Sermon 12-18-2022: “The What, the How, and the What Now of Christmas”

December 28, 2022

Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25

In today’s sermon, I want to address three important questions that today’s scripture helps to answer: First, the what… What is Christmas? What does it mean? Second, the how… How does Jesus fulfill the meaning of Christmas. And, third, the what now… How do we live our lives now in light of Christmas—more specifically, what can we learn from Joseph about living in light of Christmas?

The What, the How, and the What Now of Christmas… That’s what today’s sermon is all about.

First, the What

Many of you heard the sad news about the unexpected death last week of college football coach Mike Leach—most recently the head coach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs. But he also had successful tenures at Texas Tech and Washington State before that. Coach Leach was considered an offensive genius. He created the so-called “Air Raid” offense, which—even if your favorite team doesn’t run that offense—your favorite team has certainly been influenced by it.

But even more, Leach was the most eccentric coach in the game. He had this endearing candor and honesty when talking to reporters. He was happy to answer—at lengthany question put to him in a press conference—from questions about UFOs to questions about his favorite Halloween candy—and he would talk at length about how much he hated candy corn. But my favorite Mike Leach moment happened this year, in early October, after Mississippi State had just upset Texas A&M. Leach found out that the ESPN sideline reporter, Alyssa Lang, was getting married soon. She asked him if he had any advice. And of course he did. He asked her what her fiancé’s name was, and what he did for a living. His name is Trevor. He recommended that she and Trevor elope and explained at length why that would be for the best. 1

And then, as the reporter was trying to finish up the interview, Leach said, “Trevor, unless he’s crazy, is totally on my side, trust me on this. If Trevor doesn’t have the sense to do that, tell him to call me. I’ve told all my kids, ‘I’ll give $10,000 extra if you elope.’ So far, they haven’t done it, but I would, too.” She said, “I’ll have him call you.” He’s like, “Great.” And he was, of course, completely serious about Trevor calling him!

But you know what I found refreshing about this conversation? 

Here Mike Leach was on national TV, answering questions about a big-time win against a ranked opponent in the SEC. Yet by spending even more time on this question about marriage—by taking her question so seriously—Mike Leach was saying, in effect, “There are things that are far more important than a football game. What you’re going to be doing in a couple of months is far more important than this game.” 

It was as if Leach didn’t want us to be distracted by less important things. He wanted us to focus on what matters most.

I share this because, while we are probably all very busy getting ready for Christmas—buying gifts, planning parties and get-togethers with family and friends, decorating our houses, making travel plans, worrying about cooking and cleaning and other errands—we can so easily let ourselves be distracted by lesser things, and fail to pay attention to what matters most… We can lose sight, in other words, of the true meaning of Christmas… 

And here in today’s scripture, the angel tells us quite directly what the true meaning of Christmas is. See verse 21: “She”—meaning Joseph’s fiancée, Mary—“will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

I’m afraid that not knowing Hebrew hurts us in understanding this point… But the name “Jesus” is the Greek version of the Hebrew name for Joshua. And the name literally means, “Yahweh saves”… or God saves… The angel is employing a pun that gets lost in English. What Joseph would have heard the angel say in his native language is something like this: “You shall call his name ‘God saves,’ for he will save his people from their sins.” The “he” in this verse refers to Jesus, but it could just as easily refer to God. Same difference! That’s intentional, I think—because from the angel’s perspective, what Jesus does, God does. It’s no exaggeration to say, therefore, that the angel is equating Jesus with God… Because Jesus is God, the Second Person of the Trinity.

But please don’t miss the main point of this verse: the first and most important meaning of Christmas, according to this angel who was sent to announce the birth of Christ to his adoptive father Joseph, is nothing other than this: Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, came into the world to save us from our sins.

That’s the meaning of the Messiah’s birth!

Undoubtedly, the angel’s words about the meaning of Christmas would have surprised many in ancient Israel. After all, God’s people had been waiting for the Messiah for six hundred years. And while it’s true they were hoping that the Messiah would save them, the salvation that most of them were expecting was not salvation from their sins, but salvation from the Romans! They expected the Messiah to come and establish his kingdom on earth, and, in doing so, to give God’s people military, political, and economic salvation over the Roman Empire.

