The humility of the Son - Matthew 1:18-25

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 2nd October 2005.

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On December 4th, 1977, in Bangui, in what was then known as the Central African Empire, the world’s press witnessed the coronation of his Imperial Majesty, Bokassa I. The price tag for that single event, designed and choreographed by French designer Olivier Brice, was $25 million. At 10.10am, the blare of trumpets and the roll of drums announced the arrival of his majesty. The emperor arrived in an imperial coach bedecked with gold eagles and drawn by six matching English horses. As the trumpets blared out, his highness strode forward, cloaked in a robe weighing 32 pounds, decorated with 785,000 strewn pearls and gold embroidery. He wore white gloves on his hands, and pearl slippers on his feet. On his brow he wore a crown of golden laurel wreathes like those worn by the Roman Emperors of old. As he completed his long procession, he seated himself on his $2.5 million eagle throne, took off his golden wreath, and, as Napoleon had done 173 years before him, he took his $2.5 million crown topped off with an 80 carat diamond, and placed it on his head. At 10.43am, December 4th 1977 the world had a new emperor.

I wonder how you measure greatness? Perhaps you are impressed by the grandeur of a Bokassa I. Or maybe you think greatness is seen in talented sportsmen, like Mohammed Ali, Freddie Flintoff, or even, perish the thought, Wayne Rooney. Or maybe you think greatness is seen an impressive political leader like Nelson Mandela or Winston Churchill. But however we measure greatness, often there is one thing in common. Often to our minds, greatness is associated with power and prestige, either in the military, political or sporting realm. And so if it were up to us to make up a story of the greatest of Kings coming to visit, then surely it would be announced with great pomp and ceremony. He would be wearing royal robes adorned with jewels and riches. He’d be attended by a huge cavalcade of armed guards and beautifully groomed horses. He’d bring behind him a long line of crushed and vanquished foes. That would be impressive wouldn’t it? Then we’d really know who’s the boss. Then we’d really know who holds the reigns. But I doubt very much that if you were describing the coming of the greatest King the universe has ever seen, then you’d write anything like Matthew chapter 1. Because Matthew 1 describes the royal visit of all eternity, the most important visit by royalty the world has ever seen. But where are the horses? Where are the riches? Where are the vanquished foes? Where are the tanks and guns and soldiers? Nowhere to be seen. All we find is a young teenaged girl in the early stages of pregnancy, a suspicious boyfriend and an extremely unlikely story. That’s what happens when the King of kings comes to earth.

You see tonight we are considering the humility of Jesus Christ. And the whole point of this series of sermons as we look at the person of Jesus Christ is to blow our minds at just how staggering our Lord Jesus Christ is. Last week we were awestruck at the astonishing description of Jesus in Revelation chapter 1. There we found that Jesus was the beginning and the end, the one who holds history in his hand, the one who grasps the reigns of the whole universe. But tonight we find a different story, as we go back to that first Christmas and see again the incredible lengths that God went to save you and I from a tragedy that we ourselves have caused. For this is a story of astonishing humility and grace which delves into the very depths of human depravity and takes hold of us to rescue us from a fate worse than death. So come with me on this journey back 2000 years to a young couple agonising over their impending break-up and unplanned pregnancy. For Matthew’s gritty and touching story of Mary and Joseph is designed to teach us three staggering facts about the Lord Jesus Christ, three facts that we see in the three titles of Jesus in this passage. For at the beginning of his gospel, Matthew is asking the question "who is Jesus". And he’ll tell us that Jesus is:

1) Our God born in humility

2) Our Saviour born to bring rescue

3) Our King born to be worshipped

1) Our God born in humility

So the first thing we learn about Jesus is that he is our God born in humility. And we learn that from the title given to Jesus in verse 23: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel which means "God with us". It’s the title Immanuel which means God with us. And it is this Immanuel, this God, who is at the centre of this story in Matthew’s gospel. And yet what is staggering about this story is how down to earth and humble it is. You see, often the nativity plays in our schools and churches 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 by her family to be married to a particular boy from a very early age. And then when they reached marriageable age perhaps in their teens, they would get engaged. And in Jewish law, this engagement period, lasting about a year, was legally binding. It’s far more serious than what we call engagement. The man and woman were called husband and wife, and yet they did not live together. But after about a year’s engagement, there would be a wedding ceremony lasting seven days and the new bride would be taken to the groom’s house where they would begin their fully authorised married life together. And 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. His whole life has fallen apart. 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. Now just pause for a moment to consider the human pain of this story. A young man eagerly expecting to marry his young, beautiful fiancée. They’d have made plans, they’d talked excitedly about the future, they’d have longed for children of their own. Such hope and joy for years to come. But now it seems it’s all in tatters. 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 fiancée comes 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? You’d take some convincing wouldn’t you, be honest! And poor Joseph takes the only option open to him as a godly man and decides to divorce her quietly. He could have made a big fuss, in fact he could have had her stoned if he’d followed the letter of the law. But because he’s not in the business of slinging mud on poor Mary, he’ll do it quietly. Joseph has his and Mary’s reputation to think of. He’s in the kingly line of David, she’s a teenaged mother. It’s a very humble beginning for the King of kings to come into the world. It’s a right royal scandal.

And yet, it’s at just this point that God steps into the situation. Because in the shocking scandal of this pregnancy we find that God himself is at work. In fact, it is all part of God’s amazing plan of salvation. Because our God does not come in great pomp and ceremony. He comes into our world in humility, born from the womb of a girl who was no more than 15. Because the shocking news is that this baby that Joseph believes is the work of unfaithfulness on Mary’s part, is no less than the living God himself in human form. See how Matthew describes it in 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.’" Joseph has a dream in which the angel of God, God’s messenger, reveals that all this is God’s work. The baby in Mary’s womb is conceived by God himself. 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. And then if we needed more evidence, the angel points Joseph to a prophecy in the OT from the book of Isaiah which looked forward to the coming of Immanuel, God with us. Verse 22: "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 Israelite king called Ahaz. One day a child would be born to a virgin who would destroy the enemies of God, and rule over God’s people. 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." And now, 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.

Now I worry whether in the great familiarity of this story that we have lost some of the wonder of God’s incredible humility and grace at coming into our world like this. Because when you think about it, it really is staggering. 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 same God who allows your and my lungs to contract and expand every second of every day of your life. And 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. And it’s not as if we human beings are anything to write home about. Many people think that it would have been quite a privilege for God to become a human being. After all, we’re the most advanced race on earth. We travel in space. We have discovered DNA. We’ve invented the atom bomb. But we fail to remember how degraded and despicable we have become. Human sin disgusts God in his perfect holiness. And yet God took on the likeness of sinful flesh, says the apostle Paul. How else does Paul put it? "Jesus 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 himself…." Oh yes, it took incredible humility for God to come to us. Consider this: Would you become a slug to save all slugs? Would you take on that filthy slimy body, glide around rubbish and muddy gardens and become the sort of creature that we humans readily step on or kill because they irritate us? Would you stoop that low to save such creatures? Well then times that by infinity, and you might get somewhere to seeing the enormous gap it was that God bridged when he became a man. I tell you, eternity will not be long enough to praise God for his incredible humility in becoming a man just like one of us. And it means that never again can we accuse God of not being interested in us. Never again can we accuse God of not knowing what it’s like to live our life. He knows, because he’s done it. Ponder it again, and marvel at God’s incredible willingness to humble himself for us. This is who Jesus is. He is our God, born in humility.

