Sunday, December 18, 2016

Sermon: Matthew 1: 18-25 Jesus, our Immanuel

Over the last few weeks, a new advertising poster has popped up in Adelaide, Australia, to a mixed reception. There’s a pop-art style cartoon of a pregnant woman at one side, and the close up of a man’s face on the other. And in the middle, the caption says: ‘You’re engaged, your fiancee is pregnant, and you’re not the father. What a Christmas!’

Now don’t worry - this isn’t a spoiler for the big storyline coming up in Neighbours or Home & Away. Because this isn’t a story from a made-up soap opera. This is real life - a story Jerry Springer or Jeremy Kyle would want to run on their TV show. Just think how tense an episode that would be.

‘You’re engaged, your fiancee is pregnant, and you’re not the father. What a Christmas!’

How would you feel in that situation? Angry? Confused? Betrayed? Whatever it is you’re feeling, it’s likely that Joseph was feeling the same way. You see, that poster in Adelaide is how an Anglican church is advertising its Christmas services. You’re Joseph - you’re engaged, your fiancee is pregnant and you’re not the father. What a Christmas!

This morning, we’re in Matthew’s gospel, as he begins to tell us of the Christmas story. He says as much in verse 18: ‘Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.’ But if you were to read this passage, and the next chapter, you might notice that he doesn’t tell us everything. Matthew tells us about the three wise men, but he misses out the bit about the angels appearing to the shepherds. He misses out the bit where the angel Gabriel appears to Mary and instead tells us the story from Joseph’s angle.

And from Joseph’s point of view, it’s not great. You’re engaged, your fiancee is pregnant and you’re not the father. What a Christmas! That’s where we find ourselves in verse 18. ‘When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.’

Now Northern Ireland can be fairly traditional in its views, and maybe Fermanagh even more so, but in Israel at this time, this was totally shocking. Mary is betrothed, engaged to Joseph, and yet, the signs are very obvious that she is pregnant. And then she has the cheek to come off with some story about the Holy Spirit making her pregnant? What does she take him for? A fool?

In those days and in that culture, Joseph would have had the right to have her publicly disgraced, and even stoned to death for unfaithfulness. But instead, having thought it through, he comes to his decision in verse 19: ‘And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.’

Now he has decided what to do, that’ll be it. Verse 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.’

Mary had been telling Joseph about an angel appearing with a message that she would have a son by the Holy Spirit. It seemed unbelievable, but now Joseph gets the same message from an angel. The child really is from the Holy Spirit. Mary hasn’t been unfaithful.

As the angel continues to speak to Joseph, we hear two names for the baby that is growing in Mary’s womb. Now I’m not sure if Frainc and Amanda spent days or weeks or months going through baby name books to come up with Katie Tara, or if there’s a particular significance to her name.

But in the Bible, names are significant. They can tell you a lot about a person. And the two names that the angel gives to Joseph tell us just who the special baby is, and why he matters to us - not just at Christmas time, but all the time.

The first name is found in verse 21. ‘She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’

The name Jesus simply means ‘God saves’. We talk about people being saved in all sorts of situations - when the lifeboat launches in the middle of a storm to save people from drowning in the water; when the crash barrier stops the car going over the edge and the people are saved; when the medics save a patient from dying.

But do you see why Jesus is given the name Jesus? ‘For (that is, because) HE will save his people... from their sins.’ Jesus is the Saviour, because he saves his people from their sins. These days we don’t really like to think about sin, or talk about sin, because it sounds so old-fashioned, so out of touch. But as we watch the news, or read the paper, or see life unfolding all around us, we see and know the effects of sin, in our own lives, and in everybody else’s.

In the beginning, God made a perfect world, and everything was good, good, and very good. But our first parents messed things up. They chose to go their own way; to do their own thing; to be like God - or in other words, to sin. And every one of us since has been caught up in their act of rebellion. It’s not just that we’re sinners because we sin - rather, we sin because we are sinners, it’s in our nature, it’s the way we are.

The lovely name of Jesus is so lovely because it speaks to us of his salvation - Jesus came to save us from our sins. He came to bear them on the cross, to die the death we deserve, to give us pardon and peace. Jesus is the Saviour.

But then in verses 22 and 23 we hear the other name for Jesus. As Matthew comments: ‘All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.’

Matthew remembers our Old Testament reading from Isaiah, and in its promise of a virgin conceiving and bearing a son, called Immanuel, finds the ultimate fulfilment in the events of the first Christmas. Why is Immanuel another name for Jesus? Well, Matthew tells us - ‘which means, God with us.’

If Jesus is God saves - and he, Jesus, saves his people from their sins, then that means that God himself has appeared. Jesus is ‘God with skin on’, as a Sunday School child once said. God is here. God is with us. That’s the message of Christmas - that God is with us.

Always and forever, God is with us. As we come shortly to baptise Katie, this will be our prayer - that she will grow up to know Jesus as her Saviour, and as her always with us God. But it’s not just something for Katie; it’s something for each one of us, as we gather here today.

Jesus is God’s gift to you this Christmas. He can and will save you from your sins - by taking away your burdens, and the weight of a guilty conscience, by giving you a fresh start as you trust in him.

And as you do that, as you trust in him, as you lean on him with all your weight, then you’ll discover that he is Immanuel, God with us, that he is always with you. That (as he has promised) he will never leave you or forsake you. Even if everyone else deserts you; even if you will spend Christmas Day by yourself - God is with you.

The poster’s slogan still reads ‘You’re engaged, your fiancee is pregnant and you’re not the father. What a Christmas!’ But instead of the angry face you might have expected on Joseph, the poster shows him smiling, excited, joyful - because this is the real Christmas - Jesus, our Immanuel - the God who saves us from our sins is the God with us, now and forever.

This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 18th December 2016.

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