On Matt. 1.18-25
Have you noticed that we Anglicans get so excited about big feast days that we sometimes jump the gun and start celebrating them early? On Palm Sunday, we read the story of the Passion; today, the last Sunday of Advent, our Anglikids have read for us the story of the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ. I love it! The joy of Christmas creeps forward a few days on this end, and then we keep going for 12 more on the other. Praise the Lord, not least, for amazing Christmas hymns; and I get to preach the gospel of God in our flesh not once but twice. Today, I’m going to zero in on Matt 1:18-25.
In the first place, do you notice how Joseph is more prominent here in St Matthew’s gospel, but Mary in St Luke’s? Why do you think that is? Partly, just to balance out the story I suppose; everything we read about here is true, it all really happened. But partly too to impress upon us the reality of Jesus birth from the virgin Mary. Look at v. 18—Joseph and Mary were betrothed, “engaged,” but in a stronger sense than that carries for us today. In the eyes of the law, they were hitched, but they hadn’t yet come together as one flesh. Then one day, Joseph gets word that Mary is pregnant. You can imagine what he must have thought. But—v. 19—he’s a good, just man. So instead of making known what he assumed to be Mary’s promiscuity (the only way he could’ve vindicated his own uprightness in the matter) he resolved to quietly end their betrothal in order to keep her from public shame. But then in v. 20, an angel of the Lord explains the truth to Joseph in a dream. Explains what truth? The unheard of, astonishing truth that the child growing in her womb was not conceived by the passion of a man, but by the power of the Holy Spirit. St Matthew proclaims this not once but twice, v. 18 & v. 20, just to make sure we get the point. For my money, St Matthew tells the story the way he does, from Joseph’s perspective, in order to highlight the truth of Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary. Do you believe his testimony? It’s what we’ve confessed for 20 centuries in our simple creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord; he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.” And for 20 centuries, heretics within the Church and opponents outside it have mocked this doctrine of our catholic faith. But no lie can shake the truth of the Word of God. As in eternity the Word is the Son of the Father alone, without a mother, so in time, when he became flesh for us and for our salvation, he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary alone, without a father: true God and true Man in one Person, Jesus Christ our Lord.
That’s the fact of the matter, the rock-solid truth of the gospel, the truth we confess in our Creed. But do you know why the doctrine of the virgin birth matters for our salvation? It’s one thing to believe that Jesus was conceived by the Spirit and born of the Virgin; it’s another thing to know why; and it’s still another to grasp both the “that” and the “why” not just with our heads, but with saving faith in our hearts, the kind of faith that gives us new birth through Mary’s Son. I’d like to explain the “why” of the Virgin Birth a little in the time remaining, but before we dig into it let’s be clear from the start: just as St Paul teaches that if Christ was not truly raised from the dead, our faith is in vain, our preaching is in vain, and we’re still in our sins; and just as St John teaches that if someone denies that Jesus Christ truly came in the flesh, he does not have God; so St Matthew the evangelist would have us know that if the Man who rose from the dead, the Man who is God in our flesh, was not conceived by the Holy Spirit from the Virgin Mary, then our faith is in vain, our preaching is in vain, we are still in our sins, and we do not have God. The Virgin Birth is not an optional, take-it-or-leave-it addendum to Christianity, as some bishops and theologians have recently claimed; for the gospel of redeeming grace stands or falls with this truth of our catholic creed.
Do you remember the first promise of the gospel? In Gen 3.15, God promised that one day, a son of Eve would come to fight the Serpent and destroy him. Unlike Adam, who fell in the battle, the son of Eve, though bruised and wounded, would triumph over the Devil, crushing sin & death—the “head” of the serpent—beneath his bruised, nail-pierced feet. The promise is clear: not an angel or archangel, but one of Eve’s sons, a true human being, flesh of our flesh and bone of our bones, would come for us, fight for us, and restore to us what we lost when Adam fell: righteousness and life, peace and friendship with God. Do you see the beauty, the wisdom, the fittingness in God’s plan of redemption? God could’ve crushed the devil with the sheer power of his might, the way you might crush a pesky mosquito buzzing around your head; for the devil is a puny weakling, a pathetic nothing, before our God. But the Lord thought it better to play fair with that big dirty cheat, and to see to it that One of Adam’s race would fight and triumph for us. And in the fullness of time, so it came to pass. As by a man came death, so by a Man has come righteousness and life for all who believe his gospel. Who is this second Man? Jesus Christ, Mary’s Son, is the true Seed of Eve; the venomous pride of the Devil met its match in the divine humility of this peasant girl’s Son. Jesus Christ is true God, is he not? He is “Jesus,” which means the Lord, Yahweh himself, come down low to save us from our sins (Matt 1.21). He is “Immanuel,” God with us (Matt 1.23). But he is also true Man: God with us, true God become for us true Man, the Almighty clothed in the frailty of our flesh, the Maker of the stars sucking milk from his Mother’s breast. Our entire redemption depends upon the truth of the human nature of Jesus, the truth that the Son of God really took our flesh and blood from Mary to become the promised Son of Eve. For if he is not truly human, the Serpent has not yet been crushed.
