GOD USES HUMBLE MEN TO ACCOMPLISH HIS GREAT PURPOSE
- With humility, Joseph obeyed God to protect his Son
- With humility, Joseph was used by God to fulfill his plan
“Humility is the first mark of a Christian,” once said one of my college professors. “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less,” said C.S. Lewis. “Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus, who … humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross,” said the Apostle Paul to the Philippians (2:5,8).
On the other hand, “Nice guys finish last”—so the popular saying goes. No one ever accused Vince Lombardi or Bill Belichick of being humble. Candidates for political office don’t usually run ads promoting their humility—which sounds like an oxymoronic thing to do!
A few sermons preached in this pulpit during this Lenten season have emphasized the pendulum swing we often find ourselves on between the arrogant and proud Pharisee inside us and the down and despairing tax collector who also lives in us. Between those two extremes is a place for proper humility. We’re not talking about the false humility of despair, but the Christian humility that trusts God and his Word and boasts solely in the work of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Today the Church remembers Saint Joseph, the earthly step-father of Jesus. There isn’t a lot we can say about Joseph because Joseph didn’t say a lot. Not a single word he uttered is recorded in the Bible. But we do see in Joseph a man of godly humility. In Joseph, we see a humble man that God used to accomplish his great purpose. And that lesson from Joseph’s life as the step-father of Jesus is the lesson that the Holy Spirit teaches in the Gospel for this day that is set aside on the Church’s calendar to remember Joseph. God uses humble men to accomplish his great purpose. With humility, Joseph obeyed God to protect his Son. With humility, Joseph was used by God to fulfill his plan.
Do you think Joseph ever got tired of dreams? Joseph receives no less than four dreams from God in the first two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, and every one put his life in a new direction. First he learns that his fiancée, Mary, is expecting a child. Knowing he is not the father, he makes a reasonable assumption. Then God’s angel comes to him in a dream and says, “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” (1:20). Fast forward a couple of years. Jesus was born, the angels sang and the shepherds arrived on the night of the birth. The Wise Men come sometime later, after they are settled into their own home in Bethlehem. And then God’s angel comes to Joseph in a dream again and says in today’s Gospel, “Get up, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” And off to Egypt they go to escape Herod’s menacing and murderous sword. Fast forward again. Herod is dead, and so are his irrational fears about a rival king. And the angel comes to Joseph in a dream and says, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” And on the way back one more dream comes, sending Jesus’ family north to Galilee to avoid any possible threats that might come from the son of Herod who was the new puppet-king on the throne.
Every dream Joseph received in the first two chapters of Matthew put his life on another course—first as the stepfather of the Son of God, then as the father of a family in exile in Egypt, then back home, but in a new hometown. I could imagine that Joseph would have been a little concerned when the next dream was coming! But what should strike us is that Joseph listened to every command in each dream down to the last letter. The angel said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and escape to Egypt” And Matthew says, “He got up, took the child and his mother…and left for Egypt.” The angel said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel.” And Matthew says, “He got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel.” Joseph followed every order despite obvious inconvenience each time. No complaints, no questions, not even a quotation—just quiet humility that obeyed God to protect his Son.
Joseph is a very fine example of humble obedience to God’s commands, though we know that even Joseph was not a perfect example. Joseph is present for the birth of Jesus, for the escape to Egypt and return to Galilee, and for Jesus’ first trip to Jerusalem as a twelve-year-old boy. After that, we never even hear about Joseph (let alone hearing from Joseph). That’s because at some point, Joseph died. He’s nowhere to be found in the story of Jesus’ ministry. As fine and noble an example as he was, he was also a sinner in need of his step-Son’s salvation. And all this is perhaps a reminder that obedience to God, even for a man like Joseph, is harder than it sounds!
The angel said to Joseph, “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, for what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” And so Joseph had no relations with Mary until after Jesus’ birth, doing us all the service of demonstrating Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. But the college dating couple who hears God’s commands regarding sexuality immediately wants to know how far they can go and where the line is that they intend to cross anyway. The angel said to Joseph, “Take the child and his mother and escape,” and he doesn’t even complain that it’s inconvenient. But today the family can wake up on Sunday and say that 8:00 is too early for the one day we can sleep in, and 10:30 is too late if I want to see my friends at noon, and Wednesdays and Thursdays are school nights, and that hour at church plus travel is just too inconvenient every week. The angel said to Joseph, “Take the child and his mother and go [back],” and Joseph led his family to and from Egypt. But today the father of the family may say, “Lead as the God-ordained head of my family? I’m more concerned that I’m leading in my March Madness office pool.”
