18 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. 19 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.
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”
24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
We must have missed the sign. My brother and I were hiking Picacho Peak in Arizona, probably 15 years ago. It’s a pretty demanding trail. In some places you have to pull yourself up rock faces using anchored cables. There are sharp drop-offs and steep switchbacks. It’s a pretty intense climb. And we made it much worse for ourselves because, as I said, we must have missed a sign. On our way back down we ended up on the wrong path, if you can even call it that. I don’t remember seeing any footprints in the few places where there was dirt. Basically, we were on a sheer rock with what I would guess was a 400-800 foot drop-off to the left, trying not to slip to our death. My brother was a little bit more of an experienced mountaineer than I was (he spent 5 years serving one of our WELS schools on the Apache Reservation in AZ), but I remember asking him one of those panicked questions that makes no sense, “What happens if I fall?” His response was, “Don’t fall.” Well, we made it back, but missing a sign was unnerving to say the least.
Talk about missing signs. Could you imagine if people had missed a weather report or a road closed sign earlier this week? I drove north of town on 83 just to see for myself how bad it was out there. Driving north of the new Bismarck Motor Company was crazy. For a while there I wasn’t sure if I was in my lane or the other. I couldn’t tell where the cars were. I knew the intersection with 71st Ave was coming, but I couldn’t see where. A true North Dakota blizzard is nothing to mess with. It could be terrifying to miss a sign in a winter whiteout.
Joseph had missed the sign. We are first introduced to this carpenter from Nazareth during his own personal nightmare. Remember the events? Joseph was pledged to be married to a girl named, Mary. That means he had courted her in the customary Jewish way. He had paid Mary’s parents their asking price for her hand in marriage. They had publically made their vows and signed all the legal documents signaling that these two were “off limits”. People would view them as husband and wife. It would take a divorce to end that relationship. They were just waiting for the appointed time when Joseph would go over to Mary’s house and take her to his home to move in with him and begin their lives together. That’s when the big celebration would take place.
But before that, his world came crashing down. One day Mary showed up pregnant. Can you imagine the things that ran through his head? “Why!?!!! Mary, what did you do? What did I do wrong? Who’s the father of this baby? What’s going to happen to me? What should I do with you?” Joseph misses the sign. It’s very clear that his legal wife is pregnant, but he doesn’t understand what’s really happening. It didn’t make sense. The way he was looking at things it was horrible news. He couldn’t see the sign. He didn’t understand the big picture. I don’t know if any of us blame him. He needed help to see things from a better vantage point.
I know I can relate to that, can you? Missing a sign is downright dangerous on a mountain trail or in a whiteout storm, but those aren’t the only scary times for us. Christmas can be filled with anxiety and fear. Are all the plans coming together? Are you staying within the budget? Are they going to like what you give them? On a scale of 1 to 10 how well have you been avoiding the Christmas stress? Christmas can get chaotic. I know I’ve felt the pinch about services and sermons and classes and, Lord-willing, the follow-up with guests.
But it’s not just Christmas. Every day in this life there is some pretty scary stuff out there. Maybe it’s not what Joseph was going through, but it can cause just as much fear and confusion. Do you every wonder why there is a really popular course from David Ramsey called Financial Peace University? It’s because finances and planning your future is scary, especially if you are putting so much emphasis on that part of your life. Relationships can be scary. What’s he going to think of my faith? What’s her past like? Is this working? Do they have what you’re looking for? So many questions can come to mind that some people are afraid of it. No one wants to be another statistic. And how about illness? Coughs can turn into the flu and the flu can turn into pneumonia and that can lead to a hospital stay. How about cancer? That’s a scary word and it’s becoming more and more familiar.
How do you handle these things? Well, how was Joseph handling his situation? He had a few options. He could accept Mary’s news and take her anyways. He could do what most would do and publically draw attention to an unfaithful spouse. Mary’s life would never be the same, and Joseph’s would be much better. Or he could go easy on her, taking advantage of the lax divorce procedures of the day by sending her away quietly. That way Mary would have to deal with everything alone. But imagine the fears going through Joseph’s head as he considers each option. There’s the slanderous gossip and the snobbish glances. No one likes that feeling that other people are talking about you behind your back. There are the fallen hopes of the families. There’s the baggage that he would carry into the future of one failed marriage…before it even got going. For a good guy like Joseph, there’s the fear for Mary. What’s a pregnant teen going to do with no man in the picture? She’d be damaged goods and go to a man of far less character. No matter what option he picked, it was going to be an unsettling few months.
