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Facing Fear with Faith

Matthew 1:18-25, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.  When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.  But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.”

(which means, God with us).  When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son.  And he called his name Jesus.”

Each of us undoubtedly will experience times in our lives when we wrestle with fear.  I’m not talking about wrestling with your fear of spiders, heights, snakes, or clowns.  I’m talking about those moments when you experience a crisis of belief and are faced with a decision to act in faith or to respond in fear. 

In Matthew 1:18-25 we find Joseph experiencing one of those very moments.  It’s a watershed moment in his life, one where he’s faced with what seems like a lose / lose proposition.

Look with me again at vs. 18-19, “Now the birth of Jesus took place in this way.  When his Mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”

Mary and Joseph were betrothed to one another.  The betrothal period was much more significant than our modern day ‘engagements.’  According to Hebrew custom the Hebrew marriage involved two stages.  The first was called the ‘kiddushin’ (betrothal) and the second was the ‘huppah’ (marriage ceremony).  Most Hebrew marriages were arranged marriages made by the parents.

Once there was agreement between the families, the father of the groom would give the father of the bride a ‘mohar’ which in essence served as a dowry.  The dowry ratified the agreement and the betrothal period would begin.  At this point the marriage was seen as legally binding and could not be broken except by divorce.  The betrothal period could last up to a year in which there was very little contact between the bride and the groom, and was often a time to test sexual fidelity. 

It’s in the betrothal period that Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant.  In Joseph’s mind he would have assumed that one of two things would have happened.  Either Mary had been unfaithful and conceived a child by another man, or Mary had been sexually assaulted.  Either way, Joseph is in a tough spot and we can certainly empathize with the complexity of his situation.

Joseph’s response was governed by the fact the Scripture says that he was a ‘just man.’  But what exactly does that mean? 

John MacArthur said it well: “First, because of his righteous moral standards, he knew that he should not go through with the marriage because of Mary’s pregnancy.  He knew that he was not the father and assumed, quite naturally, that Mary had had relations with another man.  But second, because of his righteous love and kindness, he could not bear the thought of shaming her publicly (a common practice of his day in regard to such an offense), much less demanding her death, as provided by law (Deuteronomy 22:23-24).” 

So Joseph has three choices:

  1. He could continue in the marriage knowing Mary was fathering the child of another man bringing shame both upon him and her.
  2. He could publicly shame her by calling her out and having her judged before the religious leaders, perhaps leading to her death.
  3. Or he could quietly divorce her by having two or three witnesses sign a bill of divorce.  

Joseph pondered these things and “resolved to divorce her quietly.”  But the story goes on…

As Joseph is considering what he believes his options are, an angel of the Lord appears to him and says, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus for he will save his people from their sins.” 

Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife…”  What the angel is saying is Joseph, don’t be afraid to take on the ridicule and the shame, don’t be afraid to have your character run through the mud, don’t be afraid to be accused of having sexual relations with Mary prior to the wedding ceremony.

We know that upon waking up from his sleep that Joseph, “did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son.”  How could Joseph overcome his fear, change his mind, and resolve to do just as the angel of the Lord commanded him? 

Before I answer the question, let me ask: “Isn’t this the same question we must ask ourselves?  “How can we face our fears, change our minds, and resolve to do just as God has leads us?”

We face very similar fears.  And these fears have the propensity to paralyze us, or worse yet, build our hope on something that was never intended satisfy us in the way that only Christ can.  Let me give you some examples of the types of fears we face:

The Fear of Uncertainty.  Perhaps you’ve come to a crossroad in your life and for the first time you’ve lost your bearings.  Maybe it’s the loss of a job or needing to make a career change.  Perhaps it’s the loss of your health.  Or maybe for the first time you’re spending the Holiday Season alone.  And if you’re honest, really honest, you realize that deep down you’re scared of the uncertainty you’re facing.  In those moments of fear, your salvation is found in comfort.

The Fear of Losing the Approval of Others.  This keeps you from saying ‘no’ and having appropriate boundaries in your life, and the people that suffer most is your spouse and children.  It also means that you avoid conflict and allow people to take advantage of you.  Because you can’t live without the approval of others you constantly ask yourself, “I wonder what ___________ thinks?”  When you fear losing the approval of others then their approval has become your ‘hope’!  In other words, the approval of others makes your life worth living.

