I think you will really enjoy this year’s Advent Devotional Book. Every devotional centers on a scriptural name of Jesus, and my Advent sermons will seek to combine a name of Jesus with the worship theme for the day. The prophesy found in Isaiah 7:14 was a message of hope; Immanuel, God with us, was coming.
Of the four gospels, Matthew is the one which most shows Jesus’ Jewish heritage and sought to convince First Century Jews that Jesus was the Messiah. Matthew wrote from a Jewish viewpoint for a Jewish audience, and the gospel that bears his name most likely was written after 70 AD, when the Jewish Temple had been destroyed by the Romans. All of Jerusalem was destroyed, including the Temple, which many considered to be the literal dwelling place of God. When we call a church “God’s House,” we have a certain connotation, but when Jews called the Jerusalem Temple “God’s House,” they meant that God actually resided in that massive structure.
With the destruction of the Temple, many wondered, as they had when Solomon’s Temple was destroyed in 587 BC by King Nebuchadnezzer, if God was dead. With the Temple in ruins, many pondered if God had abandoned them. Some asked, “If God’s House was destroyed, what happened to God?”
Today, as more intellectual and enlightened people, we know that God physically does not reside in one building with a steeple on top. There are so many churches; which one would God choose? Yet how often do good and thoughtful people, even those who call themselves Christians, wonder if God has left them. Tragedies occur, and some ask how a loving God could allow that to happen. When things don’t go as expected, some wonder, “Where is God?” When good people suffer, when skies get darker, when bad continues to win, many think that God doesn’t care, or that God isn’t interested, or even worse, some think that God doesn’t exist.
I like daylight; I like the sun. I like longer days rather than shorter days. I’d have a hard time living in Alaska, because I’m not a fan of extremely cold weather, but also the winter days are very short there. A condition called Seasonal Affective Disorder is prevalent in areas like the Pacific Northwest where gray skies and shorter days are the norm; light therapy options help people whose depression escalates in these environments.
Our bodies need vitamin D; we know that too much sun can be detrimental to our skin, but sunlight is good. Repeated gray skies reinforce gloominess for those who experience dark days.
This was how the world was spinning when Jesus was born. Dark skies seemed to remain over many who became weighted down with the heaviness of trying to keep all the regulations. Professional religion as practiced by the Pharisees was hardly achievable by common people. Rules, rules, and more rules had to be followed to gain access to God; those who deliberately broke the rules often found themselves facing a death sentence of stoning. External stipulations of what was considered acceptable was the way people showed their allegiance to God. People thought the way to God was to follow the Law and keep the rules.
One of those rule-followers was a guy named Joseph. A simple carpenter, he chose to try to do the right thing. Matthew called him a righteous man; he was known for doing the right thing. He was engaged to a girl named Mary, but a huge problem emerged. Having conflict during an engagement is natural and even expected. If a couple never has conflict then someone is giving in too much; couples are not clones of each other, and therefore differences of opinion are inevitable.
But Joseph’s problem seemed insurmountable: he learned that his fiancée Mary was pregnant, and the baby wasn’t his. As a rule-follower, Joseph wanted to do the right thing; Deuteronomy 22 indicated that his fiancée should be stoned, but he struggled with that plan of action. He didn’t want her to die, and he also didn’t want her to be publicly humiliated, so he decided upon another rule found in Deuteronomy 24 that indicated that he could divorce her privately. He would serve her with divorce papers and pay a fine, and they both could move on separately.
Joseph knew the rules; for him to gain access to God, he had to follow the rules. Keeping the Law was how people had relationship with God, and he wanted to do what God wanted. Yet his situation seemed hopeless; the dreams of his future, the life he had hoped would occur, was not reachable. So Joseph tried to find God through the manner which he knew: he kept the rules. He knew he was doing God’s work if he simply obeyed the commandments and lived within the prescribed parameters.
The passages from Deuteronomy gave him the structure he needed to face the uncertainty of his situation. This was not an easy decision. When our worlds get turned upside down, we try to find ways to make the world right again. When we find ourselves walking on shifting sands, we long for dry ground. When the future seems so uncertain, we grasp at any straw labelled “certainty” blowing in the wind. Most of us don’t like unsteadiness or times when the applecart is upset or when the rug is pulled our from under our feet. Joseph wanted access to God to right his ship while sailing through turbulent waters; he gained that access by keeping the rules, by fulfilling the Law.
