Matthew 2: 13 – 23_The Meaning of Emmanuel_December 29, 2019

The Meaning of Emmanuel

Matthew 2: 13 – 23


(preached on December 29, 2019)


Every Christmas season, one of the churches I served held a pageant, performed on Christmas Eve.  One year, on the day of the pageant, I had a moment of sheer panic.  I had arrived at the church at 4:30 that day, to get ready for the pageant at 5:30.   The first thing I did was go to the sanctuary and check the manger scene.  I wanted to be sure there was plenty of space, since the children were going to put the last of the figures in the manger scene that night.


I did some rearranging.  I put the sheep a little further back in the stable.  I put the Wise Men a little further to one side.  I left some room for the second camel that I knew would be added that evening.  Then I took a look inside the stable, where the Holy Family would go.  I was surprised to see that one of the Wise Men was kneeling where Joseph goes, right next to the manger, the spot for the baby Jesus.


Well, that just wouldn’t do.  We couldn’t have a Wise Man in the spot where Jesus goes.  So I moved the Wise Man outside the stable with the other Wise Men and went looking for Joseph in the box where we store the figures.  In the box I found another sheep, then the figure of Mary, then the baby Jesus himself.  But I was beginning to get worried because it looked like all the figures had been unpacked, and where was Joseph?  You can’t have a manger scene without Joseph.  I continued to search until finally, with great relief, I found him, buried in newspaper, way at the bottom of the box.


In our gospel passage for today from Matthew, the folks in Bethlehem might be asking the question that was on my mind that night:   “Where’s Joseph?”  It’s only a few days after Jesus was born, and Joseph is nowhere to be found.  Where’s Joseph?  People are asking.  He was just here, buying bread at the market.  Now we can’t find him anywhere.  And where are Mary and the baby?  They were here, too; just yesterday we heard the baby crying.  Where’s Joseph?  He and the family have disappeared.


As Matthew tells us, Joseph has taken his family far away from Bethlehem, to safety in Egypt.  Christian tradition has given a name to this departure for a foreign land: it’s called the flight into Egypt.  The flight into Egypt, not as in airplane flight, but flight as in flee.  Joseph and the family have to flee, to leave in a hurry, no time to pack their belongings with care.  They only have time to throw everything into a sack and get on the road.  They have to flee: flee as in no time to do the laundry, no time to stock up on supplies; we’ll have to get what we need on the way.  Flee means just go, as fast as you can.


Of course I don’t know about Mary and Joseph, but speaking for myself on this Sunday after Christmas, I could use a little more time to rest quietly by the manger.  I could use a little more time to savor the wonder of Christmas, to sing again the tidings of comfort and joy, to gaze in awe at the Light of the World, the light of God, shining in the face of Jesus.  But Matthew doesn’t give us any more time.  Matthew doesn’t let us linger by the manger.  Right away, Matthew moves us into the calamity that hits Joseph and Mary and Jesus.  Matthew is not the least bit romantic about the story of Jesus’ birth.  He makes no effort to sugarcoat the world into which Jesus is born.


Even before Jesus is born, Joseph is in a dire situation.  He and Mary are engaged, but they haven’t been intimate yet.  Still, she is found to be pregnant.  He could have broken off the engagement.  Everyone would have understood.  It would have been very humiliating for a man to marry a woman in that situation.  But Joseph pays attention to what the angel tells him.  Mary is with child by the Holy Spirit.  So in spite of the risk to his reputation – it was a sure thing really – in spite of the sure shame and humiliation that would come, Joseph marries Mary.  He protects and provides for her.


In today’s passage we go from bad to worse.  What happens in today’s passage is much worse than humiliation.  Herod the King has heard about a new king who has been born.  This new king is a great threat to Herod.  This baby king could grow up and be serious competition for his crown.  Herod is not about to tolerate this possibility.  He sends his soldiers to Bethlehem to destroy the baby king Jesus.  Since he can’t be sure which baby is Jesus, he orders them to kill every male child under the age of two.


This is a story of terror: a story of slaughter and almost unthinkable pain.  This is a horrific scene, a scene from a nightmare.  Joseph and his family barely escape, thanks to a warning from an angel.


What are you and I to make of this story, so soon after Christmas? I hope you came to church today still feeling a pleasant afterglow.  I hope you have happy memories of a day spent with people you love, a day of delicious food and good company.  I hope the gifts you received, and the gifts you gave, brought you joy.  And it might sound strange, but this message from Matthew’s gospel can also bring us joy, when we understand what it has to say about God.


