What's in a name? - Matthew 1:18-25

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 1st December 2002.

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In order to be a successful company or business in today's high pressure financial world, it seems that you must have a catchy mission statement. This vision or mission statement goes to the heart of what the company really wants to give the public. I discovered this after an exciting jog round the internet this week. Let me give you some of my findings. For example, Mark's and Spencer's mission statement is this: 'Our vision is to be the standard against which all others are measured.' British Telecom's mission statement went like this: 'Our vision is of a communications-rich world - a world in which everyone, irrespective of nationality, culture, class or education, can benefit from the power of communication skills and technology. This vision is at the heart of our determination to be 'the most successful worldwide communications group''. And one final example comes from the company that my brother used to work for, the chain of hotels called the Moat House Hotels, and the motto for the conference department of the hotels is 'Where meetings mean business.' Really catchy isn't it? But at least it shows what they are about!

Now if it has not come to your attention already, then let me remind you that we are now entering the Christmas season. Today is Advent Sunday, and today is the day when we begin to look forward to all the festivities surrounding December 25th. For some of us, Christmas seems to come round quicker each year. Some of us are still thinking it's summer time. Others are looking forward with eager anticipation with all the next month offers. Christmas is a time of presents, food and family. But whatever we think it's hard to avoid the glitz and glamour isn't it? Already all the superstores are playing Rudolf the Red nosed Reindeer, Cliff Richard and Slade endlessly over and over again. In fact, this year I have decided to do my Christmas shopping wearing industrial ear defenders in order to avoid hearing those songs.

Of course the other element is the Christmas story. There are the usual nativity plays and carol services, and yet I think the danger for the Christian is a childish attitude to the Christmas story. We tend to focus on the stable or the innkeeper, the cute baby and the donkey. But in doing so, we're in danger of missing out on some of the most profound truths in the NT. And that's why it is good for us that we are spending the next three Sunday mornings looking at the opening chapters of Matthew's gospel. Because these chapters strip away the glitz and the gloss that so often accompanies the Christmas season and get back to the heart of the story. And I want to challenge us as a congregation this Christmas to make sure we get to the very heart of the Christmas story. Whilst we may enjoy the delights of being with family and friends, and rightly so, yet let's not forget that the very reason we celebrate Christmas is because God has done something quite staggering.

And our passage today, Matthew 1 vv 18-25, tells us with no frills attached what Christmas is all about. It tells us the beginning of the story with no nativity cuteness or Christmas card gloss. In fact one of the most striking things about this passage is it's brutal honesty and it's cold reality of the decision one man had to make when faced with the awesome plan of God. Yes it may be a familiar story, and yet what we read in these few verses are the most mind blowing truths we can ever imagine. Because here we discover the mission statement of God. Here we find that God came to earth as a man and we find out why he went to those extreme lengths. And we'll see that this is no company policy to increase profitability. This is the very God of the universe coming into human time and space on a rescue mission. So come with me back in time to those blissful days before the decorations and the glitz, before Cliff Richard and Slade, and come to a young couple engaged to be married who make a frightening discovery. And let's look at God's mission statement for the most remarkable rescue mission of all time. And we'll discover three things about this rescuer and his mission:

1) The Identity of the Rescuer

2) The Mission of the Rescuer

3) The Response to the Rescuer

1) The Identity of the Rescuer

So first then, the identity of the rescuer. Now what is staggering about this story in Matthew is how down to earth it is. You see, often the nativity plays follow Luke's story which is told from Mary's perspective, and that is fair enough, because only Luke tells you about the manger. No manger, no nativity. But Matthew tells the story from Joseph's perspective and it's a much more gritty story. Let's read from verse 18: 'This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about. His mother Mary was pledged to be

married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child

through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not

want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.' Now before we go any further we need a quick introduction to Jewish marriage services. Often a girl would be pledged to be married to a boy from a very early age, and then when they reached marriageable age, they would get engaged. And in Jewish law, this engagement period, lasting about a year, was legally binding. The man and woman were called husband and wife, and yet they did not live together. After about a year's engagement, there would be a wedding ceremony lasting about seven days and the new bride would be taken to the groom's house where they would begin their fully authorised married life together. It was understood too that there would be no sexual relations between the couple before they got officially married and moved in together. But if one of the couple was found to be unfaithful during this year's engagement period, then because the engagement was legally binding, you had to get a divorce.