 

 

 

2) Our Saviour born to bring rescue

But why on earth would God go those incredible lengths? Why allow yourself to be born in a virgin’s womb, into this sinful grimy world such as ours? Well he did it for us. And that brings us to the second staggering fact about Jesus. He is our Saviour born to bring rescue. And we discover that from the second of the titles in this passage. Verse 21: "Mary will give birth to a son and you will give you the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." He will be called Jesus because Jesus, or Joshua as it is in Hebrew, means God saves! And it’s something that God has been planning for a very long time, something that was, in fact, foretold in the OT. For instance back in Psalm 130 v 8 we read: "God himself will redeem Israel from all their sins." It’s a verse that Matthew is consciously reflecting here in his gospel. For now says Matthew, God has come to save his people from his sins. And he’s done it in Jesus, for Jesus is God. But why? What is sin, and why do we need rescuing?

Well let me ask you what you think our greatest need is? Just this week, we’ve heard on the news that the ice caps are melting at a far greater rate than we first thought, probably as a result of global warming. We’ve been told that the recent hurricanes are probably as a result of global warming. Surely our greatest need then is for a complete reversal of such effects and a massive change in government thinking and action. Others will say education is our greatest need. That’s what we need to save us becoming an increasingly more violent and lawless society. Others will say what we need is a solution to the massive problems in Africa with Aids and poverty. Well all those things are extremely important. But Matthew tells us there is one thing which is the most important of all because it affects not just life in this world, but life for all eternity. And that is to be rescued from our sin. Because sin at its heart is rebellion against God. It’s the attitude which says "I will run my life my way, without reference to the God who made me." Now some of us will do that consciously, others unconsciously, but we all do it. And the effects of the disease manifest themselves in a million different ways each day, everything from failing to give thanks to God when you wake up in the morning that he’s sustained you that night, to going to bed having lived another day with self at the centre. That’s sin. And this disease is fatal. Because worst of all it is deeply offensive to the God who made us for relationship with him. And he demands our very lives from us.

But the staggering thing is that God himself provides the solution. And that is through the death of his Son Jesus Christ, who is as Matthew has shown us God in the flesh. For it was on the cross, 33 years later, that Jesus would die in our place, bearing the penalty we deserve for our lives of rebellion against our maker. The cross is the very reason for Jesus coming to this earth. And that is the reason that Jesus is called Jesus. For he will save his people from their sins. His hands were pierced on that brutal cross, his blood shed, so that ours need not be.

Just this week I heard the story of a little girl who was very ashamed of her mother’s hands. At the school gate where all the parents would come and pick up the children, the little girl noticed that all the other mums had beautiful soft hands, whilst her mum’s hands were all scarred and looked horrible. Well one day, the girl plucked up the courage and asked her mum why she had such scarred hands. And her mum said: "One day, when you were a very tiny baby, I heard you screaming upstairs in your cot. So I ran upstairs to find that your cot was on fire. Your bedclothes had somehow caught fire. So I picked you up and carried you to safety, but in doing so I burnt my hands. You were safe, but the doctors couldn’t do much for my hands." And then the little girl took her mum’s hands and pressed them to her cheek, and said: "I love these beautiful hands." Other religions have their prophets and gurus and teachers. But only Christianity has a Saviour with scars. Hands that were scarred in order to rescue us, to bring us forgiveness, to offer us a fresh start with God again. A new life lived as it was meant to be lived, not in rebellion, but in loving friendship with our God.

And that is why the virgin birth was necessary. That was why it was necessary for God to become a man. Some scoff at the truth of the virgin birth, even those within the church. The former Bishop of Durham, David Jenkins once said: "I doubt very much if God would arrange a virgin birth." Well it’s reassuring to know that a bishop has a better understanding of God’s thoughts than God himself isn’t it! But don’t you think that if God could have done it a different way, he would have do so? Do you really think it was a small thing for the holy majestic God to become a man to live in our world in all it’s degrading sin and rebellion? Do you think it was easy for him to submit himself to death, and not just death but death on a cross. No I tell you, if there had been another way, he would have done it. But there was no other way. No, the sinless God had to become a man to rescue sinful men and women from their sin. It was the only way. "There was no other way to pay the price of sin. Jesus only could unlock the gate of heaven and let us in." Because Jesus alone, Jesus only, is the Saviour born to bring rescue.

