Experiencing God's Peace

Original Date: 
Sunday, November 29, 2015

Matthew 1:18-25 The Christmas Experience: Experiencing God’s Peace

Peace on Earth
One of our favorite expressions when it comes to the Christmas season is “Peace on earth.” After all, that’s what the angels sang about when they appeared to the shepherds (Luke 2:14). One of the names prophesied for the Messiah in Isaiah 9 was that He would be called the “Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6). Our Christmas Carols sing about the little town of Bethlehem lying still; of a silent night, holy night, where all is calm and all is bright; of Christmas bells echoing out “peace on earth, good will to men.”

And yet, for many people Christmas is anything but peaceful. I was watching a news report on Wednesday about how the local Wal-Marts were getting ready for the Black Friday rush. They cut to a Wal-Mart employee whose first words were: “Our first priority is the safety of our customers and our employees.” Now, what does it say about us as a society if the first thing we think about when going shopping for Christmas gifts is protecting the safety of those involved? That’s the sort of thing you say when you operate a coal mine: “Our first priority is the safety of our employees.” That’s what you say when a hurricane is on the way: “We just want to keep our citizens safe.” That’s not what you say when you run a retail store.

And, of course, we’ve gotten our usual round of footage and stories about crowds rushing into stores and tussling over gifts. Hardly the picture of peace.

More than that, I came across a 2012 NBC News story where 45% of those surveyed said they would just as soon skip the holiday season altogether. The angle of that story is that the financial stress the season caused was just too much. An older survey, from England in 2003, said that Christmas was now considered the 6th most stressful life event, ranking right up there with things like divorce, moving house, and changing jobs. The story attached to that survey cited the pressure of finding the right gift, and included anecdotes about a woman who bought her non-pregnant sister a maternity dress and a man who bought a very expensive mirror for his girlfriend which broke while he was wrapping it.

Of course, the stress associated with the holidays goes beyond that associated with gift-giving. For some, this time of year elevates feelings of loneliness and depression. Family tensions can sometimes be amplified by the messages of the season. The dream of a Norman Rockwell-like picture perfect, greeting card ready family gathering rarely comes off as planned. Hollywood has a whole genre of movies based on the dysfunctional holiday family get-together.

So ideas of Christmas peace rarely come to fruition. And it’s not a problem just for the Holiday Season, many of us move through life with a large amount of anxiety and fear. Life rarely goes as planned, there is a great deal of tension and chaos from day to day in our lives. Forget the wars and rumors of war that continue to make world-wide headlines, many of us would just like to experience a little personal peace.

Joseph’s Stress
When I think about stress and anxiety in the Biblical story of Christmas, the character that springs to mind is Joseph. If you asked him about his Christmas experience, I’m sure the last thing he would do would be to quote the lyrics from Silent Night. For Joseph, this story was far from calm and bright.

Most of what we know about Joseph is told in Matthew 1. Specifically, verses 18-25. But before we turn there, let me go a few verses earlier, to verse 16 and 17:

16and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ. 17Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ.

The gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy. It is important to Matthew to show the continuity from Abraham to David to the birth of the Christ. And Joseph is a descendant of King David.

But there is something interesting about the way Joseph is listed in the genealogy. Everyone else on Jesus’ family tree is listed as “the father of”. David was the father of Solomon. Solomon was the father of Rehoboam. Rehoboam the father of Abijah, etc. But Joseph is listed not as the father of, but the husband of. He is “the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.”

So, while Joseph’s place is in the line of David (as is Mary’s), it is also important to know, right off the bat, that Jesus is not his biological son. There is something unique about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth.

Here, then, is Joseph’s story. Verses 18-19:

18This 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. 19Because 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.

Here is the beginning of Joseph’s stress. He is pledged to be married to Mary. We would say that they were engaged, though that had even greater implications in that culture than it does today. Some of you will remember that this summer, during our Revelation series, I described the wedding process in ancient Israel. A young man would go and enter into a contract with a young woman’s father, and then the girl would agree to it. At that point, they were legally bound together, married in every sense except for the physical. Then the young man would return to his father’s home and begin preparing a place for his bride. When he was done with that, he would return for his bride, and take her to be with him, so that she might be where he was. That’s when the official wedding celebration would take place.

