Matthew 1:18-25 (4th Sunday in Advent—Series A)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT
December 19, 2010
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our text is the Gospel Lesson from Matthew 1:
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.
One question that parents dread their children to ask is, “Where do babies come from?” Quite frankly, I don’t think it should be any of their business thinking about such things and they certainly shouldn’t be asking me about it. That’s why they have a mother! It turns out, we are all interested in the origins and the beginnings of things. I read a wonderful little book recently about the origins of many of our Christmas hymns and songs. It was quite fascinating. Did you know that “Jingle Bells” was originally written for a Thanksgiving Service? James S. Peirpont of Medford, Massachusetts was asked by his father, Medford’s Unitarian Church’s pastor, to write special music for Thanksgiving in 1840. The fully harmonized arrangement made its debut to a large audience on Thanksgiving Day, the most important holiday in New England at the time. Pretty interesting beginning for one of people’s favorite “Christmas” carols.
But what about the origins of Jesus Christ? As we enter this Fourth week in Advent, with the Nativity of our Lord very much on our doorstep, we hear from God Himself about the origin of Jesus Christ, “true God, begotten of the Father from all eternity, and also true Man, born of the Virgin Mary, our Lord.”
The conception and birth of the Son of God made flesh is full of misunderstanding. Even Joseph’s perception of the situation and his pious, yet uninformed, decision was off the mark. Mary “was found” to be pregnant with the result that righteous and compassionate Joseph decided to cancel the legal marriage created by his betrothal. According to Jewish custom, betrothal was a legally binding relationship, the first stage of marriage. It was not at all like “engagement” today. Far too many couples who are engaged think it appropriate to move in with their fiancée and act like a married couple, even with an engagement not being legally binding. Mary and Joseph, St. Matthew makes clear, had not come together in marriage yet. The marriage was consummated only after the brothel period was completed. For a virgin, betrothal usually lasted for about one year. During this time the betrothed girl was legally the man’s wife even though she was still a virgin, since the marital relation did not begin until the marriage ceremony. The betrothal could be broken only by a formal written divorce or death.
Since the child inside Mary’s womb is not from Joseph, Mary’s betrothed, it must have been from a sinful union between Mary and another man. This is the natural human evaluation of the “origin” of Jesus Christ. Joseph can only act on the basis of his own logical understanding of the child’s origin. Joseph’s plan to divorce Mary discreetly would leave both his conformity to the Law and his compassion intact. The Law called for Mary to be stoned if she was guilty of adultery, yet Joseph felt compassion for Mary and planned to dissolve the marriage contract as quietly as possible.
As Dr. Jeffry Gibbs stated in his commentary, “Joseph is, for the right reasons, about to do the wrong thing, but God intervenes.”
God’s ways have to be revealed to us. We cannot get the knowledge of the things of God by our own reason or strength. There was no way Joseph could have imagined, even in the wildest of fantasies, the Mary would be pregnant without the help of a man. So God steps in with His angel-messenger to clear things up. The angel tells Joseph both the origin and the name of the child to be born. “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.” Matthew clues us in as readers that this child conceived in Mary from the Holy Spirit is God with us, Immanuel. This is exactly what Mary already knows from the angel Gabriel, whom God had sent to her. We read in Luke 1, “And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ And Mary said to the angel, ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?’ And the angel answered her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.’” (Luke 1:30-35)
Now the whole thing is revealed by God to Joseph. As an act of God’s Spirit, the conception of “Emmanuel” (God with us) in the virgin Mary directs us to Jesus’ divine origin from the heavenly Father in that Jesus has no biological father. Jesus is true God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. He is “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” (Nicene Creed) As we will hear on Christmas morning, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”(John 1:1, 14)
It is the purpose of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ to “save” people from their sins. That’s what the name “Jesus” means, “the Lord is salvation” or “The Lord saves.” Jesus, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, “for us for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man.” As we confess with the whole Church in the words of the Athanasian Creed, “Therefore, it is the right faith that we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is at the same time both God and man. He is God, begotten from the substance of the Father before all ages; and He is man, born of from the substance of His mother in this age: perfect God and perfect man, composed of a rational soul and human flesh; equal to the Father with respect to His divinity, less than the Father with respect to His humanity. Although He is God and man, He is not two, but one Christ: one, however, not by the conversion of the divinity into flesh, but by the assumption of the humanity into God; one altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person. For as the rational soul and flesh is one man, so God and man is one Christ, who suffered for our salvation, descended into hell, rose again the third day from the dead, ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, God Almighty, from whence He will come to judge the living and the dead.”
Joseph believed God’s Word and took Mary his wife and named the Child Jesus. Of all people who we think would be unsure, it would have been Joseph. Even Joseph’s example of faith is not enough to convince others of the truth of Jesus’ origin. The miracle of Jesus’ incarnation—conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary—is still misunderstood and not believed. Thomas Jefferson said in 1832, “The Day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” Larry King, the CNN talk show host, was once asked who he would most want to interview if he could choose anyone from all of history. He said, “Jesus Christ.” The questioner said, “And what would you like to ask Him?” King replied, “I would like to ask Him if He was indeed virgin-born. The answer to that question would define history for me”
By God’s revelation to us in His Word, the Bible, we, by the power of the same Holy Spirit who worked the conception of God the Son in the Virgin Mary’s womb, confess the Christian faith. In a world that misunderstands the origin of Jesus in His conception and birth among us to be the world’s Savior, it is you and I who are called upon to give the true declaration about who Jesus is and what He has done, as it has been revealed to us in God’s Word.
This Christmas make the good confession of Jesus Christ, your Lord and Savior. May we together, in faith, hope, and love, speak confidently and boldly the words of Martin Luther’s explanation to the Second Article of the Apostles’ Creed so that there can be no misunderstanding about Jesus Christ: “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord, who has redeemed me, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won me from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death, that I may be His own and live under Him in His kingdom, and serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as He is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity. This is most certainly true.” (Small Catechism) Amen