Opening carol: O Come O Come Emmanuel.
The angel announced, “…the child conceived in Mary is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Look, the virgin will conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.’ (Which means God with us).”
In Jesus, God is now with us. A woman two thousand years ago has a bizarre virginal conception of a child and this is means God with us. The question I want to mediate upon tonight to prepare our hearts and minds for tomorrow is how is God for us through this story? Specifically, what do the characters of this story show us about how God is with us today?
We can learn a lot about the company God chooses to be near in this story. Thanks to Ray, we already read this story, and now we are going to meditate on the characters. We are going to look at Zachariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and kings.
God is with the Hopeful: Zachariah and Elizabeth
The story of Christmas does not begin with the story of Christmas. It begins with the birth of John the Baptist. It says a priest named Zachariah and his wife Elizabeth “lived blamelessly according to all the commandments of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). What I find ironic about this is that when hope did come, Zachariah couldn’t believe it. But they could not have children and they were advanced in years.
When Zachariah was in the sanctuary of the Temple. An angel appears and Zachariah is terrified. The angel says, “Do not be afraid.” He continues to tell him that he and his wife will have a son, John the Baptist, who will be filled with the Holy Spirit, will announce repentance, and will prepare the way for the Lord.” Interestingly enough, Zachariah questions the angel. If an ultra powerful, supernatural being materialized in front of me, I don’t I would question what this being was saying to its face. So, I find that funny. Zachariah is described as a man of near perfect obedience to God, and when a supernatural being appears to him to tell him that he and his wife will be granted what they probably have been praying for decades, he can’t believe it! It is ironic really.
Sometimes people of great faith still can’t believe the good news. Sometimes people of great hope and prayer can’t comprehend it when their prayers are answered.
This is just like us isn’t it? We live our lives waiting on something better. Waiting on the perfect life, not settling on anything less sometimes. Yet when we hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the answer to everything we could never want and need, we say, “How can that be? That can’t be! I’ve been hoping for the impossible, but now that it is here, I can’t believe that – why? – because its impossible! It doesn’t make sense!”
People have trouble trusting good news. My question to you is what have you been waiting for your whole life? What is that better thing you have been striving for, hoping for and praying for? And can you allow yourself to trust that Jesus is the fulfillment of all your goals, dreams, and prayers to night?
God is with the Insignificant: Mary
Who was Mary? Mary was a poor girl from the middle of nowhere. Mary was a popular name at this time. Mary the person was just a girl, just an insignificant poor girl. Her name might of well have been Jane Doe. There is nothing about her that warranted the attention of God to choose her for the role of bearing Jesus – nothing except her character.
But an angel appears to Mary and says, “Greetings favored one! The Lord is with you!” He tells her that she will be carrying a son, to be named Jesus. He will be great, son of the Most High, Son of God. The Lord God will give to him the throne of David and his kingdom will have no end.”
The angel announces this and Mary does not understand how this could be possible because she is a virgin. The angel Gabriel reminds her that nothing is impossible with God.
Luke records the song of Mary the next chapter over, where she sings, “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant… [that’s her!] He has brought the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent away the rich.” In God’s kingdom the powerful get humiliated, and the weak and poor get vindicated. In coming to Mary God revealed the beginning of Jesus’ work: God with us, us the insignificant.
Perhaps you have come here tonight wondering, “Does God love me? Or just: What is special about me? What am I worth? Do I have worth?” God chose Mary and that shows us something. God is with us, us who feel like no one cares about us, us who sometimes feels like we are insignificant, nothing special.
Yet, Mary shows us in her insignificance how we are all significant in the eyes of God. We are also all capable of doing things extraordinary. She responds with simple obedience, which we can all do. So, Mary, without hesitation, says, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord. Let it be according to your word.” Our lives matter to God, no matter who we are, and God is calling us to extraordinary things in his eyes, and that begins by saying, “Here I am Lord. I am ready to follow your word.”
Are you ready to do something truly significant in our lives? Are we ready to say to God, the infinite God who meets us in our insignificance. Can you say to him tonight: “Here I am God, I am ready to walk with you.”
God is with the Compassionate: Joseph
Joseph does not get the air time he deserves. I’ll tell you why. If it wasn’t for the compassion of Joseph, Jesus would have never been born. Obviously, when I say that, God knew Joseph’s character and what he would do, so this statement is a hypothetical.
But let’s put it this way. In the ancient culture, if a woman was caught in adultery, the husband had the right to humiliate her publically and even to stone her. He had the right to drag her out into the middle of the town square, proclaim her crime against their marriage, and the villages would pick up stones and throw them at her till she stopped moving. Mary and Joseph were betrothed at this point, but an angry mob might not have made that distinction. It was brutal, I know, but that was the culture.
But Joseph did not go by the standards of his culture. He had a conscience that was ahead of its day. He had a heart of compassion and empathy and forgiveness. The text said that “Joseph, being a righteous man, choose to send her away quietly.” In other words, his response was to protect her reputation and safety.
Put yourself in his shoes. You discover that your fiancé is pregnant. It is not your baby. The obvious explanation is that she has cheated on you. The life you thought you would have with her is not going to happen. She is not your one and only, because you are not hers. Anyone who has seen infidelity knows the anger, the hurt, the bitterness that can well up in a person’s heart. His cultural right was to punish her. He didn’t. He chose mercy. Can you see why God chose him to be Jesus’ dad?
All we get is a few short lines that tell of his reaction. It seems obvious that he would have felt hurt and anger, the longing to punish or get back at her, but he didn’t. His heart moved with compassion and concern for the person that seemed at the time to have hurt him the worst.
Then an angel appeared to him, and confirmed Mary’s story. And so, Joseph believes the angel and marries her. We can’t overlook that too. Just because an angel said, it does not make obeying easy. He could have ran in the opposite direction like Jonah. But he didn’t. He marries her, guides her, protects her, bringing her to Bethlehem.
