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By Rev Charles Seet

Preached at / Published Life BPC 8am & 10.45 am service, 2012-12-16

Text: Luke 1:26-38; Matthew 1:18-25

Since the time when the New Testament was written, many strange myths and legends have emerged about Mary and Joseph. The problem with all of them is that they have absolutely no biblical basis at all. There are only myths and legends, and we have no reason to believe them. The Bible is our only reliable source of information about this couple. And what the Bible says about them makes them very much like any couple today who plan to marry and have children.

Like any good husband-to-be, Joseph loved Mary and prepared himself well for the day when she would become his wife and they can start a family. Like all good wives-to-be, Mary looked forward to the day when she would present herself as a chaste virgin bride to her husband, ready to become a good wife and mother. Like any couple, Joseph and Mary probably expected their plans for marriage and family life to proceed normally, following all the Jewish traditions and customs of their day, and seeking God’s blessing upon all that they planned. But unknown to them, God had higher plans for their marriage and family life – Plans to use them to restore the royal line of David to reign over Israel; plans to fulfill the OT prophecies concerning the promised Messiah; and most of all, plans to bring God’s only begotten Son into the world, to save sinners from sin and eternal death!

Let us try to imagine what this couple might have experienced as God’s plans for them unfold. Joseph was a carpenter who lived with his parents in a village called Nazareth. Since it was a close-knit rural community, every family in Nazareth would have known each other quite well. Through this, Joseph got to know a young maiden named Mary. One day Joseph asked his parents about the possibility of having Mary as his wife. As typical Jewish parents, they discussed it among themselves, considering Mary’s ancestry, and family background. They could hardly fault her background because it was very much like their own – both families were descendants of King David. So they probably approved Joseph’s choice with much enthusiasm.

Joseph’s father then visited Mary’s parents and told them about his son’s interest in their daughter. Mary’s parents were probably keen to have such a fine young man as their son-in-law, confident that he would take good care of their precious child. So they called her in to break the news to her. When Mary heard that Joseph had asked for her hand in marriage, she may have recalled those times when she accompanied her dad to buy some new furniture for their home, and she was impressed by this hard-working carpenter who was known to be a just and kind man. And so Mary heartily agreed to the proposal, and the two fathers then proceeded to formalize the marriage covenant.

On the appointed date, Joseph was brought before Mary. They took their vows and sealed the marriage covenant by tasting a cup of wine together. Then their parents uttered a formal benediction over them. This little ceremony meant that Mary and Joseph were not just engaged but legally married, though they were not to live together yet until Joseph had built and furnished their marital home, and a wedding feast for all the villagers was held there. In those days married couples had to wait up even to one year before they could live together as husband and wife. In the meantime, it was their duty to keep themselves sexually pure until their wedding day. If either Mary or Joseph was unfaithful to each other before their wedding day, it would be deemed as the sin of adultery, and it was punishable by death (Deuteronomy 22:23,24).

But since Joseph knew Mary to be a virtuous woman who had been brought up well in the knowledge of God, he was fully assured that she would be faithful to him. But things began to happen. Shortly after their betrothal, Mary left Nazareth to visit Elizabeth, an elderly relative of hers. She was absent for about three months. After she returned to Nazareth, Joseph probably came to see her at once, since he had missed her for three months.

Perhaps this was what happened then: Mary said to him, “Joseph, I have something very important to tell you. I am pregnant.” “You’re what?” said Joseph. “I am pregnant. But it is not what you think, Joseph – I have not been unfaithful to you. Three months ago, God sent an angel to tell me that I will conceive and bring forth a son who shall be named Jesus. I asked the angel, ‘How can this happen since I am a virgin?’ and he said that the Holy Spirit will work a great miracle inside me. Then, to help me believe his word, he told me that my childless cousin Elizabeth has conceived a son in her old age and was already six months pregnant. That’s why I went away to see her – I had to verify that what the angel said is true. And indeed it was true – Elizabeth has just given birth to a son named John. It’s a real miracle! And now the Holy Spirit has done a miracle in me, and that’s why I am pregnant. Joseph, I know how shocked you must be by this news. I am sorry I did not tell you about this earlier, as I was not sure how you would take this news. But I hope you will not be angry with me.”

