Pastor Walther / Advent 4 / Matthew 1:18-25 / December 18, 2016 / Immanuel: With us, God!
A few days ago, a child dying of cancer wanted to see Santa. As this actor who was playing Santa embraced this child, the child died in his arms. This man quickly saw the role that he played in this child’s life and mentioned that children need the joy that only Santa can bring. While we may look at that moment and shed a tear at how precious the story may be, we see that from little on, we are searching for comfort. However, I question whether these heart warming stories of love and embrace are founded on truth and reality. What the child wanted, was Santa. That was reality in his eyes. However, when you take a step back and look at the true reality, we see that Santa was an actor, an imposter.
That story illustrates how we are constantly searching for the reality that puts our wants and our desires first, without seeing the big picture. Our reality is only focused on ourselves and our perspective. We become delusional, thinking that we are God’s gift to the world. That we can solve all of life’s problems. That we can do all this on our own. That we can plan for the future with our own wisdom. But, we worry how we’ll make it all work out. We wonder how we can manage our lives when our lives are so messed up because of sin and it’s consequences. And so we grasp at whatever makes us feel good, rather than exposing and revealing the curtains of reality: maybe it’s an actor playing Santa telling us that we’ve been good, maybe it’s that one government leader who seems to take interest in my social group, or a pornagraphic video that helps us take the edge off. But our reality is skewed. We continue to focus on our symptoms rather than the problem. We are only seeing the road to the future from our perspective. We can’t see it from other people’s perspective and we sure can’t see what is waiting for us around the curve of that road. Our reality is always “me first.”
Have you ever had a conversation with someone when both your mottos for that conversation is “me first?” You can’t accomplish anything because you are fighting to have your voice be heard, you are fighting to have your view of reality imposed upon someone else’s view of reality: like a teenager thinking, “Me first” as they fight with their parents shouting that the parents don’t understand, or a husband and wife thinking, “Me first” as they argue about not helping out.
Now let’s just imagine a made up scenario where I, Pastor Walther, had a strong word to say about church signage in the community and I needed to speak to a government leader who unfortunately also had the motto, “Me first,” I would be turned down immediately. Unfortunately, that’s the situation that Isaiah the prophet kind of found himself in as he speaks to his government leaders. At the time of Isaiah, the land of Judah was being threatened by surrounding nations. The Lord assured his people that they had no reason to fear their enemies, even offering a sign and proof of his promise. But King Ahaz was a terrible ruler at that time and he refused God’s help. He simply could not bring himself to trust in God’s promise. Ahaz put himself first because his fears and his misgivings guided him. Sadly he had no foundation in reality.
The Jewish nation was no different. All that Israel wanted and hoped for was national restoration and glory, rather than the salvation of the world. The Jewish people were looking for a different messiah, one who would truly put Israel first and save them from the Roman oppression, and reestablish a kingdom like David or Solomon. They were trying to solve the symptoms rather than the problem. Israel put itself first because its fears and misgivings guided it. Sadly Israel had no foundation in reality either.
Even though King Ahaz and Israel didn’t want proof of the Lord’s promise of safekeeping, Isaiah said they would receive a sign of God’s love anyway. The prophet Isaiah revealed that the long awaited Messiah was coming, and the sign that anyone can look for would be that this Messiah would be born of an insignificant virgin. Now that goes beyond all unconventional wisdom. I don’t need to get into the birds and the bees, but there are a few things that are needed to make a baby. And from that miraculous yet lowly beginning, this Messiah would never ascend to the glory of David's throne. He would come to save people, not from the reality that they saw, but from the real problem. He came to save the world from sin. And with eyes wide open, Mary received this message of thousands of years of God planning our salvation. These words of Isaiah are what Mary got to experience.
The issue is that Mary couldn’t go around saying that she was pregnant, especially to her husband, when they hadn’t even been together yet. The beginning of marriages were a little different back in the day. Marriages were often arranged by the parents, and contracts were negotiated. After that, the individuals were considered already married. They did not, however, begin to live together. Instead, the husband and wife lived with their parents for one up to a year. The waiting period was to demonstrate the faithfulness of the pledge of purity. If the wife was found pregnant in that year, she obviously was not pure, but had been involved in an unfaithful relationship. If, however, the one-year waiting period demonstrated the purity of the bride, the husband would then go to the house of the bride’s parents and in a grand processional march lead his bride back to his home. There they would begin to live together as husband and wife and consummate their marriage. So, the pledge to be married would be more than what we call an engagement. They were considered husband and wife. Mary and Joseph were in the one-year waiting period when Mary was found pregnant.
