God and Christmas
Matthew 1:18 – 25
On January 12 2007, a young violinist starting busking in a Washington DC train station. As many many buskers had done in this same spot before him, he put out his violin case, to receive donations from the morning rush-hour commuters.
He played for 43 minutes,
6 fairly well-known classical pieces.
But this was no ordinary busker.
His name was Joshua Bell, one of the leading classical violinists in the world.
And his violin was nothing ordinary either, it was made in 1713 by none other than Antonio Stradivari, it’s worth a cool 4 million dollars.
You put a Grammy Award winning concert violinist in a crowded railway station in a big city, and what do you think happens?
A crowd develops,
People are happy to get to work a bit late, for just a few minutes with a globally-celebrated artist
Pretty soon the violin case is over-flowing with money as people realise the value of what they’re hearing.
None of that happened.
The Washington Post newspaper was there, they arranged it in fact, and they counted 1097 people pass by Joshua Bell as he played.
7 people stopped to listen.
In 43 minutes busking, he made 32 dollars and 17 cents.
Earlier in the week, Bell had played the same repertoire to a packed concert hall, where tickets started at $100 and went up from there.
And after this little experiment, he headed off on a European tour, playing the most magnificent opera houses in the world.
7 people stopped.
1 person recognised him.
Imagine being so busy,
So caught up in all the things you need to do,
That you miss something of such great value and beauty,
So invested in the everyday things of life, that you don’t recognise something of such value.
I don’t know what you think of Christmas,
I don’t know what you think of the story of Christmas, the birth of Jesus, angels, Mary and Joseph and all that.
I don’t know whether, besides a few minutes in church, those things make it into your consciousness at Christmas.
But I do know there are lots of competing claims and pressures, at Christmas.
Like some of you, I’ve been madly trying to get all my work done before tonight,
Many of us have families, some have children on school holidays, they keep our hands full at Christmas time, don’t they?
For some you’ll have complex family issues and relationships to juggle,
Some of you, perhaps all you can think about, is presents and food,
There’s a lot on our plate at Christmas, and yet, I’d hate for us to be so busy, so locked in on the things that demand our attention, that we miss something extraordinary, something of great value.
Jesus is born as a result of God’s work.
And we don’t have to read too much of this Christmas story, to work out this is out of the ordinary, do we?
I can remember finding out on each of the occasions that my wife and I were expecting a baby, and those were exciting moments, but nothing like this.
This birth, is an extraordinary, supernatural event.
Let’s have a look at how Matthew, the historian describes it!
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.
Culturally, we are quite far removed from this aren’t we?
So let’s have a think about what’s going on here.
Mary is probably around 13 or 14 years old. That was typically the age at which a young Jewish girl would be pledged to be married.
We’ve got a number of 13 or 14 year old girls in our church community, if that’s you, you’re the age / that’s the age Mary was when this all unfolds.
Imagine, how she’s feeling!
Think about the most surprised you have ever been,
And think also about the most confused you have ever been,
And also think about the most afraid you have ever been,
And now lump all of those together into one moment in time, and that will give you a sense of what Mary’s feeling at this point!
A Jewish marriage in the first century AD was a 3 –stage process, You blokes who are married, if you thought that was quite a lot to organise, first century Judaism had even more steps to navigate!
First of all came the engagement. Normally arranged by the parents, sometimes a professional match-maker would be contracted, to make sure that a family’s interests were being looked after. This stage would often happen while the couple were still quite young children.
After that came the betrothal, which usually lasted about a year. This was a legally binding relationship, and although the bride still lived with her family, she was considered under the authority of her husband, and, like we see here in verse 19, the only way that the betrothal could be dissolved was through divorce.
Only when those two stages had been completed, would the bride move in with her husband, and they would live together as a married couple.
And in Mary and Joseph’s case, they’re in that betrothed stage, they are legally bound, but not living together, and Joseph, discovering she is pregnant, and knowing he had nothing to do with it, plans to divorce her quietly.
We read Thomas the Tank Engine books in our family. A lot!
And the engines in the Thomas stories frequently seem to hold what they call “Indignation Meetings”, a chance for them to vent their indignation, to blow off steam, so to speak.
Well Joseph could have done that, he could have vented his indignation for all to see, and had Mary hauled before the courts and publicly shamed as an adulterer.
