December 18, 2016 / BY BEING WITH US / Sara Wolbrecht / Matthew 1:18-25
Dani is back! Dani Dodge has been painting, live, for us on Sundays as we make our way through Advent – as a tangible observation and experience of wonder. This piece began as a blank canvas. The first week we watched as bold colors stretched across the canvas, that were then enfolded in black paint to become this muted night sky – and we named the spiritual reality of waiting. Then the second week the earth and the first signs of stars emerged – naming how even in darkness and grief, God can birth new worlds and possibility. Then last week, our painting had a plot twist – as we named that our God is a God of plot twists – which means we will be wrong. A lot. And what a place of health and humility for us to be people who reclaim wonder by reclaiming the phrase I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong. And then WE became the artists, dipping our fingers in paint and creating the stars in sky. Good work everybody. (When I asked my daughter if she’d had a chance to make a star, she said an enthusiastic, Yes! I made a cross! You’re welcome, Dani). And today Dani will take what we have created here together, and finish this work! Thank you, Dani! As we finish our Advent journey. The next time we gather it will be Christmas.
Against the backdrop of Dani’s work, we turn to our work for today. Visualize with me, if you would, the nativity. Jesus’ birth. We have seen so many images of it over the course of our lives.
Who is there? And who are the main players in the nativity? I’d say the obvious top three are: Mary, Joseph, Jesus. So obviously, Jesus is the main character, center stage in the nativity. And then come his parents. And really, the close second behind Jesus is Mary, right? Her face has donned the cover of TIME magazine more times than any other woman.
And then, somewhere in the shadows, just outside the spotlight is Joseph. And today, because we’re spending time in Matthew’s gospel this Advent, we get to read about Joseph. Though he doesn’t get the same air time as Jesus or Mary, and he has no lines, his role is vital to this story of the Messiah’s birth. And today we dive in, we’ll pay attention to the details, and then distill down what this says about God, about us, and the life of wonder the Jesus-story invites us into. I’m going to pause us a few times as we read through to offer some commentary as we go.
Matthew 1:18-25 This is how Jesus Christ was born. A young woman named Mary was engaged to Joseph from King David's family. But before they were married, she learned that she was going to have a baby by God's Holy Spirit. Joseph was a good man and did not want to embarrass Mary in front of everyone. So he decided to quietly call off the wedding.
A few things... Notice, Matthew is setting the scene. There is no action that has taken place yet – These first few verses are things that have already happened. They are... First, Mary and Joseph are already engaged. Unlike an engagement today, this was a legally binding agreement between people, they are essentially already considered husband and wife. Second, we know that Mary is already pregnant. And third, Joseph does know that Mary is pregnant, but does not know its divine source – yet. Fourth, we learn the first and only thing that is said about Joseph's character: he is a “good” man. Or “righteous” or “just.” In Matthew's time, someone who is “just” would live by the letter of the law. And fifth, contrary to behavior expected of a “just” man – which would be to follow the letter of the law, Joseph decides, out of consideration for Mary, to divorce her quietly foregoing the severe punishment that the law would require for an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Interesting.
So – Matthew catches us up to what has already happened. And then the action begins in v. 20.
While Joseph was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord came to him in a dream. The angel said, "Joseph, the baby that Mary will have is from the Holy Spirit. Go ahead and marry her. Then after her baby is born, name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."
The angel explains Mary’s pregnancy, then gives Joseph an important command: “You shall name the child Jesus.” It’s more than just Joseph getting input on what the baby's name should be. This is significant. Think of the angel as putting the emphasis on the word “you.” “You, Joseph will name the child Jesus.”
In Jewish families of that time, after a baby is born the father is the name-giver. And in the act of naming that baby, he is calling that child his own, incorporating them as a part of their family. Saying, “Yes, this is in fact my child.” This act of naming will mean that Jesus is Joseph's son, it gives Mary's pregnancy legitimacy, and saves her from humiliation and having to potentially raise her child on her own.
