Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 18, 2016

Matthew 1:18-25 Commentary

Suppose that one day you were reading a story in which an elderly woman is talking to her pregnant granddaughter. “Now listen, my dear,” the old woman says, “I would ask that you name this child after your grandfather and so give him the name Nelson.” Suppose the young woman agrees. “OK, Grandma, his name will be Nelson.” But what would you think if the narrator of the story then wrote, “And so this fulfilled a prediction once made by the pregnant woman’s father that her firstborn would be named ‘Wallace.’”

Well, which is it: Nelson or Wallace? And if it ends up being Nelson, then what does Wallace have to do with anything?

So also in Matthew 1: the angel says to name the baby Jesus, and Matthew turns right around and says, “That’s right: he’s little baby Immanuel.”  And no sooner does Matthew write that and we are told that when the baby was born, Joseph did as he was told and named the little fellow “Jesus.”

Jesus.  Immanuel.  Immanuel.  Jesus.  Must we choose?


Apparently, you cannot speak the one without invoking the other.  Jesus = Immanuel.

Jesus = God with us.

God with us in all our flesh-and-blood realities and messiness.

God with us in diapers.

God with us nursing at Mary’s breast.

God with us in learning to eat small pieces of bread and drinking from a cup without spilling milk all down his chin.

“Christ among the pots and pans” as Teresa of Avila put it.  Christ among the barn animals and then those quirky magi astrologers and then all the rest of the Gospel’s curious cast of characters.

God with us.

God with the prostitutes and the lepers and the outcast in whose company Jesus would delight again and again.   God at the dinner table with a chive stuck between his incisors.  God lifting the cup of wine to his lips.

God with us.

God with the little children whose warm brows he touched and blessed.  God smiling when a baby was shown to him by a proud new mother.

God with us in all our ordinary times and days.  God with us, as Jesus would say to bookend Matthew’s gospel, even unto the end of the ages.  Always.  With us.   Immanuel.

Immanuel is God-with-us in the cancer clinic and at the local nursing home where bodies slump pitifully in wheelchairs pushed up against the hallway walls.

Immanuel is God-with-us in the Hospice room and when life’s final breath slips past a dear one’s teeth and lips.

Immanuel is God-with-us when the pink slip comes and when the beloved child sneers, “I hate you!”

Immanuel is God-with-us when you pack the Christmas decorations away and, with an aching heart, you realize afresh that your one son never did call over the holidays. Not once.

Immanuel is God-with-us when your dear wife or mother stares at you with an Alzheimer’s glaze and absently asks, “What was your name again, dear?”

Ever and always Jesus stares straight into you with his two good eyes and he does so not only when you can smile back but most certainly also when your own eyes are full of tears. In fact, Jesus is Immanuel, “God with you” even in those times when you are so angry with God that you refuse to meet his eyes. But even when you feel like you can’t look at him, he never looks away from you.

He can’t.

His name says it all.

Textual Points

This is less a textual note and more of a general New Testament textual observation: but isn’t it curious that Joseph never speaks in the Bible?  Even in Luke’s far more extended “Christmas” narrative in Luke 1-2, Joseph never utters a syllable.  But perhaps that is because, as Matthew notes in this Year A lection from Matthew 1, Joseph was “a righteous man.”   A righteous person lets his or her actions do the talking.  A righteous person is the opposite of someone who is “all talk, no action.”  Joseph in Matthew 1 acts swiftly on the messages he receives from God, even when those messages are counter-intuitive and difficult.   (It’s difficult to imagine that Joseph’s decision to stick with Mary was universally hailed as a good idea.   People no doubt talked behind his back, whispering about her pre-nuptial pregnancy and wondering if either Joseph was himself the too-eager paramour of Mary or if he was actually sticking with a woman who had been unfaithful to him even before they were married.)   But a righteous man need not say much.  His actions say it all.

Note: Our Year A Advent and Christmas Resource page is now available for you to check out sample sermons and other ideas for the Advent Season.

Illustration Idea

As Frederick Buechner once mused (seeing as his own last name trips up many’a person trying to pronounce it), what is it about our names and how we identify with them?   With a last name like mine—Hoezee—I, like Fred Buechner, more-or-less expect it to be mispronounced as often as not by restaurant maitre’d’s and telemarketers and even sometimes by the person introducing me when I am a guest preacher or speaker somewhere.   That happens.  But why is it that when that happens, I end up being the one to feel embarrassed about it?   I’ve never once seen the person doing the mispronouncing blush but sometimes I do even as I just feel foolish for having been publicly addressed incorrectly.

(For the record, it’s pronounced like the Spanish name Jose or “Ho-Zay”).

A strange business, our names and how we identify with them.   It probably tells us that names are important but also that we come to identify with our own names.  We get caught up in them.   We like it when people associate good things with our names and feel chagrined in case for whatever the reason the opposite happens.  We like it when someone recognizes our name (“Say, are you the person who wrote that nice article in the newspaper a while back . . .?”) and feel oddly diminished when someone who should know full well who we are glances at our name but with nary a hint of recognition or recollection.

Forget my name and I have the odd feeling it is me, my entire person, whom you have forgotten (or dismissed as being unworthy of recollection).

Matthew 1 is all about names.   We get a whole Family Tree’s worth of names right out of the chute but finally we narrow down the whole chapter to one very specific name—actually, to two very specific names—almost as a way to say that all of history has been leading up to this one point when Someone would finally come with a Name above all names, a Name that will never be forgotten, a Name that will spell Life itself.

And in this case, if ever we get the name wrong or forget it altogether, it really will not be Jesus/Immanuel who will do the blushing.


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