Here in these weeks leading up to Christmas, we have been posting a series of meditations focused on the story of Jesus’ birth from the Gospels. For more on what Advent means and why many Christains observe it, here’s a short introduction. Now we come to the last entry of our virtual advent wreath– the meditation that accompanies the white candle– the Christ Candle, for those playing along at home. The text for this final Christmas Day reflection comes from Matthew 1:18-25. Merry Christmas, everyone.
18Now 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. 19And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20But 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. 21She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
23″Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us). 24When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus. —Matthew 1:18-25 (ESV)
Joseph was a decent man. When all this began and his bride to be turned up expecting a baby, he wasn’t sure what to do. He didn’t want to shame her, though he could have. Should he just cut his losses and let her go? His world was spinning.
This burden weighed heavy on him, flooding both his every waking thought and his every dream.
One night, as he tossed and turned over the situation one more time, an angel of the Lord appeared to tell him this baby was not forming in Mary’s belly because of anything she had done, but because of something God had done.
“She will bear a son, conceived of the Holy Spirit, and you, Joseph, will name him Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.”
It was just as the prophet had said. That prophet—the one who said the virgin would conceive and have a son who would be called Immanuel—that was the prophet Isaiah.
Do you remember Isaiah?
He had a tough job. God had called him to relay the news of the Lord’s coming judgment of his people, Israel. God had dispatched Assyria to come and carry them out of their homes and into foreign lands. Babylon would follow suit.
But laced throughout Isaiah’s words from God was a magnificent description of His plan to save and redeem this people who failed Him over and over again.
What would this look like? Did the people’s idea of that salvation bear any resemblance to the salvation God meant to give? Through Isaiah, the Lord clarified something for those trying to imagine it: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” (Isa 53:8)
As the heavens are higher than the earth? That much higher? Really?
Oh, the paradox of salvation! The people desperate for a savior have an idea of what they think they need? So what child is this that God has sent? Is he what they imagined?
While God’s people look to the east for their King to arrive in majesty, God quietly sends His angel to a poor teenage girl in the no-account town of Nazareth.
God’s people expect His Messiah to be known by all upon His arrival, but God brings Him under the cover of darkness—under the shelter of a cave doubling this night as a stable and a maternity ward.
God’s people anticipate strength, but are delivered a fragile, tiny baby.
They seek inspiration they can follow, but they are given one who would be countless times rejected.
They long for their suffering and oppression to end with His coming. Yet He came to suffer—to live a life of affliction.
They look for impenetrable strength in His person, and yet He would take upon Himself the wounds of us all and die under the weight of them.
To all of this God tells us His ways are higher than our ways. And for this, we should be eternally grateful. After all, what did we really know? We did not know what we needed.
When we thought we needed a figurehead, God gave us a sacrificial Lamb. When we thought we needed inspiration, God gave us a man of sorrows. When we thought we needed strength to overcome persecution, God gave us One who would become subject to it, even unto death. When we thought we were healthy, He took up our infirmities. When we thought we were righteous, our iniquity was laid upon Him. When we thought our own righteousness would save us, by His wounds we were healed. When we thought we were safely “in the fold,” never transgressing God, He was counted among the transgressors for us. He bore the sins of many and makes intersession for the transgressors.
His thoughts are not like our thoughts. This is more than a comparison of intellect, as though he is just smarter. His thoughts transcend time and space. He sees through the perfectly formed lens of history. His eye pierces through all the veils, known and unknown, we hang around our hearts. He sees through the smoke and shadows we throw out to camouflage our true selves.
What has God prepared? Isaiah would describe Mary and Joseph’s baby, our Savior Jesus Christ, this way:
“He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all… Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” (Isaiah 53:2-6, 12)
This is not the account of some heavenly being who came to hover over us. Nor is it a picture of one who figured out how to work around us. This is the image of a Savior who is burrowed deep in the messes and details of our lives. This is a description of Immanuel, God with us.
Before He was even born, he was already burrowed deep into the messes and details Joseph’s life. Joseph awoke from his dream, and for the first time in a while felt like a man who knew what he was supposed to do. He was supposed to love Mary, to take care of her and keep her as safe and secure as he could.
He married that girl and took her to his hometown to register them as a family. While they were there, she gave birth to a son. And in that private moment, to us a child was born and to us a son was given. Joseph stepped forward and said, “His name will be Jesus,” because as the angel said, “He will save his people from their sins.”
And though Joseph could not have known what this would entail, we know. We see Christmas through the lens of Easter and find in this baby, whose birth we celebrate on Christmas, one who has saved His people from their sins. On Christmas, here is what we remember. Here is what we anticipate. Here is what we celebrate.
“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:9-14)
The light of the world has come. May your celebration of Christmas be marked by your worship of Jesus.
Russ Ramsey is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church Cool Springs in Nashville, Tennessee, where he lives with his wife and four children. He grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). Russ is the author of the Retelling the Story Series (IVP, 2018) and Struck: One Christian’s Reflections on Encountering Death (IVP, 2017).