Joseph’s Journeys

Second Sunday after Christmas

Jeremiah 31:7-14, Psalm 84:1-8, Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a, Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

 

 

Happy New Year!

 

We begun the Christian year more than a month ago at the beginning of Advent, but now in the world’s calendar it is 2009, and this transition marks a new season in God’s plan.  For those who have eyes to see and ears to hear, He is opening doors of opportunity.  In many cases our own best efforts have led only to frustration, but God is opening doors without any effort on our part.  For those who are prepared to take a step of faith and follow the leading of the Holy Spirit, there is victory ahead.

 

 

The Christian life is a journey, and the life of Joseph and Mary before and after the birth of Jesus was full of journeys.  Joseph and Mary had to travel for several days from Nazareth to Bethlehem before the birth of Christ.  The NHS sometimes moves patients around from one hospital to another because there are not enough beds, but they do not usually have to travel by donkey.  However Joseph and Mary travelled by donkey in order to fulfil the plan of God, even when Mary was heavily pregnant.  In the Gospel today we heard how they had to take two much longer journeys, first to the land of Egypt, and then eventually back to Nazareth where they had first begun.

 

Imagine how inconvenient and unsettling this must have been for the young family.  First of all, Mary had become pregnant by the Holy Spirit while the couple were still engaged, causing a scandal and forcing them to hurry their wedding plans.  Then Mary had to give birth in a strange town, in a stable where the animals slept because no one was able to accommodate them properly.  Apparently after this they were able to settle down to an extent in Bethlehem, as Matthew 2:11 tells us that they were staying in a house at the time when the wise men visited them.  But then they were uprooted again when they were awoken in the middle of the night and told to run away to Egypt – two or three weeks’ journey, mostly across the dessert, and with a young child – to a country of a strange language and culture where their ancestors had been treated cruelly as slaves many hundreds of years earlier.

 

The Christian life is not comfortable, it is not nice and clean and respectable with everything decent and orderly, and it is not for the faint-hearted.  It is a life of adventure in which the unexpected can and will happen – and we can either resist or surrender.  If we resist, He will teach us the hard way through many obstacles and frustrations; if we surrender we will experience excitement and danger.  Either way, we will discover that God has a way of working things so that our carefully laid plans fall apart and we have to acknowledge that we are not in control.

 

 

This is good news, because it means that God is in control.  God did not tell Joseph to get up in the middle of the night and seek political asylum in an enemy country because the situation had taken Him by surprise and He could not think of a better way.  No – this had been part of His plan all along, and He had even announced it several hundred years earlier through the prophet Hosea.  God did not tell Joseph to go back to Nazareth, a place with a bad reputation and where the scandal of Mary’s pregnancy would still be remembered, because he was afraid to go to Bethlehem again or because it was too risky.  Again, this had always been part of the plan, and again, it had been prophesied several hundred years earlier.  Acts 17:26 says that God made all the nations of mankind, and that He determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.  Romans 8:28 says that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose.  It does not matter what strange or difficult experiences the journey and adventure of your life may take you through – as long as it is a journey and adventure with God!  If your heart is to follow Him, then everything that happens that you cannot understand is all part of God’s perfect plan, and it is for your good and for the good of all the other people whom your life will affect in any way.

 

 

The Church has generally given far more attention to Mary than to Joseph because of her unique role as the Virgin Mother of Jesus.  She has become the subject of much devotion and controversy, whereas Joseph is more often forgotten.  However Joseph’s story is no less important, and in Matthew’s Gospel he is given as much attention as Mary.  Once Mary had surrendered to the plan of God to bring His Son into the world, it was Joseph who had to hear the Word of the Lord, make some difficult and vital decisions, and take action in ways that most men would be afraid to do.  He married a woman who became pregnant out of wedlock and said it was from the Holy Spirit.  He had a dream one night and did not wait until the next day to leave for another country.  You will not do things like that unless either you are crazy or you have surrendered your life to God.  Mostly He will not ask us to, and He generally does not call us to make hasty decisions without the counsel of those in authority over us.  But we can learn some more basic lessons from this radical example.

