6 Challenges Around The First Christmas – Pressing On
Most images nativity scenes look really beautiful. Peaceful. Calm. Cuddly. Even the animals are cooperating. In this picture we even see a church in the background. Its almost like Mary and Joseph are on vacation just enjoying the natural scenery.
Was it really like that? Was Jesus’ birth like a serene scene out of a nativity set?
If you read the whole story, it wasn’t really like that. For Mary and Joseph it was a turbulent time. They faced many challenges.
Christmas is about the incarnation. Jesus becoming a man is an amazing thing. And it is integral to God’s plan of redemption. Salvation was only possible by Jesus coming as a man to represent people and die for our sins. It was part of God’s plan from before the beginning of the world. But God’s plans were not a walk in the park. God often uses people to accomplish those plans. And the people He uses will often find that pushing forward God’s plan is not easy.
In the Christmas story, two key figures are Mary and Joseph. They are the center scene right behind Jesus in every nativity. But how did they did get there? And what happened after that?
Today we will see 5 challenges that Mary and Joseph faced. How did they respond to those challenges? In every single one, they pressed on in obedience.
As we study the Christmas story today, think about what challenges you are also facing and how God wants you to press on in the midst of them.
#1 – Mary faced persecution and abandonment
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, 27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called[b] the Son of God. 36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. 37 For no word from God will ever fail.”
38 “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
Mary was given amazing news. She was going to be the mother of the Savior. It was amazing, but it was also difficult. Firstly, it was difficult to believe.
In the history of the world it had never happened. It is a fact or a law of science that virgins cannot have children. She asked one simple and reasonable question, “how?” And after the answer, she didn’t argue or express doubt. She didn’t ask why or laugh. She didn’t even ask to see a sign. She believed saying, “May your word to me be fulfilled.”
Secondly, it was difficult to submit to.
Even if someone believed this miracle was possible, it doesn’t mean they will like to be part of it. Why might Mary have objected or become bitter about this?
A. It is very possible that by following this plan, she could have lost Joseph as her future husband. In Matthew we learn that when Joseph learned Mary was pregnant he naturally didn’t want to pursue marriage from her. The only logical conclusion was that she had been unfaithful. God did take care of Mary and prevent Joseph from putting her away. However, Mary had no way of knowing that that would happen. Besides losing Joseph, she could have lost any possibility of a future marriage. This plan could cause her to live the rest of her life as a single mother, which was very difficult in that time.
B. It is very likely that Mary would ostracized publicly for being pregnant. Even if she told them what Gabriel said, who would believe it? It would sound like a very farfetched and outlandish excuse. Nowadays sin has infected society and most people are not ashamed for being pregnant out of wedlock. Then it was different. People would talk behind her back, forsake her friendship, and in general want nothing to do with her. She would have likely been an outcast among her own people.
C. “I will be stoned.” The OT penalty for fornication/adultery is stoning (Leviticus 20:10). While it may not have been practiced at that time, it would have been a possible response once people learned that Mary was pregnant, but not married. Many women, out of fear for their own lives, future, and friendships would not have wanted to be involved.
Mary, however, did not raise any of these objections. She didn’t ask for any assurances that these things wouldn’t happen. In fact, she was willing to obey even if they did happen. This is the true mark of submission and sacrifice. Mary calls herself the “bond-servant” of the Lord and acts like it.
So challenge #1 in being part of God’s plan: Life of singleness, ostracism, death.
Response: She submitted.
And she didn’t submit reluctantly. Look at her attitude even as she faces a very uncertain future:
Luke 1:46-48 – 46 And Mary said:
“My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
This was three months after she was pregnant. Mary pressed on with a good attitude.
#2 – Joseph faced loss of reputation and ostracism
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.
Joseph was also an important part of God’s plan. Jesus needed an earthly father, who could provide, protect, and give a safe environment for him to grow up in.
