pastorEric aug2014Sermon for 4th Sunday in Advent -

God is REALLY with us
By The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer -


I don’t know many people, even unbelievers, who do not like the Christmas story – angels, shepherds, Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus in a stable, surrounded by animals who appear to understand that something important is happening.  It is a wonderful story and a great nativity scene.
Much of what we know as the Christmas story comes from the Gospel of Luke, the second chapter, “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered.”  We know these words and we know all that is coming after them including the angels’ song, “Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth.”
That is how St. Luke records Jesus’ birth and we will hear those words again on Christmas Eve and Day here at Mt. Olive.
The Gospels of Mark and John do not include a story of Jesus’ birth.
quote godLoveUsAnd then there is the Gospel of Matthew.  After spending the entire first chapter connecting Abraham to Jesus, Matthew writes his Christmas story, Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth, which is our Gospel lesson today, the one I just read to you.
“The birth of Jesus took place in this way.”  So it begins.  But, this Christmas story is told not about singing angels or adoring shepherds.  This Christmas story is told from the viewpoint of Joseph.
And, this Christmas story, Matthew’s telling of Christ’s birth, is not a story of wonder, but a story of heartache.
Whether by hearing it read in hushed tones by candlelight, or because of beloved hymns which cast a rosy glow around it, it is easy to forget that Joseph and Mary were real people. In our imagination, Jesus never cried, Mary looked more like a blushing bride than someone who had just given birth, and Joseph is calm, protective and paternal. 
Let us look a little closer at this story:  First there is the matter of engagement.  In the first century world of Joseph and Mary, this is not a romantic declaration of intent.  Rather, it would have been a legal contract, binding in every respect.  To be engaged – or espoused, betrothed or pledged, all of which are used in other translations – to be engaged was essentially to be married without having consummated that marriage or living together.  Which means that when Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant, he can only conclude that Mary has been unfaithful to him.  It is likely that Joseph experienced the pain, anguish and sense of betrayal that any of us would have felt in such a devastating situation.
In Joseph’s day, there were really only two possible reactions to what must have seemed an unquestionable fact to Joseph – Mary’s infidelity.  Joseph could either publicly declare his injury, which would have resulted in Mary being stoned to death, or Joseph could divorce Mary, “dismiss her quietly” the text tells us.  Either way, this is not a happy story.
And, if Joseph is suffering, it is hard to imagine Mary coming through unscathed.  Since Matthew tells us of Jesus’ birth from Joseph’s viewpoint, we get little insight into Mary.  However, it is likely that Mary knew the pain her pregnancy was causing Joseph and it is also likely that Mary would have known what might, what was most likely to, happen to her.
Now, this is a bit of conjecture on my part, of course, since Mathew gives us very few details.  However, Matthew does tell us that it takes a visit from an angel to calm Joseph down and help Joseph see God’s intentions in all of this.
Thus, it is not much of a stretch for us to assume that the months leading up to Jesus’ birth were not one blissful baby shower after another, but were fraught with anxiety and concern and emotion for both Joseph and Mary.
And that, my friends, is a purpose of Matthew’s telling this story.  We have all been there.  We have all experienced upheavals in our lives similar to those Mary and Joseph experienced.  As I wrote this I was about to write next that I hoped there was no one here who had experienced the fear for his or her life the way Mary must have.  Then I thought of too many people I know who have experienced that fear!
I know there are people listening to this sermon, as well as reading it later online, who are struggling just to hold it together this holiday season.  Families torn by discord, couples who feel disconnected, children wondering what future they may have, elders wondering what future they do have.  Some seek employment, or relationship or just a simple sense of acceptance and worth.
I know that this time of year is a time of heartache for so many.
And, that is why today’s Gospel lesson is important.  God brings his son Jesus, our Savior, to earth through far-from-perfect people.  Mary and Joseph were as ordinary as you and me.  And, clearly, they had all the issues, and probably more because of their first century lives under brutal Roman rule, they had all the issues that you and I have.  They were real people with real challenges.  God did not choose a fairy-tale princess to bear our savior, God chose an unwed peasant girl, a girl who, perhaps, was just 14 years old, a girl who was soon to become an illegal alien in Egypt.  And, God did not choose a political or business success story to name and care for Jesus, God chose an ordinary man, a carpenter by trade, a man with his own questions and doubts about all that was happening around and to him, a man who wanted to do the right thing but still needed an angel to point him in the right direction.
And, what does this mean for us?  It means that wonderful churchy word - Emmanuel, which means God is with us – that’s what it means.  Or, in this case, God is really with us! 
God comes to us as we are, not as we should be or are trying to be, or have promised to be, or someday will be.  God comes to us as we are, today, this moment.  And that, I believe is the promise at the heart of today’s Gospel lesson:  God came to Joseph and Mary at the birth of Christ.  God used, accepted and hallowed them.  And, in a similar way, God also comes to us, in and through Jesus Christ.  God comes to us to use us for good, accept us as we are, and hallow us, make us holy, by God’s presence with us.
Yes, God is really with us, you and me.  God is with us really and truly, just as we are.  This is our Emmanuel – God loves us and accepts us and even hallows us just as we are.
Emmanuel, God is really with us.
Now, come Lord Jesus.
(Thanks to the Rev. Dr. David Lose whose Bible work is used extensively in this sermon).

The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California


God is REALLY with us
Sermon for 4th Sunday in Advent
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
December 17, 18, 2016
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica, California

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