Today, we find ourselves just one week away from the great celebration of Christmas Day. Next weekend we will hear again the famous story of the angels appearing to the shepherds tending their flocks by night and their discovery of the child wrapped in swaddling cloths and laying in a manger in the little town of Bethlehem. But today we get sort of a Christmas before Christmas. In Matthew 1, we are given the story of the announcement of the angel to Joseph concerning what was going to happen to Mary. It is a great text where we receive a behind-the-scenes look at what was taking place with Joseph as he planned to secretly separate from the woman he was betrothed to. It says in the text this man, a Son of David, was a just man and did not want to humiliate Mary. He did not want to bring any extra scorn or judgment on her character. So, after learning she was pregnant, he decided to separate from her but do it quietly. We see right off-the-bat there is kindness in this man but then in a dream an angel of the Lord comes to him and delivers some life changing news. “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.”
What we are given in this little text of Christmas before Christmas is a chance to ponder a little bit more about the wonder and majesty of the incarnation. For what we often lose in the midst of the Christmas parties and family obligations, the presents, decorations, during the children’s pageants and singing of our favorite carols, is the simple truth that Christmas is about God taking up our humanity. As we confess in our Catechism, “I believe that Jesus Christ, true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary, is my Lord.” Our Lord is true God and true man, begotten of the Father and born of Mary. He is 100 percent God and 100 percent man. God, to atone for the sins of the world, to make a sacrifice that would deliver hope to all people, and man so He might stand in our place, bleed for our transgression, and die for our unfaithfulness. This is the wonder of the incarnation and the incredible news which is delivered to Joseph about the child who will be born of Mary.
One of the finest theologians of the 17th century was a man named Johann Gerhard. In 1606, he published a book of devotions called “Sacred Meditations.” One of his meditations is on the mystery of the incarnation. In that section, he says, “He came as the Physician to the spiritually sick, as the Redeemer to the captives of sin, as the Way to those who had wandered afar off, as the Life to the dead in trespasses and sins, and as a Savior to the lost.” He goes on to say, “What good thing will He, who loved us while we were yet His enemies… withhold form those who are partakers with Him of the same flesh? Who has ever hated his own flesh? How can He possibly cast us off, when by an exercise of such exalted and infinite mercy, He hath made us partakers of His own nature?” The coming of God in human flesh dramatically changes our hope and confidence. God has become not only our Creator, but our brother, our friend in flesh and blood.
The angel unfolds this incredible news to Joseph. “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife,” the angel says. For what is happening is of God. What is happening is a gift driven by the Holy Spirit. The eternal Divinity has come upon her, and this child will be unlike any other child ever born. This is a new thing. It is the coming of God’s salvation of mankind. Joseph is called by the angel into service as a protector of Mary and the child, as a guardian for the incarnate Word of God. In fact, it is Joseph’s job to name the child. He is to call His name Jesus. Why is he supposed to call Him that? Well, because He will save His people from their sins. The name Jesus, literally translated, means: Yahweh saves. His name reveals just what God has come to do as a child born of Mary.
Now, if Yahweh has come to save, it means there must be something from which we need saving. It also means we are unable to save ourselves. There is a reason the coming of Christ leads the Baptist to preach, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” For the arrival of a Savior is also the exposing of our sinfulness. In Christ, you have perfect humanity, perfect obedience to the Word of God, and perfect faithfulness to the will of the Father. By comparison, how do you measure? Do you see the holes in your righteousness? Do you see the times you have fallen short of His glory? How clearly can you spot the selfishness and pride which haunts your every action? How long do you have to look in the mirror before you can see you are in desperate need of a savior. For try as you might, you are unable to save yourself, and let us be honest, you do not even try very hard.
So, salvation comes from outside of yourself. Salvation comes as a gift. It comes as a child born of Mary. He is your salvation. We are told this fulfills what was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah over seven hundred years before, back when King Ahaz refused to ask for a sign from Heaven, a sign that would lead him to trust in the promises of God. Ahaz was clamoring for human solutions to his problems. He was looking to alliances and treaties to bring lasting security. But Isaiah has been pleading with him to stand in the promise of God alone, to trust in His protection. Finally, Isaiah throws up his hands in frustration and says, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.”
Again, it is the name that carries the weight of the moment. For as we are told in our text today, “Immanuel” means “God with us.” This sign is the arrival of God. God not distant and far off, but God as He comes near, as He dwells among His people. As Saint Paul will later say, “If God is with us, who can be against us.” For God to be with us also means He is for us, for our hope, and for our eternal life. God comes to be with you as a child born of Mary, a child called “Yahweh saves.” He is with you for He saves you from all your sins. What wonderful, good news this is. What a thing to celebrate and rejoice in. This is the meaning of Christmas and the reason for the season. God has come for you, and He has come in grace and mercy.
Gerhard, towards the end of his devotional, says, “It was a great thing to create man in the first place… but to redeem man, when he justly merited condemnation, and to take upon Himself the punishment due for man’s transgression, this seems to me a still greater thing.” A still greater thing, I could not agree more. God with us is the unfolding of the great work of your salvation. And what took place all those years ago continues to unfold for you today. He comes to be with you in His Word proclaimed into your ears. He comes to be with you as you are washed in the promises of Holy Baptism. He comes to be with you in, with, and under bread and wine in the Sacrament of the Altar. Jesus is our great Immanuel, God with us, and He has fulfilled His namesake. He has saved you from all of your sins.