And, in Joseph's naming of Jesus, Jesus becomes a part of the genealogy of Joseph. Which matters, because Joseph is a descendant of King David, which makes Jesus a descendant of King David. This fulfills the prophecy and promise that the Messiah would be a descendant of (who?) King David.
We’ll get into the meaning of Jesus’ name in a moment. V. 22
So the Lord's promise came true, just as the prophet had said, "A virgin will have a baby boy, and he will be called Immanuel," which means "God is with us."
After Joseph woke up, he and Mary were soon married, just as the Lord's angel had told him to do. But they did not sleep together before her baby was born. Then Joseph named him Jesus.
Interesting stuff, yes, that we pick up on in reading about the not as well-known Joseph.
Let’s come back for moment to this significance with Jesus’ names – there are two names for him given in the text – what are they? “Jesus,” and then “Immanuel.”
Jesus was actually a common name at that time. So – the Messiah receives a common name, a sign that unites him with the people of this world rather than separating him from them. Throughout the Bible we know that names are significant – names function not only as a label for someone, but the meaning of one's name has great power and declaration over their life. “Jesus” means, “Yahweh helps” or “God saves.” And the kind of salvation that this King will bring is not a political one, but it says “…name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."
So let’s press into this idea of saving for a moment. When we think of “saving” often the kinds of things we may associate with that are: being rescued. Being taken out of the moment or situation we’re in. Like Han Solo rescued from carbon freezing and Jaba the Hut. Like the “save me” text message you get from someone on an uncomfortable first date. It is all the ways in which we say: get me out of here!
And I think this meaning carries over into how we commonly project understanding in how Jesus saves – we associate saving, salvation with mass evacuation, removing from hell or taking us away to heaven. That is so often what “saving” is distilled down to in Christian circles – and that is just not what it is, my friends. Yet, I know I have made that association. Anyone else?
My friends, that’s not the story of Jesus – there’s a lot to say about that but, for today, we’ll come back to Jesus’s name. What we must do is hold the name Jesus = “God saves” alongside Jesus’ other name given here. Immanuel. It’s no coincidence that Matthew writes these two names one sentence apart.
Unlike the common name of “Jesus,” this other name, calling him “Immanuel” – that is a name that was not given to anyone else. It is mentioned by the prophet Isaiah in chapters 7 and 8 as a name that would be given to the Messiah. Perhaps it was not given to anyone else because it would say more about a child than anyone would normally dare. Because as many of us know, Immanuel means = “God with us.”
I have never put Jesus’ two names side-by-side like this before – like Matthew does – and considered the implications of holding them so close together. But we see: God saves and God is our God with us. As if to say: God saves by being with us. Rescue comes not by being whooshed out, whooshed away – but by sticking with it – and God sticking with us. …The way that God chooses to save is by coming to us, sticking around. God with us.
Let me flesh this out by offering an illustration from my life. Before I became pastor of Salt House, I was one of four pastors at a large Lutheran church in the Bay Area. I was the pastor of Care Ministry, congregational care, providing prayer, support, resources for folks living through transition, whether positive like marriage, babies, baptisms, and also (mostly) the hard stuff: sickness, cancer, porn addiction, infidelity, abuse, divorce, grief, dying and death.
Given my role, my work was in the trenches of people’s lives. In the midst of pain, tears, anger, fear, uncertainty, death. In those moments when people are crying out, “God, get me out of this.”
And as a newbie pastor – at first this was terrifying, confronted with such raw pain, death, hopelessness in my mid-twenties. But I kept showing up – not perfectly, but over time, those trenches became the place where I most deeply experienced the presence of God. I can tell you story after story of the goodness, faithfulness, compassion and care of God that shows up in tangible, visceral, hilarious, intimate ways – especially with those who are suffering.
