Advent 4: Love (Jesus as Emmanuel)
Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent. During Advent we have prepared to celebrate Jesus’ birth by focusing on hope, peace, joy, and love. Today we will talk about love. We are continuing to follow the Narrative Lectionary. Today the lectionary shifts from a focus on the Old Testament to a focus on the New Testament. As many of you are aware, there are four Gospels in the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Each of the four Gospels talks about Jesus’ life. This year in the Narrative Lectionary we will follow the Gospel of Matthew from now all the way through Easter (we will spend some time Luke over the Christmas holiday).
The Gospel of Matthew has a focus on showing that Jesus fulfills the promises that God gave in the Old Testament. We see that emphasis already in the verses from Matthew chapter one that we read this morning. Matthew provides a long genealogy and also a weird prophecy fulfillment saying that because Jesus is named Jesus it fulfills a prophecy that he would be named Emmanuel. Let’s unpack this a bit.
The genealogy is so boring and this text about Joseph and Mary is so familiar that we often read it without recognizing what God is doing here. These passages are full of God’s love and I want to highlight that for us this morning. Joseph finds himself in a very difficult social situation. This is messy. The woman he is engaged to is pregnant and he knows that it is not his baby. I am sure he assumes that Mary cheated on him. We will come back to the messiness of this situation later. For now, let’s look at what the angel says to comfort Joseph and to give him courage to follow God into this uncertain and messy situation.
In verse 20, the angel Gabriel says that Joseph should not be afraid to get married to Mary because the baby was conceived by the Holy Spirit. This is the first part of God’s amazing love in the passage. The fact that God was willing to enter into human form is incredible. God is willing to take on human form and all the limits that we live under and to live on earth as both God and human. You know the best way to connect with a child is not to stand and look down at them, but to lower yourself to their level so that you can see eye-to-eye. This is what God does in Jesus, but on a much more profound scale. God becomes human and dwells among us. Why does God do this?
The angel Gabriel tells us. Continuing in verse 20, he says that Mary will bear a son and that Joseph should name him Jesus. This gives both Mary and Joseph pivotal roles in Jesus’ birth because Mary carries and delivers him, and Joseph names Him. This name, Jesus, is Yeshua, which means God saves. The angel Gabriel says that he is supposed to receive this name because, at the end of verse 21, “he will save his people from their sins.” God becomes human and dwells among us in order to save us from our sins. God is motivated by love to humble God’s self to come down to our level in order to save us. Saving us from our sins has so many implications. God wants to give us a transformed life now so that we are not weighed down and burdened by sin, and also the peace of God’s presence in eternity. God’s motivation in becoming human and dwelling among us is love: God wants to save us.
Matthew goes on in verse 22 to explain that this event fulfills something that Isaiah said. In verse 23, Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14, which says, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and they shall call him Emmanuel.” This prophecy was fulfilled in Isaiah’s time. Israel was under siege, but by the time this child knew right from wrong the siege was over. Matthew is seeing another fulfillment of this prophecy in Jesus. At first glance, Matthew’s claim sounds strange. It sounds like he is saying that you shall name him Eric and this fulfills the prophecy that he shall be named Jim. Even though it seems random at first glance, it’s not random like that. Each of these names, Jesus (or Yeshua) and Emmanuel have meanings in their original languages. We already said that Jesus means God saves. Matthew tells us what Emmanuel means at the end of verse 23. It means, “God is with us.” This is profound. It puts God’s love for us in a whole new light given the tricky social situation in which Jesus is conceived and born, and also in light of the genealogy that precedes this.
Around this time of year we are all reminded about how complicated family is. Jesus’ birth family was quite complicated and very messy, especially back then. Mary was pregnant by the Holy Spirit, Joseph wasn’t the father. And yet God came into the midst of that and helped them figure out how to make it work. And we see, in the genealogy, the same pattern. Many of the people mentioned here have stories written about them in the Old Testament where we learn about their complicated families and the messy situations in which they lived. We learn about mistakes that they made, we learn about the ways that they hurt others, or times that they ignored that when they had the power to stop it. In these people lives there was lying, stealing, murder, rape.
