Summary: Jesus come to live among us as one of us; to take our place on the cross; to pay the ransom on our behalf; and he also ascends to the Father where he is seated right now at the right hand of God interceding on our behalf. He comes as truly one of us.
Well here we are again on Christmas Eve hearing the same old story once again. I wonder do you feel like it’s a bit like television in December - just another repeat? Nothing new in it. No new insights to get you going?
Or do you approach the retelling of the Christmas story with excitement as you’re reminded once again of just how amazing these events really are?
Do you stop and think again how incredible it is that God could become one of us?
Let’s do that now as we think about what we’ve just read from Matthew’s Gospel.
Joseph has heard the news from Mary that she’s pregnant and reacts as you’d expect him to: he decides a quiet divorce will solve the problem. He doesn’t want to disgrace her publicly so he decides to keep the details private. People will probably think that they just didn’t get on so he divorced her.
But then an angel appears to him in a dream to reassure him that Mary has remained faithful to him; that the baby is a miraculous child, brought into existence by the work of the Holy Spirit. So Joseph changes his mind and quickly marries her. Nothing new there is there? We’ve heard it all before countless times.
But let me ask you, do you think Joseph was too quick to believe what he heard in that dream? Would you have changed your mind that easily? I mean it might just have been a bit too much goat’s cheese that he’d had for dinner that had him dreaming a weird thing like that.
It was a big ask wasn’t it? To believe that Mary’s baby hadn’t been conceived the conventional way? To accept that this was a miracle of huge proportions.
I wonder how many of us today actually believe that this was a literal virgin birth? I was at a clergy lunch recently and the topic of the virgin birth came up; and one of the ministers said “Oh, you don’t have to believe that.” It was almost as though it required an irrational leap to believe that such a thing could happen. For some it’s so far outside their experience that they’d rather dismiss it than grapple with the possibility that our rational scientific worldview may have some holes in it. And in any case they were suggesting that it didn’t actually change our theology to any significant degree.
Well, what do you think? Do we need to believe in the virgin birth? Would we lose anything if we took it out of the creed?
Well let me suggest that in fact we would lose an enormous amount if we dismissed this birth as just a normal conception. And it’s all here in this short passage from Matthew’s Gospel if you think about it.
We find the answer to our question in the names Jesus is given. Let’s look at them in reverse order.
Jesus is called Immanuel, which means God is with us. Of course we know that God is always with us. It’s in his nature to be at all places at all times. Some religions would even suggest that God is actually part of us, that if we search within ourselves we’ll find him. But that isn’t what this name is saying. No, this is something totally different.
This is a statement of God coming to dwell with us as equals. God takes on human flesh in a real, literal sense. Hebrews 4 tells us: “15For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” God willingly accepts the limitations of a human body, a human mind even, in order to live as one of us. The point of the Hebrews passage is that when we come to God for forgiveness we don’t want an intermediary who is so perfect that they can’t understand where we’re coming from. We don’t want someone who’ll look down on us because we’re such imperfect human beings.
If you’ve ever suffered some great loss in your life, you’ll know that there were people who were very good at expressing their understanding of your loss, even though they’d never experienced it themselves. They were very good at empathising with you. But the people who really understood you were those who’d experienced the same sort of loss. Those were probably the ones you paid a bit more attention to, took a bit more comfort from.
It’s one of the first things you learn when you study counselling. Learn to empathise with the person you’re talking to. Put yourself in their shoes so you can understand what they’re going through. Even if you haven’t experienced exactly what they’re experiencing there will have been moments in your life when you experienced something like it and you can use that to help you understand something of what they’re going through.