+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.
The text for our meditation this Christmas Eve comes from our Gospel lesson, especially where Matthew records, But as [Joseph] considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends …
Nobody would have blamed him, had he gone through with it. From all the evidence, she had betrayed him. Of course, she denied it, but her defense sounded ludicrous; you don’t just become pregnant without some … other activity taking place first. Nevertheless, that was her story, and she was sticking to it. She insisted that she had not been unfaithful, and much as he wanted to believe her, he couldn’t. Her protestations seem to have fallen on deaf ears, and he resolved to divorce her quietly.
We are, of course, talking about the holy family. We’ve got Mary, the virgin Theotokos, the “God-bearer.” We’ve got the yet unborn Holy Child, Jesus who will be called the Christ, Who is still being knit together in His mother’s womb at the time of our reading. Then … we’ve got Joseph, the groom-to-be who finds himself caught in one of the most awkward situations in human history. He was fairly certain that his bride-to-be has cheated on him, and the penalty for such adultery could be as mild as shunning or as severe as death, usually by stoning. But Joseph didn’t want that for Mary; as hurt and betrayed as he undoubtedly felt, Matthew describes Joseph as being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame.
But Mary hadn’t been unfaithful. Her innocence, her chastity, her virginity remained intact. Instead, she had been selected to be the bearer and mother of the incarnate Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit! Enter the mysterious fifth character in our text today, an angel of the LORD. This messenger of good news comes to Joseph in a dream, assuring him of Mary’s innocence, that it was by the working of the Holy Spirit that the Child, the Boy growing in her womb was conceived by the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit. Joseph needn’t fear, in spite of what people might say about either of them. They knew the truth of the holy Child yet to be born, and thus he could, should, and would take Mary to be his wife … and raise the holy Babe as his own Son.
Such an unusual, mysterious, holy Child couldn’t be given any ordinary name. He was to be given a special Name, a Name that hearkens back to the writings of the prophets: Yeshua, Jesus, literally meaning, “Savior,” and He was to be given this Name to indicate the purpose for which He was born. He would be called Savior, because, as Matthew records, “[H]e will save his people from their sins.”
Joyous, indeed, is this night as we behold the Babe of Bethlehem, but the angel’s proclamation to Joseph also carries with it a dread reality, a shadow which would hover all His life: from when Mary first placed Him in a manger, through His earthly ministry, even as He marched up a hill outside of Jerusalem called Golgotha. That shadow was in the shape of a cross. This Child, the incarnate Second Person of the Holy Trinity, had taken on human flesh for a purpose. He wasn’t born to just be a cute baby - that happens every day! No this Child was born with a very specific vocation: Jesus was literally born to die. That is how He would save His people from their sins: by taking the sins of the entire world - all people from all time, indeed, the brokenness and sin of all creation - taking that all unto Himself, and killing it the only way it could be killed: by being killed Himself. The self-sacrifice of the Son of God for the restoration of all creation, the redemption and salvation of all Mankind. It could only be done by Immanuel, God literally with us.
But that’s how people are saved from the eternal consequence for their sin. Innocent blood becomes the guiltiest of all, and that blood must be shed. In ancient Israel, Yom Kippur or the Day of Atonement was one of the holiest days. It was a day of repentance, of fasting and sacrifice, and one of the more well-known sacrifices of that time included the sacrifice of two goats. One of the goats would be sacrificed in the more traditional sense, as a sin offering to YHWH, but the other goat … would have the Levitical priest lay his hands on the head of the animal, cast the sins of the people onto and into the animal, and send it off into the wilderness. This second goat, the “scapegoat,” would bear the sins of the people far away from them and die in oblivion. Both of these animal sacrifices prefigure the ultimate sacrifice - not of a goat, but that of the Lamb of God, Who takes away, not only the sins of Israel, but of the whole world.
That’s the reason behind the joy of Christmas. It is right that tonight we revel in Christ’s incarnation, God stepping from eternity into the time and space of His creation, out of love, in order to saved His hateful creatures, but even on this joyous night, we remember that this Babe came with a mission, revealed in the Name that Joseph was to give Him. That’s what this glorious and holy night is all about! Not the self-centered, rank materialism that our culture associates with Christmas. It’s not even about the gathering together of family and friends for feasting and revelry. Wonderful as those things are, and thankful though we are for them, this night … is all about Jesus. The Name that Joseph gave to that Infant Priest … says everything about Him, and everything about you and me. Into that Name we were baptized, into that Name the sin within us was killed, and into that Name we were raised with Jesus to everlasting life. Harry Belafonte was right when he sang a few decades ago, “Man will live forevermore because of Christmas Day.”
+ In that holy Name of Jesus, that Name that is above every name. + Amen, and merry Christmas.