Obedience is harder than it sounds. In fact, we must confess that our obedience to God’s Word and commands is and never will be perfect. But there is One who was obedient, perfectly obedient, without fail—not Joseph, but Joseph’s step-son, Jesus! God the Father told his Son to come into this world as a helpless infant child. And as Luther penned in one of his hymns, “The Son obeyed his Father’s will, was born of virgin mother, and God’s good pleasure to fulfill, he came to by my brother.” God directed Jesus to face the temptations of the devil in the Judean desert, and Jesus not only faced those temptations but conquered them each time. The letter to the Hebrews says, “[Jesus] has been tempted in every way, just as we are, yet did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15). God the Father called on his Son to lay down his life and experience the punishment of hell in our place to spare us from death and hell. And as St. Paul wrote, “[Jesus] humbled himself to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). And in the saving work of Jesus, you find the humility and the obedience and the perfection that God demands from every person and that God now gives as a gift that counts for every person who trusts in Jesus’ obedience lived on our behalf. Through Jesus’ humble obedience, God has protected you not from Herod, but from hell. He has made heaven your home for eternity.
Matthew wrote his Gospel for a primarily Jewish audience. That may be part of the reason he quotes the Old Testament so much—because his Jewish readers would understand the connection he makes between Jesus’ life and the Old Testament quotations. In the Christmas story, Matthew quotes the prophet Isaiah (7:14) who said, “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” When the Magi ask where Jesus was to be born, Matthew notes that the experts found the birth place predicted by the prophet Micah (5:2).
Matthew quotes the Old Testament in this reading as well. “[Joseph] got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.’” Matthew quotes the prophet Hosea (11:1). This quotation is interesting because if you read it in its Old Testament in context, it doesn’t sound at all like it’s about Jesus’ family fleeing to and returning from Egypt. It’s about the ancient nation of Israel escaping from slavery in Egypt. But in this quotation, God called the ancient Israelites his “son.” They were his hand-picked, chosen nation through whom God would eventually send his Son. And Matthew puts the final pieces of these words into the prophetic puzzle picture to show us that this real, historical event was also God’s way of previewing a time later when Jesus, the Son of God, would be taken to and from Egypt to rescue him.
There’s another reference to God’s prophets at the end of our Gospel. To avoid settling near the son of Herod who was now reigning as king, God’s angel directs Joseph to settle in a different location. Matthew says, “[Joseph] withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he”—that is, Jesus—“would be called a Nazarene.” This reference is also a little puzzling at first. There is no Old Testament verse predicting that the Savior would be from the town of Nazareth. But Matthew once again knows his Jewish audience. In Jesus’ day, the town of Nazareth was seen as a lowly, undesirable place to live. If you were from Nazareth, it was akin to saying you were a “despised, good-for-nothing nobody.” And the Old Testament did predict in a number of places that Jesus would be lowly (Zechariah 9:9) and despised (Psalm 22:6-8) and rejected (Isaiah 53:3). Coming from Nazareth only heightened that lowly perception that was already predicted by multiple Old Testament prophets.
There is some interesting “biblical trivia” behind Matthew’s two references, but these two references both teach the same truth: Everything that happened to Jesus was part of God’s plan before the events happened. And so everything Joseph did actually carried out God’s prophetic plan. This would have been the furthest thing from Joseph’s mind when he whisked Jesus and Mary away to Egypt for safety and returned later at God’s direction. Joseph was humbly following the directions God had given him. But in the process, Joseph was used by God to fulfill God the Father’s prophesied plan to preserve the life of his incarnate Son.
We can only approach God with humility. We know how foolish it would be to approach God with pride in ourselves for our accomplishments and good works, as if they were a way to impress God. But we also would be wrong to downplay deeds done out of sincere love for God or neighbor, because those deeds fit into God’s plans in ways that, like Joseph, we would never realize in the moment.
Your humble and simple invitation to your neighbor to join us for worship this Easter may very well be a part of God’s plans to bring that specific lost soul into his family. Your humble offering might seem like an insignificant amount of money in the grand scheme of eternity, but God already has plans to use your humble offering, combined with so many similarly humble gifts given alongside yours, to support and sustain and even expand the gospel ministry that happens inside and outside these walls. Your humble service, however you volunteer your talents in our church and school, might not seem like a great accomplishment to you. But when your time and service enable pastors and teachers to focus on being ministers of the gospel instead of administrators of business, God is using you to allow more gospel ministry to take place. In fact, just the fact that you are here is a part of God’s plan that he had for you from eternity—a plan to elect you to be his own, to redeem you in the blood of his Son, to call you to faith at the font, to use the time and talents and treasures he gave you to be blessing to his Church, and finally to bring you some day to the eternal home he planned for you from eternity!
Godly humility is not the same thing as low self-esteem or self-denigration. Humility is not about groveling in misery about ourselves. Rather, it’s about a proper perspective about ourselves. And I doubt there is a better way to gain that proper perspective about ourselves than when we see Jesus’ humility, which is the focus of this Lenten season. Jesus’ humility fulfilled God’s greatest plan to rescue us from sin. What humbling but gratitude-filling news! And what a great reason to serve God faithfully, knowing that he gives us the humble honor of being his instruments to accomplish his great plans day by day!
Joseph helps us to see that God uses humble men to accomplish his great purpose. God bless our humble efforts to glorify him and serve him in his kingdom—all to Jesus’ glory! Amen.