By Paul Koch –
We don’t often spend much time talking or ever thinking all that much about Joseph. His story is an incredible story. His call to be the protector and provider for the blessed mother of our Lord gives us a powerful image of Christian faithfulness and strength of character. Instead of abandoning Mary when he learns that she is with child, he lovingly cares for her, protects her, and watches over the child she will bear as a sacred trust. However, Joseph, like any of you, doesn’t work his way into this prominent and place. He doesn’t come to these conclusions and resolve to faithfully go forward all on his own. No, he needs an angel of the Lord to appear to him and reveal this good news that is happening to Mary. So, one of the lessons we learn here at the very beginning of the Christmas story is that God’s plans, gifts, and blessings are not gained by our cleverness. They must be revealed to us.
So, Joseph has an angel appear 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. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Names, we learn right away, are important. We know this from our own lives. Parents will often have names picked out for their newborn before they have any clothes or decorations up in their room. We tend to search for just the right name that conveys the right meaning, has the right sound to it, and evokes the right feelings. The name “Jesus” is not an accidental name. It wasn’t just the first thing that came to God’s mind when He decided that this is how He would bring salvation to the world. No, as the angel tells Joseph, he will call him Jesus for He will save His people from their sins. Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua which means “Yahweh is salvation.” Jesus will save. His name and His purpose for coming go together.
But that is not the only name that is given in this text. For it turns out that this Jesus is a fulfillment of an ancient prophecy that has its own name. Isaiah prophesied, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” They shall call his name Immanuel. And Immanuel, like Jesus, has a specific meaning. Quite simply it means “God with us.” This is an astounding name. Think about it, what does it mean that the child born of Mary, the one that Joseph would protect and care for, is “God with us”?
Well, that babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger is God. So, the fulfilment of this ancient prophecy is the defining characteristic of our faith. God has come; He advents with His people. This is not some lesser version of God, some image or picture of the real thing. No, as we confess in the Church’s great Creed, this is “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made.” Or, as John put it in his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” John continued in v.14, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The eternal Creator of all things, the one who spoke the World into being, who said “Let there be light” and there was light, this is the one who comes in human flesh in the little town of Bethlehem.
But it is not just enough to marvel that Jesus is God incarnate, for God doesn’t dwell among his creation for no purpose. This, after all, is God with us. He was truly with us. He felt our sorrow and grief. He mourned and shed tears. God was with us. He knew hunger and cold nights. He knew the ramifications of sin that has torn our world apart. He experienced treachery of the most intimate sort, as friends betrayed Him with a kiss and His own people called for His death. He was with us as He was unjustly condemned to die. God didn’t walk the earth as king of kings and lord of lords. He didn’t rule with a mighty and outstretched arm. No, He came humble and lowly. He came born of Mary among the dirt and smells of the animals, and then laid down in an animal’s food trough to sleep. He was with us as He felt the pierce of those nails, as He publicly bled on the cross, as he breathed His last, and died.
God had done many things, many powerful and mighty things, but He had never done that before. He died with us.
But God wasn’t just with us because He felt what you feel or experienced what you experience. No, God was also with us in that He was for us. He was with you in the battle, in the quest for your salvation. You see, it’s not just that God walked by your side; He was on your side. God went to work for you; for your salvation, for your hope, for your everlasting life. This great Immanuel is given the name Jesus because He will save His people from their sins. So, to be with you is to work for your salvation. For without Him your hope and confidence withers and dies. Without Him you will be left in terror and despair. After all, the true and holy law of God speaks about you: how you are supposed to act, what should consume your thoughts, words and deeds. Quite simply, you are supposed to be holy as the Lord your God is holy: holy and pure, without blemish. But how can you be holy? Can you ever do enough good to wipe away the wrong? Can you cleanse your life of not only sinful deeds but sinful desires? If you cannot, then what is your fate? If you are left in your sins and failures, can you ever hope to be saved?
Here, then, we see the full weight of what it means that we have a God that is with us. For as the law rightly condemns you, destroys you, and demands perfection, you have a Savior who is with you. He willingly takes all of your sin, all of your failures and brokenness and makes them His own. He then stands up to that law and allows all the judgment to fall upon Him. He who knew no sin becomes your sin to set you free. So, He takes all your sin from you and in turn gives to you all of His holiness, all of His righteousness, all of His goodness and blessing. He covers you with such gifts and wrapped up in them is deliverance and the gift of eternal life. The gates of heaven don’t open because you have earned your way in, they open because you bear the righteous garments of God himself: God made flesh, God with you.
And it is a joy and a wonder that this God made flesh is not just a God for or with me, He is a God that is with us. In the Catechism, Luther wrote that as the Lord called me and strengthened me by His gifts so, “in the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctified the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.” When God advents with His people, when He comes to seek and save the lost, when He gathers every one of you to His promises and blessings, He also creates His Church. He creates those who come alongside of you. He brings you into a fellowship of brothers and sisters. We are part of the living body of Christ in this place. We are the redeemed, the baptized, those who are called to feed upon the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of all of our sins.
You see, you are not left alone in your quest for holiness, you also are not left alone in your daily struggle. Christ stands with you before the law of condemnation to speak to you Words of life instead of death, and you stand with each other to echo those very words again and again. For God is with us!
“When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.”