What If?

given on Sunday, December 19, 2010

What If?

18-19 The birth of Jesus took place like this. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. Before they came to the marriage bed, Joseph discovered she was pregnant.  (It was by the Holy Spirit, but he didn’t know that.)  Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.

20-23 While he was trying to figure a way out, he had a dream.  God’s angel spoke in the dream: “Joseph, son of David, don’t hesitate to get married.  Mary’s pregnancy is Spirit-conceived.  God’s Holy Spirit has made her pregnant.  She will bring a son to birth, and when she does, you, Joseph, will name him Jesus—‘God saves’—because he will save his people from their sins.”  This would bring the prophet’s embryonic sermon to full term:

Watch for this—a virgin will get pregnant and bear

a son;

They will name him Immanuel (Hebrew for “God is with us”).

24-25 Then Joseph woke up.  He did exactly what God’s angel commanded in the dream: He married Mary.  But he did not consummate the marriage until she had the baby.  He named the baby Jesus.

Main idea: Why was Jesus born of a virgin?


  • What is the tradition of a Jewish marriage?
  • How did God fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament?
  • In what way do we demonstrate the truth of Jesus’ birth?

What if?  This is an age-old question that seems to always hover at the edges of our consciousness.  It pops up in all types of settings and for all types of purposes.  “What if” can be asked at the office as a new project begins to develop.  “What if” can be a scary question if a child asks his parents about how they met.  “What if” leads to so many more questions, and it never seems to be completely answered.

Today the scripture tells us how God told Mary and Joseph that Mary was pregnant.  The next question, after the utterance of sheer shock, might have been “what if” questions.  Mary may have asked what if she really is pregnant by the Holy Spirit.  Joseph may have asked what if I break off the engagement with Mary.  What if the Christmas story really began in total chaos with no one hearing God, and no one accepting the unexplainable?  What if God had given up on man and chose to ignore his people?

All too often the “what if” question is asked and there is no one to answer.  Today’s scripture may not give us an authoritarian, scientific answer, but it is a record that has been tested repeatedly, that has withstood the test of time, that generation after generation has continued to support and maintain.  God spoke to Joseph, and Joseph heard him, acknowledged his presence, and listened.  His first reaction was that he needed to get out of the engagement, but God told him not to be alarmed.  God told Joseph that the baby was the fulfillment of the prophecies.  He even told Joseph what to name the baby.

What if it had been you standing there learning that you were engaged to someone pregnant and you knew, absolutely knew, it was not yours?  Would you have heard God telling you the rest of the news?  Would you have been as noble as Joseph and kept the engagement in tact?  And as in all “what if” questions, we also know the answer is never truly going to be known.  What is known is the circumstances of history.

Look at the culture:  Jewish marriage, I learned, has three steps.  According to the Life Application Bible:

1.    The two families agreed to the union.

2.    A public announcement was made which meant the couple was “pledged,” which is much like today’s engagement period.  Two differences though, one is that once pledged, the relationship could not be broken except through death or divorce.  Secondly, no sexual relations were permitted.

3.    Finally the marriage took place at which time the couple begin living together.

The similarities are there to today’s culture, but the ancient social stigma of the pregnancy before the marriage was severe—punishable by stoning to death.  Joseph had the right to divorce her and she could have been stoned to death.

The scripture tells us that Joseph was upset, but he listened to God and continued in the relationship.  God even told him what to name the child.  He did marry Mary and he did name the child Jesus, which means “God saves”.  Because Joseph and Mary did not ask “what if” and simply believed God, the story continues.  The prophecies of the ancient prophets finally were fulfilled with the birth of Jesus.

The prophecies had linked the Messiah to King David.  His role was to serve as a great leader, and the name “Immanuel” had been used to identify him.  (Immanuel is Hebrew for “God is with us.”)  God was to be with us on earth.  He had a job to do, to save us.  I cannot ignore the prophecies; nor can I overlook the lineage that connects Jesus to King David as well as to the Tribe of Levi, the priests.  The scripture removes any of the “what if” questions.  I am left with a clear understanding of how Jesus was born of a virgin, how he was born of Mary and Joseph, and how Jesus is God.

