When there is really big news, there is an excitement and a communal awareness of that news. Whether it is bad news like 911 or good news like rain after a long period of drought or when the Berlin wall was broken down every time we see people, we talk about that news. There is an excitement about it and we wonder how that news will change life, change the world.
I often have those kind of feelings on Christmas morning. It is almost as if we come together on Christmas morning, knowing that last night something very special happened. Last night, a child was born whose birth is good news for the entire world. Even though we have talked about that news for the past month and have had great programs which have told us the story again and again, somehow this morning is special. This is the morning in which this is news.
So let us talk about this good news one more time. Let us think about the meaning of this news one more time. In Matthew 1:18 we read, “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.” As we read on in Matthew 1:18-25 we discover how it happened and become aware of the meaning of this good news. Read text.
We have often heard the story of the birth of Jesus from the point of view of Mary, which is the story told in Luke 2, or from the point of view of the wise men in Matthew 2. The perspective which we see in Matthew 1 is that of Joseph.
To understand what Joseph experienced and what he must have felt, we need to understand the way in which marriage happened in that day.
There were three steps of marriage among the Jews of that day. First of all there was the engagement. This was usually arranged by the parents, often when the children were quite young. Parents, sometimes with the help of a matchmaker, would make an agreement that their children would marry.
When the children came of age, the groom would visit the home of the bride and would give her a gift and would make an agreement with her and her parents that they would marry. This was known as the betrothal. During this time, they were considered married and indeed, the only way to break the betrothal was by death or divorce. However, they did not consummate the marriage at this time. If a couple was betrothed and one of them died, the remaining one would be called a virgin widow.
About a year later, the groom would come to the home of the bride and would collect his bride. After this they were married and would consummate the marriage.
At the time this story is told, Mary and Joseph were betrothed. They were, to all intents and purposes, married but had not yet come together as husband and wife. One writer suggests that it was likely near the end of the betrothal period.
While they were in this stage of betrothal, Joseph was shocked one day to find that Mary was pregnant. He knew that he had not made her pregnant and so there was only one conclusion and that was that Mary had been unfaithful to him.
He had two options at this point and they were that he could publicly expose her as an immoral woman in which case she would be dealt with harshly by the community or he could divorce her quietly. The Old Testament law provided that she should be stoned to death. This law was not usually followed, but there would, nevertheless, be serious consequences for her if she was thus publicly exposed. We see something of the compassion of Joseph in that he chose his other option and that was to divorce her quietly. He was a righteous man and could not marry a loose woman. By divorcing her, he would be released from the relationship. But by doing so quietly, he would also express his compassion for her in that she would be spared the public shame of being exposed.
Just as he was thinking about these things, God explained what was going on. The angel explained that Mary had not been immoral, but that God had caused her to become pregnant in order to bring into the world his one and only Son.
The important truth which this story emphasizes is that God has come into the world. The conception of Jesus through the Holy Spirit means that the child who was born was fully human and fully divine. The way the story is told makes it clear that this is important and something God wants us to know. Some people have a hard time understanding how it happened, but when we realize that it was “the God who created man in the beginning from nothing, who created woman from man without the agency of man or woman…” it is easy to understand how He could come into this world in the form of a baby who was fully human and fully divine.
Is it really that important to understand that God came into the world in the form of a baby? In an article in the Free Press, on the religion page, the writer says, “Now we can all get tangled up in theological debates about the virgin birth and the meaning of incarnation. We can argue about angels and the visitation of the Holy Spirit. We can argue about whether Jesus is divine or human…We can never fully determine what truly happened to that woman named Mary and that man named Joseph over 2000 years ago…Whether Jesus was divine or human is in many ways fiddling…Whether this baby Jesus grew up to be a deluded mad man or the risen and incarnate son of God does not matter in the least…”
Is that true? Does it not matter that Jesus was divine? Is it irrelevant that God himself came among us in the person of Jesus?
We learn of the importance of what happened here through the names that were given to Jesus in the remainder of this chapter.
A lot of effort goes into the naming of children. Before our grandson was born, I tried to influence the naming procedure. Since both grandfathers are named George, I thought that would be a most appropriate name. We didn’t get our way, but they were very thoughtful in the name they gave to Joshua. Often, as one writer says, “We are named from books our parents bought the day after the doctor confirmed the pregnancy...” Although we put a lot of effort into it, Joseph Stowell points out that names only become important if a person is famous - like Gretzky or Queen Elizabeth, but as Shakespeare says, “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” suggesting that a name is not all that important.