So can you imagine how Joseph felt when he discovered his wife to be was pregnant! Shocked and staggered to say the least. And of course, he's going to jump to the obvious conclusion. People in the first century understood biology just as well as we do. And so it seemed to Joseph that Mary had been unfaithful. And even if Mary had told Joseph about the visit to her by the angel which Luke tells us about, do you think he would have believed her? It would take some believing wouldn't it? Put yourself in Joseph's shoes. Your fianccomes to you and says she's had a visit from an angel who has told her she's carrying the Son of God, would you believe her? Well Joseph takes the only option open to him and decides to divorce her quietly. He could have made a big fuss, in fact he could have had her stoned. But because he's not in the business of slinging mud on poor Mary, he'll do it quietly.

But it's at this point that God steps in. He always does this when he acts. He not only does something, but he explains it. He reveals his plan by words as well as actions. And he reveals that the identity of this baby, the identity of this rescuer to be is none other than God himself. And he reveals this news in two ways.

a) Revealed by an angel- First he reveals the news through an angel. Verse 20: 'But after [Joseph] had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said: 'Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.'' Now already in verse 18, Matthew has drawn attention to this fact. There we were told, before Joseph was, that Mary's child came about through the Holy Spirit. So twice in three verses, Matthew makes it plain that this child is no ordinary child. He is truly God's Son, he is God born as a man. He is conceived through God the Holy Spirit.

b) Revealed by a prophecy- But God also reveals the identity of this child in another way and that is through a prophecy. This is one of Matthew's big themes in his gospel and we'll see this several times in the next few weeks. He is at pains to point out how these stories about Jesus actually fulfil prophecies made hundreds of years before. And in verse 22 he quotes from the prophet Isaiah: 'All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel which means God with us.'' Now when Isaiah originally prophesied those words, they were words of judgement to a faithless king Ahaz. One day a child would be born to a virgin who would destroy the enemies of God and inherit the land. What kind of child would this boy be? He would be Immanuel, which means God with us. And it becomes clear later on in Isaiah chapter 9 that this isn't a child who represents God with us, but who is God with us. Listen to these verses from Isaiah 9 speaking about this Immanuel figure: 'For to us a child is born, to us a son is given and the government will be upon his shoulders. And he will be called wonderful counsellor, mighty God, everlasting Father, prince of peace.' This child, the one who is God in person, has finally come, says Matthew. The virgin has given birth to this promised son. Truly God is with us in person. And it's that truth which echoes right the way through Matthew's gospel all the way to the end, when Jesus says: 'Surely I, Immanuel, will be with you to the very end of the age.'

Now it's worth us pausing for a moment to think just how staggering this really is. Have we really fully grasped the enormity of what God has done? This tiny little baby, this tiny fertilised egg in Mary's womb, is actually God himself. The same awesome God who made the Milky way. The same amazing God who designed the incredible intricacies of the human eye. The very same God who stops the universe from collapsing in itself every second. This all powerful sovereign God was born as a child into our world. Just think about the amazing processes that take place in a mother's womb. Week 6 a tiny human being is being formed the size of an apple pip, week 7 the size of a grape, week 8 the size of a strawberry. That is the incredible lengths God himself has gone to on his rescue mission. What does Paul say of Jesus, this baby who is God in person? 'He being in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking on the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himselfThat's the incredible message of Christmas that God humbled himself and became a man. I wonder if you have really fully grasped this incredible truth. That God himself came to earth as a man, as a tiny baby. Ponder it again, and marvel at God's incredible willingness to humble himself for us.

