Sermon: God With Us

A stylized image of an angel hovering over a sleeping man.

December 22, 2019
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Matthew 1:18-25

by Eric Anderson

All the stories of Jesus’ birth have something in common: the unpredictability of it all, the intrusiveness of it all, the world-overturning plans-unmaking you-may-have-had-your-ideas-of-what-would-happen-but-I-am-God-and-I-will-get-my-way of it all.

Consider Joseph.

Unlike Luke, whose Gospel concentrates on Mary, Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ birth from Joseph’s point of view. The second half of verse 18 shows Joseph’s world thrown into disarray: “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.”

The engagement was not a trivial matter. The stages of getting married were different for first century Jews than they are for twenty-first century Americans. The parents made the decision about the marriages of their children. A couple might express their preferences, but the parents (well, in a patriarchal culture, it’s probably really the father) had not just to agree but to make the arrangements. Parents got together, drew up an agreement, and when that had been finalized the couple was, to use an old word, betrothed.

It’s important to realize that this agreement was considered final. Betrothal itself was a legal commitment. Unlike our twenty-first century engagements, breaking a betrothal required a divorce – our translators here have rendered it as “dismiss” – involving some kind of local authority to confirm it. The expectations were clear. Mary and Joseph were formally committed to one another as firmly as if they had held the wedding feast and moved into the same house.

Joseph could only have seen her pregnancy as a betrayal, as a disaster, and as the catastrophic end of his ideas for the future.

Matthew doesn’t tell us anything about the conversation they had when Mary told Joseph she was expecting. I’m sure your imaginations will summon up a heartbreaking scene of tears and recrimination, of adamant assertions of truthfulness and equally adamant rejections of her word. I’m sure your imaginations will sympathize both with Mary and with Joseph. She, after all, told the truth. Could he, after all, be expected to believe her?

Maren Tirabassi writes: “To believe this is the hardest and the deepest joy. How many sleepless nights before he fell asleep to dream?”

How many sleepless nights before he fell asleep to dream?

Eight centuries before, King Ahaz of Jerusalem had had some sleepless nights. He feared with reason an alliance of nations gathered against his nation of Judah. When the prophet Isaiah turned up, he was so dismayed he wouldn’t even listen to the offer of a sign from God that his people would be safe.

Rather annoyed, Isaiah announced that a child would be born and by the time it was eating solid food the threat would have ended. It might have been Isaiah’s own wife who was expecting, and so he was pleased to announce that the child would receive a name filled with prophetic import: Immanuel, which means “God with us.”

How many sleepless nights did Ahaz spend, and refused to dream that God could be with them?

How about you? How many sleepless nights would you spend if anyone asked you to believe that the invaders on the march would return home? How many sleepless nights would you spend if anyone asked you to believe that Mary was telling the truth, that her pregnancy was not a betrayal of her betrothed but a fulfillment of a promise of the Holy One? Who would ask you to believe such a thing?

Well, I would. I do. I am.

In fact, I want you to believe a harder thing.

I want you to believe in this child whose name in its Hebrew original translates “God saves.” I want you to believe that this child is the great manifestation of “God with us.”

And I want you to do it without an angelic dream. I’ve no objections if you have them, but all I can promise you is this non-angelic messenger right here.

I want you to trust in God with us.

Don’t let it give you sleepless nights. Dream it.

It’s a curious thing about God with us. Jesus made it bigger than Jesus.

The very last parable of Jesus that Matthew recounted in chapter 25 of his gospel is the one we usually call “the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats” – even though there aren’t any sheep and there aren’t any goats in it. Jesus described a grand final judgement and a division of the people into two groups, the way one divides a flock of sheep from a herd of goats. The difference between the two groups is whether or not they saw the Son of Man when he was hungry and gave him food, or thirsty and gave him something to drink, when he was a stranger and they welcomed him, or naked and gave him clothing, or sick and in prison and visited him? “Truly I tell you,” says the divine figure in the story, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Christians, unsurprisingly, have interpreted the Son of Man in this story as Jesus himself, judging humanity at the end of time. Matthew placed it to stand as the final word of Jesus’ teaching before entering the narrative of his crucifixion and resurrection. The last word: “If you don’t remember anything else about what Jesus said,” Matthew told us, “remember this.”

Remember what?

That every human being around you is, in some sense, Jesus. The way you treat any human being around you is the way you are treating Jesus. And what is Jesus? Matthew told us that back here in chapter one:

God with us.

As far as Matthew and Jesus are concerned, how we treat one another is how we treat God.

Karoline Lewis writes at Working Preacher: “The promise of Jesus’ birth and Jesus’ name is, ‘God is with us,’ not ‘God is with you.’ That first-person plural pronoun establishes how God in the flesh chooses to be in the world. Not for our individual gain or theological guarantee. Not for our personal salvation. But to remind us of who we are meant to be and supposed to be—people in community, with God. People oriented toward the other because of God.”

How many sleepless nights will we spend before we dream of orienting ourselves toward the other because they are God with us?

Regrettably, that means the family members who irritate us, the near neighbors who annoy us, the political figures who depress us are also God with us. We’d like to dismiss them, even make them stand in for demonic figures, especially when they do frightful and horrific things. We must not do that. Your best friend is God with us. Your worst enemy is also God with us.

If Jesus’ parable makes our neighbors into God with us, it also makes us into God with them. It means that our actions tell them something not just about who we are, but also about who God is. Is God welcoming? Is God kind? Is God generous? Is God loving? If so, we as representatives of God, as parts of the Body of Christ to use the Apostle Paul’s metaphor, dare we be and do anything less than what God would? Dare we present to the world a God so small?

But if we are God to them, they are also God to us – at least, they can be. I wonder how often Joseph found God in Mary, and how often the young boy Jesus found God in Joseph and Mary. How often has someone been tender to you? How often have you recognized in that tenderness the sweet mercy of God?

How many sleepless nights do we spend before we dream that our neighbors are God with us?

Who is God with us? Jesus is.

Who is God with us? Your neighbor is.

Who is God with us? You are.

Who is God with us?

To care, to hold, to heal, to forgive, to strengthen, to renew, to hope, to love: We are.

Will you set aside the sleepless nights and dream it, and believe it, and trust it, and hope it, and live it?

God is with us.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

God With Us

No, the sermon as preached does not match the sermon as prepared. How likely was that, anyway?

The image is the Dream of Joseph, a mural in the Ateni Sioni Church in Atenia, Republic of Georgia. Photo by Kober – Own work, Public Domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: | Posted on December 22, 2019

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