Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, December 25, 2016
Taken from Matthew 1: 18-25
Rich food and the Christmas Season, as Forrest Gump would say, go together like peas and carrots. Especially rich Christmas desserts. Extracts and essences of cinnamon, peppermint, vanilla figure prominently in recipes this time of year. Chocolate chips, nuts, bits of fruit get tossed into the mixes of cookies and cakes in abundance.
The chips, nuts and fruit sit there in the cookie or cake or pie; you can see them and, really, you look for them. Those extracts and essences, though, they’re a bit trickier…those are some powerful flavors that permeate the recipe. You can’t see the extracts and essences the way you do those chips and bits, but one bite and you know they’re there. A dash of peppermint turns a basic dough one way, and a drip of hazelnut will turn that same basic dough a totally different way.
Extract of Eternal is like that. A smidge, a mere drop, of Extract of Eternal, will seriously alter a person’s life. This Essence of the Divine will turn a person’s life in a very definite direction once its mixed into the human recipe.
Not by some clever incantation nor by wishful dreaming does this Extract of Eternal get folded into a man or a woman’s experience. God makes the overture, as a master chef blending together the right moments, the timely word, the mix of people, the stirring movement of the Holy Spirit. Received by the welcoming embrace of that woman’s faith, that man’s faith, God creates a Christmas delight in their lives.
Just ask the young peasant woman, Mary, or ask this older tradesman, Joseph. Ask them what happens when God offers you a taste of Extract of Eternal. Well, you can end up with something cooking in the oven!
This “being with child” for Mary easily could have ended with the men of her village stoning her to death. (Deuteronomy 22:23-24) At the very least, Mary will be publicly shamed and her chances of marriage reduced to zero. As young as she was, Mary was still old enough to appreciate the consequences of her faithful reply to God’s messenger, as Luke records her saying, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)
Joseph, for his part, had good reason to put as much distance between himself and Mary as he could. Our traditional translations have Matthew describing Joseph in verse 19 as “being a just man”. That phrase meant so much more than Joseph simply being a congenial sort of person.
The modern translation in our worship bulletin comes much closer to what Matthew was saying about Joseph: “Joseph her husband was faithful to the law”. Joseph was conscientious about keeping the Law of Moses, even to point of being zealous.1
His fianceé’s apparent infidelity to their betrothal contract cast a dark shadow of suspicion over Joseph’s own personal honor. To use our modern equivalent, Joseph had every reason to throw Mary under the bus to save his own reputation of being “a just man”.
The angel’s assurance to Joseph brought an equal challenge to Joseph’s faith, as did the angel’s invitation to Mary. The challenge was the apparent conflict between the plain reading of the Law of Moses required of him and what the angel was attributing to the will of God.
The law of Moses clearly stated that Mary and whatever man committed this infidelity with Mary, they were to be stoned to death. Whether the religious authorities could identify the guilty man, they certainly could identify Mary’s guilt, ever so more evident as the months went by.
In this very crux of God’s law and Joseph’s life colliding, says the angel, it was God calling on Joseph to set aside that law. If this was so, then God clearly was doing something so new, so unexpected, so transformative in Mary, the Law of Moses no longer applied to her. Could Joseph, a man intensely dedicated to God’s Scripture, really dare to believe what he was hearing?
Joseph would not be the first devout man of that day for whom Jesus would challenge his conventional reading of God’s Word. Joseph’s faith must undergo as dramatic a transformation altering his life, as Mary’s own faith had accepted this dramatic transformation now altering her body.
This moment when God challenged Joseph’s faith was a moment full of redemptive possibility intertwined with the challenge God had offered 700 years earlier to the king of Judah. King Ahaz and all of Jerusalem’s citizens were terrified over what was happening around their little nation and their capital.
Two kings had allied their armies to unseat King Ahaz and to take over Judah. Whether by violent assault or patient siege, their generals would overthrow Jerusalem, kill King Ahaz, and Ahaz’s family, and put a puppet king on Judah’s throne.
Ahaz had decided to send his diplomats to military powerhouse of Assyria. Ahaz would pledge his fidelity to the king of Assyria if only Assyrians troops would come defeat the forces now allied against Judah.
In this critical moment in the lives of God’s people, God sends the prophet Isaiah to King Ahaz. God calls on Ahaz through Isaiah, “’Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be as deep as Sheol or high as heaven’” (Isaiah 7:10-11). “Whatever it takes to convince you, Ahaz,” God offers, “just ask, and I’ll do it for you.”
This was truly a unique offer God was making to Ahaz. The Law of Moses forbid putting God to the test by demanding signs from God. Yet, here stands God’s messenger, Isaiah, there before Ahaz, just like that much later angelic messenger to Joseph, calling on Ahaz to defy the conventional faith of the day.
