Advent 4 A: God Really With Us
Dear Partner in Preaching,
Do you sense some of the heartache in Matthew’s story about the nativity?
If you didn’t catch it the first time you read or listened to the story, that’s understandable. It’s easy to miss. Part of reason is simply that Matthew’s depiction of Christ’s birth is so remarkably brief, contained in a half verse at the beginning of this passage – “Now the birth of Jesus took place in this way” (1:18) – and in the verse bookending it at the end – “but he had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus” (v. 25).
Another reason it’s easy to miss is our understandable focus on the extraordinary elements of the story. The appearance of the angel in a dream, fulfilled prophecy, the virgin birth – we tend to focus almost exclusively on these elements because they are not part of our daily experience and so miss other dimensions of the story.
But I think the chief reason we gloss over, or perhaps fail to detect entirely, the heartache at the core of this familiar story is that we have unintentionally domesticated it. Whether by hearing it read in hushed tones by candlelight, or because of beloved hymns which cast a rosy hue around it, it’s easy to forget that Joseph and Mary were real people. In our imagination, Jesus never cried, Mary looked more like a blushing young bride than someone who had just given birth, and Joseph is calm, protective, and paternal. So perhaps there is an opportunity this week, Dear Partner, to give a little more attention to some of the oft overlooked details of the story so that it may speak anew to us.
Let’s start with this matter of engagement. In the first century world of Joseph and Mary, this is not a romantic declaration of intent. Rather, it is a legal contract, binding in every respect. To be engaged – or espoused, betrothed, or pledged (some of the other words used in English translations) – was essentially be to married yet without having consummated that marriage or as yet living together. Which means that when Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant, he can only conclude that she has been unfaithful to him and so likely experiences the pain, anguish, and sense of betrayal that any of us would have felt at such a devastating revelation.
In Joseph’s day, there were only two realistic possibilities when faced with the possibility – or what must have seemed to Joseph as an unquestionable reality – of Mary’s infidelity. He could either publicly declare his injury, in which case Mary would likely have been stoned, or he could divorce – the translation “dismiss” softens the reality as “engagement” did earlier – her quietly, and he chooses the latter course.
If Joseph is suffering, it’s hard to imagine Mary comes through all this unscathed. Because Matthew narrates his account of the nativity from the point of view of Joseph, we get very little insight into Mary. But she likely detected the unexpected pain her pregnancy caused her betrothed and, if she sensed his intentions, would likely have had great cause for concern herself. Given the spare details of Matthew’s account, I recognize that much of this is clearly conjecture. But let’s keep in mind it takes a visit from an angel to calm all this down and orient Joseph to God’s intentions. And as angles usually get involved in the biblical story only when heavy-lifting is involved, I think it’s safe to say that the months leading up to Christ’s birth was not one blissful baby-shower after another but were fraught with anxiety and concern and flights of emotion we have all experienced at various times.
And that, of course, is the point. We have – each of us – experienced similar upheavals. Indeed, on the morning you gather to preach this sermon, who knows how many of the folks in front of you are struggling to hold it all together while at church. Families who struggle with discord, couples who feel disconnected, kids wondering what future they may have, elders wondering the same from a different point of view. Some seek jobs, some relationships, some any sense of acceptance or worth.
Please hear me: I don’t mean to paint an overly grim picture of the challenges faced by our people, but I also don’t want us to be fooled by the “Sunday clothes” we wear or “Christmas spirit” we’ve been trained to exude during worship. There will be a lot of love, hope, courage, and excitement in the people who gather this Sunday, and that is to be celebrated and strengthened. And there will also be heartache, and that is to be acknowledged. Because at this time of the year in particular folks can feel downright embarrassed by their struggles and perhaps even wonder if their anguish is unfaithful.
Which is why I think this passage provides a good opportunity, Dear Partner, to remind us that God worked through real people with real challenges. He didn’t choose a fairy-tale princess to bear the savior, but rather an unwed peasant girl. He didn’t choose a political or business success story to name and care for Jesus, but rather a man with his own doubts and questions who wanted to do the right thing but needed angelic guidance to accomplish it.
All of this helps flesh out the name “Emmanuel” that Matthew draws from Isaiah to apply to Jesus. “God with us.” Or, we might want to say, “God REALLY with us.” That is, God coming to be with us as we are. Not as we know we should be, or are trying to be, or have promised to be, or will be some day, but with us as we are now…today…in this moment. Perhaps that’s the promise at the heart of this passage – that as God came before to be with, use, accept, and hallow Joseph and Mary at the birth of Christ, so also God comes to us in Christ to be with us, use us for good, accept us as we are, and hallow us by God’s own presence. Yes, God is really with us. Yes, God is with us, really and truly as we are. Yes, this is our Emmanuel. Come, we pray, come again and always, through our words and songs and sermons.
Blessings, Dear Partner, on your proclamation, for through your words and your life you bear witness to this God, Emmanuel, the one with us and for us forever. Thank you.
Yours in Christ,
Post image: Rembrandt, 1625, “Joseph’s Dream in the Stable in Bethlehem,” detail.