So that’s where Mary and Joseph are at in their relationship. They are legally bound to each other, but they have not yet come together. And then Mary announces that she is pregnant by virtue of the Holy Spirit.

The Bible doesn’t give a lot of detail as to how their conversations played out, but we can imagine. Mary’s story seems preposterous. Most of the village, including Mary’s parents, must have assumed that Joseph was responsible. Joseph and Mary alone know that isn’t true, but then Joseph must have believed that some other man was involved. That Mary either had a secret lover, or that she had been assaulted in some way. Either way, for Joseph to stay with Mary now he is going to look like a liar, a fool, or an idiot.

And yet, we can see that Joseph cares about Mary. We shouldn’t take that for granted. It is popular in our portrayals of the Christmas story to create a romantic element between Mary and Joseph. To insert some of our modern ideas of courtship and love into their relationship. That wasn’t necessarily the case in most ancient weddings, they were often more of a business transaction than the result of falling in love.

And yet, the Bible says Joseph did “not want to expose her to public disgrace.” As the aggrieved husband, he could have broken off the marital contract publicly and vindictively, demanding some sort of satisfaction for the wrong he had suffered. But he doesn’t do that. Clearly, he had some affection for Mary. So add that to his stress: the feeling of betrayal by someone he loved.

Then he goes to sleep, and his world is rocked in a whole new way. Verses 20-21:

20But 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. 21She will give birth to a son, and you
are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."

Joseph is encountered by an angel, who confirms everything Mary has been trying to tell him. There is no other man, but “what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” The angel even gives Joseph the child’s intended name, which is the same name that was given to Mary in Luke 1.

Now, we have no idea whether or not Mary had shared the name “Jesus” with Joseph, but in our Bible study I like the way that they portray the moment that Joseph says the name as the confirmation between Joseph and Mary that neither one of them is crazy. God has actually been sharing the same information with both of them. The angel says more, verses 22 and 23:

22All 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."

Here’s one of the stranger prophecies of Isaiah, which suddenly takes on new meaning. Before this, it had always been assumed that a young girl would give birth in the king’s household to a boy symbolically named “Emmanuel” to teach the people that God had not abandoned them. And in Isaiah’s day, something like that probably happened. Not a virgin birth, but a maiden just married giving birth in the natural way.

But now the angel gives the fuller meaning of that prophecy. Mary is truly still a virgin, and she is about to bring God to earth in human flesh—literally “God with us.”

Joseph, to his credit, believes the angel and obeys. Verses 24-25:

24When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

Joseph “did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him.” He stuck with Mary through the cynical looks and the wagging tongues. He stuck with her in spite of his own private doubts and sleepless nights. He stuck with her even though his stress was really only beginning. Still to come would be the 90 mile trip to Bethlehem with a very pregnant wife; the frantic search for space in an inn; the conversion of a stable into a delivery room; and then the midnight run for Egypt to escape the rage of a deadly king.

Joseph knew stress. He knew anxiety and fear. You would hardly describe his Christmas experience as one of peace.

Do Not Be Afraid
So the verse that really stands out to me in Joseph’s story is verse 20. The verse where the angel tells him: “Do not be afraid.”

Now, I mentioned last week that nearly every time an angel shows up in scripture he says: “Do not be afraid.” In fact, I mention it pretty much every time we read a story with an angel in it. My point is that if you were suddenly encountered by an angelic being, you would be afraid. Angels in scripture are not cute little children with softly glowing hair. They are supernatural beings that defy earthly description.

But there’s something different about the angel’s command to not fear here. It’s not the angel that Joseph is scared of. Rather, it’s the idea of taking Mary home as his wife. The thing Joseph fears is the thing that is causing his stress.