The Fear of Being Insignificant.  Tim Keller in his book The Reason For God reminds us that sin is in essence building one’s identity apart from Christ.  He gave an illustration from the first Rocky movie where Adrianne asks Rocky why it’s necessary for him to ‘go the distance’ in his fight.  Rocky’s response was, “If I go the distance then I know I’m not a bum.”  Too many people fear going through life as a ‘bum’.  This fear of being insignificant drives you to run over anything and anyone that you consider to be a barrier to your success.

The Fear of Losing Control of Circumstances and Security.  Perhaps you have turned people and things into ‘safe havens’ where you find your security and peace.  ‘Safe havens’ can come in the form of relationships, careers, standard of living, or even our health and vibrancy.  You find yourself peaceful and calm as long you know your ‘safe haven’ is intact.  But the moment it becomes threatened, we begin to panic and start to despair.  In this instance our ‘security’ or ‘control’ is mastering our heart and is functioning as our idol. 

KEY: The only thing that can overcome our fear is something greater than our fear.

Do you remember the show ‘Fear Factor’?  Ask yourself,  “Why were these people willing to do insane stunts, put themselves in precarious situations, and even eat some of the vilest things imaginable?”  Because something was greater than their fear…MONEY!

You face your fear of flying because you know the vacation, or family, or mission trip on the other end of the flight is worth it.

You face your fear of heights because you know the view on top of the mountain is going to be breathtaking.

You face your fear of water because the desire to swim with your kids or grandkids is something you just don’t want to miss.

Listen carefully to what the angel says to Joseph, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

The angel refers to Jesus as the one who ‘will save his people from their sins.’  This had to be the most incredible news that Joseph had ever heard…that Mary, his wife, was carrying a child within her womb that was conceived by the Holy Spirit.  And this child, whose name was to be Jesus, would be the promised Messiah who would save his people from their sins.  Can you imagine?

The angel referred to Joseph as the ‘son of David.’  This reference reminds us that the Jesus, being the legal son of Joseph, was in fact from the lineage of David.  Matthew has gone to great lengths to remind us that Jesus Christ is a descendent of both David and Abraham.

You see, as we reflect back on the Old Testament, we are reminded that God made specific promises regarding the coming Messiah.  God promised that through the seed of Abraham all the nations would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3).  God also promised David, and the people of Israel, that his throne would be established forever.  (II Samuel 7:11b-17)  God was faithfully working in time to fulfill His promise of sending the Messiah through whom His kingdom would be forever established.

“What led to Joseph overcoming his fear of rejection, ridicule, and shame?”  It wasn’t the angel!  It was what the child in Mary’s womb!  This child “will save people from their sins.”  

Key: Joseph’s fear was replaced by faith in the one who could actually save him!  You see, Joseph replaced his fear with something greater…a Savior! 

The key to overcoming your fears is moment by moment putting your faith in Jesus, the One who can actually save you from yourself and deliver your greatest dreams.

Do you have the fear of uncertainty?  Jesus says to you, “I’ve paid the price for your sins so your eternity is settled and nothing can shake that.  He says to you, I know your future, and the plans I have are good plans to give you a hope and a future!”

Do you have the fear of losing the approval of others?  Jesus says to you, “I’ve been rejected by others, in order to make you my child.  You have been clothed in my righteousness and you bear the name son/daughter of God.”

Do you have the fear of bein insignificant?  Jesus says to you, “I became insignificant for you when I bore your sins on the cross and now you can have life abundant!”

Do you fear losing control over whatever brings you the greatest security?  Jesus says to you, “I gave up oneness with the Father and the glory of heaven.  I became poor that you might become rich, and in order that you might have the security of knowing you rest in the protective hands of God Almighty.”

Jesus is greater!  So moment by moment combat your fear with faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.

 

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Giving Thanks

I’ve spent most of today preparing for my message on Sunday on ‘Thankfulness.’  During my study I came across ‘The General Thanksgiving’ from the Book of Common Prayer.  I hope it will be as much an encouragement to you as it has been to me.

