The arrival of Jesus - Matthew 1:18-25
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Aim: To show the congregation why Jesus had to be both fully human and fully divine
Theme: The uniqueness and significance of Jesusí birth
I was just about to board a Eurostar train with my family when I saw him out of the corner of my eye. It was Christmas 2004 and my parents, my grandmother, and myself were off to Belgium for a few days. We were about to spend our first Christmas outside the UK. Of course we were nervous. The prospect of missing out on tasteless Turkey, Terry Wogan and the Queenís Speech were, as you can imagine, quite a concern. But with great courage we set out on our Christmas adventure. Just as we were about to board the train I saw a man sitting on his own, with a cold glass of beer by his side. He looked very relaxed and in his hands he was holding the book that I was intending to read over the Christmas holidays. It was this one (hold up Da Vinci Code). Dan Brownís "The Da Vinci Code." According to one national newspaper, The Da Vinci Code is "the biggest selling adult hardback fiction book of all time." It has sold millions of copies, been translated into dozens of languages and is currently being turned into a Hollywood film, starring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou. The man at Waterloo Station was just about to open the book. I could see that it was a new copy and I could see from his eyes that he was expecting to read a page turning thriller. But as I looked in his direction there was only one thought that came into my mind. Go over, speak to him and tell him, "Enjoy the book but remember you bought it from the fiction section not from the non-fiction section." And do you know what I did? I chickened out, got on the train and went on holiday.
A few weeks later I found myself in Milton Keynes. I was visiting a school and was treated to lunch in the school canteen. And there she was, sitting on her own, reading the Da Vinci Code. And I thought to myself, "Lee, donít blow it again." So I shuffled up to her, put on my big cheesy grin and said, "Excuse me. I know this may seem strange but let me reassure you I am training to be a vicar in the Church of England (that was my attempt to be normal). I couldnít help but notice that you are reading The Da Vinci Code. So I wanted to come over and say "Enjoy the book but remember you bought it from the fiction section not from the non-fiction section." And do you know what she said to me? I will never forget it. She said, "Are you saying that there are some things in this book that you disagree with?"
And so began my obsession with The Da Vinci Code. The New York Times described it as a "riddle-filled, code-breaking, exhilarating, brainy thriller." Admittedly, there has been some debate about the quality of Dan Brownís writing. Whereas one critic called it a Ďsuperb thrillerí others have been slightly less flattering. One book describes it as "pretentious, posturing, self-serving, arrogant, self-congratulatory, condescending, glib, illogical, superficial and deviant." And yet despite the debate about the quality of his writing, Dan Brownís book continues to top the bestseller list in many countries around the world.
So how should Christians respond? Here are some of the options. We could decide itís not for us. We could say, "Iíve got better things to do with my time than read a poorly written novel by an American who obviously doesnít know anything about Art History or Bible History. Forget about it. Itís just a cultural blip." We could say that and letís be honest many Christians do take this approach. But can I say to you this morning that it would sadden my heart if you decide to ignore The Da Vinci Code.
Surely we owe it to our friends, our families and our work colleagues, the people who are currently reading the novel and believing its claims, surely we owe them a better response when they ask us what we thought of the book than to say, "Actually, Iíve not read it but Iíve heard it was badly written."
How should Christians respond to The Da Vinci Code? By talking about why it matters that the claims in the book are wrong. Regardless of what we think about its quality, regardless of what we think about its believability, what we must grasp are the desire consequences for our future salvation if Dan Brownís picture of Jesus is historically authentic. Or let me put it like this. If Jesus Christ was not fully human and fully God then the whole of humanity is stuffed. For Jesus to save us from our sins then he must be the God-man, the unique individual, who as one person, was fully God and fully man. And I put it to you this morning that if we want to have exciting conversations about The Da Vinci Code then, first of all, we must understand the significance of Jesusí identity and then, secondly, we must talk about it when the opportunities arise.
Why did Jesus have to be fully human and fully divine? Have a look at verse 21. An angel of the Lord said to Joseph in a dream, "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." There in a nutshell is the reason for the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Why did he have a human mother and not a human father? Verse 21. So that he could save his people from their sins. Why did Jesus have to be a real human being, made of real human flesh, with a real human personality, and yet at the same time be on the divine side of the Creator/Creature divide? Verse 21. So that he could save his people from their sins. Only the unique person of Jesus can save people from the consequences of their behaviour. Jesus must be fully God and fully human.
And thatís why he was born in the way described in Matthew chapter 1. Have a look at 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. 19 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."
