Sunday was a BIG day. We had Divine Service (with Holy Communion!) with almost 100 in attendance, a lively and informative Bible class, delivery of the giving tree gifts at Gil-Mor, the nursing home here in town, and a Christmas open house at the parsonage. Whew. A full day, but a good one. I finished the day feeling like I’d done my best in everything I’d put my hand to that day, which is a good feeling — more properly, a blessing from God (Ecc 5.18-20).
This was a heavy sermon. You’re getting into some heavy-duty theology when you start talking about the Incarnation, but ultimately the best thing to do is simply to wonder — to marvel that God would become your brother, that He would love you enough to come to this polluted and soiled world. That’s what I tried to convey with this sermon, along with expounding some more on the Incarnation. It’s one of those topics that it’s difficult to exhaust. The preacher will more likely exhaust himself before he exhausts the text. Which is as it should be.
(Special thanks to Christi for suggesting this sermon’s introduction.)
God took on flesh in the womb of the blessed Virgin for you, out of love for you. May Almighty God grant you joy as you contemplate the birth of His Son.
“This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “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. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”
24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.” (matthew 1.18-25 niv)
I’m not a big TV watcher, but every so often I’m around a TV when someone is flipping the channels. Once in a while one of those trashy daytime talk shows comes on. You know the ones, where they invite a pregnant woman onto the show and then try to decide who the baby’s father is. There’s usually a lot of finger-pointing and yelling. The host stands back with his arms crossed and his fist with his microphone propped under his chin. He’s got an intent frown on his face. He’s the guide to help find out who this baby’s father is. Sometimes they even do a paternity test to settle things. That gives the Christmas carol title What Child is This a whole new meaning, doesn’t it? More like Whose Child is This? I guess that’s entertaining for people, because those shows are still on the air.
Not everybody in that situation gets to be part of a big media circus. Sometimes that kind of a situation is private and painful. Just look at Joseph in our gospel for today. Here he is, all set to settle down and start a family with the young woman he loves – and now she’s pregnant. Hmm. What’s Joseph going to do?
In order to fully understand Joseph’s choices here, we need to know something about Jewish marriage customs in that time and place. Today when a man and a woman get married, they make legally binding promises to each other. At or very close to that same time, they usually also have a big celebration with family and friends. Then after that, they move in together and start life together. The Jews didn’t do things that way. Jewish men and women made legally binding promises to each other in what was called betrothal. They had the legal status of being married, but they hadn’t had the big celebration yet. That came later. They weren’t living together yet and they hadn’t consummated their marriage. Joseph and Mary were betrothed. They had promised to be together forever, but Joseph hadn’t brought her home yet. They were in that in-between time when Joseph found out Mary was pregnant.
So what’s Joseph going to do? He could divorce her and make a big public example out of her – drag her name through the mud in front of everybody. He had the right to do that here. Depending on the laws at that time, he could even have her stoned to death as an adulteress. But Joseph was a righteous man. He wanted to be kind as well as fair. Joseph didn’t want to be part of someone else’s sin, but he wasn’t vengeful or angry, either. Mostly disappointed, hurt, and saddened, sure, but not in the mood to hurt her. Joseph thinks it over and then decides on a gentler course. Jewish law was pretty lax on divorce. A husband could send his wife away for burning his dinner, if he felt like it, later rabbis tell us. He could just draw up a letter saying that they were divorced – wouldn’t even have to go through the courts, wouldn’t have to say why, just let her go. Write her off as a bad choice and get on with his life. Because it’s obvious, isn’t it? Whose else child could it be? If it wasn’t his, it had to be someone else’s. He couldn’t marry a woman like that. Ask Joseph, “What child is this?” and he would have said, “I don’t know, but it’s not mine!”
Then an angel – probably Gabriel, although we aren’t told for sure – appears to Joseph in a dream, and everything Joseph assumed was true gets turned upside down. The angel tells him, “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” The angel says, “The thing born of her, what is conceived in her”, which sounds awkward to us. We don’t usually call people things, but it fits here because this baby Mary is carrying is no ordinary baby. Nobody else would ever be like Him: fully a man, yet also fully God. Mary is carrying God in her womb. Through a miracle hidden away from human eyes, by the power of the Holy Spirit, God has become one of us, to save us. This Child is the fulfillment of all God’s Old Testament promises, and all His New Testament ones too, because all God’s promises are yes in Christ. He is the hinge on which human history turns. He is the Son of God and Mary’s Son.
