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God with Us
a sermon based on Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-25
by Rev. Richard Gehring

            In many churches across the country and around the world, the story of the miraculous birth in Bethlehem will once again be presented in many ways throughout this coming week.  Many will feature a pageant with folks dressed up as shepherds, wisemen, angels and, of course, Mary and Joseph.  In most cases, the pageant will begin with the events recorded in Luke 2.  The familiar words will once again ring out in countless languages,  "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed."

            But before the angels appeared to the shepherds, before Mary and Joseph found no room in the inn, even before they set out for Bethlehem, the city of David, came the events in the story that Don read for us a minute ago.  Before any of the heartwarming and very familiar episodes portrayed in the typical Christmas pageant came to pass, some troubling things occurred that very nearly prevented the miracle of Christmas from happening in the way that it did.

            Joseph and Mary had been betrothed to one another.  Now,betrothal meant that they were not yet married, but it was more than simply being engaged.  It was a legally binding contract that could not be broken simply by returning a ring.  The only way to get out of a betrothal was by getting a divorce.  But until the wedding itself, the betrothed couple still each lived with their own families.  They would not move in together and be fully married until after the marriage feast.

            It was during this period of betrothal that Joseph received the rather disturbing news that his bride-to-be, Mary, was pregnant.  I can only imagine the shock, the hurt, the anger, the shame that Joseph must have experienced.  He knew that he was not the father of the child.  The only possible explanation was that there must be another man.  Mary had been unfaithful to him.  She had broken the commitment she had made to him.  And now all of their plans for a future together were in jeopardy.  How could he possibly go ahead and marry this woman after what she had done?

            But Joseph was not a vengeful person.  Matthew tells us that he was a "righteous man" or a "just man" depending on your translation.  He did not want to expose Mary to public disgrace.  Such a move could lead to her being stoned for adultery.  And in spite of what she had apparently done to him, Joseph didn't want to see that happen to her or to the child.  Instead he resolved to simply put this terribly unpleasant experience behind him by quietly giving her a letter of divorce and getting on with his life.

            But before that could happen, something else occurred—something miraculous, something incredible, something so astounding that Joseph had to change his mind.  He had a dream.  And in that dream an angel, a messenger of God, appeared to him.  The angel told him not to divorce Mary.  It said that Mary had not been unfaithful, that indeed her pregnancy was a sign of her true faithfulness to God.  For it was none other than God's Holy Spirit who had caused Mary to conceive.  And the child that she was to bear would be the fulfillment of prophecy.  He was to be named "Jesus" which means "the Lord saves" because he would indeed be a savior for his people.

            Matthew goes on to explain that all that took place was a fulfillment of an ancient prophecy by Isaiah.  Centuries earlier, when King Ahaz of Judah was faced with a difficult decision of whether to ally himself with the kings of Israel and Aram or with the Assyrians, Isaiah had offered some very different counsel.  "Don't ally with either,"  he said.  "Instead, put your trust in God to save you."  God even offered to give Ahaz a sign.  And when the king refused, God gave one anyway.  Through Isaiah, the Lord told of a child who will soon be born.  And before that child was old enough to eat solid food or to distinguish right from wrong, the whole matter would have resolved itself.  The name of this child was to be Immanuel, which means "God with us."

            Ahaz refused to listen to Isaiah or to heed God's sign.  He ultimately relied on the Assyrian Empire rather than on God to save him.  As a result, his power was greatly diminished and his people were forced to pay tribute to Assyria.

            Fortunately, Joseph did not make the same mistake.  He did heed the words of God's messenger.  And because of his and Mary's faithfulness, Jesus was born.  And in Jesus we find the true fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy.  In him we encounter "God with us" in a very unique way.  For Jesus was none other than God Almighty in human form.  And that, it seems to me, is the central message of Christmas.  The message of Christmas can be summed up in that one name:  Immanuel—God with us.

            In Jesus, God has identified fully with humanity.  The Creator willingly became a part of the Creation.  God came not as some superhuman being that descended gloriously from heaven, but rather as an ordinary, helpless baby.  As he grew up he encountered the same temptations, the same hardships, the same joys and sorrows that any one of us would experience.

            There  was a popular song some years ago that became the theme song for the TV show “Joan of Arcadia.?  The song is called "One of Us."  The chorus starts out "God is great.  God is good."  And then it changes tempo and mood to ask the question "What if God was one of us?  Just a slob like one of us?  Just a stranger on a bus trying to make his way home, back up to heaven all alone?"