Almighty God, Father of all mercies,

we thine unworthy servants

do give thee most humble and hearty thanks

for all thy goodness and loving-kindness

to us and to all men.

We bless thee for our creation, preservation,

and all the blessings of this life;

but above all for thine inestimable love

in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ,

for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.

And, we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies,

that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful;

and that we show forth thy praise,

not only with our lips, but in our lives,

by giving up our selves to thy service,

and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days;

through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with thee and the Holy Ghost,

be all honor and glory, world without end.  Amen.”

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“Slow Down, You Move Too Fast”

You may recognize these words to the Simon and Garfunkel song “Feeling Groovy.” There are times when I enjoy the mellowness of their music, but I wouldn’t say that I’m a fan.  This post however isn’t about Simon and Garfunkel or their music.  It’s about a walk I just took with my four year old autistic son Alex.

Being a cloudy and somewhat dreary day, and after being cooped up all afternoon in the house, we decided to take a walk when the rain stopped.  There’s a lake in the neighborhood behind our house that’s about 3/4 of a mile around.  With the big boys (Jackson and Blake) riding their bikes, Abby and I walked with Alex.  We enjoyed some conversation, but we found ourselves always a few steps in front of Alex encouraging him along.

Image

My bookends!

Every time I looked back, I saw my son just walking slow, looking around, and with what seemed like great intentionality, taking in every small detail.  He was in no hurry.  No hurry to move onto the next thing.  No desire to get the walk behind him to whatever might be next on the agenda.  He just took it slow, enjoyed the walk, and was captivated by what seemed like every little thing.

As I watched him all I could think of were the words “Slow down, you move too fast.” I thought about how often we find ourselves running, if not sprinting, from one thing to the next.  I wonder, in the midst of our sprinting, how often we miss the beauty of what God is doing all around us.  “Be still, and know that I am God” the psalmist would say.

I wonder, just wonder, if Alex could talk well if he would have said to me today, “Hey dad, slow down, you move too fast.”

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When the Church Disappoints

I’ve been thinking alot about Paul’s final words to Timothy.  Writing from prison in Rome he said, “Do your best to come to me soon.  For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica.  Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia.  Luke alone is with me.  Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.  Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus.  When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.  Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds.  Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message.  At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me.  May it not be charged against them!  But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it.  So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth.  The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom.  To him be the glory forever and ever.  Amen.”

One of the things that strikes me as interesting is how Paul recounts how people disappointed him and let him down.  In fact Paul describes three painful experiences.

He tells of Demas who left him to go to Thessalonica.  Paul simply writes that Demas was ‘in love with this present world.’  We know from Colossians 4:14 and Philemon 24 that Demas had seemingly been faithful to Paul and sought the furthering of the kingdom.  However as the persecution increased and the cost of discipleship became evident, we find Demas abandoning Paul and following the ways of this world.  For years Demas had been with Paul as they shared life with one another.  Yet in Paul’s darkest trial he turns away. For Paul I’m sure the wound ran deep.

He goes on to mention Alexander the coppersmith.  Scripture doesn’t tell us much about him, but what we do know is quite telling.  From Paul’s comments we glean that he did great harm to Paul and was adamently opposed to the message of the gospel.  Such was the nature of the hurt that Paul warns Timothy, even as he acknowledges turning him over to God who will ultimately judge.

Finally Paul gives us a glimpse into his first appearance before the ruling authorities in Rome.  During his appearance no one stood by him.  Not one friend…not one disciple…not one acquaintance.  No one.  After spending his life investing in others I’m sure Paul was disappointed and perhaps even discouraged that no one was willing to stand with him.  Certainly Paul would have thought that these would be the very people who would carry the torch long after his death!

I read these encounters and am reminded that the church, full of imperfect people, can sometimes be messy and even disappointing.  Because of this, and in light of the fact that we live in a hyper-individualistic and me-centered culture, it may seem countercultural or even counterintuitive to open up our lives to others and really let them in.  But this is exactly what we need to do!