Now, the reason Joseph did not need to be afraid was for decidedly unique circumstances. There really was an otherworldly explanation for what was happening to Joseph. It’s not like God is going to come to us to explain that all of our stress and anxiety is the result of God bringing about a supernatural birth. And yet the Bible tells us: “Do not be afraid” as well. Whatever anxiety you are feeling, God invites you to bring it to Him.

In fact, it is often said that the command to “be not afraid” is the most often repeated command in scripture. More than the command to love God or love your neighbor, more than the command to tell the truth or be generous, the Bible tells us to not be afraid. Lloyd Ogilvie has even famously said that there are 366 commands to “fear not” in the Bible—one for every day of the year, plus one for leap year.

Now, if you did a search for the phrase “be not afraid” or “fear not” you would not necessarily come up with 366 verses, but if you include all the commands to fear God as well as the verses about not worrying or casting your cares on God, you would actually come up with much more than 366. It’s all a matter of how you count them.

My point is that God cares about your stress and anxiety. And so, whether it is the holidays or something else that has you stressed out, the Bible does have some advice for finding peace. I have five bits of Biblical advice for dealing with stress.

The God Who Works
First, Let Him Carry the Load. When stress and anxiety hit, give it to Jesus. God wants to carry your burdens and your fears. 1 Peter 5:7 says:

7Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.

Often we trust God in the general sense: He died for my sins. He promises me Heaven. He promises that in the end all things will work for our good. Big picture, we trust God to take care of us.

But when it comes to specific concerns--specific fears and worries, day to day trials; sometimes we think that God is not concerned. But this verse is referring to specific anxieties. And He is inviting us to cast those cares and concerns on Him as well. He’s a small picture, as well as a big picture God.

So whatever our stress or anxiety, this verse means for us to bring it to God and trust that He will work in that specific situation. It doesn’t mean that He will always resolve our fear the way we want—it doesn’t mean you’ll always find your lost car keys or that the turkey will turn out the way you want—but God will carry our anxiety for us.

So what does it look like, practically speaking, to cast our cares on God?

Well, it might create a nice word picture for you to see that the word for “cast” is also used in Luke 19:35, in the story of Palm Sunday. It says:

7When they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks over it, he sat on it.

The word for “threw” there is the same as the word for “cast” in 1 Peter 5:7. So, in the same way that you might throw your cloak on the back of a donkey, God wants you to cast your anxiety on Him. In other words, He wants to bear your burden for you. He is a God who promises to carry your fears.

One of the stunning things about the God of the Bible is that He is a God who promises to work for us before we are ever commanded to work for Him. Listen to these promises of scripture: Isaiah 46:4:

4Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.

Isaiah 64:4:

4Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.

And then, this invitation from Jesus. Matthew 11:28-30:

28"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30For my yoke is easy and my burden is light."

God will carry you. God acts on our behalf. God wants our burdens. John Piper writes:

God wants to be a burden bearer because it demonstrates his power and puts him in a class by himself among the so-called gods of the universe. "No one has seen a God besides thee, who works for those who wait for him." So throw the garments of your anxiety onto him. He wants to carry it. (http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/anxieties-to-be-cast-not-carried)

The God Who Cares
Second, Trust that God cares for you. When stress and anxiety hit, trust that God wants the best for you. This is the second half of 1 Peter 5:7:

7Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. 

This gets to your fundamental understanding of God. When it gets right down to it, do you believe that God is for you or against you? Do you believe that God is on your side, and is well-disposed towards you? Or do you believe that God is out to get to you?

It reminds me of a quote I used earlier this year. I can’t remember who said it right now, or what sermon I used it in. But it goes something like this: “The worst insult you can give to God is to doubt His love for you.”

God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son. This is what Christmas is all about. It is because of His deep and passionate love for you that He sent His Son into the world. And if He would not withhold from us the Son that He loves, then how could we imagine that He would hold back any good thing from us?

God cares for you, and that’s why you can cast your anxieties upon Him. He wants to carry that load. He cares for you, and that means He cares about that thing that is stressing you out. So trust Him. It’s a matter of practical trust.