So for me this week to see how Matthew wrote this gospel, putting the names of Jesus side by side like this. God saves by being with us. This is such a powerful AHA for me – as it affirms the God I have witnessed in the lives of hundreds of folks I have known.
I want to share an example of just one family this happened with, and as I thought about this, the one person that kept coming up was two-year-old Abby. But I’ll give you the heads up that this one packs a big punch.
You see, the second memorial service that I ever officiated for as a new pastor was for a two-year-old named Abby. Just saying those words – changes the air in this room, right? When Abby was an infant, she wasn’t hitting the milestones of development that she should be, which led to the discovery that she had a rare disease that caused her muscles to harden and her nerve endings to deteriorate. And Abby’s parents, Leslie and Hugh, were told that there was nothing to be done to change it, to stop it. No cure. No treatment. Just the slow shutting down of her body.
Devastating, and yet their journey was beautiful. And there were so many moments of God’s goodness amid this awful time – and the two moments I love most were on the day Abby died.
Abby died in the hospice house for children in Oakland, a magical place of light and joy and unbelievably good care, she died with her parents by her side. At the moment she died, it began to pour rain outside – and in Oakland, it don’t rain as much as it does here, right? Leslie and Hugh walked outside to the gardens just beyond Abby’s window, held each other and stood in the rain, and cried. Because Abby loved the rain. And what they told me later, in that moment they felt enfolded in the arms of God through those raindrops, they felt God-with-them even as they felt broken-open at their daughter’s death. Neither of them were regular church goers, or people of faith, yet they felt deeply reassured that though they had just let go of Abby, and she was gone, that she was most certainly with the God who will never let her go.
And the other thing about Abby’s death was that she died on November 1st. November 1st is All Saints’ Day. All Saints is perhaps the best day to die in all 365 days of the year. I think of Abby every November 1st.
And these were just two of the ways in which God was their God-with-us through the unbearable reality of losing a daughter.
Living through this experience with Leslie and Hugh, and living through so many others, I’ve learned a lot about God as our God who saves us by being with us. And one piece of what I’ve learned is captured by this painting. Which is of who and from where? This fresco adorns the Sistine Chapel ceiling, called "The Creation of Adam," the centerpiece of the whole chapel, it depicts God and Adam the moment before their outstretched hands meet. Notice with me: do you see the difference in the focus, the energy and posture of Adam, compared to that of God?
In the introduction to his book, GOD IS CLOSER THAN YOU THINK, pastor and author John Ortberg points out something I'd never noticed before in this painting.
"If you look carefully at the painting, you notice that the figure of God is extended toward the man with great vigor. He twists his body to move it as close to the man as possible. God’s head is turned toward the man, and his gaze is fixed on him. God's arm is stretched out, his index finger extended straight forward; every muscle is taut."
Ortberg goes on to say: "Before Michelangelo, the standard paintings of creation showed God standing on the ground, in effect helping Adam to his feet. Not here. This God is rushing toward Adam on a cloud.... It is as if even in the midst of the splendor of all creation, God's entire being is wrapped up in his impatient desire to close the gap between himself and this man."
We sometimes talk about our search for God, or waiting for God to show up. But the truth is otherwise. Ortberg says, "The story of the Bible isn't primarily about the desire of people to be with God; it's the desire of God to be with people." John Ortberg, God is Closer Than You Think
As his title says – God is closer than we think. That’s what Jesus’ names reveal to us, yes? That God is so present. That God saves us by being with us.
Another thing I have learned in my years of ministry is how hard it can be for us to live this reality – to see and recognize God who is with us. And how one of the greatest ways in which we as a community of faith can support one another is to be people who help each other spot, name, and experience the presence of God that is already here with us.