Can you imagine what Joseph must have thought? In those days marriage arrangements were very different from the traditions we are used to in the 21st Century. For a start the majority of people actually did get married. Rather than merely living together for a number of years until someone better came along or until the romantic feelings diminished, the Jewish people in Jesusí day held Godís gift of marriage in high regard. They knew marriage was not just a piece of paper. It was a public declaration where two people promised to be life-long companions, for better or for worse. But, in those days, marriages were often very different from what we experience today. For example, Jewish girls would often be pledged to be married to a boy from a very earlier age. 12 or 13 was not unusual. Now in Jewish law this engagement period, which lasted about a year, was legally binding. The man and woman were called husband and wife, and yet they did not live together. The girl would still live with her parents and there would be no sex until the end of the year. After about a yearís engagement, there would be a wedding ceremony lasting about seven days - no doubt a joy if you were the brideís father who had to pay for it all! And then after the party the new bride would be taken to the groomís house where they would begin their fully authorised marriage together.
It is so unlike modern culture, isnít it? Back then people who were technically married did not have sex and did not live with each other for the first year. Just compare that with the situation today!
Cohabitation has completely reversed the arrangements. And, sadly, as the surveys show, our society is suffering as a result.
But what about Joseph? Can you imagine what he must have been thinking? He knows he is pledged to be married to a young girl called Mary. They are eagerly waiting for their big wedding party. Waiting is tough but Joseph knows that in the long-run it will be worth it. And then one day he begins to notice a change in Mary. At first he canít quite pin it down but then he gets it. Itís got something to do with her weight. He makes a mental note, "Tell Mary to stop eating all the pies." But over the next few weeks the bulge in her stomach becomes much more distinctive. And then he finds the receipt from Mother Care. Joseph cannot believe it. Surely not his precious Mary! Surely not her! And yet there is no other explanation. Joseph is not stupid. He knows all about the birds and the bees. He knows very well how babies are produced. And he understood what Godís law said when someone was in his position. The marriage could not continue. So, verse 19, because Joseph was a righteous man, that is, he was a man committed to putting Godís law into practice, he had a plan to divorce his wife. But, according to verse 19, Joseph was also a compassionate man so he had decided to do this quietly. He had no intention of hauling this young girl through the public courts. Rather, in the presence of two or three witnesses he would write her a certificate of divorce and be done with it. His heart would be broken but at least her reputation would be saved.
But then something amazing happened. Verse 20. "After he 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 from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.""
We donít know for certain if Mary ever attempted to tell Joseph the truth about her pregnancy. But Iím sure you can picture the scene as Mary tries to explain to Joseph that contrary to his suspicious mind she has not been sleeping around with another man in the village but rather her pregnancy was the direct result of the creative work of the Holy Spirit. You can almost hear would have said in response? "Iím disappointed Mary. I thought at least you could have told me the truth."
But then one night as this troubled man lay fast asleep on his bed he was told, in a dream, the truth of Maryís pregnancy. She had not been sleeping around. She had not committed adultery. She was still a virgin. And so therefore, verse 20, Joseph does not need to be afraid to take Mary home as his wife. Why was he afraid? Because, remember, he was a righteous man. And what do righteous people fear? Righteous people fear doing unrighteous things. Righteous people fear the consequences of disobeying a righteous God. But Joseph had nothing to fear. Mary was now in the clear. Yes, she was going to give birth to a son, but by a miracle of the Holy Spirit, her son had been created, within her womb, without the involvement of a human father.
And yet donít you think itís great that Joseph still has a part to play? He may not have been the paternal father of Jesus but, according to verse 21, he was to be the legal father of Jesus. Not surprising Mary will be the one who gives birth to the child but, according to verse 21, it is Joseph who is to name the child. Which, by the way, explains why Joseph is called the son of David in verse 20. Did you see that? The angel who appeared to him does not simply address him as Joseph but as Joseph son of David. A man who can trace his family tree back to King David. A family tree that we have recorded for us in the first 17 verses of Matthew chapter 1. The Jewish Messiah was expected to be a descendant of King David. Thatís what the Old Testament had promised. But how could Jesus, without a human father, claim such an honour?
The answer: because of legal adoption. It was a perfectly legitimate thing to do. And so although Joseph was not Jesusí paternal father, by adoption, he became Jesusí legal father. Therefore, Jesus himself found a place in the family tree of Joseph and hence in the family tree of King David. Which meant that he could legitimately make a claim to be the Jewish Messiah.
I donít know if you ever remember your dreams when you wake up or if you ever think about putting them into practice. I do hope not. What a strange place our world would be if we all started to follow the advice of our dreams!
