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Pastor Chris Paavola:

I love that song. Actually, I had a chance to get to know that songwriter. And part of the reason I love the song is we have so many songs about Mary, right? She’s got Mary, Did You Know, and she’s got Gentle Mary, Later Child, and then lines and tons of songs like What Child Is this? And then we’ve got songs about the Magi and the Three Wise Men, and we’ve got a fictitious story about a drummer who shows up at the manger, but there’s just not a lot of popular songs about Joseph. I mean, can you think of one? And man, he is such a pivotal figure in the story and so much hinges on this rock of a man and what he decides to do and so much hangs in the balance. And I love that we have a chance to sing about it.

By the way, my name is Chris Paavola. I’m the senior pastor here at St. Mark. It’s great to be with you guys. We’re in a series called Experience Christmas, so you can do just that so you can experience all the love, hope, joy, peace of the Christmas season. But in order to do that, we’re going to stop taking cues from Mariah Carey and Bing Crosby and we’re going to start taking cues from the original Christmas story because right there in the original Christmas story is all the sentiment and feelings that you want for you this Christmas season.

And so in week one, we’ve looked at faith and then we looked at peace and we looked at joy. Today we’re looking at this thing called love, and it’s a powerful … I mean, so if we weren’t sitting in church and I said, Hey, how do you experience love in the holidays, you would talk about just what do you associate with it? You’d talk about kissing under the mistletoe or Hallmark movies where it’s snowing on Christmas Eve and they fall in love and finally kiss and you watch it.

Or you’d talk about just being with a family. Maybe you’re decorating the tree together and nobody’s fighting. There’s no drama. We’re all finally together and everyone’s happy, and it’s this kumbaya moment and all of that’s fine. Romance is fine, family getting along, that’s great, that’s great, but the love of the Christmas season is so much deeper and so much richer and more meaningful than that.

And so what we’re going to look at is the true depths of love in the Christmas story and then let that affect you so that you can experience Christmas love this year. And there’s a few different characters that we could choose from the Christmas story that display love, but today, as you would probably put together based on the song we just heard and the reading from today, we’re talking about this man named Joseph. We know very little about him. The bulk of what we know is from the reading that you just heard. There’s a couple other little factoids about him that we can put together, but the bulk of what you know about him is from what we just heard.

Well, okay, so later on it describes him and the word that is used in Greek, it’s this word tekton, and it means worker, and we’ve translated that as carpenter. But when you look in ancient Israel, there wasn’t a whole lot of trees. And so most likely, sure, he worked with wood, but he probably did a lot more stonework and masonry, because there’s a whole lot of rock up in Israel. So that’s probably more what he did. And because he was a mason worker, just a construction worker, we know he was also very poor.

And we can deduce that because after the birth of Jesus, Mary and Joseph present Jesus at the temple, and this is customary for ancient Jewish people, they would provide a sacrifice and thanks for this child. And normally you would provide a lamb, but if you couldn’t afford a lamb, you would buy two doves and present those for sacrifice. Well, wouldn’t you know it, Mary and Joseph presented two doves for Jesus when he was presented to temple in sacrifice of thanks. And so we know that they were very poor. And in the first century being poor by any modern standard, that would be extreme poverty, right? No running water, no electricity. He grew up in poverty. So we know that about Joseph.

We also know that he is from this line of David, this lineage of King David, and that’s why he had some type of roots in this town of Bethlehem that he has to return to for the census, and Bethlehem is this village of about 400 people. And then at some point he moves north to this town called Nazareth in this region called Galilee. And Nazareth is another small town, maybe 1200 people. Archaeology suggests that’s about the size of it, about 1200 people. And so that’s what we know about Joseph and that’s the back story.

But we also know he is very, very, very faithful to the law. He’s a faithful Jew and we know that because of the text we just heard starting in Matthew chapter one verse, I think it’s 17 or 18? 18. This is how the birth of Jesus, the Messiah came about. His mother, Mary, was pledged to be married to Joseph. So his mother, Mary, is pledged to be married to Joseph. So when we hear this, we read this with our own lens and our own understanding of marriage, and we’re like, oh, marriage, they’re husband and wife or they’re engaged or something like that. When we think of marriage, we think of something that looks like this:

I haven’t changed in 20 years, neither is she, actually. She looks the same since that day … She’s just as beautiful. Anyway, so there’s our wedding, right? When we think marriage, this is boom!…the quintessential wedding, husband, wife, bride, groom, all that kind of stuff. And so we were dating, we fell in love, and I asked her to marry me and she said, yes, I still cannot believe it!…. She said yes, and we got engaged. And then you spend a few months talking about, this is my fiancé. Have you met my fiancé? And we love saying this word, it’s very annoying, but this is my fiancé. And then we get married, we have a wedding day, and we’re pronounced husband and wife, and we are wed to one another and we’re husband and wife. And this is what we think of, but this is unfortunately not how Jewish weddings and marriages would go.

