Sermon: Advent IV:
“God with Us” – A Challenging Blessing (Matt. 1:18-25)
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.
• Matthew 1:18-25
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One of the precious titles for Jesus we celebrate at Christmas time is “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.”
When we use that title, we tend to think of it in completely positive ways, in ways that bless and benefit our lives.
- God is with us to save us, to redeem us, to reconcile us to God.
- God is with us to take our side in life’s battles and defeat the powers of sin, death, and hell that are arrayed against us.
- God is with us to teach us and help us understand who God is, and by extension, what God has created this world and human beings to be — to show us the purpose and meaning of the life God created.
- God is with us to identify with us in our human struggles and sufferings. God is with us to have compassion on us, to touch and heal us.
- God is with us to comfort us in our sorrows.
- God is with us to forgive our sins, to cleanse and renew us so that we might experience the fullness of what it means to be human: to love others, to bless the world by living lives of justice and peace.
Of course, all of this is true and wonderful and worth celebrating. But I want to suggest that “God with us” might not always seem so positive. As a blessing, “God with us” is a challenging blessing.
Today’s Gospel story tells about the birth of Jesus. Its focus is on Joseph, who learned that the woman to whom he was engaged to be wed, Mary, was pregnant. As the text indicates, this meant the real possibility of public disgrace. So the next step was that Joseph thought he would have to break the engagement.
When the angel appeared to Joseph, his first words were, “Joseph, do not be afraid.” Is it any wonder? Joseph found himself in a real pickle. This wasn’t what he signed up for! The first thing “God with us” meant to Joseph was that this baby’s arrival was going to turn Joseph’s life upside down, change all his plans, and do so in such a way that he and his family could be publicly humiliated.
I don’t think that’s usually what we think about when we celebrate “God with us.”
The simple point I’m trying to make is that when God comes to us, it may not only bring blessing but also cause disruption.
- God may come and find us unprepared to handle the changes God will bring.
- God may come to tell us hard truths that we will find hard to face.
- God may come and we could face decisions that will be difficult to make.
- God may come and it might suddenly become clear that we have assumptions about life that we need to outgrow, blindspots that need to be dealt with, challenges we’ve been avoiding but which now must be faced.
One thing is clear: God did not come all this way, God did not take on human flesh, be born as a baby, live and teach and heal and serve, die on a cross and be raised again just so he could pat us all on the back and say, “I’m okay and you’re okay; let’s just keep doing what we’re doing and all will be fine.”
No! This was God breaking into his creation to disrupt and heal. This was the dawning of God’s rule in the world. Jesus’ birth to Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem was the sign of a whole new creation being born, and as all of you who have children know, the process of birth is never painless and simple. Neither is the process of life after God comes to be with us. When God comes, he means to have us all go through the process of new birth, which also involves painful contractions and intense transitions.
We get a tiny little picture of that in the holy disruption God caused in the life of Joseph and Mary on that first Christmas.
“God with us.” People like Joseph can tell you that those words are more profound than any of us might imagine. When God comes, get ready for the ride of your life.