In their book How People Change, Timothy Lane and Paul Tripp remind us that “God has a bigger–and quite frankly, messier and less effecient–plan…change is something God intends his people to experience together.  It’s a corporate goal.  What God does in individuals is part of a larger story of redemption that involves all of God’s people through the ages.”

When we respond to Christ with faith and repentance we are brought into the family of God.  We become part of this chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation, and people for His own possession.  And it’s in the context of this new community that God intends for us to grow, change, and be conformed into His image.  In this new community there will be difficulties, challenges, and even disappointments.  So we bear with one another, forgive one another, rebuke one another, be gracious toward one another, etc…just as Christ has been with us!

Paul’s ultimate hope was not in people!  His hope was in Jesus Christ.  He would write, “But the Lord stood by me and strenthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it.  So I was recused from the lion’s mouth.  The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom.  To him be the glory forever and ever.  Amen.”

Because his hope was in the finished work of Christ, and due to the fact that he was totally satisfied in Jesus, Paul was now free to give himself to seek the flourishing of others in the same way that Christ had given Himself to seek our flourishing.  Paul was truely free to give himself away even when people, both inside and outside of the church, let him down.

Will authentic community be messy and sometimes disappointing?  Yes.  It was for Paul and will be for us.  But as we put our hope in Christ we can bear with one another and show the power of the Gospel to change people.

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“Do Christians just pick and choose what they want to believe about the Bible?”

I was reading some articles tonight on the Gospel Coalition website and ran across this article by Tim Keller entitled, “Old Testament Law and the Charge of Inconsistency“.  In the article Keller wisely articulates why Christians aren’t being inconsistent when they distinguish between the moral law (including sexual ethics) that trancends both the Old and New Testaments, and the ceremonial law that existed during the Old Testament when God’s people existed in the form of a nation-state.

Keller would write, “Further, the New Testament explains another change between the Testaments. Sins continue to be sins—but the penalties change. In the Old Testament things like adultery or incest were punishable with civil sanctions like execution. This is because at that time God’s people existed in the form of a nation-state and so all sins had civil penalties. 

But in the New Testament the people of God are an assembly of churches all over the world, living under many different governments. The church is not a civil government, and so sins are dealt with by exhortation and, at worst, exclusion from membership. This is how a case of incest in the Corinthian church is dealt with by Paul (1 Corinthians 5:1ff. and 2 Corinthians 2:7-11.) Why this change? Under Christ, the gospel is not confined to a single nation—it has been released to go into all cultures and peoples.”

It’s a helpful read with some practical advice on engaging with the culture at the end.  Enjoy.

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A Beautiful Picture of Commitment

I was incredibly moved by this story and hope that you will too.

To God be the glory.

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Thoughts on the North Carolina Marriage Amendment

On May 8, 2012, voters in North Carolina will cast their vote either “for” or “against” the proposed amendment to the constitution of North Carolina that defines marriage between a man and woman.  If approved, the proposed measure would amend the constitution by adding the following words:

Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized by this State.  This section does not prohibit a private party from entering into contracts with another private party; nor does this section prohibit courts from adjudicating the rights of private parties pursuant to such contracts.”

Few issues are more polarizing in our society than what should or shouldn’t constitute a legal marriage.  The rhetoric is often fierce, unproductive, and less than civil. And, seemingly, everyone has an opinion.  Opinions, however, are just those…opinions.

Our opinions are influenced and informed by a variety of sources including family, friends, experiences, culture, and faith.  So, how do we navigate these waters and come to a decision on such an important issue?

I would like to share a few of the reasons why I intend on voting “for” the proposed marriage amendment to the constitution of North Carolina.

Reason #1: Marriage between a man and woman is intended to point to the beauty of the gospel.

In Ephesians 5, Paul gives one of the clearest teachings on marriage in the Bible.  At the end of the chapter, he writes, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.  This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”[1]   After beautifully explaining the roles of husbands and wives, Paul comes to the climax of his teaching and reminds us that marriage is intended to point us to the incredible love of Jesus Christ for His church.

Christ’s love toward the church is unconditional, meaning that we all are undeserving of His favor.  Christ’s love toward the church is sacrificial, which is perfectly manifested on the cross.  Christ’s love for the church is permanent, and, therefore, we are reminded that He will never divorce us[2] and will forever be our faithful groom.

