Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sermon: "Emmanuel: God with us" Matthew 1:18-25 [Fourth Sunday of Advent 2013]

Emmanuel: God with us
Matthew 1:18-25
[Cf. Is. 7:10-16; Ps. 80:1-7;17-19; Rom. 1:1-7]

Does anyone feel just a wee bit stressed out by the fact that Christmas is only a short three days away? Would anyone admit that? 

A little story in “The Washington Post” this week caught my eye - and captured the prevalent mood of the season well, I thought. It was a story about the demands on (particularly) women at Christmastime to pull off the perfect holiday. One woman being interviewed said,
For years, my sister and I have had a long talk on the phone on Christmas Eve —at 2 a.m., while frantically wrapping the last of the presents. This, of course, comes after we’ve shopped, decorated, addressed teetering stacks of Christmas cards and generally fried ourselves trying to create that holiday magic.
And our husbands? They’re sound asleep at that time — a fact we usually note between clenched teeth. Before hanging up, we exchange our own holiday wish: “Merry Stressmas.” [1]
Merry Stressmas! The stress is of course a primary indicator of the way American culture and media both load Christmas with false expectations and demands for perfection which can — if we’re honest — swamp us [2]. And why wouldn’t the demands swamp us?
First, we’re goaded to put on the “picture perfect Christmas.” The Washington Post article just cited reminds us that “…magazines and blogs even publish Christmas checklists with to-do items that begin in January — buy next year’s ornaments and cards on sale — and continue throughout the year, with reminders to plant amaryllis bulbs in October for holiday blooming, make a freezer inventory in November and begin a holiday journal in December[3] Thus, it takes all year to be perfect for one day.
Second, we’re swamped because we are goaded to fake perfection in the midst of deeply imperfect personal circumstances. So often times, sadness or brokenness, difficult family relationships, or financial shortages make “picture perfect Christmases” perfectly unattainable. And yet, perfection demands superhuman effort, we’re told.
Third - and I suspect a truly evil problem here in the Northeast corridor - is that Christmas escalates the war of “keeping up with the Jones’s” to nuclear levels. Any venture into department stores right now reminds us of the reality of mutually assured destruction. Perfection is a war, ya’ll.
So…perfection. It’s a word with a lot of tyranny in it. If you’re feeling a bit tyrannized this morning, then today’s Gospel text should come to you as a healing balm in Gilead. 

Why should this be? 

Well, we’re reminded by Matthew’s text this morning that things were far from perfect in the days leading up to the first Christmas. In fact, things were very very messy, when one really stops to think about it.

How so? Enter Joseph and his young fiancĂ©, Mary. Hearing their story, we say “Houston, we have a problem.” The problem itself is very simple. Before they were married and came together intimately as married people are wont to do - Mary was found to be with child. Far from perfect, the “Christmas story includes the very sordid tale of an engaged young woman who is apparently cheating on her fiancĂ©.” [4]

Pastor and theologian Daniel Harrell captures it all so well when he describes the problem. He writes,
“She’s carrying somebody else’s baby. She says that God did it, which adds blasphemy to the infidelity. Ancient law allowed for the jilted Joseph to stone Mary, but preferring to keep the scandal out of the papers, he decides to break it off quietly and save everybody any further embarrassment.
The whole thing was a miserable mess. And as Joseph would eventually discover, it was all God’s doing. So then why make everything look so ungodly? Why all the secrecy? Why not a blaze of public, visible Holy Spirit glory following a pregnant Mary? That way her neighbors could have thrown her a baby shower with swaddling clothes from Baby Gap. Somebody could have made sure there were posh accommodations at the Bethlehem Hilton. Better yet, why not just skip the whole birth process entirely? Spare Joseph the painful humiliation and Mary the painful labor. Spare Jesus the hazardous temptations of adolescence. It’s not like he did anything for his first 30 years anyway. Better yet, show up on earth on Good Friday and you’re back in heaven by Sunday.” [5]
Harrell asks great questions here, and yet we’re told in v. 18 “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way…” 

It took place in “…this way…” 

Not in perfection. Not in posh circumstance. Not in some contrived, inhuman way. But in humiliation and condescension. Within thoughts of divorce and real risk of stoning. In the midst of pain and misunderstanding. That is to say, in the middle of truest human condition. It took place in “this way.

And this, my friends, is the “true perfection” of Christmas — what theologians call the “miracle of Christmas.” [6] It is that God becomes human, in the most human of ways, and yet in one of the great mysteries of our faith, in the miracle of union between human and divine. [7]
And in the moment that God comes to us and gives us eyes to see and ears to hear so we can begin to understand “this way” — that “…the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way…” we begin to understand one of the central mysteries of Advent and the Christmas season — which is that the baby Jesus will be Emmanuel. 
And by God’s grace we begin to understand the great mystery of Emmanuel, which is that God is with us. 
And the great mystery of Emmanuel is more than just that God is with us, it is that God becomes human, really human — with us. [8]
The great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, describes the miracle of God’s humanity this way. He writes, 
“…it’s not enough to say that God takes care of human beings….in the conception and birth of Jesus Christ, God took on humanity in bodily fashion. God raised his love for human beings above every reproach of falsehood and doubt and uncertainty by himself entering into the life of human beings as a human being, by bodily taking upon himself and bearing the nature, essence, guilt, and suffering of human beings. Out of love for human beings, God becomes a human being. He does not seek out the most perfect human being in order to unite with that person. Rather, he takes on human nature as it is.” [9]
“The infinite mercy of the almighty God comes to us, descends to us in the form of a child, his Son. That this child is born for us, this Son is given to us, that this human child and Son of God belongs to me, that I know him, have him, love him, that I am his and he is mine — on this alone my life now depends. A child has our life in his hands…” [10]
Bonhoeffer’s reminder that the child would have our lives in his hands was no mere hyperbole. As the text today reminds us in the angel speaking to Joseph: “…you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21).