But salvation from sins? That mostly wasn’t mostly on their radar!

They wanted a more practical, a more down-to-earth, a more worldly kind of salvation! So many Israelites, if they had heard about the angel’s announcement, would have been disappointed.

Speaking of disappointment, this reminds me of an episode later in the gospels… It involves four men who bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus to be healed. 2 These four men are carrying their friend on a mat. They believe that Jesus has the power to heal people—physically: to make the lame walk, the blind see, the deaf hear. And their friend can’t walk; he’s disabled; and they know that if they can only get their friend to Jesus, Jesus will heal him. The only problem is, they show up at the house in Capernaum where Jesus is preaching and healing—and it’s standing room only. It’s too crowded to maneuver their friend to Jesus. 

But they’re persistent and resourceful. Instead of giving up, they climb onto the roof, which is made of thatch—of mud and straw mixed together. And they climb on top of the roof and literally break a hole in the roof just above where Jesus is standing, and they lower their friend on his mat down through the roof… down to Jesus.

And what does Jesus do? He says some shocking words: “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Your sins are forgiven

These words are shocking to the four friends because we rightly suspect that the “forgiveness of their disabled friend’s sins” was not on their radar when they went to the great trouble of bringing their friend to Jesus; the paralytic’s “sin problem” was not the problem that they wanted Jesus to solve. I mean, sure, their friend needed healing, by all means—but the main healing he needed was physical healingnot spiritual healing!

So these four friends were likely disappointed. They must have thought, “Who cares about forgiveness of sins? Can’t you see our friend is unable to walk, Jesus?” 

But no… the meaning of Christmas is that God sent his Son first of all to perform a spiritual healing: to solve our problem with sin;to make forgiveness of sins available to everyone; to bring people into a right relationship with God through faith in Christ. 

By the way, if you read the rest of the story in Matthew chapter 9, you’ll see that Jesus does go ahead and heal the man physically, but he only performs that miracle to prove that he also has the power to perform a more important kind of miracle—which is the forgiveness of sins. Because that kind of spiritual healing is what matters most. 

After all, when this formerly paralyzed man dies and stands before God in judgment, the only thing that will matter at that point is, “Has this man been healed of his great spiritual problem? Is he in a right relationship with God? Have his sins been forgiven?”

Our popular culture also frequently misunderstands the meaning of Christmas… There are countless Christmas movies, and Christmas TV specials, and Christmas-themed episodes of TV shows around this time of year that purport to tell us the “true meaning of Christmas.” Often, TV and movie characters who aren’t even Christians, or who show no interest in becoming Christians, or who show no desire to follow Jesus, are happy to speak with great confidence about the “true meaning of Christmas”: And it usually has something to do with love, or peace on earth, or overcoming selfishness and greed. It often has to do with generosity and giving, or making time for family and friends, or helping those in need. “That’s the true meaning of Christmas,” according to so many people today.

And all those values are perfectly good, of course… But they are far less than the true meaning of Christmas. The true meaning of Christmas is found in verse 21: Jesus came to save us from our sins. That is the very meaning of his name!

That’s the “what” of Christmas—and that’s Point Number One.

Point Number Two: the how of Christmas. How does Jesus fulfill the meaning of Christmas? In other words, how does Jesus save us from our sins?

I’ll be the first to admit that most of this answer comes later in the gospel… after Jesus grows up and makes his way toward Good Friday, makes his way up that hill called Calvary, makes his way to the cross.

But… even in today’s scripture—which is about Christmas—even in today’s scripture we get a small but tantalizing glimpse of the answer to this “how” question… in verse 19: “And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”

You’re thinking, “What does that verse have to do with the how of Christmas?” I promise we’ll get to that.

But first: Can I confess that for most of my life I never really understood this verse? And I suspect some of you are confused, as well.

