18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
In this season of Advent Vespers, we are reflecting on the theme and the name we give to Jesus, Emmanuel: God-With-Us.
Last week, Pastor Pam took up that behemoth of words – God. Reflecting on the book of Job, she reminded us that we are part of something very, very big. This wonderful and complex world created by a wonderful and complex God. Not only have we been created by God, but we have been created together with all that exists.
This week, a smaller word – with. God is with us.
When I was young, I was frightened by people who were homeless. I can remember when I was in Sixth grade and on a trip to Washington, D.C. with my family. We were coming up the escalator of the subway, when I saw a homeless man up ahead, begging on the street. The way we all were situated, I was going to be the one closest to him when we walked by.
I didn’t know what to do. I had nothing for him. No change in my pocket to give, no hopeful word in my mouth to speak.
For a moment his eyes caught mine, and it was like a finger touching a hot stove. It burned with pain quickly, and I swiftly turned my head and moved myself to the other side of my mom and dad, so that they were between me and him.
Though I wouldn’t have put it this way at the time, that experience felt like a moment of social disaster. Here we are – human beings encountering each other. An affluent family with plenty to give, and a man whose life was frail and in desperate need of help with nothing to give and everything to receive. And no one had a clue what to do or what to say – not the man, not me, not my parents.
As I grew older, and my parents were no longer constantly at my side, I protected myself from the homeless who frightened me by retreating into the safety of my mind, as my fear mutated into more of a moral argument – I shouldn’t give this person money for food or they will just go spend it on drugs and booze. It’s okay to just walk passed them. I only felt slightly better and less guilty in the shelter of that mind. But really the fear remained.
And so I usually would still try to avoid those moments of social disasters.
But then, a couple of years back, I read an article in the Star Tribune. It was on the topic of the homeless who stand on the streets of Minneapolis asking people for money. The article interviewed a handful of Minneapolis’ notorious homeless, the ones everyone knew. The interviewer asked the typical questions – why are you homeless, do you want food or do you want money? What was great about the story is that it seemed that the people were honest. Some said they simply wanted money so that they could buy some alcohol. Some said they needed the money so that they could buy their much-needed insulin. But the common thread that each of them mentioned was that when they are out on the streets asking for money, the only thing they are really looking for is for someone to look them in the eyes. For someone to look at him or her as if to say, “I see you. You exist. You are not invisible to me.” They said that you don’t have to give them money, but what they desperately want is to be noticed.
To put it another way, they want someone to be with them. Even if just for a moment. In a glance. To look them in the eye. To recognize that you see them – a human being – right in front of you.
Which is the hardest work of all actually – to be with someone. We can do a lot of things for people without ever getting our hearts dirty with an actual relational encounter. But being with is what most of us fear – because it asks more than we know how to give, when simultaneously being with is what most of us long for.
I share this story because it reminds me of God. God is one who does the hard work – the work of being with.
In fact, as preacher Sam Well’s puts it, with is the most important word in the Bible. It is the word that describes the heart of God and the heart of Christmas. To be with.
I don’t know if you noticed, because it is easy to miss. But the story of Christmas that you just heard from Matthew’s gospel is, like my encounter in Washington DC, a moment of social disaster. We don’t think about Christmas that way very much and there is a reason we keep Matthew’s version quarantined to the fourth Sunday of Advent and away from Christmas Eve. It’s a social disaster and no one knows what to say.
We are used to hearing Mary’s side of the story – but tonight, we get Joseph’s. He is a man who wakes up one morning to find his life has been ruined. He had a fine job, he was soon to be married to his beloved. Until one day, Mary says, “Honey, we need to talk. I’m pregnant.” An unplanned pregnancy can be startling news to hear but isn’t always a disaster. But add to that, however, the certainty that the child isn’t yours and swelling realization that the punishment for adultery is death of your beloved by stoning, then you understand what a catastrophe this really is for both Joseph and Mary.
And no one knows what to say.
And it is into that mess of a situation that Christ is born. It is into that disaster that God arrives, in the flesh.
Like a diamond in a pile of manure, like a friend in a sea of strangers, like grace in the midst of suffocating guilt, a child is borne into this disaster. A child whom we call Emmanuel – God With Us.
Perhaps the miracle of Jesus’ birth isn’t how it happen, or where it happened, but when it happened. In the middle of lives that have been ruined. Not only is God with us, but God is with us there.
Jesus is the fullest reflection of God. Who is God? What is God like? God is with. “God’s whole being is shaped to be with.”
And as we heard Jesus proclaim at the end of Matthew, “Behold, I am with you, always, until the end of the age,” which is to say, there will never be a time that God is not with.
What we learn is, not only does God create, but God creates in order to be with. God has promised to not be God without us.
If the heart of God and the heart of Christmas is shaped around that word with, and we are made in the image of God, then perhaps Christmas teaches us about the heart of the Christian life. To be with.
A friend of mine, Eric, took a trip in college to Egypt. Part of the trip included a stop a monastery at Mount Sinai. Part of the tradition there is that thousands of people would wake up around 2am to start the 5-hour hike up Mount Sinai to catch the sunrise. My friend joined his classmates and many others to start this grueling trek upward. As he puts it, it was a treacherous trail of switchbacks all the way up the mountain. After awhile, he started to slow down and grow tired. He needed a break and some water, so he stopped at a rest station along the way and told his friends he’d catch up with them later. As he got some water and snack, this overwhelming sense came over him – I’m not going to make it all the way up. This isn’t going to happen for me. He was at a time in life when things were fragile – he was still on depression medication, his body wasn’t in peak physical condition. This was just one more moment of disappointment. The irony of sitting on a high mountain with such spiritual significance yet feeling so spiritually low was evident. But in that moment, three travelers from Nigeria walked by. One of them greeted him, and they exchanged stories. They invited Eric to walk with them and so he did. After awhile, it started getting light out. Realizing that he was only two-thirds they way up, Eric knew this was his chance to catch the sunrise. He thanked the three for walking with him and he went over to sit on a rock. He overheard the Nigerian man tells the others to go on without him, and then he came over and sat with Eric. As they watched the sunrise together, they shared stories about their faith and their family, and what brought them to Mount Sinai. It was an unexpected but blessed moment for Eric. Eventually, this man stood up and told Eric that he was hungry and was going to head back down the mountain. As they said goodbye to each other, the man said, “You know, I never caught your name.”
“My name is Eric.”
“It’s nice to meet you Eric. My name is Emmanuel.” And then he turned, and walked back down the mountain.
As we live into these finals days of Advent, may we consider that perhaps in the eyes of God, we are all named Emmanuel. God with us. Maybe it be so. Amen.
 Much of this sermon is informed and inspired by by Sam Well’s sermon “The Most Important Word”, found at the beginning of his book The Nazareth Manifesto.