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God is with us

Restore us, O God of hosts; *show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

Christmas comes every year—in peacetime and in war; in times of sorrow and of joy; in sickness and in health. No matter the state of our nation or our world, Christmas comes. And with it the clarion call of audacious hope: God is with us.

However you plan to celebrate Christmas, we can never forget that God comes to us where we are and as we are. The Christian story, writes Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, “reveals that God has entered our world as it actually exists, and not the world as we often wish it would be…We have lost the plot if we use religion as the place where we escape from difficult realities instead of the place where those difficult realities are given meaning.”[1]

There is joy, peace, and hope in the celebration of Christmas, but God enters into the fleshiness of life— the joy and the wonder and the dirt and the pain. 

Matthew’s story of the birth narrative features Joseph, the betrothed of Mary. In one line, our story teller sets the tension. Mary is officially promised to Joseph, but before they have lived together as husband and wife, she is found to be pregnant. We are not told who “found” her to be pregnant, but Joseph here at the beginning of this promising relationship, no matter how arranged, faces a staggering dilemma. 

His options are limited. Under the laws of the time, he has every right to publicly declare his injury, bringing great shame and danger on Mary and her family. And he could divorce her—the translation “dismiss” softens the reality.  He can’t avoid this decision. Mary’s pregnancy has been found out. 

The text tells us he is a “righteous man.”  He must preserve his name and yet he does not want to harm Mary. He faces what will be the ongoing tension of Jesus’ ministry—trying to build a response of love in a world of law. He decides to divorce her quietly to avoid further public disgrace. 

But Joseph sleeps on it and in a dream he is given a new plan through divine mediation. Like his ancestor, Joseph must have trusted his dreams. But even more than his dreams, in order to embrace Mary’s unusual pregnancy, Joseph had to trust the voice of God in the prophets:

“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.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin (young woman) shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him “Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”

A poor man working as a carpenter, probably building for the Roman oppressors, drew hope from these texts, this promise, this dream of all dreams. And so Joseph takes Mary into his home. This man will be the appropriate legal father for this child who will grow up to say the law must be fulfilled and yet demand that righteousness must exceed the law of the scribes and the Pharisees. (Matthew 5:20) The paradox is established: to fulfill the law you have to go beyond it.

God comes to us in real people with real challenges. God did not pick a fairy princess to bear the savior, but a poor young woman who faced the scandal of being pregnant before she had been with her husband. God did not choose a wealthy landowner or powerful ruler to name and care for Jesus. God chose a simple laborer—a man who was confused and doubtful and needed the intervention of an angel to tell him what to do in a difficult situation . The birth of Jesus was not elegantly staged.  It is how we experience life—messy, surprising, unexpected, imperfect.

And what a relief this is. We don’t have to be cleaned up and flawless. We don’t have to have all our doctrine and practices in order. God is with us when we remember to pick up a gift for the person who plows our driveway and God is with us when, in our hurry, we speed up to cut off someone trying to make a way into the traffic snarl. God is with us when we greet the morning with a “Good morning Lord!” And God is with us when we greet the morning with “Good God it’s morning!” God is with us when we bloom with health and God is with us when daily tasks require more energy than we can muster. God is with us when we bask in the glow of the love that surrounds us and God is with us when our relationships are strained and we are separated from those we love. God is really with us. God is with us where we are. And we can be bold in calling on God in all our situations and in all our moments. 

God is with us in this broken and suffering world. In our reading from Isaiah, we pick up where Ahaz the king is arguing with the prophet. Ahaz, facing an impending attack on Jerusalem from two neighboring armies, Ephraim or Israel and Aram or Syria is about to make a fear based decision of appealing to a greater threat (Assyria) in response to a much lesser threat (Syria and Israel), a decision that reflects short-term panic and long-term foolishness.  In the great tradition of kings and rulers and presidents, Ahaz under discerns and over responds leading to catastrophic consequences for the world. 