How would you have reacted to this, if you were Joseph? Here you are, counting the days to your wedding, looking forward to a life of wedded bliss and to raising up your own kids. Suddenly your beloved informs you that she is pregnant and you know that you are not the child’s father. What a crushing blow this is! Morever, she had been absent for three months – could it be that she had met someone else and had been unfaithful to you during that time? Could it be that everything she said about the angel visiting her and the Holy Spirit working a miracle in her is nothing but a story she fabricated to protect herself from accusations of infidelity? Perhaps all this was just too much for Joseph to take, and he left without saying a word.

He went home to decide what to do now. What thoughts do you think went through Joseph’s mind? “Should I proceed with the wedding or should I just call it off? What will everyone in Nazareth say when they notice that Mary is pregnant? Can I tell them that she has not been unfaithful and that child she is carrying is mine? Wouldn’t that be lying? Wouldn’t it be displeasing to God for me to condone the sin of adultery and live a lie? According to the Law that God gave to our forefathers, this sin is worthy of death and no exception should be made. But how can I bear to see my dearly beloved Mary stand before the Town council and be condemned to death? How can I bear to cast the first stone at her?”

As Joseph struggled with all these thoughts late into the night, he finally came to a decision – He will call off the wedding. But since he was legally married to her, this would mean giving her a writ of divorce and having to pay a fine for backing out of the marriage contract. And Joseph resolved in his heart that he would not accuse Mary of being unfaithful to him. He did not want to bring her before the authorities. This shows how much he cared for her as he did not wish to see her suffer. He was willing to suffer the loss of his own hopes for a happy marriage, and allow Mary to depart and live in peace. But Joseph was still troubled by what she had said about the angel’s visit to her and the Holy Spirit’s miracle causing her to conceive. She had said this with such deep conviction. “Could it be that this is really true?”

With such thoughts troubling his mind, Joseph fell asleep. While he slept, the answer came from God in the form of a dream where he was told to proceed with the wedding, because the child that Mary was bearing was really conceived by a miracle of the Holy Spirit, and when He is born, Joseph must give Him the name,Jesus. Joseph woke up, feeling greatly relieved – God has spoken to him! And he was now very glad to know four things – Firstly, Mary had not been unfaithful to him. Secondly, she had been truthful to him. Thirdly, they could be happily married after all. And fourthly, the Lord God of Israel had given them the honour to become the parents of Jesus, the One who will save His people from their sins!

Can you imagine how immensely relieved Mary must have been when Joseph told her about his dream? Can you imagine how they both must have been so thankful to God to be made the parents of such a special son? And so the wedding was held as planned, and Joseph and Mary now looked forward to the birth of Jesus. Like all expectant parents today, they would have got their home ready for the baby’s arrival. Perhaps Joseph used his carpentry skills to make a special little crib with extra-soft bedding material for Jesus to lie on. But once again, things did not turn out they way they expected. Because of a decree by the Roman emperor, Mary and Joseph had to travel all the way south to Bethlehem to be registered, and the birth contractions started soon after they arrived there. Oh dear! This is terrible. What are they going to do now?

They went to the local inn, but it was full – No room available at all! In the end Mary’s baby was delivered in an awful place: A dirty, smelly stable for animals – a real kandang kerbau, nothing like the nice maternity hospital that is a few blocks away from our church. And for a crib to place the newborn in, they had to make do with an animals’ feeding trough! I am sure it must have been tough for these young parents to endure all this. And some time later, after Joseph was able to move his wife and the baby Jesus to a decent house in Bethlehem, they had to pack their bags and run for their lives. Why? Because King Herod’s men were on their way to Bethlehem to seek the child and kill him. They had to run to a place far enough to be safe from Herod’s reach. Where would that be? Egypt!

Today parents with babies can easily travel from Bethlehem to Egypt in the comfort of an air-conditioned coach. I have travelled on that road to Egypt in such a coach when I visited Israel years ago. I remember that when I looked out the bus window I saw nothing but hot dry desert for most of the journey, and I was glad not to be out there. But that was where Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus had to travel on their way to Egypt. How stressful it must have been for them to make such a difficult trip which they hardly had time to prepare for!

