Who doesn't love reflecting on the amazing story of Mary, a teenage girl swept up in something so unexpected, so epic? The Incarnation is just as breathtaking the thousandth time we mention it as the first—so we mention it a thousand times or more at Christmastime. To systematically point out how one prophecy after another is fulfilled in Christ is about as fun as it gets for a preacher. But what do we do with other parts of the Christmas story? For example, those odd, mind-numbing genealogies? And the story has its share of somewhat awkward characters, and in many ways, you can count Joseph among them. Well, in the sermon below, Matt Woodley covers both the genealogies and Joseph—and not necessarily in the ways you would expect.
On June 5, 1978, a seven-year old boy named Martin Turgeon slipped off a wharf and fell into the Prairie River in Canada. At least a dozen adults saw him struggle for a few moments before he sank and drowned. Why didn't anyone dive in to save him? Just upstream, a plant used to dump raw sewage right into the river. The water was dirty—dangerous to your health. So, nobody jumped in to save Martin Turgeon.
It's easy at times to view God as one of the onlookers standing on the wharf of the Prairie River. We feel like God looks at us and says, "Look, I'm not diving into the mess of your life until you get out of the putrid river. I am a holy God, so you clean up your act first, and then I'll accept you and embrace you and love you." But in our passage for this morning, we meet a God who was—and is—willing to plunge into the mess of human sin and sorrow. We meet a God who says, "I'm coming after you before you get out of the river and clean yourself up."
In this well-known Christmas story, we'll explore two incredible facets to the Good News that Jesus came to bring us. First of all, we learn that in Jesus, God stands with us in our sin and shame and sorrow. He takes the plunge, so to speak, and as a result, he sets a radically new standard for how we should life. Second, because God stands with us in our sin, we are called to stand with and for others in their sin and sorrow. This radically redefines the nature of community and the essence of what it means to be a "good person."
God stands with us in our sin and shame and sorrow.
You'll notice the "plunge" God takes in Matthew 1:1-17. These verses seem pretty dismal and boring. It's just a list of names! But these verses are actually filled with good theology and great storytelling. These names establish that Jesus is a descendent of King David, the greatest king of the Jewish people. This connection is important because the Messiah promised in the Old Testament was often called a Son of David.
This genealogy also establishes what kind of Messiah this Son of David will be. These verses tell us that he is willing to take the plunge into our mess. He won't sit on the pier and watch us struggle. He will jump in and save us. Consider, for example, that four of the people in Jesus' family tree were foreign women who had questionable backgrounds. Women did not usually appear in family trees during this time—especially immoral women. This is Matthew's way of telling us that this Messiah is willing to plunge into the mess of the whole world.
Notice also the names of the Messiah: "Jesus" and "Emmanuel." Verse 21 tells us that this will be a very different kind of Savior from the one Israel expected. He will "save his people from their sins." First of all, isn't it amazing for God to call us his people? What a compliment! God wants us. But notice also the disturbing side of this verse: God will save his people from their sin. Matthew's readers would have been shocked by this idea. They thought the Messiah-King would save them from the sin of others, not their sin. But the name of Jesus doesn't just mean, "God save us from them." It also means, "God save us from ourselves."
What a challenging but hopeful word! Jesus' first job is to save us from our sin—our pride, our stubbornness of heart, our lust, our oppression of others, our lack of love, our hardness of heart. Sin is a serious issue, and God takes the initiative to deal with it "once for all" in Christ. God plunged into the mess of our lives before we could get out of the river and clean up our act.
But notice in verse 23 the other key name for Jesus: "Emmanuel." Literally translated, it means "with us, the God" or "the with-us God." It's a powerful name. We shouldn't weaken it by saying that "in Jesus, God draws near to us." No! It means that Jesus is God with us.
In his book Miracles, C.S. Lewis offers a beautiful analogy for the Incarnation. He writes:
Think of a pearl diver, first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing up in mid-air, then gone with a splash, vanished, rushing down through green and warm water into the black and cold water, down through increasing pressure into the death-like region of ooze and slime and old decay; then up again, back to color and light, his lungs almost bursting, till suddenly he breaks surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing that he went down to recover. He and it are both covered now that they have come up into the light.
That's the story of the Incarnation. In Jesus, God strips himself naked in order to plunge into the murky waters of humanity. He vanishes as he plunges deeper and deeper into the oozy waters of our life. But he does it for us. He does it to seek and find and raise up to new life something incredibly precious to him: you and me.
What a radical idea! What a unique story! A nice, decent god would probably send us some help—maybe an angel or a sacred text or advice of some sort. We would probably consider that god a righteous god—a god we could respect and admire and maybe even fear. But the God of Scripture goes radically beyond that. Yes, he sends his angels and sacred texts, and we respond with admiration and respect and even fear. But at Christmas, God didn't stand on the wharf and send someone else or send along some religious instruction. No! God personally jumped into the putrid waters. He became vulnerable for our sake. There's nothing more vulnerable than a fetus swimming in amniotic fluid. Nothing more vulnerable than a newborn baby. It's shocking! It's even beyond decency! It's crazy, over-the-top, dangerous love! The God of the Bible—the God of Christmas—is much better than we could ever imagine!
