A sermon by Rev Richard Keith on Matthew 1:18-25 on 23 December 2018
Where is God? Some people look for him to provide rain in season and a bumper harvest, only to find drought followed by flood and heartbreak followed by frustration. So where is God? Some people look for him in the balance and order and beauty of nature only to hear of fears of climate change and over population.
So where is God? Some people look for him in the love of family and friends only to experience the pain of separation and loneliness. So where is God when we need him? Where can we find him? The message of Christmas, the good news of the birth of the Christ child in Bethlehem, is that God is with us, hidden in plain view.
What’s in a name? Most names mean something good. They express the hopes and aspirations of parents for their children. I mean, as far as I’m aware, no one gets called stupid or no good or useless, at least on their birth certificate. If you don’t know me, my name is Richard. Richard is an old name of German origin which means brave and strong, which is sometimes a little hard to live up to. Some children don’t live up to their names. But some do. And in Matthew chapter 1 we discover that the child of Bethlehem had two different names, one name given at his birth, the other name given to him by prophecy, and they give us an insight into his nature and his role in history.
So let’s look firstly at the name given to him at his birth. We learn in Matthew chapter 1 that when Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant before their wedding, he had second thoughts about going through with it. He must have felt like Mary had let him down and he naturally didn’t want to raise a child who wasn’t his. But because he was a good man, he didn’t want to make a big song and dance about it. He just wanted to call the wedding off quietly, hoping that everyone would soon forget.
But everything changed one night after he’d made up his mind. An angel from the Lord spoke to him in a dream and gave him the news he could hardly believe.
“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.”
Mary’s baby may not have been his, but he wasn’t any other human father’s either. She hadn’t cheated on him or let him down at all. Instead the child was the Son of God, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit by which all things were made had brought about a new creation at the beginning of Jesus’ life. The Holy Spirit who came on Jesus when he was baptized. The Holy Spirit who drove him into the wilderness to be tested. The Holy Spirit by which Jesus brought his works of healing upon the sick. The Holy Spirit whom the Lord Jesus gives us, first gave us Jesus. The God who had made the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the valleys, the sea and the distant stars, had made a baby inside Mary.
She, of course, would carry him and give birth to him and nurse him and sing him to sleep when he woke in the night. But Joseph would be his father to teach him the Scriptures, to show him how to hold a hammer. Through Joseph the child would be the heir of king David. And, just as importantly, it would be Joseph’s job to give him his name. Jesus, a name which means “the Lord saves” because, explained the angel, “he will save his people from their sins.”
For God has kept his promise to save. To rescue his people. Like a young man who has dived into water over his head, like travellers whose car has broken down in the middle of the desert, we have by our own folly fallen into the grip of hostile powers that we cannot escape. Guilt. Fear. Death. Judgment. Mary’s son, the child of Bethlehem, was to grow up to be one who through his teaching and his example, through his life and death and resurrection, would shine the light of God’s truth and love and grace into the darkness of the world. His truth puts out our ignorance. His grace extinguishes our fear. His love melts our hearts of ice. For in Jesus we find God. His teaching reveals that God is our Father. His miracles show the power of God that mends our brokenness. His actions display the love of God that reaches out to sinners and outcasts. His cross opens up the way that we can be children of God. And his resurrection inspires the hope that we may live with God forever.
“In him was life,” it is written in John chapter 1, “and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot put it out.”
Jesus saves us from our sins. He saves us from their penalty, as he bears that penalty himself on his cross and puts it to death so that it no longer stands against us, so that it no longer appears on our record, so that we stand before God with no conviction recorded against us.
Jesus saves us from our sins. He saves us from their power, as we trust in him and receive from him his Holy Spirit, who makes his home in our hearts, teaching us to say no to temptation and to say yes to goodness and truth and mercy.
Jesus saves us from our sins. And one day he will saves us from their presence as we are welcomed into our eternal home in his presence where there is no room for wickedness and lying and cheating, but only joy and peace and faithfulness.
Jesus saves so that we are no longer lost but found, so that our lives are no longer out of balance, but in harmony with the will of our creator, so that we are no longer creatures of darkness, but children of the light. For Satan is real. Temptation is powerful. Sin clings tight. Judgment hangs over us. Darkness surrounds us. Fear overwhelms us. But Jesus saves. By right of his human nature, he has the right to face those hostile forces on our behalf. And by right of his divine nature, he has the power to defeat them for us, so that they no longer control us or oppress us. So that guilt is condemned. Fear is afraid. Judgment is judged. And death is put to death. And we are free. Saved. Jesus saves us from our past for a new future. From sin for God. From death for life. From hate for love. From ourselves for our true selves. His name is Jesus because Jesus saves.
So much for the name given to him at his birth. Let’s look secondly at the name given to him by prophecy. Emmanuel, a name which means “God with us.” The name was first used in Isaiah chapter 7 at a time in Israel’s history when the people feared that God was absent, or that if he was present, he was against them. All the neighbouring countries had turned on them and they were surrounded by enemies. But the message of God through his prophet was that there was nothing anyone could do to them if their God was with them. And his promise was that a virgin will conceive and bear a son and he will be called Immanuel, because before the boy was very old, God would show that he was with them and for them.
No wonder then when Matthew looked back at all that Jesus was and did, he thought this name of promise was even more appropriate for Jesus. And so it becomes part of an important theme in the book of Matthew. In the middle of the book Jesus said,
“Where two or three come together in my name there I am in their midst.”
At the end of the book, Jesus said,
“Go into all the world and made disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you until the end of the age.”
“I am with you”, said Jesus. And these promises are all possible because of the name Emmanuel. In Jesus God is with us. Not absent, but present. Not against us, but for us. So that our creator understands us not from the outside looking in, but from the inside looking out.
Here is the clue that we find God not just in the bumper harvest or in the beauty of nature or in the cosiness of home, but that we find him in the babe of Bethlehem. For he was, he is, God with us. Not God against us. Not God looming over us. Not God behind us, watching us over our shoulder, waiting for us to let him down. But God with us. Not just a tourist, staying in five star hotels and drinking bottled water, living it up in the lap of luxury while a host of servants see to his every need. But God with us, God walking among us, God making his home in our world, God sharing our joy, our pain, our tears. Not born in a palace or in a hospital, but in a stable. Not the son of kings and queens, but of peasants. Not worshipped by popes and cardinals, but by shepherds. Not educated in a university, but in a carpenter’s shop. Not insulated and protected from the sick and diseased, but who walked among them and touched them and healed them. Not living to a ripe old age, but cut down in his prime, despised and rejected, spat on and beaten. God the Son, who hungered and slept, who thirsted and wept, who cried out in his pain and died, who was raised, healed and restored, but still with flesh and blood like us and still bearing the scars of his wounds. As John chapter 1 says,
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known.
Pleased as man with man to dwell. Jesus our Emmanuel. God with us.
So where is God? Where do we find him? He is hidden in plain view in the stable, lying in the straw in Jesus. Jesus, the saviour, who saves us from sin’s penalty and power and presence. Jesus our Emmanuel, God with us, God for us, God within and among us, God on our side, God who has our back, God in our joy, God in our struggle and pain, God in our world. God who has walked every path that life will take us and will guide us through. In Jesus we find God, and God finds us. In Jesus God wore our flesh and blood so that in our flesh we might see God. In Jesus God lived with us so that we might live with him.