A friend sent a picture recently, of the box from a nativity set. In the description on the front of the box, it had the dimensions for Joseph, for Mary, and for … baby. Which kind of misses the point of a nativity set, I think.
Another friend had someone this season tell them all sorts of horrible things about the origins of what we know as Christmas. That someone refused to celebrate it as a result, and instead celebrated Jewish holidays. That seems to me to be going the wrong direction, but whatever.
Christmas makes everyone nervous, sometimes even the ones who share the name of the one whose birth we celebrate. Whose name, for the record, is not “Baby”.
It also isn’t quite as unique as all the songs say. My favorite birth passage isn’t from Luke 2, it’s from Matthew 1.
Now the birth of Yeshua Meshiach was as follows: when His mother Miryam had been betrothed to Yoseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Yoseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of YHWH appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Yoseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Miryam as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Yeshua, for He will save His people from their sins.”
Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by YHWH through the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel,”
which translated means, “God with us.” And Yoseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of YHWH commanded him, and took Miryam as his wife, but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Yeshua.
That probably looks a bit different than you’re used to seeing and/or hearing, but the changes to use everyone’s Hebrew name (since everyone involved was Jewish) help us better understand the two things Matthew is telling us, both of which are earth-shattering. (His death will be, literally; see Matt 27:51.)
The first is the baby’s name. The angel doesn’t just tell Yoseph what he is to be named (as the angel told Zechariah what his son was to be named in Luke 1), he tells him why he is to be named that. Names in ancient Jewish culture were often meaningful; Yaakov (Jacob; J’s in the Bible are Y’s in real life) got his name, which means “heel-catcher” (and figuratively “supplanter” or “deceiver”), because he held onto his twin’s heel as he came out of the womb. The name of Miryam’s baby was to be Yeshua, or, in reverse translation, Joshua. Joshua is a fairly common name now, and Yeshua was a fairly common name then. The uniqueness wasn’t in the name, it was in who was getting it.
Yeshua is formed from two words: Ye is a shortened form of YHWH, God’s “covenant” name that is consistently (and unfortunately) translated as “the Lord” in English Bibles, and the rest is from a word that means “save” or “salvation.” Thus, the angel is saying, “You shall call his name ‘YHWH saves,’ for He will save His people from their sins”. For all the other Yeshua’s1, their name acknowledged a truth about God. For Miryam’s Yeshua, His name was testifying to what he was literally going to do.
The second thing Matthew tells us is the implication of the first thing. The prophet the angel refers to is, of course, Isaiah, and the prophecy again refers to a name. This time the name is Immanuel, and we don’t have to do the translation because the angel does it for us — it means “God with us” (“im”=“with”, “manu”=“us”, “el”=“God”).
That was as foreign a concept to Joseph as … well, I can’t think of anything that foreign, and you probably can’t, either. God confined the manifestation of His presence to His people to the temple’s Holy of Holies. Only the high priest could enter, and then only once a year. As far as God’s people were concerned, God’s presence was the opposite of “with us”. The angel was telling Joseph that was all about to change. God was no longer going to be aloof, “hard to get” in Rich’s words. He was going to be personal. Available. With us.
He’s going to forgive us of our sins, and be with us. And those two things make people nervous. The first one because it means we have sins that need forgiving, and the second because if He’s with us, He sees who we really are.
We don’t, in general, want to admit we have sins that need forgiving. Among others, I have a dear friend and a grandson, and neither of them (yet) understand that. As a result, they have no perceived need of a savior, because in their mind they’ve done nothing that needs saving. It’s not that they don’t know they do wrong things, it’s that they don’t understand the eternal implications of them.
And, though we want to be known, most of us don’t want to be that known. We don’t want the warts and fears and random evil in our head exposed. We want people to love us for who we are, but the “who we are” is really “who we want them to see.” If God is with us, then He knows everything. E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G. And there is nothing quite so frightening as being fully known, completely known, an absolutely no filter whatsoever known.
I have another friend who happens to be a Muslim; he once told me, “Hey, Jesus is our prophet, too!” And that’s what we do to things that make us nervous — we make them smaller so they don’t bother us as much. We deny God exists at all, which means that little baby certainly couldn’t have been Him, either. We say He was a prophet, or a great teacher, or a wise man, all of which are true but irrelevant, kind of like saying Einstein was a plumber.2
Matthew told us what we needed to know. He was going to be God, He was going to save (all) His people from their sins, and He was going to dwell among them.
He was, He did, and He does. That is why we celebrate Christmas; while He only told us to remember His death and resurrection, that death and resurrection couldn’t have happened without the birth, and God incarnating as a man and going through a messy delivery (if you’ve never seen one, trust me on this) just so He could walk among us and feel what we feel and be tempted by the things that tempt us and overcome death so that we could have life (eternal) and have it abundantly.
Don’t be nervous. Be joyful. Celebrate a God who knows everything about you and wanted you to be with Him anyway. Celebrate pure forgiveness, free forgiveness, sitting like a present waiting to be opened under the tree. Celebrate it by actually opening it, if you haven’t already. (Like a present, it’s useless to you if it’s not opened. God’s not going to open it for you, and, with apologies to the Calvinists, He’s not going to force you to open it, either.)
Celebrate Yeshua, or Jesus if you insist. And have a Merry Christmas!