Simply Unbelievable

Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 22:15 mark.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

This is all simply unbelievable. It is unbelievable that the eternal Son would descend and take on human flesh and blood. It is unbelievable that the Son would take flesh in the womb of a virgin. It is unbelievable, so because it is unbelievable to us, many people, of course, have decided that they do not believe it. And because they do not believe it, they try to use all the words and make this entire story about something else than what it is. They essentially treat this as if it is simply a story in the past to which we must and can attach some new meaning to make it relevant. You have to make it relevant only if it is irrelevant. If it were already relevant, you wouldn’t have to do anything but proclaim now what was proclaimed then. Because if this were really the action of God, and that God were still the God who is God now, then that God would be doing the same action that He did then.

But all of this is simply unbelievable, and more than that, it is irrelevant. Ahaz, the king of Judah, is being threatened by two other kings, the king of Syria, and the King of Remaliah, that is Samaria, that is, Ephraim; that is, the Northern Kingdom of Israel. And Ahaz is very anxious about this. So God tells him to ask for a sign. Ahaz, very piously, very religiously, says that he will not ask, because he will not put God to the test. You can almost hear God sigh that Ahaz wants to be more pious than Him. If God tells you to ask for a sign, you can and should ask for a sign. If He doesn’t, then don’t put God to the test. God says, well, if you won’t ask for a sign even though I told you to do so, then I will give you a sign: the virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, whose name will be “With-Us-God,” Immanu-el.

That, in itself, is not too unbelievable: that a woman who is now a virgin will later give birth. For Ahaz, it’s worse: it’s irrelevant. Ahaz is facing armies, a siege, defeat, and destruction. What good is a baby? But God tells Ahaz, If you will not stand firm in faith, you will not stand firm at all.

Joseph is kind of like Ahaz: he has found out that Mary is pregnant, and like Ahaz, he is very much trying to follow God’s word and do what is right. He is a righteous man, a just man. And the only thing to do when you find out your betrothed is pregnant is to divorce her. Betrothal was a legal arrangement, even if the marriage had not been consummated. But Joseph does not want Mary to be shamed or possibly to be stoned to death, as they tried to stone the adulteress later, in John’s Gospel. So, even though it is necessary to divorce her, he’s going to do it quietly, secretly. And just as Ahaz thinks what he’s doing is the righteous thing, so does Joseph. But God is doing something different, something unbelievable.

We sometimes seem to think that people “back then” would just believe anything. We, however, are much more enlightened. We have science!But—and this may come as a surprise—they knew how people got pregnant, even without ultrasounds and modern biology. There is literally no other option for Joseph to believe, except that Mary is pregnant because of an adulterous relationship. Mary herself, in Luke’s Gospel, asks the angel, “How can this be, since I have not known a man?” She knows that it is by the marital relationship that people become pregnant, and she’s never had that relationship before. How can this be? So it’s not only unbelievable in the sense that we have a lot of trouble believing it; it’s unbelievable because it’s completely outside any possibility that he might even consider. The birth of a baby is not the sign that Ahaz would have chosen, or even considered, had he chosen to ask God for a sign.

But don’t be too holy for God! Don’t be more pious than God! If God has chosen to do something that is simply unbelievable, then the only response is simple belief. When the angel explains to Mary that this conception, this pregnancy, is by the power of the Holy Spirit, as was the original creation of all things, Mary says, “Let it be to me as you have said.” That is, she says “Amen,” which means “let it be so,” or “it is true.” When the angel gives Joseph an explanation that never would have entered his mind, what does Joseph say? Well, nothing, that we know of. He simply does what the angel says to do. We just sang a whole hymn about Mary’s response to the angel. Joseph doesn’t get a hymn, because the Gospels never record a single word he said. But we should have a hymn for his response, which is the same as Mary’s: simple belief in the Word of God, though it is simply unbelievable. And Joseph demonstrates that faith as he names the Child, cares for Him, protects Him, raises Him, teaches Him.

To add unbelievable to unbelievable for us, this is not just a story about something that happened a long time ago. It’s not just that it is unbelievable; it’s unreal to us. Hearing something one time is unbelievable; hearing it a thousand times can make it unreal. We have nice, glowing, scenes on cards and in our minds. We don’t really have to think of it as real, because we can attach to it our nostalgia, the innocence we attach to children, or our sentimental creation of good feelings. But this is not a wish for happiness at this time of the year. It is the rending of the heavens and God coming near, far nearer than we might want Him. This isn’t just God speaking to us, which we often say we want. This is God’s Word becoming one of us, which none of us asked for. The Name for this Child, the angel says, is “Jesus,” which is the Greek form of the Hebrew Yah-shua. He will be called that because that’s what He’s going to do: Yahweh’s salvation is going to come to His people; beginning with them, and extending to all people of all nations. And God’s salvation is going to be with us, in flesh and blood like ours, rejoining us to the divine Life of God who made us.

And it is not only that He was with Mary and Joseph. He was not only with people while Jesus was walking around on the earth. After His birth, His childhood, His adulthood, His death, and His resurrection, Jesus said to His disciples: Look, I am with you all the days, until the completion of this age. Not only with His apostles, of course, but with all His baptized, believing children, as long as this age lasts. And when this age, of sin, death, wars, bloodshed, and unbelief, is brought to its completion, then the new age, begun in Jesus’ body, in His death and resurrection, will begin. Then He who has been with us all the days by faith will be with us all the days by sight. He will be our God, and we will be His people.

But, of course, all this is simply unbelievable. It’s too long ago. It’s a myth or a legend. It’s a nice story for children. It’s comforting for those who can’t stand on their own two feet of reason and strength. It’s too unbelievable that God would be with us now, joining us to Jesus’ death and resurrection by Holy Baptism; giving us the living flesh and blood of Jesus in the Holy Supper; giving us the forgiveness of Jesus in Holy Absolution. But here, Mary and Joseph are our examples and pattern: when confronted with something God says that is simply unbelievable, the only response is simple belief in the Faithful and the Truthful One, who does not lie. If you do not stand firm in faith in the one who speaks to you today, you will not stand firm at all. This is unbelievable to our understanding because it is not our work. It is not our doing. It is not our accomplishment, or our intellectual discovery. It is the work of God.

I can’t make any of this less unbelievable or less irrelevant. It seems irrelevant because we close our ears to the claim God is making on us this year, this Advent, this day. It is relevant simply because the God who spoke then is the God who speaks to you now, who forgives you now, who claims you now. As relevant as it gets: “Jesus, our Immanuel.” Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee! This is the work of the Holy Spirit. This is the work of Jesus, God-made-flesh. He gives you His salvation, and He is with you here and now. He is with you all the days until the completion of this age. And then He will be with you forever. Amen. Let it be so for me, as God has said. Amen, let it be so for you, as God has said.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.

– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/16/22

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