Monday, December 20, 2010

Advent 4 of Series A (Matthew 1:18-25)

“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.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning is from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the first chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, we are definitely more familiar with Luke’s Christmas narrative than Matthew’s. From Luke, we hear of angels and shepherds, inns and stables. We find out exactly why Jesus was born in Bethlehem, with all the needed historical details. Luke’s Christmas narrative is a thing of beauty, with songs of praise and wondrous imagery around every corner. Matthew’s Christmas, on the other hand, seems a bit disappointing. The actual birth of Jesus, that event that Luke spends so much time describing, is almost an afterthought in verse twenty-five of our text: “But he knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called His name Jesus.” Matthew is recording the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection during a time when people are questioning every aspect of the Christ’s life, and he wants to set the record straight. He wants to faithfully demonstrate Jesus’ origins, proving that a miracle did happen, that Jesus was conceived of a virgin through the work of the Holy Spirit. Songs, shepherds, and stables cannot provide much help here, but instead he needs to tell the story of a pregnant teenager, and the scandal that resulted.

Listen to how Matthew lays out the situation: “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.” Matthew carefully gives us the relevant details. Mary is betrothed to Joseph, which means that they were engaged. For a virgin, the period of engagement was to be one year, during which Mary would be considered Joseph’s wife, but they would not have marital relations. Matthew emphasizes this by telling us that “before they came together” she was found to be pregnant. Now we know that Mary is pregnant “from the Holy Spirit,” but no one else does, and I’m guessing that it would be hard for her to convince her parents or Joseph that she was carrying the Messiah. Can you imagine what Joseph felt? If she was pregnant and it was not his child, then it seemed to him that the only other option was a violation of the Sixth Commandment: “You shall not commit adultery.” Joseph probably felt betrayed, angry, disappointed, or perhaps just profoundly sad. But he does not act on those emotions; instead, what does he do? “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”

Even though Mary wasn’t guilty, there is good reason why she would’ve been exposed to shame: virginity is praiseworthy and sex outside of marriage is sinful! I think that we have lost sight of both of these facts today, even in the Church. We don’t praise virginity and chastity enough from the pulpit or in our private conversations, and because of this, we have lost the ability to proclaim God’s Law effectively. We forget or ignore the words of Paul, who declares that for those who have been given this gift, virginity is better than marriage! The apostle writes in 1 Corinthians chapter seven: “I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another. To the unmarried and the widows I say that it is good for them to remain single as I am.” God gives that gift so that people can dedicate their lives to serving Christ and His Church. Of course, not all people are given the gift of life-long virginity, but we should never look down upon those who are given that gift, instead encouraging them to use that gift in service of the Church. And while the majority of us are not given that gift, we can all still live chaste lives. Despite what the media bombards us with, despite what everyone else is doing, despite what our sinful natures want, God has given sex as a gift only within the bonds of marriage. That is what chastity is, living a life in obedience to the Sixth Commandment, whether we are married or not. And God does not only call us all as Christians to a life of chastity, but He commands us to encourage it amongst our children and our friends and neighbors. That is where we are failing as a church and as Christians. We do not praise chastity and virginity enough; we do not give the positive side of the Sixth Commandment as a model for living our lives before God.

But we have the whole shame thing down pat. Joseph had to work quietly and quickly to avoid bringing shame down on Mary, because he knew that once the word got out, Mary would immediately become the subject of gossip. Oh, yes, we’re good at that. We’re great at talking about violations of the Sixth Commandment amongst our friends or neighbors, we’re very good at making someone the ‘talk of the town.’ But where we fail as the Church and as Christians is in going to fellow sinners privately and proclaiming to them both God’s stern Law and His sweet Gospel. We are much more ready to tear down a person’s reputation than to look at leading them out of their sin and to the loving mercies of God’s forgiveness.

