ADVENT 4, A – December 22, 2013

SCRIPTURES – Isaiah 7:10-17; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25; Psalm 130

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.

I’ve seen many, many Christmas pageants over the years. Growing up, I was in many Sunday School Christmas pageants. Children have been reenacting and proclaiming the story of the birth of Jesus for centuries; and that’s great. Their simple faith and joy in Christ make them the most fitting of witnesses. Jesus Himself said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like [a] child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt. 18:3-4)

But, you know something? I don’t think I’ve ever heard children tell the story of Jesus’ conception and birth as Matthew told it. Can you imagine a little girl portraying Mary and crying as her husband, Joseph, says to her, “I’m sorry, but I just don’t believe your story of an angel visiting you and the Holy Spirit coming upon you. I can’t marry a woman who’s carrying another man’s child!” Can you imagine a play in which children act out Joseph’s dreams: perhaps of Mary being rejected and cast out of her village and, dressed in rags, wandering from town to town because he divorced her? Or, of him marrying her but then their being talked about in whispers, and him not getting any carpentry business, because they thought he got Mary pregnant before their wedding? How about portraying Mary’s shocked and disapproving parents? Frankly, this is not a play we would want to see in church. It would be far too depressing.

This, however, is how the story of Christmas really began: with fear and worry; with doubt and unbelief and family tension; with shame that was assumed, and shame that was then felt because it was wrongly assumed. Such sins! They wouldn’t make for a very nice Christmas pageant.

But, it sure would be real. The truth is that God’s Son did not come into the world to a warm welcome and the praises of all. He came into a world torn and fractured by sin, and already from His conception He began feeling sin’s effects. What a start! What a story.

There’s also something in Matthew’s story that causes me to wonder. Did you ever wonder why God didn’t send the angel Gabriel to speak to Joseph right after he visited Mary and told her she would miraculously conceive and bear a son? God knows all things, after all. He surely knew that Joseph, being not only a righteous and God-fearing man but also a man who cared deeply about his wife, would struggle after Mary told him the news. When Gabriel left Mary, then, why didn’t God immediately send the angel to Joseph to say to him, “Joseph, son of David, I have come to tell you that God has chosen your wife to be the mother of the Messiah. She is now miraculously pregnant with Him by the Holy Spirit. So, don’t be afraid! He will surely take care of both of you.” Why did God instead wait and let this righteous man toss and turn in his bed as he wrestled with what to do? Why didn’t God keep Joseph from making the terrible mistake of not believing Mary, a mistake he would have compounded into a great injustice if he had gone ahead and divorced her? Well, God hasn’t told us. But, perhaps He was teaching Joseph – as He is surely teaching us through him – that, important and good though obedience to God’s Commandments is, true goodness and righteousness will never be found in our efforts to keep them. For, we do not truly keep them, not even when, like Joseph, we have them in our minds and hearts and are trying our best to follow them. We see with Joseph that we can sin even when we’re trying to please God. God’s Law condemns every one of us, even the best among us, as sinful and unclean. We will never be saved or gain heaven by our own efforts at obeying God.

We must, then, turn away from trusting in ourselves and our own efforts. Psalm 130 tells us where to turn. It says, “O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” All his iniquities: the ones we know and are aware of, as well as the ones of which we are not aware; the sins we commit when we purposely and knowingly disobey God’s commands, and the sins we commit even while trying to obey them. God Himself has saved us from all of them by sending us His Son to bear them.

And so, as Christmas comes, if you feel you are not sufficiently joyful; or are frustrated because you can’t get everything done; or feel a bit guilty because you haven’t done enough for others; take heart! Christmas is not about you, but about Jesus. He came to redeem us. He didn’t do so by pointing out our sins, or by showing us what kind of life we should live. He saved us by bearing our sins, suffering the consequences for what we have done, and by His death for them on the cross removing them forever so that they will never separate you from God.

Thank God for the children as they act out the story of Christ’s birth from Luke’s Gospel and proclaim to us the wonder and joy of His birth. How we need such wonder and joy in our lives! God Himself is joy, and wants us to have His joy. But, we thank God also for Matthew’s story of His conception of Mary and its impact upon Joseph, for by it God teaches us that the foundation and source of our joy is the forgiveness of our sins. “You shall call his name Jesus,” – which means, ‘God saves’ – “for he will save his people from their sins.” (Matt. 1:21) Beginning with His conception and the months in His mother’s womb, and culminating with His death for us on the cross, Jesus’ entire life was devoted to bearing our sin and guilt for us and offering Himself as the sacrifice that would take them away. He has done so! We are now free to rejoice and be glad. To God alone be the glory!