To be rescued from ourselves.

Yesterday’s Sermon from Matthew 1:18-25 “The Birth of Jesus the Messiah”.

As one of the most important events in all history, the birth of the Lord Jesus stands out so much it cannot be ignored.  It stands out not for its splendour and pomp and ceremony, it stands out so much because it is so humble.  When we hear about it we cannot help but be intrigued and fascinated.  Now if we didn’t know better, we’d have thought that the King of kings, God Himself made flesh would have a very dramatic entrance on to the stage of humanity – but no, quite the opposite is true.

We’d have thought that at the very least He would have been born to very important people, in a big palace in the wealthiest of cities.  But the reason why the events surrounding the birth of the Lord Jesus stand out as much as they do is because everything is just the opposite from what you would expect them to be if you had never heard the story before.

First of all we have an ordinary young girl called Mary; she’s not a daughter of a King, she doesn’t wake up in royal splendour every morning, her every whim is not catered for by an army of servants.  Mary lives in an ordinary house in a little village called Nazareth, she is engaged to be married, not to a prince or wealthy merchant, but to a carpenter named Joseph.  We don’t know much about Joseph except that Matthew describes him as a “righteous man”.  He needed to be with what would happen next!

No doubt Joseph was looking forward to getting married to Mary; they had the whole of their lives together to look forward to.  But then Mary tells Joseph that she is pregnant and that the child is from the Holy Spirit!  Understandably, Joseph panics – in those days a woman could be stoned to death for adultery, (which is what it would have been seen as).  Clearly Joseph thinks that Mary no longer wants to be his wife so he thinks about divorcing her from their engagement on the quiet so that nobody would find out about it.

Somehow, Joseph manages to get some sleep with all this milling around in his mind.  While he is asleep, an Angel appears to him in a dream to explain what is really going on.  Yes Mary is telling the truth, the child really is from the Holy Spirit – Joseph must not be afraid to take Mary as his wife – she will give birth to a son, and Joseph is to give him the name “Jesus”.  (Jesus being the Greek version of the Hebrew name Joshua), which means “The LORD saves”.  The angel finishes off by telling Joseph that the son that his fiancée will have, whom he is to call Jesus will save his people from their sins.

Have you ever been told a piece of news that is so big that you cannot take it all in at once?  Sometimes on telling a very significant piece of news, a person will say, “you might want to sit down before I tell you this”.  It was just as well then that Joseph was lying down at this point, otherwise he might have collapsed with the news of all that he was hearing and seeing!

So upon waking, Joseph did what was asked of him, he took Mary home as his wife, but had no union with her until after Jesus was born.

Matthew then is keen then to emphasise two things: Firstly (as we have just seen), that Mary was a virgin, her child was of the Holy Spirit.  Secondly, that Jesus’ birth is the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy.  Quoting from Isaiah 7, he says:

‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Immanuel” – which means, ‘God is with us.’

In other words, Matthew is telling his audience that Jesus is the Messiah.  He is the one who will save his people.  Israel had been waiting for hundreds of years for their Messiah.  They were just so fed up with being oppressed; If it wasn’t the Egyptians, it was the Babylonians or the Assyrians, then along came Greeks and after the Greeks came the Romans.  The people of Israel had been under the oppressive rule of one foreign power or another for most of their history.  They wanted so desperately to be free – free from foreigners telling them what to do the whole time.

So the Messiah was going to be the one who was going to set them free from all this oppression.  In the mind of the average person, the Messiah would be some kind of superhero who would send the Romans packing.  Like a kind of spiritual Arnold Schwarzenegger, He would terminate the enemy and restore Israel back to the days of when king David was on the throne, a nation that was both feared and respected by the other nations of the world.

But few realised He was going to do something far more significant, something far more powerful and something that would have consequences not just for the people of Israel but for all people throughout history.

What did the Angel say to Joseph?

“… for he will save his people from their sins”.

The biggest enemy that the people of Israel had was not the Romans.  The enemies of the past, the Greeks and the Babylonians were not the real problem either.  No the real problem and the real enemy was themselves (or more specifically, their sin).  It was these people’s rebellion against God that was the real enemy.  They had turned away from Him.  Their worship had become dry, empty and meaningless.  They were not so much concerned about living their lives for God; it was all about outward show, to be seen to do the right thing.  (Sound familiar?)

In His ministry, the Lord Jesus brought this subject up many times, for example in Luke 18, where the religious leader, the Pharisee goes up to the temple to pray.  He makes sure that everyone can see how religious and holy he is and no doubt with a fake serious expression on his face he says, ”I thank God that I’m not a sinner like everyone else, I don’t cheat, I don’t sin and I don’t commit adultery.  I fast twice a week and give away a tenth of my income”.  In contrast, the outcast of society, the tax collector stood at a distance with his head bowed and said “O God be merciful to me a sinner”.  The Lord Jesus tells us that it is of course the second man who returned home justified before God.

The Lord Jesus had a much bigger job to do than ridding the people of Roman oppression.  Hearts that were hardened towards God needed to be softened; minds that were only concerned with the things of this world needed to be re-orientated towards heaven.  The people didn’t need to be changed on the outside, no people needed to be changed on the INSIDE….

That is why Jesus’ birth is so humble.  The Lord wants us to get the message that outward appearances count for nothing in God’s Kingdom.  In the Old Testament, speaking to the prophet Samuel, God says:

“The LORD doesn’t see things the way you see them.  People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7 – NLT)

This is a lesson that we need to learn again and again throughout our lives.  We all know the saying “don’t judge a book by the cover”.  Thankfully God does not judge us by our outward appearance, but He looks at our hearts.

Now if it weren’t for Jesus, this would be a very heartbreaking truth.  We know that our hearts are not very pretty.  We are full of sin.  We might look not too bad on the outside, but inside, if we are honest, it’s not too good in there.  We might be like a nice ripe apple on the outside, but all mouldy and rotten on the inside!

But the reason why we celebrate Christmas is because God came down as Jesus to save us, so that when God looks at the hearts of his people He finds Jesus there, it is no longer rotten and mouldy, it is clean and made new.

Why do we give each other presents at Christmas?  We do so to remind ourselves of the best gift of all, the gift of forgiveness and the gift of new life that the Lord Jesus has won for us.

If we acknowledge Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, we are free from oppression.  Today we are not oppressed by Romans or Babylonians or even the IMF, but we are oppressed by ourselves, our own sin and rebellion against God.  And that is what the Lord Jesus frees us from.

So this Christmastime let us receive into our hearts and lives that greatest gift of all, Jesus.  What does the name Jesus mean again?  “The Lord saves”.  Amen.

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2 Comments to “To be rescued from ourselves.”

  1. Hi Daniel,
    Some food for thought on what might have been going through Joseph’s mind when he discovered Mary was pregnant at http://newtheologicalmovement.blogspot.com/2010/12/did-st-joseph-suspect-blessed-virgin.html (some of the comments on this are very interesting!).
    Merry Christmas,
    Levi+

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