After all, how exactly would a so-called “quiet divorce” prevent Mary from being “put to shame”?

I’ve sometimes heard—as many of you have—that since adultery was a capital crime under the Law of Moses—that is, in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, if adultery can be proven, then both the man and the woman received the death penalty… Since that’s the case, Joseph, in divorcing Mary quietly, was somehow sparing Mary’s life.

But how would that be true? 

Whether Joseph keeps it quiet or not, Mary will still be pregnant out of wedlock. Joseph’s family will surely know about the pregnancy—and they probably won’t believe Mary’s story about conceiving a child through the power of the Holy Spirit any more than Joseph believed it. I mean, Joseph is breaking off the engagement because he doesn’t believe Mary’s story! Moreover, everyone else in that small town of Nazareth would also find out that Mary is pregnant… out of wedlock… and most of them won’t believe her story, either!

Once they find out about the pregnancy, won’t Mary still be in trouble? And if adultery is a capital crime, won’t Mary still be in danger of losing her life?

So I used to be confused… 

But consider this… First, the Romans made it mostly illegal for anyone other than the Roman government to implement the “death penalty.” The Romans authorized the Sanhedrin—the Jewish ruling council in Jerusalem—to carry out the death penalty in certain cases, but people living in the small town of Nazareth were not supposed to do it. Which isn’t to say it never happened… We may recall, for instance, the woman caught in adultery in John chapter 8, for instance. The townspeople there attempt to stone the woman for adultery. But of course even in that instance, they’re breaking God’s Law… because the man, too, is supposed to be executed, and he’s nowhere to be found!

But… Historians believe that by the first century, the death penalty for adultery was very rarely carried out. Mary probably wasn’t in danger of being killed. Which is why verse 19 doesn’t mention the death penalty. It says that Mary was in danger of suffering not death but shame. Verse 19 says that Joseph’s “quiet divorce” would avoid “putting Mary to shame.”

But the question remains: Why? Mary would still be pregnant out of wedlock. Joseph’s family would still know about it. The people of Nazareth would know about it soon enough. 

Wouldn’t this still be deeply shameful for Mary? Wouldn’t people assume that Mary was guilty of very serious sin?

No… And here’s why…

Believe it or not, engaged people in the first century sometimes got pregnant in that year or so before a wedding took place. They weren’t supposed to have intimate relations, of course, but sometimes they did. And when the bride turned up pregnant—well, the groom would likely know whether or not he was responsible! And if he knew he wasn’t responsible—in other words, if he knew his fiancée had been unfaithful to him with another man—he would publicly accuse her of infidelity, and then use her infidelity as a grounds for obtaining a legal divorce.

Because, as you probably have heard, in the first century, engagement was a much bigger deal, legally speaking, than it is today. It required nothing less than a divorce to break it off.

So, under these circumstances, the only way Joseph could protect his own good reputation was by publicly accusing Mary of adultery and filing for divorce.

In which case, Joseph would be considered perfectly “righteous”—and his fiancée, Mary, would receive all the blame. She would be “put to shame.”

But… suppose the woman gets pregnant and her fiancé doesn’t accuse her publicly of infidelity—and instead divorces her quietly. 

Do you know what people would assume in that case? 

They would assume that the man had slept with his fiancée, got her pregnant, decided that he didn’t want to marry her after all, that he didn’t want to support this child, that he wanted to shirk his responsibility… that he refused to do the right thing, refused to be responsible, refused to marry her. 3

And when he did that, people wouldn’t blame the woman—they wouldn’t blame Mary—they would blame the man—in this case, Joseph. 

And Joseph would suffer the harm to his good name and reputation. Joseph would suffer the guilt and the shame.

So all Joseph had to do to avoid the guilt and shame was to accuse Mary of infidelity publicly before filing for divorce…He could then walk away with his good reputation intact. Mary’s reputation would be ruined. 