But then Joseph found out Mary was pregnant. Awkward. The passage says that “she was found to be with child.” It might have been that Joseph only knew when she started growing. Or perhaps she told him. But let’s be honest. Her was story was pretty hard to believe. To most people it would appear that not only was Mary unfaithful, but she also was too proud or crazy to admit it.
Joseph was a kind man. He didn’t want to disgrace her. So he decided to divorce her. Wait a minute. They weren’t married. How could he divorce her? In Jewish culture, a couple was betrothed. Betrothal was like a marriage covenant or contract. The two sides agreed to enter into marriage and it was binding. But the marriage would not yet be consummated for some time, perhaps until the husband had a house ready. To end this contract, it was still necessary to have an official divorce even though the man and woman were not physically together yet.
So that is what Joseph decided to do, officially terminate the agreement. It was while he was thinking of these things, that an angel came to him in his dream. The angel told him that the child was from the Holy Spirit, that she was a virgin, and that this child would take away the sins of the world.
It was now clear that Joseph was an part of God’s plan of salvation. But notice the angel said, “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife.” Joseph naturally would have been afraid. He was facing challenges of his own.
A. Pangs of doubt about Mary.
It would have been natural for Joseph to still have seeds of doubt about Mary. Was her story really true? Was his dream really true? He needed to have faith to move forward.
B. Fear of loss of reputation and standing
If Joseph proceeded to take Mary as his wife, people naturally would suspect that he was the father. Thus many people in the community would believe that he had violated her prior to marriage. This would not only affect his friendships, family relationships and reputation, but also his business. He was a carpenter. Would people want to take their business to him if they believed he was an immoral man?
C. Fear about an uncertain future
Joseph seems to be a very matter of fact person. And here were a lot of weird things going on. It would be normal to be afraid. Most fathers are are already nervous. How nervous must Joseph have been to raise this amazing child, the Messiah?
Joseph could have said like Moses did long before, “choose someone else.” But he didn’t.
Response: Joseph obeyed. Obedience could have cost him a lot. But that is what pressing on is. You take that next step of obedience to God’s plan even when its difficult and even when you don’t know where it may lead you.
#3 – Mary and Joseph faced a long, uncomfortable journey
Luke 2:1-5 –
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
So Mary is approaching her due date. And then boom. They are required by the government to leave their home and make this long trek to Bethlehem. The distance would have been about 90 miles (145 KM). It is likely that they could travel about 10 miles a day with Mary so pregnant. So the journey was probably about 9 days.
A large part of the journey is through the wilderness and desert. There are a lot of ups and downs. Bandits often stalked the way so most people would have traveled in caravans for safety. For the ladies who have been pregnant before, would you like to walk for nine days to another town to give birth? Men, would you like to take your very pregnant wives on a trip like that? I personally don’t really want to walk 9 days even by myself for some registration.
So the trip was uncomfortable and inconvenient. But the government didn’t ask their opinion. They didn’t care if it was convenient or not. This was required so they did it.
When I was thinking about this, I thought that this trip has a lot of similarities to 2020. Many of you have had a lot of troubles with government regulations, paperwork, and visas this year. A lot of these troubles are partially due to Covid-19. Governments give regulations and we have to do it. Often they are not convenient. Sometimes they are time consuming. Most of the time we would rather spend our time doing something else. But it is required.
Mary and Joseph may or may not have realized that God was behind even this inconvenient census. Micah 5:2 prophesies that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. So this census is God’s way to get them there and to ensure that the prophesy was fulfilled.
So Joseph and Mary faced another challenge, a long and inconvenient journey. But they pressed on.
#4 – Mary had to give birth in poor (unsanitary) conditions
Luke 2:6-8 – And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
At the end of their journey, things didn’t get better. Because of the census there were many travelers. So there was no place to stay. The phrase “no room in the inn” could refer to a local inn, but may also refer to a simple guest room that one might expect at a relative’s house. That is how the NIV translates it, “there was no guest room available for them.”
