Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Eve (Matthew 1:18-25)

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this Christmas Eve is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from Matthew chapter one. Dear friends in Christ, I love the movie ‘The Nativity Story.’ Very well done and full of beautiful imagery, this movie puts a human face on the story we read about in the Scriptures. Despite a few changes to the story- the wise men did not come on Christmas Eve- I thought it was very accurate as well. One of its most important contributions, in my opinion, is the portrayal of Joseph. While in most tellings of the Christmas story Joseph is an incidental character, ‘The Nativity Story’ really makes his struggles come alive for us. This is much like Matthew in our text for tonight. While Luke rightfully shines the spotlight on Mary, Matthew takes a look at Joseph. And what we see is very encouraging. God knew what He was doing when He selected the parents of our Lord and Savior. They both were faithful and obedient to God, and as we will see, they trusted the promises given to them.

Matthew describes Joseph as a ‘just’ man, using a word that we often have translated as ‘righteous.’ He was a good Jew, practicing obedience to the Law and following God’s instructions in the Old Testament. “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.” Can you imagine what that was like? Joseph was a good man, a righteous man, a hard working carpenter who only wanted to build a family in Nazareth. He was one of the ‘good guys’ that in our world does not seem to get any breaks. He had selected what seemed to be a wonderful wife, followed all the proper customs to become betrothed to her, and was awaiting the day that she would be his wife. When it became apparent that she was pregnant, I think we can all imagine what Joseph felt like. He felt betrayed, deceived, sinned against. The woman whom he had pledged his life to had been unfaithful even before they were married!

But Joseph did not react out of anger. “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” Here another definition of just or righteous is revealed. Joseph was willing to show mercy to someone who seemingly did not deserve it. Isn’t this amazing?! His love for her remained strong even after he discovered her secret! If he revealed her unfaithfulness, she would have faced public shame at the least and perhaps death by stoning at the worst. Joseph showed grace and mercy to his betrothed- his plan were motivated by love. But the plans of men are not the plans of God. Isn’t that the way it is with all of our plans? So often we mean well, but we simply do not know all that our Lord does. We make plans for a comfortable life, a new car, a bigger home, grand vacations, and a comfortable lifestyle, but God so often says that He has different plans. Especially in this world, we are encouraged to set things up so that we achieve all that we can at each stage, working toward a comfortable retirement in the sun. But the sin of this world, the challenges sent our way, can derail each and every plan. At every turn, God is achieving His own plans through good and ill, plans that will ultimately bring forth good, though we often can’t see the end.

Joseph was about to do the wrong thing for the right reasons, but it was the plans of men that led this world into sin in the first place- our plans made the mess that God sought to clean up. We wanted to be like God in the Garden of Eden, and if you think about it, that is what many of our plans ultimately come down to. We often mean well, as Joseph did, but our own sin, caused by the misguided plans of Adam and Eve, colors every plan that we make. The plans of our sinful nature include only us and our own needs. Our sin turns us in on ourselves and focuses our plans squarely on ‘what’s in it for me.’ Man’s desires and schemes have led to wars and destruction throughout history, they have caused families and friendships to break apart. Left to ourselves and our plans, we may have a grand time here on earth, but our plans would have no place for God.

God stops the plan of Joseph right in its tracks: “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.” God’s plans, as they do so often in our lives, override our plans. We had fallen into sin, left to ourselves and our devices we simply made things worse, as we fell deeper and deeper into sin and justly earned the wrath of God. But God had His own plans. His love for us was so complete, so total, that He was willing to deal with our sin, to reclaim humanity for His own. And so Joseph’s plans, as kind and loving as they were, needed to be thwarted. But Joseph did not complain. In his trusting submission of his own plans to those of God, Joseph gives us all a pattern of looking at our own plans. “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.”

For this child was no ordinary child. The angel told Joseph in the dream, “She will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Today, names are simply labels, we pick them for aesthetic reasons or because a name has special meaning for us, most of the time (unless we receive one of those fancy bookmarks) we don’t even know what they mean. But in the Scriptures, names mean something, they have incredible significance, especially when they are given directly from God. They describe a person’s identity as well as what they are to do. They are a one-word prophecy, and here, the name of Mary’s Son is incredibly significant. For this Child is to be named Jesus, the Old Testament name Joshua. And in order that Joseph and the rest of us don’t miss its significance, the angel translates: “for He will save His people from their sins.” Jesus means ‘Yahweh saves!’ This child was to be the instrument, the tool which Yahweh would use to save all people from their sin, to save us all from the punishment we deserve for those sins. For the rest of His life, the very name Jesus will evoke the purpose for which He came, to save sinners.

But this Jesus was more than simply a instrument of Yahweh. “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).” Once again, the name describes identity and purpose. This child is truly God, a concept that we can only believe, we can never completely understand. It is a miracle, it is a mystery, it is the truth, and it is the only way by which we could be saved. For only as a man could the Son of God stand in our place. God was present amongst His people in the tabernacle in the desert and the temple in Jerusalem, but in a still distant way. In Christ He is present as one of us, as our Brother, in an intimate relationship with us, those who by no means deserve it. But more than that, He is not present simply for the sake of being present, He is present among us to save.

And as Yahweh come to save, as God with us in the flesh, this Child embarked on a mission to fulfill all those names prophesied. For the one born this night in a stable in Bethlehem would be the one to open wide once again the gates to paradise, and He could only do that by means of His death. Our sin deserved death, and in order to fulfill His name, Jesus had to pay the price we owed. On this night we look toward the manger, but only because the one born on this quiet night would be the one who would save you and me from sin by dying on the cross. Without the cross, Christmas is a neat story, perhaps good movie material, but of little worth to us. Christ dealt with our ultimate need, that of salvation, a need that is present whether we realize it or not. He did this by living a life in obedience to the Law, just like His parents, and then taking all of our sin, your sin, my sin, and the sin of the entire world, to the cross. There His shed blood washed it all away. Christ is God’s greatest gift because He bled and died for us! On this Christmas Eve, we look toward Good Friday and Easter, not to be sorrowful, but to be reminded once again that this miracle, God becoming man, had a purpose, a plan that involved your salvation. We no longer have to fear death, we no longer have to fear the punishment for our sins- Christ’s shed blood and victorious resurrection has delivered us!

This salvation delivers us in both body and soul. That is the great miracle of the Incarnation. When Jesus took on human flesh and was born of Mary that first Christmas night, He declared that His salvation was for our corrupted bodies as well. We look forward to the resurrection of the dead on the Last Day, we look forward to the restoration of our entire selves, body and soul, on that day. That is the Christian’s ultimate hope.

Joseph was about to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. As we heard earlier, this is an example of how the plans of our sinful nature are not always those of God. Christ came to deliver us from the sinful results of humanity’s plans, from the mess that we made of our world through our own scheming and sinful planning. But yet, this Christmas Eve we still find much to commend in Joseph. In fact, Jesus followed in Joseph’s footsteps. Like father, like adopted Son, we might say. Jesus showed mercy to we who were unworthy, all of us who were infected by sin, and His mercy washed those sins away. Joseph’s love for Mary is only a poor picture of Christ’s love for you, a love that sustains us each and every day. May this love, the love which led Jesus to become man, the love that led Him to the cross, fill you this Christmas Eve, Amen.

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