Over the last few weeks in Advent, we’ve been reading these texts that talk about the coming of the kingdom. Isaiah spoke of a vision for the end when he let God’s imagination show him a world without the evils of war. John the Baptist shouted about bearing good fruit, worthy of repentance, to set the world right. And Jesus reminded us last week to look and listen for the signs of the kingdom: miracles of healing, wholeness, peace, and life. And this week, Joseph has a dream to fulfill Isaiah’s vision of God-with-us.
We’re familiar with the story. Joseph, who is betrothed to Mary, discovers that she is pregnant. That leaves Joseph with really only one logical reason that this could be: Mary has been unfaithful to him. His plan is to dismiss her quietly. I think that’s important to note: the quietly part. Joseph is a genuinely good man. He doesn’t want to disgrace Mary or her family by publicly humiliating them. But he’s also a man of his time, and he doesn’t see bearing the shame of a wife who is already pregnant.
But then Joseph has this dream. It’s a dream where he hears a voice tell him that the child was conceived of the Holy Spirit, that his name will be Jesus, and he will save his people from their sins. Then Matthew, the gospel writer, does something interesting. He links it back to a passage from Isaiah, the same passage we have today, that “the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and he shall be named Emmanuel, God-with-us.”
That’s quite a name, Emmanuel. In its original context, Isaiah spoke of a child whose very life would be a sign of God’s presence—a child who would be a toddler in an age of peace when his conception was in the midst of a war that could mean the end of Jerusalem. But Matthew reuses the prophecy so that we can better understand that this child Mary was carrying—the child Joseph was planning on quietly dismissing with his mother—was going to be the very presence of God. In Jesus, God was going to be present in the world.
I think it can be hard to grasp just what that means. It’s pretty easy for most of us to go most of the day—maybe more than that—not really thinking about God being present. It can be especially true in a season where we are busier than at any other time in the year, stressing more than any time in the year, eating more than any time in the year, and finding it harder to find moments to rest, let alone reflect. But Isaiah’s prophecy speaks of a child who would be named God-with-us, and the angelic dream Joseph had pointed out that child would be Jesus. So how does God show up among us?
My family got some pretty bad news this week. My Aunt Renee, my dad’s sister, died on Thursday. What had been a minor medical event spiraled out at the hospital, leading to ventilators and very difficult decisions for my cousins. And that was painful news for me, but I knew my dad was feeling it much more. So Annie and I called him on video chat so he could watch Hazel laugh and play and poke at the screen, and that reminder of joy was just what he needed that day. God is with us when we find hope in the midst of brokenness.
A friend of mine told me a story about how, one morning, she was on her way to a work function and stopped at a Starbucks drive-thru for coffee to get on the way. And the line was especially long that morning, but it’s one of those things where you’ve gotten in the line and waited long enough that it would be a real waste to leave. So she stuck with it, fuming the whole time about how long it was taking. She ordered her coffee and got up to the window, when the cashier told her that the car in front of her had paid for her order. It changed my friend’s whole morning. So she said she’d pay for the car behind her, and the cashier explained to her that she was the 27th car to do so. God is with us when we show generosity.
Two weeks ago on Wednesday, the confirmation kids came here like they usually do, but they met down in the fellowship hall instead. There, we wrapped several dozen boxes of gifts bought by this congregation for four needy families in our area so that they could have something under the tree for Christmas. We prayed a blessing over all the stacks of boxes wrapped in colorful paper, knowing that there was hope going with those gifts. God is with us when we look after the needy among us.
When we hear “Emmanuel, God-with-us,” it should fill us with awe and wonder. God is present with us in so many different ways, we only need to notice. God is there, urging us along to act with righteousness, to care for our neighbor in need, to shine hope in a world filled with brokenness, to upend the world with generosity, to let love for God and neighbor guide our actions. Because God-with-us is more than just kind deeds—God-with-us is the kind of kind deeds that revolutionize the world. God-with-us is fearless love that lets a quiet and reserved man like Joseph take the risk of marrying a woman already with child. God-with-us is justice that ends evils like school lunch debt, family separation policies, or dehumanizing greed. God-with-us is a hope that the work of goodness and justice that we do is not in vain, because we do not do it alone.
The God-with-us who was conceived in Mary’s womb and watched over by Joseph wasn’t some historical phenomenon. Yes, Jesus existed in a specific historical time, and his physical presence as one human being was only for a certain amount of time. But, one of the things we trust about Jesus is that when he calls himself “God-with-us,” he doesn’t mean just that one time in the past. We trust that God is with us in the present, among us, in acts that are both big and small. God is with us whether we notice it or not. And God is with us to change the world into the kingdom that Jesus brings.
So when we go into the world this next week, next month, next year; pay attention to how God is calling you to be God’s presence among us. See those opportunities where God is offering you a way to witness to the hope God gives in brokenness, the generosity that upends selfish ways of living, the justice that re-roots the world in peace and reconciliation. God’s ongoing presence in the world is through this body of Christ that is the Church, and we are called to make God’s presence known by the goodness God calls us to embody. That’s how we know that God is with us.
Thanks be to God. Amen.