In most depictions, you will see a stable with all kinds of animals around. But a stable isn’t mentioned in the Bible. More likely, it was a small cave where some sheep would be kept out of the elements. And it is also possible that it was someone’s house, because mangers were at times kept in houses and animals brought in out of the cold.
In any case, having a baby can be stressful even in the best of conditions. And these weren’t the best conditions.
Many couples look for the best doctors and the best hospitals for delivering their baby. And this wasn’t. The Christmas story is often depicted as a serene scene in a stable with cute, cuddly animals all around and Mary and Joseph beaming.
For Mary and Joseph, it was probably stressful. And knowing husbands, there was probably more than a little panic when Mary said, “it’s coming” and they didn’t have a place to go. Crowded. Tired. Unsanitary.
Jesus was laid in a manger (picture of stone and connect to Jesus death), which was probably used for watering animals.
So far we have seen a number of challenges that Mary and Joseph faced, potential loss of future spouse, loss of reputation, condemnation from society, loss of business, an inconvenient journey, and a stressful birth.
All of these things were difficult challenges, but the biggest challenge was still to come.
#5 – They faced a death threat to their child and had to become refugees
Matthew 2:13-16 – Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.
A bit of time has passed from Jesus’ birth. In Luke in the story of Jesus’ birth the word “babe” is used. Here in Matthew the word “child” or “young child” is used 6 times. A babe normally refers to pre-walking infants and child can refer to toddlers and above. So it is likely a year or a bit more has passed. Joseph and Mary apparently decided to stay in Bethlehem.
Now the life of their child, the Messiah, was in danger. Herod plans to kill Jesus. And after his encounter with the wise men, he now knew where Jesus was, Bethlehem. So Joseph is warned in a dream to leave and flee to Egypt.
They were told to leave behind their home, their country, their business, their relatives, their friends, everything. And they didn’t have time to prepare. They didn’t have time to sell their stuff. They didn’t have time to say good-bye. They didn’t have time to tie up loose ends. They didn’t have time to prepare for the journey.
It says that “he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt.”
This is amazing. Joseph has a dream and obeys instantly. In the middle of the night, he wakes up Mary and tells her, “It’s time to go. We are leaving to Egypt.” For her part, Mary follows. No argument is recorded. There is no delay, which could have been deadly.
This is obedience! Slow obedience is disobedience. Joseph and Mary don’t drag their heels. They obey right away.
On the way they would surely face many more challenges. Mary and Joseph and Jesus were now refugees. They would be strangers in a foreign land afraid to go back to their home country at the risk of death.
In this look at the Christmas story we have looked at about 2-2.5 years. They were challenging years, but they pressed on in obedience.
What lessons can we take away from this story?
#1 – God provided in the midst of challenges
A. A husband for Mary
B. Confirmation for Joseph to ease his mind
C. A place for Mary to give birth in. And a manger.
D. Gifts to help them on their journey to Egypt and start a new life there.
E. Clear guidance so they would know what to do.
Whatever challenges you are facing this year, God will also provide for you. Sometimes His provision is out of the is world amazing and miraculous like the kingly gifts brought by the magi from far away and presented just in their moment of need. And sometimes His provision is less than what we hope, but enough for our need. Mary and Joseph probably hoped for a better place for Mary to deliver in and to stay, but it was enough.
#2 – God’s plan is not always easy.
God’s plan for Mary and Joseph was not easy. They faced difficulties in almost every area: spiritual challenges of faith, relationship struggles, financial challenges, and government regulations and persecution.
This did not change the fact that God was good and He did have a plan.
One verse we have quoted a lot this year is Romans 8:28, “God causes all things to work together for good for those who love Him and are called to His purposes.”
Do you believe the plans God has had for you are good? They are good. But they are likely not easy. Just this week I was talking with Adam, Lily, and Jeremy Lund. They were separated this year for nearly 6 months due to Covid. It was difficult. But they have testimonies of God’s goodness. And God used this in Jeremy’s life to bring him to a new school and make new friends.
The easy way is often not the best way. Remember that when you face challenges.