Can you imagine the timidity that Mary must have had bringing this news to Joseph, or revealing this news to family and friends, or even the community? Who would believe her that she was having a child because an angel spoke to her? She could have gone with the “me first” attitude with this whole scenario. She could have tried to cover it up, or run away, or do something else drastic. However, the fears and the misgivings of Mary were removed because they had no foundation in truth and reality. Mary put aside herself; she put aside her “me first” attitude and put God first. She threw all her eggs in that basket, trusting in God.
In fact, after hearing this message, by going to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, Mary was demonstrating her complete reliance on God. She didn’t stick around to prove her innocence, but left it in the hands of God. By naming the child, Jesus, and Emmanuel, she would be confessing her trust in God. She would be saying that even in the midst of troublesome times she was firmly convinced that the Lord would not forsake his peoples but would provide for them and protect them against their enemies. She put Jesus first in her life.
Putting Jesus first would have been tough to hear, though, on Joseph’s end. After all, in the reality that Joseph saw, this was an illegitimate child, born outside of marriage. Because Joseph was a good man and still loved Mary, he had two options to divorce her. He could divorce her in a public lawsuit, which would lead to public disgrace, which was also the very thing that Joseph wanted to avoid. Or, as he decided to do, he could simply hand her a bill of divorce, dismissing her quietly. However, the gospel of Matthew shows us a side of Joseph that we often glance over: Joseph knew what the law of God said about unfaithfulness on the part of his wife, but at the same time he still loved Mary and was concerned about her welfare as a single mom.
Aren’t those concerns of Joseph the same concerns and the same denial made in our age of rationalism or people voicing their opinions without historical facts? We hear of Joseph struggling to believe something that sounds wrong, something that doesn’t make sense.
What a relief to hear the angel bringing that good news to Joseph’s bedside! The fears and the misgivings of Joseph were removed because they had no foundation in reality! He must have been filled with joy, for the sake both of Mary and himself. He understood that he could now be Mary’s protector, providing for her physical needs and defending her honor against all malicious slander. This child too would now have an earthly “father.” By claiming his wife, bringing her to his own home, Joseph would do God’s will, serve God’s son, shield and protect the mother of his Lord, and show himself a true prince of David’s line. In other words, instead of saying, “Me first,” Joseph put God first, put Mary first, and put Jesus first.
The angelic announcement required Joseph to believe two miracles: one lesser, one greater. Shockingly, the lesser is the miracle of the Virgin Birth. Yes, the lesser! The greater miracle is that the eternal God, whom the heavens cannot contain, became a human being. God was among us like one us! His personal name would be Jesus. But He was Immanuel! “Immanuel” designates what Jesus truly is, the God-man here to save us. We hear the translation for Immanuel, “God with us.” It’s interesting though that the Greek puts “with us” first for emphasis. In other words, the translation is “with us, God.” In spite of us always putting ourselves first, God put us first! Of all the people and things to live by the motto, “Me first,” God is the only one in existence that actually deserves to say, “Me first.” Yet, God in his love became like us to put us first.
He put us first even if it doesn’t make sense why. He put us first even if we don’t understand how he could do this. The angel simply said, this is true, even if our brains say, “That doesn’t make sense.”
But, God didn’t do this so that we could understand it, but that we might believe it. The name “Immanuel” “with us, God” shows something that goes beyond understanding.
We wonder why people around us don’t put God first in their lives? We see Christmas celebrations that have Christ as a theme but not the focus. Sometimes, I think it’s because they don’t see it first in our lives. If they don’t see the importance of God in our lives, why should it be important to them? It's easy to wake up in the morning and to instinctively think, “Me first.” But that attitude and mentality is not grounded in reality, that is only our perspective on what we think is reality. The reality is that God put us first because he loved us. Mary and Joseph could only put God first in their lives because God put us first, first! Mary and Joseph could only put the needs of each other first, because God put them first! The name Immanuel is an amazing reminder of God’s love for us, the love that put us first, and the same love that puts him first in our lives. That is truth that we want to share and the reality that has been revealed to us. Immanuel: with us, God! Amen.