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Sermon for December 22, 2019, Fourth Sunday in Advent

Matthew 1:18-25 (Fourth Sunday in Advent—Series A)

“Believing the Incarnation”

Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT

December 22, 2019

 

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Our text is the Gospel Lesson from Matthew 1:

18Now the origin of Jesus Christ was in this way: After his mother Mary had been betrothed  to Joseph, before they came together, it was found that she was pregnant (from the Holy Spirit). 19Now Joseph, her husband, because he was righteous and because he did not wish to disgrace her publicly, wanted to divorce her quietly. 20But after he had reflected on these things, Behold! an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary, your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21And she will give birth to a son, and you will call his name Jesus, for he himself will save his people from their sins.” 22And this whole thing has happened in order that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, 23‘Behold, the virgin will be pregnant and she will bear a son, and they will call his name Emmanuel,’ which is translated ‘God with us.’” 24And Joseph got up from sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and he took his wife [into his home], 25but he continued not knowing her until she gave 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 once read a wonderful little book 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. That’s a pretty interesting beginning for one of people’s favorite “Christmas” carols.

          But what about the origin and birth of Jesus Christ? As we enter this Fourth week in Advent, with the Nativity of our Lord just days away, we hear from God Himself about the “origin” of Jesus Christ, 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 their betrothal. According to Jewish custom, betrothal was a legally binding relationship, the first stage of marriage. It was not at all like “engagement” today. 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 only be broken 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 be afraid to take Mary, your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. And she will give birth to a son, and you will call his name Jesus, for he himself 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,” Emmanuel. This is exactly what Mary already knew 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 through an angel. As an act of God’s Spirit, the conception of Emmanuel in the womb of the virgin Mary directs us to Jesus’ divine nature. 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.” 

It is hard to think about “the how” of Jesus’ Incarnation. The Bible doesn’t share with us this information. The God-breathed Word simply tells us of the fact that Jesus is true God and true Man. In Martin Luther’s beautiful words, Jesus is “true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary” (Small Catechism). In Christ, God and man are united in one person. While our brains might not understand it, we can trust that this is most certainly true because the Word of God tells us so. Yes, believing that Jesus Christ is, at the same time, both true God and true Man, is a matter of trusting the Word of God found in Holy Scripture. It is receiving from God the Holy Spirit the gift of faith that the Word of Scripture is true because it is the Truth. Although the devil and the world and our sinful flesh tempt us to think otherwise, God the Holy Spirit, through the Word and the Sacraments of Christ calls, enlightens, makes us holy, and keeps us with Jesus Christ in the one, true faith. May God our Father forgive us for the times that we doubt His Holy Word and grant us grace to believe His promises to us in Jesus Christ, who is true God and true Man, our Lord.

          It is for the very forgiveness of all our sins that God sent His One-of-a-Kind Son to take to Himself a human nature in His Incarnation and so be our Lord. But does it really matter if one believes that Jesus is both God and Man? Could He not be our Lord without being God-made-flesh? No, He could not. Hence Scripture’s insistence that we believe and confess that Jesus Christ, “the Son of God, is at the same time both God and man” (Athanasian Creed).

In order to save us from our sins, the Son of God had to take the place of those He came to save. He had to become the perfect substitute for people. In order to be that perfect substitute, Jesus, true God from eternity, had to take to Himself a true human nature and human flesh. He had to be made just like us, yet without sin, in order to save us (Heb. 2:17; 4:15). Because you and I are not able to keep God’s holy Law perfectly as He demands, Jesus as true God and true Man took this burden on Himself. The Son of God was born of a woman, born under the Law, that He might fulfill God’s Law on our behalf (Gal. 4:4).

To satisfy God’s demands for justice, full atonement for the original sin with which we are conceived and born and for all the sins we have committed since needed to be made. The death penalty for humanity’s sin had to be paid. The Son of God had to be true Man so that He might be capable of suffering, shedding His blood, and dying for the sins of the whole world in whose place He hung on the cross. Jesus the Son of God took on flesh and blood so that He might be able to die and so purchase and win the forgiveness of sins and eternal life for each one of you.

Simply put, Jesus had to be true God and true Man in order to be our Savior. That’s why it does matter that we believe and confess along with the Scriptures that Jesus is both “perfect God and perfect man” (Athanasian Creed). And it is none other than this Jesus—the Son of God and the Son of Mary—who is our Lord! It is this Jesus who “has redeemed [us] from sin, from the devil, from death, and from all evil.”[1]

          Joseph believed God’s Word and took Mary, his wife, into his home. 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 Mary’s womb, believe and confess the Christian truth of the Incarnation. As the hymnwriter expressed it:

1    From God the Father, virgin-born
To us the only Son came down;
By death the font to consecrate,
The faithful to regenerate.

 

2    Beginning from His home on high,
In human flesh He came to die;
Creation by His death restored,
And shed new joys of life abroad. (LSB 401)

Text: Public domain

 

 

By the power of the Holy Spirit working through His Means of Grace in Gospel Word and Sacrament, continue this Christmas Season to confess boldly in your lives and with your words that Jesus Christ is true God and true Man, your Lord, the Savior of all people! Amen.

 

[1] Paul Timothy McCain, ed., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 401–402.


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