God with us
December 23, 2007 Speaker: Rev. Jack Meehan
Topic: Biblical Verse: Matthew 1:18–1:25
Fourth Sunday in Advent
"God with Us"
It happens just like that, when we least expect it - disappointment. We make our plans and map everything out so carefully, and then it all falls apart. All of us have experienced this in some way: plans we had that didn't work out, goals for self that were never realized, betrayal of trust, loss of a loved one. The disappointment may be brief and short-lived; it may also be deep and long-lasting, throwing us into a downward spiral, maybe even depression. Joseph must have experienced profound disappointment when he learned that his intended, his beloved Mary, was pregnant, and he was not the father. Joseph's world was in a shambles; any security or confidence he had was gone. Our own situation isn't much different today. When the rug is pulled out from under us, we also feel vulnerable and exposed. We may ask ourselves, "Where is God now?" And the answer is, as it has always been, that God has not abandoned us. God remains with us. On this Fourth Sunday in Advent, that is the theme for today's message: "God with Us." May the Lord's rich blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word, for Jesus' sake.
Today's first lesson (Isaiah 7:10-16) and Gospel lesson (Matthew 1:18-25) speak of the One called Immanuel, which means "God with us." Frequently in life, we try to turn this around, putting ourselves in the driver's seat. The phrase is flipped so that it reads: "Us with God," rather than "God with us." This was the case with King Ahaz in today's first lesson. Here, we run across the name "Immanuel" for the first time, and under less-than-noble circumstances. Ahaz was king of Judah, and he was caught in a situation between "God with us" and "us with God"; that is, trust in God or trust in himself. The context here is the alliance between the northern kingdom of Israel and Syria, who combined forces against Assyria, the superpower of the middle east at this time. Israel and Syria were threatening Ahaz and Judah with destruction unless he joined them against Assyria. Ahaz didn't wish to set his nation against the military might of Assyria, and so he sided with them, rather than Israel and Syria. In the verses preceding today's first lesson, the prophet Isaiah proposes another alternative - do nothing. Instead of seeking help from the Assyrians or attempting other desperate measures to save himself, Ahaz should trust God for deliverance. Ahaz, so accustomed to taking matters into his own hands, is exhorted to demonstrate his faith in God by doing nothing at all. Ahaz refuses this offer because he has already decided what he's going to do, and he doesn't want any signs from God to complicate things. Ahaz has some lame excuse about not putting God to the test, but he ignores the fact that this sign is offered through God's own initiative, not man's! And so God himself will give a sign: a young woman, a virgin, will conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. This will be sign of God's presence, both as a judgment against Ahaz's trust in Assyria rather than God, and as a message of hope and deliverance for those whose trust is in the Lord. Let us remember that the promise of Immanuel was a two-edged sword. For some, the "God with us" is a welcome blessing; for others, like Ahaz, it is an unwanted intrusion.
Contrary to Ahaz's stubborn refusal to trust is Joseph's righteousness and obedience. Joseph is a righteous man because he is willing to do what the law required in the case of adultery, and divorce Mary. However, his respect for the law does not cause him to lost sight of the divine quality of mercy, and he resolves to settle the matter as quietly as possible in order not to make a public spectacle of Mary. The film, The Nativity Story, which was shown in theaters last year, vividly portrays what this would have been like, and the personal dilemma that both Joseph and Mary faced. After Joseph learns that this pregnancy is the work of the Holy Spirit, his righteousness is further demonstrated by his willing obedience to do what God has called him to do: take Mary as his wife. What was spoken by Isaiah to Ahaz so many centuries before now finds its fulfillment in the Child that Mary will bear: Jesus, who is Immanuel, God-with-us. He is what his name says: "He will save his people from their sins" (Matt. 1:21).
God with us. The question is not whether God could or would bring about a virgin birth, or angels to appear to people, or any of the other things that Scripture tells us about Jesus' coming into the world. The real question is why the Lord of all the universe should care enough about us to become one of us? And on top this, how could anyone believe this? Luther was amazed about this, and so should we, that Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, and all the others could believe this. As he states: The virgin birth was a trivial thing compared with the virgin's faith. Matthew does not share our modern fascination with the hows and whys of this event. Matthew is content to say that it is the work of the Holy Spirit, and is in accord with God's plan of salvation. God's salvation begins with God's presence, and that presence is centered in Jesus, who is Immanuel, God-with-us. This is our Advent hope and our Christmas joy.
God has a strange way of doing things, no doubt about it. The One who is Immanuel, God-with-us, is also the One who is God-for-us. Jesus was not born for us because we are human. He did not enter our world, live the life of a humble servant, suffer and die upon the cross because we are flesh and blood. He did all of this because we are sinners who have fallen short of the glory of God. He is what He does: "He will save his people from their sins" (Matt. 1:21). Thanks be to God, Jesus has done this very thing. There is hope for our disappointments, and where there is hope, there is a future, for Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. Amen.