Joseph knew this; he had a firm grip on human nature, he understood how small towns like Nazareth, Kiron, and Deloit operated. So how does he plan to resolve this situation? Matthew tells us: “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” It was well within his rights to expose Mary’s adultery, leaving her to the punishment of the crowds, a punishment that at the least included public disgrace, at the most death by stoning. He could’ve retained her dowry and even taken back from Mary’s father the bride price. And who would’ve blamed him? He had been sinned against in the worst way; she had betrayed his trust and the vows they made to one another. But instead of acting out of anger and betrayal, Joseph acts in grace. He wants to protect Mary, he wants to keep her from the shame that is sure to come when this ‘teen pregnancy’ is revealed. Matthew describes Joseph as ‘just,’ a word much better translated as ‘righteous.’ Joseph is a righteous man, and because of that he wants to reach out to Mary in mercy, protecting her from the penalty for her sin.
This is all unexpected and wonderful for Joseph to do, except for one thing: Mary hadn’t sinned! Joseph is doing the wrong thing for the right reasons, but fortunately God is quick to correct him. “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.’” Joseph’s original plan protected Mary at his expense, but now God’s angel was telling him to go a step further. Joseph was to take this pregnant young woman into his home before the betrothal was completed. Think about what this would signify to the people of Nazareth; in taking Mary into his home early, Joseph was proclaiming to the world that it was he who had committed adultery. He was the one who broke the Sixth Commandment, who had violated the rules of betrothal. He was taking Mary’s shame upon himself, making himself a sinner in the eyes of the world when he had done nothing wrong. He would take responsibility for her supposed sin, and bear himself the blame and the shame that would be sure to come. This involved much more personal sacrifice than his original plan, but the angel of the Lord told Him “do not fear,” and so he did not. “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.”

Joseph named Mary’s Son Jesus, the name given to him by the angel. The angel had also given to him the definition of that name: “She will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” But little did Joseph know that Jesus would fulfill His name by following in the footsteps of His earthly father. Jesus committed no sin; He was the perfect one, fulfilling every aspect of God’s holy Law completely. He is the righteous One, the beloved Son of the Father. He had no sin of His own to be ashamed of, but we did, we still do. We are ashamed of our disobedience to the Law, especially our violations of the Sixth Commandment in thought, word and deed. We are ashamed of our failure to praise chastity or work to bring sinners to repentance. Jesus had no such shame, but just as Joseph took Mary’s shame upon himself, so Jesus took our shame upon Himself. He, the righteous One, the One without sin, proclaimed to the world and His Father that He was the sinner, the sin-bearer. He presented Himself before God covered with our sin, with our shame, and He paid the required price.

Joseph could take the shame of Mary upon himself, but he could not do away with that shame. Jesus did what His earthly father could not; He bore our shame and He eliminated it. He did not bear our sin and shame to identify with us in some act of solidarity, but He bore our sin and shame to remove them forever. His shed blood and death, the righteous One in the place of sinners, rids us of all shame forever. Now our shame is replaced by the forgiveness of Christ, which cleanses us and restores us to our Father. Jesus’ righteousness is now ours, and by being joined to Him we do not need to stand trembling in shame anymore before God, but instead we stand boldly before His throne of grace, because our shame has been taken care of by the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. That is how He will save us from our sins as the angel promised, by removing all shame from us so that we may live in the Father’s presence forever. Jesus removes shame by His forgiveness, the forgiveness that He freely pours out upon you whenever you fall into sin.

God knew what He was doing when he selected Jesus’ earthly parents. He directed all the events of His Son’s birth, just as He had been guiding history to that point. God orchestrated our salvation, demonstrating throughout Scripture that His only goal was the deliverance of you, me, and all people from sin and shame. God’s great love for you is shown on every page of His Word, and we celebrate His careful planning this Advent season. The same God who ordered all history for your salvation will preserve you all your days, cleansing you with Jesus’ blood-bought forgiveness until you stand before Him clothed not with shame but with Christ’s own righteousness. In the name of our sin-bearer, our coming Savior Jesus Christ, Amen.

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