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Please turn your attention to our Gospel lesson for today, the lesser known account of the birth of Jesus. This account is in perfect agreement with the well-known account recorded in Luke, but as Luke’s account shows us the faith of Mary, Matthew’s account shows us the faith of Joseph.
Mary and Joseph had made their marriage promises, which, according to Jewish custom, took place before a small group of witnesses, and usually, a good while before the actual wedding celebration. In the eyes of the people of their culture, they were married, but they would not live together as husband and wife until Joseph had prepared a place for them to live, and all the arrangements for the wedding celebration had been made. Matthew tells us that before that happened, Mary was found to be with child.
The Bible doesn’t tell us how Joseph found out, or whether it was before or after Mary had gone to visit Elizabeth. If it was before her trip to visit Elizabeth, Mary must have told him. If it was after she returned, she may have already been sporting a small baby bump. But however Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy, it must have been devastating for Joseph. Surely, at some point, Mary must have explained that an angel had appeared to her and that she had not been unfaithful to him. She was still a virgin. Just as the angel had said, the baby had been conceived in some miraculous way by the power of the Holy Spirit. But, what would you think if your future wife told you that story? Wouldn’t you think, “couldn’t you come up with something better, more believable that that?”
Joseph was faced with a difficult situation. He could publicly accuse Mary of being unfaithful to him, which could lead to her being stoned to death as an adulteress. That path might have seemed good to his sinful nature, and he could justify his revenge by saying that he was just following the law of God given through Moses. Or, he could just divorce her quietly. He could show mercy and not let the desire for revenge get the upper hand. She had broken her pledge. He didn’t have to go through with the wedding. At this point in time, the thought of going through with the wedding and pretending that this child was his doesn’t seem to be one of the choices he was considering.
Matthew tells us that the reason Joseph was struggling with this decision was that he was a righteous man. Often when the Bible calls someone righteous it means that they had faith. They trusted God’s promises, especially his promise to send a savior. That certainly seems to be the case with Joseph. He was righteous in God’s eyes in the only way anyone can be, through faith. But, as Luther discovered, the righteous shall live by faith, also implies that those who are declared righteous by God through faith in his promises also show righteousness in their lives. They have learned the truth that all are equally sinful, that they aren’t any better than anyone else. They have learned that their righteousness before God is a gift from him which moves them to do what is right, to act justly, and to show mercy to others as God has shown mercy to them.
Joseph’s struggle is often our struggle. When someone hurts us, we have a sinful nature that says, “do whatever you can to hurt them worse.” We might even look for Scripture passages that seem to give us the right to do that- like eye for and eye and tooth for tooth. But, as those who know the mercy of our God and the fact that he rightly could have sent us off to Hell because of our sins and been perfectly justified in doing so, because that’s what the laws we have broken say should happen to us, we are torn. Our new nature encourages us to be merciful as God has been merciful to us. It’s a painful struggle. We want to do the right thing in God’s eyes, but it’s not always clear what that right thing is, just as it wasn’t clear to Joseph. God probably won’t send us an angel to resolve our struggle for us, but he does give us his word, and fellow Christians to help us find answers in the word. And he does tell us in his word that mercy triumphs over judgment, so when in doubt, err on the side of mercy.
As we heard, while Joseph was struggling to decide what was the right thing to do in this situation, trying to balance justice and mercy, God sent an angel to help him. The angel confirmed what Mary must have already told him. Mary had not been unfaithful. The baby growing inside of her had been miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit, just as Mary said. And, as a righteous man who knew and valued God’s word, he should not be surprised by such a seemingly impossible thing. This is exactly what God had said through the prophet. The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son.
What would Joseph do? What the angel was telling him was humanly impossible. Who ever heard of a baby being conceived by the Holy Spirit! But he had the word of an angel of the Lord, he had the word of the woman he loved, and most importantly, he had the prophecy of Scripture that said what seemed impossible was so. He didn’t have to wait to until the baby was born to see if it really was a boy before he would believe. His righteousness showed. Like Abraham before him, he acted on faith. He took Mary home as his wife. He accepted the challenge of raising a child he knew was not his. He willingly took the more difficult path instead of the easy way out which would have been to send Mary away and let her deal with whatever happened.
You and I are faced with the same challenge. We have the words of the angel, the words of Mary, and the prophecy of Scripture about a virgin birth. But it seems so unbelievable to our scientific ears. The rumors that Mary made the whole thing up to cover up her sin, that sounds believable. After all, we have all made up stories to cover up a sin at one time or another.
Does our righteousness show? Do we turn to those who deny the virgin birth of Jesus and say, “I know it sounds unbelievable, but God’s word foretold it and he even sent an angel to confirm it to Joseph? God’s word says it, and nothing is impossible with God. Like Joseph, I believe that Mary’s baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit.”
By God’s grace, we see even more than Joseph saw. We understand even more fully than he did that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. In the gospels we see him living on earth, just as we do. We see him hungry and thirsty, we see him tempted, we see him cry and bleed. But we also see by his miracles that he is not just a human like us, he is also God. He is true God, one with the father from eternity, who came to earth to be with us. He came to live up to the name he was given by the angel, the name Jesus. He came to save his people, those who have flesh and blood, body and soul, from their sins. By God’s grace we see why he had to be God with us. He had to be able to be under the law as we are, but unlike us, be able to keep the law of God perfectly. He had to be able to experience temptation as we do, but unlike us, be able to resist every temptation. He had to be able to feel pain and to experience death, but because he was without sin, he could be punished in our place, and then rise from the dead.
Sight unseen, without knowing all that we know, Joseph believed. He was righteous before God through faith. His righteousness showed as he took Mary home, named the child Jesus, protected Mary and the child, and raised him so that he was able to grow in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man and do what he was born to do- save his people, save us, from our sins.
Because this child of Mary is conceived by the Holy Spirit, because he is God with us, because he lived and died and rose again, he is exactly the savior we need. By God’s grace, through the faith he has worked in our hearts to believe that these things are true, we too are considered righteous in his sight. Let your righteousness show. Realize that when you struggle because you want to do what is right in the sight of God, it’s because the righteous new man he has created in you is showing himself. Let your righteousness show by resolving your struggle to do what is right in God’s sight, not by your feelings, or by what the world suggests, but by studying the Scriptures. Let your righteousness show by acting in faith on what you have learned in Scripture, doing what God instructs you to do even when it’s contrary to what you might think, and even when doing so seems to make life more difficult.
By his grace, because Jesus is Immanuel who came to save people from their sins, you have been declared righteous in God’s sight. Let his righteousness shine through in every decision you make, and in everything you say and do.