And their difficulties did not end there. Some time after they had settled down in Egypt, King Herod died. Then Joseph was told in a dream to bring the family back to Israel. But when they arrived in the southern part of Israel, hoping to rest in Judea from their long trip out of Egypt, they had to leave immediately and travel all the way north to where they came from. All this uprooting and change of travel plans would have added a lot of stress to these young parents. But finally they arrived at Nazareth and things became more settled now as they were back in their home sweet home. What can we learn from this whole account of Mary and Joseph? I would like to draw two main lessons from it: Lessons on the kind of people that God uses to accomplish His divine purposes in this world.

I. God Uses Ordinary People

Mary and Joseph were not super-spiritual heroes or sinless saints. They had not gone through any special training programme to prepare them for their roles, not had they gone through a selection process. They were just ordinary people like us – people who were going through the usual stages of life: Acquiring the skills to make an honest living, taking on new responsibilities of marriage and of parenthood, and coping with various trials and difficulties of life. Like many of us, they had limited financial resources. Although Joseph was a carpenter, he didn’t own an Ikea factory. In fact, he was so poor that when he and Mary came to the Temple in Jerusalem to dedicate the baby Jesus, he could not afford to make an offering a sheep or goat. He had to make do with a pair of doves or pigeons. Such exceptions were allowed only for the poor to present as offerings.

Like most of us, Mary and Joseph made occasional mistakes. Sometimes when we travel overseas we assume that we had taken everything we needed to take. And then to our horror we discover later on that we left something important behind. Well, Mary and Joseph made such a mistake too. When they were traveling home from Jerusalem, they wrongly assumed that their 12-year old boy Jesus was somewhere in their group. After traveling for a whole day they realized that He was missing. This led to a frantic search all over Jerusalem until they found Him in the Temple of God, which was like home to Him.

Like all of us, Mary and Joseph were sinners. How do we know that? After all, the Bible does not record any of their personal sins. But we do see Mary admitting her need for salvation when she spoke to her cousin, Elizabeth, in Luke 1:46,47 – “My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.”Why would she call God her Saviour unless she herself needed salvation from sin? We see the same thing with Joseph. God’s angel told him that Jesus will save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). Surely Joseph would be very glad to know that the child He was to take care of would save sinners like him from their sins.

The lesson we need to learn from Mary and Joseph is this: God used ordinary people to accomplish His purposes: People who went through the same kind of changes we go through in life, people who made the same kind of mistakes we make, and people who were sinners just like us. The point is: If God could use them, He can also use us. May this lesson encourage us all to trust God to use us to accomplish His purposes. No one should every think that he or she cannot be used by God. Who knows what God can do through you?

While God uses ordinary people, not all ordinary people are used by God. Why? Because there is one important quality that makes us usable, and that is Obedience to God. This brings us to the other lesson that we can learn from Mary and Joseph:

II. God Uses Obedient People

Obedience was very evident in both Mary and Joseph. When Mary was told that she was going to conceive and have a son, her response to the Lord’s message was nothing but unqualified obedience. All that she said was, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” (Luke 1:38)

But such obedience does not come naturally. And so it is good to find out, ‘What made Mary so ready to obey God?’ There are two clues that help to provide an answer. The first is found in the song of praise which Mary uttered to her cousin in Luke 1:46-55 – “My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name. And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation. He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy; As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.”

This song of praise was not composed by a theologian, but by a young Jewish maiden of Nazareth! It reveals the intimate knowledge that Mary had of God and His Word. In it she mentions three great attributes of God – His might (v.49), His holiness (v.49) and His mercy (v.50) It also shows that Mary had a deep confidence in God to fulfill His covenant promises to Israel despite all the power, might and riches that Israel’s oppressors might have. How did an ordinary young maiden like Mary have such spiritual insight about God and such deep confidence in His covenant promises? I believe that she must have received it through the time that she spent learning the Scriptures well.