What we learn about God in these first verses of the Gospel of Matthew is that God does not abandon us to deal with these messy and complicated and hurtful situations alone. In fact, God comes right into our messy and complicated lives to be with us. That is a real sign of love. God does this to help us, to save us from our sins, both the sins we have committed and the pain we have experienced from other people’s sins. God is our shepherd who will lead us through the valleys of the shadow of death and into a transformed life. By humbling God’s self to be born to Mary and Joseph from that lineage, God is entering into the reality of human life. God’s eyes are open. God comes alongside us and helps us. God is with us. God does not abandon us or judge us or reject us, but in Jesus God comes alongside us into all of the complicated messiness of our lives in order to save us and to help us live through it. When God comes to help us live through something, it doesn’t mean that we have to accept the bad stuff and barely survive, rather it means that God brings new life to us, healing, wholeness, transformation, and an unexplainable hope, peace, and joy through God’s own love strengthening us and knitting us back together.
This reminds me of the legend of the poinsettia. The poinsettia is the flower that people have brought to decorate the chancel for Christmas Eve. Tomie dePaola is one of my favourite children’s book authors. He has a book called The Legend of the Poinsettia which is available at the Beaconsfield Library. It retells the legend from Mexico about the origins of this beautiful flower.
A little girl names Lucida lived with her mother and father and two younger siblings in a small village in Mexico. Her mother was the most gifted weaver in the village. One year, close to Christmas, the priest asked Lucida’s mother if she would make a new blanket for the baby Jesus for their Christmas pageant on Christmas Eve. Lucida’s mother was honoured to be able to do this and the next day she and Lucida went to the market to buy the finest wool for the new blanket for baby Jesus. Lucida helped her mother dye the wool and string the yarn on the loom. As they started working on weaving the blanket it was clear that the blanket would be beautiful.
However, just a few days before Christmas Eve, Lucida’s mother became very sick and her father had to take her to the bigger town to see the doctor. Lucida and her siblings were very scared. They learned that their mother would have to stay with the doctor until after Christmas, and their father would stay with her while she recovered. Lucida was scared for her mother’s safety, sad that her parents wouldn’t be with them for Christmas, and worried because without her mother, how would the blanket for baby Jesus be finished? Lucida tried to finish the blanket herself, but she when she tried to weave, the yarn got tangled and the more she tried to fix it the worse it got. In an instant, Lucida’s life completely fell apart. Her mother was sick, her parents would both be out of town for Christmas, and she felt that she had ruined the blanket for the pageant. This happens to us a lot. One day things are going well and the next everything has fallen apart.
Things were so bad, that Lucida decided not to attend the Christmas Eve service. However, God sent a messenger. Our word angel comes from the Greek word angellos, which means messenger. God sent a messenger in the form of an old woman. The old woman told her that her mother would recover and her father would bring her home soon. That she should not worry but instead go and enjoy the Christmas celebrations. Lucida was overjoyed, and wanted to give an offering to God in thanks for this good news. But she didn’t have anything to give. The old woman told her that “any gift is beautiful because it is given.” Lucida looked around and noticed the large weeds growing everywhere (it doesn’t freeze at Christmas where she’s from). She picked a large bundle of them and went to church. She brought the thank offering of weeds to the front of the sanctuary and laid them at the feet of the baby Jesus in the manger. Then she lowered her head and prayed.
How often this happens to us. We try our hardest to do things well and to bring our best to God, but in the end we often feel that all we have to offer is weeds. But God loves our offerings of weeds because, as the messenger from God in this legend said, “any gift is beautiful because it is given.”
While Lucida was praying, a hush fell over the church and then people started to whisper. She opened her eyes and saw that God had transformed her offering of weeds into beautiful red, star-shaped flowers. It wasn’t just the weeds inside that had been transformed, but also the weeds outside so that all the village was filled with red star-shaped flowers. To this day, these flowers bloom in Mexico at Christmas and people call them “the Flower of the Holy Night - the poinsettia.” This happens to us as well. When our lives fall apart, and get complicated and messy, often all we feel we have to offer is weeds. But God takes our weeds and transforms them into beautiful poinsettias.
The promise of God-with-us in Jesus that we celebrate at Christmas is the promise that God will bring new life and transformation into our lives. God’s love sustains us and supports us through the valley of deep darkness. God journeys with us through life to bring us into the light. When we feel our lives have fallen apart, or gotten complicated or messy, we can remember that God is with us. Because of God’s great love for us, God is with us to turn our sadness into joy, and our weeds into poinsettias. Thanks be to God. Amen.