But then a strange and wonderful thing occurred: he had a dream. We know of a Joseph in the Old Testament who was a dreamer, and it seems that this Joseph of the New Testament also was a dreamer. I have vivid dreams in color with lengthy conversations. Sometimes the people in my dreams are those I’ve encountered that day; at other times, my Dad, who died four years ago, appears in my dreams. I find dreams to be fascinating. After reaching resolution of a difficult problem, Joseph had a dream that included a definitive message from God. The word angel actually means “messenger,” and the message which was communicated to Joseph got his attention.
The messenger called him “Son of David,” which later meant even more when a national census required Joseph to register in Bethlehem, the home town of his ancestor King David. Most, if not all, angelic appearances in the New Testament begin with this phrase, “Do not be afraid.” The same phrase was offered to Joseph. The angel told Joseph to take Mary as his wife and that her child was from the Holy Spirit.
The hopeful message continued, “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, which is the Greek form of Joshua meaning “the Lord saves.” This Jesus would save his people from their sins. Joshua had been a great leader for the Israelites. The mission of Mary’s son was to be a Savior. Joseph needed to be saved from his worry and his fear. This baby would save his people from their sins.
As a righteous man, Joseph was aware of the Law, which he sought to follow, but also of the prophets. The angel quoted Isaiah 7:14, a prophecy regularly reminding the Jews that a better day was on the horizon. The prophecy spoke of a virgin conceiving and having a son; this made sense to Joseph. The son would be called “Emmanuel,” meaning “God with us.” Joseph awoke from his dream with a new determination; while he had struggled with the earlier decision of what to do, his dream pointed him to a hopeful future.
Hope would sustain him as he changed his plan and decided to take Mary as his wife. While he had sought access to God by keeping the Law, he now was being comforted in knowing that God was with him. He had been visited by a messenger from God; Mary’s baby would represent God being with us. Joseph didn’t have to make his decision by himself; God was there to help him.
No one wants to be alone. I know of people who have had family members near death’s door, and many say, “I just don’t want them to die alone.” Facing sad times by yourself is no fun; likewise, fun times get multiplied exponentially if someone is with you. This doesn’t mean that one can’t be sad or happy when they are alone, but I do think that Emmanuel, God with us, means that we are never truly alone.
Initially, Joseph looked to the rules to help him solve the problem; because of the dream, Joseph leaned on his relationship with God to help him solve the problem. Many today get so caught up with rule-keeping that the relationship with God takes a back-seat. Jesus came to change all that, because none of us can get everything right. Jesus came to remind us that God doesn’t expect us to get everything right.
We read that Jesus faced every circumstance we face; as a human, he experienced highs and low, both the joys and pains of life. For me, knowing that I don’t have to face discouragement by myself gives me hope. For me, knowing that I always have someone to talk to gives me hope. For me, knowing that I don’t have to struggle alone gives me hope. For me, knowing that I don’t have to be lonely gives me hope.
If God is with us, if the promise of Emmanuel is true, then there is no place we can go where God is absent. If depressed, God is with us. If hurting, God is with us. If sick, God is with us. If grieving, God is with us. Likewise, if happy,God is with us. If succeeding, God is with us. If serving the downtrodden, God is with us.
Jesus entered a world that did not consider God to be reachable, yet the baby came into the world as a helpless infant and grew. The message of the Incarnation is that when we are fearful, God is with us. When we are hopeless, God is with us. When whatever happens, God is with us.
Matthew began his story of Jesus with an angel appearing to Joseph in a dream and quoted the prophesy of Emmanuel from Isaiah; Matthew ended his gospel with what we call the Great Commission, and Jesus made this statement, “And remember, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” As bookends, found in the beginning and the ending of the gospel of Matthew, we find the reminder that God is always going to be with us. Matthew wanted to communicate to the those who thought that God had forgotten them, that God had abandoned them, and that God didn’t care about them that the life of Jesus proved that God could be with them.
This season of the year brings varied emotions. Are you struggling? Do you think that God has forgotten about you? Do you think that God isn’t interested in what happens to you? Do you try to do the right thing only to face disappointment? Are your plans not working out the way you had expected? The message of the angel applies today: “Do not be afraid.” Know that God is always with us, which is incredibly good news for those of us who struggle. Truly, God’s presence provides hope.