Monday, December 15, 2014

The Messy Miracle of Christmas (Matthew 1:18-21)

Christmas is a season of wonders. We tell a wonderful story about a wonderful Savior, and we sing wonderful songs, and have wonderful celebrations. But Christmas can also be a time of worries. We worry about the busyness, the stress, the expense, family conflicts, painful memories that resurface, and so on. It seems like a strange juxtaposition, doesn’t it? Worries and wonders? If only we could have the wonders without the worries, that would be a truly authentic Christmas experience, wouldn’t it? Well, not so fast! It seems that Christmas wonders have always been accompanied by Christmas worries, even going back to the very first Christmas. In our text, Matthew tells us the Christmas story from the perspective of Joseph. As we might expect, it is filled with wonder. But even moreso than our own Christmas experiences, it is also filled with worries. He describes to us the miracle of Christmas, but not without the mess of Christmas. And this messy miracle of Christmas is our good news, our Gospel, which makes our salvation possible. So, we want to explore the miracle, but not without also examining the mess of Christmas.

I. The Mess of Christmas (vv18-19)

Contrary to popular belief, the phrase, “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” is not found in the Bible. The exact origin of that phrase is hard to pin down, but it has been around for a very long time. In reality, however, godliness is sometimes found in the messiest of places. Consider the first Christmas. Jesus was born in the first-century equivalent of a barn, wrapped up and put in a feeding trough. It was a far cry from the sterile environment of modern labor and delivery wards. But even before the moment of His birth, there was a mess surrounding the circumstances of His coming. Three such “messes” are set forth in verses 18 and 19 of our text. There was a complicated relationship, a scandalous pregnancy, and an expedient plan.

There are approximately 1.35 billion active users on Facebook. There are 11 options that a Facebook user can choose for his or her “relationship status.” It is estimated that 3% of users (40.5 million) choose “It’s complicated” as their relationship status.[1] That status likely describes a wide range of scenarios, most of them less than favorable to be sure. If Joseph and Mary had been Facebook users, it is possible that they would have had to choose “It’s complicated” as their relationship status, simply because there is no other option that describes the kind of relationship they were in.

Verse 18 says that they were “betrothed.” We don’t have anything like “betrothed” in our culture. Betrothed is more than single, more than engaged, and less than married. In a betrothal, a couple were considered to be husband and wife to one another, but not yet married. They would continue to live apart, and during the time preceding the wedding, the husband would prepare a home for his bride. Often a betrothal was arranged by the parents, and since marriage typically happened at a far younger age than it does in modern America, even young children could be betrothed to one another. Both parties in a betrothal were required to remain sexually pure; physical consummation could only occur after the wedding. To terminate a betrothal was not as easy as breaking off an engagement. Because betrothal was legally binding, a divorce was required to end the relationship. Like I said, it’s complicated.

Into the already complicated relationship of Joseph and Mary, another mess develops: a scandalous pregnancy. Matthew says it this way, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit” (v18). Like us, Matthew has the privilege of knowing the details of the situation in hindsight. In the moment, however, the only person (besides God!) who knew the details was Mary. In Luke’s account, he records how the angel had appeared to her and revealed that she would bear a child, while remaining a virgin, by the power of the Holy Spirit. But keep in mind, at this point, Joseph has not seen any angels or received any revelations. All he knows is this: his betrothed bride-to-be is pregnant, and it is obviously not his child. Of course, I am sure she has told him that the child was conceived miraculously by the Holy Spirit, but if you put yourself in his shoes, you have to agree that this would be hard to believe. After all, virgins do not conceive babies. For Joseph, all signs indicate that Mary has been unfaithful to him. This is a real scandal.

