Sermon: Upside Down for the Good

The story of Christ is a shocking story. A couple weeks ago I was in a discussion with a  couple friends about the conception and birth of Jesus. We were looking at what the Bible said and what we had been hearing, when one of my friends commented on just how stunning this story is. Two thousand years ago a woman became pregnant with no man involved. An angel – a messenger from God Almighty – came to her and told her this would happen and that the child would be the Son of the Most High God and be the savior of the world. My friend commented that this story can become so overly familiar in the church that we forget how simply stunning, improbable, and amazing the miracle of Christmas actually is. Then we forget just how hard it might be for some people to believe it. So I want to invite you to hear the story afresh. And if you are skeptical, I would be happy to talk a bit more with you about why I believe this story is true, but for the moment, just suspend your disbelief and try your best to truly hear the story. The story comes from Matthew, chapter 1, verses 18 to 25. But before we hear it together, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, help us to hear your word and receive it for what it truly is, God’s Word given for us. We pray this in the name of the one who gave himself for us, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Listen closely and listen well, for these are the very words of God.

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.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

I don’t know for certain, but I am guessing that this was not part of Joseph’s plan. If growing Joseph had taken the time to think about what his life would look like in the future, it was probably something like this: study a trade (probably under my father) and get good work, once I am old enough, I will get married, we will move into a room of our own, and then start a family. I’ll work, we’ll go to worship together, we’ll raise our kids to love and serve the LORD. A good life.

Things started out well. We know from elsewhere in the Bible that Joseph was a carpenter, literally a tekton, most likely a stone-mason. Good, solid work. So, trade: check. home: check. wife: check. But this is where Joseph’s plan would have been torn to shreds. This is not how this is supposed to happen.

Joseph gets engaged to a woman named Mary. At that time, engagement isn’t a casual promise that you would like to be married, but it is a contract. You are, for all intents and purposes, married, but you are not living and sleeping together. After they are engaged, but before they become fully married, Joseph discovers that his bride-to-be, Mary, is pregnant. Joseph knows the child is not his. Verse 19 tells us that Mary was with child from the Holy Spirit. The gospel of Luke records a visit Mary received from the angel Gabriel, telling her that she would conceive and have a son, Mary wondering how this would happen since she is a virgin, and Gabriel telling her that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and the power of the Most High will overshadow her and she will have a son. Mary knows this, but what does Joseph know. Did Mary try and tell him what the angel had told her? Did she even know where to begin, even hope that he could possibly believer her? We don’t know.

What we do know is that, for Joseph, it’s over. Things have fallen apart. Even if we know Mary has been faithful, it appears that Joseph believes she hasn’t been. She’s pregnant, after all, what else could it be? Joseph is a good man. He cares about Mary enough that he does not want her publicly disgraced or worse if word gets out, so he decides to divorce her quietly. Remember, even though they are engaged, not fully married, this is so binding to end it requires divorce. So that’s what Joseph decides to do.

This was not part of the plan. This was not how things were supposed to go. The future he might have envisioned and hoped for in his life would never come to pass in the way he hoped. It was over. Everything was in pieces.

So Joseph goes to sleep. But then God shows up. The angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream with a message, “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.”

God shows up and turns Joseph’s life upside down. Moments before, Joseph might have believed that this story was his story, and it was falling apart, it was going off the rails, but suddenly, God has drafted Joseph into a bigger story, into God’s story. God shows up and turns Joseph’s life upside down, but for the good. He life was being caught up in the grand work of God.

Not only is this not the sad story of how Joseph’s fiancé cheated on him and his life fell apart – not only is that story not true at all – but this is actually the story of God himself coming to save, of the birth of the Messiah, the King God had promised long ago. The King who would come from the family of David, Joseph’s family, was coming in Joseph’s lifetime, and not just in Joseph’s lifetime, but his bride-to-be would bear the child and Joseph would raise him as his own. Though the child is of the Holy Spirit, Joseph would serve as the father of the Messiah.

