As I mentioned earlier, this is the fourth Sunday of Advent, we are almost at Christmas, and we are actually starting to talk about the birth of Jesus. One of the wonderful things about the way the Bible is set up with four Gospels is that we get to see things from different perspectives and with different emphases.
Last week, we got to hear Mary’s joy once she overcame the shock and realized that she would be the mother of Jesus. She didn’t know all that would mean, but she accepted it as a blessing from God. This week we get to see things from Joseph’s perspective. The main points are the same. There’s going to be a baby. The Holy Spirit is involved, and the baby will be God’s Son, but there are differences too.
You could think of it like the difference of reading a book and seeing the movie, or an original movie and a remake. They never match up exactly because the writer, the director saw things differently that we did. They might have seen certain things as more important than others. We will get to see what the most important thing is for Matthew. In the recounting of annunciation story, we get an added bonus. We hear of the birth, and that he was given the name Jesus. That makes this the perfect time for this passage as we anticipate the more detailed narrative on Tuesday for Christmas Eve.
Our text starts at Matthew 1:18:
18 This is how the birth [or genesis] of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet 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 conceive and 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 did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And [Joseph] gave him the name Jesus.
Have you ever been driving and took a wrong turn and found yourself in a place that you never expected to be? It’s hard to do that on the way from La Grande to Joseph or even if you were on your way specifically to this church. You keep going. Yes, you might make some right turns along the way, but you don’t even have to stop. You keep going until you see the Indian Lodge Motel on the right and make the next left. You are here!
Once when I was driving from Omaha, Nebraska to Wichita, Kansas, I failed to make a turn and found myself in the middle of Kansas where there was only a crossroads and no town. I had no clear idea of where I was until I got to a gas station with a HUGE map on its wall inside. Clearly, I am not the only person who has unexpectedly found themselves there.
That’s kind of what happened to me as I was preparing for today. God took me in a completely unexpected direction. I imagine that is what happened for Joseph though on a much larger scale. He thought that he was going to have a normal life with a normal wife and family. Work as a carpenter or builder. He was betrothed to be married. That was something more than engaged but less than actually married. However, to break it there needed to be a divorce. There was a marriage contract, but it might be ten to twelve months before the wedding ceremony took place and the couple would live together. He finds that his intended is with child, and it’s not his child. We know from the text that the baby is from the Holy Spirit, but it’s clear that Joseph does not know this yet. Even if he’s been told that by Mary, he’s a little skeptical. After all, that would be pretty hard to accept in our normal lives. It’s reasonable to imagine that he was not experiencing peaceful joy at this moment.
How would you feel, what would you do if you found out that your fiancé was expecting a baby with someone else? If it happened since we got engaged, I don’t know about you, but I might think that it was a red flag warning that it may not be wise to get married. That’s what Joseph decided, but already in the midst of scandal, he tried to keep it as low-key as possible. When Joseph went to sleep that night, it was the end of a very long day. But, when he woke up in the morning, he was on a mission from God. It was a mission that he accepted wholeheartedly!
He accepts Mary. He accepts this baby and adopts him into his family. That is the significance of Joseph giving the baby the name Jesus. In that culture, that act said, I accept him into this family. I accept him as my first born son. (A big deal in that culture for a variety of reasons.) I name him Jesus.
But wait! Jesus? Yes, the angel said to name the baby Jesus, but at the end of the passage it says that they will call him Immanuel. Did you ever find that funny or strange? Matthew refers to the Savior as Jesus about 80 times. (Donald Senior, Matthew, Abingdon) Apart from this passage, Matthew never calls him Immanuel. That could sound like There will be a baby named Cherie. They will call her Alice. Have you ever noticed?
