Matthew 1: 20 – 23
Now, as he was considering this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife into your home, for the child conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet who said, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son; They’ll call his name Immanuel, (meaning God with us).”
But righteousness is never enough!
Yes, Joseph is a just man. And yes, his justice is tempered by mercy, so that Mary’s good name need not be ruined. But justice alone would lead to separation. One man right, one woman wrong, and nothing left between them, neither life nor love nor family—and no child!
Truly, righteousness can create and maintain good order among us. Righteousness will protect the rights and the lives and the properties of individuals. Righteousness defines duties and obligations and privileges. It punishes deviance, purges crime, keeps the social body in health. All this is good and very good. But it is not good enough!
Righteousness may create good order—but it cannot recreate the people so that goodness and order arise from them.
It maintains society by restraining individual sin—but cannot change the individual from sinner to saint!
Something else is required. Something greater than humanity even at its best. Some act so completely divine that no humanity even at its best. Some act so completely no human can ever take the credit: humanity can only take the benefit, for this act must be a gift, pure gift of God.
This act?—this something else? Why, it’s Christmas!
Look how an angel astonishes the man in his sleep. (Sleep always signifies how perfectly passive is the receive: God is the only one active now.) The angel reinterprets the woman’s condition not as her sin but as God’s grace: for as this sleeping man has had nothing to do with the pregnancy, so no man anywhere nor any human activity at all could have caused it. The woman is a virgin. God is the only actor now.
The angel says: The child conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God that brooded over the first creation is again at work, causing something as original as that, introducing into the world the Word by which the world was first created! This is grace beyond all righteousness, the gift of Christmas.
And this “child,” says the angel, this “son” shall be a thing, and this “son” shall do a thing.
What shall he be? Immanuel: the presence of holy God among us, in space and time and human community. Our righteousness has not earned this. We have not enticed God here by sweetness, lovableness, goodness, faithfulness, prayers, kneelings, pieties, manifest obediences. Immanuel is here on his own recognizance, according to his own lights and his love.
And what shall he do? Jesus: he shall save his people from their sins. Our natural sinfulness and all our actual sins are the reasons we could never earn the presence of God among us. In fact, we should be as terrified of Immanuel as any fraud is of the truth. But this is the gift that righteousness could never accomplish, that Jesus himself, in coming among us, changes us, making us worthy of his presence, sisters and brothers of the Firstborn of God.
Even a man as just as Joseph should be terrified to be caught up by the cosmic forces that have already snatched his betrothed. But the angel says, Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife into your home. And by grace he is not afraid.
And that is the third part of this Christmas gift which is beyond all righteousness: (1) In Jesus God is made present to humanity. (2) Jesus changes us, removing anything that would sever us from God, making us children of his Father. (3) And no fear shall overcome us as nearer and nearer God comes to us. We shall desire the intimacy and delight in it.
No, we shall not fear. Rather, we shall discover within us—as did Joseph when he awoke—the miraculous ability to obey the voice of God.
And that is the fourth gift of Christmas, the consequence of the first three, surprising enough to deserve its own meditation:
Righteousness renewed in us after all!
Come, Lord Jesus:
Come near me. Come, change my sinful nature. Come to me, then, as my brother. Remove all fear from my trembling heart, and make your baby bed within me, where you become all my righteousness and all I need to recommend me to the Father, now and forevermore.