St John’s, Centralia—Matthew 1:18-25, Romans 13:8-14, Isaiah 7:10-17
My wife and children, if you were to ask them, would readily verify one characteristic of the way I behave, and that is that I don’t really like surprises. Good news, of course, is always welcome, whenever it arrives; that’s not the kind of surprise I’m talking about. The situation that I find emotionally challenging is the one which asks me to make a last-minute, unanticipated change of plans. It has a tendency to make me just a wee bit grumpy.
It’s a good thing my name is not Joseph, living in first-century Palestine, in the village of Nazareth. I don’t know that I would have coped very well with finding out that my fiancée, with whom I myself had so far behaved as a perfect gentleman, was pregnant—and by the Holy Spirit, so she says! Indeed, it appears that Joseph did not exactly take the news lightly. But he did keep his cool. He didn’t make a scene. He just decided to quietly break off the engagement and get on with his life.
Now, the conventional wisdom is that Joseph just assumed that if Mary was pregnant, and he was not responsible, then some other man was. Going through with the marriage, then, was out of the question. He would never be able to look at his wife or child and not see and feel the presence of someone else, an interloper, a usurper. Joseph would have been within his rights to publicly humiliate Mary. Indeed, the punishment for her presumed offense under Hebrew law was death by stoning. So his decision to keep everything quiet is seen as a noble and gracious act.
But there’s another way of looking at this strange set of circumstances. The text of Matthew’s gospel, which is the only account we have of these events from Joseph’s perspective, gives us no reason to suspect that he did not simply take Mary at her word when she said that her pregnancy was by the Holy Spirit and that there had been no other man. Maybe Joseph felt overshadowed by the same presence which was with Mary when she was visited by the angel Gabriel. “The Holy Spirit!? How could I possibly ever be worthy of living as a husband with someone chosen by the LORD to be the mother of the long-expected Messiah?” He had the legal right to enforce the marriage contract, of course, but figured this was one right it would be best not to exercise. If the Almighty wanted her, the Almighty could have her!
Any way you look at it, though, Joseph is the odd man out. There is someone else in the picture. Something or someone is present with him, whether it’s one of his fellow villagers in Nazareth, or the Holy Spirit of God. Whichever it is, though, forgetting about this marriage idea seems the only prudent course to follow. Have you ever felt that something or someone is with you, but not be able to identify who or what it is? Have you ever experienced the nearness of a reality that you can’t detect using any of the five senses that you learned about in grade school, but nevertheless feels profoundly and disturbingly close by? Have you ever felt a chill go down your spine at a mere thought? I have not yet met a human being who has attainted the age of reason and reflection who cannot testify to some such glimpse of the eternal, even if only for a fleeting moment. Yet, the way we respond, more often than not, is to just go on with our lives, to quietly break off from these moments of engagement with ultimate reality or with the kingdom of heaven or with whatever or whomever it is that’s tapping us on the shoulder and saying, “I’m here.” We would rather remain ignorant than ask questions that might lead us to experience more anger or fear, or shame, or unworthiness.
The circumstances that Joseph found himself in were, to say the least, peculiar, but his sensation of presence, his knowledge that someone was with him, either for good or for ill, was as common a human experience as getting goose bumps watching a sunset. Joseph figured that the one who was with him was either a source of shame and embarrassment, or the source of such awe-ful glory as might well kill him with its brilliance. If he had gone through with his original plan to quietly break off his engagement to Mary, Joseph would never have learned that the right answer was “none of the above.” And when we disengage, when we break off our “engagement” from the presence that is with us, we forfeit the only chance we have of finding out who it is, the only chance we have of experiencing true and lasting hope, purpose, and joy. We spare ourselves the pain, but we don’t get to enjoy the gain. All we get is more of the same!
Well, the LORD, in his mercy, was not inclined to let Joseph off the hook without making one more effort. So he sent a dream and an angel to re-assure him that everything was going to be alright. Mary was indeed pregnant by the Holy Spirit, so he didn’t have to be ashamed. But he also didn’t have to worry about being unworthy, or the odd man out. God had chosen him, just as God had chosen Mary, to play a critical role at this critical point in the outworking of God’s plan for the salvation of the human race. In that dream, the presence made himself known. The one whom he had experienced as with him was none other than God! The one who is present with us also makes himself known, not ordinarily through angelic visits in our dreams, but in the words of holy scripture, in the sacraments, and in the testimony of generation upon generation of saints, apostles, prophets, martyrs and ordinary everyday Christian believers. That which we first experience as “with us” is then revealed to us as “God.” The Hebrew word “Emmanuel”—Emmanuel for whom captive Israel mourns in lonely exile, Emmanuel whom we know to be the long-expected Jesus born to set his people free from their sins and fears—the name “Emmanuel” is normally rendered “God with us.” This translation, however, doesn’t reflect as accurately as does the Hebrew word itself the way we experience “God with us.” Emman is the Hebrew preposition “with.” The suffix -u turns it into “with us.” Joseph first experienced the presence with him. We first experience the presence with us. Then the identity of the presence, the one who is with us, is revealed. El is the generic word for “god” in almost all the semitic languages, including Hebrew. Emmanu-el—with us, God!
With us … God. In his dream, Joseph was empowered to follow the divine vocation which he had received. He went ahead with the wedding plans, and when the time came for the child to be born, he did as he was told by the angel, and named him Yeshua, or, as it comes to us through the Greek, Jesus –which, in any case, means “God saves.” According to Jewish custom, when Joseph named Jesus, he gave him the legitimacy of his own family lineage as an heir of King David, and fulfilled the ancient prophecies that the Messiah would come from David’s line. Joseph probably didn’t realize it at the time, but his naming of Jesus was the final link in the chain of God’s plan to personally enter human history in order to save us from the power of sin and death.
You and I may not realize it even now, but our willingness to name Jesus, to recognize that the one whom we know to be “with us” is indeed “God,” to acknowledge that he alone is our strength and consolation, the hope of all the earth, the desire of every nation, and the joy of every longing heart—naming Jesus is the final link in the chain of our preparation for Christmas, the culmination of the waiting and hoping and anticipating that has been our vocation during the season of Advent. Jesus—our Emmanuel—with us, God. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.