The Lightning Truth of the Gospel

Matthew 1:18-26 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 20 But after he had considered 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 home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.” 24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

I remember when I got the phone call from my dad. I was away at college and he did what must be done with news of this kind. He just delivered it. “Your mom found a small lump. She wasn’t sure she should do anything about it, but she had enough doubt that she went to the doctor and had it biopsied. The results are in. She has a rare and aggressive form of breast cancer. And it’s stage four.” And just like that my little college life changed. My mom was sick. Very sick. I remember coming home from school. I remember seeing her laying on the couch. I remember the fight. I remember the chemo. What I can tell you today is that doubt saved my mom’s life.  

Sometimes doubt plays that kind of role in our lives. But not always. Sometimes it does what salt does to metal. Sometimes it does what humidity does to batteries. Sometimes it does what rain water does to a hill of sandy soil. Sometimes doubt rusts, corrodes, and erodes. You know when it does that? In relationships. My mind goes to a certain couple I know whose marriage was threatened because of a Facebook friend. If doubt does that in our highest human relationships, what does that suggest it does to the highest and most ultimate relationship in your life? What does it suggest that doubt does to your relationship with God? That’s something Joseph can teach us here in Matthew chapter 1.

Can you imagine what this whole scene must have felt like to him? He and Mary were engaged. And back then engagement was a huge, huge deal. Engagements were so important that although they weren’t living together yet, Mary and Joseph were legally bound. But when Mary got back from visiting her relative, Elizabeth, Joseph suddenly and unexpectedly knew the truth. He knew that he couldn’t merely write off the change in Mary’s figure and say, “She’s becoming more womanly.” It was more than that. Joseph’s heart must have sunk as he admitted to himself, “That is unmistakable. That’s a baby bump. And I know it’s not mine.”

Now if you put yourself in Joseph’s shoes, you can probably imagine a whole range of emotions that he might feel when he first sees this baby bump. Anger might be one. You can imagine him reenacting a scene like something off of Maury Povich or Ricki Lake or some other daytime talk show. Or you can imagine him crawling into a hole, shutting out the world, and wishing it all away. You can imagine all kinds of emotional scenarios like that. But we don’t actually have to imagine what Joseph was feeling at this point because we’re told. Did you catch that?

Matthew tells us, “... an angel of the Lord… said, “ (Joseph) don’t be afraid to take Mary home as your wife.” (v. 20) Joseph had had it all calculated out. He had thought to himself, “I don’t want to file a lawsuit against her. I care about her. I don’t want to drag her through something public and awful like that. I’ll just sign the papers of divorce and it’ll all be over. It’ll be secret. It’ll be quiet.” He had had it all planned, but for some reason he couldn’t quite pull the trigger. Not yet. He was filled with doubt. Was Mary telling the truth about the Angel Gabriel and her pregnancy? Or was it just a fantastic story made up to cover over a hook up with an old flame? Doubt was paralyzing Joseph and his emotional response to that doubt was fear. He was saying to himself, “This is a lose, lose for me. If I divorce Mary and she’s telling the truth, I lose Mary. If I don’t divorce her and she’s lying to me, then I lose my reputation and my honor.”

What poor, doubtful, fearful Joseph didn’t understand is that his fear was a threat to the very heart of the gospel. He didn’t yet understand that Jesus had to get royalty through him. (You have to go ahead and read the first part of Matthew chapter one. It shows that Joseph was part of the promised, royal line.) You can’t become a legal part of that royal line except through your dad. That’s how it works. Yeah, it’s true that biologically Jesus was a part of the royal line through his birth mom, Mary, but legally he couldn’t be. That could only come from a dad. Joseph had to adopt Jesus. Joseph had to claim him. Joseph had to make him legally royal. Or Jesus wouldn’t be The King. And he wouldn’t be The Savior. Sudden and unexpected doubt was endangering the very heart of the gospel.

Doubt has a way of doing that. And you know how it often gets after us? Just like it got after Joseph. Suddenly and unexpectedly. I’ve lived with my own heart long enough and I’ve sat with enough hurting people to know how true that is. I know a woman who struggled with periods of depression. They were always kind of random, sudden, and unexpected. Sometimes I’d sit with her at these times. I’d pray with her, encourage her, and pastor her. But at those times it always seemed like there was a 300 pound gorilla sitting on her heart that was just outside of my view. Until she was hospitalized. Then it came out. I visited her there and she quietly said, “I was young and selfish. At the time, I thought it was the best choice.” And she told me how ever since then suddenly and unexpectedly that sin would strike her conscience like a lightning bolt.  

And that’s how it so often happens. Doubt gets after our relationship with God when we experience a lightning bolt to the conscience. We go along with life and everything is pretty much ok until something or someone reminds us of who are really are and what we’ve really done. It’s in those random, unexpected, and sudden conscience strikes that it all becomes clear to us. Finally we are able to admit that no amount of justification and no amount of telling ourselves it’s ok actually makes it so. Because what happened in Vegas didn’t actually stay in Vegas and what happened last summer, actually happened last summer. And it just kills us because deep down we know that we’ve tragically and unalterably wrecked our relationship with God and we can do nothing to repair it.