In our culture today, there are websites for picking out baby names that tell you the meaning of the name. Those can be fun. I found all kinds of names: religiously inspired names, family names, and many that would have been considered old fashioned when I was a kid. While we can find out what the name means, usually the names don’t have that specific meaning in English. We know them as names, but there are some that describe attributes that we might hope for in a child. For girls, they are names like Hope, Grace, or Joy. It’s less common for boys these days, but in my search of the top 1000 baby names for boys as listed by the Social Security Administration, some of them are Justice, Sincere, and Archer.
In the Bible, these kinds of descriptive names are not unusual at all. Joshua means God saves. Jesus was one of the modern forms of Joshua in Jesus’ time. Abraham and Sara’s son’s name Isaac means “laughter” because she laughed when she heard that she was going to have a baby later in life. Hannah who desperately prayed for a child named him Samuel, which sounds like the Hebrew for “heard by God.”
The name that Joseph gives Jesus, like Joshua, means God saves, but we still have the matter of Immanuel, God with us. In this case, it was more than just a name. The meaning is more important than the title. It is the whole theme of the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus represents the personification of God with us in human form. The very last words in this gospel is Jesus saying, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mt 28:20)
Matthew goes further by saying that this birth is the fulfillment of a prophecy by Isaiah. As it mentions in our Advent devotional for December 24th … there’s lots of good stuff in that devotional … the saving act that starts with the birth of this child is actually more than just saving us from our sins. What? We thought that was the main deal right? We are saved from our sins. We get to live a better life now as Jesus teaches us how to authentically live as a human the way that God intended. We are saved from being eternally separated from God when this life ends. Those are all good things, and yes, Jesus through his life, death, and resurrection does that, but what is the real purpose? So, that we can have relationship with God, so God can be with us.
As long as we are sinful beings left to our own devices, we cannot even hope to have a relationship with God. Salvation through Jesus allows us to take on his righteousness that we cannot possibly hope to attain on our own … so that we can have relationship with God.
In Isaiah, the sign of the birth of Immanuel was judgment against an unfaithful king of Judah, Ahaz. He did not believe when God said that he would protect Judah from her enemies, so God withdrew his protection and bring an even stronger enemy. Yet, it was also a promise of deliverance in the future when God’s presence would return. Matthew is saying the time is now. With Jesus birth would come God’s saving return. (Treier, “Costly Faithfulness,” Advent 2019, Christianity Today, pg 47) God is with us.
Do you consider God with us to be good news? Maybe you do and maybe you don’t. How do you think of God? Who do you think God is? Who do you need God to be?
For those of us who consider God with us, Immanuel, to be good news, we have a more beneficial and comforting picture of God. When God is in the midst of things, good things happen. People are helped. The wrong fails, and the right prevails. The work that God does fits with the picture that we have for God. We may not always understand God’s bigger plan, but we trust that it is all to improve our lives and our world.
Then, there are those of us who aren’t quite sure that we are comfortable with the idea of God with us. We don’t want a God that is too close. We’d prefer for God to wait until the timing is better, maybe when we’ve had a chance to get our act together. We understand that God is one of justice, but we’re afraid that some of that judgment is coming in our direction.
Maybe you’re thinking, “God with us — ‘That’s great! I need God close, I’ve missed God. I have a lot to tell God. God is committed to improving my life and the lives of those I love.’ Or it might be, “God with us — ‘Oh, [no]. I am not ready. This Advent time of preparation has not gone as planned. I don’t really want God that close because if God is, then God will likely see more of me than I want God to see. God is coming to expose my life for the [fraud] it is, to call me out for all of my faults of faith.'” (Karoline Lewis, “The Good News of God with Us,” Dear Working Preacher, 12/11/2016)
Do either of these perspectives feel familiar? Maybe you’re somewhere in the middle, but still leaning more one direction than the other. Or maybe, you are even more passionate about one of the perspectives than I expressed. What I can tell you with certainty, is someone in a pew near you feels differently about this than you do.