The God Who Hears
Third, Let your Request be known to God. When stress and anxiety come your way, pray. This is how we transfer the burden. This is how we trust that God cares for us. By praying. Philippians 4:6:

6Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

One of the greatest reasons we feel anxiety and fear is simply that we don’t pray. We are prayerless, and we end up carrying the burden alone.

Prayer is the way that we express our trust in God. Prayer is trust spoken aloud. So rather than worry: pray.

The next verse after this one in Philippians reads like this:

7And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

When you transfer your anxiety and fear to God by prayer, the Bible promises peace. Peace of heart. Peace of mind. In Christ Jesus. So pray.

The God Who Comes First
Fourth, Seek First His Kingdom. When stress and anxiety come your way, remember to put God’s things first.

Matthew 6 is the chapter of the Bible where Jesus talks about worry. He compares us to the birds of the sky and the flowers of the field, and points out that God feeds and clothes them, so how much more will He take care of us? Jesus asks there: “Who of you by worrying can add single hour to his life?” (Matthew 6:27)

Then, near the end of that section of scripture, Jesus says:

33But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

Sometimes we have a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety because we can’t take our eyes of ourselves and our problems. I believe it is sometimes called “navel gazing.” We’ve got our eyes fixed on our own belly-buttons. And the way to get past all that personal worry is to start looking beyond ourselves, towards Jesus and the people He loves.

When you give yourself to Jesus and His cause in the world, rather than fretting about this and that, then God promises that you will have all you need to do His will and give Him glory.

The God Who is with You
Then, fifth and finally, Know that God is with You. When stress and anxiety hit, remember the name the angel gave to Jesus: Immanuel. God is with us. Here’s a tremendous promise, Isaiah 41:10:

10So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

There are two commands in this verse, and five reasons given for us to obey them. The commands are “do not fear” and “do not be dismayed.” And the five reasons given that make it possible to obey those commands are: “For I am with you.” “For I am your God.” “I will strengthen you.” “I will help you” and “I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”

When God commands us to do something, He also gives good reasons to do it. And power comes from understanding and believing those reasons.

And in this verse, the reasons we can be free of fear and dismay all center around the fact that God is with us. That God does not leave us alone.

You know, when I end a service of worship there are basically three blessings that I use. I don’t plan in advance which blessing I will use, I just pick one of the three that I have memorized. I’ll say:

As you go, may the love of God the Father, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit go with you.

Or, I’ll say:

As you go, may the Lord bless you and keep you; may the Lord make His face shine upon you; may the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you his peace.

Or, and this is probably my favorite:

As you go, may the Lord Jesus Christ go with you. May He go before you to guide you, above you to watch over you, behind you to protect you, beneath you to lift you up, beside you to befriend you, and—most of all—may he go within you to give you His peace.

The first two are basically quotes from scripture. The third one is not. I learned it from my friend Pastor Ed Baker of Orchard Hill Church in Cedar Falls.

And I want to tell you how I remember it. When I was in high school, we were taught something called the preposition box. We were told that there are certain things you can do with a box, and those things are expressed by prepositions. So, you can be: before the box, above the box, behind the box, beneath the box, beside the box, or within the box.

So, when I give the benediction, I think about that box, and describe the different places Christ can go with you: before you, above you, behind you, beneath you, beside you, and within you. Again, I really like that blessing.

But as I was looking at Isaiah 41:10, I realized that maybe that blessing is more scriptural than I thought. Let me read it to you again, and let’s think about it in terms of the preposition box. God says: “Do not fear, for I am with you (Beside). Do not be dismayed, for I am your God (Above). I will strengthen you (within). I will help you (Behind). I will uphold you (Below).

When stress and anxiety come your way—when you feel like Joseph must have felt when all his hopes and dreams seemed to be dashed against Mary’s unexpected pregnancy—remember “Emmanuel.” Remember that God is with you. He is above you to watch over you. Within you to strengthen you. Behind you to help you. And beneath you to uphold you with His mighty right hand.