But Matthew tells us he was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
But this was no ordinary pregnancy,
And Mary hadn’t been unfaithful to Joseph as he supposed.
God wants Joseph to know exactly what’s happened, so an angel appears .
A messenger from heaven, the word “angel” just means “a messenger”, and this message from God explains Mary & Joseph’s experience.
“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.”
See Matthew, writing this for us, deliberately leaves no room in this historical account for anyone to say, with a knowing nod, “Well, Mary and Joseph got themselves into trouble when they were engaged, and tried to cover it up,
Or Mary managed to get herself pregnant with someone else, and poor old Joseph had no clue, or got stuck with the baby”,
Matthew’s saying “No”!
Everybody involved knew from the outset that this was no ordinary birth.
Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived.
This is a unique, never to be repeated work of God.
The only conclusion that Matthew as historian will allow us to reach, is that God’s Spirit has been powerfully at work, producing the extraordinary.
We hear talk of the virgin birth, that’s actually a slight misnomer. What the Bible talks about is a virgin conception.
It’s an idea that is ridiculed today as un-scientific, and we’re told that only people 2000 years ago were foolish enough to believe in such a thing.
Which, really, when you think about it, is the height of cultural arrogance isn’t it?
To suggest that people 2000 years ago, actually didn’t know that in every other case, it takes one man and one woman to make a baby.
Sure, they didn’t have ultrasound, and foetal heartbeat monitors, and all that, back then, but they did know that it takes a mummy and a daddy!
How many other virgin conceptions do you think that Matthew and his readers had encountered in their lives.
“Oh Jesus, he’s another one of those! Oh if only we could have a scientific revolution, we wouldn’t be sucked into believing such foolishness!”
No, the virgin conception was just as surprising and confronting in the first century, as in the 21st.
But twice we’re told, that this baby has been conceived through the agency of the Holy Spirit. Once we’re told it directly by Matthew as the historian, See there, it’s in the end of verse 18 she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit
And then from the angel in verse 20, “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.
This child is born through the extraordinary work of God.
And Matthew wants us to know this as a fact.
Jesus is born to save God’s people from sin
But we’re not only told how Jesus comes to be born, we’re also told why.
And it’s not something we need to discover,
There’s no hidden meaning to Christmas that each of us needs to seek out and uncover for ourselves,
God’s messenger tells us exactly, and the reason for Christmas is there in black and white.
“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.”
Some of you will know what your name means. I worked with a guy called “Christopher” once, and he was very proud of the fact that his name means “Bearer of Christ”, and so he used to make up all sorts of meanings for my name, his favourite one was that Clayton means “stocky!” But not knowing what my name does mean, I was never able to refute that!
I think I should have invested in a baby names book to shut him up!
But if you have your Bible open, or if you look at your leaflet, you’ll be able see there in verse 21, there’s a little footnote explaining that “Jesus is the Greek form of Joshua, which means the Lord saves.”
And as the angel goes on to say, the reason the baby is given this name, is because he will save his people from their sins.
I’m not sure what comes to your mind when you hear the word “sin.” It’s a word that conjours up all kinds of different images for people.
But at its most simple, sin means living in God’s world, with no regard for God, or for his pattern for life.
Where we often get confused is if we think of sin as a catalogue of bad deeds that have to be avoided, lying, stealing, adultery, murder, and so if we think we’ve managed to avoid those, or most of those, most of the time, or more than other people, then we think we don’t have a problem with sin.
But the Bible tells us all of us have a problem with sin, because sin isn’t the bad things that we do, but our allegiance to self, instead of our allegiance to God.
Imagine you’re standing on a cliff, above the ocean, and looking through your binoculars, you see a ship passing by,
And your attention is grabbed, by one sailor, who seems to be working really, really hard,
And for the whole time that it takes for the ship to pass you by, you’re captivated by this one sailor,
First he’s scrubbing the decks,
Then he’s running out sails,
Then he’s trimming the lines,
You see him take orders from the captain, and although you can’t make out the instructions he’s being given, you can tell what those instructions are, because immediately he runs off and throws himself into the next task.
His clothing is immaculate,
He obviously takes pride in his appearance,
He’s dedicated to his job,
He must be the ideal sailor to have on a ship, you think.
