This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
But 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. 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.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
– Matthew 1:18-25
I only want to say a couple of things this morning. Because we already know how the story ends, we see Christmas as a happy time. But when you read the story in the Bible, it isn’t obvious that things are going to work out OK. In fact, the way it starts, we’d all be tempted to say, “This isn’t going to end well.”
Joseph and Mary had been engaged, possibly for quite a long time. That was the custom back then. A lot of marriages were arranged marriages, and some were even set up in childhood.
Then came the betrothal. This was a period a year long, when the couple didn’t live together, but they were considered to be almost married. The reason for the long betrothal period was so that when a baby was born, everyone would know that the baby came from that mother and father.
So when Mary started showing a baby bump, it was an awkward situation to say the least. Under the law, Mary could have been stoned for being unfaithful. At best, she would have been disgraced for life. She would have been cast out from her family, and there would have been no future at all for her or for her baby.
But Joseph was a pretty special guy. He was faithful to the law, but he was also merciful. He could have destroyed Mary – disgraced her and shamed her publicly. But he didn’t want to do that. So he decided to just divorce her quietly. It was the merciful thing to do.
But just when Joseph had made up his mind, an angel came to him in a dream.
Christmas is a time when we meet a lot of angels. An angel came to Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, and told her that she was going to have a special son, who later became John the Baptist. An angel came to Elizabeth’s husband, Zecharaiah, and told him the good news, and when Elizabeth’s husband didn’t throw his hat up in the air and celebrate, the angel told him he’d just have to shut up till baby John came along.
An angel came to Mary, and told her that she was going to have a baby. And fortunately for the entire world, Mary didn’t freak out and run away. She said, “I am the Lord’s servant; let it be as you have said.” Because Mary said yes, Jesus was conceived, and Mary sang a song about how wonderful it was that God had lifted her up in this way.
Now, today, we get to Joseph – Mary’s husband, in the eyes of Jewish law and custom, even if they weren’t living together yet. Joseph had a problem. What was he supposed to do?
Along comes another angel, who spoke to Joseph in a dream, and said that it was going to be all right.
We meet a lot of angels in these Christmas stories. A whole team full of angels goes and meets some shepherds out on the hillside, and tells them the good news. The shepherds were scared out of their minds, but the head angel told them not to be afraid. “Just go and take a look for yourselves,” the angel told them. “Go look in the stable and you’ll see.”
Then you get the wise men, traveling from somewhere out East. They followed a star to where the newborn baby was. They pulled out their Christmas presents and handed them over. That’s where the whole Christmas gift thing comes from, by the way.
But then the wise men had a dream – probably another angel hard at work. And the wise men took a different way home, so as not to let the king know where Jesus was.
So, we’ve got a lot of angels. Maybe we need to remember that Christmas is a time when the wall or the dividing line between heaven and earth is really thin. It’s a time of dreams and visions, as well as a time of gifts and giving. God is wanting to be very close to us, and we need to be careful not to close God out with all of the other things we’re doing.
Christmas is a time of noise and celebration, but it also needs to be a quiet time, when we listen to God and pay attention to those divine messages.
The other thing I want to point out this morning is how important the name of this new baby really is. We get so used to names that we don’t always remember what they mean.
The angel said that the baby was going to be named Jesus, which in Hebrew means, “The Lord saves” or “The Lord helps”. Even before he was born, this was Jesus’ name. He was born to be the Savior. He was born to be the helper.
He was born as God’s own son, to do the same work that his Father did, saving and helping. Whenever you say the name “Jesus” that’s what you’re talking about. It’s a name with a meaning, and that’s what it means.
Today’s gospel also gives Jesus another name, the name Emmanuel. Do any of you remember what that name means?
It means “God with us”. That’s Jesus’ other special name.
A lot of the time, it feels as though God can be very far away. There are lots of times when we feel abandoned and like there’s no one to help us. But the gospel at Christmas says that isn’t the way things are.
Jesus’ name means, “the Lord saves” and “the Lord helps”. God is my savior. God is my helper. Jesus’ other name, Emmanuel, means “God with us”. In fact, if you read the gospel of Matthew, and go all the way to the end of it, do you know what Jesus says there? He says, “I am always with you, even to the end of the age”.
We are never alone. We are never abandoned. God is always with us.
God is with us at beautiful, happy times like this. But God is also with us at the times when we need Him most. God is with us in the lonely hours in the middle of the night. God is with us when we’re suffering, or tossing and turning in pain.
God is with us when we’re afraid. God is with us when we’re ashamed. God is with us when we’re joyful. But God is also with us when we’re grieving. God is with us when we’re bearing heavy burdens.
Christmas is not a time for grief. It’s a time for celebration. But the reason for the celebration is because of who Jesus is. He’s our helper. He’s our savior. And his other name means, “God with us”.
We all come here with a different idea in our heads. We all come here with different experiences and different journeys. But remember why we’re all here. Whoever we are, wherever we’ve come from, Christ is born. That’s the very best news there ever was. Somewhere, not very far away, angels are singing: “Glory to God in the highest! Peace on earth, God’s favor rests upon you!”
If you listen, you can hear that song. It’s as close as your own heart.
And whenever you feel lonely, or hurt, or ashamed, or abandoned, remember that from the day of his birth, and even before his birth, Christ came to help you, to save you. To show you God’s mercy. To be with you.
That’s what Christmas is all about. That’s what Jesus really means.