So how might we grow in this? John Ortberg uses a second picture to capture what this is like... You know who Waldo is, right? He's the nerdy guy in funny glasses and a striped cap who's always lost in the crowd. The trick is, you've got to find him. He's always there on the page, somewhere. You just need the eyes to see where. Similarly, we need eyes to recognize God in the details of life. And frankly, part of why Waldo is so hard to find is that he looks so ordinary – just like God. God is in the ordinary places of life. Ortberg says this of Waldo (and God): "He’s lurking where you least expect him. He's right there on the page. He's anywhere people are willing to see the whole world with eyes incapable of anything but wonder, and with a tongue fluent only for praise."
God is anywhere we are willing to see the whole world with eyes of wonder. My friends, to open up our eyes to wonder, to seeing our God who saves us by being with us, I want to suggest four clues to pay attention to, a non-comprehensive list, for us to carry into this final week of Advent, as we prepare for Jesus’ birth, and beyond.
God Saves Us By Being With Us. Pay Attention to:
1. Coincidence. Notice those things that seem coincidental. Not every coincidence we experience will be the presence of God, but holy cow I find that it is God more often than not. For example, Greg Fenich who is a part of Salt House and works his tail off in the kitchen for us – Greg has been looking for a new role at work for the past 9 months or so. Then three weeks ago on the first Sunday of Advent, that morning he really had work on his mind and how he was hoping for an answer soon. Then what came to mind was Isaiah 40:31 (KJV), "They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings as eagles. They shall run and not be weary, and walk and not faint" and, later, on the way to church that verse just kept coming back to Greg. And if you were here that Sunday, then you know, what did we talk about? Waiting. And when Greg shared with me after worship, I told him – it is these kinds of coincidences that are so very much like God giving a wink, a hug, saying guess what? I know what you’re going through and I am with you. Pay attention to those glimpses of ‘coincidences.’
2. Repetition They say we need to hear something seven times in order to learn and remember it. I think God knows and uses this. Look for repetition of words, themes, ideas, bible passages (like Greg). I find that God loves to bring up themes in our lives. We read something, then a friend mentions that same idea, then we get a piece of mail that mentions it, too. A song comes on the radio. Themes. Pay attention to the repetition we hear.
3. Intimate Details. Remember. This whole discourse between Joseph and the angel is regards to Mary’s pregnancy. Our lives do not get much more intimate than our sex life, our romantic relationships, our marriage – this is a grounding reminder for us: God is in the intimate details of our lives – both literally, but also this points us to how there is no place that is off limits or hidden. God is present in those places with us – our God with us who is also our “God up in our business.” Pay attention to the details. God is there.
4. People. Pay attention to the people in our lives. From the passing acquaintance to our best friend. Because: God does God’s best work through people. And most of his work. Not as common: the virgin birth, God acting miraculously and outside of human agency – that is the rare phenomenon, right? Most of the time, God’s movement in this world – for peace, justice, reconciliation, love, inclusion, change, healing – it comes through people who hear God-with-them, and become the very real ways in which God can be with others. Through them.
This is what happens with Joseph. He was planning to quietly divorce Mary – not destroying her reputation, but still running from this messy situation. Getting whooshed away. Then after hearing from the angel, hearing that God was with him, Joseph chose to stay with Mary. And in doing so, Joseph becomes the way in which God saves Mary – saves her from disgrace, becoming outcast. Pay attention to the people in our lives. They are God with us, and we become God with others. More on that on Christmas Eve!
Pay attention in all these ways – and more. God is anywhere we are willing to see the whole world with eyes of wonder. God is there – God is here.
God is in the night sky. We could look at the sky and see it for the beautiful thing that is – and this painting. We painted these stars – and we could see the stars shining – and we would potentially only see them as separate lights, scattered, disconnected. But could it be that there is something more going on? A bigger picture, that we’re unaware of, that we haven’t opened our eyes to see?
What if, when we look with wonder, if we turn our bodies toward the God who is straining to reach us, to our God who is with us, could we begin to see things that have been there all along? And are the very connections we’re longing for? Might we see our God who is closer than we think? That’s the question Christmas asks of us. Let’s pray…