However, the name of Jesus is a different story. When the angel spoke to Joseph, the name He was given was powerfully significant. Not only was the name important, but its meaning reinforces how important it was that God came to earth.
The name “Jesus” is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua. It was a common name, and means “Jehovah is salvation.” In the case of Jesus, however, the name carries this meaning in a very significant way. The angel explains this when he says, "you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." For Jesus, “Jehovah is salvation” means that God himself has come to earth to forgive sins by being the sacrifice for sin.
We needed a sacrifice for sin.
Sin is the greatest problem we have on earth. Look at any pain we experience and it can be directly traced to sin. Pollution is caused by our greed and carelessness; alcoholism is due to lack of self control; murder is due to hatred or greed; hatred is due to jealousy or insensitivity or some other sin between persons; and the list goes on. Even sickness and the difficulty of growing food can be traced to our sin. “Grief, sorrow, loss, confusion, conflict, disease, disruption, dismay and death are rooted in the problem of sin.” We need to be saved from the destruction of sin.
The consequence of sin which is death also demands a solution. In a recent edition of Discovery magazine there is an article entitled “Staying Alive.” The article is on aging and suggests that some day, if the life expectancy keeps going up as it is now, we could live to be 150. The article, surveys the work of scientists Olshansky and Austad who are doing research on aging. In one part of the article it says, “Olshansky…thinks there’s no predetermined biological limit to the human life span. He agrees with Austad and other researchers that there aren’t any physiological determinants of mortality; no molecular switch that gets thrown, no ticking chromosomal clock that says your time is up, no somatic schedule for checkout. There are no death genes that terminate life the way that countless other genes orchestrate growth, metabolism, and reproduction.” Why do we die then? We die because of sin and need to be saved from our sin.
The truth that this child who was born was God coming to earth to save his people from their sins is very significant. Only the sinless Son of God could solve the problem of sin. Only God could come among us and release us from the death of our sin filled world. Only God could guarantee that when He declared us forgiven, we truly were forgiven. If any man would have died for sin, he would have died only for his own sin. Because Jesus did not sin and was God, his death for sin becomes the solution for sin. His death is the adequate sacrifice which covers sin, overcomes death and gives freedom and life.
Clark Pinnock says, “…our redemption depends on Jesus being both God and man.” As man, he lived on this earth without sin. As God, he died in our place and saved us from sin and death. The incarnation of Jesus has accomplished the thing we needed more than anything. It has given us the greatest gift ever.
The other name is the name Immanuel.
In the first 17 verses of the chapter, we have the human genealogy of Jesus. With this genealogy, we are informed of the humanity of Jesus. But as the birth of Jesus is explained to Joseph, we also understand that Jesus was not only human, but also divine.
Matthew points to Isaiah 7:14 to explain and support what was happening. Here the coming one is identified as "Immanuel" which is a Hebrew name meaning "God with us." The human birth of the divine means that God personally came to earth to live among us.
A survey of religions of the world reveals some interesting things about the gods which people have come to believe in.
Some of them are just as bad or worse than human beings and we wonder how they can help people at all. Narcissus, one of the Greek gods, fell in love with his own image in a pool and spent the rest of his life pining over a love he could do nothing about. Although Zeus was the main god of the Greeks, we find that he was rather immoral in that he had many love affairs with goddesses and mortal women.
Although Vishnu, one of the Hindu gods tries to ensure the welfare of humanity and even comes to earth occasionally in one of his "avatars" or physical forms, in times of catastrophe or when people need comfort or guidance, he is not really fully available to men in all times of need or in any consistent way.
In contrast to these gods, Matthew makes it quite clear that the one and only Holy God of all creation came down to this earth as an ordinary human being in order to meet the deepest need of humanity and to recreate the world he had intended in the first place.
When Joe Torre became manager of the Cardinals, sports announcer Phil Rizzuto suggested to him that managing a baseball team should be done from high above the field so that one would have a view from above.
Torre responded, "Upstairs, you can't look in their eyes." The birth of Jesus through conception by the Holy Spirit is important because it means that God himself came among us to look in our eyes. The Pulpit Commentary says, God did not put on the mere appearance of humanity. God did not assume to himself a human body like a hermit crab which lives in the shell of other animals. God did not take any particular class of humanity. He became one of us and since God has so come near, He has come near to help, to deliver and to save.
This is the Christmas story. What a wonderful story it is! Matthew 1:25 summarizes the story - “she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.” As we are reminded of how God came to us and as we understand what that means for us, it fills us with a sense of excitement and joy. More than anything, it fills us with gratitude. God is so good! Let us meditate on His grace and draw near in worship and adoration.