3) Our King born to be worshipped

But Matthew has one last title to show us which teaches us thirdly that Jesus is our king born to be worshipped. And that’s the title Christ in verse 18. Jesus Christ. Not a surname, but a title, or job description. Now it’s not something that Matthew makes a big deal of in this passage. But it is something that he is very interested in throughout his gospel. Because the Christ is the Messiah, the anointed one, the King who is prophesied to come and reign over his people and the whole world. And throughout his gospel, Matthew shows that Jesus is this Christ, this coming king. He’s shown it in the genealogy in the first seventeen verses, proving that Jesus is the coming King. And in the next chapter, he compares Jesus to the current king of the land, Herod, a false king. Who’s the real king? Well it’s actually this baby Jesus, not this foreign tyrant Herod. And it’s this title the Christ, the anointed King that shows us the right response to this Jesus that we have met. For the right response to Immanuel, to Jesus, is to bow before him in worship and obey and follow him.

And we see that respond in the way Joseph reacts to the revelation he has just received. Now we could spend a whole other sermon reflecting on how Joseph reacts to this staggering news. But just notice how he does react in verse 24: "When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had 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." How does Joseph react to this news about Jesus? He obeys God’s word through the angel. He humbles himself before the word of God about Jesus. And notice if you will another reaction in chapter 2 verse 11. Do you remember the story of the wise men? What do they do when they meet king Jesus? "On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary and they bowed down and worshipped him." That is the authentic response to this true King. It’s obedience and worship. We must obey God’s word about Jesus and fall on our knees and worship him. As the Christmas carol puts it: "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".

And I want ask you if you have done that? Perhaps you are not yet a Christian believer here this evening. Maybe you’re simply checking things out. Can you see the authentic response to the true King, Jesus. He has gone to extraordinary lengths to rescue you from an eternity without God. Like Joseph, you must swallow your pride and like the wise men bow before King Jesus. Perhaps you’ve come to Hull as a student, maybe brought up in a Christian home, but you have never taken this step for yourself. Well why not get things sorted with God tonight. Nothing is more important that getting your relationship with God sorted out. Confess your sin, admit your need, and ask Jesus to forgive you and help you live his way. I tell it’s the best and most important decision you’ll ever make.

But for those of us who are believers. We know the King. We’ve accepted that he is God come to rescue us. What is our response? Well surely one is adoration and praise. Falling on our knees before this majestic and humble God in thanks and praise that he should go this far for us. But you know there is another very powerful lesson whenever we consider the coming of Jesus as a man into our world. It’s a lesson the apostle Paul teaches the church in Philippi, a lesson we had read to us in our second reading. For there Paul says, "your attitude should be that of Christ Jesus." If Jesus Christ has gone to such extraordinary lengths for us, then our Christian lives should model this total selfless and humble attitude. Never again will we want to push ourselves forward. Never again we will want to promote our own self interest. Never again will we shy away from doing something for the Lord that is unglamorous and unnoticed. Because our Lord humbled himself for us. And we should do the same. For your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.

I remember hearing about a training college for ministers a few years ago which was going through some difficult financial times. They were having to lay off staff including their cleaning staff. And it was decided that a rota should be drawn up in the college so that everyone could take their turn in cleaning the loos for the college. Now you would have thought that in a minister’s training college that that list would be full, but after a week or so, how many names were on that list? Not one. But miraculously, although the list was empty of names, the loos were cleaned every morning before the day would start. And this went on for months. Well one morning, a student had got up early to finish an essay, and as he went into the main building of the college, he bumped into the principal of the college. And what was that principle carrying? A mop and a bucket. It was the principal who had got up very early every day for the last few months to clean the loos for the college. Now that’s a man who has worshipped at the feet of King Jesus and pondered long and hard the right response to the God who came in the flesh to die for us. For when you follow this King, you put self second and him first, whatever the cost. And there is no other response other than obedience and worship. For what else can we do before this truly wonderful Lord Jesus. For he is our God born into humility, our Saviour born to bring rescue, and our King born to be worshipped.

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