And so if we read Matthew 1:18 and Matthew 1:19, especially the next verse, it gets very confusing because it talks about them about to be married, but married and then a husband, but not a husband. And they haven’t come together and we’re like, this doesn’t make any sense, because a Jewish wedding process was different. It would start with this thing called the Kiddushin, you can go ahead and put the picture up, the Kiddushin. And I don’t know if I’m saying that right, but if I say it with authority, you guys believe me, so it’s the Kiddushin.

And the way it would go is you would have … It was an arranged marriage. So assumedly Joseph’s father and Mary’s father got together and said, Hey, we should get our kids married. And there may have been an exchange of some type of bride price and all that kind of stuff, but it was an arranged marriage. And then so Joseph, this young man, is pledged to a young girl at the age of 13 and we’re like, holy cow, that’s young. But remember mortality rates, it was really high. And as soon as you were able to bear children, man, get in the game because we’ve got to survive, right? So that’s the sentiment there. And he’s pledged to her, and then they would have this ceremony called the Kiddushin.

And in this ceremony, a rabbi would pronounce a blessing over a cup of wine, and then the groom would take the cup and drink it. And then the groom would pass that cup of wine to his bride and she would drink symbolizing that they were now sharing life together, the richness of life together and pledging their love and faithfulness to one another. We share a cup together. And it’s hard not to hear that, and think about when we celebrate communion and we drink from a common cup. Later on, Jesus, in his ministry, will use parables describing a wedding over and over. And it’s hard not to read the symbolism in the Kiddushin and not see that in the communion when Jesus passes the cup to us, because later on, well, Jesus refers to himself as the groom and the church, y’all, are the bride. And so he passes a cup to us and asks us to pledge our love and faithfulness to him as he pledges his love and faithfulness to us.

But it gets better because after the Kiddushin, they are husband and wife, but they do not consummate their marriage. They’re not official yet. So they are husband and wife in the eyes of the law, husband and wife. But a year later, they finish this process with what’s called the Nissuin, okay, the Nissuin, and that’s a year later. That gives the groom in that year a chance to either build a house or begin working to provide for his family, so saving up enough money to have a home, right? And then you would have what we would associate with the wedding, the Nissuin, and he would walk to the bride’s house who’s living with her father still, ask her to come out. He stands at the doors and knocks and she comes out, and then they’re escorted by all of these bridesmaids to the house of the father, and they go live at the father’s house.

This makes it really interesting when Jesus tells us, “In my father’s house, there are many rooms.” Whoa, huge!…., and he tells parables about how the groom is going to return, and we’re all like bridesmaids. Keep your oils trimmed, be ready, be looking for the Lord. He could come at any moment. And so we’re living in this time between the Kiddushin and the Nissuin. Isn’t that just wild? So that’s the idea of a Jewish wedding. That’s what’s going on. And so now let’s look at these words for Matthew one again get an understanding of what’s happening.

Verse 18, “But before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.” So there’s some time between the Kiddushin and the Nissuin, but because Joseph, her husband, notice how it refers to him as her husband, even though they haven’t finalized their marriage yet, because her husband was faithful to the law and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly because they are married in the eyes of the law, but not yet civilly with one another. It’s huge to understand this, and now this makes sense.

And also when you read this, you’re like, okay, well, he was trying to be a nice guy, but quite honestly what just happened is she’s pregnant. And by his understanding, because he doesn’t know what’s going on yet, she cheated on him! She committed adultery and broke her wedding vow! She broke her pledge of love and faithfulness! She’s been unfaithful to him! She cheated, and now he has to divorce her quietly because he’s faithful to the law. Now, when Matthew writes this, you guys, he super undersells what is going on here. He uses some very soft language for something that is extremely, extremely harsh and difficult…, the law. The law that is being referred to here is the Jewish Law of Marriage and what happens if you break this marriage vow.