The mess continues as Joseph begins to consider his options. Jewish law prescribed a strict penalty for a woman in Mary’s situation. In Deuteronomy 22:23-27, the law says that if the woman has been raped, she bears no penalty, but her assailant is to be put to death. If, however, it was a consensual act, then both parties were to be put to death. By the first century, Roman influence and a general laxity in application of the Mosaic law in situations like these, offered Joseph two additional options. He could accuse her publicly, have the betrothal terminated by a court of law, and make her the object of public shame and ridicule, and virtually destroying her future. Or, he could divorce her privately in the presence of two or three witnesses and dissolve the relationship. No one would know the details. “She could simply go away somewhere and secretly bear and raise the child” on her own.[2]

Now, Matthew tells us that “Joseph, her husband” was “a righteous man” (v19). Some translations use the phrase “a just man.” The meaning is the same. It means that he was careful in his observance of the law and was committed to obeying God. He would have been well within his rights of legal and moral justice to pursue a public trial and have his cause upheld, whether Mary be put to death or just forever shamed. But, in Joseph’s righteousness, there was also a strong sense of mercy. This is a true mark of godliness – a right and gentle balance of justice and mercy. He did not want Mary to be disgraced, so he planned to send her away secretly. The verb tenses in verses 19 and 20 indicate that his mind was made up, and this is what he would do. It was an expedient plan to fix the situation and be free from the mess.

What a mess! You think your Christmas is messy? I am not sure it can get much more messy than the first Christmas: a complicated relationship, a scandalous pregnancy, and an expedient plan. But it is into this mess that God intervenes and brings the miracle of Christmas! The mess does not stand in the way of the miracle! And in our Christmases, we must be careful that we do not allow the worries to overshadow the wonders. Just as He did in the first Christmas, God can intervene in our mess and concentrate our attention on the miracle. So, let’s turn our attention to the miracle of Christmas.

II. The Miracle of Christmas (vv20-21)

We probably all know people who believe that miracles are an impossibility. They are convinced that miracles have never happened, never do, and never will. Then there are others who call every sunrise, every blooming flower, every baby’s birth, and every stroke of happy providence in their lives a miracle. Well, which side is correct? In fact, neither of them are. We know that because God exists and is at work in the world, miracles are possible. And because we believe the revelation that God has given us in the Bible, we know that miracles have happened in the world. But, the Bible does not lead us to expect that miracles are happening all around us all the time. In fact, even in the Bible, miracles are rare. If they were not rare, we wouldn’t call them miracles. Miracles occur in connection with God’s revelation. When God imparts revelation of Himself to the world, He validates that revelation with miracles. We see it creation, in the time when the Law was given during the days of Moses and the Exodus, and when the prophetic ministry began with Elijah and Elisha. But after the days of those early prophets, we do not see miracles occurring, at least not with frequency or intensity. That is, not until the coming of Christ into the world. In the events surrounding His birth, and continuing through His life, death and resurrection and the ministry of His apostles, we see a great concentration of miracles. After all, in Christ, God was speaking afresh to the world. As the writer of Hebrews says, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son” (Heb. 1:1). With this new revelation of God in Christ, there comes a new outbreak of miracles, beginning with the events surrounding His birth. We find a number of them recorded in the familiar Christmas story in Luke’s Gospel, but we also find a good number of them here in Matthew. There are three in the verses before us today that I want to focus our attention on.

Notice first in verse 20 the miracle of divine communication. As we have already seen, Joseph’s mind was made up. He had determined that the best way to handle his messy situation was to divorce Mary secretly and move on with his life. He had settled the matter in his mind and was well enough at peace with his decision to lay down and go to sleep. We know that he was in a deep sleep, because he had a dream. Dreams primarily occur as we enter into that deep, REM sleep. Dreams are interesting and very difficult to define or analyze. There are many theories about why we dream, what dreams mean, and why some people have more vivid dreams than others. Very few of those theories overlap and agree with each other. But the Bible tells us that something unusual happened in Joseph’s dream. God sent him a message. Now, why should we take this seriously? After all, I don’t take my own dream seriously, so why should I take Joseph’s dream seriously? If you told me that you dreamed I gave you $1,000, I wouldn’t put much stock in your dream. Well, notice how the statement is worded. It does not say here that Joseph dreamed that he saw an angel. But this is not an account of what Joseph did, heard, or saw. It is an account of what the Lord did, and what the Lord showed and spoke to Joseph by this angel. It says that “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.” The subject here is the angel of the Lord. God took the sovereign initiative to dispatch His angel to Joseph to impart a message to him.