The story is told about a ruler of the Persian Empire a long time ago called Shah Abbas. He was a good ruler and he used frequently to get rid of all the trappings of royalty, the splendid clothing, his retinue of servants, just so he could walk around unrecognised amongst his people. One cold night, he was doing his rounds and he went into the city walls to retreat from the chillbecause that was where the city's heating system was located. He struck up a conversation with the city's stoker, who was working away in that sweaty, grimy place. It never occurred to the stoker that this was the Shah. Well, he went back a number of times and they became firm friends; the stoker used to have him back to his family for simple meals of bread and water. Then one day the Shah revealed his identity to the amazement of his friend. And he said 'Look I'll give you anything you want'. But the stoker said in reply, 'You, Shah Abbas, may give to others gifts of fame and fortune. I ask you never to take away your greatest gift: the friendship you have given me.' Jesus laid aside his glory to come to us. And our natural question is, if God has gone so far for us, then why has he done it? And the answer comes in our next point. For not only do we see from this passage that the identity of the rescuer is God himself, but that the mission of the rescuer is to do just that- to rescue us so we could be friends with God again.

2) The Mission of the Rescuer

So let's turn to our second point which is the mission of the rescuer. And we find out the mission of this rescuer in verse 21. Joseph has just been told that the child in Mary's womb is from the Holy Spirit. He's discovered his staggering identity- He is God himself. Now Joseph discovers what this child will do. 'Mary will give birth to a son and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.' So quite simply, the mission of Jesus is to save. He will save people from their sins. And Joseph discovers this through the name the boy is to be given.

Now in the ancient world, names were far more significant than they are today. Today when parents are choosing the name of their child, rarely has it got anything to do with what the name actually means. Usually it's because they like the name, or it has some family history. If they were to take a look at what the names mean, then they might think again! For instance, if you call your son Andrew, it means he is manly, or if you call your daughter Sarah, it means she is a princess. It's not always that good though, since if you are called Tabitha, it means gazelle, not particularly flattering. Apologies to any Tabithas! Nathan, I may say, means gift! But for Joseph, the name of his son was very significant. For Jesus meant 'God saves'. His name reveals what Jesus, the God who is man has come to do. He came to save his people from their sins. And again it is something that has been prophesied for many years before. Although Matthew doesn't spell it out, yet he is echoing Psalm 130 v 8 which says: 'God himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.' And here is God in Jesus redeeming his people from their sins.

And what Jesus is doing is the most important thing that mankind needs. Men and women can have their sin dealt with through Jesus. Sin is perhaps best described as rebellion against God. It's not just doing things which are wrong, rather it is a whole mindset that is opposed to God, a heart which wants little or nothing to do with God. Sin's symptoms are seen in hundreds of different ways. Sin is waking up in the morning and giving no thought to the God who has kept you breathing through the night and the God who will watch over you through the day. Sin is going to sleep each night without a word of thanks for his strength for you to live another day. It is a heart opposed to God. And Jesus came to deal with that disease by dying on a cross in our place so we could be right with God again. He came to offer us a spiritual heart transplant.

Now this may be very familiar to you. And yet how often is it at Christmas time that we remember that this is precisely why we celebrate Christmas. How often is it that you take a moment amid all the wrapping, the food and the festivity to reflect on your sin, to remember what it cost God to forgive you and rescue you. How often do you remember that the baby who was in the manger was the man who was hammered to a cross to die for you and me. I saw a Christmas card last year which made just that point. In the middle of the card was a baby lying sweetly in a manger. It was a beautiful scene. But daubed in blood along the manger were the words 'Born to die.' That's why Jesus came. That's why God came into the world. He came to die on a cross to rescue us. It was a rescue mission.

Listen to the way some of the carols we sing at Christmas time put it. 'Mild he lays his glory by; born that man no more may die; born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.' Or again: 'Then let us all with one accord, sing praises to our heavenly Lord. For Christ has our salvation wrought, and with his blood mankind has bought.' And yet when we sing these carols time and again, it's easy to miss the staggering truths they are teaching us.

