This Gospel story may seem straightforward, like front page news. After all, it begins with “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.” Yet, if we read it like pure front page news, it is altogether uninteresting, especially in our day and age when the story of an unwed, pregnant teenager doesn’t make waves at all. Hardly even registers in one’s Facebook feed. Sadly.
Yet, this story carries great drama. Why? For the same reason the movie Sully kept you on the edge of your seat throughout. We already know how the story ends – Captain Sullenburger successfully crash landed a plane in the Hudson River with 150+ passengers and crew aboard – yet we are fascinated by the ‘what ifs’ and ‘could haves’ had Sully made different split-second decisions.
For us the Christmas story is compelling because we know how it ends – with the extraordinary life, tragic death, and triumphant resurrection of Jesus, which is the salvation we claim. With great effectiveness, Matthew draws us in to the beginning of the story and hints at the ‘what ifs’ and ‘could haves.’ If Joseph hadn’t responded to the message in his dream . . . well then, we would have no story whatsoever, and no salvation.
No, it’s not front page news. Some might say it’s like a fairy tale. Instead of “Once upon a time . . .” we have ““This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.” But no, it’s not a fairy tale of long ago and far away. Rather, it is an on-going faith tale that is as much here and now as it was then and there. More on this point in a minute, but first let’s talk about Joseph . . . and Mary.
A year ago, on the 4th Sunday of Advent, we heard the “Annunciation” as proclaimed to Mary from the Gospel of Luke. (And the same story we heard last Sunday in honor of Our Lady of Guadalupe.) Elizabeth cries out:
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb”
And Mary responds with an extraordinary yes: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. . . .” In all of Scripture, one could argue, there is no more beautiful or profound passage than Mary’s magnificat. (Although the Sermon on the Mount and Psalm 23 are authentic rivals.)
Well this year, from Matthew, it’s Joseph who receives the “Annunciation.” And as you heard, he was put in an awkward position – he is betrothed to Mary who becomes pregnant. Yet his faith and trust in God propel him to risk humiliation and follow the message in his dream. “Take her into your home as your wife.”
And, while we see Mary’s extraordinary faith and trust through her profound words of her Magnificat, notice in Matthew, there are no words from Joseph recorded. His integrity, his witness of faith are demonstrated solely by his actions.
The point is this: together, Mary and Joseph say yes to Emmanuel, God is with us! They were extraordinary, ordinary persons.
But don’t put them too far up on a pedestal . . . well, actually . . . because you and I are not much different from Mary and Joseph. You and I are extraordinary, ordinary persons. And together we must also say yes to Emmanuel, God is with us!
We too must give birth to Jesus in our own time. By aligning our lives with what God is doing in the world, we, like Mary and Joseph, usher in a whole new in-breaking of God into human history. That’s Emmanuel – God with us!
Christmas is not an anniversary of an event that took place long ago and far away. Rather, it is a deliberate, intentional present experience of “God is with us.” And we know the end of the story . . . the promise of salvation that we will celebrate with even greater joy on Easter Sunday in April.
To paraphrase the beginning of our gospel story today, “This is how the birth of Jesus Christ comes about”: like Mary, you and I say yes to God, even when we don’t understand what God is asking of us. Like Joseph, you and I choose a path of honor and integrity even if it might end in social shame and humiliation. And together we give birth to Emmanuel in our homes, in our community of faith, in our neighborhood.
How to be Emmanuel
How do we do that? Well, here’s what I want us all to think about and cook on in the coming week leading up to Christmas:
First, reflect on this question: What is your experience of Emmanuel, God with Us? I challenge you to name no less than five experiences or persons that have revealed God’s Gracious presence to you in your life, and be specific. It’s not hard. You can probably find five sitting near you.
For example: Jean Allen – extraordinary welcome and hospitality on my first day with lunch and a St. Charles history lesson. God with us! Oscar Triplett – a child whose eyes reveal that he is truly loved and cherished every minute of every day by his parents and his little sister. God with us! Lindy & Logan Gibbons – working with them on Spaghetti Dinner, I found a couple of extraordinary abilities and yet so unassuming and approachable and FUN! God with us! JD Duran who courageously and beautifully proclaimed God’s word to several hundred of us a week ago Friday night at his mom’s funeral. God with us! Don Pearson and Truls Neal who independently of each other brought me to accountability with such respect and love that while the mistake I made was clear, I felt only support and affirmation. God with us!
I could name a bunch more. All I have to do is look around. And I think you can do the same. So, one-a-day this week until Christmas Eve. Who/what has been Emmanuel to you? And take it a step further and tell one or two of those persons: “You have been Emmanuel to me.”
Second, ask yourself: How can I be Emmanuel, God with Us, to at least one other person? With the gifts you are giving this Christmas, how can you be intentional with at least one gift for one person that from the heart communicates Emmanuel, God with Us.
Perhaps, you are like Mary, and you will use profound words from the heart. Or perhaps you are like Joseph, and your gift will simply be your actions, your integrity, your presence to another . . . and words won’t be needed.
Third, together as a whole faith community, in the coming weeks, we need to ask how are we Emmanuel/God With Us to our neighbors? I think this is the essence of the question that is ruminating in the Social Justice Committee, the Pastoral Council, the Multicultural Committee, the Admin Council and others concerning the possibility of providing physical sanctuary for persons facing deportation. There are, of course, many practical and logistical questions that must be answered before we can go there. Perhaps it’s a pipe dream that is just not realistic for us. Perhaps it’s a dream whose time has not yet come. Or perhaps it’s a “calling” dream to which, like Joseph, we must act on. In time, in God’s time, we will know if sanctuary is our response to the invitation and challenge to be God With Us for our neighbors.
So, to review your homework for between now and Christmas day: 1. Name five experiences of Emmanuel/God With Us – one each day this week. 2. BE Emmanuel/God With Us to at least one person – use words like Mary, or use actions of integrity like Joseph 3. Pray about, and then engage with all of us on how St Charles is called to be Emmanuel/God With Us for our neighbors.
To conclude, Matthew is true to Emmanuel/God with Us, throughout his gospel account. For the very last words of Matthew come from Jesus himself: “I am with you always, until the end of time.”