Last week we began a new series in Matthew, a series which is called “Jesus Christ: All of God’s Promises, Fulfilled.” I said at that time that the gospels could be thought of as paintings, with each painting presenting a faithful, true revelation of Jesus. Verse 1 of Matthew could be thought of as the title of the painting – “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” Matthew then provides the genealogy that establishes who Jesus is in history. We learned from this that Jesus loves sinners, so much so that he included them in his own family tree. The scope of his grace includes adulterers and heroes, prostitutes, along with sinful men and women. He came to redeem all kinds of sinners, and so we are called to declare God’s message of repentance and forgiveness to all sinners. We are called to get into their lives in order to declare the greatness of God’s salvation.
We’re going to consider the next part of Matthew’s gospel painting. This week, it’s Christmas in July! What do these verses about the birth of Jesus show us about how God works in history and in our human hearts? What we see is that the Holy Spirit is crucial to both miracles, the miracle of the incarnation of the Son of God with the virgin birth, and the spiritual miracle of the new birth, when a Christian responds to God’s grace through faith in Jesus.
The Holy Spirit Births Christ in Mary, and In Anyone Who Is Saved
 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.  But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.The birth of Jesus was preceded by a betrothal, a binding promise of marriage to a man named Joseph. Such promises were considered of such seriousness that to break off such a betrothal actually required someone to get a divorce. That’s why Joseph, thought he is not yet married to Mary, resolves to divorce her quietly.
One significant truth sticks out in these three verses. Here it is: The Holy Spirit is responsible for the conception of Jesus. Verse 18: Mary “was found to be with child from [or by] the Holy Spirit.” Verse 20, when the angel is speaking to Joseph in a dream, “that which is conceived in her [or, more literally perhaps, “brought to life in her”] is from the Holy Spirit.” In fact, in verse 18, the word translated as “birth” is, in fact, the word “genesis” in the Greek. Matthew is showing us that, just at the Holy Spirit brooded over the waters as God created the universe, God is giving birth to a new creation through the incarnation of His Son in history by means of the Holy Spirit.
There are three significant applications from these verses. First, Jesus Christ comes into history and into a believer’s life by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit. Dale Bruner writes, “When Jesus Christ comes to anyone in history, even in his Advent coming to Mary, it is always the word of the Spirit, not of human preparation or enterprise. Every conversion is a virgin birth."1
What does this mean? It means you are saved by God only when the Holy Spirit comes upon you with power and births the Lord Jesus Christ in your heart. This is why the apostle Paul is able to say, in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” What Paul is describing to the Galatians is the new birth. To be born again means that Christ lives in you by the work of the Holy Spirit. Mary, a virgin, could not conceive the Son of God by herself. Such a miracle required the power of the Holy Spirit to conceive a human child apart from human agency. No less a miracle must take place in the heart of a person if he or she will be saved. You cannot save yourself from your sin, and another human cannot save you from your sin. Only Christ can do that when he takes hold of your heart by the power of the Holy Spirit. Being born again, therefore, is a work of the Trinity. God elects (chooses) those who will be saved by His grace and mercy, and then gives them new, eternal life in Christ by means of the Holy Spirit. It’s not enough to simply try to buy God’s favor by obeying a bunch of rules. Christ was obedient for you. A person can only live in obedience to God when he accepts by faith all that Christ did for him or her on the Cross. That means if you don’t believe that Christ died for your sins, not even your righteous deeds will save you. Apart from Christ, such deeds are for our own sake rather than for God’s glory. The gospel at heart is quite simple: Christ did everything for you. His righteousness is given to you free of charge, to free you from worries about your disobedience so that you can be obedience to His Word for His sake and for His glory. This is what it means to die to yourself. To die to your old self is to die to every single thing that might persuade you, even so slightly, that you can save yourself. That death happens when Christ is made alive in the believer by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Churches are to be employed with the business of making disciples, and part of that is praying for the miracle of conversion for unbelieving men and women in our churches and our communities. Yes, I did say, “in our churches” and that includes even our own church. Every single church has visitors of deep faith and in some cases long-time members who are not yet born again this way. Remember, however, that no one is excluded from the saving invitation of God, not men, not women, or any sinner, or even long-time church attenders.
Second implication: I want to say a few words about Joseph. I love Joseph so much. He is describe here as a “just man.” Joseph would have been justified in publicly divorcing his betrothed for what appeared in the eyes of humans to be a shocking discretion. But note that before Joseph learns in his dream that Jesus is from the Holy Spirit, he resolves to “divorce her [Mary] quietly.” By quietly dissolving the relationship, Joseph would have, in effect, taken the blame for an indiscretion for which he was not responsible. He was willing to take the shame of Mary upon himself in order to preserve Mary from shame. What we see in Joseph, who incidentally has no speaking part in any of the gospels, is a man who exemplifies the gospel by his life. What was it Christ did for us? Christ died to take our shame upon himself, in order to preserve us from the shame and guilt of our sins. He lives in obedience to a gospel that has not yet been fully revealed. We will have more to say about that in the coming weeks, but I wanted to point it out to you know. Matthew is a masterful painter. Joseph is a man of obedience. He doesn’t complain. He doesn’t hesitate. Hey simply obeys God’s Word. In seeking to do what he thinks is the right thing, he will do what God tells him to do, which is to take Mary as his wife and not divorce her.
