This sermon was preached at First Presbyterian Church in Middletown, Ohio on December 24, 2018 on Matthew 1:18-23.
How do we take grand notions about God’s faithfulness?
How do we convey the idea of a universal love at any cost?
How do we touch upon the fierce and everlasting passion of God?
And get ALL of THAT down to a SINGLE WORD?
What one word we can utter to make sense of it all?
What one word can we tell our children when they ask the meaning of Christmas?
Matthews offers us a word: Emmanuel.
A messenger of the Lord comes to Joseph–not Mary for some confounding reason.
The messenger says you will name the child Emmanuel which means God With Us.
That’s nice and all. It can be powerful and compelling… if you speak Greek.
Most of us don’t.
EMMANUEL translates into a whole sentence. Matthew is almost cheating a little bit.
The challenge remains: What one word encapsulates all of this?
What encapsulates our hopes and dreams of a world made new?
What one word satisfies our longing for God?
What one word brings shepherds out of their fields?
What one word causes Magi to traverse deserts following a guiding light?
What one word strikes fear in the heart of tyrants?
Please call out your suggestion. I’m all ears.
The word I choose is “with”… as in God is WITH us. W-I-T-H. With.
Christmas is simply about being with.
I know…I know…
It is an odd word to summarize the whole Christmas story.
It might even seem boring at first.
It is not a verb that implies action,
nor is it a noun that describes a thing.
Rather, this one word is a preposition
that expresses relationship.
This is a part of speech that describes
how one thing is positioned to another thing.
How does God position God’s self with humanity?
How do we position ourselves in response?
The word is WITH. That’s all you need to remember tonight.
If nothing else, remember this: GOD is WITH.
* * *
A parent came up to me in stitches of laughter a few weeks ago. It was right after our Advent workshop. The children made nativity scenes on a Saturday afternoon. They were simple little boxes painted in gold glitter. Mary and Joseph were painted little figures. They were nondescript. The children assembled a baby Jesus-who some people thought looked like a fried egg. The Christian Education committee labored over making stars to go on top of the box. All of this rested on a purple piece of cloth.
One of the children went home that afternoon. He went into his bedroom and stretched a blanket across the room. One corner of the blanket was anchored on the bed, and he tied the other end to a chair. The boy placed a pillow under the blanket and placed a baby doll on the pillow. The parent came in the room and said, “What on earth are you doing?”
“I’m building a nativity scene!” he shouted.
Mary and Joseph were conspicuously missing, but then the boy started rolling out a sleeping bag. He said, “I’m sleeping right here tonight.” He chose to sleep right next to baby Jesus.
The boy understood what it meant to be “with.” He didn’t just want to marvel at a little box. He didn’t just want to stare at the little creation. He wanted to crawl in. He wanted no distance between the mystery and himself. He wanted to be “with.”
God is with us.
* * *
With changes everything. It would not be a stretch to say this tiny, little word–this preposition–is the word that lies at the heart of Christmas. With. The word may be even at the heart of the entire Christian faith. With is a gift from God. At Christmas, God gives it all up to be with you. God is with us.
At Christmas, God does not come into the world as a superhero. God doesn’t come and do a bunch of things for us using magical powers and then run off again. Instead, God comes as child as a vulnerable child–born into empire and peasantry. God stoops down right next to us in kindness and humility. You’d expect that God could just come into the scene. Make everything right. And then ride off into the distant sunset back to the confines of heaven.
But Jesus Christ, good old Emmanuel himself, shows us a better way. The word with is God’s word for love. “God comes to us […] not to fix the world but to love it,” as one theologian notes. “When God came into the world, as he did on Christmas day, the pain of the world did not disappear nor was it erased. But the pain of the world received a Holy Companion.” (Sam Wells)
Yes, this child grows into a person who does amazing, marvelous miracles. But that is not the reason we are drawn to Jesus Christ–that is not what drew the shepherds from the fields and magi from the East. It is not why Herod trembled.
Instead, Jesus is God’s “extraordinary capacity to be with us.” The works of the adult exude from this capacity. Jesus’s “extraordinary capacity to be with us” offers a deeper healing–a more wholesome way of being-than we can ever imagine without. That’s why still celebrate this birth on the darkest night of the year. This is why we still yearn for the God made flesh. That is why we praise God all these years later. It is all because God chose to be with.
* * *
Just the other day, I was praying someone from this congregation. I was so careful to offer a prayer that acknowledged the person’s fears and struggles. I wanted it to be the best prayer I ever offered. No matter how often I pray with others, sometimes I still get a little self-conscious. “This person needs the best prayer I have,” I thought to myself.
I wanted the person to feel heard and acknowledged. I carefully articulated an invitation to God to join us. And then I said, “in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.” Without missing a beat, the woman I was praying with started to pray aloud. She continued the prayer with just one sentence: “God, I know that you are with me. Amen.”
Why didn’t I just say that? “I know you are with us.” With changes everything.
* * *
Here is the invitation that God offers us at Christmas. I know that can be quite difficult. But if you give something to someone else this Christmas, simply be with one another in the name of Jesus Christ. It may be the hardest gift to give, and yet it remains the most valuable. When I look back at Christmases long ago, I rarely remember who gave me the toys, pocketknives, and socks, but I always remember who I was with.
I remember who I was with as we mulled the glogg over the stove-or drove across town to the only store that sold lutefisk. I remember how we were with one another when the news of a family tragedy broke as we were gathered. Or I remember my grandmother’s insistence that we hold hands and sing the Doxology around the dinner table.
The more I celebrate Christmas, the more consequential Christmas feels to me. We often think that it is the end of the story that saves us–the death and the resurrection. But I am starting to wonder, as many Christians have, whether it is actually God’s willingness to be with. More and more though, I see incarnation as salvation. The creator joins us with the resounding knowledge that we are not alone.
Being with changes everything. The things God saves from can’t simply be fixed. Ailments of alienation and isolation cannot simply be fixed; the antidote to that isolation demands that we learn withness. The enemies of love are fear and anxiety. Perfect love cast out fear-or, in my estimation, complete withness casts out fear. It is God being with that saves us.
* * *
The word with that contains the mighty power of God. It is a simple word that goes unnoticed. Tonight is more than a birthday; tonight is a recognition that God has always been with us. God has always been Emmanuel. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here. Jesus’s church would have hung up our hat a long time ago.
Not only does Matthew with wonderful word he also ends with this word. I will conclude by asking: “Who is with you tonight?” And I will answer will the last words of the Matthew’s gospel. They are in the voice of Jesus: “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”