The Beginning

Text: Matthew 1:18-25
Date: Advent IV + 12/19/10
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI

“Genesis.” “The Beginning.” St. Matthew begins his Gospel with this word, “The book of the genesis,” the beginning, the genealogy of Jesus Christ. Certainly the Evangelist, when he wrote this, had in mind the first book of the Torah, the Old Testament, so that he was declaring that in Jesus Christ we have not only the fulfillment of the Old but the beginning of something brand new. After making his point that this Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promises with his listing of three groups of fourteen descendants of Abraham and David, he begins the actual narrative of the conception, birth, life, death, resurrection and ascension, that is, the Gospel, the Good News of the Lord Jesus Christ with the same word. “Now Jesus Christ’s genesis,” beginning, birth “happened like this.”

Everything that happens, that exists has a beginning with the exception, of course, of God Himself, the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit Who is without beginning and without end, eternal. But all of creation exists in the created universe of time and space and as such has a beginning. There was, of course, THE beginning of everything when God created everything out of nothing.

Each of us had a beginning; a beginning as a human being in this world, which we celebrate annually calling them birthdays; and, for Christians, each of us had a beginning as a child of God, which we celebrate in the anniversaries of our Holy Baptism, our new, heavenly birth. It was because of God’s creative nature and His love for His creation that the plan of saving it from the rebellion and destruction of sin and death had to be worked out in the creation itself, under the constraints of God’s own righteous Law and of a certain time and place in the history of the world. Today, on the threshold of the celebration of the incarnation, Christmas, the conception and birth of the Savior of the world, we consider what this birth means for each of us today and for the whole world. If Matthew focuses today on the beginning of the Gospel and the beginning of the earthly ministry of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, then we are to find its beginning, its continuation and its ending in ourselves, our new birth, our salvation and our eternal destiny.

The better we understand the beginning, the better we may understand its purpose and its ending. So here are the details.

What was the beginning of the Jesus Christ event? Matthew says it began with an act of God the Holy Spirit. It involved two human individuals of the house and lineage, descendents of the great king David of around 700 b.c. It involved the divine qualities of mercy and righteousness. And above all it involved the ancient planning and execution of that plan by God Himself. The meaning of the Christ event is, in a phrase, God coming to be with us and not against us.

Matthew says he is telling us of the beginning of the person named Jesus Christ. But that simple announcement is not so simple as it already announces the great mystery of the two natures of Christ. This human child of Mary—Joshua or Jesus the name of His human nature—is also the promised Christ, the Greek word for the Hebrew Messiah, meaning “the anointed one” or the promised Savior, promised from Genesis 3:15 through the descendents of Abraham and David to the little town of Bethlehem of Judea.

Then Matthew relates that Jesus’ mother’s name is Mary who was betrothed to a man named Joseph who is called “her husband.” Joseph is called “a just man.” That righteousness had two important meanings. The second meaning was that, after being encouraged by an angel of the Lord invading a dream not to fear following through taking Mary as his wife, Matthew says Joseph did, “but knew her not until she had given birth to a son.” That is, he didn’t even consider the possibility or the thought of beginning normal marital sexual relations until, first, this divine miracle should be completed.

In that dream, the angel addressed Joseph and got his attention with an unusual phrase. The angel didn’t say simply, “Joseph,” or “Wake up, Joe,” but addressed him as “Joseph, son of David.” It would be like the difference between calling me “Allen,” and addressing me as “Allen, descendant of Olaf King of Sweden”! Which would imply that what follows has something to do with my Scandinavian heritage. So this address to Joseph has something to do with God’s promises to his “great, great, great” ancestor, the great king David.

But one more thing about the righteousness of Joseph: the fulfillment of God’s Law in Jesus actually revealed that the justice of God points to His mercy. In His Sermon on the Mount Jesus makes clear that this fulfillment is but a revealing of the heart of God’s Law, beneath the sheer accusation of guilt or bare, outward obedience apart from a heart of repentance and faith. For instance, the Law of the Third Commandment, “remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy,” is fulfilled in Christ and now by faith in Christ the day of worship is no longer only the Sabbath of Saturday but every day and especially the new Sabbath of Sunday, the day of resurrection, the eighth day, the day of eternal life. Similarly, Joseph “resolved,” that is, he thought thoroughly through about the Old Testament implications of Mary’s apparent unfaithfulness, especially the disturbing penalty that she deserved death by stoning. But now, the One who came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it was barely on the scene. The result is that adultery is no longer punishable by death by stoning but is a forgivable sin. On the other hand, what used to be a very liberal and loose Old Testament grounds for divorce now became the more restricted in that divorce would be allowed only in the case of adultery. And then it’s not required or commanded.

But now, as Joseph considered these things, “behold!” And with this word God sends a message by means of a messenger, an angel. Angels show up in the scripture especially to convey an understanding or information that cannot be discovered from the bare facts at hand at the moment. Here Joseph couldn’t think of any other explanation for his predicament than that, somehow, for some reason, Mary had been unfaithful. Whether he was just napping during the day or as he slept at night, an angel of the Lord invaded his dream cycle and addressed him.

First, the gracious words, “do not fear.” “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife.” And here is the part Joseph couldn’t know without a direct and divine revelation, “that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Not the sin of unfaithfulness here, but the great honor and privilege of being chosen by God to serve as the vessel, the new tabernacle of God’s presence, to serve as the “theotokos,” the mother of God. For this child is the Son of God the Father and the son of Mary. From the beginning this child is 100% true God and, as such, able to fulfill God’s Law and overcome death which could not hold Him. At the same time, from the beginning this child is 100% human so that He could serve as our substitute under the Law and truly suffer and die for our sin.

Now, as it is the Father’s right to name His children, so the angel commands Joseph and Mary, “you shall call his name Jesus,” the name that means “Savior,” “for he will save his people from their sins.” You see, this is what God meant when He inspired the prophet Isaiah to write, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” From the beginning Christ is the promised Savior, the virgin’s son.

But probably the most important detail was when Isaiah wrote, “they shall call his name Immanuel,” and then Matthew tells us the name means “God with us.” From the beginning God’s intention was to save us, to be with us and not against us. The essence of sin is separation, adversity, death. So the opposite, the reverse is reconciliation, fellowship, unity with God and life. In Jesus God says He intends to be with us. As in the beginning, so at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus lives up to His name and says, “I am with you always to the end of the age,” and the promise of eternal life is in the words, “that where I am you may be also,” or, as He said to the repentant thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

The better we understand the beginning of the Gospel, the better we may understand its purpose and its ending in hearts renewed and transformed by faith. Now may our celebration of the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ find its joy, its continuation and its ending, its fulfillment in lives of faith, hope and love.