Sunday, December 24, 2023
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“Seeking God’s Promise”
By Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, December 24, 2023
Reading: Matthew 1:18-25

British poet and theologian, G. K. Chesterton, was a brilliant man known for his ability to take profound thoughts and ideas about God and put them into accessible language. He tended to be a bit scattered, though, and, to the annoyance of those closest to him, he was notorious for forgetting where he was supposed to be and what he was supposed to be doing. One Christmas Eve, he sent a telegram to his wife. The telegram said: "Honey, it seems I'm lost again. Presently, I am at Market Harborough. Where ought I to be?" And as only a spouse could say it, she sent back a one-word reply: "HOME!"

Unlike Chesterton, We all seem to know that: “home is where we ought to be at Christmas.” That may be what drew you here to the church this morning.

This is what this beloved Christmas passage from the book of Matthew does for us: it gives us the first signs that point us home. “Home” is the real meaning of Christmas; “home” is the most wonderful truth of the Bible. When the gospel writer wanted to capture the meaning of this wonderful birth – the meaning of Jesus in a single word – he reached back into the Hebrew Scriptures, and he pulled out an old word that they would know: “Emmanuel.” That's what the birth of Jesus is all about: "They shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." When you believe that, when you accept that, when you claim that promise it will change your life; it will point you home.

We’re all seeking signs of God’s presence and of God’s love, and the story of Joseph and the angel who came to him with a message from heaven offers us the signs we need that our home is with God, because God has fulfilled his promise to make His home with us. "God is with us!" That is the great promise that Christians have always claimed.

I want to talk about three circumstances of our lives that are touched by this great promise of God's presence with us.

First, we can claim the great Christmas promise that God is with us whenever we are anxious. All of us get frightened or anxious sometimes, and we want to feel protected. Jesus knew this and He addressed it frequently: "Fear not;" "do not worry;" “do not be afraid;” "Let not your hearts be troubled.”  He spoke words like this often because He knew of the fears and anxieties in people’s hearts.

Basil King, a Canadian minister, and writer wrote a book in 1921 called The Conquest of Fear. He prefaced the book with these words:

When I say that during most of my life I have been the prey of fear, I take it that I am expressing the case of most people. I cannot remember the time when a dread of one kind or another was not in the air. In childhood it was the fear of going to bed; later it was the fear of school; later still a feeling of dismay at the amount of work to be done before night. And then there's the mother afraid for her children, the executive afraid for the business, the clerk afraid for his job. And there's the fear of failure, the fear that someone will do us harm, and the fear that we may lose what we love most. In one form or another, fear dogs every one of us.

Nowadays, so many of us live with fear and anxiety that the media and corporations now capitalize on our fear, or even feed that fear so that they can use it to their advantage. And then along comes the Christmas message with the great promise that calms even our deepest fears and enables us to celebrate life: Emmanuel; "God is with us." Fear not, the Lord said, for I am with you.

Phyllis Martin, a schoolteacher in Columbus, Ohio, wrote a story of the day when a violent storm came up suddenly over the elementary school where she taught. The school PA system blared tornado warnings. It was too dangerous to send the children home. Instead, they were taken to the basement where the children lined the walls and huddled together in fear.

To help ease the tension, the principal suggested a sing-along. But the voices were weak. One child after another began to cry. Some were close to panic. Then one of the teachers, whose strong faith was equal to any emergency, whispered to the child closest to her: "Sweetheart, I know you’re scared. I am too; but aren't we forgetting something? There is a power greater than any storm. God will protect us. Just say to yourself, 'God is with us,' then pass the words on to the child next to you and tell her to pass it on." Suddenly that dark and cold basement became a sacred place as each child in turn whispered around the room those powerful words, "God is with us," "God is with us."

Phyllis Martin said, "I could hear the wind outside still blowing with such strength that it literally shook the building, but it did not seem to matter anymore. Inside, the fears subsided, and tears stopped. Through the years,” she said, “I have remembered those calming words. In times of stress and trouble, I have been able again and again to find release from fear or tension by repeating those calming words: 'God is with us!' 'God is with us!'"

When we are frightened, we too can claim that great Christmas promise. Second, we can claim the Christmas promise whenever we are lonely. There are so many lonely people in the world who desperately need to hear the good news of the Christmas promise. Joseph was facing the possibility of finding himself alone and humiliated, without the wife who had been betrothed to him. The angel was a sign to him that God would never leave him alone.

There was a woman named Margaret Waage. It was Christmas Eve, and after getting off her typing job at noon, she stood alone in the crowd on a platform, waiting for the subway train. She had worked alone all morning, since all her co-workers had been given the day off. Many people around her were talking happily about their trips home to see their families. Some had little children with them. It all made her feel so down. She had no home, just a small, rented room; she had no plans, no husband, and no children. Margaret had never felt lonelier.

Suddenly she heard two flutes interweaving their notes with one another. Down the platform were two young girls playing Christmas carols. To Margaret, they were like a sign from God: they looked like angels in disguise. She added her quarter to the pile of change in their open flute case. The train came and went, but she lingered there, fascinated by the people who came forward to drop in coins, or even bills.

On that cold, noisy subway platform they were all joined together, without knowing one another, in the great Christmas promise, so that Margaret lost sight of her own self-pity. She heard the girls play "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and she found herself remembering the words:

“O Holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us we pray.
Cast out our sin and enter in
Be born in us today.”

And suddenly there in the bleak subway station, everything changed! Margaret described it like this: "Of course I had a Christmas feast to go to! The Lord's Supper at church that very evening. Of course I had a home and family! Our Lord said, “Wherever two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20) Of course I had a child! The Holy Child could be born in me every day as I sought to love Him above and beyond everything else. I took the next train,” Margaret said, “feeling warm and contented. I knew that those two young strangers with their flutes had given me the most magnificent Christmas gift ever. They had put Christ back where He belonged - in my Christmas, in my life, and in my heart. I didn't feel lonely anymore."

Emmanuel: God is always with us. Whenever we are frightened and whenever we are lonely, we can claim the Christmas promise of God's presence with us.

Finally, we can claim the great Christmas promise in times of sorrow. It seems like it would be easy to feel the presence of God when we are on top of the world and everything is going our way, but actually the reverse is often true. God is never nearer to us than when we are hurting. There are at least two reasons for that. First, I think we are possibly more open to God when we are in need; and second, I believe God is like a loving parent who wants especially to be with His children when they are in distress.

One of my favourite stories that illustrates the love of God in our times of despair, is the story of a young woman who was seeing a psychiatrist to deal with her great sadness. The psychiatrist asked her which of her three children she loved the most. As most mothers would, she answered that she loved them all the same. But the doctor pressured and pushed her, until finally the woman conceded, and said “all right, maybe I don’t love all of my children the same. When one of my children is sick, I love that child more. When one of my children is in pain, or feeling hurt, I love that child more. When one of my children is confused, I love that child more. When one of my children is bad – I don’t mean naughty, but really bad – I love that child more. Other than those exceptions I really do love all my children just the same. 

The Christian faith represents a God who knows and loves you just as He knows and loves every single other person who ever lived, but with this addition: when you are anxious or lonely or in sorrow, God loves you even more.

And that is why Christmas is so special, because it reminds us that God is indeed with us. It gives us the signs that point the way to our true home. In every circumstance of life we can claim the great Christmas promise: Emmanuel, God is with us. That is the Good News of our Christian faith. God is with us: the Word became flesh, and dwelled among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth. Amen.