How Silently, How Silently
A sermon for the fourth Sunday in Advent, 2013
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
- Matthew 1:18-25
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As Tom Wright reminds us in his Matthew for Everyone commentary, Luke shows us the story of Jesus’ birth from Mary’s perspective, but Matthew tells it through the eyes of Joseph. Both of these accounts, somewhat difficult to prove or reconcile historically, nevertheless share common elements in describing what took place.
- Both testify that Jesus was to be conceived in Mary’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit and not through normal human sexual intimacy.
- Both record that the main characters received divine revelation about the momentous event from angels.
- Both tell how these human participants felt hesitation and fear when they heard the news, though eventually both trusted God’s word and faithfully obeyed.
- Both stories emphasize above all the identity of the baby to be born. He was to be the Messiah of Israel, the one who would save his people from their sins, the promised King who would sit on David’s throne, the presence of God himself in the midst of his people.
Neither Matthew nor Luke attempt to explain or defend these remarkable claims. In both cases the narrative proceeds simply and winsomely, reporting astounding events in folksy stories.
And is this not the wonder of Christmas — that God chose to eschew spectacle and instead come to us in such homely fashion that the tale can only be told with common, unadorned descriptions of the experiences of ordinary people?
A simple man of trade and a village maiden prepare to wed. There is an unexpected pregnancy. Suddenly, there is fear, doubt. People wonder how to save face and protect reputations. The two marry, and the woman bears a child.
Of course, the story also tells of great divine wonders such as a virginal conception and dream visits from angels. But these too come in the form of quiet miracles. They are experienced in quaint and private settings and pondered over with personal deliberation.
“How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv’n,” the Christmas hymn says. “So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heav’n.”
May God grant us a quiet Christmas.
And may God impart to our hearts wonders that can scarcely be told.