Glory Appeared

Text: Matthew 1:18-25
Date: Christmas Eve + 12/24/13

It is Saint Luke that reports the detail of the Christmas Eve appearance of a heavenly host of angels singing the Gloria in Excelsis, “Glory to God in the highest.” He paints a dramatic picture of angels and shepherds responding to the birth of the Christ child. Saint Matthew, on the other hand, narrates a “quieter” scene, if you will, a relatively silent night. The glory of this night doesn’t need a multitude of colored strobe lights pulsating to a reverberating rhythm track of eighty beats per minute. In Matthew’s account is no decree of Caesar Augustus, no crowds of hometown sojourners, no innkeeper and, as we said, no angels or shepherds. Well, there was one angel! In the scriptures angels tend to show up when you need more information than you can possibly know by merely observing the situation at hand. Joseph certainly needed more information! And so do we.

Now Matthew doesn’t get over-dramatic either. He doesn’t even allow us to consider or feel what we would assume Joseph’s first fears were at the discovery that his new wife Mary was with child. For in one sentence Matthew explains right off the bat, “When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” Anyway Matthew removes any scandalous thoughts by calling Joseph “a just man.” That is to say that his initial consideration, namely, to divorce Mary quietly, would have been the godly, God-pleasing thing to do. But there was a better plan.

We can imagine that this is a late night scene when Joseph “considered these things,” rolling his thoughts and fears and troubles over in his mind until only blessed sleep calmed him down. For we are told it was in a dream that an angel of the Lord appeared to him to reveal to him the glorious fact of the divine operation and gift of God that was taking place, that which was promised ever since the fall into sin of Adam and Eve, the culmination of the lineage Matthew so carefully laid out in the beginning of this chapter. This is the long-awaited Messiah in whom, as we sing in the hymn, “The hopes and fears of all the years Are met in thee tonight” (LSB 361).

The glory of it all was in God’s Word to Joseph and the gift of his faith to believe what he was told. St. Matthew purposely weaves into the first four chapters of his Gospel seven (the Hebrew number of perfect fulfillment) seven prophecies of the Old Testament that are fulfilled in the arrival of Jesus,[1] a shorthand sort of way to emphasize to his Jewish readers the fulfillment of God’s Word in Jesus.

The first fulfillment is here, tonight. The prophet Isaiah said, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” This was a “sign” given initially to king Ahaz, but recorded for the centuries of Messianic expectations of God’s people. The virgin conception itself reveals that this child is at once the natural Son of Mary’s own flesh and the Son of God given by the supernatural operation of God in the womb of Mary. Isaiah proclaims the significance of it all by naming this virgin-born son “Immanuel” which Matthew interprets for us as meaning, “God with us.”

Yes, tonight we celebrate not an angry God of wrath against our sin, not God against us, but the grace of God come to save us, God with us and for us. It is just as St. John wrote in his first epistle, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation of our sins” (1 John 4:9). This also proclaims the purpose of His taking on our human flesh and blood, namely, for the propitiation, the reconciliation of God to sinners and sinners to God by the forgiveness of our sins. This night we kneel, at least in spirit, at the most glorious gift of God, our Savior from sin and death. God is surely with us in the person of the man named Jesus, the savior from sin.

“When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.” So can we rediscover this night the grace and love of God toward us and live in the light of God’s commandments as His possession, His restored, redeemed people, that, as Zechariah sang, “we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days” (Luke 1:74-75). Glory, indeed, to God in the highest!

[1] 1:23 (Is 7:14); 2:6 (Micah 5:2); 2:15 (Hos 11:1); 2:18 (Jer 31:15); 2:23 (Is 11:1?); 3:3 (Is 40:3); 4:14-16 (Is 9:1-2; 42:7)