More recently, our culture has embraced a “me” centered approach to marriage.  In other words, marriage is only seen as convenient and beneficial so long as both individuals feel as if their needs are sufficiently being met.

In his book, The Meaning of Marriage, Tim Keller writes about how the Enlightenment has shaped our culture’s current view of marriage.  He wrote, “During the Enlightenment, things began to shift.  The meaning of life came to be seen as the fruit of the freedom of the individual to choose the life that most fulfills him or her personally.  Instead of finding meaning through self-denial, through giving up one’s freedoms, and binding oneself to the duties of marriage and family, marriage was redefined as finding emotional and sexual fulfillment and self-actualization.”[3]

He added, “In short, the Enlightenment privatized marriage, taking it out of the public sphere, and redefined its purpose as individual gratification, not any “broader good” such as reflecting God’s nature, producing character, or raising children.  Slowly but surely, this newer understanding of the meaning of marriage has displaced the older ones in Western culture.”[4]

True north has changed.  No longer is marriage seen as a picture of Christ’s glorious relationship with His church, rather it’s become a contract that is only as good as a spouse’s ability to deliver the goods.

Reason #2: Marriage was created by God to be an institution between one man and one woman.

Marriage is God’s design, and, although a human institution, it is not a human creation.  This is clear from the creation account found in Genesis 2:24, when, upon the creation of man and woman, God says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.”[5]

Keller went on to write: “Marriage did not evolve in the late Bronze Age as a way to determine property rights.  At the climax of the Genesis account of creation we see God bringing a woman and a man together to unite them in marriage.  The Bible begins with a wedding (of Adam and Eve) and ends in the book of Revelation with a wedding (of Christ and the church).  Marriage is God’s idea.  It is certainly also a human institution, and it reflects the character of the particular human culture in which it is embedded.  But the concept and roots of human marriage are in God’s own action, and therefore what the Bible says about God’s design for marriage is crucial.”[6]

Inasmuch as marriage is God’s design, we would be well served to follow the pattern set forth by the Creator that not only allows for procreation but also the flourishing of society..

Reason #3: Healthy marriages (as previously defined) provide the best framework for the flourishing of the family and society.

In the book Why Marriage Matters, scholars from some of the leading universities around the country studied the affect “marriage” has on the family, economy, physical/mental/emotional health, and crime and domestic violence rates.

Here are some of their findings[7]:

Family:

  • Marriage increases the likelihood that fathers and mothers have good relationships with their children.
  • Children are most likely to enjoy family stability when they are born into a married family.
  • Children are less likely to thrive in complex households.
  • Growing up outside an intact marriage increases the likelihood that children will themselves divorce or become unwed parents.
  • Marriage and a normative commitment to marriage, foster high-quality relationships between adults as well as between parents and children.

Economy:

  • Divorce and unmarried childbearing increase poverty for both children and mothers, and cohabitation is less likely to alleviate poverty than is marriage.
  • Marriage reduces poverty and material hardship for disadvantaged women and their children.

Physical Health:

  • Children who live with their own two married parents enjoy better physical health, on average, than do children in other family forms.
  • Marriage is associated with better health and lower rates of injury, illness, and disability for both men and women.
  • Marriage seems to be associated with better health among minorities and the poor.

As the study rightly notes, “Marriage is not a panacea for all social ills.”  However, we do see the lasting benefits both on the family and society.

As Christians, we are called to model and display the kingdom that Christ will ultimately establish.  My hope is not in governments or a particular political agenda.  My hope is in Jesus Christ, who died to save a wretched sinner like me.  The truth of His death, burial, and resurrection changes everything; therefore, I willfully and joyfully submit to His design for marriage recognizing it is for both our good and flourishing.  Hopefully, this will shed some light on why I came to this extremely important conclusion.


[1] Ephesians 5:31

[2] See Romans 8

[3] Tim Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, (p.28)

[4] Ibid. (p. 28)

[5] Genesis 2:24 (ESV)

[6] Tim Keller, The Meaning of Marriage, (p. 13)

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