The other clue to why Mary was so obedient to God is found in two verses: The first is Luke 2:19 – “But Marykept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” The things which Mary kept here, refers to the events that took place when Jesus was born, particularly the shepherds coming from the fields to see Him that night and relating how angels had told them that Christ was born in Bethlehem. The other verse is found in Luke 2:51 – “…but his mother kept all these sayings in her heart.” The sayings here refer to certain things that Jesus spoke which reveal His true identity as the Son of God (e.g. “…wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?”)

These verses tell us something really good about Mary – She made the effort to retain every significant word and experience she received in her heart, and she gave much thought to them. This is a good habit for us to develop – Whenever you receive lessons from God’s Word through a sermon, a Bible lesson or a devotional reading you must make an effort to retain them in your heart, and take time to reflect on them.

Please don’t treat these precious gems from God the same way you would treat any other piece of information – allowing it to have only a very superficial impact on you. They must get deep into your heart and make a permanent impression on your soul. When your heart is well-primed with God’s Word that has been received, retained and reflected upon, then it will become a lot easier for you to respond with obedience the way that Mary did.

How about Joseph? His obedience was very consistent. Every time he received instructions from God, he obeyed. When he was told to take Mary as his wife, Joseph did it without delay (Matthew 1:24). When he was told to take Mary and the child and flee to Egypt, Joseph obeyed immediately (Matthew 2:13,14). When he was told to bring them back to Israel, Joseph did so obediently (Matthew 2:20,21). And when he was told not take them to Judea because Herod’s wicked son had become its ruler, Joseph immediately changed course and headed for Galilee.

One lesson this teaches us, is that God leads us only one step at a time. He does not reveal the entire path He has planned for you, but only the next step that you should take. Though you cannot see where the path will eventually bring you, you must trust God and obey His instructions without question and without delay. Will you obey God with the same consistent, unquestioning and immediate obedience that Joseph had? We notice that in Joseph’s case, God’s leading came entirely through dreams. Today we should not expect to be led by supernatural means like dreams, visions or angelic messengers. Why? It is because God has given us His complete written Word and the Holy Spirit. These are sufficient for us to discern the direction He wants us to take.

Those of us who are husbands and fathers must take note of this. The Bible gives us clear instructions that husbands are to exercise loving leadership to their wife (Ephesians 5:23-25), and fathers are responsible to bring up their children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4). Fathers are also responsible to protect their family and provide for their needs – not just material needs, but spiritual, social and emotional needs as well (1 Timothy 5:8; Psalm 68:5). If you are a husband or a father, God wants you to obey these instructions consistently, like Joseph did.

I want you to observe that every instruction that Joseph received from God pertained to the role he played as the husband of Mary and as the foster father of Jesus. Firstly, he was told to take Mary as his wife. By doing this, he became fully responsible to provide all the love and leadership that she needed. That’s a husband’s job. And because Joseph was a good husband, his wife was able to be a good mother to the holy child.

Secondly, Joseph was instructed by God to name that child, ‘Jesus.’ By doing this, he assumed the prerogatives of a foster father to Jesus, responsible to raise him up lovingly as his son, ensuring that he develops all the skills He needs for living, and obtains all the training He needs in the Law of God. That’s a father’s job.

Thirdly, when Joseph was told by God to bring the family to Egypt and then back to Israel later on, his obedience became the means by which his wife and son were protected from all harm and danger. And that is the job of a husband and father.

We conclude this message on Mary and Joseph with this thought: God has not given us the role of bringing Jesus into the world and bringing Him up to adulthood. That role was given only to Mary and Joseph as parents of Christ. But God has given us roles and responsibilities that are no less important – whether as a husband, or as a wife, or as a parent or as a child. And we should fulfill every role well because God requires obedience from us. And if we are obedient, God will use us to accomplish His purposes in this world. He knows how to use ordinary people like us to do that. May the Lord use each of us well for His glory.

Vision & Mission

 

To build a united church family that is committed to making disciples through Salvation, Sanctification and Service, to the glory of God.

Verse for the Week

October 15 & 22 - The Cost of Discipleship

For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. Matthew 16:25