And from Joseph’s perspective, isn’t that what Mary deserved? As far as Joesph knows, Mary cheated on him! That’s the only explanation that makes sense. All this talk about the Holy Spirit conceiving a child within her without a human father! Who could possibly believe that? So, yes, Joseph thinks his fiancée is breaking not only the seventh commandment against adultery, but also the ninth commandment—by lying to him…

But it doesn’t matter to him… He doesn’t want her to suffer for her sins! Even though—as far as he knows—that’s what Mary deserves!

Joseph would rather suffer in Mary’s place—for Mary’s sins—even though he’s completely innocent.

Does that ring a bell? 

“Christ suffered for our sins once for all time. He never sinned, but he died for sinners to bring you safely home to God.…” 1 Peter 3:18. “For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.” 2 Corinthians 5:21. “But Christ has rescued us from the curse pronounced by the law. When he was hung on the cross, he took upon himself the curse for our wrongdoing. For it is written in the Scriptures, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’” Galatians 3:13. 4

So, here at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, Matthew is giving a small but important glimpse of how Jesus will save us from our sins! 

Jesus will later do for all people who’ve ever lived—on a very large, cosmic scale—what his adoptive father Joseph does for one person… on a very small, intimate, personal scale.

Matthew, in other words, is giving us a picture of substitutionary atonement. Joseph is taking Mary’s guilt upon himself and suffering for it… in her place, so she won’t have to. At least he’s willing to do so! And Jesus, of course, will later follow in his adoptive father’s footsteps. 

So in two ways, Jesus will be a “chip off the old block.” Of course he’s the perfect reflection of his heavenly Father. As Jesus says in John 5:19, he does precisely what he sees his heavenly Father doing. 5

But… in another way Jesus is a “chip off the block when it comes to his adoptive father,” Joseph, as well. 

Which makes sense… Don’t you think that God our Father chose Joseph for the task of rearing his only begotten Son, when Christ came into the world as a baby—in part—because of the kind of person that Joseph was, and our Father wanted Joseph to serve as a role model for Jesus? Luke’s gospel tells us, after all, that Jesus “grew in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and all the people.” Our heavenly Father shaped Jesus into the person he would later become in part by using Joseph, his adoptive father.

And that’s Point Number Two: today’s scripture gives us a picture of substitutionary atonement. This is the means by which Jesus fulfills the very meaning of Christmas and saves us from our sins!

So I’ve covered the what and the how of Christmas… Point Number Three: the what now of Christmas… What can we learn from Joseph about living our lives in response to Christmas?

Three things: First, Following Jesus, being a faithful Christian, obeying God no matter the cost,is often a lot of trouble.

Because here’s something I want us to notice about the story of Joseph in today’s scripture: Joseph’s path to becoming the adoptive father to the Son of God could have been—as far as I can tell—much, much easier! 

Think about it: Wouldn’t it have been easier on both Mary and Joseph if the angel had come to Mary and Joseph on their wedding day, let’s say, when they were both together—maybe moments before they got married. And the angel could have told both of them at the same time, “Look, Mary is going to conceive a child by the Holy Spirit, so Joseph you won’t technically be the father, although you’ll raise him as your own child. But no one else will know—at least until decades later when Mary tells the writers of the gospels. And since Mary will be conceiving this child on your wedding day, no one who tries to ‘do the math,’ will suspect that the baby was anyone other than Joseph’s. So your reputation, your good names, will be preserved, and no one will look down on you or your son.”

Wouldn’t that have saved all of them a lot of trouble? Wouldn’t that have been much easier?

Maybe so, but our Lord doesn’t promise us “easy.” 

Jesus is Immanuel, “God is with us.” By all means!

But having “God with us” doesn’t mean “having a life without trouble.” Having “God with us” doesn’t mean “having a life without trouble.”

Second thing we learn from Joseph: If we are Christians, we can be confident that God will carry out his good plans for our lives!

As I say, our Lord doesn’t promise a life without trouble. But he does promise us that he will use trouble in our lives for our ultimate good.

Consider Joseph: Yes, he would have a lot of trouble in life because of Jesus, but God tells him in advance that on the other side of all this trouble, the most amazing good thing was going to happen: Joseph’s adoptive son Jesus was going to save his people from their sins. That was going to happen. Joseph and Mary were going tobe successful in playing their role in God’s saving plan for the world. They were going to be successful in carrying out God’s plans for their lives!