Joseph’s obedience puts the question before us? Are we being obedient to God’s Word in our own lives? Or do we hesitate, obfuscate, or outright refuse to obey his Word? Do you consult God’s Word, when considering your finances, or the health of your marriage, or how you run your business, or how you raise you children? Do you think the bible lacks insight into these things? On the contrary, God’s Word contains principles and commands for our good in all of these areas and more. Neglect God’s word, and you run the very high chance of living in disobedience to his divinely appointed commands. As children you live by grace, our lives should show forth the fruit of God’s saving power. If we live contrary to God’s Word, that suggests that we really aren’t living by grace at all, but are still bound to worldly rules and laws.
Another third implication in this text, one that can be glossed over to easily, is that Jesus’ life is described as beginning at conception. Mary is “found to be with child” when the Holy Spirit “conceived” that which lived in her (which can be literally translated “brought to life in her”). One of the unavoidable conclusions from our text and from science is that human life begins at conception.
Joseph’s Dream – Concluded
Joseph’s dream continues. He is told:
 She [Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:  “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).He is to be called Jesus, which is a Greek Hellenist pronunciation of the Hebrew name “Joshua,” which can be translated from the Hebrew as “Yahweh saves.” Yahweh is the proper name “I Am” given to Moses in the book of Exodus. Matthew continues by doing something he will repeat throughout this gospel, which is showing how Jesus fulfills everything in the Old Testament. He quotes from the prophet Isaiah, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).” This unborn child, then, will be the one who will save the people from their sins. Sin is their biggest problem, then. God did not send his only begotten Son, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, to died on the cross for higher income. Or better social status. He died for sin. Think carefully about the cross, because that is where announcement in a dream is headed. Jesus’ death on the cross was for your sin. He could only accomplished that death by becoming like us in our frailty. And so Jesus, Joshua, “Yahweh saves” actually saves us by condescending to be “God with us.”
This shows us just how great God is. But it takes eyes of faith to see the greatness. Our God is so great that he can set His greatness aside for our sake. That is love, loved ones! The one who loves you most is the one who sets everything aside for you. How can anyone love you more than God loves you in that he willingly decided to be like us? The pattern is not unlike that of the great judge, Gideon, whom the Lord raised up to save the Israelites from Midian army. Do you remember the story? God commanded Gideon to pare down his army from 32,000 to 300 men. Why? Here’s what God said, “The people with you are too many for me to give the Midianites into their hand, lest Israel boast over me, saying ‘My own hand has saved me’” (Judges 7:2)
Loved ones, what the scriptures show us is that God’s power is made most glorious and apparent in weakness. That’s the lesson from Gideon. And that’s the lesson here. God’s power is shown to be glorious when he freely and willingly sets it aside for the sake of his sinful, rebellious children. This is apparent first of all in the story of Jesus’ birth, and it’s fully revealed in the Cross, when the innocent Son of God is betrayed, beaten, and crucified as a common criminal. Jesus is our perfect Gideon. He saves the people from their sins first by becoming nothing for our sake, and again by becoming a byword on the Cross. Why? In order to show forth the glory and power and might of God by being raised from the dead, the firstfruits of a new creation into which you are invited to become a part. Do you believe in a God that great? A God who would become nothing for you, and not just for your sake, but for the sake of His perfect glory? When I think of my own sins, of my own rebellion, I cannot help but be astonished at his overwhelming grace. He saved me? And will glorify me? And make much of me for his own glory? Has he done that for you? I pray that He will.
Joseph Wakes Up
 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife,  but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.The text ends this week with Joseph’s obedience. Mary gives birth to Jesus. Joseph names the child, and behold, God is here. Incidentally, the scriptures say that Joseph, knew her not until she had given birth to a son.” That “until” tells us a lot about Joseph and Mary. I think it suggest clearly that the couple had more children. Jesus was the firstborn of the couple, and will become the firstborn of the dead.
Today, the question before us now is this: Who will Jesus Christ be born into today? Into you? In the heart of beloved friend? A neighbor? A relative? If he has been birthed into you by the Holy Spirit, is Christ’s indwelling presence in your life showing forth at all in obedient, spiritually fruitful living? Doesn’t such a great God, who gave so much for us, deserve every part of the lives He so mercifully bought with His blood? Amen.
1Bruner, Frederick Dale. Matthew: A Commentary. Vol 1. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 2007. 24.
Given at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota
July 31, 2011
18th Sunday in Ordinary Time