 

Perhaps we think we cannot follow Joseph’s example because he was someone special and that God does not deal with most people in such a way.  However Joseph was not a priest, a prophet or a Bible scholar, but a carpenter from a rough neighbourhood.  When Jesus began his ministry thirty years later, people took offence because they thought He was Joseph’s son.  Joseph was very ordinary in the eyes of men – but no one is ordinary in the eyes of God.  Perhaps we think we cannot follow Joseph’s example because we do not see angels and dream prophetic dreams on a regular basis.  However we must realize that God has promised to pour out His Spirit on all flesh for those who believe – whether we are old or young, rich or poor, educated or uneducated, experienced or inexperienced as Christians, it makes no difference.  There are many ways in which God will speak to us, if we are willing to listen.

 

What made the life of Joseph so powerful was not the dreams and visions and decisions made in the middle of the night, but the fact that he did not rely on human wisdom but simply obeyed God.  Because of this he is an example of Christian leadership.  You may not think of yourself as a leader, but if you are a husband or a father then God has called you to lead your family; and if you are a single man, God wants to prepare you for this calling.  It is the men, not the women or children, whom God has given the main responsibility for hearing His voice and making decisions on behalf of the family.  This does not mean that other members of the family cannot also hear from God and take part in the decision-making process, but it is the husband or father who has the main responsibility to do this.  If you are a man and you have not yet begun to walk with God in this way, then the beginning of a new year is a good time to start to pray and seek Him and ask Him to teach you.  If you are a single mother, or if your husband is not fulfilling this responsibility, then the burden may have fallen on your shoulders, and you too need to learn to hear the voice of God not only for your own life but for the lives of your children.  However, by God’s grace this should only be a temporary measure if you believe His plan is to give you the husband you need.  Pray for a new husband if you do not have one, or if you do have one then pray that God will make your husband new.  And be ready to submit to your husband when he starts to obey God’s voice, and to encourage him in this responsibility.

 

Joseph is also an example of what it means to live prophetically.  Again, this may sound like something spiritually advanced, but it really means the same thing – to hear the voice of the Lord, firstly for our own lives and then for those who are entrusted to our care, and to obey what He tells us.  This is for every one of us, from the youngest Christian to the greatest leader.  Bishop Randolph Adler, the founder and first Patriarch of the Charismatic Episcopal Church, said that he habitually prayed two particular prayers.  The first was the prayer of St. Paul that God would open the eyes of his heart and grant him wisdom and revelation (Ephesians 1:17-18).  The second was that God would grant him the courage to obey what He showed him.  God can use any of us in a powerful way if we are willing.  Today at the beginning of 2009 He is calling us to return to a surrendered life of prayer – which is our first calling.  Some of us are called to be intercessors in a special way, and some are not; but all of us are called to pray.  He is calling us to seek Him while He may be found, and to live a life of adventure as we walk again in the anointing of the Spirit.

 

Joseph was able to obey God in a radical way because his heart was prepared.  The Bible tells us of many other men and women who were ready to trust and obey when God spoke to them – Noah who built the ark in a dry country hundreds of miles from the sea; Abraham who left his country and his father’s household for a destination that he did not know, with the promise of a child when his wife was unable to conceive; Rahab the prostitute in Jericho who hid the Israeli spies from the king’s soldiers; and Mary the Virgin Mother of Jesus.  They did not have all the answers, but they knew in their hearts that there was something greater ahead of them. 

 

God is waiting to open doors of opportunity and to do new things in our lives – but are we ready to obey Him when He gives us the opportunity to receive our breakthrough?  What would have happened if Joseph had said “no” to the angel because his family had just settled down and did not feel ready to move again at that time?  What if he had decided that because they had had a tiring day they would have their night’s sleep first and then talk about it the next morning?  Usually God cannot do a new thing in our lives unless we are prepared to take a step of faith and leave something from our old lives behind.  You have to step out of the boat before you can walk on water.  From our perspective, faith always involves a risk, but from God’s perspective it is safe enough.  For Him, the risk is to give us the opportunity when we might miss it – and so He waits until we have had plenty of time to be prepared.

