question to him. This is verse 3: “Are you the one who is to come,” – literally, the Coming One, that is, the Messiah – or shall we look for another?” Matthew’s Greek here is revealing. There were two words at his disposal that could be translated “another.” One means, “Another of the same kind.” That was the word Jesus used when he told the disciples that the Father would send them “another comforter” – “another like me.”
But the word used in John’s question means, “another of a different kind.” John is asking, “Are you the one – or is God still going to send the other kind of Messiah, the one who conquers, who destroys our enemies and establishes righteousness?”
Going to Jesus was the right thing to do. Notice how Jesus responded. He did not say, “Of course, I am the one; you said so yourself.” He knew that would not clear up John’s doubts. Instead of telling John what to think, he simply provided him with the evidence he needed and let him think for himself. It is impossible to persuade someone out of their doubts, for the door of doubt is locked on the inside and it is the doubter who must unlock it. The best we can do is slip them the key.
Look at the evidence that Jesus presented (verse 5): “the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Jesus is reminding John of Isaiah 35, the passage that was read for us earlier. He is giving John a chance to bring his doubts into the light of the Scriptures. He is slipping him the key.
We can learn a lesson from this: Always go back to Scripture. We need to see God, Jesus, ourselves, and others through the lens of Scripture, not the lens of our assumptions. We are all myopic – some of us terribly so – and only the Scriptures can correct our vision. Jesus knew that John would see him clearly once he saw him through the lens of Scripture.
Put yourself in Jesus’s place for a moment. The first and most prestigious person to support you is now questioning your legitimacy. John is doubting Jesus. No one likes to be doubted; it is blow, a threat – and coming from someone of John’s stature, doubts could have an enormously negative impact on public opinion.
Over the years, various people, some I didn’t even know and some who were close to me, have doubted me. When I was younger, the very fact that someone had doubts about me hurt me, and the better they knew me the more it hurt. When someone expressed doubts about me – my rightness, my ability, my motives – I felt threatened, got defensive, and tried to prove myself. I saw the doubter as an antagonist and, of course, myself as the protagonist. If they suspected my motives, I suspected theirs. If they criticized my ideas, I poked holes in theirs.
As I say, that was when I was younger. I am not so confident of myself now and so I am not so threatened by people’s doubts and questions. I am not so confident in myself, but I am more confident in my savior. As my hope has grown, my doubts have shrunk. That is the way God intends it to work.
John doubted Jesus but Jesus – how beautiful is this? – never doubted John (11:11). He did not get defensive. He did not cast John as an antagonist, didn’t question his motives, or criticize his ideas. Instead of standing up to John, he stood up for John. Jesus does not get angry at doubters. He encourages them.
Let’s wrap this up. First, if you are a doubter or have one in your family or among your close friends, don’t panic. Entrust the doubter to God, even if the doubter is you. Don’t panic. That will increase the person’s doubts because they will see that you don’t trust God either.
Second, take the doubter to the Scriptures. God still meets people there. If you can’t take people to the Scriptures like Jesus did because you don’t know the Scriptures, that is the place to start. You need to know the Bible. Get into a D-group or a Bible Study group and start your own regular practice of Bible reading and prayer.
Third, remember it is not all up to you to move people to God – that puts way too much pressure on you! God will come to them and the road by which he comes can run through you! Just make sure that you are dealing with your own sins and doubts – keep the road open and free of obstacles.
 Quoted in Ravi Zacharias, Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend (Thomas Nelson, 2007), pp. 258-261
The holiday movie “Violent Night”brought in nearly five million dollars on its opening night and doubled that during its opening weekend. The film cost about 20 million dollars to make, which is cut-rate by today’s standards (“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” cost ten times that much) and has already grossed more than its production costs.
According to Peter Sobczynski, writing for RogerEbert.com, the story’s premise is that a tremendously wealthy family is set upon by a mercenary gang of thieves, intent on stealing millions. The family is rescued by a cursing, killer Santa Claus, who beats the bad guys to a pulp—and worse. This R-rated film is clearly not meant for families hoping to get into the spirit of the holiday.
“Violent Night” is not the first holiday entertainment to feature Christmas violence. The 1988 Bill Murray film, “Scrooged,”presented a bogus movie trailer for a sham movie titled, “The Night the Reindeer Died.” In the trailer, Santa’s north pole workshop comes under attack. Mr. and Mrs. Claus rally the elves and supply them with combat weapons to fight off the attackers—with the help of the actor Lee Majors. More recently, a blasphemous movie short was made with the same title.
A future historian might speak of how violence entered the Christmas season in 1979, the year the song, “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” was introduced. In 2000, an animated Christmas television special of the same name aired. In 1988 came the facetious trailer, “The Night the Reindeer Died,” followed by the blasphemous movie short of the same name. And now we have “Violent Night,” whose producers are already planning a sequel.
Our future historian would present a compelling case that violence entered the holiday season in the latter part of the twentieth century, but he would be mistaken. Violence surrounding Christ’s birth dates back to the very first century – a violence that was more gruesome than anything the writers of Violent Night included.
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, Magi from the East came to pay tribute to “the one born King of the Jews.” When Herod, who claimed the title “King of the Jews” for himself, learned about this, he panicked. A legitimate king was a threat to himself and to his royal line – a threat he was determined to remove.
Herod the Great was a genius, a brilliant military strategist and a remarkable architect. But he was an evil genius. When Herod suspected (wrongly) that two of his sons were planning a coup, he had them strangled. His patron, the Emperor Augustus, once quipped in Greek, “It is safer to be Herod’s pig (hus) than his son (huios).
Herod also killed his wife, her mother, his brother-in-law (by drowning) and, during the week of his death, yet another son. Before he died, he had 70 of the leading members of Israeli society arrested and held so that they could be executed at the moment of his passing. He said that he knew people wouldn’t grieve for him and he wanted there to be tears. Fortunately, his orders were not carried out.
Of the all the atrocities Herod committed, the worst was the murder of every boy under the age of two living in or around Bethlehem. Herod thought that in this way he could eliminate the threat posed by the “one born King of the Jews.” He sent his soldiers into the community suddenly and without warning. When they left, Bethlehem wailed, and most did not even know why their sons and grandsons had been killed.
God did not send his Son into a peaceful world but into a violent one. He did not come to a society ball but to a bloodbath, as the “Massacre of the Innocents” demonstrates. Bethlehem was a beachhead, and Christmas was D-Day. No wonder an entire company of the heavenly army appeared in the skies over Bethlehem.
Evil Herod grasped what our schmaltzy Christmas cards miss: the birth of Jesus marked an invasion. Some, like Herod, regarded it as an attack; others welcomed it as a rescue mission, but no one then thought it schmaltzy. Neither should anyone now.