In this message, the angel of the Lord told Joseph, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” Through this angel, God was relating to Joseph personally, by name, and speaking directly into his current circumstance. He knew Joseph’s situation, his emotions, and his situation, and He addressed those very things in a direct way. He was assuring Joseph of the truth of the situation, and directing him in a very specific way. He was to go through with his plan to take Mary as his wife in marriage, because she had not been unfaithful or untruthful to him. Her story was true, and if he hadn’t taken her word for it, he could take the Lord’s word for it. It was a miracle of divine communication.

The angel speaks here of another miracle: the miracle of divine conception. The angel said, “the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” We refer to it as the virgin birth, but the miracle of it all was the virginal conception. The birth was very normal – after all, Mary did not deliver Jesus through her ear or her navel. He was born in the very natural way that all children are born. But, the miracle was in the conception. She conceived this child apart from relations with any man, solely by the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit who had imparted the child into her womb. That’s a miracle! Not only does this kind of thing not happen every day, it never happened before, and it has never happened since!

Now I want to say a word here about two very common objections to the story of the virgin birth of Jesus. There are some today who believe that miracles are not possible, and that the story of the virgin birth could only be credible to the superstitious, pre-scientific world. It is certainly true that we know far more about biology and genetics today than was known in the first century, but “even the relatively primitive stage of first-century science was sufficiently advanced for people to known that in every other known instance it required a biological father as well as a biological mother to produce a human child.” Thus, the “notion of a virginal conception was no more plausible in first-century Judaism that it is in the [modern] Western world.”[3] After all, it is obvious that Joseph did not believe at first that this was possible, hence his plan to divorce Mary. But we should also note that Mary found this hard to believe as well. In Luke’s Gospel, which focuses on her experience and perspective, when the angel of the Lord tells her that she will conceive in her womb and bear a son,” she says, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Lk. 1:30-37). And we must bear in mind that her account was not penned by a backwoods ignoramus; Luke was a physician (Col. 4:14). So the idea that primitive, unscientific people could believe this story easier than the sophisticated intelligentsia of our own day is simply off base. Even the major players in the story found it hard to believe, and yet even the most well educated kind of person in that day came to believe it by faith as a miracle of God.

There is another notion that the account of the virginal conception was fabricated in order to make the story of Jesus’ birth accord with other supernatural births in well-known pagan mythology. However, if one takes the time to investigate the alleged parallels between the biblical account of the virgin birth of Jesus and the supernatural births in pagan mythology, as J. Gresham Machen did nearly 100 years ago in his book The Virgin Birth of Christ, one discovers that there simply are no parallels! In the few accounts that speak of the virginity of the mother, there is no attempt to explain that she conceived the child while remaining a virgin. In almost all cases, there was a sexual act that occurred between the deity and the woman, which caused the conception (hence these stories are categorized by scholars today as divine rape), and in every case, the liaison was prompted by the perverse lust of the deity for the woman. There are absolutely no similarities between these accounts and what we find in Scripture, nor should we expect there to be. After all, the writings of the New Testament served to a great degree to demonstrate how unique and different Christianity is from the religious beliefs of the surrounding pagan world, and not to demonstrate how similar they were. So this theory is entirely without merit. The fact is that, if the story of the virgin birth of Jesus is not true, there is absolutely no reason why any Christian in the first century would have wanted to invent the story.