So there Joseph sat paralyzed with doubt. Until the Lord intervened. And it was the Lord. Joseph fell into his troubled, pre-gospel sleep until the Lord sent one of his angels in a dream to say, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (v. 20, 21) Just like that Joseph’s paralysis was lifted. Just like that Joseph’s indecision was gone. Just like that Joseph’s fear evaporated. Because that’s what the lightning bolt of the gospel does. And this is the gospel. Make no mistake about that. This is the great news delivered straight to Joseph that the royal blood of Abraham and David running through his veins and that was his by legal right would belong to this child. Joseph would claim him. Joseph would make him his own. Joseph would legally make him royalty. And that royalty would be known as Jesus because this would be a King who would win forgiveness for his people.

Do you see what God has done with Jesus? Do you see it? When I was working on this sermon I read through the first part of Matthew and I read the early parts of Luke too. You know what I found there? Genealogies. One is Joseph’s. One is Mary’s. At first glance, they look boring, but God didn't think they were. That’s why they’re in there. The question is why. To dot every i and cross every t. God promised at the beginning of time that one of Eve’s children would come and reverse and forgive all the effects of sin. And from that time on the believers watched the generations advance and waited for the special birth. It’s always been that way. That’s actually why Eve called her first son, Cain. Cain means, “I have acquired the man.” Eve was saying, “I got him. I think he’s the Savior.”

Eve ended up being wrong about Cain, but not wrong that the Savior was coming. All through the relentless march of generations the believers watched. Would this next generation produce the King? Would that one? Generation by generation they watched; they waited; and they believed. They traced the promise from Eve, to Abraham, to David. And then to Mary the biological mother of Jesus. And to Joseph who God made sure became the legal father of Jesus. Do you see what God pulled off? He pulled off what the odds say should’ve been impossible. God gave Jesus a biological mother and a legal father who were both in the genealogical line of the promise. Because God is a God who is into certainty.

And boy do we need that. We all know from experience that a lightning stricken conscience is the most vicious prosecuting attorney you’ll find anywhere. If it would’ve been possible, it would’ve come along and said, “Ya know, Jesus really isn’t this big Savior, King guy because biologically he isn’t from David and Abraham.” And if it would’ve been possible, it would’ve come along and said, “Whoops. You were wrong. Turns out Jesus wasn’t legally the King because he didn’t have a father.” But God dotted every i and he crossed every t so that every generation of believers could finally say like Eve once did, “I have acquired the man.” Except this time we know we’re right. Legally and biologically Jesus had the right stuff. Because God is a God who is into certainty.

That’s what Matthew’s trying to say to us right now. Remember these Gospels that we’re looking at aren’t dry history. They’re not merely here to report facts. The Gospels are here to persuade of what these facts mean. Look at how Matthew applies this history. “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.” (v. 22, 23) These legal and biological facts about Jesus are here to persuade us that Immanuel came. Now you tell me. How do you get to the bottom of that name? God with us. How do you comprehend what it means to us that God took on flesh and skin and bones? How do we get to the bottom of that? You know what the answer is? You don’t. You believe it.  

And you believe it right then and there when the lightning bolt of the conscience strikes. Right then. You believe it right then and there when what happened in Vegas weighs on you or what happened last summer saddens you. You believe right then and there that Immanuel took on flesh and blood, skin and bones. You believe the truth that Immanuel came to fix, and to heal, and to reconcile you to God. And you believe that he did that because legally and biologically he had the right stuff.  

Because the only way to deal with a lightning bolt to the conscience is the lightning truth of the gospel. I sat with the woman in the hospital that day when her 300 pound gorilla came into view. And I’ll bet you already know what I told her. I told her, “The Lord forgives your sin. That’s why he came.” She went home from the hospital the next day. Her depression had lifted. Forgiveness was hers. She went home and she lived.

Not so different from how Joseph reacted to the gospel. Did you notice what he did? Just awesome. He got up from his dream and he took Mary home as his wife. The great news got a hold of his heart. He had been set free. No more paralysis. No more fear. No more questions. They were gone. And it was immediate. He didn’t need a few days to process this. He got up from the gospel announcement from the angel and he lived. He took Mary as his wife. And he made Jesus legally his.  

And he did that for you. So that you’d know. So that you’d trust. So that every i would be dotted and every t would be crossed. So that you’d know that when the angels sang, “Peace on earth,” that first Christmas that they meant you and your conscience too. So that doubt - even the kind that gets etched in the soul with powerful lightnings strikes to the conscience - could be crushed and eradicated and destroyed by the power of God’s good news. God doesn't do doubt. God is a God who is into certainty. So that just like Joseph you can get up from this gospel announcement and you can live. Amen.