Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her 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:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25)
The Advent Season, which we find ourselves in presently, is a time of preparation as excitement builds and we await the wonder of Christmas morning. The weeks prior to Christmas are filled with sentimentality— listening to Christmas music on the radio, decorating the house, making cookies from Grandma’s recipe, setting out the nativity scene… Because of the memories associated with this season and the place the Biblical narrative of Jesus’ birth has within it, we often sentimentalize the story as well— thinking of how quaint the stable is, how beautiful and innocent young marry appears, how the animals would have quietly been waiting for Jesus to be born, how the shepherds would have been dressed in clean white linens and humbly made their procession to the place of the birth. We neglect just how radical and other the story really is: God taking a risk by becoming human and entrusting his earthly life to an unwed mother, being brought into this world in the midst of the dirtiness of a barn, greeted by the lowly outcasts (shepherds) and the non Jewish wise men from another region. We neglect to notice how God is working throughout the entire narrative, calming fears, motivating belief, encouraging action, and patiently waiting on the human participants to embrace their role in the salvation plan. We forget what a gift it is to proclaim that God is indeed WITH us, that God chooses to communicate, chooses to walk among us, chooses to be in relationship with us. We fail to notice how terrifying this situation would be for Mary, Joseph and all of the human participants— to have God call them to this, to have God entrust them with this, to have God expect this of them.
The truth of this passage isn’t a claim on that small moment in history, or even the 30+ years of Jesus’ life on earth, it is a claim on all of our lives— GOD IS WITH US. Do we live our lives in a way that reflects this belief? Do our daily interaction show the world that we believe that there is something to hope for, to hope in? Do we recognize God in our own life stories?
I was in fourth grade when I was diagnosed with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis. Early on in my diagnosis, before they were able to balance the dozens of medications I was on, I remember lying awake at night in my parent’s bed, pretending to be asleep so that my mom would sleep too. I remember one night her weeping, letting go of the strong face that she put on throughout the day and allowing the uncertainty and the pain of watching her daughter suffer wash over her. I also remember feeling God there with me and a certainty that everything was going to be okay that this wasn’t the end.
I was in middle school. My sisters and I had volunteered to help with a church function called “Jesus’ Birthday Party”. As we were getting ready for the party I got in a huge fight with my best friends— it was an ongoing problem that came to a head at that event. I remember, in the glory of middles school drama, thinking that my life was over, that I was giving up on it all. I tried to convince my mom to take me home, but she had made a commitment and we needed to stick it out, so I sat on the steps of the stage. Then a little girl that I had babysat years before came over. She asked me to go decorate cookies with her. When we were done with the cookies she took me by the hand and led me to the next station, then the next, then the next. Even then I knew it was more than a random coincidence.
I was a freshman in college. I just relocated to a university town away from my family and away from the church that I had grown up in. A friend of mine had convinced me to go “church shopping” with her. We visited a small church a few blocks from the campus. It was historic and beautiful, but we were the only college students we recognized there. Still I felt something. I remember about halfway through that I began to cry (I am not a cryer- or at least I wasn’t then). Then at the end of the service a woman turned around and welcomed us. She asked about our experience in other churches, I shared that I had helped with youth programs before. She said they just lost their youth director and invited me to attend a planning meeting. I left knowing that I was supposed to be there. Sure enough I spent all 3 years of my college life at that church. I met Brandon there. It was a man there that convinced us to go to seminary. The people there became part of my family.
I was four years into my first call as a pastor. Somehow we had gotten a job back in our home town (we never imagined it would be possible). We lived five minutes away from my parents, twenty from Brandon’s. We had two beautiful little boys and we were doing ministry with a group of teenagers that inspired us, challenged us, and gave us hope for the future. Yet, we knew we needed to move on. We were approached by a small church in rural Montana. We talked with them, visited with them, and were strongly considering moving our little family away from the comfort of what we knew and loved to something totally other. To say we were apprehensions would be an understatement. But I remember one morning our then three year old Micah came out into the living room dressed as a cowboy. He didn’t know anything about what we were considering, but in his sweet little voice he said “I want to be a cowboy!”. Sure that is what every little guy says, but not Micah this was the first time, and I remember Brandon and I looking at each other. Later that day we sat down and realized that we could make the change, we could do it, and it was the next step for us.
This is just a short sampling of how I felt God’s presence in my life over the years. There have been other more grand examples, and still other seemingly insignificant examples. What unites them all was a feeling that something more was happening in those movements— they were set apart, God was there. I am sure that God has been there far more often than I have been aware as well. Honestly that is part of the journey, is opening our eyes to God’s presence more and more.
What are some of your stories of God? They are important and I would love for you to share them (with me, with yourself, with your family). God is with us. God was active then, God is active now, and God promises to be active in our futures. That doesn’t mean we are off the hook, God has taken a risk by inviting us into this narrative. We are broken, we are imperfect, we are doubter, but God believes in us and God has invested the future in our willingness to respond and live in a way that shows that God IS. May this advent season open our eyes to God’s work all around us and may God mold us to live in ways that others can see that truth through us. Happy Advent friends.