In this way, we’re probably not like Joseph. Unlike with Joseph, God probably hasn’t revealed to us exactly what’s in store for us in our future. God probably hasn’t told us, “I’m going to make sure that every good thing I’ve planned for you will come to pass precisely according to my plans—and, by the way, let me tell you in advance what my plans for you are!”

If only God would tell us and reassure us in this way! Wouldn’t that be nice?

I mean… If I knew for certain that God—who knows the future perfectly… if I knew for certain that God was going to enable me to succeed in whatever good plans he has for me, how could I not live my life with greater courage? with greater confidence? with greater happiness? with greater peace? with less grumbling? with less anger? with less irritability? with less fear?

I could say, “It doesn’t matter what my enemies try to do to me—it doesn’t matter what the devil tries to do to me—they will not prevent God from working his good plan in my life! God has got this. I don’t have to worry! God has told me what he’s going to do. I know my future, and it is good.”

If only we could live like that!

But maybe we can! 

Because even if, unlike Joseph, we can’t know the future for certain, we can know for certain that God has good plans for us. And we can be just as confident as Joseph that God will accomplish those good plans in us and through us and for us!

So let that message encourage us! Let that message give us confidence, courage, and hope!

And here’s the third thing we can learn from Joseph about living in light of Christmas:

When Joseph chose to obey the Lord in response to this dream, when he agrees to take Mary as his wife, when he agrees to take Jesus as his adoptive son, Joseph was choosing to place Jesus Christ at the very center of his life. 

From here on out, every important decision Joseph makes, he will make with Christ in mind. Every important step he takes in life, he will take with Christ in mind. Every important thing he does in life, he will do out of love for Christ. Whatever he needs to sacrifice, he will sacrifice for the sake of Christ. He will even put his own dreams, his own plans, his own ambitions on hold… Because from now on, his only ambition will be to please Christ.

Joseph’s life will never be the same. In just a few short months, in fact, Joseph would have to relocate his family to Egypt and live there for a while… just to keep his family safe from King Herod, who wanted to murder Jesus… Joseph would do anything he needed to do for the sake of Christ.

In receiving and placing Jesus at the center of his life, Joseph is showing us what all of us disciples of Christ are supposed to do.

Is Jesus at the center of your life?… 

Listen, you may hear me speak these words about Jesus being the center of our lives and think something like this: “That doesn’t sound like any fun at all! I’ve heard you say, Pastor Brent, on more than one occasion, that God wants us to be happy… He wants us to know joy… How does this life of sacrifice and setting aside our hopes and dreams lead to happiness? After all, Joseph’s path of discipleship was incredibly difficult. He had a life filled with trouble. I’m not sure I want that!”

All I’ll say to that is this: There’s no other path to lasting happiness and joy than the path of discipleship that Joseph takes… and the path that the Lord demands that we all take… There’s simply no other way to be happy in any meaningful and lasting way!

And listen, as difficult as Joseph’s path of discipleship was, what do you think he thought when he reached the end of his life, when he finished running the race that God set before him?

He thought, “It was totally worth it!” He thought, “Yes, it was hard, harder than I could have imagined, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way!” He thought, “Thank you, God, for choosing me and making me a part of your good plans for the world… and for giving me the power to fulfill those plans. 

“Thank you, thank you, thank you, God.”


  1.  “Mississippi State’s Leach gives out wedding advice after big win,”, 1 October 2022. Accessed 15 December 2022.
  2.  Matthew 9:2-8
  3.  R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 51.
  4.  For the sake of clarity and brevity, I’m quoting the New Living Translation.
  5.  “So Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise.’” John 5:19 ESV

One Response to “Sermon 12-18-2022: “The What, the How, and the What Now of Christmas””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Really good sermon! I don’t believe I have ever heard this explanation as to Joseph’s plan to put Mary away privately before, but it sounds right to me.

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