Written by Steven Liechty
Sunday, December 22
Fourth Sunday in Advent
Emmanuel: God With Us
Shepherd of Israel, may Jesus, Emmanuel and son of Mary, be more than just a dream in our hearts. With the apostles, prophets, and saints, save us, restore us, and lead us in the way of grace and peace, that we may bear your promise into the world. Amen.
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, ëGod 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.
All readings for this week
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Questions for reflection
1. How does Joseph's acceptance of Jesus and Mary into his life model extravagant hospitality for the United Church of Christ today?
2. What situations lead you to ask for a sign from God, a word of leading? What new paths might God be calling you to take?
3. Do the people of your congregation experience themselves as vulnerable? If not, what is the foundation on which your assurance is built?
4. How do we name Jesus in our lives: does it matter that Emmanuel is in our midst, each day?
5. Do we name ourselves disciples of Jesus? Do we think of ourselves that way, each day, and let it affect how we live our lives?
Reflection by Kate Huey
Our Advent readings have certainly built up our hopes and expectations, with promises about war turning into peace; gentleness, not violence, becoming "the norm" even in nature itself; and all of us coming home at last to the God of healing, wholeness, and reconciliation. We've been looking forward, not backward, in this season of anticipation, and today's reading brings us to the long-awaited moment of God's dramatic "new thing," God's fresh, new act in the drama of salvation. Perhaps we hear the story of Jesus' birth in the Gospel of Luke from Mary's perspective, but here, in the Gospel of Matthew, we get Joseph's point of view.
Things get interesting very quickly. Matthew's economy of words doesn't provide a lot of details but does try to help us understand what's going through Joseph's mind during these extraordinary events. Even so, commentators don't interpret that information the same way: is Joseph's plan to "dismiss her quietly" a merciful thing to do, or an act that frees him from dealing with the situation and leaves Mary to the mercies of a culture that might exact a much harsher punishment, perhaps even death? Richard Swanson offers an excellent, fuller discussion of the latter interpretation in his book, Provoking the Gospel of Matthew: A Storyteller's Commentary, but many others draw a gentler picture of this mysterious figure in the infancy narrative.
Two Josephs, both righteous men
For example, David Bartlett makes an intriguing comparison between this Joseph and his ancestor in Genesis: like the earlier Joseph, this one "reads dreams to receive God's revelation...travels into Egypt in fulfilment of a divine plan he does not altogether understand...[and] is a 'righteous' man." One reading of the text that challenges us is also one that we might connect with most meaningfully: Joseph as a man who wants to be observant and faithful to the Law but also answers to an inner sense of compassion and mercy (we might say, the Spirit) when he chooses not to humiliate Mary with a public divorce. After all, the early Christians of Matthew's community (just like us today) struggled with this question of obeying the heart of the Law while remaining faithful to the imperative to love one another. For them, the word "righteous" didn't mean hypocritical or judgmental, but faithful and good, and Joseph is surely faithful and good, the text tells us. He strives to obey the Law but perhaps not strictly: "Joseph is already facing the 'you-have-heard-it-was-said-but-I-say-to-you' tension that will be displayed in the Sermon on the Mount (5:21-48)," M. Eugene Boring writes, "the tension between the prevailing understanding of God's commandments and the new thing that God is doing in Jesus." In fact, Boring calls this "a central problem in Matthew's community, the relation of keeping the letter of the Law and being accepted by God as a righteous person." Believers in every age have struggled with what to do when what we've been taught to do conflicts with what our hearts know is right and good. What then is true righteousness?
For the early Christians and for us today, the example and teachings of Jesus illuminate what Mary Hinkle Shore calls a "good" kind of righteousness that doesn't mean "a slavish, inhumane attention to the letter of the law...[but] to live with one's words and actions in sync and to have both focused on the values identified in the Beatitudes (cf Matt.5:1-12) and exemplified by Jesus in his ministry....In Joseph's case, righteousness leads to mercy." Mary the mother of Jesus is vulnerable in this story, as so many women are in every time and place, and not only women, but children, the sick, the old, the poor, nature itself. Of course there are many folks who experience the "righteousness" of some Christians not as mercy or love but as harsh judgment. If Joseph provides an example for us of faithfulness tempered and shaped by mercy, how might we re-learn the meaning of "righteousness" as followers of Jesus in our own time?
What is God about here?
As we wrestle with this question, we know that we are not on our own: the Spirit of God remains with us always. In fact, this story is teaching us something about that presence of God with us. It's right there in Jesus' other name, Emmanuel, "God-with-us." Matthew's spare story-telling isn't concerned with providing us with a pretty nativity scene for our Christmas decorations: he has more pressing issues, like establishing who this Jesus is, and just what is going on here with this remarkable turn of events. This is a new and very important thing that is happening, and God is doing it. In fact, while the story tells us what Joseph did in response to events around him, Hinkle Shore writes, the main character in action here is God, so "it is fitting to give God some verbs here," for in this story it's God whose Spirit has come upon Mary in the first place; it's God who speaks to Joseph, calms his fears and gives him instructions, and, in the end, "comes to the aid of Israel and 'all people according to their needs.'"
This unique gift of "the God who saves" is Jesus, who is "more than the accumulated best of his ancestors," Charles Cousar writes in Texts for Preaching Year A. Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, we watch and listen as Jesus reveals the hand of God at work in the world, undoing the damage that has been done by human sin, so this extraordinary birth "is the beginning of the fulfillment of God's saving purposes," Cousar says; "The fresh, new act of God ushers in an age, long expected and hoped for, yet in a fashion so unusual that it could hardly be anticipated." Once again, those promises of things we can scarcely imagine: peace, healing, reconciliation, salvation, the dream of peace so poetically described by the prophet Isaiah long ago.
Emmanuel--God with us--at the beginning and the end
The name "Emmanuel" (God with us) is more than a nice name for a sweet baby. You might say that it frames the whole Gospel of Matthew, Hinkle Shore observes; it tells the story of what God is about, and for the early Jewish Christians it was especially clear that this gift of Jesus was meant to fulfill the longing of their ancestors for all people, not just their own, to recognize God as their Lord, too. In Jesus, they could encounter God and experience God's saving grace, God's tender mercies, God's healing love. But we know that in Jesus we hear about God's expectations, too, even though we know they are beyond our capacity if left to our own devices. And those beautiful Beatitudes coming up in Chapter Five of Matthew's Gospel are indeed hard to live up to, as are many of the teachings of Jesus. Fortunately, God does not leave entirely to our own devices but instead showers us with grace.
When we are afraid or feel we can never measure up to the demands of the gospel, we might ponder with Joseph the meaning of the name of Jesus, "he will save," and remember that it's God who is acting here, not we ourselves, Charles Cousar reminds us. In our own efforts to be "righteous," there's One who helps us when we fall short, One who is always with us. In fact, that's why we can say that "Emmanuel" frames the entire Gospel of Matthew: it begins with a baby who is "God with us," and ends with that child, grown, promising that he will always be with us. As David Bartlett writes, "In many ways the whole purpose of Matthew's Gospel is to show how Jesus is 'Emmanuel', God with us, and at the end of the story [28:20] Jesus will promise to be Emmanuel for the rest of human history as well."
For further reflection
Walter Brueggemann, 21st century
"God will recruit as necessary from the human cast in order to reorder human history."
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., 20th century
"Righteousness is easy in retrospect."
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
"All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen."
Albert Einstein, 20th century
"True religion is real living; living with all one's soul, with all one's goodness and righteousness."
St. John of the Cross, 16th century
"Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be a better light, and safer than a known way."
"In the evening, we will judged on love."
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