A sermon preached on Matthew 1:18-25 by Pastor Jonathan Werre at Good Shepherd Lutheran in Sioux Falls, SD on December 22, 2019.
The best thing that could ever happen to you also makes life harder. And that’s OK.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian who was put to death by the Nazi regime, he begins his most famous work, “The Cost of Discipleship” with this sentence: “When a man comes to Christ, he bids him to come and die.” To die. Something has to die, something that is terribly wrong inside you and me, something that is like a leach on our having life and having to the full as Christ said (John 10:10)—whatever that thing is, it must die. Over and over and over again. So that we can “have life and have it to the full” (John 10:10) And that thing that must die is: wanting too much for my Christian life to be easy. That has to die.
Because that’s how it works in Christ’s kingdom. The best blessings also come with heavy crosses. Let’s see how that worked for Joseph and Mary; then how that works for you and me; and last let’s consider the alternatives.
- Great Blessing Brings Great Crosses for Mary and Joseph
This is how it was for Joseph and Mary. What greater honor could there be than to be Jesus’ mother and step-father? Jesus, true God becoming true man in the womb of Mary–this is an astounding miracle, the 2nd greatest mystery in the history of the universe. As the Formula of Concord puts it (one of our Lutheran confessions of faith), “Next to the article of the Holy Trinity, this is the greatest mystery in heaven and on earth.” (Triglott, p.1027) And yet, when this great honor happens, it makes the lives of the two closest to this miracle harder, not easier.
Mary is pregnant with the Son of God. You would expect that God would give all kinds of help and blessings to Mary as she carried his Son to full term. But what we find is that life becomes harder, more stressful. Mary and Joseph were not living together yet. And she’s pregnant. Everyone draws the same conclusion—she cheated. It’s is not easy to have everyone thinking the worst about you—but everyone did…including Joseph.
Since Joseph knew he was not the father of the child, the conclusion was that she had committed adultery. The punishment for committing adultery was being stoned to death. Imagine how stressful that must have been for Mary to have that hanging over her head.
And how about for Joseph. He had his plans shattered. He had planned on a life with Mary, raising a family, growing old together. God does not step in and explain all this to him right away. He lets Joseph struggle and agonize for who knows how long until Joseph finally comes to the decision to divorce Mary quietly. Only then does God step in and send an angel in a dream to Joseph.
And even when he does marry Mary, he does not get to enjoy one of the blessings of married life, at least not for quite a while. The Holy Spirit includes this very private detail about their married life, “He took Mary home as his wife, 25 but he was not intimate with her until she gave birth to her firstborn son.”
That Joseph got to be the step-father for Jesus and Mary got to be Jesus’ mother was an incredible honor. The best honor to ever happen to them. But at the same time, this honor made their lives harder.
- Great Blessing Brings Great Crosses For Us
That’s how it is and will be in your life, mine as well. Because what’s the best thing that has happened to you and me? Jesus Christ, being here in worship, learning his Word, being baptized, celebrating Communion—but these things also make our lives harder, is this not true?
It would easier, for example, to handle it when at work you are asked to head up your company’s Gay Pride parade float, if you did not know that homosexuality is a sin to be repented of rather than celebrated. It would be easier to visit my niece who is living with her boyfriend if I didn’t know that sexual sins that are to be repented of, not openly lived in. It would be easier to be part of my college biology course if I did not know that God created our world and that the theory of evolution is wrong. Leaving my unhappy marriage would be easier if I did not know what God says about marriage. Letting loose on Saturday nights would be easier if I did have to be up for church Sunday morning. Voting would be easier if I did not know that life begins at conception. And how about this whole thing of God expecting us to forgive the people in my family and the people in politics and the people at work who have sinned against me?
But you know what’s even harder than these kinds of things? It’s when God seems to be making my life harder, on purpose. When I have pain in every joint in my body, and I’ve asked God 1000 times for relief, but none comes. When the people at church, God’s people who are supposed to be part of my spiritual family, end up making my life painful, difficult. And God doesn’t seem to do anything about it. When my child dies, even though God could have easily saved him. How hard it is to endure those times when its seems like God himself is making my life harder.
But this is how it is in Christ’s kingdom. With his great blessings come great crosses. Because the fact remains that the best thing that has ever happened to you and me is: Jesus Christ, being here in worship, learning his Word, being baptized, celebrating Communion. The fact also remains that these things also make our life harder.
And the dirty little secret is that we resent that, part of us resents that, is that not true. Part of us just wants to praise Jesus, grow the kingdom, and have a good time. Wanting this is not wrong—wanting this too much, wanting too much for my Christian life to be easy–that’s the part that has to die, over and over again. As Bonhoeffer put it, “When a man comes to Christ, he bids him to come and die.” Over and over again. It’s called “repentance,” “the life of repentance.”
- Give It Up?
Which might tempt us to think, “Well, if Christ, his worship, his Word, his Sacraments, make my life more difficult, then why not give them up?” Like Mary and Joseph might have done with this pregnancy.
But what’s the alternative? A life with no forgiveness? No peace with God? No one that we can call on to help us when we are in a jam? No heaven waiting at the end? What kind of alternative is that? Because whether you go to church or not, you will still have problems and difficulties and heartaches. Because nobody, nobody gets through life without a lot of bumps and bruises, a few broken bones…and broken hearts. And then to have hell waiting at the end of it all because of your sin? What kind of alternative is that?
And consider this: if following Christ makes our life harder, then think about what it meant for him. To enter our time and space and to be bombarded by temptations which he would have to deal with perfectly every single time, no margin for error! And he did it. For us. To enter our time and space and to be rejected by men and God, crucified as an offering for sin. And he did it. For us. In fact, that was why he came, even his name makes that clear, as the angel said, “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus,[b] because he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus lived up to his name. And everything good that he earned by doing that, he gives it to us today through his Word, through baptism, through Communion, through worship; for through these, he gives us himself. Which makes these things the best thing that could ever happen to us.
Which is also why following him and Word in this life must make our lives harder. For we are to imitate him. (Eph. 5:1-2, John 13:15) And this is enemy territory that we are traveling through. But most of all, it has to be this way because whenever our Christian lives get too easy for too long (for we do get some easy stretches, don’t we; sometimes weeks of things going pretty smoothly) our faith starts to get limp, our worship sluggish, our soul in danger.
The best honor that Mary and Joseph ever got was to be the mother and step-father for the Son of God. Though it definitely made their lives harder.
The best thing that has ever happened to you and me is: Jesus Christ, being here in worship, learning his Word, being baptized, celebrating Communion. Best thing and it’s still happening. But it also makes your life harder. And that’s OK. That’s OK. Just ask Mary and Joseph. Amen.