dec. 20 - emmanuel

by Rev. Magrey DeVega, St. Paul's UMC Cherokee, Iowa

First, read Matthew 1:18-25

The commercial Christmas cultural machine is now in full gear. Shopping malls are filled to the brim with shoppers being serenaded by “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” in the public address speakers. Radio stations are playing nostalgic ditties like “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” And before too long, television screens will begin playing the first of dozens of repetitions of the Frank Capra classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

In other words, the culture around us would want you to believe that the world, for a moment, has put its normal regularly scheduled programming on hold and replaced it with a massive in-breaking of good cheer, peaceful tidings, and remarkable joy. Forget Disney World trying to be the “Happiest Place on Earth.” Commercial advertisers want you to believe that the Earth has its Happiest Time at Christmas.

But you and I know better, don’t we? For many people, there is very little that makes this world exactly merry.  Wars, brokenness, violence, oppression, heartache, grief, betrayal -- there is too much darkness in this world to simply gloss over and pretend it’s not there, all for the sake of secularized merriment and plastic good cheer.

It is over and against this romanticized portrait of Christmas that Matthew brings us an Advent narrative that is more in keeping with reality. Forget bright lights, inflatable nativity figures, and cheery Christmas cards: Matthew’s birth story seems to leap straight off the headlines from the front-page news. 

First, there is Joseph. He greets the announcement of Mary’s pregnancy not with cheer and gladness, but with shock and sober deliberation. And then there is Herod, a villain if there ever was one in the New Testament. He receives news of Jesus’ arrival with abject paranoia, rivaling only his lust for power and sheer determination to defeat this threat to his throne with violence. 

Indeed, the backdrop of Matthew is one littered with fear, and the sober reality of life in the real world. In other words, Matthew portrays a world that is not dissimilar from our own. And therefore Matthew would not want us to use the imminent arrival of Jesus to escape from the miseries of this world, but to confront it head on. 

That’s why Matthew alone introduces a name for Jesus that is a key theme for Advent. It’s the name that the angel commanded Joseph to name his son, right in the midst of his heartache, right in the midst of Herod’s paranoia, right in the midst of a world twisted and broken and hurting and suffering. 

Emmanuel.

Why that name, and why here in the book of Matthew? Because it means “God is with us.” And that’s a message Matthew would want his readers to remember, over and over again in his gospel. And it’s a message that we need to remember right now. Regardless of how your Advent season is going, and no matter how little your life resembles “A Wonderful Life,” you can remember this: God is with you. And that’s the best news of all. 

Loving God, Thank you for meeting me in the midst of my human experience, that I need not perform myself worthy of your love. Grant that I might never take for granted the wonder, glory, and gracious gift that is your constant presence with me. Amen.

In Matthew’s gospel, we receive Joseph’s part of the story. In a dream, the angel Gabriel told Joseph to marry Mary and call the baby boy she carried Emmanuel which means, “God with us.” Emmanuel was an honorary title like, “Best Dad in the World” or “Man of Steel.” It wasn’t Jesus’ name. But, it explained who the Lord of all was to be for all people, throughout time. The Lord Jesus, God made flesh, was and is going to be the sort of God who would be with us no matter what.

To celebrate the angel’s decree, make a gingerbread Holy family. Use graham crackers to make the stable and all your favorite candies to make Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus and the cast of characters. Don’t forget to add the manger and some animals. As you build your edible nativity scene, talk about the story together and what Jesus, “God with us” means to you. Is there a time and place when you feel Jesus with you most?