Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Amen.
The wait is almost over. It will soon be the big day. All the plans are falling into place. Everything is proceeding just as it is supposed to. Just a little more time of waiting.
Suddenly, there’s a problem. It’s not just a minor nuisance or inconvenience, either. It’s a great, big whopper. It’s a true show-stopper. It’s a real jaw-dropper. It’s the kind of thing that can not only ruin a wedding, but a life. Mary, Joseph’s bride-to-be, is knocked up. This might not cause much of a ruckus in our culture, where pre-marital sex and other violations of the 6th Commandment are not only commonplace, but actively encouraged by the influential pagans around us.
And it’s not just the sex that’s encouraged, is it? We’re certainly told by our society that it’s perfectly OK to enjoy the pleasure of sexual acts without the love and responsibilities of marriage. It’s more than that, though. We’re also told it’s just fine to bring children into the world—or to destroy them according to your whim—regardless of your marital status. We’re indoctrinated by movies, TV, literature, magazines, and many of those we encounter every day to believe that it’s all about you and what you want, not what God has proclaimed.
Have a kid, don’t have a kid, we’re told. It’s no big deal. Keep her or kill him; it’s all up to you, they say. Have him without a spouse; have her with a spouse or partner of the same sex. And, if you don’t have the right plumbing to make it happen, or the plumbing is on the blink, just take out a nine-month lease and rent a body to have a baby. Then you, too, can have one of these important fashion accessories that carry your DNA and your smiling little mug.
But sex and children are a big deal to God. They are gifts He provided to us, we who are created in His image and intended for faithful relationships. He intends that we might find great joy in that special intimacy of marriage and parenthood as He has ordained it. These gifts are meant to bind together those whom He has called together, male and female as He created them.
The fact that we have denigrated and corrupted sex and child-bearing does not make God wrong. Nor does it mean that any and all of our perversions of sex and parenting are normal and acceptable in His sight. Since the Fall into sin, there are plenty of inclinations and actions in this world which are quite natural, yet are completely ungodly. Yes, they are natural, but only because they flow out of your hell-bent, defiant, spiritually dead sinful nature, not because “God made you that way.”
He didn’t. In part, your sinful biological parents did, conceiving and birthing you in sin by their own damaged natures. Those in the world whom you have chosen to honor as your spiritual and behavioral fathers and mothers made you that way, too, when you’ve listened to them instead of to God. But that doesn’t give you an excuse. You don’t get to blame someone else to avoid condemnation for you own sins.
Joseph understood this, for He knew and accepted God’s word when it came to marriage and sex. When he discovers that his betrothed has a new life growing within her, he’s got some serious thinking to do. He knows it’s not his child, for he hadn’t “known” her in the profound, biblical sense we understand the God-given blessing of intercourse to entail. Joseph knew what the law of God said about unfaithfulness. He could have taken the situation before the authorities and demanded justice.
According to Deuteronomy 22, the life of Mary and Jesus could have been in jeopardy if Joseph had wanted to press the issue. Adultery was punishable by stoning to death. Yet Joseph showed a deep concern for Mary. Who among us would have such a patient, charitable heart if confronted with the same heartbreak and disappointment?
But Joseph was a righteous and just man, we are told. This meant that Joseph was one who strove conscientiously to observe divine and human laws. Like everyone else, Joseph was far from perfect, but as a child of God he had used the law of God as a rule by which to live his life, to express his thankfulness for God’s blessings, and to show love to others. We see Joseph’s concern for Mary in how he thought long and hard about what to do, for both for Mary’s sake, and the Child’s.
In that Mary and Joseph had not yet had the privilege of consummating their relationship, they were not technically married yet. Yet in their betrothal—in the formal and public declaration of their intent to become husband and wife—they were married in the eyes of God and their community. For Mary to have had sexual relations with another man would have been inconceivable, embarrassing, even scandalous. It seems there is only one safe, proper, and loving thing only to do. The only way to make this right without resulting in the application of swift, violent justice would be to divorce Mary quietly, so that she can become betrothed to the father of her Child, and then marry him instead.
How confused, hurt, and betrayed Joseph must have felt! He was perplexed that Mary could have done this. He was shocked to discover that she was now with child, and it was not his. Because of that, Joseph doubted his bride, doubted his self-worth, perhaps even doubted his God. The same thing was happening to Joseph that later happened to John the Baptist in prison: He experienced a crisis of his faith.
While Joseph was considering his options, an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him: “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.” Here we see how an angel served the Lord—as the faithful angels always do—even while He was still in Mary’s womb.
Joseph knew and believed the prophecies: That one day, the Messiah would be born from the line of David, his family line. But Joseph was taken aback that this Child which Mary carried was indeed the promised Messiah. Never in his wildest dreams did Joseph ever think that it would be he who would be the provider and protector of the Christ.