And why did God do it? Why did he pay such a heavy cost to bring us back to himself? Because quite simply he loves us. He loves us so much he was willing to take on human flesh and died on a cross as man. Sometimes human beings can show love for each other in staggering ways. For instance, I came across a story in the paper recently which told how one young man had proposed to his girlfriend. The man, Frazer Pattenden, had managed to persuade his girlfriend, Julia Hatcher, to go the cinema with him. But what she hadn't banked on was that her boyfriend should appear in a short two minute black and white film before the main feature. In it, the boyfriend played a 1950's detective who ends up proposing to a girl called Julia Hatcher. And as the lights came on, the young man produced a diamond ring and Miss Hatcher said yes.

Well if that is how far human beings will go in their love for another, how much more staggering is it that God will go to amazing lengths for people like you and me who are his enemies. How does Paul put it in Philippians? 'And being found in appearance as a man, Jesus humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on a cross.' Marvel again at God's willingness to go to unbelievable lengths for you and me. He came to die for us. That was the mission of the rescuer.

3) The Response to the Rescuer

But then finally we come to the third lesson from this passage which is the response to the rescuer. And here Joseph acts as a model for us. Let's look again at verses 24-25: 'When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.' So what did Joseph do after this meeting with the angel? Quite simply Matthew says: 'He did what the angel of the Lord commanded him.' He took the Lord at his word. He trusted in God. Now I don't think this was easy for Joseph to do. He was all set to divorce Mary. But now he had to trust in the word of the Lord and do what God wanted. He trusted that what God had said was true. He believed it was possible for God to intervene in human history like this, that it was possible for God to work in a woman's womb so that the child born would be the very Son of God. You see Joseph stands as a model to all of us who may have difficulty believing this incredible story. Can we really believe that God should act in this way? Do you really believe that God can change the forces of nature to suit his saving purposes? Well believe it. Because although we're not told how God did it, yet we are urged to trust in that same God. God is the sovereign Lord of the universe, and if he wishes to be born as a man through the normal means of pregnancy, that he will do it. And it is vital he does, because otherwise Jesus would not be fully human. He would be able to take our sins. For whilst he is fully God, God with us, yet he is also fully man. So what did Joseph do? He believed God and did what God had told him. He wasn't gullible. He just trusted the Lord of the universe.

And so we too need to ask ourselves the same question. Will I take the Lord of the universe at his word. Will I trust him with my life and accept that offer of forgiveness that he holds out to me? Will I accept that Jesus is God in the flesh who has come on a rescue mission to die for me on the cross? If you've not yet done it, then this Christmas is a great opportunity to do it. It'll be the best Christmas ever if you spend it right with God, forgiven and cleaned up.

And for us who are Christians- will we trust this same God in our daily lives? Joseph had to live with his decision for the rest of his life. No doubt there were days when he wondered if he'd made the right decision. It would be costly. There would always be the background of gossip and shame on the family. But he trusted the Lord. This week in Homegroups we looked at a passage from Mark's gospel where Jesus told us to take up our crosses and follow him. And that is the challenge Jesus presents us. If we really believe that he is God in the flesh and who is the one to rescue us from our sins, then the next step is to follow him. And that will mean denying ourselves. Putting self second and Jesus first. Maybe as we approach this Christmas time, we need to give ourselves a spiritual health check. Am I really putting Christ first in every area of life? Is he Lord of my relationships? Is he Lord of my health? Is he Lord of my money? Is he Lord of my ambitions? You name it, he's boss. The question is will you trust him. Like Joseph we may not know exactly what the future holds, but like Joseph if we really believe that God has acted in this way in human history, then we have no choice other than to trust him. For who else has the words of eternal life?

Well I think you'll agree it's quite a story isn't it? Matthew tells us of the identity of the rescuer- God himself; Of the mission of the rescuer, to save us from our sins; and our response to the rescuer? 'What can I give him poor that I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part, yet what can I give him? Give my heart'.


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