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Feast of the Nativity/Christmas Eve, 12/24/2017

Sermon on Matthew 1:18-25, by Andrew Smith

Matthew 1:18-25 [English Standard Version, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.]


18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

23     “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,

and they shall call his name Immanuel”

(which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.



            Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

            Merry Christmas! Thank you for coming tonight. I hope you’re enjoying the service. The candle-lighting is coming up. That was always the part I looked forward to as a kid. Oh, who am I kidding? It’s the part I look forward to now! It’s coming up. It won’t be long now.

            Before we get to that, I wanted to take another listen to one of the readings from tonight, Matthew’s Gospel of the birth of Jesus. I won’t read the whole thing again, but I wanted to note the last bit about the name. The angel appears to Joseph in a dream to tell him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife because the baby she carries is by the Holy Spirit. He continues saying, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” And Matthew goes on to explain that all of this took place to fulfill a 700 year old prophecy spoken by Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” Matthew explains that Immanuel, means God with us, in Hebrew and then he goes on to tell us that when Joseph woke up, he took Mary as his wife. And when her child was born, Joseph named the him Jesus. Did you catch that?

            The angel said the prophecy was the child will be called Immanuel, which means God with us. And Joseph ended up calling him Jesus. I want to try to explain this naming discrepancy and try to make a point about it.

            In the first place, this apparent discrepancy about the name isn’t really a discrepancy. As anyone who has taken a high school language course knows, names are different in other languages. Andrew becomes Andres in Spanish and Anders in Swedish. Jesus is the Greek equivalent of Joshua, which means, “Yahweh saves.” Now imagine living in a community with people who have names like this. So you know that guy who lives down the block? His name is “he laughs (Isaac).” He’s married to “Sea of Bitterness (Miriam).” Oh, did you hear, they had a baby. They’re going to name him, “Yahweh is salvation (Isaiah).” I know, it’s weird to us but it was normal to them. Maybe the closest thing to us are aboriginal communities and tribes who have names that mean things. Bindi means “skip” among the aboriginal peoples in Australia and maybe we remember the name “Dancing with Wolves” the Kevin Costner film. In our cultural world “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” but in the Israelite/Jewish world, names have meaning. So we should be paying attention to this use of names in Matthew’s Gospel. Should Mary’s baby be called Immanuel or Jesus/Joshua?

            Isaiah said the baby will be called Immanuel. Matthew reminds his readers that name means, “God is with us.” This is supposed to be a particularly comforting prophecy in that God is promising to once again, be with His people in a very real and tangible way. Readers of the OT know that God led Israel through the wilderness and into the promised land by His manifested glorious presence in a pillar of fire and smoke that came to rest in the tabernacle and later in the temple above the outstretched cherubim’s arms on the Ark of the Covenant. Day and night, Israel could look up to the temple and see the fiery presence of the Lord, there, with them, in real time. They need never doubt where their God was. He was there. Isaiah’s prophecy was a promise that God would dwell with His people once again. The birth of Mary’s child as Immanuel means God is not just blazing fire and smoke, but in human flesh and blood exactly like you and me. All the holiness of God, born and wrapped in diapers and a blanket, laying in a manger. And Mary’s child was fully human in every way. And yet… He was very different from you and me.

           When the angel cites this prophecy, he means to say that, what is conceived in Mary is from the Holy Spirit. The baby is not Joseph’s. The reading makes that point pretty clear, twice. You and I, while we may be reborn by the Holy Spirit, we definitely had human fathers and were conceived in the way all people but Mary’s first child were. I think this point bears reflection too. As much as Mary’s child is God with us, there is much more expected of Him than there ever was of any one of us. Mary’s child was born with a unique purpose in the whole of humanity, “to save His people from their sins” and so His name should be Jesus or Joshua, which means “Yahweh saves.” There’s really no discrepancy about these names. They word together to describe Mary’s baby. He is Yahweh in human flesh born to save people from their sins. Mary’s baby is one special case.

            The en-fleshed God is born to intervene in our sin-cursed world. That’s a lot to take in, I know. But that’s the real meaning of Christmas. This is what Christians celebrate every Christmas and recognize is complete at every Easter, God with us to save us.

            A lot of people today celebrate what they call Christmas. And they have a tree and lights and tinsel and cookies and presents. And they have a good time with it. Christians might do quite a few if not all of those things. But behind the good times is the Good News that the “enfleshing” of the eternal God was born for us. It’s not a metaphor. Tonight is not just about something that happened a long time ago in a place, far, far away. Jesus was born on a quiet night in human history just as Matthew recorded it. Think about that as you sing tonight. As you hold your candle and hear again the words, “Holy infant, tender and mild.” “Christ the Savior is born.”

Immanuel is born. He is called Jesus because he will save His people from their sins. I pray it’s your favorite part because God has done it for you. Amen.

The Rev. Andrew Smith
Cookeville, Tennessee, USA
E-Mail: smithad19+prediger@gmail.com