The message of God which the angel communicated to Joseph led him to reconsider his intended course of action. Joseph was not to follow his own reason or logic, or even to apply rigidly the Law of God as he understood it to read. The angel first reminded Joseph that he was a son of David. It was implied in the very mention of those words that God’s promise that the Savior was to come from David’s line was an important facet of this message. The Messiah was coming! For this to happen, Mary and Joseph needed to remain together as husband and wife.
Through this dream, Joseph was prevented from jumping to any more erroneous conclusions about Mary that were based on his previously-incomplete knowledge of the situation. He was now informed about the miraculous working of the Holy Spirit within her. Joseph’s unbelief is overcome by this divinely-inspired message. It is consistent with the Scriptures, not in opposition to them. Therefore, Joseph can safely comply with what the angel has told him and instructed him to do. He takes Mary as his wife, and assumes the earthly paternity of Jesus.
Soon, what had been a very tense and uncomfortable situation of what to do with an assumedly unfaithful wife concludes with the birth of the Christ Child. God Himself has come to earth in the flesh, protected by His Father through the Word conveyed by the angel. Joseph fulfills God’s command, naming the Child “Jesus” as he had been instructed.
Joseph not only remained patient, faithful, and chaste, he shows what it means to be a real man. He stands by the one he loves in her time of need, taking on the role of earthly father and caring husband. Joseph, who once thought about divorcing Mary because of her supposed adultery, now embraces her and the Child.
What was it that caused Joseph to refrain from divorce? It was well within his right to do so according to Old Testament law. But if he had, something terrible could have happened to her and the Child—perhaps death by stoning, or later death by neglect if she were divorced by Joseph and disowned by her family. All that prevented such a tragedy were the words and power of the Holy Spirit, intervening in the life of Joseph and working faith so that God’s will might be done. God provides Joseph with faith, hope, and love. And faith, hope, and love from God always triumph over distrust, despair, and resentment.
This Child who was given to Joseph and Mary is given to you and me also. He is Jesus, the One who will save us from our sins. He is Immanuel, God with us; here in the flesh as true God and true man, living an earthly life. Jesus is the New Testament counterpart of Joshua, “the Lord saves.” Just as Joshua led God’s Old Testament people into the Promised Land of Canaan, so Jesus came into the world to lead His followers to the heavenly Canaan.
Here, for you, is the true blessing of Christmas. It is not about receiving lots and lots of expensive or sophisticated presents. It is about receiving one gift: Jesus Christ. It is not about receiving lots of Christmas cards, many of them with sappy, generic messages about enjoying life and family and friends and prosperity. It is not just primarilyabout the message which the angel proclaimed to Joseph: “She will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save his people from their sins.”It is only about that message.
Take out your hymnals, if you will. Turn to number 358. In this wonderful witness to the coming of the Christ, From Heaven Above to Earth I Come, Martin Luther sums up what Jesus did for us. Look at stanza 8:
“You came to share my misery
That You might share Your joy with me.”
Jesus came into this world, conceived by the Spirit, born of the Virgin, and protected by God our heavenly Father and Joseph his earthly father, because of our misery. That misery is sin. He came to take away all sin from you and me and all people. Jesus became flesh to fulfill God’s Law and to redeem you. He came to live a life of perfect obedience to all of God’s commands so that He might be the sinless sacrifice in your place.
Some will say that Christmas is all about receiving. Others will follow the Scriptures’ truth and wisdom that it is more blessed to give than to receive. But in its essence, Christmas is the distillation—as well as the focus—of all creation and all history: It is about God giving to us. Christmas is God giving His one and only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. It is about God giving to us the Savior of humanity. It is about God graciously granting to each and every one of us the privilege to be called sons and daughters of God. The blessing of being seen through God’s eyes as sinless, only on account of what His Son has done for us.
But Christmas is about receiving, too, for we continue to receive grace upon grace, both physical and spiritual, from God each and every day. It is about receiving the greatest gift, the only gift that we could ever need. It is about receiving all that God has to give to us: forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.
It is about receiving that gift of Holy Baptism which saves us. It is about receiving the very body and blood of Jesus Christ, which strengthens our faith and keeps us in our faith. It is about receiving that Word of God, preached to us, declaring that while we are indeed sinners, all of our sins have been forgiven.
As we anticipate the coming of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, we focus on the message of the angel to Joseph: “that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit…He will save His people from their sins.” The Lord speaks His saving truth, which remains true even when all appearances point to the contrary. His Word is sure. No matter the humiliation of the stall and the manger: the Infant born to Mary is your God and your Savior. No matter the ordinary appearance of Word and Sacrament: they still deliver forgiveness, life and salvation. No matter the whispers of the devil, the world, and your own sinful flesh: your Savior declares you forgiven of all your sins.
Late in time, behold Him come,
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see;
Hail the incarnate Deity!
Pleased as Man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel!
In His holy (
) name, Amen.