Sermon Seeds: Emmanuel: God With Us

Fourth Sunday of Advent Year A

Lectionary citations
Isaiah 7:10-16
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-25

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Matthew 1:18-25
Additional reflection on Matthew 1:18-25

Weekly Theme:
Emmanuel: God With Us

by Kathryn Matthews 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.

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” (New Proclamation Commentary on the Gospels). 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” (Matthew, The New Interpreter’s Bible). 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” (New Proclamation Year A 2007-2008). Mary 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?

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'” (New Proclamation Year A 2007-2008).   

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.

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, that 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, Hinkle Shore writes (New Proclamation Year A 2007-2008). 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. Those beautiful Beatitudes are hard to live up to, as are many of the teachings of Jesus. 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, Charles Cousar reminds us, we ourselves. 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 “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: “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” (David Bartlett, New Proclamation Commentary on the Gospels).   

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Additional reflection on Matthew 1:18-25:

Do the people of your congregation experience themselves as vulnerable? Do you experience yourself as vulnerable and weak? If not, what is your security, and what is the foundation on which your assurance is built? Where does your strength come from? If you do experience yourselves as vulnerable, are you also afraid? How do the readings today speak to that fear? The angel tells Joseph not to fear, and gives him clear instructions about what to do with a difficult situation in his life. But the instructions themselves take Joseph away from the security of the law and the practice of his people. The wisdom imparted in this dream – for it is true that God speaks to us in many ways, and Joseph was a good listener – led Joseph down an unsure and even scandalous path.

And yet the good news is true and brings salvation to the people, including us today. The name so prominent in two readings today – Emmanuel – means “God with us.” God is still with us, today, even as God was experienced as near at hand in two very different settings in today’s readings.

If God is with us today, God is also not silent, but still speaking to us. God is still assuring us, telling us not to be afraid, strengthening us. What are the situations in your congregation that lead you to ask for a sign from God, a word of leading? What new paths might God be calling you to take? How do we name Jesus in our lives – as friend, savior, God? Do we find in him a challenge, an assurance, a sure help in times of sorrow and trouble? How do we name ourselves, especially as Christians, as disciples? Do we think of ourselves that way, each day, and let it affect how we live our lives? How does it matter that Emmanuel is in our midst, each day? How does Joseph’s acceptance of Jesus and Mary into his life model extravagant hospitality for the United Church of Christ today, even if the consequences are unpredictable?

In what ways do we need to strike out in new directions, to persist in opening our doors and our hearts rather than seek righteousness in looking back instead of forward? In what ways do we need to listen to the Stillspeaking God for our instructions, too, as Joseph did so long ago? What is the good news that we await on this Fourth Sunday of Advent? What dreams do we have of something new and different and daunting? What hope longs to come to fruition? In what ways do we need to be restored by the birth of this baby, and the coming of the Reign of God? What are we doing, and what do we need to do, to participate in its coming?

Lectionary texts

Isaiah 7:10-16

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”

Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel,
  you who lead Joseph like a flock!
You who are enthroned upon the cherubim,

shine forth before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.
  Stir up your might, and come to save us!

Restore us, O God; let your face shine,
  that we may be saved.

O Sovereign God of hosts, how long
  will you be angry with your people’s prayers?
You have fed them with the bread of tears,
  and given them tears to drink in full measure.

You make us the scorn of our neighbors;
  our enemies laugh among themselves.

Restore us, O God of hosts;
  let your face shine, that we may be saved.

But let your hand be upon the one at your right hand,
  the one whom you made strong for yourself.

Then we will never turn back from you;
  give us life, and we will call on your name.

Restore us, O Sovereign God of hosts;
  let your face shine, that we may be saved.

Romans 1:1-7

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Matthew 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.

Liturgical notes on the Readings

In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:

First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel

The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.

The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.

A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.

Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors

Advent and Christmas

The Violet color for Advent is traditionally connected with royalty and penitence. Blue is symbolic of expectation and hope, not only for the birth of Christ, but also for Christ’s return at the end of history. Rose on the third Sunday of Advent, which was Gaudete (Joy), provided a little relief from the somberness of Advent in earlier times. Some Advent wreath sets include a rose candle. White first appears on Christmas Eve and may be continued through the Sunday after Christmas, Epiphany, and the Sunday after Epiphany (celebrated by many as the Baptism of Christ) to show that all of these events are related in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. White is also used for Easter and Sundays following. (Some traditions use Gold or both for Christmas and Easter.)