“God with Us”
Dec. 18th, 2022
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
A problem. A dream. A choice. That’s what we hear about as the light fades in our northern world, as the days of this year count down, as Christmas appears on the horizon. A problem. A dream. A choice. (Oh, and one more thing—God with Us.)
Joseph indeed had a problem. His betrothed, his fiancée, the girl he intended to marry, but did not yet live with, was with child. And this, at least by some standards, was a very big deal. The Scriptures put it lightly (maybe even they could not write the reality of what might have happened). They say, “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, [Joseph] planned to divorce her quietly.” Was this really an option? Deuteronomy 22:20-21 said it was a disgrace to marry someone who was not a virgin. By law (says Seasons of the Spirit), Mary is destined to be stoned to death. One need only look at some of the countries in our world where women are shut away, or shunned, or executed, if they step outside of the approved way for women to act or behave, to know that Mary was in a really dangerous situation. No wonder she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth (in the version of this story in the gospel of Luke)!
I don’t know if the writer we name Matthew is just trying to skirt around this unseemly and all too real possibility of tragedy in his birth story of Jesus, or if there really were ways to “quietly” step away from a marriage arrangement. All we can truly say is that there was a problem—and Joseph knew about it. We don’t know if he talked about it with the elders in his family. We don’t know if he asked the advice of his friends. We know very little about this man who becomes so pivotal in our story—and who then becomes like a ghost in the rest of the gospel. But today, he is front and center.
For Joseph holds the whole story in his hands. He might not know it. But we do.
We don’t know how long Joseph mulled over this problem. As we come on the scene he thought he had made a decision. Did his heart wrench to think that he wouldn’t spend the rest of his life with Mary? What was this righteousness of his that the Scripture’s speak of? Did he think it unjust to put a young woman in such a precarious situation? Did he want to shield someone he loved from shame? Had he even been able to talk to her after she was “found to be with child”? (We so conflate the birth stories that we forget in Matthew’s version we don’t know about Mary and the angel. Matthew’s gospel opens with the genealogy of Jesus through Joseph, who in Matthew is Jesus’ connection to the house of David. And then come the verses we read this morning. There is no background. We are thrust into the story as Joseph is making his decision.)
Weary of all this thinking, all this turmoil, Joseph goes to sleep. And then he has a dream. An angel of the Lord appears to him. I don’t know about you, but whenever I read Scripture I always feel like I’m reading about another type of world. A world where angels just show up, and although we know there is some type of reaction (since angels are always saying, “Do not be afraid”), at least they are believed. They are seen. I have rarely seen angels in my life. And I'm not sure I would know that one was speaking to me in my dreams.
Maybe it was just a different time—when dreams were given more importance. But how would you distinguish between a dream that was just the result of undigested food (as Mr. Scrooge suggests in “A Christmas Carol”), and when you were having an epiphany of the highest order? Joseph had decided one thing, but then after this dream, he decided quite another. It must have been one amazing dream.
The way I see it, this is a story, like the story of Mary we talked about last week, about God calling someone to a different path, and they said “Yes.” Without Joseph saying Yes, we wouldn’t have had the Christmas story, at least the way we know it. Joseph saves Mary from disgrace or worse. Joseph gives to Jesus his name, literally, and through his name, his connections—including those to the house of David, an important thing for the Messiah.
This choice of saying Yes to God propels Joseph and his new family into unchartered waters. After a journey with a pregnant woman, Joseph is there for the birth in Bethlehem. He is there for the strange appearance of Magi from the East with gifts that must have baffled him. But soon afterwards, in Matthew’s version of the Christmas story, the family has to flee to Egypt as Herod the king rages against this new born child, and has all the boys two years and younger killed. I wonder how many times in those early years Joseph wondered what he had gotten himself into!
This year, as we have listened to the two stories—Mary’s story, and Joseph’s story—I was struck by all the pairings. We have a man and a woman. We have an angel appearing to you while awake, and an angel appearing in your sleep. We have the joy created by the babe in the womb, and the intense anxiety of Joseph’s plight. We have the story of community (in Mary and Elizabeth in their “strange” situations) and the story of a lone actor in Joseph. In all these differences, we have God at the center, God speaking, God asking, God calling. And we have people saying “Yes” to God.
Advent is a time when we remember that God comes into each of our lives, God calls each of us to an improbable task—one we might not have chosen for ourselves. God invites us to say Yes again, to enter the wonder, and the majesty, and the joy, and the scariness of what Christmas means. Christmas isn’t just about what God is doing—Christmas drags us into the picture. Because if God is right here, right now, if God is indeed born, and born in us, then we have a choice to make.
