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We’re just a week away now. Most of us have our decorations up at home. The children’s programs are all done. We’ve got services ready and bulletins ready to print here at church. Christmas is close. It’s fitting then, that God brings us a Bible account from just before Christmas too. Most of the time we think of Christmas through the eyes of Mary, as Luke records it in the second chapter of his Gospel. The shepherds, the angels, Mary pondering and treasuring all those things in her heart. And don’t get me wrong – that’s special and good. But I bet many of us forget that Matthew gives us Christmas from Joseph’s perspective. In these verses God sends an angel to Joseph and announces the coming miracle. What’s interesting here is the two names the angel gives to the child about to be born. He is called “Immanuel” for the miraculous birth. And “Jesus” for the miraculous work we would do. Mary’s child was going to be unlike any other. A special child for a special need.
“Immanuel” for the miraculous birth
Christmas is all about miracles, believing the impossible. Both Ephesians 1 and 1 Peter 1 tell us the birth of Christ was planned before the world was even created. The Bible tells us to that the baby in the manger is God himself, come in the flesh. And then there’s the part about Mary being a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus. Again, the Bible says Mary had never been with a man, and yet she became pregnant, and gave birth to a son. Impossible!
If you’re not ready to believe the impossible, then you’re not quite ready for Christmas. That’s why Joseph’s point of view is so helpful to us. Like a lot of people Joseph at first found this all hard to believe. But when God spoke, he listened. He believed the impossible and came to understand what God was doing. And the names the angel announced for the child had everything to do with it.
We don’t know a lot about Joseph. He was a carpenter who lived in the tiny village of Nazareth, a town that probably had a few hundred people at most. He was betrothed to a young woman named Mary. Now you have to understand that betrothal meant a lot more than our practice of engagement. When a couple wanted to get married in their time, they would go to the public space in town and formally declare their intent. From that time on they were legally bound to each other, and it would take legal action to break it. (That’s why it says “divorce” here.) Now, the couple didn’t live together yet or sleep together. Some 9-12 months later there would be a public ceremony and only then would the couple move in together and enjoy the blessings God intends for marriage. But once you were betrothed, that was it legally. You were together.
But poor Joseph. His betrothed, Mary, started to act strange. She seemed nervous and excited, and one day, took off to visit one of her relatives, and she stayed away for 6 months. Luke 1 tells us Mary went to visit her relative Elizabeth, an older woman who was going to have a child – John the Baptist. For 6 months Mary stayed there, and then she returned. And when she returned, Joseph noticed something else. Mary was pregnant.
I’m sure Mary told him the whole story, about how the angel had visited her, how God the Holy Spirit had caused her to conceive, how the child was going to be a boy, that he was the promised Messiah who would save his people. But let’s be real. What would you have done if you were Joseph?
Matthew tells us here that Joseph didn’t believe her. She leaves for six months, comes back pregnant, and now she’s going to have the Messiah? Sure. Now remember, the Bible describes Joseph as a righteous man, a godly man, a good man. If he was going to get married, it wasn’t going to be to someone like that. But he also didn’t want to make a public spectacle out of her either. He could have dragged her into court – remember, they were legally united – and he could have put her on trial and had her publicly shamed as an adulteress. But he didn’t want to do that to her. And so Joseph was planning to fill out some paperwork and divorce her quietly.
Joseph didn’t believe the impossible miraculous nature of Mary’s child. He was afraid for his reputation. Likely afraid for Mary, who would be an unwed pregnant mother in a harsh world. But that was all before God spoke. One night He sent an angel to Joseph in a dream. No ordinary dream either. The angel 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.” Mary’s impossible story was true. She hadn’t been with another man. God the Holy Spirit was the father. Mary’s child was conceived in a miraculous way, and the angel was there to confirm it.
And this is where Joseph’s Christmas perspective is so useful to us. Because think about everything God is asking us to believe at Christmas. A virgin…pregnant. A limitless God…wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. Sure, our unbelieving friends and neighbors like our Christmas trees and gifts and traditions. But tell them you believe in this part of the story and you just may get another kind of response. But there is no Christmas without this miraculous virgin birth. There is no Savior without this child’s miraculous divine nature.
Matthew records for us here that the virgin birth wasn’t just part of the story – it’s the heart of the story. Centuries before King Ahaz of Judah had refused to ask God for a sign that God would deliver the nation from attack. So God spoke through Isaiah and told him that he would one day provide an ultimate sign that he can deliver his people. You heard the prophecy in our Old Testament lesson. “All this took place to fulfill
what the Lord had said through the prophet. The virgin will be with child, and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means, ‘God with us.’” This name “Immanuel” isn’t an incidental part of the story. It’s not just another piece of a puzzle. It’s the whole thing. People would someday look at Mary’s child and say, “This is not just a man. This is God, who is with us, who has come to us in human flesh.” I don’t want to take the thunder away from our Christmas celebrations when we really talk about what it means that God became man, but Joseph must have marveled at the impossible, miraculous things the angel was saying about Mary’s child. Miraculously conceived. Miraculously named. Don’t let the surface traditions of Christmas rob you of the deep meaning. This child is Immanuel, God who loved his people so much that he became one of us to save us from our sin.
“Jesus” for the miraculous work
It’s the other name the angel gives the child here that speaks to that. In fact, the angel had announced that name to Mary as well. The angel said to Joseph, “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.” The baby’s name would be Jesus. We say it all the time, but do you know what Jesus means? Jesus is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Joshua – Jesus and Joshua really are the same name, and they both have the same meaning: “the Lord saves.” That would be his name, literally “the Lord saves.”
Every time Mary and Joseph would tell that name to a new acquaintance. Every time they would shout it out to call him in for supper, they would be reminded not just of his miraculous birth but his miraculous purpose. His miraculous work. And perhaps that’s even more of a miracle than the virgin birth. “Immanuel” is a special name because it tells us who the child is, but “Jesus” is perhaps even more special because it tells us what this child’s mission on earth would be.
I know you’ve heard the Christmas account before. So have I. I’ve been celebrating it over 40 years. Some of you twice that. And I know how special the name Jesus is. I hear it every week in worship. I read about him at home and talk about him with my family. But I have to confess, sometimes I forget just how meaningful the miracle of Jesus is. Sometimes, WE forget what this means and it all becomes too routine. The message becomes just another message. God’s Word becomes just another voice. Faith becomes just a part of our life instead of all of it. Jesus becomes just another answer to problems and not THE answer. But God doesn’t send an angel in a dream to wake us up as we spiritually sleepwalk through life. No, he sent an angel to Joseph. And the truths that angel delivered wake us up as surely as they woke up Joseph.
This is special. That child is Immanuel, God himself not watching from a distance but entering history to be with his people. That child is Jesus, the fulfillment of God’s gracious plan to save sinners who couldn’t save themselves. Joseph heard the angel’s words and believed, as impossible as it seemed. He took Mary home to be his wife, though they weren’t together in that way until after Jesus’ birth. They traveled to
Bethlehem as God had planned. Mary gave birth and the child was a boy and they named him Jesus. And the angels announced it and the shepherds rejoiced. And God brought salvation to us. Brothers and sisters, Christmas is almost here. Once more I invite you to marvel at the miracle. This is no ordinary time and our celebration next week will be no ordinary celebration. This child is the Son of God, Immanuel. And this Jesus is your eternal salvation. Amen.