Jesus is man because He assumed our humanity from the Virgin Mary. He took our flesh – our sinful, corrupt flesh – and was united with it through the power of the Holy Spirit. He is now like us in every way, except that He has no sin. Jesus didn’t just take on a human body like the one He has now after His resurrection – glorious, never feeling hunger or cold or pain or sadness. No, Jesus took on your flesh and became your Brother, starting right here. He wanted to experience everything you go through, all the pain and the frustration and the attacks of the devil, starting with the experience of being born a man, and He does this so He can redeem you. He willingly throws in His lot with us sinners and becomes flesh of our flesh. He makes Himself one with us so that we might be one with Him.
Jesus is God with us, just as Isaiah prophesied and the angel said. He’s conceived by the Holy Spirit, which means He’s holy. This child is the Lord God – immortal, invisible, all-powerful; loving. Look at what kind of a God we have! God does not turn up His nose at the mess we sinners have made of ourselves. He doesn’t turn away from us in disgust. He doesn’t turn His back on us because we’re full of sin and say, “Too bad for you. That’s not My problem.” Instead, He humbles Himself and in His great love chooses to come be with us. Our God loves us so much that He makes Himself like one of us to save us. He lowers Himself to take on human flesh, so that we might be saved. This child is also the Savior. He is the Christ, the One appointed by God to bear the sin of the world and to redeem His people, to save them fully and completely from the threatening dangers of their sins. Mary is carrying our hope, our forgiveness, our life, our promise and assurance of happiness with God, in her womb. This Child will not fail to rescue His people from their sins.
This is the only faith that saves a person. This is the only confession that will stand against the gates of hell, that Christ our Lord took on human flesh and for our salvation God became man. Nobody else is like this Child. There is no other name given to men under heaven by which we must be saved. Immanuel, God with us, is only ever found in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus the Son of Mary is the only God I ever want, and my only Savior. I know that’s true for you, too, because we each confess that every Sunday for ourselves, in the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed. This is the only faith that saves. What child is this? This is Jesus Christ, the Son of God eternally begotten from the nature of the Father, and the Son of Mary, born in time from the nature of His mother. This is the Savior.
How does Joseph react to this shocking news? “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” Don’t you think that was hard? You know how people are – they get to talking, and they’re not always nice in a situation like this. Joseph is risking his reputation and his standing here. He has to put up with sideways looks, knowing smiles, maybe even snickering behind his back. He looks like a fool to marry a girl with a baby that isn’t even his, and everybody knows it. Yet Joseph still does as the angel says. He takes the woman who’s pregnant before it can possibly be his baby, and he stands by her. He doesn’t cut her loose, but instead he continues to love her. He holds the course obediently until the Child is born, and after. He obediently does his God-given duty. He doesn’t dissent or try to argue; he doesn’t act like he’s got a better idea and the angel is wrong. He does as God wants him to, despite whatever his neighbors and relatives might have thought or whispered behind his back.
Don’t you think God still asks you to be obedient to His commands, despite the head shaking and the laughter of the world? Yes He does – and for the same reasons: because God’s Son “has appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up into glory.” That child of Mary’s has saved us and given us new birth into a living hope from heaven, so we follow His Word – even when it doesn’t square with the wisdom of the world. We honor God’s gift of marriage by respecting it in our words and actions, even when the world figures it’s fine to move in together before you’re married. We exercise self-control even when the world tells us it’s fine to let yourself go – have a good time – you’re not really hurting anybody anyway. We attend worship in God’s house faithfully even when the world shows no interest in God, and even when it actively forces us to choose between other activities we like to do and God and His Word. We live God’s way even when the world reckons that God’s way is foolishness and we are fools for following it. So be it! They know nothing of our Lord Christ or the salvation He brings. It’s only through our holding unswervingly to the truth of God’s Word and confessing His will with our lips and our lives that they will know Immanuel – God with us. What child is this? This is the Christ, the Son of God and our Savior. Amen.