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12.22.13 How Will We be Found this Christmas? Matthew 1:18-25 Sermon Summary

by on December 26, 2013

The claim that he was born of a virgin isn’t the real scandal in Jesus’ birth. It is misunderstanding that “Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us,” also means that “God doesn’t care.”

Summary Points

  • The virgin-birth and why it matters; it’s not what you think
  • The real scandal—originally, in Joseph’s time, in our time
  • How God is with us because God doesn’t care
  • Questions for Discussion and Reflection

In one verse—not even one he composed, but one that he borrowed—Matthew interpreted the Bible he knew and said something about Jesus that continues to rock the world today. Matthew 1:23 quotes Isaiah 7:14 with these words: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.”

Here, I contend, are words that have haunted God’s people ever since. Matthew’s interpretation of Isaiah raises so many questions. And for centuries even up to today, the words from this verse that receive the most attention are actually not the truly troubling ones.

The virgin-birth of Jesus has generated much more public controversy than it is due. Perhaps this is the devil’s doing, a clever and brilliant ruse designed to distract us from the true scandal in this verse. So in the 4th and 5th centuries the church debated and expressed in creedal form how it is that Mary conceived and what it says about the “two natures” of Jesus—that he is both fully human and fully divine.

Today skeptics seize on the teaching of the virgin-birth and use it to mock all religions, for indeed Christianity is not the only religion to testify of virgin-births. And so a new round of debates swirls around what Matthew said.

And there’s the genius of the distraction. The church has been preoccupied with the “how” of the virgin-birth rather than the “what” of it. We have focused on what Matthew said rather than what Matthew is saying. And what Matthew is giving us in the virgin-birth is not an explanation of Jesus’ nature, but of God’s nature.

The great scandal of Matthew 1:23 and Isaiah 7:14 is not the “virgin shall conceive,” but that the one to whom she gives birth is called “Emmanuel, God with us.” That’s the scandal.

Ahaz was the first to hear about Emmanuel. North of his kingdom two kings had struck an alliance against him. Isaiah tells us “their hearts shook like trees in the wind” (Isaiah 7:2). Ahaz was too terrified to even ask for a sign, so Isaiah points to one that already existed—a young woman who was pregnant. “Before her child is weaned,” Isaiah says, “the two kingdoms up north will be no more.”

Ahaz might have preferred a larger army, or a southern ally, or a military strategy, or simply a miraculous victory. Instead he got a pregnant young woman with a baby . . . and a promise. The scandal isn’t the pregnant young woman, but being asked to believe that God was with him even in this.

Matthew makes the same claim with regards to Joseph. But notice that Joseph wasn’t privy to this information—it is not something the angel told him, according to the passage. All the angel tells him is Mary is pregnant by the Holy Spirit and that he shall name the child Jesus which means savior. Still, Joseph faced the same faith decision as Ahaz—is God with me in this, or not? This is the same decision we all face.

Joseph had all kinds of reasons to doubt. His engagement to Mary was a legally binding relationship. Here he finds, perhaps after the three months Mary spent with Elizabeth, that Mary is beginning to show. Matthew tells us the angel visited Joseph in a dream just when he had decided to divorce Mary. I wonder how much of the night Joseph spent weighing his rights according to the law against his duty according to love.

When the angel finally weighs in, it is with the words, “son of David.” It is in these words, I believe, something of an abbreviated confession of faith, that Joseph finds his Emmanuel faith. “I am a son of David. God has been with me. God will be with me. God is with me now.”

“Emmanuel, God with us” is scandalous because it is so hard to believe! We dress up our lives, making everything look just perfect, especially and ironically so at Christmas, because we don’t really believe that God is with us. The fact is, because God is with us, God doesn’t care about these things.

God doesn’t care if your house is decorated impeccably at Christmas; God is with you anyway. God doesn’t care if your family ties are frayed. God is with you anyway. God doesn’t care if your career has careened off course, if your health concerns have taken center stage, if your sin has shamed and isolated you, or if Christmas chaos threatens to drown you again this year. God doesn’t even care if questions about the virgin birth keep you up at night. God is with you anyway.

This Christmas, God is searching for you. How will God find you? I overheard a couple deliberating where they would spend the holidays. They had small children and eliminated a number of options because the houses weren’t kid friendly. They decided on the household of another couple with kids, because, “They get it. They have children. They’re house looks like ours.”

God is with you no matter what your life or your house looks like, because as Joseph can attest, God’s house looks a lot like yours.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • What is a situation in your life where it is hard to believe that God is with you in it?
  • After a night weighing pros and cons, are you still open to an angelic revelation through a dream?
  • What are some situations in your life where you are trying to clean things up before God can come into them, when in fact God doesn’t care and is already present?

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