There is another often missed detail. Mary and Joseph had to stay in a stable because “there was no room in the inn.” Think about this. Joseph returns to his hometown, where he has tons of family, yet he can’t find a place to stay, not even in the inn, so they are forced to sleep in a stable. Did Joseph’s family refuse to welcome him and his wife? Did Joseph fall into such ill-repute by marrying a women that seemed to have cheated on him that his own family refused to welcome them?
After the Christmas narrative, we hear a few times more about Joseph, but it seems like Joseph passes away before Jesus is called to ministry. Joseph did not even get to see if the angel was right. He did not get to see Jesus grow up and bring the salvation that Joseph had sacrificed so much for. He took it all on faith. He raised a child that was not his own, giving up his reputation, his family, all to do God’s will.
They say nice guys finish last. By nice guys, we mean those virtuous men that seem to act selflessly, compassionately, acting on forgiveness before anger. Those people that care for others before themselves, as if to a fault. The world looks at men like Joseph and sees them as spineless suckers that never get ahead in life. But my question to you is, in Jesus’ eyes, where the first will be last and the last shall be first, in the order of the kingdom of heaven, did Joseph finish first or last? Are we willing to follow Joseph’s example and make ourselves last before others as well?
God is with the Forgotten: The Shepherds
We have already meditated on Mary as God with the insignificant, but the shepherds reiterate this truth. Who were the shepherds? The shepherds were the poorest of the poor, the most forgotten of the forgotten. They were like the mid-night janitor staff of the ancient world. Their work was not desirable. Their work was lonely. Their work was not particularly safe out in the wilderness, surrounded by animals that made for easy prey. You can imagine that people down on their luck had to go tend sheep.
Then one night, starring up at the stars angels appears, announcing, “Do not be afraid, I am bringing Good News of great joy for all people. The Messiah is here. Here is a sign to you. You will find him wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
Interesting words here: This is good news for all people (not just the rich and the powerful and the famous – everyone), yet the angel did not appear to everyone he appeared to shepherds. The logic of the event is this: If God appears to shepherds, the lowest of the low, God must really care about everyone.
And the text says, you will find the baby in bands of cloth and in a manger, “This will be a sign to you.” Not to everyone, but to you, shepherds. These bands of cloth were essentially dirty rags people used when travelling. They were not the cute white and blue linens we see in nativity scenes. They were dirty and disgusting, but that is all Mary and Joseph had. You wonder, were any of those shepherds born in stables, or on the streets? Did their mothers have to wrap them in rags, because that was all they had? How many of them were born into the filth of poverty. When the angel announced to look for their messiah in a manger, a feeding trough, do you think the shepherd exclaimed in their hearts, “How, finally a king that knows what we have gone through. Finally a king that has come to be with his people. Finally a king that refuses privilege and palaces, to be with the needy of his people, like so many have promised, but none have delivered.” Here is the king for the people, one of us.
God is with us because God is now one of us. Jesus taught stuff like Blessed are those who are poor in spirit, in morning, or the meek. Jesus said that “those who feed the hungry, cloth the naked, visit the ill, as you do to the least of these, you do to me.”
Let me ask you then? In the coming day, who do you need to visit, feed, care for, that will live the reality that God is with the forgotten?
God is with the Truth Seekers: The Magi
A traditional nativity scene has three magi or kings visiting to adore Jesus. But Matthew tells us Jesus was a child at this point, not a baby. According to tradition, these three men were Balthasar of Arabia, Melchior of Persia, and Gaspar of India. They brought three gifts that were ordinary offerings and gifts given to a king. Myrrh being commonly used as an anointing oil, frankincense an incense, and gold. The three gifts have traditional spiritual meanings: gold as a symbol of kingship on earth, frankincense (an incense) as a symbol of worship, and myrrh (an embalming oil) as a symbol of death.
All this was done to fulfill Psalm 72:11, “May all kings fall down before him.” Kings recognized that Jesus was the true king. Of course, not all Kings now and then recognize that Jesus is king. In that time, that king was Heriod, a tyrant that oppressed the people. It says that he murdered all the children two years and younger trying to find and kill Jesus. This massacre shows that he worship the way of power, and if you worship the way of power, you will kill to keep it. We live in a world under its own tyranny, whether the violence the wars we see on the television, or the tyranny of our own: the oppression of our own consumerism or the tyranny of thoughtlessness we have in our day to day lives. This world reflects a world that does not recognize Jesus is king, his rule, his way…yet.
The wise men are fascinating because they followed a star, deceived Herod to protect a baby, and humbly recognized Jesus’ kingship beyond their own power. The Magi were great truth seekers. They saw that the world’s way of power was going to an end in Jesus, and they chose to side with the way of Jesus.
How many of us know the way of Jesus, and continue on in the way of the world? If we understand that God is with us, we must now choose to be with God. As God walks beside us, we must now walk with God. Why? The ways of this world are coming to an end. The rule of King Jesus is the only one that will last.
The baby in the manger became the man proclaimed God’s beloved son at baptism, condemned as king of the Jews at the cross, dying for our sins, and was raised to new life for us on the third day, defeating sin and death. He died our death so that we can have his life. Will you embrace the Immanuel today?
May you know tonight, this very special night, that God is there for those longing for something more.
He is there for the insignificant.
His way is the way of the selfless and compassionate.
His love and peace is for all people, because he remembers the forgotten.
May you trust tonight that a king has been born, higher than any king.
Whose rule is higher than any rule.
His truth is higher than any truth.
May you know his peace, his love, his good will towards you tonight.
May you know tonight the sign of Immanuel: that God is for us. God is for you.
Amen. Go in peace.