These are questions that have caused faithful followers of God to argue, to fight, to splinter off, even to die.  Why did God even feel it necessary to step onto the earth, right here among the people?  Why did he have to be born of a virgin?  If he is God, why did he have to be born a child, grow and develop as any earthly being would before he could begin his work on earth?

Looking back over the history of the church, the question about Jesus’ birth of virgin and the question of whether he is God or was he a man repeatedly created controversy.  It has caused theological splits, the most significant being in 1054 AD.  The church began as one church from the beginning of Jesus’ teachings and remained one unified institution; but the growth of the church, the influences from different cultures, and the personalities then leading the church caused a split to occur.

The church was simply one church lead in 1054.  The church was lead by a pope, actually two or three popes.  The church’s organizational hierarchy of leadership had not been formalized.  The religious leaders and the political leaders did not always work well together, and in 1054 AD, a new structure developed due to the split, or The Great Schism:  two churches—one the original Catholic Church with two popes, and one a new church—the Eastern Orthodox Church.

The final decision between the Western, i.e. Catholic Church, and the Eastern Church came down to who believed in the virgin birth and who believed Jesus was God and Man, not just a man.  The Western church developed the Nicene Creed (UMH No. 880) to clarify its theology:

We believe in one God,

The Father, the Almighty,

Maker of heaven and earth,

of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,

the only Son of God,

eternally begotten of the Father,

God from God, Light from Light,

true God from true God,

begotten, not made

of one Being with the Father;

through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation

he came down from heaven,

was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary

and became truly human.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;

he suffered death and was buried.

On the third day he rose again,

in accordance with the Scriptures;

he ascended into heaven

and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory

to judge the living and the dead,

and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life

who proceeds from the Father and the Son,

who with the Father and the Son

is worshiped and glorified

who has spoken through the prophets.

We believe in the one holy catholic and apostolic church.

We acknowledge on baptism

for the forgiveness of sins.

We look for the resurrection of the dead,

and the life of the world to come.  Amen

By looking at these words slowly and carefully, we can find the answer to why Jesus’ birth was necessary.  The answers should quiet the “what ifs” that clutter our minds.

When God decided to send himself as Jesus, he proved his love for us.  He had already tried a flood to clean up the mess and that worked temporarily, even though that was well over 2,600 years before Jesus’ birth.  The temple had been destroyed.  Plagues and all types of pestilence had been tried, but God’s people were not following his laws.

The Old Covenant was not working and the influences of the pagan religions, the political leaders, the expansion of the empires and so much more was interfering with the relationship of humans to God.  God knew the need for a hands-on leader, he knew that he had to demonstrate the New Covenant, a simplified law, just one rule:  love one another as much as I have loved you.

Are we demonstrating that we know that law, that we are practicing that law, that we do love one another?  What if we do not love one another?  What if we celebrate Christmas taking Jesus out of the season?  What if we have failed God?  Are we ready for a second coming of Christ?  There is no easy answer and if we cannot see the New Covenant in action, the answer could be no.  If we do not love one another, what happens then?

The circumstances of Jesus’ birth may still leave many asking “what if,” but God does talk to us.  God does abide with us each and every day.  God knows all and we must know within ourselves how well we are following God’s law.  We do not need to ask “what if,” because we know.  Immanuel arrived and has shown us how to save the world.  We celebrate Christmas this year as a renewal in our own covenant with God.  We celebrate in so many ways as we demonstrate our love to one another—in our family, along the streets, across the oceans, at the jobs, in the schools, and on the highways and byways.

This week remember that God so loved the world that he came down to assure us that as long as we love one another, we, too, are forgiven of our sins and receive eternal life.  Forget the “what ifs” that have been clogging your mind.  Feel the freedom of believing, trusting, and loving.  Show the joy in your faces, share the good news with others, and enjoy the celebration.  God is good.  God is love.  God knows us better than even Santa, so be good and love one another.  Peace will reign.

Dear Loving Father,

Thank you for loving us so much that you came down at Christmas to walk among us.  We read the stories, sing the hymns, and lift our prayers to you.  We believe.  We want to show our love.  We celebrate each year we can join together and see how important you are in our lives.  As we leave today, let us share our knowledge of you with others so they too can drop the questions and find the joy in living as your children.                        –Amen

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