 

 

The Bible is full of stories of people going on journeys from one place to another, but really these are a picture of the spiritual journeys that take place in our hearts.  There are times when God will move us to a different house, city or even a different country, but most of the time He wants us to become rooted and established in one particular place so that we can grow and bear fruit there.  The most important journey that Israel made was not their journey from Egypt through the desert to the Promised Land, but the journey from being slaves and aliens to finding their identity as the people of God and inheriting His abundant blessings in a country of their own. 

 

The first lesson tells of a journey of restoration – how God would gather His people from where they were scattered in exile and slavery, and bring them back to their home, and how He would turn their weeping into dancing and their sorrow into joy.  However “home” for us is not a particular physical place, but it is the will of God for our lives.  “Home” for us is the Kingdom of heaven into which we were born and where we belong, and we live there when we return to the will and purpose of God for our lives.  “Home” is the dwelling-place of God in our hearts, and this is where the Kingdom of God begins.  We can speak about “returning home”, even if we feel that we have never been there, because in a sense all of us have been there once, and it is like a precious memory that has partly been lost, and that we are trying to recover.  It is speaking of the original glory with which God created us in His image, before we fell into what the General Confession calls the devices and desires of our own hearts, or our own wisdom and our own ways. 

 

Psalm 84 speaks of a pilgrimage – but again it is a pilgrimage in our hearts.  A pilgrimage in ancient times was often a long and difficult journey, full of discomforts, dangers and trials.  But people were willing to undertake this kind of journey because they had a great desire in their hearts, and for that desire to be satisfied made it worth paying the price.  The traveller in our Psalm reading was so hungry for God’s presence that he said, “How lovely is Your tabernacle, o LORD of hosts!  My soul longs, yes, even faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” (Psalm 84:1-2)  He was travelling to the temple in Jerusalem because it was the dwelling-place of God; but for us today the temple ad dwelling-place of God is in our hearts when we follow His will for our lives. 

 

In the course of this journey through our hearts we will pass through what the psalmist calls the Valley of Baca” (Psalm 84:6)­ or the “valley of weeping”.  When we seek God’s will and draw near to Him, the Holy Spirit will expose hidden areas of emotional pain, as well as any places where we have become stuck in failure, defeat, inferiority or depression.  The purpose of this is not for us to dwell on the pain again and to dig ourselves deeper in the valley, but to allow God to bring healing so that we can experience the fresh flow of His Holy Spirit as He makes these areas of brokenness whole again.  He is calling us to put the past behind us – not to bury the pain but to bring it to Him and receive our healing – so that we can move on and experience the hope and the future and the new life that He has prepared for us. 

 

The psalmist declares, Blessed is the man whose strength is in You, whose heart is set on pilgrimage… They go from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion. (Psalm 84:5, 7)  The journey is often painful, and it is not for the weak and the faint-hearted.  God calls us to guard our hearts in the midst of the frustrations and difficulties, and to recognize that our faith and our resolve will be strengthened every time we are healed from the pain and every time we persevere and overcome the trials.  His promise is that if we set our hearts on the goal and the prize of His calling, and if we come to the place where we admit defeat in our own strength and begin to find new strength in Him, then He will change us from glory to glory, and we will finally reach our destination and fulfil our destiny.

 

 

We have not yet fully realized the hope of God’s calling in our lives, or the glorious inheritance He has prepared for us as His children, or the mighty power He has made available to work on our behalf when we place our faith and trust in Him. (Ephesians 1:18-19)  This is why Paul prayed for the eyes of our hearts to be enlightened, so that we would have a true vision to motivate us for the journey ahead.  Without vision we perish, but the gift of God in Jesus Christ is abundant life.  Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but desire satisfied is a tree of life. (Proverbs 13:12)  Do not be surprised if the battle is intense, but realize that it is a good sign – God is stretching our faith and preparing us to receive our inheritance.  The enemy seeks to destroy our hearts through emotional wounds, so that we will give up on our vision and miss God’s purpose for our lives.  But God is greater than the enemy and He is performing a work of restoration.  For those who have waited and persevered and have not given up their hope, He is opening doors of opportunity.  Let us press in to God, and pray for our vision to be clear and our hearts to be prepared, so that we will be ready to respond in obedience and to receive all that He has in store for us.

 

 

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