But for Joseph this particular dream changed his life forever. Verse 24. What did the righteous man do? He didnít ring up his local psychiatrist for an urgent appointment. No, "when Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus."
On the 2nd of July 2005, Coldplayís Chris Martin said at the Live8 concert in Hyde Park: "This is the greatest thing that's ever been organised in the history of the world." 200,000 people were standing in the park and billions of people were watching around the globe. But the greatest thing thatís ever been organised in the history of the world? I donít think so.
I donít know if you find it hard to believe in a virgin birth or, to put it more accurately, a virgin conception. But let me offer two reasons why people generally struggle with the concept.
First of all, some people have a view of God which is far too small. They seem to have forgotten that our creator is our creator. They seem to have forgotten that he is responsible for creating an entire universe. Now letís just get this in perspective.
What do we think is more difficult? To form a solar system or to make a baby without the participation of a man? For some people their view of God is far too small. And so what they need to do is to grasp again the almighty power of our unique creator. Why not go out to your garden, look above your head and then just have a think about the sheer power required to create the sky above you? For some people their understanding of God is far too small.
But, for other people the problem lies elsewhere. The reason they find it difficult to believe in a virgin birth is not because their view of God is too small but because their ignorance of the Bible is too great. Jesusí birth may have been unique but it wasnít the first unusual birth recorded in the Bible. Do you remember how Isaac, the son of Abraham was born? For years and years Abrahamís wife Sarah could not have children. In fact, at one point the happy couple were so desperate to have a child that they decided the best course of action was for Abraham to sleep with his wifeís servant Hagar. At the time it seemed like the only option. God had promised to make Abraham into a great nation but in the eyes of Abraham and Sarah time had run out. Sarah was now too old to bear children. And so, in their view, the only sensible option was for Abraham to have a child by another woman. Come on, be realistic, if Sarah was to bear him a child it would take a miracle of God. This is what we read in Genesis 21:1-2: "The LORD was gracious to Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did for Sarah what he had promised. Sarah became pregnant and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the very time God had promised him."
Not quite a virgin birth, I admit, but certainly a very unusual birth. So why do we fail see the connection? If Isaac, the son of Abraham, was born in such an unusual way then why are we so surprised to discover that the true son of Abraham, as he is called in Matthew 1:1, is born in such a unique way?
Perhaps for some of us we need to allow the patterns of the Old Testament to help us believe what we read in the New Testament. The two sections of the Bible are not contradictory. Rather they both exist to help explain and illuminate what is written in the other.
Why was Jesus Christ born in such a unique way? Because this was how God chose to unite divinity with humanity. No doubt he could have opted for a different method if he wanted to. He is after all the God with unrestricted power and wisdom. He could have chosen another plan. But he didnít. Therefore, God the Son became the man Jesus Christ in the womb of a virgin girl. And the reason? Verse 22. "All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel" ó which means, "God with us.""
700 years before Jesus was born the Kingdom of Judah, ruled by a descendent of King David, was in a crisis situation. It was facing imminent attack by two of its surrounding neighbours and for King Ahaz, the King of Judah, there seemed to be only one solution. Appeal to the biggest superpower of the day for help. He wanted to ask the nation of Assyria for their assistance. It was a stupid idea and it was also an unnecessary idea. God had promised to Abraham and to David that he would preserve his people from total destruction so that one day they would be a blessing to all the nations. So, in reality, King Ahaz had nothing to fear. Yes, on a human level the situation looked bleak, but through the eyes of faith, the word of the Lord could be trusted. Therefore, God sent the prophet Isaiah to encourage King Ahaz to believe that God would not let his people be destroyed.
In fact, God was so generous to Ahaz that he asked him to choose any sign that he wanted. God was effectively saying to Ahaz, "Pick a card, any card." But as we heard from Isaiah chapter 7, Ahaz turned down this amazing offer.
So what did God do in response? Isaiah 7:14: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. 15 He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. 16 But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste."
Now, of course, these words are ultimately about Jesus Christ but I put it to you this morning that if we are to be truly amazed by their inclusion in the Bible we must, first of all, work out what they meant when they were spoken by the prophet Isaiah. For example, who is the virgin? And who is the child? Was this a long-range prediction about the person of Jesus or did it have a more immediate fulfilment during the reign of King Ahaz? Let me tell you what I think. When you read the book of Isaiah the nation of Israel is often described as a young woman. In 1:8, we read, "The daughter of Zion is left like a shelter in a vineyard, like a hut in a field of melons, like a city under siege. Unless the LORD Almighty had left us some survivors, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah." Or what about this from 37:22? Where God speaks against the King of Assyria: "The Virgin Daughter of Zion despises and mocks you. The Daughter of Jerusalem tosses her head as you flee." Or what about this from 54:1: "Sing, O barren woman you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labour; because more are the children of the desolate woman than or her who has a husband."