And so we don’t like doing this. This is not the Christmas spirit. I hate to be a Debbie Downer this morning, but I want to read to you the law that’s being referred to here with regards to what happens if you cheat in a marriage and you’re found guilty of adultery. It’s from the pen of Moses, so about thirty-five centuries ago. Moses writes this in the Torah. Here’s the law from Deuteronomy twenty-two with what happens if you’re found guilty of adultery. Ready? …..Here we go. “If, however, the charge is true and no proof of the young woman’s virginity can be found, she shall be brought to the door of her father’s house, and there the men of her town shall stone her to death. She has done an outrageous thing in Israel by being promiscuous while still in her father’s house. You must purge the evil from among you. If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die, you must purge the evil from Israel.”…. Merry Christmas.

Okay? And by the way, if you’re here for the first time today, I want to apologize to this entire row and a couple other guests that I see this morning. Someone’s like, you got to come, you’ll love it. And you’re like, what kind of church did I just … You don’t have to look for the exit doors, okay? You’re safe. You’re safe. This is ghastly and this is awful. This is horrific stuff. But before you shut off and you shut down and you stop hearing a thing I’m going to say, because this is a creepy church or something like that, all right, let me just say three things in response to this. And the first one, I really hope you listen to.

If your heart breaks at the thought of someone dying because of the law, you are closer to the heart of God than you realize. If your heart breaks at the thought of somebody being killed and dying because of the law, you are closer to the heart of God than you realize because your heavenly Father, Scripture says he desires that none should perish, and the law has condemned us to die. Scripture says, “The wages of sin is death and the law condemns us.” And this breaks the heart of God. The only difference being is he did something about it, though it cost him everything. So that’s the first thing I would say. One, you’re closer to the heart of God than you realize.

Two, the law is good. The law is good. It’s protecting something. You might say that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime, but law is good. Lawlessness is chaos, and the law is good. Though it incriminates us because the law is protecting something. And we might say that, okay, well, this is just too severe, too harsh, but it’s like students in a classroom. They don’t get to decide what the rules are, the teacher does. We’re not the lawmaker, God is, first of all. And could it be, and all your protest against this, and I get it, I get it, but could it be, it’s not that you value life more than God? Could it be that you value marriage less than God? Could it be that you don’t value life more than God? Could it be that you value holiness or purity less than God? It’s a thought to consider.

I mean, when you look around you in the culture around you, do you really believe that people value marriage and sexuality? I mean, come on. It’s cheap, but not to God. I mean, this is heavy stuff, I get it, but the more precious something is the stricter the law protecting it, right? Damaging your car is one thing, damaging the crown jewels is another, and so you need stricter laws to protect really precious things. And when we’re protecting something like holiness that we can’t even fathom, well, I mean, what law and what muscle behind that law does it require to protect it? It’s an interesting thought. Okay, so first thought, maybe you’re closer to the heart of God, then you realize. Second thought, the law is good and protects what is good.

The third thing I would say is that we cannot … I think it’s disingenuous to leave out parts of Scripture, to give you only cherry-picked sections of Scripture and never show you the whole council of God. Sometimes we’ll read the Bible and we’ll just treat it like a buffet line. We’ll be like, I’ll take some of this and this looks good, none of that, no, thank you, this, this, and we walk away with the plate of what we want. Meanwhile, there’s this whole buffet that’s getting dried and burnt that we leave behind. All of it matters.

And you will go to churches, and I don’t usually try to point the finger at other churches, but sometimes you’ve got to, you’ll go to churches where it’s all good news all the time, no bad news ever, never, never, ever bad news. And it’s like, it’s this therapeutic message that gives you this adrenaline shot so you can go … You have a dopamine rush before you go about the rest of your week. We’re just going to give you a pep talk for your week, and that’s what we treat church as. And we wonder why people look at Jesus and yawn or why this good news feels like, eh, it’s so-so news, because we never give you the bad news.

It’s really good news because it’s really bad news. You and I are lawbreakers, we are lawless, and we have sinned against God a dozen times before breakfast over and over and over. When you read God’s word, the wages of sin is death. It is bad news, but that’s why it’s called amazing grace. That’s why the gospel is quite literally good news, good news. God does not punish you as your sins deserve. He has sent his son to take on your sin. Wow! And I’m telling you, if we don’t look at this part of the Bible, then we don’t understand why the world rejoices at Christmas. It’s huge. It’s huge.