We can say Yes, we can say No, we can try to defer the decision. But God is with Us, waiting for an answer.
I love all those sappy Christmas stories about finding love in different places, and recapturing the wonder and belief of Christmas. It’s amazing that specific thread of Christmas has survived the all-out commercialization that surrounds us. Even our secular world glimpses that Christmas is about believing in goodness, believing in love. It leaves us feeling warm, and safe. But the message of Christmas that we are confronted with in our Scripture is about more than just sugary dreams, a light dusting of snow upon the trees.
The birth of Christ is more like a blizzard. More like a powerful earthquake that changes the landscape. Nothing is ever going to be the same. It will not be possible to just turn off the lights, put away the tree, recycle the paper and boxes, and shut the door on Christmas until next year. Because, in the birth of Jesus, God is with us in the flesh.
Now God has always been with us, in a technical sense. God created with and walked with us in the mythical garden. And since then God has tried being with us in different ways. Talking directly to Abraham and Jacob and Moses and Miriam. Leading as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of flame by night. Choosing a people to be a blessing so that all people might be blessed through them. Speaking to us through the prophets. Showing up to make the barren fertile, or to elevate the youngest to the position of honor. God has been God with us always.
In Jesus, God with Us goes to another level. Flesh like our flesh. Participating in our joys and our sorrows. Caught up in the swirling of political war games. Stung by the institutions that claim to be of God. Enticed by the possibilities of power. Stressed out beyond measure by the weariness of human life.
Maybe you have experienced the incredible honor of sitting with someone, who is in pain, who is grieving, who is critically ill or who is dying.
There are times in our lives when there is nothing we can do that will fix the problem. Nothing that we can say that will change anything. But we can be present. We can lend our strength. We can share tears. We can put aside our discomfort, to participate in another’s moment. That is part of what it means “God with Us.” God wanted us to realize, to get it in our minds, and our hearts, and our bones, that God is truly here, with us. And God is waiting for our “yes.”
There was a story this week about a UPS driver named Brad who felt called to help out in Ukraine. He is driving a truck into bombed out areas, mostly around Bakhmut, and trying to get donations in to those left in the region, as well as trying to get the wounded to hospitals or get others to safety. He says he thought he would be home by now. He says he knows he is one of the last resorts in this area that President Zelinsky recently called “burnt ruins.” He knows he can’t stop the war—but he has been touched by these people who are living in the cold, facing constant bombardment. He wants to do what he can do, delivering food and supplies. Answering calls for help. Being present. We can thank him for making sure those people in Bakhmut know they are not forgotten. We can thank God that there are others who are like Brad, who hear God calling them, and who have said Yes to something bigger than themselves.
I know we are burnt out from years of pandemic and now for trying to figure out what the world is like after pandemic. I know we would like to have an ethereal Christmas with wonderful, misty snow (a rarity in Israel/Palestine), and angelic choruses that don’t evoke fear, and unsmelly shepherds with quiet sheep, and not so much fuss at Magi appearing with gifts. But that was not the world Jesus was born into, and it isn’t the world we live in.
We live in a world where wars continue on. We live in a world where power struggles are far from over. We live in a world that still exploits and threatens women, a world where refugees are seen as undesirable, a world where not every voice is heard, not every life is valued. We live in a world just like Jesus’.
So this year, take heart. We don’t have to photo-shop the Christmas story. In fact, if we do, we take away most of its power. For the story is that God came down to be with us, not at the royal palace, but in a manger. Not born into a highbrow, well-respected family, but to a teenager and her man. Christmas is about God being with us in our actual lives. God showing up especially in trying times. God whispering solutions to life’s problems. God giving us the will to make unusual life choices. God being “with Us” in all that life throws at us.
That is the simple story, and the complex truth. That is what Christmas is all about. That is what Advent has been leading us to, yet once again. So this year, be alert for angels showing up where you least expect them. This year, accept that life is messy, relationships are hard work, and we rarely get everything we want or deserve. This year, get wrapped up in the wonder of God deciding to spend time with us, in our own environment. This year, marvel at the squalling world we live in. This year, know that God continues to call, continues to coax, continues wait--for us to say Yes to God’s Yes. This year, let us allow the earthquake to disturb us and our lives. This year, may we get a little closer to fully knowing that “God is with Us;” that Emmanuel has indeed been born.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.