Jesus as Immanuel (Fourth Sunday of Advent) – Sunday, December 21, 2014 (NL Week 16)

Sunday’s Readings:
Complementary Text – Psalm 23:1-4
Preaching Text – Matthew 1:18-25

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

            For the last three and a half months, our congregation has been exploring the story of God’s relationship with God’s people as we’ve journeyed through the Hebrew Scriptures. During those 15 weeks, we’ve seen God make promises to Israel, promises that have been threatened by that people’s willingness to turn aside to their own way rather than walking in the path set before them by their gracious God – a willingness that is, of course, shared by us and by all of God’s people: past, present, and future. We’ve also seen how God renews those promises over and over, offering mercy and grace to all as they recognize their failings and turn again to God. Throughout that journey through the Hebrew Scriptures, we have been looking with anticipation to this day, when we make the move from the Hebrew Scriptures to the New Testament, specifically to the Gospel of Matthew that will be the focus of our continuing exploration of God’s story for the next four months. As we begin reading through Matthew, it’s important that we don’t forget what we’ve learned this fall, because the story of Jesus’ life cannot be separated from the story of God’s people that unfolded before his birth.

Today, then, we start near the beginning of Matthew, with the startling circumstances of Jesus’ conception. As the story begins, we read that Jesus’ mother, Mary, was engaged to a man named Joseph, a distant descendant of Israel’s greatest king, David. During the year-long period of engagement – that time after Mary and Joseph made formal promises of faithfulness and commitment, but before Mary moved from her father’s household to live with her husband – Mary was found to be pregnant. We don’t know much about Joseph, but the one detail Matthew gives us is this: that he was a righteous man, meaning that he was devoted to doing what the law of Moses required. In this case, Mary’s pregnancy was grounds for immediate divorce, most often a very public proceeding that resulted in great shame for everyone involved, but particularly for the party whose infidelity had broken the marriage agreement. In Joseph’s mind, there was no other way to proceed – how could Mary have become pregnant unless she had been unfaithful to her him, and how could unfaithfulness like that be tolerated?

Joseph’s mind was made up, and he readied himself to do what was necessary to uphold God’s law, when he received more shocking news from one of God’s messengers in a dream: Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will hear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. Suddenly, righteousness wasn’t as cut and dried as it had been before. What was Joseph to do? Was it more righteous to do what the law required – this law that had been passed down from generation to generation and been so good for God’s people? Or was it more righteous to heed the call of God’s messenger, recognize the work of God’s Holy Spirit, and take Mary as his wife, knowing how that might be perceived by others who lived in Bethlehem? The unfolding of God’s plan and purpose hinged on Joseph’s decision, and it was by no means an easy choice for him to make.

We know, of course, that Joseph chose the latter, and by obeying the angel’s message he received Jesus, the holy child, as his adopted son. We also know more than Joseph did. We know that Jesus’ birth fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah: Look, the virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, a Hebrew name which means God is with us. We know from our journey through the Scriptures this fall that the prophets had long been telling of a servant of God who would come to establish justice and righteousness in the land and bring salvation to God’s people. If we back up to the very beginning of Matthew’s Gospel and the genealogy that follows, we know that the identity of this child has already been established: he is the Messiah, the son of the revered patriarch Abraham and the renowned monarch, King David. We know that as the story of Jesus unfolds, we will learn more about what it means for God to dwell among us, about what God’s will for our world might be, and about how we are called to be a part of that story as we follow Jesus.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, the time of waiting and preparation that we call Advent is drawing to a close. In three short days we will gather again and, with Christians throughout the world, celebrate the birth of Immanuel – God with us. As the prophets and all of God’s people yearned for the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a redeemer, we, too, yearn for the fulfillment of the renewed promise to reconcile the whole world to God. This week, as we call to mind that holy birth some two thousand years ago, let us pray that God would use us – like Joseph – to be instruments of reconciliation and renewal for our world. Let us wrestle honestly about what it means to live lives of righteousness in obedience to our God, especially when we perceive that God may be doing a new thing in our midst by the power of the Holy Spirit. Finally, let us praise God for all the ways that Christ continues to dwell among us now, saving us from our sins, turning us again to God’s will for us and our world, and making God’s power and presence known in our lives. Thanks be to God for the promise of a Savior, and the knowledge of that Savior’s presence with us this day and always. Amen.

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