Sunday, December 18, 2022

The Powerful Word!

[Below you'll find the text of the message prepared for both worship services of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, this morning. The live stream videos of both services are also here.]

Matthew 1:18-25

Few incidents in Scripture more forcefully convey the power of God’s Word than does today’s Gospel lesson, Matthew 1:18-25. In it, Joseph, the Nazareth handyman God had chosen to be the earthly father of Jesus, God the Son, moves from fear to faith in facing the role God marked out for him.

Let’s be clear. God makes a big ask of Joseph. It is, from the standpoint of human beings, one that will upend the plans he’s made for his life and subject him to all kinds of trouble.

You know what happens: Joseph is betrothed to Mary and learns that Mary is pregnant. Joseph knows that he’s not the father and is devastated, certain that Mary has been unfaithful. 

In those days, a betrothed couple was considered legally married among God's people. They were also expected, by law, not to consummate their marriage until the betrothal period, usually lasting a year, ended. Sexual relations outside of marriages between husbands and wives were punishable by death by stoning. It had ceased being customary for betrothed women who were pregnant by relations with men other than their husbands to be executed. Instead, under provisions in the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy, the violated husbands could write a bill of divorce to end the betrothal. 

When Joseph learns of Mary’s pregnancy, deeming the idea that her pregnancy has come by way of the Holy Spirit unbelievable, he has two bad options. Option one: he can go ahead with the marriage, in effect, creating the impression that he and Mary had violated the sixth commandment–”You shall not commit adultery.” But if he does this, he’ll be subject to condemnation, ex-communication from the synagogue, and a loss of reputation leading to loss of work in Nazareth or the surrounding area.

His second option is to divorce Mary. This is the option he decides on, hoping to do so “quietly.” This means basically that, to protect Mary, the bill of divorce he signs will make no mention of why he’s divorcing her. But everyone in Nazareth will assume that Joseph is the father of the child. Joseph will ruin his own reputation in order to shield Mary and her baby from a lifetime of harassment and shunning.

While still thinking about all of this, Joseph goes home and hits the sack. In a dream, an angel comes to Joseph and says: “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. 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.” (Matthew 1:20-21)

Now, these words are so freighted, they must be unpacked. 

First, the angel addresses Joseph as a “son of David.” Joseph was a descendant of King David of Old Testament times. While the baby in Mary’s womb is God the Son in human flesh, He would have none of Joseph’s DNA. (Or Mary’s either, for that matter.) He was conceived, as we confess each Sunday, “by the power of the Holy Spirit.” But the Messiah or the Christ, God’s Anointed One, was prophesied to come from David’s family tree. So, a son–a descendant–of David needed to adopt this child as his own. God had chosen Joseph for that role.

Then the angel tells Joseph, “do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife.” “Don’t be afraid of the neighbors’ condemnation or possible poverty,” God is telling Joseph through the angel. “If you take Mary as your wife, you’ll be doing the will of God.” Following the God we meet in Jesus isn’t always easy, friends. To be a disciple of Jesus means we may be asked to do crazy stuff, like confessing our sins, forgiving our neighbors, loving the unlovable, and telling others about new life through Jesus. We’ll incur rejection from some. But when we turn to Jesus in daily repentance and faith, we needn’t fear what the world says about us or does to us. “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul,” Jesus says elsewhere. “Rather, be afraid of the One [God] who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28) Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.”

After confirming that Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit, the angel tells Joseph, “you are to give [the child born of Mary] the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21) The name Joseph is to give the son Mary bears is, in the Hebrews of the Old Testament, Yeshua, transliterated into English as Joshua. In the Greek, it’s Yesus, rendered in English as Jesus. It means, Yahweh, the Lord, our salvation. Jesus’ name describes His mission. Jesus is God come to save us! The angel emphasizes this when he tells Joseph that Jesus: “will save his people from their sins.”

You and I know, friends, that every person born into this world except Jesus, needs the forgiveness of sin. We are born in sin and there’s nothing we can do to erase its power to condemn us to everlasting separation from God. But Jesus, the Messiah, came into the world to take the condemnation for sin we deserve. He takes our condemnation, then gives His righteousness to all who turn to Him in repentance and faith. The Bible says that, “God made [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

But there is even more to being saved than having our sins forgiven and having life with God right now, wonderful though those things are! Every person who believes in Jesus looks ahead to the day of Jesus’ second advent, His second coming. On that day, we’ll also be saved from the gravest consequence of sin, death itself. In a section of the Old Testament book of Isaiah that describes Jesus and what He will do, we read a prophecy written in the past tense: “Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering…and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:4-5) On the day of His return, Jesus will usher those who have believed in Him into eternity, where, Revelation says, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”(Revelation 21:4) Jesus, the Messiah, has come to save us so that when we, like Him, are raised from the dead, will be saved to live for eternity, without suffering, grief, or death. Jesus, the apostle Paul says, “will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.” (Philippians 3:21) Jesus the Savior has come to save us eternally and totally!

The end of our gospel lesson brings us to one of the greatest Christmas miracles. It’s this: “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.” (Matthew 1:24)

How did Joseph, who had gone to sleep intent on quietly divorcing Mary, end up taking Mary as his wife and the child in her womb as his earthly son, despite all the challenges it would bring to him? The same way we can leave our worship today knowing that our sins are forgiven, that God is with us always, that we can live in the freedom of the Gospel, that we can ignore the cynicism of the world and live with faith in God. By the power of God’s saving Word!

The angel’s words from God rang true to Joseph because, as a faithful man who knew God’s Word, he would have been aware of the child promised in Isaiah 7-9, from which today’s first lesson comes. That child was a sign sent by God pointing to another Child God promised to send, One born of a virgin from the house of David, One who would save the people He created from their sins. Of that Child, God said through Isaiah: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)

Joseph knew God’s Word when he heard it. And just as God’s Word came to him through an angel in a dream and so was given renewed faith, God comes to us in His Word to call you and me to repentance, faith, and new and everlasting life through the crucified and risen Jesus. By Jesus, the Word made flesh, and the Word about Him we encounter Scripture and the Sacraments, we can celebrate Christmas and each day in the certainty that we have been saved, now and for all eternity. We know that Immanuel, God with Us, always. That is the power of the Gospel Word about Jesus that transforms our fears to faith, our sins to righteousness, our despair to hope, our death to life! May you live in the power of Jesus, the Word made flesh, this Christmas and always! Amen