It’s important for all of us to remember that this is God, one to revere, who may have some hard truths to tell us. Things that we need to know. God is not our BFF, our best friend forever. (Though Jesus can sometimes be presented that way.) Alternatively, we also have to remember for those of us who may be downright afraid to have God with us that God’s truth telling comes from love, the desire for us to be in right relationship with God that I was talking about earlier.
I remember years ago now, when I was struggling with something serious … I struggle with other things now … I was struggling with something serious. I was a Christian. I considered myself a follower of Christ, but I felt so guilty. I was struggling, and I didn’t not feel that I was making progress at overcoming. I felt so guilty about it that I didn’t feel that I could even pray to God about that issue or any other … at all. I mean how could I effectively enter God’s presence through prayer when I was such a failure?! The problem with that is that I was ostracizing myself from God, and losing my greatest resource. I was forgetting what Paul said that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1). Once I stopped resisting being with God, going to God, I could continue my journey with God. On that journey, we change and we are changed, learning and growing in our relationship.
It is good for us to recognize our default attitude in all of this. That way we can recognize when we are going too far one way or the other. We can recognize that we are creating God in our own image, one that we can control, rather than seeing and appreciating God as God is, and even recognizing that we are unable to fathom all of it.
God with us is the foundation of the Gospel. It is God’s very own sermon. It is God telling us God’s truth. “I am here.” It is an expression of love and relationship with humanity and with us as individuals. How we hear that truth may be different depending on where we are on our journey, but it is a truth that never changes because of who God is. (Lewis) And that is something that can give us peace.
We can take comfort in God being with us to save us, to bring us joy. It is easy to forget in the craziness of this world. We may even say that it’s extra crazy this year, but really isn’t it like this all the time? But Jesus offers us his peace. On the night he was arrested, Jesus tells his disciples, “My peace I give to you.” (John 14:12) Are you his disciple? Do you accept his gift of peace?
Only through knowledge and trust of God can we have that peace that is beyond all understanding that Paul talks about in Philippians 4:7. When we see people going through terrible difficulties or changes, who truly trust God and take their strength in God being with us and in the salvation, the saving, we receive from Jesus, we see people at peace. Peaceful joy.
One of the things that I love about this time of year are the twinkle lights. They remind me of fireflies, also known as lightening bugs. I love them. They are so calming and soothing to me, peaceful.
Did you know that the common Eastern firefly dies off every year? But, in a sense, their little lights never cease. Because a firefly egg, buried deep in the ground, gives off a faint glow. And after only two weeks it will hatch and the little red larvae will radiate a soft constant glow. Underfoot far underground, they have spent the winter months crawling through the soil, eating and growing.
“When it senses it has grown fully, a larva will construct a sort of mud cave for itself in the soil. It will lie in the cave, glowing and still, while every part of its body melts and is remade. It will have crawled through the dark earth for more than three hundred days to be made ready for a transformation that happens in ten or twelve. A new creature, nothing like a worm, will push out of its cave, dig, and break above ground. It will rest a moment and breathe, then rise on fresh wings, its light, long hidden, released to dance through the wide nights of summertime.” (Gayle Boss, All Creation Waits: The Advent Mystery of New Beginnings (Brewster, 2 Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2016), kindle location 570 of 779.)
This quiet and persistent light of the firefly is something like the peaceful joy we celebrate in this week of God with us. We celebrate God’s light and love, soft and persistent, “radiating love to all the earth.” We celebrate God’s peace, and we anticipate how it might be [made known] in the world.
It might be hard to believe that God would come to this world, to be with us, would want to be with us. Harder still to believe that God would come to us as a baby. Even if we are afraid, the peace God offers, peaceful joy is deep and wide, nudging its way through our lives and occasionally bursting forth in radiant light.
Peaceful joy brings balance to what feels out-of-sorts in the world. In a world that so often feels scary, peaceful joy speaks words of comfort. In a world that values strength and resilience, peaceful joy portrays vulnerability. In a world full of kings and rulers fighting for power, peaceful joy is born in the form of a baby, God with us.