The prophet Isaiah, sent by God invites the king to have courage and trust in God’s promise. In a confrontation between faith and fear, God says, “Do you want me to prove it to you that I am with you?” While the king refuses, the prophet proceeds with a sign, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (7:14) Before this child is able to eat curds and honey and know the difference between good and evil, your enemies will be defeated. God will be with God’s people. 

God with us reminds us that God is with us when our world is at peace and when it is in turmoil. God is with us when fear and hatred threaten to tear apart the fabric of our fragile democracy. God is with us when the violence seems to be beyond restraint. God is with us when the carelessness of humans threaten to destroy our beloved earth. God is always with us. This is not some unhelpful slogan that you expect to hear in church. This is true. It is where we can place our trust. It is the compass point that should guide our lives. Restore us, O God of hosts; * show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved.

This week, you received a letter from me telling you that with much prayer, much reflection, and much emotion, I have decided to retire from this precious church at the end of May. 

I am grateful beyond measure for the opportunities I am given on a daily basis to walk with you, pray with you, sing with you, and serve with you. This is a very special place. It is a place filled with courageous and creative hearts. It is a place that knows the importance of the church being actively involved in proclaiming and living into God’s kingdom. It is a place that turns its face toward the needs of others. And while it certainly offers its treasure, because you are astoundingly generous people, it also offers its hands and its heart and its sweat and its companionship. 

It is hard to put into words the joy I feel planting Gideon’s Garden and watching the young people flourish alongside the vegetables. I cannot adequately convey the life giving energy I experience planning and working with you to support the needs of our children who struggle with addiction and their families. I love the opportunity to say “Good morning” to and provide food to our hungry brothers and sisters. My heart is magnified by all the ways we support our immigrant neighbors who are so vulnerable simply because they seek hope and safety in this country. As I said in my letter, because of you I am a much better follower of Christ and a better sister in the world.

Worshipping and studying with you helps me grow in so many ways. I love the music of our extraordinary choir. I love worshipping in this place where we look out on God’s great surprises in creation. I love seeing each and every one of you as you come to the table to receive communion carrying all that you carry and yet faithfully offering yourselves to the promise of God’s love.

I know that news like this never comes at a good time. For many of you my letter finds you as your life feels like it will never be free of turmoil. I know that many of you are carrying heavy burdens. For some of you, we have just begun a wonderful relationship as spiritual companions.  But let me reassure you, I am here for you with all that I am. You can call on me and trust that I will care deeply for you and for yours. And you all will always be a part of my prayers.

Another seed I want to plant in your hearts is to begin to talk about your fears. As a creative and faithful people, you may be shaken and concerned that all will not be well when I leave. Change is hard—even good and positive change is hard. Transitions can cause disruption.  

You may feel a sense of instability as you wonder what will come next for Grace Church. And of course, there is just plain old grief at the process of leave-taking. 

But I want to say emphatically, you were a strong and healthy church when I came here, you are a robust and growing church now, and the mission and vision of this church will continue to be a beacon in this community and in this diocese. You have a powerful sense of what being a church means. You are actively engaged in ministries that touch many lives and are transforming your own. 

You understand that just as Jesus went out among the people to love and serve, you too hear this call. This is who you are. You live out this vision every moment. You are courageous and creative and prophetic. You are who the church needs to be and you are out in front leading in the way of Jesus. It is not easy work. But it matters so much in this world that you are here. Thanks be to God! Do not be afraid my dear friends, God is always with us. 

So here we are. In a time of hope and uncertainty. Christmas comes to us again. And with it an audacious promise. The birth of Christ was not a one-time event that happened long ago. The almighty God, creator of the heavens and the earth, is with us. The one who is the Lord of us all has come in love to pitch a tent, to make a home, right here. The Divine has become flesh and has declared once and for all that all fleshiness is redeemable. On this day and each day after this one, may we embrace and rejoice in the reality of Emmanuel.  “God is with us.”  


[1] Nadia Bolz-Weber. Accidental saints: Finding God in all the wrong people. New York: Convergent Books, 2015, 74.