So now that you know what’s at stake, the magnitude and the gravity of what Joseph is wrestling with, look again at what Matthew says, Matthew 1:19. “Because Joseph, her husband, was faithful to the law.” See, before they came together, she was found to be pregnant. And she’s like, I’m pregnant. And he’s like, oh my goodness, you’ve been unfaithful to me. He doesn’t know. He doesn’t know what happened. “But because Joseph, her husband, was faithful to the law, he’s a just man.” Justice is good until it’s levied upon us. He’s a just man. He’s devout to the law, yet he did not want to expose her to public disgrace. He had in mind to divorce her quietly.

This is amazing. Joseph, who has been faithful to the law, he’s a just man, finds out that his wife is pregnant and it wasn’t by him. And he still has compassion for her because look, he’s trying to thread the needle. He wants to do what’s right according to the law, and yet does not want her to die, but to do so, he has to take some of the shame upon himself. Whoa!… And suddenly we see in Joseph a picture of God who looked on you. And even though you were unfaithful to him, he decides to take your shame for himself, and the full weight of the law is levied upon him.

Scripture says that he is crushed for our iniquities, but it wasn’t by the rocks thrown by an angry mob. He was crushed on a rock called Golgotha where he died on a cross. He died your death and in your place, paid the penalty for your sin, and then impossibly gives you his life and his place. It’s why we call it amazing grace. And you know what word we would use to describe this sacrifice that God makes, this sacrifice that Joseph makes that we see in the Christmas story? You know what word we would use for allowing good to happen to someone else at our own harm, at our own expense? You know what word is the only word we can use to describe this? Love…. But this is deeper than everyone’s getting along while we decorate the tree. This is deeper love than, oh, puppy love kissing under mistletoe. That’s all fine, but this is the depths of love, the sacrificial quality of love.

Think about when you’re most blessed by somebody, it’s because it costs them something to buy that, it costs them something to serve you in that way, it costs them. That’s why it’s so meaningful. It’s the sacrificial quality of this thing called love, and this is what the Christmas season has to offer you, an experience with the depths and riches of love that you don’t deserve, you haven’t earned, and God wants to give it to you. Wow!

Now, I was thinking about how to wrap up this message, and I was going to tell you to go sacrifice and serve somebody and be sacrificial to them, but I was like, you know what? They’ve had enough law today. They don’t need any more law. They’ve got plenty of it. And sometimes the law will hide even in the gospel, and we make it about what you do. But today, I want you to just be overwhelmed by what God does and let that be enough to let him own all the verbs today and not tell you to do something.

And so really today, I just want you to experience the love of God that’s offered to you in the Christmas season and to let it wreck you however it does. I mean for you to respond in the way, to be changed by this thing and transformed by it in the way, it’s up to you. It’s different for all of us, but my job is to let it hit as deep as I possibly can. And so I can help you experience this sacrificial love of Christmas in two ways. One, I can tell you about it, I think I did, and hopefully it gives you a new experience, a new lens to understand this. And maybe you’re hearing it for the first time and you’re like, I want this in my life, or maybe you’re hearing it anew. So that part is done.

But there’s another way that you can experience the love of Christmas, to taste it. Twice a month we do communion here, and we do it often because Jesus tells us to. And sometimes when you do something regularly, it’s hard to take in the weight of everything that’s happening. And sometimes just a new or a nuanced understanding of this meal makes it hit different.

And so today, as we talk about marriage, I just think it’s important to think about what Jesus says is happening. I mean, he calls himself the groom and he calls the church his bride, and he offers you a cup, pledging to you his love and faithfulness, though you are often unloving and unfaithful to him. And he tells you to be alert, be awake, don’t fall asleep. The groom is returning soon. Keep your oil and your lamps trimmed because you want to be ready when the groom appears to take you to his father’s house where there are many rooms.

And so I remind you that the Lord Jesus Christ, the night he was betrayed, he took bread. And when he had given thanks, he broke it. And he gave it to them saying, take eat. This is my body broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me. And then after the meal, after supper, he took the cup and he blessed it like a rabbi at the Kiddushin. And he said, drink of it, all of you. This cup is the new covenant in my blood shed for you, for the forgiveness of all of your sins. This do as often as you drink it in remembrance of me. And welcome now to the Lord’s table. Welcome to an experience with the love of Christmas. Amen.