In this fourth Sunday of Advent, this must be the center of our focus. Don’t let the stress of the secular siren song steal this truth from your mind: that the child in the manger, who once came to earth and dwelt in flesh, is the man Jesus Christ, in whom is contained all the fullness of the divine nature, in whose hands rests the salvation of the world. 

In fact, in the mystery of Christmas, the salvation of humanity has already begun through Christ’s perfect humanity. Christ as “God-with-us” makes it possible for us to enter into perfect communion with the most Holy Trinity.

The ancient Christian creeds would find language to describe this union of divinity and humanity in Jesus, when they stated that Jesus was “very God and very man.” [11]The mystery of the revelation of God in Jesus Christ consists in the fact that the eternal Word of God chose, sanctified and assumed human nature and existence into oneness with Himself, in order [that], as very God and very man, [he would] become the Word of reconciliation spoken by God to man. The sign of this mystery revealed in the resurrection of Jesus Christ is the miracle of His birth, that He was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.” [12]

And what is so important about Jesus who is both “very God and very man” is that God wants to join with us, his creation, and be reconciled. Not because we are perfect. Not because we have it all together. But because, out of his great love for us, God has given us one of the greatest signs of the divine Yes! to all humanity - he has joined with us in the human condition.

And because God has done this, we can be witnesses to something truly different in this world. While so many religious systems around the world require your perfection (or even your obliteration), only true Godself — very God and very man— reveals the God who condescends and comes down to us out of great love and a desire to share with us the communion which already exists (and has existed) among the triune Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Meaning for us that, there is no perfection which we can or are expected to achieve. Only we look in faith towards the truest Perfection and perfect Gift, Jesus Christ, who himself comes and achieves for us and on our behalf, salvation, which is itself a gift. 

My prayer for you over the next several days is that you will cast off the distractions of the secular season for a good, long, (even) silent stretch of time. And that you will just sit still before the remarkable reality that God became a child. That God became Emmanuel. God with us.

As Bonhoeffer has said,
“Mighty God (Isa. 9:6) is the name of this child. The child in the manger is none other than God himself. Nothing greater can be said: God became a child. In the Jesus child of Mary lives the almighty God.
[And so] Wait a minute!
Don’t speak; stop thinking!
Stand still before this statement!
God became a child!
Here he is, poor like us, miserable and helpless like us, a person of flesh and blood like us, our brother. And yet he is God; he is might. 
Where is the divinity, where is the might of the child? In the divine love in which he became like us. His poverty in the manger is his might. In the might of love he overcomes the chasm between God and humankind, he overcomes sin and death, he forgives sin and awakens from the dead. Kneel down before this miserable manger, before this child of poor people, and repeat in faith the stammering words of the prophet: “Mighty God!” And he will be your God and your might.” [13]

Let’s pray.


[1] Brigide Schulte, “For women, it’s the most stressful time of the year” The Washington Post, 20 Dec. 2013. Accessed online at
[2] Aaron Klink, Feasting on the Word: Year A, “Pastoral Reflection on Matthew 1:18-25.” Kindle location 3438-3485.
[3] Schulte, “Stressful.” Washington Post.
[4] Daniel Harrell, “Living By the Word.” The Christian Century. Accessed online at
[5] Ibid.
[6] For example, Karl Barth! Cf. CD I,2 “The Miracle of Christmas” [KD p.187; CD p. 172]
[7] This is the Incarnation. Of it, the great scholar of the Incarnation, Thomas Torrance, would say, “By the Incarnation, Christian theology means that at a definite point in space and time the Son of God became man, born at Bethlehem of Mary, a virgin espoused to a man called Joseph, a Jew of the tribe and lineage of David, and towards the end of the reign of Herod the Great in Judaea. Given the name of Jesus, He fulfilled His mission from the Father, living out the span of earthly life allotted to Him until He was crucified under Pontius Pilate, but when after three days He rose again from the dead the eyes of Jesus’ disciples were opened to what it all meant: they knew Him to be God’s Son, declared with power and installed in Messianic Office, and so they went out to proclaim Him to all nations as the Lord and Saviour of the world. Thus it is the faith and understanding of the Christian Church that in Jesus Christ God Himself in His own Being has come into our world and is actively present as personal Agent within our physical and historical existence. As both God of God and Man of man Jesus Christ is the actual Mediator between God and man and man and God in all things, even in regard to space-time relations. He constitutes in Himself the rational and personal Medium in whom God meets man in his creaturely reality and brings man without, having to leave his creaturely reality, into communion with Himself.” [Space, Time and Incarnation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1969), 52]. 
[8] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas (Louisville: WJK Press, 2010), 50. 
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid., 56.
[11] Cf. Nicene Creed
[12] Italics quoted directly from Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics: The Doctrine of the Word of God, Part 2, vol. 1 (London; New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 122.
[13] Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger, 58.