Mary, Joseph, and Immanuel
Rev. Charles Westby, Pastor
Matthew 1:18-25
December 22, 2019

An interesting and important thing about the Christmas story is the impact on the people involved and their reaction to it. We could talk about the shepherds, the wise men, even the angels. We could talk about King Herod and the evil he committed. And the Christmas story involves surprise, difficulty, hardship, risk, fear, danger, evil, joy, amazement, faith; wonder and awe at the grace and mercy of God.

Of course, the most important people involved are Mary and Joseph, and Jesus. The part of the story we have before us this morning takes place from the standpoint of Joseph. But I also want to talk about Mary and Elizabeth, because this can give us some insight into Mary’s side of the story. Through it all, God reveals the wonder of what He was doing and His grace and mercy.

The Scriptures tell us about Mary’s visit to her relative, Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-45). Elizabeth was John the Baptist’s mother. Mary went to visit Elizabeth after Mary’s conversation with the Angel Gabriel. When Mary greeted Elizabeth, Elizabeth felt John the Baptist leap in her womb (Luke 1:41). Then Elizabeth said to Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why is it granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” She went on to say to Mary: “Indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord” (Luke 1:41-45 NKJV).

It looks like Elizabeth had no doubts about the origin of Mary’s child. She refers to the things told to Mary from the Lord. How could Elizabeth know about what the Lord had told Mary through the angel? It must be that an account of Gabriel’s visit must have been circulating among Mary’s immediate and closest relatives, an account that originated from Mary herself.

And the question arises whether Mary’s closest relatives would have believed her. One wonders if this is more of a modern problem read back into Mary and her family. There is good reason to treat it as likely that they would have believed Mary because Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist was also announced by an angel to Elizabeth’s husband, Zachariah, and was a miracle in its own way. And the situation with Elizabeth was well known among Elizabeth’s relatives and in the community where she lived. Thus, it appears likely that Mary’s more immediate family, her mother and sisters, if she had any sisters (we don’t know if she did), were apprised of the situation involving Mary’s pregnancy and were at least not antagonistic to her.

We should also give them the benefit of the doubt of being aware of the Messianic prophecies concerning the Messiah. Why would we suppose that they did not attend Synagogue and did not hear Isaiah read regularly and did not have a Messianic expectation? We have Isaiah 7:14. So did they.

It is understandable, however, that things look different from Joseph’s standpoint. He and Mary were betrothed. That was more than an engagement. They were as good as married, though they had not yet come together.

She is found to be pregnant. There is no hiding it. At some inevitable point, the evidence of her being pregnant would be obvious. At some point, therefore, Mary and Joseph must have had a conversation about it. You can imagine the tension, the heart ache.

Joseph must have been deeply disappointed. The Scripture is quite clear about a couple things, however. It says that Joseph was a “just” or “righteous” man (Matthew 1:19). As a result, he did not want to expose Mary publicly (Matthew 1:19). It also says that Joseph was thinking about this situation as he went to bed the night the angel appeared to him in a dream. It was weighing heavy on his heart and mind. He couldn’t help but be thinking about it over and over as he went to bed. This shows us his deep feeling for Mary.

Joseph was a just man. We can see what this means when we connect it to Joseph not wanting to expose Mary publicly. There is much more going on here than Joseph not wanting to bring some sort of public humiliation and embarrassment on Mary. Joseph was trying to avoid public exposure for Mary because such public exposure could have led to public punishment.

If the civil laws of Moses were being followed among the Jews at that time, Mary was actually in grave danger. This is supported by the account in John 8 of the woman who had been caught in adultery that the Pharisees brought to Jesus. They referred to the law of Moses that says that a woman caught in adultery should be put to death by stoning (John 8:5). You can read about that in the civil laws of Moses in Deuteronomy 22:13-30.

Those laws first speak about a woman providing evidence of her virginity. If Mary was found not to be able to provide evidence of her virginity, then she was subject to being put to death by stoning at “the door of her father’s house” (Deut. 22:21 NKJV). Obviously, or so it appeared to be obvious, if she was found to be pregnant, she could not provide the evidences of her virginity that anyone would have found to be credible in a legal sense. And if she was not identifying any other man involved, which she certainly would not have, then it would have been difficult to avoid the worst possible scenario, upon a strictly legal analysis. Death by stoning would was a legal outcome that the civil laws of Moses provided.

Understanding this legal background provides meaning to the Scriptures telling us that Joseph was a just man. This gives us great insight into Joseph. The bottom line is that Joseph did not want any physical harm to come to Mary. Even though it looked like she had betrayed him with another man, he was showing mercy and kindness to her. The sort of justice involved was not what we might ordinarily think of in the sense of fairly getting what one deserves; fairly getting what the law requires. It was a justice that sought the well-being of another person, of Mary, even though the legal rights may have said otherwise.

