Emmanuel: God With Us (7pm Service)
So many holiday stories are bittersweet. At the end of the film, George Bailey may learn It’s A Wonderful Life. But most of the movie is about how George Bailey’s life is awful, how he never gets to follow his dreams, how Old Man Potter always tries to ruin everything for him and the town. While the film’s sweet ending saves George Bailey’s Savings & Loan and keeps him from jail… it doesn’t exactly replace all of what George gave up. It’s not bad, just different: bittersweet in its way. Or take The Gift of the Magi, where young lovers each sell their most treasured possession to buy the other the perfect gift, only to discover their mutual gifts are useless without the items they just pawned off. Sure, they love each other, and that’s wonderful. But man is it also depressing. Perhaps the most bittersweet Christmas character of all is Charlie Brown, who laments, “I think there must be something wrong with me. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” To which his friend Lucy replies, “I know how you feel about all this Christmas business, getting depressed and all that. It happens to me every year. I never get what I really want. I always get a lot of stupid toys or a bicycle or clothes or something like that.” Charlie Brown, wondering if maybe Lucy knows the secret to Christmas, asks hopefully, “Well, what is it you want?” Lucy: “Real estate.”
Hearing these old familiar Christmas scriptures again this year, I wonder if any of our Biblical heroes felt the same. How did Joseph experience the birth of a child whom he knew wasn’t his, foretold by angels though it may be? Was he proud to be a sort of stepfather to the Messiah, or did his heart ache with longing for what his life might have been had God picked another couple? We are not told. And Mary, whom we know accepted this calling from God with faithful grace, how did she handle being a woman noticeably pregnant before she got married in an ancient society where marital fidelity was a life-or-death affair? Did knowing that her unwed pregnancy was for the Messiah help Mary endure gossip and rumors? Or were there times when the strain of being a social pariah wore even faithful Mary down? Those shepherds watching their flocks by night: they rejoice at the news of the Messiah’s birth. What happened next in their lives? Did they find Jesus again when he started his adult ministry? Or were they still stuck watching their flocks by night for minimum wage? As for the wise men, they find themselves in a plot straight out of Game of Thrones, narrowly fleeing a king who wants the newborn Messiah removed. How did this experience linger with them? Did the violent plots of Herod tarnish their joy over the Messiah? Did the brutality Herod unleashed after them leave the magi with regrets?
I ask all these things because I know 2020 has been a rough, bitter year for us all. One article wryly observed that 2020 should be known as “The Year That Wasn’t,” since so many of us have had to put life on hold to avoid contracting or spreading a deadly disease. In another article, a nine-year-old child described 2020 as, “Looking both ways before crossing the street, only to get hit by a submarine.” Many of my friends have dealt with furloughs and layoffs this past year. Other friends lost loved ones, whether due to Covid-19 directly or to quarantine isolation causing old age to finally catch up to them. And even when not socially distancing, many of our relationships have taken big hits this year, as fights over the election, over mask mandates, over pretty much everything have torn communities apart. I myself lost some friends this year that way. And while scammers are a nuisance in normal times, with so much desperation this year it seems con artists are out in force to take advantage of folks, with fake emails circulating claiming to be from charities or for Covid relief. Even researching this sermon was tricky, because the number of websites designed to trick us into outrage or drama seem to have doubled during the stay-at-home orders. It’s gotten hard to trust or hope, I mean to say. So while isolation has been a battle for all of us in 2020, I think bitterness and cynicism have been uniquely tough struggles for me this year. Maybe for you too?
But I think that is why we need Christmas more than ever. Because the angels that announce the birth of the Messiah say to Joseph, Mary, and the shepherds each say: “Do not be afraid.” Do not be afraid to love Mary, because she is faithful to God and will be faithful to you and your child together. Do not be afraid of gossip and rumors during your pregnancy, because for centuries ever after you shall be called blessed. Do not be afraid to trust in this newborn king, because this ruler reigns not for the powerful only but rather for all peoples, including lowly shepherds watching their flocks by night. Do not be afraid of King Herod’s bloodthirsty reign, because the baby hailed by the wise men has come to heal the nations and all people within. For the child who is born shall bear the title of “God With Us, Emmanuel.” For the child who is born shall “save his people from their sins.” For the child who is born is “good news of great joy for all the people.” For the child who is born is not just born for his mother and father but is “born to you this day” and to all people. For the child who is born brings not only “glory to God in highest heaven… [but also] peace on earth.”
2020 has been a hard, blurry year: like a long, gray unending Monday. And that is why I need Christmas. I need the story of a God who loves us so much that a deity in infinite glory and power steps down into this messy, confusing, hard life of ours. I need to know that God is truly with us, not just far off sending us thoughts and prayers… but down here in the trenches as a baby born to a woman, as a man who both laughed and cried, as a mortal who saw his foretold death approaching and desperately wished it were not so, and yet still as the Lord God Almighty who rose in glory from the grave. I need a God who is with us directly, in-person, sharing this life with us. In a year when so many relationships have suffered because it’s dangerous to physically be together, we’ve learned how important it is to be near each other. And so I like—I need—a God who works like that, who isn’t just aloof off in heavenly paradise but is near to me. It is still a hard year for trusting and hoping, though I desperately pray that maybe next year will be better than the last. But despite all the scars we’ve picked up, despite the bruises and hurts and fears… I at least—and I hope you as well—can carry on… because I have heard the story of Emmanuel, God with us, in Jesus born of Mary.
So this year, as we light candles and hear the old familiar words of well-worn scriptures once again, I invite you to hold onto the promise of Jesus’ sacred title: “Emmanuel, which means God with us.” May you find the Lord with you this evening, and in all the days ahead. May God’s presence lighten your burdens, take away your shame, and brighten your darkness. In a world gone mad where trust is so hard to come by, may the God who is with us be your rock amid raging seas, your shelter from life’s storms. Because as the prophet Isaiah foretold of this holy day: “For unto us a child is born, a son has been given. Authority rests upon his shoulders, and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace.” For unto you and me was this child born, that God might be with us in this life and that we might be with God in the next. Praise be to God for the gift of Christmas and the gift of God with us forever. Amen.