Because this story of a family’s flight into exile, this story of pain and terror, tells us something very important about the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.  This story tells us that God is born into a dangerous world.  This story tells us that God comes to places of danger: places where parents and children have to flee for their lives.  This story tells us that God comes into the midst of fear and sorrow and says, “I am with you.”  That’s the meaning of Emmanuel: Emmanuel means “God with us.”

God doesn’t wait until the world is peaceful and calm.  God doesn’t wait until all the bad kings are gone, until there’s no more violence and nothing else to fear.  God comes to be with us in the most perilous times.  God comes to be with us when we feel lost, when we feel like we’re in a kind of exile.


Maybe you’ve felt as if you were in exile sometimes: a stranger in a strange land.  Maybe you feel that way now.  Maybe you’ve lost your job and you don’t have a place in the working world anymore.  Now your days take on a different rhythm as you search for another job.  You get together with your friends, but you feel lost because everyone’s talking about what’s happening at work.


Or maybe one of your loved ones is sick.  Their illness has forced you into a new and strange place.  Your days revolve around trips to the doctor.  Your calendar used to be full of dates for fun and entertainment; now it’s full of dates for cancer treatments.  Time hangs heavy as you wait for test results.


Further from home, in other parts of the world today, many people are forced into exile.  Many have been forced to seek safety from gangs that rule their cities with brutality and fear.  Many have been driven from home by bombs and other deadly weapons wielded by a vicious dictator.  Today, sadly, many Herods still try to fortify their rule with murder.  In places near and far, many of us have been driven to exile.  Matthew’s message is that God is no stranger to times of exile. In those times of exile, God comes to us.  God comes to us in the midst of fear and sorrow and says, “I am with you.”  That’s the meaning of Emmanuel: Emmanuel means “God with us.”


We know that God comes to us in the darkest, most perilous times because Jesus was born into dark and perilous times.  And Jesus lived where people were afraid, and hopeless, and lost.


Sometimes I wonder, if the man Jesus were here on earth today, where would we find him?  It seems to me that if the man Jesus were walking the earth today, we’d find him in places where people have to flee for their lives, as he did.  We’d find him in the camp overflowing with refugees, in a country torn apart by war.  We’d find him in places of loss.  We’d find him in line at the soup kitchen.  We’d find him in places of sorrow.  We’d find him at the bedside when the doctors say, “There’s nothing more we can do.”  Because in Jesus God comes into places of fear and sorrow and says,  “I am with you.”


One psychiatrist in New York knows how powerful it can be simply to be with someone in need.  Dr. John Rosen is well known for his work with catatonic schizophrenics.  Usually doctors remain separate and aloof from their patients.  Dr. Rosen does the opposite – he moves into the ward with them.  He places his bed among their beds.  He lives the life they must live.  Day to day, he shares it.  He loves them.  If they don’t talk, he doesn’t talk either.  It’s as if he understands what’s happening.  His being there, being with them, communicates something they haven’t experienced in years: the sense that someone understands.


But Rosen does something more.  He puts his arms around them and hugs them.  He holds these unlovable, sometimes incontinent persons, and loves them back to life.  Often, the first words they speak are, “thank you.”


Emmanuel means “God with us:  with us in the darkest of times.  God is not born into a perfect world.  God is born into a world of fear and violence.  God is born among people who find themselves strangers in a strange land.  God comes among them, dwells with them, full of grace and truth.  In closing I’d like to share with you a poem that says this very well.  It was in my December message in the Beacon, but I think it bears repeating.  It’s by Madeleine L’Engle and the title is “First Coming.”


He did not wait till the world was ready,

Till men and nations were at peace.

He came when the Heavens were unsteady

And Prisoners cried out for release.


He did not wait for the perfect time,

He came when the need was deep and great.

He dined with sinners in all their grime,

Turned water into wine.  He did not wait


Till hearts were pure.  In joy he came

To a tarnished world of sin and doubt.

To a world like ours, of anguished shame

He came, and his light would not go out.


He came to a world which did not mesh,

To heal its tangles, shield its scorn.

In the mystery of the Word made flesh

The Maker of the stars was born.


We cannot wait till the world is sane

To raise our songs with joyful voice.

For to share our grief, touch our pain

He came with Love: Rejoice!  Rejoice!


May you and I find hope in Matthew’s message: that Emmanuel does not wait for the perfect time to come to us, that Emmanuel does not wait till the world is ready.  And may we rejoice in the joy he brings.

                                                                                      Rev. Elva Merry Pawle                                                                                                                    Christmas 1