            I have thought about that song often because I believe that the Christmas message answers the questions it raises.  God has become "one of us."  It may be putting it a bit crassly to say that Jesus was "just a slob like one of us."  But essentially that's what he was.  He was just another person struggling to survive in difficult times.  He had needs and wants, dreams and

desires just like every one of us. 

            And, ultimately, he was like "a stranger on a bus."  Because he was Immanuel, God with us, he was always something of an outsider, a stranger.  He never quite seemed to fit in, largely because he was "trying to get home" to the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom that often clashed with the principalities and powers of the world in which we live.  Eventually he did get back "to heaven all alone" after dying an agonizing and solitary death on one of the most cruel instruments of torture ever designed by humankind.

            Now, what difference does it make to say that God has become "one of us?"  Well, it seems to me that it makes quite a bit of difference.  In the first place, it means that we have a God who truly understands us.  Our God is one that knows what it is like to be human.  Our God knows what it's like to suffer, to be in pain, to endure difficulties.  Our God knows exactly what it is that we as finite, limited creatures have to face every single day of our lives.

            As we gaze upon the babe in the manger, we see the face of God, and we see ourselves as well.  In most white homes, the nativity set probably features a fair-skinned child.  But in many African-American homes and churches, the baby Jesus has a black face.  And today one can find manger scenes with a wide variety of depictions of the Christ child,:  a brown-skinned Jesus from Peru and one with almondshaped eyes from Laos.  And all of them are right.  Because through Jesus God became like every single one of us, regardless of race or nationality or gender.

            The God whom we worship is not one that remains aloof in some distant heaven, oblivious to the trials and tribulations we must face here.  The God whom we worship is the one that came to this very earth as a tiny baby that didn't even have a crib to lie in.  The God whom we worship grew up as a refugee, lived as homeless person and died as a convicted criminal.

            God didn't have to become "one of us."  It was God's choice to take on human form.  God loves and cares so much for the world that God chose to become a part of it.  Jesus willingly put aside all of the glory and honor that is rightfully due to him in order to come and be among the people whom he loves more dearly than we can possibly imagine.  And now we can relate to God in ways that would never be possible if we didn't know that God knows intimately what it's like to be "one of us."

            Besides being the ultimate demonstration that God loves and understands us, the birth of Jesus, Immanuel, also provides us with a model for relating to one another.  Just as God willingly came to earth to be with us, so we must be willing to reach out and be with one another.  Just as God identifies with and knows us, so also we must be willing to seek to identify with and know each other.

            Jesus went to great lengths to be with the outcasts in his society.  He ate with tax collectors.  He touched lepers.  He talked with women.  And it all began when he was born to a very young woman and her new husband in a cowshed in a small village in a tiny province on the fringe of the Roman Empire.

            Now, if God was willing to go that far out of the way in order to become "one of us," then shouldn't we be willing to go out of our way to touch others?  Just as the face in the manger reflects the face of God, so our own faces should reflect God to others around us.  And just as we see our own faces reflected in the manger, so our neighbors must see their faces mirrored in ours.

            We like to label people, to put folks in categories so that we can differentiate them from ourselves.  Welfare moms, convicted felons, illegal immigrants, homosexuals, terrorists:  all of these are folks whom our society regards as being on the fringe or outside the mainstream.  Perhaps our lists would be different.  They might include politicians, wealthy corporate executives, televangelists:  maybe these are the people that we find it difficult to identify with.      But the message of Christmas applies to each and every person on whatever list we want to make.  The difference between God and humans is far greater than the difference between any two people because of their race or economic status or ideology or sexual orientation or any other factor that differentiates us from one another.  And if God could bridge the gap between Creator and creation, then we should be able to bridge the gap between "us" and "them."  Because when God became "one of us," God also became "one of them."  Indeed, from God's perspective, there is no "us" and "them."  When Matthew wrote about Immanuel, "God with us," he meant "all of us."

            It's been a long time since Joseph had a visit from an angel, assuring him of God's presence with him.  And it's been even longer since the prophet Isaiah acted as God's messenger to deliver a similar message to King Ahaz.  Joseph listened to the angel and was blessed.  Ahaz did not listen to Isaiah and suffered because of his lack of faith.

            Most of us will probably never have a visit from an angel like Joseph did.  Nor are we likely to hear a prophetic message the way Ahaz did.  But because of the promises given to them and recorded in the Bible, we are able to hear the same message:  God is with us.  And because we know about Jesus—his life, his death, his resurrection—we know that God has become "one of us."  May we be faithful to that message just as Joseph was so that, through us, the rest of the world can also hear the message of Christmas:  Immanuel, God with us.