But, Ahaz chose instead to use that conventional teaching as an excuse to avoid this great leap of faith God now was placing before him. “’I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.’” Ahaz replies in verse 12.
Isaiah rebukes Ahaz. Isaiah tells Ahaz, “God will give you a sign anyway.” For God’s faithful ones, this sign that Isaiah is about to pronounce will be a sign of God’s presence with them, even in the midst of times of terror and hardship. But, for the faithless like King Ahaz, that very same sign will become a sign of God’s judgement and reproach.
“Hear then, O house of David!” says Isaiah, “…the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall call him Immanuel [which means, God is with us]’” (Isaiah 7:13-14, NRSV)
Scholars can only speculate who this young woman was in Isaiah’s day. Apparently, it was a woman whom both Isaiah and Ahaz knew about. There’s good reason to identify her as Isaiah’s own wife, whose other two sons were also given as God’s prophetic signs to Judah.
Isaiah goes on to say that before this child, Immanuel, gets old enough to choose between right and wrong, Assyrian forces will not only destroy these two kings terrorizing Judah, but they will also overrun Judah.
The Assyrian king will enforce cruel burdens on Judah’s citizens, all because King Ahaz, had chosen wrongly. The king had failed to reach down within himself, to find the far richer, more complex faith that God required of him.
But, for those whose faith in God would persevere, for those whose vision for God’s work among them would grow, those whose faith would lead them to choose what is right, God will be with them to rescue them.,
So, it turns out that the angel’s message to Joseph is not so new, afterall. This dream contains truth anchored in the records of God’s dealing with God’s people. That truth is this: the Extract of Eternal, the Essence of the Divine, is Immanuel, God is with us.
The angel’s message to Joseph in this dream is, “this isn’t just about you, Joseph. This isn’t just about Mary. This is very much about God as God has spoken in the past.”
“Your betrothed’s pregnancy has everything to do “to fulfill what the Lord…[spoke]…by the prophet: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel-el’.” (verse 22-23).
To our ways of thinking, “Emmanuel”, is such a beautiful word of Christmas bliss and enchantment. “Emmanuel”: a word we take up over and over as though we might over time domesticate it as a comforting companion to soothe us. The angels must not know whether to laugh or to cry over our superficial grasp of the meaning of this word, “Emmanuel”.
The messengers of Heaven know this Emmanuel is a potent blending of Divine and Mortal. God’s own Divine Self, welcoming us into God’s presence even in this world fraught with terror and hardship. This Extract of Eternal, here in human frame, among the conspiring and warring powers of the earth’s nations.
This Essence of Emmanuel, here within our too-often settled and tamed religious aspirations, seeking to break us open as a plow churns up fallow fields for planting. This single Christmas Word, “Emmanuel”, challenging us to know the will of God not as static words preserved in ancient texts.
Instead, we are to know God as the Dynamic Word, ever moving, drilling down, deepening the wells of our faith, calling us beyond ourselves, calling us ever-moving with the unfolding work of God on this earth.
This “Emmanuel” kind of faith announced to Joseph and about to be birthed in his bride, that is a faith worth pursuing. That is a faith worth risking our reputations. That is a faith worth daring the reproaches of others who don’t know this Extract of Eternal flavoring their lives. That was the faith of the bold prophet Isaiah and the innocent virgin Mary and the older tradesman Joseph. That is to be our faith, the faith of Emmanuel, God with us.
To go back to our Christmas cooking, once you decide to put that extract of vanilla or hazelnut or peppermint or whatever into your basic cookie dough, there’s no going back. You have chosen a very specific kind of cookie you’re baking. You can still toss in whatever bits of this and that you want, but it’s the extract that pretty much defines the cookie.
Once Mary accepted the Extract of Eternal into her being, the direction for her life was pretty well set for her. There was no going back for Mary.
When Joseph awoke and got up from his bed that morning, his faith had been transformed. It was no longer the conventional faith which was his when he had laid down that previous night. Joseph got up, ready to go in whatever direction God was about to spin his life.
We pray this simple children’s bedtime prayer,
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Don’t know what prayer Joseph prayed before he went to sleep that prior night, but this child’s prayer is what he got by the time he woke up the next day
He has committed his soul to Lord’s safekeeping. In a real way, Joseph has died to the life he’d come to expect for himself, for Mary, for whatever children they might share. The Lord, Immanuel, raised up Joseph’s life into a new path, a path not in God’s presence in Heaven above, but in God’s presence on this earth below.
“Emmanuel”…may that word take up our lives on this earth below, as well.
1 A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vol. 1 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930) p. 8.