An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”Matthew 1:20-21
When I was growing up, we had a tradition at my house, that my three siblings and I all got to open one present on Christmas Eve. The rest had to wait until Christmas morning. We would look eagerly at all the presents under the tree, and my mom would pick out a present for each of us, and we would eagerly open it. And sure enough, every year it would be new pajamas! We were disappointed when we were young, and then we got to where we looked forward to it. So much so that it is now a beloved tradition with my children. Beloved, at least, by me!
Today’s gospel reading feels a little like that present. Not the pajamas piece, but the opening it up early piece. Because today’s gospel reading is the Christmas story, told from Joseph’s point of view. This Tuesday, on Christmas Eve, we will get Mary’s perspective on Christmas Eve, when we turn to the Gospel of Luke. But, today, we have the Christmas story in the Gospel of Matthew.
We are, of course, finishing up the Season of Advent this week. And I love this Advent Season. Advent wreaths and candles, and Advent calendars, all show us the passing of time, and reminding us that the day of our Lord’s return is getting closer.
But, when you think about from the point of view of today’s Christmas story, Advent is misleading in one very important respect: Advent suggests that the coming of Christ is predictable, and even that life itself is predictable. We can circle December 25 in our calendars, and we can count down the days leading up to it. And we do, and we should. And Christmas day comes along just when we knew it would. But life doesn’t always work that way. As much as we want it to, life is not always controllable or predictable.
God’s Surprise for Joseph
And today’s account of the birth of Jesus reminds us of this in a very clear and powerful reminder way. When Mary was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit, Joseph was completely blindsided. I suspect that nothing could have shocked him more. Joseph might have been counting down the days to his wedding; he might have had the big day circled in his calendar. But then there came this curve ball from out of the blue, that completely upended his plans, and ultimately his life. Horrified by what Mary had done, Joseph planned to dismiss her quietly. He did this because he didn’t want to expose her to public disgrace. He cared for Mary still, but he couldn’t have her as his wife. How could he, now that she was found to be pregnant? Think of how devastated Joseph must have been by this turn of events! All of his hopes and dreams; all the plans he had for his life, had suddenly disappeared. And the girl that he thought he knew and loved turned out to be somebody that he didn’t know at all.
We know, of course, the end of the story. But I think it is important to pause here, and notice just how awful and unexpected this must have been for Joseph. His life had taken a very unexpected turn, in the blink of an eye, and he really wasn’t sure how to proceed.
I have a hunch that most of us can relate to Joseph, at least in this way. Most of us have had something happen in our lives that took us off our planned route, and left us without a map or a clue about how to proceed. Life has a way of doing that, doesn’t it?
God’s Plan for Joseph
What Joseph would later find out is that God had a plan for him the whole time. It wasn’t Joseph’s original plan, but it was much better. For Joseph, perhaps. For all of us, definitely.
When life takes us on a detour, can we find comfort in that? That God has a plan for us? Can we see in Joseph’s story a reminder that we don’t see the whole picture? That God alone sees it all? That some of what happens in life might be uncomfortable, but all part of God’s plan?
And even when something happens in life that is not God’s will for us, which I do believe happens, can we trust that God is working to bring good out of whatever is happening in our life?
When we believe that, and trust that, there is almost no detour too great to cause us to lose our way. We can hold on, trust God, and see what God has planned for us next. We can learn from Joseph, and from his story. When his life took a very unexpected turn, but all in keeping with God’s plan.
God Is Full of Surprises
When you think about the Christmas story, almost every aspect of it is a surprise to someone. Mary, of course, was surprised when the angel Gabriel visited her, and told her that she would conceive and bear a son named Jesus. The shepherds were surprised when the angels appeared to them by night,
bringing them the good news of great joy. And the sign that was given to them was also a surprise: They would find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. The magi were surprised, as well, not by the star indicating that the king of the Jews had been born, but that the star would lead them to the little town of Bethlehem, rather than the city of Jerusalem.
Fast-forward to Jesus’ ministry, and you find surprise after surprise. Those first disciples were certainly surprised by the call to follow Jesus. And everyone else was surprised by who Jesus chose! And throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry, he surprised everyone by his teaching, by who he chose to spend his time with, and on and on.
And then, finally, there was the greatest surprise of all: The way that Jesus died. No one expected the Savior of the world to die on a cross. It was and still is one of the greatest mysteries and surprises that God has ever shown us. But even that was not the last of the surprises. Three days later, the stone was rolled from the tomb, and Jesus was raised from the dead, a surprise even to his closest disciples.
The Christmas story – the Jesus story – teaches us that God is full of surprises, and does not work by anyone’s timetable. This Season of Advent might seem like an orderly time of preparation, with Christmas coming predictably at the end.But Christmas itself is God’s way of reminding us that He is never predictable. And as soon as we think we have put God in a box, it is not God in that box!
The God who created us, and who we worship today, is a God full of surprises, and acts in surprising ways all the time. And our lives are much the same, full of surprises, both good and bad. And that can be scary. We want life to be more predictable than it is.
God’s Promise: Emmanuel
But there is another important message that Joseph’s account of Christmas brings to us, and it is found in that other name for Jesus, “Emmanuel.” Matthew reminds us in this gospel reading, that the reason Jesus was born to Mary, was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord many centuries earlier, through the prophet Isaiah:
Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call him “Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”Matthew 1:23
Jesus has many names and titles, to be sure: Jesus, of course, which means “God saves.” But also: Son of God. Lord. Savior. Christ. And many more. But one of my favorites is this one, Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”
Jesus is the way that God is with us. In this crazy, unpredictable life, there is one thing we can always count on – one constant. Only one, mind you, but it is the only one that matters. And this constant, this one thing that we can count on, is that God is with us, always. That is why the child born to Mary, Jesus, is also to be called “Emmanuel.” To remind us that because of Jesus, God is with us, and always will be.
No matter what unpredictable events take place in our lives, Jesus will be there, guiding us and comforting us and challenging us, and helping us to take the next step in God’s plan for us. In Joseph’s case, the way that God guided him was through an angel appearing to him in a dream. That may happen to you, but probably not.
The good news is that God has many ways to appear to us, and to guide us on our life’s journey. It might be through a Bible verse that we come across at just the right time. It might be a well-timed phone call or visit from a friend. It might be a verse of a hymn that we had not noticed before. It might be in some completely unexpected and surprising way. But when we have the eyes of faith, and when we trust in God, He will always be there for us, leading us on the way.
God’s Promise Is Our Mission
This is God’s promise to us. But it is also God’s mission for us.
Because one of the ways that God chooses to be with us is through each another. You might be the very person that God chooses to use to comfort and guide someone in need. When someone’s life is turned upside-down, you might be the angel of the Lord appointed to visit that person. An angel is really just a messenger of God’s, and God can use us all to be His messengers. Through a phone call or a visit, an invitation to a meal, or another simple gesture, you might be the way that God appears to another.
Through Jesus, God is with us always, but one of the ways that He chooses to be with us, is through the body of Christ, which is you and me and all who follow His Son, Jesus.
Today, you might the angel of the Lord with a message for a friend. Tomorrow, you might be the one who needs a message from the Lord. Life is unpredictable that way.
Unlike Advent and Christmas, real life doesn’t follow an orderly pattern. But it doesn’t have to. Because the whole point of Christmas is for God to be with us, come what may, every day of our lives. There is nothing more certain than that, and nothing more important in all of life. The virgin conceived and bore a son, who was named Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.” Thanks be to God. Amen