Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Promise of Presence

Matthew 1:18-25, Isaiah 7:14
Advent 4
December 18, 2016
William G. Carter

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.

“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.” (Isaiah 7:14)

Our Bible study on the Gospel of Matthew was winding up. For many weeks and months, a group of retired men had slogged with me through the pages of the first gospel. It took a lot of time and some concentrated effort, but finally we got to the end of chapter 28. Jesus stands on the mountain, like a resurrected Moses, and sends his followers out into every corner of the earth to make more followers. Then he says, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

“Wait a second,” said one of the men, “I’m looking for something.” He’s flipping the pages furiously. He puts his finger down on chapter one. “I just realized this book ends the same way that I begins.” Everybody looked at him, and so he explained. “Jesus says ‘I am with you always’ at the end of the book. On the very first page, he is named Emmanuel, God with us.’”

It’s always good when the lights go on in a Bible study, and that was a particularly bright moment. Of all the promises of Advent, we have the promise of presence – God’s presence – with us always.

This is not the first time in the Bible that God makes the promise. Our father Isaac was traveling to a place called Beer-sheba, and that night the Lord appeared to him and said, "Don't be afraid: I am with you" (Gen. 26:24). Our father Jacob was on the lam, running away from his twin brother. And God came to him and said, "I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go" (Gen. 28:15).  Six times, God spoke to a prophet named Jeremiah and said, "Don't worry; I am with you."  Throughout the Jewish scriptures, this is one of the repeated sayings of God: I am with you.

Even the apostle Paul, father of the church, heard the voice. He went to Corinth to preach the Good News of God, and people started to give him a hard time about it. He grumbled right back at them. One night, the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision, and said, "Don't be afraid. Keep preaching; for I am with you." (Acts 18:1-11)

Most of the time when God speaks like this, the people of God are homeless, or are on the run, or scattered to the four winds. So God interrupts to declare, "Don't be afraid. I am with you." And this is the context for the dream which comes upon Joseph one night. "Don't be afraid to take Mary as your wife. Don't be afraid to receive the child Jesus as a gift. For in him like no other, as you touch his flesh and hear his voice, you will know God is with us."  And then Joseph, in one story after another, comes to know that God makes good on this promise.

What’s unusual about this particular story is that is given as a name, or at least as a nickname. “Emmanu” is the Hebrew prefix, and it means “with us.” The ancient name for God is “Elohim,” or “El” for short. Emmanuel names “the With-Us God.” Or as the writer of Matthew spells it out, “God is with us.”

This is the promise of God to God’s people: “I will be with you,” says the Lord God of Israel. If you want to understand the Bible, it’s one account after another of what this looks like. Sometimes God is a comforting presence, other times God is a disturbing presence. Sometimes God guides wandering people as a pillar of fire in a dark night. Other times God wrestles with a rascal like Jacob, throws his hip out of joint, and then blesses Jacob as he limps away.

Matthew speaks this word as a parenthetical remark. He interrupts his own story of Joseph and his dream to say this is the ancient promise, now completed. The old prophet Isaiah announced a child named Emmanuel. It took eight hundred years, but Matthew says, “Here he is.” And even though his name technically is not Emmanuel – it’s Yeshua, or Jesus, Matthew tells us what he himself has discovered: that when you meet this child, you will know who he is. He is “Emmanuel” - - “God with us.”

This is an important word. It lies at the heart of everything that scripture promises. A lot of people are intimidated by the Bible. It’s big, it’s heavy, it’s old, the pages are dipped in gold – but here is the key that unlocks all the treasures in that Book: God is with us. Emmanuel.

You hear it in the Bible when people pray: “O Lord, where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even then your hand shall hold me, and your right hand shall hold me fast?” (Psalm 139:7-11)  Emmanuel – God is with us.

Or you can hear it elsewhere in the Bible, when the prayer turns sour and God is held accountable: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” Now, that’s a great way to pray, because it expects God to make good on the promise so frequently voiced in scripture, “I will be with you always, to the close of the age.”

The problem, of course, comes when we stop saying the word “Emmanuel,” and we start filling our lives with our own pursuits. Sometime back, a Catholic priest named Henri Nouwen described how Christmas still looks to so many of us:

“In our secularized Western society Christmas offers a good occasion to experience [an] illusory happiness that offers a short break in our fear-filled lives. For many, Christmas is not longer the day to celebrate the mystery of the birth of God among us, the God hidden in the wounds of humanity. It is no longer the day of the child, awaited with prayer and repentance, contemplated with watchful attentiveness, and remembered in liturgical solemnity, joyful song, and peaceful family meals.

Instead, Christmas has become a time when companies send elaborate gifts to their clients to thank them for their business, when post offices work overtime to process an overload of cards, when immense amounts of money are spent on food and drink, and socializing becomes a full-time activity. There are trees, decorated streets, sweet tunes in the supermarkets, and children saying to their parents: I want this and I want that.’ The shallow happiness of busy people often fills the place meant to experience the deep, lasting joy of Emmanuel, God-with-us.”[1]

You’ve heard the Christmas messages of our consumer culture, just as I have: keep busy, move fast, consume more, over-function, turn up the volume, and when all else fails, feel guilty that you haven’t bought enough or done enough. The sadness is that none of this really has anything to do with God, much less welcoming God’s presence into the every-day. And I think that the reason why people go to church at this time of year, more than any other, is because they know in their bones that all that consumer stuff out there is not real. Contentment doesn’t come from high speed or ceaseless activity. Real Comfort does not pour out of a bottle of Southern Comfort. And joy – well, you have to slow down long enough for joy to find you.

God is with us. That is the Gospel’s announcement. It comes through an inconvenient birth in untidy circumstances. Joseph did not want it, any more than Mary ever expected it. But it was God, making his way into his own world. In the birth of Jesus, God would come to rescue and save, to share our sorrow and joy, to be completely with us, in the great hope that we would live with him. And it is the people who are most hungry from God’s presence who see this most clearly. In the midst of all their flaws, inconsistencies, and unfinished business, they welcome the “With-Us God.”

Some years ago, I heard the story of an Episcopalian priest named of George Everett Ross. He was a great preacher and a deeply flawed human being. He served as the rector of the church where Alcoholics Anonymous was founded, and he himself struggled with his own secret addictions. His life was a bundle of contradictions. But he kept preaching the gospel. The secret of good ministry, he once said, is found in having a clear view of Christmas. God comes to share our human life, so that our human lives might be transformed. Here's how George Everett Ross said it in one of his sermons:

We come, all of us, to Christ in our loneliness and need, and we find that He is lonely, too. We show him our scars; He shows us His. We show Him our crown of thorns; He tells us the story of His. We thirst and so does He. It is upon the basis of our common humanity that God comes to us. As we share our sorrows and pains with Jesus, He shares God's love and grace with us.[2]

The word for today is Emmanuel: God is with us. In every way, God is with us. Every day of the year, God is with us. In every dark night, in every dark place, God is with us. Even if you forget everything else, remember this: God is with us. Every day of every year, let the children’s Christmas carol be your prayer: 

     Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay / close by me forever, and love me, I pray;
     Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care / and fit us for Heaven to live with Thee there.

Both in the life to come, but especially right in the middle of this life, God is with us. Jesus Christ is here, waiting to be born in you. Let every heart prepare him room.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Henri Nouwen, Lifesigns (1986), p. 98.
[2] Leonard I. Sweet, Strong in the Broken Places: A Theological Reverie on the Ministry of George Everett Ross (Akron, OH: University of Akron Press, 1995) 17.

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