And as the ship is just to pass out of sight along the coast, and you’re thinking, “Well, maybe I should be a bit more like him”, you take one last look through the binoculars, and you notice something that you’d missed:
Flying at the very top of the mast, is a flag,
It’s the Jolly Roger,
A skull and cross bones,
The ship, is a pirate ship,
And the sailor, who you so much admired, is a pirate,
Sure he does his job well,
He takes pride in what he does,
He obeys orders,
He looks good on the outside,
But all of those things are done in pursuit of criminal gain, murder and mayhem!
He has set his life in a direction that is opposed to what is good and what is right.
Just being able to point to things in your life that look good, counts for nothing when it comes to the question of where you stand before God.
The question is, where is your allegiance?
Whose pattern for life are you serving?
Whose command and authority do you submit to?
And if the answer to that is anything other than “God alone” then the Bible says you’ve got a problem called sin.
And the penalty for sin, for living in God’s world as God’s enemy, is death and separation from God for ever.
“you are to give him the name Jesus,”, the angel said, “because he will save his people from their sins”.
Jesus is born, to take the penalty, the death and separation from God, that we deserve.
But it gets even more astounding!
Look at verse 22 with me if you will, “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”
Hundreds of years earlier, God had made a promise that all this would happen, and the reason that Jesus is given this other name, Immanuel, is because Jesus is none other than God himself, come to be with his people.
Jesus is God, with us.
So let’s just roll that tape back a little bit,
We’ve all lived in God’s world, rejecting God and his authority, and his pattern for life,
That’s what sin is.
The penalty for sin is spiritual death and separation from God forever.
Jesus came to save us from our sins,
Jesus, who is God himself, God with us.
This Christmas one of the American atheist groups has paid for a huge billboard in Times Square in New York. It’s got a photo of Santa, and an image of Jesus being crucified on the cross, and the caption on the Santa is “Keep the merry”, on the picture of Jesus, “drop the myth.”
Keep the merry. Drop the myth.
And I agree wholeheartedly!
But I think they’ve got the captions the wrong way round!
A man in a red suit who comes down the chimney to leave presents, can you spot some myth in that?!
But if “merry” means “happy, celebrate, get excited about, stand in wonder at!”, Then the God who comes in person, to take away the penalty for our sin against him, Well there’s plenty to be merry at there.
It is staggering, that God would go to such lengths, for we who have ignored him,
And rejected him,
And lived as if he doesn’t even exist.
What kind of God does that?
In July this year an English man named Ceri Fuller, murdered his three children and then took his own life, in a trangic case of family trauma and mental illness.
In the early media reports Fuller was, somewhat understandably, painted as a kind of monster, what sort of father would do that?,
What sort of husband would inflict such pain and anguish on his wife?
But then, Fuller’s father-in-law, the grandfather of the 3 children, a man named Ron Tocknell, wrote an open letter, which was published in newspapers across the UK, saying that despite the horrific tragedy, and the immense pain and loss that he and his family were suffering, he still loved his son-in-law, because he knew his true identity.
He knew that his son-in-law was terribly confused, and terribly broken, guilty of a horrendous crime, but he was still, his son-in-law.
And he loved him.
Friends, grasp that, and we’ll understand something of the love of God for broken people, who are living as his enemies,
Living in the world that he made, and taking good gifts from his hand, but living as if he doesn’t even exist.
God himself breaks into the world, for people just like that.
Friends that’s the message of Christmas.
Are you too busy,
Or too distracted,
Or too set in your ways, to see the value, of this extraordinary gift.
Thelma Howard served as the live-in housekeeper for Walt Disney and his family for 30 years. And Disney referred to her as “the real-life Mary Poppins.”
Each year at Christmas, Disney would give the members of his staff a bonus in the form of share certificates, stock in the Walt Disney company.
And each year, Thelma Howard would take her stock certificate and file it away, without giving it much thought, and completely unaware of the rising value of the stock she was receiving.
It appears actually, that even right up until her death, aged 79, she was totally unaware of the value of what she’d been given. Her share in the company, a share she had ignored all her life, was valued at just under 8 million dollars.
Friends, God has come,
Jesus came to save his people from their sins,
Please don’t underestimate the value, or get caught up in the busyness and complexities of life, and ignore such a great gift.