God With Us

Advent 4 December 19 2010     “God With Us”   Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, Matthew 1:18-25
I’m developing a tradition that has to do with this time of year that’s similar to the one I have around Thanksgiving.
You might remember that on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, I scan the headlines with an eye out for what kind of mayhem was unleashed on Black Friday; the biggest shopping day of the year.
Well, as Christmas draws nearer, I do a similar thing with what I call the “Christmas Wars”.
The first trace I can remember was in my school system when I was in Junior High school.
I don’t know who was responsible, but someone in authority changed the name of our Christmas vacation from “Christmas Vacation” to “Winter Break”.
It didn’t make any difference to me at the time; after all, it was a break from school so who cares what it was called?!
But I do remember it being an issue in the community.
I didn’t really pay much more attention to the Christmas Wars after that until a number of years ago when a handful of retail stores replaced the slogan “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” in an effort to be more inclusive of other religious beliefs and worldviews.
Certain Christian groups latched onto this as a really hot-button issue.
They saw it as a blatant attack on their deeply held religious convictions.  Language of persecution started to be shared among the ‘faithful’.
So certain Christian groups organized and formed a response.
That’s when we saw the rise of slogans like “Keep Christ in Christmas”, or “Jesus, the reason for the season”.
Emails still circulate, listing which stores to shop in and which ones to avoid during the Christmas season based on whether they advertise “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays” to promote their year-end sales.
It’s an interesting dilemma for Christians to face.
We worship a homeless man who saved us from greed, and yet we fight because we want our retail stores to market their goods in His name as we help them boost their profits.

Well, all that aside, this year the front line of the “Christmas Wars” has been dueling billboards at the Lincoln Tunnel between Manhattan and New Jersey.
According to one blog I was reading this week, in November a group of Atheists put up a billboard on the New Jersey side of the tunnel featuring the nativity and calling it a myth.
“Not to be outdone, the Catholic League responded by posting their own pro-Christmas billboard on the New York side of the tunnel.
They defend and explain their billboard by saying:

So after Christian motorists have had their sensibilities assaulted as they exit New Jersey, they will experience a sense of joy and satisfaction, as they enter New York City.

I don’t know about you, but I agree with the author of the article when he says
“Personally, I think the New York City traffic will do more to assault my sensibilities than any billboard.”

These stories make me wonder; is our faith so fragile, that we’re worried a Wal-Mart greeter could destroy it by not saying the right phrase?
Do we really think our Christmas shopping choices are God’s primary concern for His people at this time of year?
Is our God so unsubstantial, that foundational elements of our faith have been reduced to pot-shots on billboards across a tunnel?
Is it any wonder people find Christian faith less than convincing, much less attractive?

Matthew this morning tells us the story about Joseph and Mary.
Joseph found himself in a real predicament; the kind that billboard theology just can’t fix.
You know the story.  He found the perfect girl who he wanted to marry.
She was his dream girl!  He was at the age where people marry and make plans; set their hopes on dreams for the future.
Maybe he was kept up at night, imagining the possibilities; dreaming of what married life would be like as they carved a home out of that world.
But then there was a problem.
She was found to be pregnant with a child that wasn’t his.
His plans weren’t going to work out.  His dream was broken.
He was a righteous man, so he planned to divorce her quietly, to save her from public disgrace.
His dream of the perfect marriage might be over, but that didn’t mean she should have to suffer.
But as Joseph slept, a messenger from God gave him a different dream.
“Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.
She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
And Just like that, Joseph’s fears disappear.
If we take Matthew at face value, he simply wakes up with a different frame of mind and takes her to be his wife.
I’m convinced there’s a lot more to the story than what’s actually there.
At least, I think it would take a pretty convincing dream to make me change my mind that quickly about something like that.  I’m guessing this was a bigger deal than Matthew seems to suggest.
But nevertheless, Joseph did what the messenger of God told him to do.
She gave birth, and he named the boy Jesus, which means “Yahweh is Salvation”, for he would save the people from their sins.
It’s that simple story that we spend a month every year remembering.

And as you well know, Christmas is right around the corner.
The crowning event; the thing that defines the month of December; it’s going to happen on Saturday!
December 25th is arguably the single most anticipated day in our year.

A week from today, everything we’ve been waiting for, preparing for, baking for, shopping for…in 7 days it will all be over!  So, what’s the big deal?
Christmas day…it will come and go within a 24 hour period very much like any other day any of us have ever experienced.
We’ll do some different things than we normally do, or eat some different food, or be with some different people…but for the most part, Christmas will come and go just like any other day ever has!
The Sun will rise and the Sun will set.  We’ll get up that morning and we’ll go to bed that night.

When I was little, I thought Christmas mattered because just maybe I’d finally get a present that was going to change my life.  So I’d spend hours with a catalog, dreaming of the possibilities…not unlike Joseph dreaming of his marriage.
Later in life, after I left home, I started to think that Christmas mattered because it was a special time of year, and  I’d get to spend some time with my family after being in school for most of the year.  So I’d spend time dreaming and preparing to go home at Christmas (and I still do).  I’d dream of the perfect Christmas gathering and work towards that end…not unlike Joseph planning for his marriage.
My imagination works overtime at this time of year with my dreams and hopes and plans for the season.  But those dreams never seem to be as faithful to me as I am to them, you know what I mean?
What Christmas dream do you have?
Are you open to the angel’s message?  Will you let God change your mind?

Our whole world seems to prepare and wait for Christmas, so it seems like that would be a pretty fitting time for God to do something…miraculous…right?
But the truth of the situation is that Like Israel in the wilderness, like John the Baptist last week, like so many situations down through the ages, God works in God’s time and in God’s way.  We can’t force His hand, no matter how hard we try.
What really matters about Christmas isn’t what we do or don’t say, as in ‘merry Christmas’ or ‘happy holidays’.  What really matters isn’t whether or not we put up a billboard to combat what the atheists say.
What really matters about Christmas is that it happened!
Joseph heard God; the same God that spoke to Mary; the God who wrapped his Word in human flesh so that we might come to know him.

That’s what matters about Christmas.  That’s the dream that changed the world.
The problem is that’s not really enough for us!
So every year we try to make this Christmas better than the last one.  Or the one before that.
Whether it’s in church or not; we keep stoking the fires that have nothing really to do with the beautiful gift and meaning that was created so long ago…the gift that was born in the barn; the gift that surprised the world in such a way that we’re still trying to figure it out.
It’s pure mystery, why God did this beautiful thing in coming to be with us.
It’s pure mystery and it’s beautiful and sufficient…but we keep trying to improve on it with our paper and plastic.
Maybe we need to hear the words of the Psalmist;
Restore us, O God Almighty; make your face shine upon us, that we may be saved.

We all want to see a miracle.  We want to experience God doing something amazing; giving us a gift; announcing His presence in a clean and clear voice, powerfully booming into our existence like an unexpected gift on Christmas morning.
But more often God comes like a whisper, easily unnoticed amid the noise and taken for granted.
The miracle is Immanuel; God with us now and forever.


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