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Never the Same Again

December 23, 2018
By Rev. David French


I think most people would understand Joseph’s concern at the beginning of today’s reading in our gospel lesson for this morning. I mean, he really is caught between a rock and a hard place. He’s already betrothed to Mary which means he has already made the commitment to care for Mary through thick or thin, that is, for better or worse. The two of them are, according to the customs of that day, already husband and wife. At the same time, however, they had not yet begun living together. That’s what betrothed means … married, but not yet living together. It was the time the husband would go to prepare a place for them to live.

            We’re not told how Mary shared the news of her pregnancy with Joseph, only that she was found to be with child. We do know, however, and Joseph knew that he was not a part of the process. Mary, no doubt, shared with joy that the baby was of the Holy Spirit, that the baby was the fulfillment of the prophesied coming of the Messiah, that she was the virgin Isaiah spoke of. No doubt, her joy faded quickly as Joseph’s mood changed. No doubt, Mary ended up begging him to believe her, that she had not been unfaithful to him, but such words are hard to believe under any circumstances.

You really can’t blame Joseph for assuming her words were the desperate attempt of a compromised woman to excuse the inexcusable. He may have thought the guilt of her unfaithfulness had driven her mad. Could rape be involved, and the trauma was more than Mary could bear? Maybe Mary just wasn’t the girl he thought she was, and she was lying. The Bible doesn’t tell us what Joseph was thinking. It just says that he was struggling with the truth and had come to the decision that the best course of action was a quick, quiet, behind-the-scenes divorce.

Joseph gives a glimpse of his righteousness by doing what every Christian should do as he chooses not to expose the sins of others. In his explanation of the commandment against bearing false witness, Luther says that not only should we avoid lying, but we should also explain things in the kindest way. That is, when we broadcast the misdeeds of others, we bring condemnation upon ourselves. Joseph determined to do what was right in the kindest possible way for Mary.

I can’t even begin to imagine how long and how hard it was for Joseph to fall asleep that night, but mercifully, sleep did come. And as he slept, the Scriptures tell us that he had a dream, and in that dream an angel came to him. The angel told Joseph that Mary was not crazy or lying. The child growing within her was indeed from the Holy Spirit. He was indeed the promised One, the Messiah. The angel even told Joseph to name the child Jesus, a name that means the Lord saves.

The Holy Spirit then inspired Matthew to remind his readers that this was the fulfillment of the prophecy that we read in today’s Old Testament reading. “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke up, he acted on this new information. He took Mary into his house, but did not consummate their marriage until after Jesus was born.

The virgin birth is a hardship on everyone involved. The community at large would not understand the working of the Holy Spirit. They would accuse both Mary and Joseph of all kinds of sin. Thirty years later, some of Jesus’s opponents would try to discredit His ministry by claiming that He was illegitimate. The virgin birth, while certainly a unique sign, was also very much a burden.

At the same time, the virgin birth was necessary. It was necessary because the person, Jesus, is both God and man. Jesus Christ is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and true man, born of the Virgin Mary. If Jesus had been conceived in the normal way, He would be a normal man and nothing more. His conception by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary points to His Divine Father and His human mother. Jesus is one person who truly has both a divine and human nature.

And the divine and human nature of Christ is essential for our salvation. God’s eternal plan of salvation depends on the existence of a human being who could live a life of perfect innocence and holiness in a sinful world. This innocent human being must then endure, as the substitute for all humanity, the punishment that sins of all humanity have earned. There is no normal descendant of Adam and Eve who could fulfill this plan, for all have been born in the image of Adam, that is, the image of a sinner. God Himself had to enter human history to save humanity. You know, it was man who sinned, and so, man who had to pay the debt of sin. But only God could afford the price, and so, God in loving mercy, took on human flesh and blood, that is, He became a man that He might save us. That also means that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph would bear the burden of the culture’s unjust condemnation.

Today’s Gospel shows us how God gave Joseph the strength and courage to endure this special burden. God’s Word came to Joseph through the mouth of the angel so that Joseph was now able to take up his special vocation as guardian to Jesus and husband to Mary.

In the creed, we confess, “… conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary ….” Too often, we say those words on autopilot. We don’t think about what these words mean. Lives were turned upside down because Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Joseph almost divorced Mary. Both Joseph and Mary had to endure the condemnation of the community. Jesus had to endure accusations that His ministry was null and void because His parentage was questionable.

At the same time, these words are necessary for our salvation. These words tell us that Jesus is both God and man. Because Jesus is both God and man, when Jesus died, God died. Because Jesus is both God and man, His death paid for the sins of the entire world. Because Jesus is both God and man, He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. Because Jesus is both God and man, a human being now rules over both heaven and earth. Because Jesus is both God and man, His human body and blood are available on altars everywhere at the same time for us Christians to eat and to drink for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith. You see, the Son of God took on human flesh so that we might be His own and live under Him in His kingdom.

As we read today’s Gospel, it is a good thing to study Joseph as an example of the Christian’s struggle to protect the reputation of others. However, the more important teaching of this reading is that Jesus must be conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin because He is both God and man. As the only one who is both 100% God and 100% man, He is the only one who is qualified to pay for our sins so that God can declare us righteous for Christ’s sake. This is the gift that Jesus offers to you even now as you listen to Him, who is this word.

In His Name, Amen