#3 – Pressing on is easier when you have a godly spouse (or friends to help you through)
From time to time people ask me what qualities they should look for in a spouse. Many people write a list of things they are looking for in a spouse. They may include personality traits, skills, character qualities, etc. Some things on a list may include: good looking, a sense of humor, knowledge of God’s word, a good cook, share similar hobbies, etc.
So I have a few questions for you. Was Mary beautiful? Was Joseph handsome? Did they share similar hobbies? Did Joseph have a sense of humor? Was Mary a good cook?
The answer to all of these is, we don’t know!
But were they a good couple? The answer is “yes,” for one reason. And this is the character trait you should look for in a spouse more than any other. They obeyed God. Over and over in the story Mary and Joseph each obey what God asks of them.
When you are looking for a spouse, look for a spouse who obeys God. And when preparing for marriage, the best preparation possible is obedience. If two people who both are willing to obey God no matter what the cost come together in marriage, then that marriage is going to be successful. You will be equally yoked. And you will be able to encourage and help each other through those challenges.
Joseph helped Mary by providing support and stability at a time when she needed it. And Mary in turn willingly followed Joseph as he sought to obey God’s leading.
Husbands and wives should seek to obey God and help each other obey God. And if you are not married, ask God to lead you to a spouse who obeys Him. And for those who are single, godly friends can also help you face challenges and press on. Do not isolate yourselves. Lions attack the vulnerable who are by themselves and so does Satan.
Pressing on to obey God’s plan for your life is easier when you have godly friends and a godly spouse.
#4 – Press on one step (one challenge) at a time. God did not dump all of these things on Mary and Joseph at once. They faced them one at a time. And they obeyed one step at a time.
Last week one of my sons was doing math. He looked at the page and saw about 40 math problems. Each of these math problems had several steps. He was overwhelmed. “It’s impossible. I can never finish it!” he said. We talked and I told him, do it one step at a time. Don’t focus on the 40 problems. Look at the first one. Do the first step. Then the next step and finish one. Then do the next. He was able to finish all the problems in less than half an hour by focusing on one at a time.
Like him, we often get overwhelmed looking at all the things we have to do. We sometimes see all the difficulties at once. But God didn’t dump all of these things on Mary and Joseph at once. They faced these challenges over about a 2 year period. At each moment they knew the next thing they needed to do.
Psalm 119:105 – Your Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
A lamp to my feet. He may not light up the way far from where you are, but He will show you the next step. God may not tell us what He wants us to do next year or next week. It is enough that He shows us what He wants us to do today.
Whatever you are facing, ask yourself what is the next step. Then obey God and move forward one step at a time.
Today we have been talking about challenges, the challenges facing Mary and Joseph as they followed God’s plan. But the one who faced the greatest challenge of all was Jesus. He was in heaven surrounded by perfection. He then became a man. He took on the form of a helpless babe. The Creator condescended to become a man. He allowed himself to become helpless and depend on others. But the birth wasn’t the most challenging part.
He was on a mission. He came for a reason to bring “peace on earth.” That peace was only possible by reconciling man to God. That was accomplished through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. The perfect, sinless, Son of God would become sin for us. His entire life was lived looking forward to dying as a sacrifice and facing God’s wrath. He pressed on for you.
Jesus is our ultimate example of obedience as He submitted Himself to the Father’s will.
But someone might think, “Jesus is God. Of course He can do that. I am just a person.”
Well today we have seen that sinners like Mary and Joseph can also press on to obey God’s’ plan for their lives even in the face of numerous challenges.
Turn to your neighbor and say, “2020 is almost over.” Now answer, “but it’s not over yet.” Perhaps 2020 is not your favorite year and you are ready to start a new year. God calls us to live in the present. To take that next step for Him. The next step is Christmas. How will you glorify Jesus this Christmas? What do you need to do to press on to finish what God has called you to do this year?
As we close in prayer, thank God for the challenges and trials you have faced this year and ask Him to strengthen you to obey Him one step at a time.
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