God shows up and turns Joseph’s life upside down, but upside down for the good. This does not mean there will be no pain or suffering. In fact, taking up this calling will involve even more sacrifice from Joseph – the gossip, the misunderstanding, the knowledge of what this child was born to do, to endure.

Yet, “She will bear a son, and you – yes, you, Joseph – are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” This is God’s great story of redemption, of forgiveness, of hope, of peace, and Joseph, you get to be a part of it.

But this is not just Joseph’s story. This is the Christmas story. In the manger, in the child born of Mary, in Jesus, the Son of God, The Lord himself shows up and turns the whole world upside down, but upside down for the good.

This was not how things had been going. Life, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, was “nasty, brutish, and short.” Slaves to your masters, slaves to your passions, slaves to your sins. If you were on the top, the best you could hope for was to enjoy your life while you had it and leave a good name behind when you died. If you were on the bottom, the best you could hope for was to work hard enough to leave things a little better for your kids and to avoid making it worse. This was just the way it was – buried under the weight of a past you could not change, struggling with a present filled with broken promises, broken relationships, and broken souls, and a fearful of a future filled with either more of the same or looming judgment.

But then God shows up and turns the world upside down, upside down for the good. He shows power in weakness, the King of Kings in the lowly manger, God in flesh as a helpless babe nursing at his mother’s breast. He opposes the proud and lifts up the lowly. He brings peace to those struggling in estrangement. He brings forgiveness to those stumbling under the burdens of their sins. He calls home the lost. He proclaims an end to the days when the powerful take and break with impunity and a coming day when all shall be set right in Jesus. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.

This is the Christmas story. The Lord himself shows up and turns the whole world upside down, but upside down for the good. Despair is turn to hope. Guilt overcome by Grace. Sinners receive Salvation. God himself come to dwell with us, to take us in his arms, and draw us to himself.

This was not part of Joseph’s plan. Whatever dreams he had for his life, whatever dreams Mary might have imagined for her future as well, they certainly never included this, never included bearing and raising the Son of God, the savior of the world. Their lives were turned upside down, but upside for the good. Christmas is God’s surprising, shocking, and supremely gracious work of turning the world upside down for the good.

For some of us this morning, we know this story. We know this Jesus. The salvation he brings is the good news that guides our life and guards our future. We are here to celebrate. But for you, remember how the Christmas story came to Joseph and Mary. It shook up their life. They could not live the same anymore after the angel called and the child was born. The presence of Jesus in the world and in their lives changed everything. It turned their lives upside down and caught them up into a much bigger and better story than they ever would have planned for themselves.

For you who have heard the story and know the Savior, let the Christmas story, let the King born in the manger, Jesus Christ himself, let him shake up your life and turn it upside down, but upside down for the good. When you leave this place, don’t simply say, “That was a nice service, a good reminder,” but wonder, “God, if the presence of Jesus did so much to change Mary and Joseph and their life, what do you want to do with me?”

For others of us this morning, the story is new. Perhaps you are here because Mom wants you to and you are doing your best to make your parents happy. I’m glad you are here. Perhaps you are here because deep down you sense there is something about this season, something you are missing and you hoped that by walking through this door you might capture a glimpse of it, get a hint of what it is that makes this time of year so special. Perhaps you are not sure why you are here at all. But for you, whether you have heard the story before or not, this story is for you.

In Christ, God has turned the world upside down, but upside down for the good. All that good news we hear and sing about in Christmas is the gift of God to us in Jesus Christ. If you know him, if you trust him with your life – your past, present, and future – he will turn you upside for the good. That weight you have been carrying can be taken away. That aching hole you have been trying desperately to fill can finally be healed. The struggle to know who you are, where you belong, and where you life is going can be answered in Jesus.

So for you who have now heard the story, the story of the child born in the manger for the salvation of the world, God himself for us in the flesh, let Jesus turn your life upside down, but upside down for the good. What he has done for you and the life he has for you is, like it was for Mary and Joseph, at times more challenging, but always more beautiful and good than what you ever imagined for yourself.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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