I hope you see my point. Very often in the Bible, and especially in the book of Isaiah, the picture of a woman is used to be a symbol of the people of God. And I think we are meant to understand Isaiahís original prophecy about the virgin birth in this particular way.
So when he promises to Ahaz that the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, who will be known as Immanuel, which means God with us, I think he is primarily talking about the people of God who will be preserved from the devastation that is about to engulf the nation. The woman is not real and neither is her child. Rather, the child is the remnant of Godís people who will survive the destruction of Assyria and who therefore will be a great sign that God is keeping his promise to bless the entire world through his chosen people.
Now I know this is more complicated that simply saying Isaiah 7:14 is all about Jesus. But to be honest a simple long-term prediction doesnít make sense of what we read in Isaiah chapter 7. For example, we are told that before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings who are threatening the people of Judah will be destroyed. Or in other words, the initial fulfilment must be within years of the original prophecy. Therefore, I think the son refers to the rescued people of God who will survive the imminent destruction at the hands of the King of Assyria. And the clincher for me is what I read in 8:6-8. This is what God said to the prophet Isaiah: "Because this people has rejected the gently flowing waters of Shiloah and rejoices over Rezin and the son of Remaliah, 7 therefore the Lord is about to bring against them the mighty floodwaters of the River ó the king of Assyria with all his pomp. It will overflow all its channels, run over all its banks 8 and sweep on into Judah, swirling over it, passing through it and reaching up to the neck. Its outspread wings will cover the breadth of your land, O Immanuel!" According to Isaiah chapter 8, the surviving people of God are called Immanuel.
So what about Jesus? How does the prophecy of Isaiah get fulfilled in the person of Jesus? I think it is truly amazing. Why did God preserve a group of people from the Assyrian destruction? Because he had promised to Abraham that one day in the future members of his family would experience a blessing and would provide a blessing to the entire world.
But you cannot provide a blessing to the world, let alone experience a blessing, if everyone in the nation is dead. So how did God keep his promise? He dwelt with his people in a special to preserve them from danger. The promise could only be kept when God dwelt with his people. They were called Immanuel because God was with them. In his grace he preserved a remnant for the future. He dwelt with his people so that the blessing could continue.
But, my friends, what is the greatest blessing that our world needs? What is the best blessing that you and I can have? Itís not a new house or a new car or a new phone or a new relationship. What we need more than anything is to be saved from our sins. But how is this possible? Only if God becomes a man.
If Jesus Christ was not God then his death for sin has two major problems. First of all, it is immoral and, secondly, it is insufficient. How can a third party save us from our sins? He cannot. It would be completely immoral. It would be like an innocent passer by coming off the street to stand in the place of a criminal in the courts of law. It would be completely outrageous. In fact, it would be completely immoral. But since Jesus was fully God he was not an innocent third party trying to mediate between two warring factions. No, he was the offended one, who out of love, came to save us from our sins.
Secondly, if Jesus was not God then his death was insufficient. How can the death of one man possibly pay the price of sin for billions of others? It cannot. So, if we are to be saved from sin a life of priceless value must be laid down in the place of others. That is why Jesus had to be fully God.
But what about if Jesus was not fully human? How would this effect our salvation? Again, the consequences are disastrous. Think about the sportís field.
If a team makes a substitution the player they bring on must be part of their squad. It is against the rules to substitute a player who is not on the team list. And can you just imagine the chaos, canít you, if at their next match Hull FC substitute Shaun Briscoe for a fully grown lion? Itís not on is it? A substitute must be just like you. Thatís why Jesus had to be fully human.
Jesus Christ is the true fulfilment of Isaiah 7:14. Originally it referred to a group of people who were preserved from total destruction. God was with them so that he could keep his promise to Abraham. But ultimately for God to stick to that promise he had to do more than simply dwell with his people, he had to become one of his people. He had to send his only Son into the world to die. His only Son had to become a human being to save people from their sins. And so Jesus Christ is the ultimate sign that God has kept his promise to Abraham. He is the ultimate fulfilment of Isaiah 7:14. My friends, God has become one of us and so now through Jesus the blessing of forgiveness can be offered to the world.
Therefore, the next time someone talks to you about The Da Vinci Code, please donít reply: "Actually, Iíve not read it but Iíve heard it was badly written." Instead seize the moment and talk about why it matters that Jesus Christ was fully God and fully man. Letís pray.
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