Do you know what? Whichever option we pick doesn’t get rid of our fears in life, either. The bottom of a bottle doesn’t remove fear. The internet has tons of life hack videos and self-help solutions, but it can’t remove fears. More stuff doesn’t make the scary stuff go away. Financial peace, a healthy and happy start to a relationship, or advancement in medicines cannot cover up fears. See, when the focus is on the trouble, the pain, the stress, the problems, then the fear remains and always will. When we miss the sign, we’re going to feel a lot like Joseph was feeling.
Can you notice how does God sees the situation? What’s his point of view? For Mary and Joseph it was a trying time, but God was going to use it as a blessing for men, women and children across all the world of all time. It was not going to be easy for them for the next few years, but God was going to work it out for good for them and for all. God has a way of doing that.
Do you think God can still do that for you? Can the eternal King of all creation work things out for your good, for your spiritual and eternal benefit? Can he get rid of your fears? Of course! God relieves our fears by getting us to take a step back from our own personal problems and see the much bigger picture that God has painted with our lives.
Joseph just needed God to show him that this was all working out according to plan, his plan, his all-knowing and all-powerful plan. God wanted Joseph to know, “Mary has not been unfaithful to you. This is the sign that everyone has been waiting for.” The angel appeared to Joseph to help him see God’s view. The angel said, “You don’t need to be afraid.”
Fear is always going to hurt you. It was tearing Joseph up at this point. Fear is the exact opposite of faith. Fear doesn’t see God’s promises, purposes, and plans. Living in fear is so dangerous for us eternally because fear destroys us. And that’s why God has such a great way of taking our fears away.
The angel calls Joseph the son of David. But Joseph’s dad was Jacob. He’d be familiar with people saying, “Joseph, son of Jacob, come over here…” “Joseph, son of Jacob, what are you doing over there?” It wasn’t Joseph, son of David. But that’s how God wants the angel to address him, because he wants Joseph to remember the he is a descendant of the great King. David ruled God’s people. Even though there were plenty of battles and plenty of ups and downs, twists and turns, David buried his fear with faith in God’s never-failing, never-ending promises. Whether he was fighting Philistines, unruly family members trying to ruin him, or ungodly giants, David knew that faith in God’s promises overcomes fear. God has the angel call him “son of David” because he wants Joseph to remember the promise of David’s son.
The promise of David’s son was the sign that so many people missed, but not anymore. Joseph didn’t need to be afraid to take Mary home as his wife because this was the sign for all people that we have a God who keeps his promises, we have a God who does things this world cannot fathom, we have a God who loves us enough to leave heaven.
That was the sign, after all. “Don’t you remember, Joseph? Can’t you hear Isaiah? ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.’ Joseph, I’m not going let you miss the sign. Mary is that virgin. She’s going to give birth to a son. You are going to call him, Immanuel. Joseph, that means I’m going to live with you. You won’t need to be afraid, because I am coming. This child is the Promised One. What has been hidden for generations is coming into the world. Joseph, that’s the sign: God is with us in person.
Brothers and sisters, we have the same God, who left heaven to be with us in the flesh. That’s our sign, too. And by God’s grace he made sure we wouldn’t miss it. Jesus wasn’t here to crush us. He wasn’t here to judge us. He wasn’t here to teach us how to earn heaven. He was here to rescue us. He was here to live among us and remove the fears forever. He was here to open heaven for people who keep forgetting, for people who are scared and alone, for people who are lost and condemned. God is with us.
You know, I went back to Picacho Peak. It was a few years later with my brother and his wife, my sister and her husband, and Mandy. We did the whole thing again. There were still really steep sections with cables to pull yourself up. It was still a sheer rock face. But this time there was no fear, because we saw all the signs. It never felt like we were on a path that had never been walked. It never felt like I was doomed to death. What a difference it is when you actually see and understand the signs.
Joseph woke up and he didn’t miss the sign. It was all true. Somehow, someway God had found a way to make it clear to him. And the sign, a virgin with child giving birth to Immanuel, would change the world. No more fear, because God is with us. That’s how we prepare for Christmas fearlessly.
God grant it. Amen.