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Sermon: Emmanuel Calling. December 22, 2019

December 24, 2019

This sermon, on Matthew 1:18-25, was preached on the Fourth Sunday of Advent at Grace Lutheran Church

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace be unto you and peace in the name of God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

  1. I can’t say that I can really relate to Joseph. After all, the ways in which we found out we were going to be fathers were a bit different, to say that least. He got an angel of the Lord, I got to see a plus sign appear on a pregnancy test. Then again, our kids are a bit different, too. My eldest plays hockey and the clarinet. Joseph’s firstborn was the Savior of the world. Different kids, different gifts, I suppose. Still, I feel a kinship with Joseph. Finding out you’re going to be a father is always a bit of a surprise; becoming a father changes your world. I recall feeling more a little underprepared. But when Greta was born, she had to be whisked away from her mother for some special care; in that moment something deep within me changed. Her mom was recovering from doing the difficult work of childbirth, and so Greta got me. I stood there in the hospital nursery, overjoyed and confused and helpless and exhilarated, and I thought: This changes everything. I became a different person in that moment, a person with a new calling in my life. To care for and to protect this little person no matter what. And, you know, to make dad jokes to embarrass her in public. Don’t get me wrong – becoming a parent doesn’t make me or anyone else more important than those who choose not to or are unable to have children. But it is a particular and a peculiar call, and I haven’t been the same person since.
  2. Finding out that Mary, to whom he was engaged, was pregnant had thrown Joseph for a loop. It changed everything, but not in the way he first imagined. You can imagine the conversation – but Joseph, I promise, the child growing within me if from God, really! He plans to dismiss Mary quietly, not wanting to shame her. Of course, he could have just believed his beloved when she told him about her own body, but in this instance the claim is so incredible that his doubt is understandable. In the end, he needed a dream and a vision. And so the angel comes to Joseph, named for Jacob’s dreaming son, with truly surprising news. Yes, Mary is a virgin. And yes, she’s pregnant. And just as you carry a significant name from Israel’s past, so shall your son. You shall name him Jesus, Yeshua, the same name borne by Joshua who led the people to the Promised Land. This Jesus will lead the people to a land of even greater promise, to a kingdom where sins are forgiven and people are set free. This is the moment it all changes for Joseph. He takes Mary as his wife, Jesus as his son. And although he no doubt felt confused and helpless, he also becomes certain. Certain that his angelic dream is the opening of God’s new dream for creation, he becomes a father – perhaps not in biology, but certainly in love.
  3. The moment, the baby, that changes everything for Joseph does so for the whole world. Building on the thought of Sir Thomas Browne, the seventeenth-century polymath who said that, “Ice splits starwise,” Frederick Buechner writes, “A tap of the pick at the right point, and fissures shoot out in all directions, and the solid block falls in two at the star. The child is born, and history itself falls in two at the star.” The splitting in two of which Buechner writes is more than the time-marking division between “before Christ” and “anno Domini.” The birth of Jesus splits history in two because in him the old separation of heaven and earth, the old distance between God and humanity, is reconciled. Whereas before we were separated from God in our sin, now through the baby who forgives sin we are brought near to God. We are brought near to God because God chooses to come near to us, to become us, in the child who is Emmanuel.
  4. This is why it matters that Jesus is born to the virgin Mary, as surprising as this was to Joseph. And to Mary, for that matter. Her virginity is not so much a sign of purity, nor is the sheer oddity of a virgin birth needed to prove God’s power. Mary’s virginity shows forth that the child born to her – born in the same very human way in which you and I entered this world – is also truly of God, is truly God. This very human baby is also God with us, and if that all seems a little familiar in the midst of our manic Christmas celebrations, consider this: As our country rends itself apart in these days of corruption and impeachment, God is with us. As our world teeters on the brink of environmental collapse, God is with us. As our loved ones undergo surgery and as we mourn our dead, God is with us. As we mourn children who were wanted but never born, or who were born but taken too soon, God is with us. Emmanuel. Jesus, the Creator of the cosmos who entered our world bloody and crying – he is with us. And because he is with us, we are and will forever be with God, on both sides of the grave. Jesus, the Savior of his people, has forever cast God’s lot with poor sinners like you and me. He died to forgive us richly, he lives to lead us on. This sign, once promised to King Ahaz when Jerusalem was beset by enemies, is the sign that reaches into Sheol, the full depths of our world, to lift us up to highest heaven whence he came.
  5. None of us get to be Mary, the blessed virgin who bore God into this broken world to bring it back to life. What you and I have is the opportunity to choose whether we will be King Ahaz or Joseph. Ahaz was promised a sign, but he chose to go his own way. He chose God-not-with-us. He chose to live with unfaith, as if the world’s problems would either be solved by him or remain unsolved. Joseph, named for the dreamer, chooses to live with faith. To believe that Emmanuel is actually coming into this world, no matter the surprising way in which God chooses to come to us.
  6. The Messiah has come, does come, will come again, as a gift for this whole world. In the end, Jesus is the only gift we need. In him are grace and truth; from him come forgiveness and life. We could be like King Ahaz this Christmas and pretend we don’t need the gift. But God gives it anyway. Jesus is born. And from his presence we receive a call, like Joseph and Paul and all who came before us. We are called, Paul reminds us, to live as saints whose lives are shaped by the fact that God took on our life, and our death, to bring us to life. To be with us. To be Emmanuel. What does it mean to live as saints? It means that we live with the faith of Joseph, this dreamer who believed that a world full of bad news needed news so good that it had to be true. The preacher Susan Andrews writes, “(Joseph) is our guide. He invites us to a seasonal slumber party – daring us to share our dreams about new life . . . our dreams about everything we have been too afraid to dream about. He shows us how to welcome incarnation – the radical intrusion of a flesh-and-blood God into the dreariness of our human condition.” So this Christmas remember that the gift is given. God is here! Jesus is born, a Savior for his people. As for Joseph, so for us. This changes everything. History has split in half; heaven and earth are put back together in the God who has become human. God become someone different that day in Bethlehem so that you could become someone different, too: a forgiven sinner brought back to life. Dream God’s dream. Tear open the gift and hear God’s call to welcome your Savior. Praise God for all that you have seen and heard. Bear the creative and redeeming love of the Christ child to all the world. In Jesus, everything has changed. God’s call is that we would live in faith and tell the world. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.

And now may the peace that passes all human understanding keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus, this day and forever. Amen.

 

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