Joseph being just in this way may also reflect an understanding of human weakness, on Joseph’s part; an understanding that also involved realizing that he was also subject to human weakness, that is, sinful weakness. As such, he would also be motivated to seek mercy for her in a sort of humility.

Another important aspect of Joseph being a just man that we see is that he was in control of his passions. Once the evidence of Mary’s pregnancy became obvious, and along with it her apparent betrayal, we don’t even have to imagine the passions and emotions that could have arisen in Joseph: anger; jealousy; a desire for vindictiveness, to make sure she gets what she deserves for betraying him.

But he has those passions under control by higher things. Joseph appears as a man who was well-schooled in the merciful ways of Yahweh as taught in the Old Testament. He was schooled in the ways of faith and Yahweh’s word being brought to bear on controlling actions that can be driven by one’s passions and emotions. There is much that we can learn much from Joseph. This all leads to Joseph making up his mind to divorce Mary in secret. This was calculated to preserve Mary’s life.

Now let’s talk about God in all of this. There are two things I have in mind: intrusion and Immanuel.

One thing about the Christmas story that has always struck me is how God intruded. You can reasonably imagine Mary sitting in her house the day that Gabriel suddenly shows up out of nowhere. Let’s say she was thinking about her life in the immediate future involving her marriage to Joseph. She is making plans about her soon-to-be married life. Now she is suddenly talking to an angel, sent from God, who has a name, Gabriel. He is telling her that she is going to get pregnant by the operation of the Holy Spirit.

She blinks a few times. There is an awkward silence, as she is scrambling to catch up with all of this. And what kind of an announcement could have more effectively interrupted her thinking about soon-to-be married life? There could have been no greater intrusion from God than getting pregnant apart from relations with her soon-to-be husband. She finally accepts the intrusion in faith: let it be to me according to your word (Luke 1:38).

But you know that God is always intruding. This is because humanity is on its merry secular way toward destruction, pursuing the things, wealth, power, glory, and pleasure of this world as the things that ultimately matter. And so He brings His word into our lives and causes us to come to faith. This faith can significantly effect a lot of things. God’s word and faith deeply effect our values, and what we view as true and right, our source of authority (God’s Word), and what we value most.

If we have been used to this Christian faith for a long time, we may not realize just how much of an intrusion it is, viewed from the human side of it. But God intrudes this way because He has a much different perspective on human existence than we humans do. He sees the spiritual danger we are in. He wants to save us from it. To do so, He must intrude. He must intrude with His saving action in His Son. On the other hand, once faith happens, this “intrusion” by God in His Son becomes pure blessing.

Nevertheless, this intrusion means telling Mary that she is going to get pregnant, but not by the operation of any man. It means causing you to see yourself differently than our culture teaches, to see yourself as in need of redemption; and then to see Christ Jesus, and find Him presented to you as crucified for sins, one’s own sins, and to find Him presented as Redeemer; and to find one saying yes, this Jesus is for Me, and finding in Him everlasting joy in the deepest part of your soul. And then experiencing the ways in which this changes your life.

In the midst of the intrusion, God shows His mercy again because we see how God helped Joseph. He explained to Joseph what was happening with Mary’s pregnancy. He did not leave Joseph in the dark. At that point, it did not really matter to Joseph if anyone else would believe him. And it did not matter to God whether anyone else believed Joseph. It only mattered to explain the situation to Joseph. He tells Joseph how Mary got pregnant; the Holy Spirit is the cause, not any other man.

What relief and joy Joseph must have had. God was telling him through the angel how it happened, and not to be afraid to take her as his wife. Joseph, she is as innocent and pure as the day you asked for her hand.

We find ourselves to be Christians. This is a miracle of God’s grace; no matter how it has happened. And in the teaching of His word He explains to us why and what for. It does not matter if other people don’t understand. There may be danger and risk involved, as there was for Mary and Joseph. It may be an intrusion into our lives where standing for the faith in Christ into which we have been born by water and the Spirit puts us at odds with people around us, and some of those people may not be so friendly about it.

But in it all, we have the name of the One who has so intruded. His Name is Immanuel. He is, in His own person, God with us. And if we have God with us, then we can do no other than what Mary and Joseph did, our dear brother and sister in the same Christ; they did as the Lord had commanded them through the angel.

When we believe in the good news, the impossible good news, the real good news, that Jesus is Immanuel; when we believe the impossible good news, the real good news, that our sins are forgiven and God’s grace of everlasting love is turned toward us, then we also can do no other but to say Amen. Thank you, God. And in whatever way it changes us and impacts our lives, so be it and to God be the glory in Christ Jesus, forever.

Amen.



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