Now some of you are thinking, “Couldn’t he have become just as fully human if Joseph had been his human father?” In other words, why does it matter that he was conceived by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary? It matters because otherwise Jesus would’ve been just another son of Adam, instead of the Last Adam. It matters because otherwise Mary would’ve been just another daughter of Eve, but not the New Eve. We need a virgin Mary to be our new Eve, because we need a pure, holy, sinless, Spirit-formed Man to be our New Adam. Even in the first creation, the Spirit of God breathed life into the virgin soil of the earth to form Adam from the dust; so now at Christmas, at the start of the new creation, the Spirit breathes holiness and life into the virgin’s womb, to form for us out of the dust of her poor humanity a magnificent Redeemer, Jesus Christ.
We tend to think of sin as bad actions, things we do. And that’s true, that’s sin for sure. But sin is far more than that. We don’t just commit sin; we are sinners, born sinners, sons & daughters who bear the true likeness of our father Adam. When he rebelled, he became “flesh” head to toe, and in him our whole race was plunged into death; whatever is born of Adam’s flesh is flesh, wounded by original sin. Sin is a lot more organic than people realize or like to admit. In Adam, our nature became sinful, and when we pass on our nature from one generation to the next through sex, we pass on this original sinfulness too. In Ps 51.5, David confessed: “I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” David was the eighth son of Jesse and his wife, a godly Hebrew couple from the tribe of Judah. Still, he was conceived in sin, because even after the Holy Spirit has begun to make us new creatures in Christ, our nature remains deeply flawed, fleshly, sinful, and will remain so till we are raised from the dead. No matter how holy a man and his wife may be, when they conceive a child they pass on to him or her a nature that fell in Adam and must be reborn in Christ by water and the Spirit; that’s a big part of why we baptize babies.
Now, this had to be different in the case of the Serpent Crusher, the Messiah. How can he lift from us the burden sin, if he’s weighed down by it himself? How can he heal our disease, if he’s terminally ill with the cancer of sin just as we are? How can he sacrifice himself as God’s spotless Lamb, if he’s blemished by Adam’s sin? How can he defeat the powers of death and hell, if he too is bound by the cruel chain of sin and guilt? No, when God became Man, he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, except for sin. On the one hand: If Jesus wasn’t truly human as we are, he couldn’t be the Son of Eve, he couldn’t stand in Adam’s place to fight for us. But on the other: if he was conceived in sin as we are, he couldn’t be the Last Adam, who saves his people from their sins. So the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary, a godly teenager who’d never known a man, and by his grace her womb was sanctified to become the temple of the glory of the LORD. And from the first instant of the Word’s becoming flesh, the humanity of Jesus was pure and holy, for he was conceived of the pure Virgin, St Mary, not by the passion of the flesh, but by the purity and power of the sanctifying Spirit. Isn’t that what Gabriel explained to puzzled Mary herself? “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” she asked. St Michael’s friend answered: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore, the Child to be born of you will be called Holy, the Son of God” (Luke 1.34-5). “Therefore”—because of the work of the Holy Spirit, Mary’s Son is and is called Holy, the Son of God; for the Spirit broke the stranglehold of sinful flesh over Adam’s race in that pure Virgin’s womb, so that the Word took true humanity from Mary but not one drop of sin. And that holy little child, gasping for breath, crying for milk, scratching his tiny fingernails into his mother’s breasts, is the Son of God: to whom be unending glory forever and ever, Amen.