So we do not have here a primitive, pre-scientific, or pagan myth. What we have is the account of a miracle of divine conception, unlike anything that ever happened in fact or fiction before or after the birth of Jesus.

Now we come to the greatest miracle of all: the miracle of a divine child. Thus far, we’ve only seen the pregame show, now it is time for the announcement of the main event! The greatest miracle of Christmas is not in God’s speaking through angels. It is not even the virginal conception of the baby. The greatest miracle of Christmas is child Himself, and what that child was coming into the world to do. The angel said to Joseph, “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (v21). If it is not already obvious from what has come before, it should obvious from this brief statement that we are not talking about an ordinary child! This child has come to do something that only God can do – rescue humanity from sin.

His name is significant. People name children for all sorts of reasons, some better than others. But the name of Jesus was not selected by Joseph and Mary. This name was chosen by God. The name “Jesus” means, “YHWH is salvation,” or “The Lord saves.” The people of God had long awaited a Savior, but there were varying opinions about what He would come to save them from. The word “save” can refer to deliverance from any number of troubles and afflictions, and God is faithful to save and deliver from a wide range of hardships. “He gives food to the hungry, He heals the sick, He comforts the brokenhearted. Many hoped the Messiah would save Israel from its Roman oppressors. But the angel declares God’s agenda. Jesus will not save his people from physical enemies; “He will save his people from their sins.”[4] He will reconcile humanity to God, overcoming the gulf of sin that separates us from Him. He will do this by living the life that none of us can live – a life of complete sinlessness and perfect righteousness; by dying the death that all of us deserve – under the just judgment and wrath of God being poured out on all of our sins; and by overcoming death forever through His resurrection. He did all of this for us, that in His death, He could be our substitute, bearing our sins under the outpouring of divine judgment; and that the merits of His sinless and righteous life could be imparted to us so that we are made right with God in Him. But you understand that not just anyone could do this for us. Only Jesus, because He is uniquely capable of being the mediator between God and man, for He is the divine God-man. In Jesus Christ, the eternal God became a man to save us from our sins.

But notice here that there is a qualification on this salvation. He will save His people from their sins. The Gospel is the good news that Christ has come to save sinners. Only those who are willing to confess that they are indeed sinners can be saved. I had to come before Christ and ask Him to save me, not from what others had done to me, but from what I had done to Him, in rebelling against God from the moment I was born. It is only those who acknowledge their sins before God, and turn in faith to Christ as Lord and Savior who become His people, and who are therefore saved. Have you turned in faith to God in Christ, acknowledging your sin and asking Him to save you? If so, you have become one of His own, and you have been saved from your sins. If you are His own, then you have the assurance that He will never leave you nor forsake you (Heb 13:5), and that He will complete what He has begun in you (Php 1:6), because He knows those who are His (2 Tim 2:19).

This is the greatest miracle of Christmas: the miracle of the divine child, Jesus Christ, God-in-human-flesh, who has come into the world to save us from our sins. Is your life a mess? Our great and gracious God specializes in messes. He intervened into the midst of a great mess on that first Christmas to bring about an even greater miracle. And He can intervene into the mess of your life, and even the mess of your Christmas, to draw your focus to the miracle of salvation which is found in the name of Jesus Christ, and in no other name. In the midst of whatever mess you find yourself in – whether it is the mess of a sinful life, the mess of a complicated relationship, a scandalous scenario, or even the mess of a hectic holiday – you can turn to Him and ask Him to draw you into the miracle of Christmas: that Christ has come to save us, to make us His own, and to unite us to Himself for all eternity.

[1];; Accessed December 10, 2014.
[2] John MacArthur, God With Us (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 57-58.
[3] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew (New American Commentary, vol. 22; Nashville: Braodman, 1992), 58.
[4] Daniel Doriani, “The Origin of Jesus, Our Immanuel,” in The Incarnation in the Gospels (Reformed Expository Commentary; Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008), 26.

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