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The roads were too icy for service this morning. This is what I would have preached if we would have had a service.
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You often hear me talk about the importance of context when reading the Scriptures. There is the context of the immediate text. There is the context of the entire Scripture. There is the context of the culture. However, the circumstance that Joseph faces in today’s Gospel is a universal circumstance within humanity. We don’t need a lot of cultural context to empathize with Joseph. Husbands and wives in every culture know how they would feel if they thought their spouses had been unfaithful. Where cultural context will help is the way in which the culture dealt with this type of infidelity.
Joseph and Mary were betrothed. That means that they were married … they were husband and wife … BUT they had not yet begun living together. They did not yet have an intimate relationship.
Never the less, Mary was about to have a baby. Mary was about to have a baby and Joseph knew for a fact that he was NOT the father. Now it is very likely that Mary tried to explain that the baby was of the Holy Spirit … that the baby was the fulfillment of the prophesied coming of the Messiah. I can imagine that Mary insisted that she had not been unfaithful to Joseph, but such words are hard to believe under the circumstances. What would you do if you were Joseph? How would you respond?
The law of Moses was fairly strict: “If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, 24then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. (Deuteronomy 22:23–24) Joseph had the right to force her to name the father of the child and have them both stoned.
Instead, we heard that her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. (Matthew 1:19) This is the response of a man who still loved his wife, but realized that they could not be together. He would quietly dissolve the marriage and the two of them would go their separate ways.
Joseph is what every Christian should be in not exposing the sins of others. In his explanation of the commandment against bearing false witness, Luther says that not only should we avoid lying, but we should also explain things in the kindest way. In broadcasting the misdeeds of others, we bring condemnation upon ourselves. Joseph determined to do what was right in the kindest possible way for Mary.
I can only imagine how hard it was for him to fall asleep that night. Never the less, the Bible tells us that he did sleep because it tells us that he had a dream. An angel came to him in that dream. The angel told Joseph that Mary was not crazy or lying. The child growing within her was indeed from the Holy Spirit. He was indeed the promised one, the Messiah. The angel even told Joseph to name the child Jesus … a name that means the Lord saves.
The Holy Spirit then inspired Matthew to remind his readers that this was the fulfillment of the prophecy that we read in today’s Old Testament reading. All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). (Matthew 1:22–23) When Joseph woke up, he acted on this new information. When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. (Matthew 1:24–25)
The virgin birth is a hardship on everyone involved. The community at large would not understand the working of the Holy Spirit. They would accuse both Mary and Joseph of all kinds of sin. Thirty years later, some of Jesus’ opponents would try to discredit His ministry by claiming that He was illegitimate. The virgin birth was a burden.
At the same time, the virgin birth was necessary. It was necessary because the person of Christ is both God and man. Jesus Christ is true God, begotten of the Father from eternity, and also true man, born of the Virgin Mary. If Jesus had been conceived in the normal way, He would be a mere man and nothing more. His conception by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary points to His divine Father and His human mother. Jesus Christ is one person with both a divine and human nature.
This dual nature of Christ is essential for our salvation. Christ must be true man in order to take our place under the law and fulfill it perfectly. He must also be true man in order to submit to the Good Friday cruelty of shame, suffering, and death. Christ must also be God in order to fulfill the law to perfection. He must be God so that His suffering and death would be sufficient redemption, not just for one person, but for all humanity. He must be God in order to overcome death and the devil for us. Jesus is the only who is both divine and human. Therefore, He is the only one who is our savior.
Since it was necessary for Christ to have God as Father and Mary as mother, then the virgin birth is also necessary. This meant that it was necessary for Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to bear the burden of the culture’s unjust condemnation.
Today’s Gospel shows us how God gave Joseph the strength and courage to endure this special burden. God’s Word came to Joseph through the mouth of the angel so that Joseph was now able to take up his special vocation as guardian to Jesus and husband of Mary.
In the creed, we confess, “… conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary …” Too often we say those words on autopilot. We don’t think about what these words mean.
Lives were turned upside down because Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Joseph almost divorced Mary. Both Joseph and Mary had to endure the condemnation of the community. Jesus had to endure accusations that His ministry was null and void because His parentage was doubtful.
At the same time, these words are necessary for our salvation. These words tell us that Jesus is both God and man. Because Jesus is both God and man, when Jesus died, God died. Because Jesus is both God and man, His death paid for the sins of the entire world. Because Jesus is both God and man, He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. Because Jesus is both God and man, a human being rules both heaven and earth. Because Jesus is both God and man, His human body and blood are available on altars everywhere at the same time for us Christians to eat and to drink. The Son of God took on our human flesh so that we may be His own, and live under Him in His kingdom.
As we read today’s Gospel, it is a good thing to study Joseph as an example of the Christian’s struggle to protect the reputation of others. However, the more important teaching of this reading is that Jesus must be conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin because He is both God and man. As the only one who is both 100 % God and 100 % man, He is the only one who is qualified to redeem us from our sins so that God can declare us righteous for His sake. This is the gift that Jesus offers to you now as you hear this word. Amen
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