December 18th, 2016
“Matthew's Christmas Prepositions”
“Matthew's Christmas Prepositions”
Today we have the Nativity of Christ according to St. Matthew. It's shorter than the Luke account. We don't have all the details that Luke tells here. Instead, Matthew focuses on the dilemma of Joseph, the appearance of the angel and the naming of the Savior – Jesus, also known as Immanuel. It serves as a complementary account to the more well-known nativity told by Luke. And so both help us by painting part of the picture of the events surrounding our Savior's birth. Today I'd like to take a slightly unusual approach to this familiar Christmas text....
Abraham Lincoln, in his famous Gettysburg Address, spoke of a government “of the people, by the people and for the people”. They are powerful words that are still quoted in political speeches even today. Those little words, “of”, “by” and “for” hold most of the meaning in the phrase – even though they are lowly prepositions.
Well we Christians know something about words, and we especially treasure the Word of God. We pay attention to the grammar, and even the smallest words amongst God's words can play an important role for our faith. So today, I'd like to look at a familiar Christmas passage from Matthew's Gospel, through the lens of some important prepositions.
Our first preposition helps Joseph solve the dilemma he faces. The problem is this: his betrothed, Mary, is found to be pregnant. She had been away for a few months visiting her cousin Elizabeth, and one way or another, Joseph comes to find out that she is with child. You can imagine the thoughts that ran through his head – assuming that Mary wasn't who she appeared to be, and had instead betrayed him and his trust. She had broken the marriage, it seems, before it really even got started. She had put Joseph in a very difficult position.
According to Jewish law, the penalty for all this could be quite harsh for Mary. Joseph could have not only divorced her, but he could have done so in a very public way – putting Mary to shame as an adulteress. Some suggest that if he pressed, could have had her punished – even perhaps put to death.
But Joseph was a righteous man, and wanted to divorce her quietly. He was a man of faith, a child of God. He resolved to do unto Mary as he would have done to himself. He was making the best of a bad situation in the most godly way he knew how. And in this way, he stands as a fine example for all of us. He was being, in his way, Christ-like.
But he didn't have all the information. So the angel appears and fills him in on some very important things. And here we come to our first Christmas preposition: From. “That which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” In other words, this isn't a case of adultery, Joseph. This child is from God.
From God. Or we might translate “by God”. In these two words is summed up the central doctrine of the scriptures. Everything good that happens to us and for us is from God. He is the source of all things, the creator of all this creation. He is the one who works salvation – it is a pure and free gift from him.
By contrast, we could look at what comes from man. From man comes sin and evil. From the heart of man come wicked desires. From the mouth of man's unclean lips come unclean words. We bring nothing good of ourselves. We have only shame.
But from God comes good, despite all of this. From God comes Jesus, the Savior. From the Holy Spirit is conceived in the womb of the virgin a miraculous child – sent from heaven above – from the Father – to us.
Completely outside of and beyond this creation, Christ comes from God, though he is God himself. From the highest throne to the lowly manger. From riches to rags if it ever were. He comes. From there, to here, for you.
This is the mystery of the incarnation. That God takes the initiative in our salvation, without any human work or effort. By his Spirit, he sends his Son into the womb of Mary. Just has he calls each of us to faith by that same Spirit, working in the word.
The next preposition is also a “from”. But it's an entirely different direction: “From their sins”. The sense is, “away from”
“She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
And so we see that the significance of the birth of Christ is all wrapped up in the forgiveness of sins. Without this part – the forgiveness of sin, the saving FROM sin – none of this matters much at all. But this child from heaven is here to bring us away from sin, and back to the Father.
The name of this child is also from heaven, from God, through the angel. And the name “Jesus” is not just a favorite name popular in the Jewish mom and dad baby books of the day. Jesus means something. It means, literally, “God Saves”. Yah- Shua. And you will call him this, the angel commands, for a specific reason. FOR (there's another preposition) he will save his people from their sins. The name denotes his special role, calling, task. It tells us who he is and what he's here to do. Save us. From our sins. From our own sins. To save us first of all, from ourselves.
And he does it by a perfect life, and by a sacrificial death. He does it by doing everything well, and doing it in our place. He does it by earning what we couldn't, and paying what we can't. He suffers all, bears all, endures all – even death, FOR us.
And finally, he is not only FOR us, he is also WITH us.
“God with us”, the ancient prophecy gave this title to the Messiah, “Immanuel”. He is God with and among us. With us in the most intimate way possible – by becoming one of us. He's not just God in our midst, he's God made flesh, Creator becoming creature.
And he is God with us for us. That is, he comes in mercy, not in terror. He comes as savior, not as judge. He comes to bring us salvation. If God were angry with us and here to judge us, then his being with us would be terrifying. But this Immanuel is here for our good, our highest good.
And while we no longer see him, for his body is now ascended to the throne of heaven, still he remains Immanuel, God with us. He's with us by his word of promise - where two or three are gathered in his name. He's with us in baptism, by which we have “put on Christ”. And he is with us in the mystery of the meal – that bread and wine are divine body and blood – because he says so. Immanuel, God with us, even now, even here, even today. For our good, for our forgiveness, for our salvation.
As we mark one more Sunday of Advent, one week away from Christmas, rejoice in Matthew's Christmas account. And give thanks that this child, this Jesus, is FROM God. Rejoice that he saves you FROM your sin. And believe his promise, that he is WITH you always, even to the end of the age. Amen.