But what do we do with the Good News that God stands with us in our sin and shame and sorrow? First of all, we accept what he has done for us. We quit trying to get our act together before we come to God. We realize that God has plunged into the putrid mess of our lives, saving us.
We are called to stand with and for others in their sin and shame and sorrow.
But the work of God in Christ also sets into motion a new standard for loving others. We see this demonstrated so powerfully in the story of Joseph. In the Christmas story, he lives by the pattern of the cross of Jesus before the cross of Jesus took place.
In verse 19, Joseph is singled out as a "righteous man." He follows the rules—not just the silly, optional rules that people create to make life complicated, but rules laid out by God. For instance, Jewish law said that a man and woman were not supposed to engage in a sexual relationship until they were married. A righteous man like Joseph, then, would have honored that law in his relationship with Mary. But he suddenly learns that his fiancée is "with child"—and he doesn't know that this has come about through the Holy Spirit. All he knows is that he's in a horrible dilemma. If he marries his fiancée, others would assume that he got her pregnant. Since he hadn't anticipated a virgin birth—and since Mary had not claimed to be raped—he could only come to one conclusion: Mary had had sex with another man.
It's difficult for us to imagine the depth of Joseph's shame at this point. In his culture a fiancée's unfaithfulness would imply Joseph's inadequacy, bringing shame on him and his entire family. In fact, Jewish, Greek, and Roman law all demanded that a man divorce his wife or break off the engagement if she was unfaithful. People surrounding Joseph would have possibly mocked him and treated him with contempt, so Joseph would have profited from a public divorce—literally and not just figuratively. He could have impounded her dowry—the total assets she brought into the marriage—and perhaps recouped the price he paid to have her as his bride. But Joseph was a good man—a righteous man. He chose a more compassionate path: verse 19 says that "he had in mind to quietly divorce her." In other words, in front of two or three witnesses, he would quietly issue her a certificate of divorce and minimize her public dishonor. Although deeply wounded, Joseph chose the righteous path, a path that would allow him to maintain his honor without humiliating Mary.
This was the path he chose for the time being—a path that clearly qualified him as a good person. But then God called Joseph to a new standard—a standard beyond merely following rules. God called Joseph to live according to God's standard of love.
When you think about the steps Joseph had to take concerning Mary, God called Joseph to plunge into sin and shame. Notice verse 24: "He took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son." This situation was messy and offensive. It would call his righteousness into question. In his commentary on Matthew, Frederick Dale Bruner writes:
Why would the Gospel story begin on such a scandalous note? … Joseph, Matthew says pointedly, was a "righteous man." And Joseph found what was happening offensive. But Joseph was overcome by a divine intervention, and he made a new decision—the decision to marry Mary. Joseph now dared to … go this initially embarrassing and lonely route of marrying a pregnant fiancée. From the instant that Jesus appeared on the world scene, even at his conception, he caused righteous people to rethink what was righteous.
Joseph could have walked away and still been a righteous person. But God called him to a new standard of love, to a whole new way of being a good person. A good person is no longer just someone who avoids sin and follows the rules. Under the cross of Jesus, a truly good person also identifies with sinners.
What does all of this mean for us? Perhaps your life or your family is a mess. Perhaps you feel like God can't touch you this morning. You know that you're not one of the "decent" people here today. You have skeletons in your closet—secret sins or scary addictions to deal with. You have a bitter or vengeful spirit that threatens to boil over during this season. On the outside to look like you have your act together, but on the inside you have greed and self-indulgence and hypocrisy. You have sin. But this should not—and must not—drive you to despair or shame or discouragement. Jesus' name means "our God saves." He will save us from our sins. That's why he came. He's the "with-us God" in the midst of this mess.
Perhaps you're thinking, I'm pretty decent. My family is in pretty good shape. I have my sin battles, but I'm a fairly good person. You may be right. Let's just assume that, like Joseph, you are a righteous man or a righteous woman. But do you have the new kind of righteousness? Do you possess the kind of Christ-like righteousness that plunges into the raw sewage of humanity? Let me give you a test: When you see or hear about people sinning, does your heart break with tears and compassion or do you just want to gossip? Do you move towards the sinner, or do you want to move away? Do you ignore the sin or do you move into it and say, "We need to talk. I love you but there's something in your life that needs to be dealt with, and I'm not leaving you until it is." Do you not associate with certain people because of their sinful behavior? Are you willing to bear the shame of others' sin because of your contact with them? Do people know that if they had a problem that was causing their life to fall apart, that they could come to you and find solace? Do you really understand the new righteousness under the cross of Jesus?
Joseph had to follow the way of the cross. He had to crucify his desire for revenge. He had to crucify his reputation. He had to crucify his safe and predictable Christian walk with the perfect Christian family. He had to crucify his idea of being a good person. He had to crucify his antiseptic, safe, clean ideas of being separated from sinful people. He had to crucify his ideas of decent love to be a crucified Christian. Are we willing to do the same?
To see an outline of Woodley's sermon, click here.
For your reflection:
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? _____________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ___________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? _______________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? ______________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ___________________________________________